Our Man in Morocco
by Jerry Meldon
iF magazine, Sept / Oct 1999
When referring to Arab leaders, official Washington holds
few compliments higher than "moderate" and "Western-oriented,"
though the adjectives rarely attach to political values such as
democracy, human rights or pluralism.
The death of King Hassan II of Morocco on July 24 was a case
in point. U.S. government eulogies and press retrospectives hailed
the late monarch for his long service as a reliable client of
Western diplomacy, with little note of his autocratic, corrupt
and bloody rule.
"Over his 38-year reign, King Hassan 11 demonstrated
time and again his leadership, his courage and his willingness
to embrace change," declared President Clinton.
In an editorial, The Washington Post hailed the deceased monarch
as "a figure who earned a reputation far beyond his region
for moderation and reason. ... His was an important contribution
to regional stability." [WP, July 26, 1999]
During his life, Hassan also won high praise from President
Bush for dispatching a contingent of royal Moroccan troops to
join U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf War. At a White House dinner
on Sept. 26, 1991, Bush praised Hassan's "commitment to shared
ideals" and counted Hassan as a participant in "building
a New World Order."
To his credit, Hassan did promote Arab-lsraeli negotiations.
He helped bring Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt's
President Anwar Sadat to Camp David in 1978 and brokered other
sensitive contacts between Middle Eastern antagonists.
But Morocco's 29 million people benefited little from Hassan's
"moderation" and his "commitment to shared ideals."
While Hassan ruled with an iron fist and accumulated vast wealth,
one-third of his subjects lived in poverty, about one-quarter
were unemployed and about half could not read or write.
Amid the backwardness and repression, Hassan lived a royal
life as an international jet-setter. In a less-flattering tone
than found in the U.S. press, the French newspaper, Le Monde,
detailed Hassan's accumulated fortune which was estimated at $1.6
The king owned more than 20 palaces and villas scattered around
Morocco, real-estate holdings in the United States and Europe,
bulging stock portfolios and offshore bank accounts, many placed
in the names of trusted advisers. Reportedly, Hassan's wealth
also derived from the transiting of cocaine through Morocco and
from the sale of homegrown cannabis. [Le Monde, July 26, 1999]
Little of this information was noted in the United States,
however. Hassan earned this final wink apparently because U.S.
officials appreciated his help on Washington's Middle East diplomacy
and his collaboration on sensitive intelligence operations, such
as funneling support to ClA-backed Angolan rebel leader Jonas
But the urbane king, who studied in France and spoke several
languages, also gained favor by indulging influential Americans
in the romantic mystery of Morocco. He let them play out their
"Arabian Nights" fantasies in luxurious desert settings.
One of the best known of these exotic galas was the 70th birthday
party for publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes at his villa in Tangiers
At an estimated cost of $2 million, Forbes -- calling himself
"Ali-Dada" -feted 800 of the world's leaders in business,
media and government. The guest list glittered with the likes
of The Washington Post's Katharine Graham, ABC's Barbara Walters,
former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and media mogul Rupert
King Hassan spiced up the event by lending 200 horsemen in
Moroccan costume and 750 folk performers. Hassan also hosted a
lunch for the celebrants at the Tangier Country Club. (One of
the organizers of this Moroccan bash was Malcolm Forbes's son,
Steve, now a Republican candidate for president.) [People, Sept.
Hassan's hospitality apparently earned him a warm spot in
the hearts of many of the news executives who set the tone of
U.S. press coverage.
Unlike the late Zairian dictator Mobutu Seke Seto, another
African leader who exploited his close ties with Washington to
plunder his nation's wealth, the regal Hassan never suffered the
harsh scrutiny that dogged Mobutu, a black African born in a humble
village who came to power via the military.
Yet, Hassan ran Morocco almost as ruthlessly as Mobutu governed
Zaire. Like Mobutu, Hassan crushed independence movements in outlying
territories, eliminated political rivals with the help of Western
intelligence services, and lived a life of luxury amid the poverty
of his countrymen.
Born on July 9, 1929, Hassan was the oldest child of Sultan
Sidi Mohammed ben Youssef.
At the time of Hassan's birth, most of Morocco was a French
protectorate. After World War II, however, Hassan's father, the
Sultan, supported a popular movement for independence.
The French responded by forcing the Sultan into exile in 1953.
But the challenge to French rule was just beginning. In 1954-55,
an independence movement known as the National Union of Popular
Forces [UNFP] led uprisings across Morocco.
