- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

GENEVA Released political prisoners and human-rights activists increasingly portray Morocco as a backward feudal kingdom governed by a corrupt elite.

The wide-ranging reforms promised by young King Mohammed VI, on the throne for 18 months, remain empty promises, the regime's critics say, and the press is muzzled. The editor of one banned publication is on a hunger strike.

The government, headed by socialist Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, says there has not been enough time to "repair the wrongs of the past" and reform the ailing economy. So far the young king has avoided finger pointing while admitting that many injustices were committed during the reign of his father, the late King Hassan II, who reigned for more than 38 years and died in 1999.

The discussion of Morocco's problems and disappointment with the monarch initially hailed as "the king of reforms" have gained intensity since the annual congress of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH, its initials in French) this month at Casablanca on Morocco's Atlantic coast.

What was meant to be "a greeting and encouragement" of the long-awaited reforms turned into bitter criticism and embarrassment for the regime.

Patrick Baudoin, departing president of the federation, which for the first time held its annual meeting in an Arab country, voiced "serious concern" about the kingdom's human-rights record and noted "signs of regression" instead of progress.

The recent ban on three publications "tarnished Morocco's image," Mr. Baudoin said, and "cast doubt on the will of the authorities to carry out democratic change."

Mr. Baudoin who was succeeded at the close of the Casablanca congress by Sidiki Kaba of Senegal, elected FIDH president at the final session was echoed in stronger terms by Abderrahmane Bennameur, president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. While praising the compensation granted some released prisoners and a "partial improvement in human rights," he said that "since independence, the Moroccan people have been deprived of the right to choose constitutional institutions and of free and honest elections."

All elections since independence from France in 1956 "were characterized by fraud and falsehood," Mr. Bennameur added.

Although he was invited to attend the Casablanca conference, King Mohammed declined and sent instead a brief message praising recent measures "to reconcile Moroccans with their history and remedy the violations which have stained the country."

The message was read by Mr. Youssoufi, who subsequently left the conference, saying he had an appointment with the visiting prime minister of Ireland.

Also absent from the debate was Abraham Serfaty, a leading member of Morocco's Jewish community who was banned from the country for years but allowed to return after King Hassan's death. Mr. Serfaty's wife was quoted in the French press as saying: "He did not want to meet Youssoufi."

Mr. Serfaty has been vocal on major issues confronting the country and critical of the monarch, "who although promising to construct a modern and democratic Morocco, relies on a government whose leading members are socialists and former communists."

He also stigmatized the growth and influence of the governing establishment, known as "makhzen," which he accused of corruption, warning that the situation has an increase in militant Islamic fundamentalism "profiting from poverty and misery."

Such criticism coincides with the publication in France of several books depicting imprisonment and torture carried out during King Hassan's reign. Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan writer living in France, published a particularly chilling account of a prison where inmates most of them soldiers who had participated in attempted coups against the king had been kept in caves without light for 18 years.

Morocco's king is considered to be "God's representative on earth" and a "descendant of the Prophet [Mohammed]." Moroccan monarchs traditionally rely on the "makhzen" and the "mehalla" (military establishment) to carry out the king's will.

Although Morocco has low inflation and the budget deficit does not exceed 3 percent, its economic growth averages 2.1 percent considered stagnant for a "developing" country.

Half the population is illiterate (among women, 70 percent) and, according to human-rights organizations, 65 percent of the country's 30 million people live below the poverty level. Only 5 percent are in the middle class, compared with 35 percent in Tunisia.

Two-thirds of the population lacks access to piped drinking water, while 87 percent have no electricity, according to 2000 figures published outside Morocco.

By contrast, the number of cellular-phone accounts in the country is 350,000, and 200,000 middle-class Moroccans have personal computers.

The enormous and apparently growing income gap has prompted Cheikh Yassine perhaps the most prominent Islamic opponent of the regime to warn about the possible consequences.

In an 18-page "open letter" written in French, he suggested that the royal fortune estimated at $40 billion should be used to pay off Morocco's foreign debt of $17 billion. There has been no reaction from the palace.

Some diplomats are alarmed by the steady drift of the rural population to the cities, swelling already overcrowded shantytowns. Unofficial estimates put the growth of the impoverished urban population at 450,000 per year.

Further weighing on the Youssoufi government is the festering problem of the Western Sahara, seized by Morocco after the departure of the Spanish colonial army.

Morocco has been keeping the bulk of its army some 200,000 men in the contested region, delaying U.N. suggestions of a referendum among the desert population, many of whom have sought shelter in neighboring Algeria.

Morocco's de facto annexation of the Western Sahara is popular domestically but has poisoned relations with Algeria, which supports the territory's independence. Algeria also contests parts of the border with Morocco.

The claims and counterclaims have paralyzed expansion of five North African countries known as the Arab Maghreb Union, which groups the former French protectorates of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, plus Libya and Mauritania.

"If Morocco lost such a referendum [in Western Sahara], it would be a national catastrophe," one diplomat said. "If it won, it would worsen its relations with Algeria, possibly leading to war."

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