Earthquake puts Morocco’s elusive king in spotlight
By Steven Erlanger
When a devastating earthquake hit Morocco on Friday night, killing more than 2,900 people, King Mohammed VI was in Paris, where he spends a great deal of his time.
It took him most of a day to return to his country and make his only public statement so far — a terse communiqué. Later on Saturday, television showed him presiding over a Cabinet meeting, but there was no sound.
He visited a hospital Tuesday and donated blood. But his low visibility and silence, coupled with the government’s response to the earthquake, have been criticized, with some saying officials are paralyzed because they are awaiting authorization for action from the king.
Moroccan officials argue that they are on top of the crisis and will ask for help as they need it, adding that the king was guiding the response from the beginning.
The king, who turned 60 on Aug. 21, is the richest and most powerful person in Morocco. He is constitutionally both head of the armed forces and, controversially in Islam, of religious matters, as the Commander of the Faithful.
As head of state, he oversees a constitutional monarchy, a managed semi-democracy, with real power exercised by advisers and ministers dominated by his high-school friends. But his authorization for action is vital.
And he is described by Moroccans close to the government as becoming harder to reach and increasingly close to a younger, German-born Moroccan mixed martial arts fighter, Abubakr Abu Azaitar, whom the king met around the time of his divorce in 2018, and his two brothers. Abu Azaitar is seen by some to be driving a wedge between the king and his advisers.
But mystery surrounds much of life at the royal palace and the king, even about the state of his health, as courtiers and family members compete for his affection and attention. The king has had a number of health issues in the past, including an irregular heart rate and acute viral pneumonia, but there is no official information about his current state of health.
Rumors are often spread by those with personal and political interests in Morocco, where the media is tightly controlled and where the king, who has never given a news conference or a television interview, has not given an unscripted interview for many years.
Morocco is considered a success story in North Africa, comparatively open, stable and attractive to industry and tourists. And it has been a reliable partner to the United States and the West in counterterrorism cooperation, while also in 2020 recognizing Israel.
Crucially, the king managed to ride the waves of the disruptive Arab Spring more than a decade ago better than his neighbors, in part through domestic and political changes that had a more modern, democratic tone. And he and his government have cracked down hard on signs of radical Islamic politics and terrorism after bomb attacks in 2003.
But confusion around the power and life of the king, a taboo subject rather like it is in Thailand, has undermined that reputation to a small but significant degree.
“Rumors in an opaque environment like the palace have to be read carefully because most of them come from interested people,” said Fouad Abdelmoumni, a Moroccan economist who has criticized the slowness of Morocco’s official response to the earthquake, saying the government appears hesitant to take any action until the king authorizes it.
The pattern was similar in 2004, when an earthquake killed more than 600 people. Officials were absent until the king appeared in the stricken villages a few days after the disaster. But that was two decades ago.
Now, Abdelmoumni said, “it seems that all the king’s entourage is very, very unhappy with the time he spends with the Azaitars, the authority he gives them, their behavior toward society and elites and the image this creates around the king and the state.”
In their business ventures and on their social media, the Azaitar brothers display a closeness to the king, whom they sometimes accompany on trips. This stirs fear and resentment within the court, Abdelmoumni said.
What is clear, however, is that “the king likes the Azaitars a lot, and all the others are unhappy,” he added. “They all agree ‘we have to be all united against Abu Azaitar.’”
Morocco is a conservative society and the monarchy is held in great respect, despite the wealth of the elites and the poverty of the masses, said Aboubakr Jamai, a prizewinning Moroccan publisher of newspapers until he went into exile in 2007 after a defamation charge was brought against him.
The lives of the king, his entourage and his son and heir, Moulay Hassan, 20, are surrounded by official silence.
“We really don’t know him,” Jamai said of the king. “We’ve never seen him in a situation where he had to answer questions, let alone hard questions. He was always reading from a piece of paper.”
Open criticism of the king is rare because the penalties are severe, and political opposition has been weakened or marginalized. But the king is generally revered, with most criticism aimed instead at the government. Moroccans who have left the country feel freer to speak out.
At the same time, the level of media freedom in Morocco is very low, 144th in the world according to the World Press Freedom Index.
Just last month, a Moroccan blogger, Saeed Boukayoud, 48, was sentenced to five years in prison for Facebook posts “denouncing normalization with Israel in a way that could be interpreted as criticism of the king,” said his lawyer, Hassan al-Sunni.
Unlike the king’s father, Hassan II, who was authoritarian but had strong and varied advisers, Mohammed VI lives in a kind of bubble and has enriched both himself and his courtiers, said Jamai, who now teaches international relations at the American College of the Mediterranean in France.
Mohammed VI inherited the throne in 1999 and in a rare interview a year later, for a Time magazine cover, described himself as a reformer who wanted to tackle “poverty, misery, illiteracy.” But “whatever I do,” he said, “it will never be good enough for Morocco.”
Ruling with many men he chose from his high-school class, the king has made serious and important changes in religiously conservative Morocco. He released a number of political prisoners, and after great domestic controversy, he changed the family law, raising the age of marriage to 18 from 15, though local judges, sometimes accused of corruption, are allowed to make exceptions.
The law advanced gender equality, giving women the right to ask for a divorce and first wives the right to refuse should their husbands want to marry a second wife. It also made divorce a legal procedure, eliminating the tradition of a husband divorcing a wife simply by handing her a letter.
Polygamy remains legal, if the first wife agrees, and homosexuality and sex outside marriage are illegal.
The king also managed the popular anger of the Arab Spring, which overturned governments in Tunisia and Egypt, by modifying the constitution and allowing an Islamic Party to govern after winning elections.
But there have been protests since, significantly in 2011 and 2016-17, which were put down by the government. It then cracked down hard on the media, and continues to do so. And urban youth unemployment, considered an important driver of the Arab Spring across the region, is worse now in Morocco, Jamai said.
Government spokespeople like Mustapha Baitas dismiss the criticism of the government aid efforts and the rumors around the king as figments of imagination of the foreign press.
In a video on social media posted Sunday, he said: “From the first seconds this devastating earthquake occurred, and in following the instructions of His Royal Majesty, all civil and military authorities and medical staff, military and civil, have worked on the swift and effective intervention to rescue the victims and recover the bodies of the martyrs.”
François Soudan, editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique, defended the king just before his 60th birthday in August against articles in the Economist’s 1843 magazine and in the Times of London, which he claimed were based on rumors and written by those with no access to the king or the palace. Instead, he praised the king’s flexibility and closeness to the people.
“Morocco’s current situation is stable compared to other nations, particularly under the reign of the Moroccan monarch,” Soudan wrote in Jeune Afrique. “To rule means to last by adapting to circumstances, and the important thing is to be strong enough to act.”