At the home, the French were reeling from other rebellions
in their empire, losing in Indochina in 1954 and battling for
control of Algeria. So, in 1956, the French chose to grant Morocco
independence while maintaining close ties by installing a reactionary
For that purpose, the Sultan returned from exile and became
King Mohammed V. Prince Hassan, who was fast gaining a reputation
as an international playboy, worked with his father to consolidate
the monarchy's power. One of the chief goals was to neutralize
the UNFP and its charismatic intellectual leader, Mehdi Ben Barka.
In 1957, Prince Hassan enhanced his personal power by assuming
command of the Royal Moroccan Army which then was divided between
officers who had favored independence and those who were pro-French.
In 1960, the prince survived the first of several assassination
attempts, an attack that the monarchy blamed on Ben Barka and
When King Mohammed V died a year later, the prince ascended
to the throne as Hassan IL He pushed through a new constitution
that guaranteed some political rights, but the king retained the
power to dissolve the legislature and control the army.
In July 1963, Moroccan authorities caught wind of another
plot to assassinate Hassan. Ben Barka, who had denounced the "theocratic
and feudal regime" for re-imposing "the medieval structure
of traditional Moroccan society," was again blamed. A year
later, Ben Barka was sentenced to death in absentia, along with
10 other colleagues from the UNFP.
Amid bloody anti-government riots in June 1965, fires swept
Rabat and Casablanca. Hassan dissolved Parliament, declared a
state of emergency and assumed absolute power. Some opposition
figures were executed and others fled abroad.
From his exile base in Geneva, Ben Barka had continued to
criticize Hassan's rule. Ben Barka also emerged as an international
leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of Third World nations, countries
favoring neutrality in the Cold War. The United States, however,
considered the Non-Aligned Movement a threat to Western solidarity
and effectively a front for communist influence.
In 1965, Ben Barka was elected chairman of the movement's
first Tricontinental Congress to be held Jan. 310, 1966. The United
States was especially alarmed because the location for the Congress
was Havana, Cuba, a choice that promised to enhance Fidel Castro's
Henry Tasca, U.S. ambassador to Morocco, held discussions
with Moroccan Interior Minister, Gen. Mohammed Oufkir. Tasca then
contacted the CLA's station in Paris about the possibility of
facilitating Ben Barka's return to his home country. [Time, Dec.
Yet, whether Washington really wanted Ben Barka back in Morocco,
and if so, why, remain unanswered questions to this day.
As it turned out, a French journalist lured Ben Barka from
Geneva to Paris with the prospect of speaking to a French film
director working on a documentary about imperialism. On Oct. 29,
1965, Ben Barka and a friend were walking on Paris's busy Boulevard
Saint-Germain-des-Pres, on their way to meet the filmmakers, when
a patrol car pulled up and two men jumped out flashing badges.
The two Parisian police detectives pulled Ben Barka into the
car, whose occupants also included a French narcotics officer
and an agent of the SDECE, the French intelligence service.
The car took Ben Barka to a house in a Paris suburb. The building
was owned by Georges Boucheseiche, a heroin-trafficking gangster
on the SDECE payroll. There, Boucheseiche and other thugs interrogated
and tortured Ben Barka.
According to some accounts, Oufkir was present during the
interrogation, possibly seeking the combination to a safe containing
records of the Non-Aligned Movement. However, some journalists,
such as Henrik Kruger in The Great Heroin Coup, have cast doubt
on Oukfir's personal involvement.
The following night, Ben Barka was flown out of Paris and
disappeared. His body has never been recovered.
The incident, however, had international ramifications. It
enraged French president Charles deGaulle, who dispatched a personal
emissary to King Hassan. DeGaulle unsuccessfully demanded Oufkir's
"Someone has taken me for a complete idiot," deGaulle
Convinced of CIA involvement, deGaulle cracked down on French
operatives whom he suspected were CIA lackeys. Several of these
operatives received stiff jail sentences. But the precise role
of the ClA in the Ben Barka case has never been clarified.
There was reason, however, to suspect an American hand in
Ben Barka's disappearance. Besides Washington's sensitivity about
Castro and the Non-Aligned Movement, the Johnson administration
at the time was moving aggressively around the world to thwart
perceived Third World adversaries.
Most notably, President Johnson was escalating U.S. involvement
in Indochina. But he also dispatched Marines to the Dominican
Republic, sent experts to improve the efficiency of Guatemalan
security forces and allowed U.S. officials to hand over names
of suspected communists to Indonesian generals engaged in exterminating
hundreds of thousands of Indonesians.
In Morocco, Ben Barka's disappearance removed a thorn from
Hassan's side. But the king's autocratic rule continued to inspire
attempts to overthrow his regime.
On July 10, 1971, Hassan celebrated his 42nd birthday with
a gala at his seaside palace near Rabat. With about 400 prominent
Moroccans in attendance, a force of 1,000 rebellious troops attacked,
killing nearly 100 guests, but missing the king who hid in a bathroom.
When Hassan emerged from the bathroom, he is reputed to have
confronted a rebel leader and recited the first verse of the Koran.
Supposedly, the rebel knelt and kissed the king's hand, sparing
Hassan and giving loyal troops time to counterattack. More than
150 rebels died and a dozen senior officers linked to the plot
In 1972, Hassan was stunned again when his longtime henchman,
Oufkir, turned on the monarch. Oufkir ordered Moroccan jet fighters
to shoot down Hassan's plane as it was about to land.
The fighters knocked out one engine and continued to strafe
the plane on the ground. This time, according to legend, the quick-thinking
king survived by grabbing the radio and convincing the rebels
that the "tyrant" was dead.
With that assassination plot foiled, Hassan meted out harsh
justice to Oufkir. Loyalist Gen. Ahmed Dlimi reportedly shot the
disloyal Oufkir in the stomach, and Hassan personally finished
off Oufkar with a shot through the general's trademark sunglasses.
Oufkir's widow and six children were placed under a house arrest
that continued for nearly two decades.
In 1975, Hassan moved to assert Moroccan authority over the
Western Sahara, where an active independence movement, called
the Polisario, had been fighting for freedom from Spain. Hassan
wanted to add Western Sahara's phosphate deposits to Morocco's
and thus dominate the world market. In pursuit of that goal, Hassan's
air force bombed and napalmed camps set up for the war's refugees.
[Inquiry, May 26, 1980]
Faced with the Moroccan repression, many residents of the
Western Sahara fled to Algeria. Seeking to solidify Morocco's
control, Hassan trucked 350,000 civilians into the disputed region
to stage a march. Hassan also began a campaign to relocate enough
Moroccans into the area so they would hold the majority in any
referendum on sovereignty.
Meanwhile, on the international front, Hassan took steps to
guarantee a secure conduit of U.S. weapons and a better reputation
for Morocco in the halls of American power.
Morocco hired a RR firm headed by former U.S. Sen. Charles
Goodell to "improve public understanding in the United States
of the right of Morocco to purchase armaments in the U.S."
But bad press still plagued Hassan's government. The Belgian
Association of Democratic Jurists sent a medical team to Morocco
where it found that Moroccan political prisoners were left in
total isolation, chained to the ground, suspended head down or
beaten on the soles of their feet until they lost consciousness.
[NYT, May 26, 1980]
Over the years, leading human rights groups, such as Amnesty
International, documented numerous cases of abuses under Hassan's
government: imprisonment without trial, suppression of political
dissent, torture and murder of dissidents. Morocco was widely
judged to have one of the worst human rights records in the Arab
Toward the end of his reign, Hassan did take some hesitant
steps toward democracy and political tolerance. Abdurrahman Youssufi,
a socialist and former political prisoner, became prime minister
after his political bloc dominated recent elections.
But Hassan kept tight control over how much political freedom
was permitted. Abraham Serfaty, another opposition leader, was
refused permission to return to Morocco, and Islamic leader Abdessalam
Yacine has remained under house arrest for 10 years.
Hassan insisted, too, that his longtime ally, Driss Basri,
continue to control the powerful Interior Ministry as he has done
for 20 years.
Before his death, Hassan commented that "in the long
term, in the course of a reign, and in the conduct of governments,
there are often obligations which are incompatible with [people's]
rights." [Manchester Guardian Weekly, July 28, 1999]
Now, Hassan's death has passed the broad powers of Morocco's
monarchy onto his son, King Mohammed VI, the 18th regent of the
333-year Alaouite dynasty.
U.S. officials and leading editorialists have expressed hope
that the new king will continue the "moderate" and "Western-oriented"
policies of his father.
Jerry Meldon, a contributing editor of iF Magazine, teaches
chemistry at Tufts University in Massachusetts.