World

An Arab leader’s crown of thorns

David Baird June 25 1979
World

An Arab leader’s crown of thorns

David Baird June 25 1979

An Arab leader’s crown of thorns

World

Morocco

Turbanned Berber tribesmen astride Arab stallions raised their rifles in salute, drums and pipes throbbed amid a mass of colorfully robed spectators. At the entrance to the medieval city of Fez, the cavalcade of cars passed over hundreds of precious, handwoven carpets strewn across the highway.

If there was a touch of Oriental splendor in the welcome given last week to King Juan Carlos of Spain on his first official visit to Morocco, it was not surprising. His host was King Hassan II, “the nation’s guide, unifier of the kingdom” and last in a long line of Alaouite dynasty rulers, but a monarch beset by troubles. The 49-year-old Hassan needs all the friends he can get. Morocco’s three-year war against Polisario Front guerrillas in the Western Sahara is costing $1 million a day and helping to create social and political tensions within the nation of 18 million. Thus, while the two kings’ private talks ranged over fishing squabbles and Hassan’s suggestion that a tunnel should link the two countries under the Straits of Gibraltar, the big issue was the Sahara.

Spain abruptly ceded the bleak 175,000-square mile territory, with its rich phosphate deposits, to Morocco and Mauritania in November, 1975. But King Hassan wanted clarification of Spain’s position following recent apparent recognition by Madrid of the claims of the Polisario, which seeks independence for the region.

Tension has risen in the area after Polisario attacks well within Morocco’s borders—the latest came at mid-week against the southern town of Tantan— prompting a warning from Hassan that his troops were ready to pursue the guerrillas into Algerian territory. Without the support of Socialist Algeria, claims Hassan, Polisario would collapse. Open warfare has often appeared close between Algeria and Morocco, but now, said the king, “the situation could explode at any moment.”

The situation within his country is potentially explosive too. In theory, Morocco should be prosperous. It is a land of barren desert and stark mountains, but also of rich farming land and considerable mineral wealth. It is the world’s largest exporter of phosphates, concluding last year what was called the “contract of the century” with the Soviet Union.

But 80 per cent of the population is illiterate, scraping a desperate existence with outdated farming methods or living in shack towns around the cities. Harvests have been bad, phosphate prices have fallen and the war has drained resources. Inflation could reach 16 per cent this year and wages are not keeping up. Unemployment is at least 30 per cent.

Not that a visitor to downtown Casablanca would guess anything was wrong. Humphrey Bogart would not recognize today’s sprawling industrial port of more than two million. Smart boutiques, lofty office blocks and French cuisine lend a sophisticated Parisian air to the city centre while, farther down the Atlantic coast, Canadian, U.S. and European youngsters dream their days away on hashish, which is cheaply and easily available.

For young Moroccans like 20-year-old student teacher Abdellah Zakar, however, life has more problems than pleasures. “Books are expensive and many kids can’t even get a school place,” he says. And people lucky enough to find a two-room apartment in a grim concrete block in Casablanca may pay $156 a month rent—double the wage of, for example, a waiter.

Yet living 10 or 11 to a room still seems preferable to a rural existence in a mud-brick hut. Abderrahim Bouabid, leader of the opposition Socialist Union of Popular Forces, says land reform is the priority: “One cannot develop a country if one leaves 70 per cent of the people in a subsistence economy.”

The socialists see no chance of significant changes, however, until the king releases some of his power. Parliament is dominated by pro-Hassan “independents” and the king is commander of the armed forces as well as being religious leader of the Sunni Moslems. Strikers have been arrested or dismissed, and while press and parliamentary criticism is permitted an unknown number of political prisoners linger in jail.

Out in the Sahara itself, the 40,000 Moroccan troops are reported to be discontented with the lack of leave, the difficult conditions, and the king’s direction of the war. But their task is likely to get harder rather than easier. The Polisario is pledged to carry the war even deeper into Morocco and Hassan’s former ally, Mauritania, is trying to settle with the guerrillas.

There is thus no easy way out for Hassan and his difficulties are compounded by the fact that even his opponents want the war to succeed. Indeed, his throne could well depend on it. “I am always telling my people that the burden of the Sahara is great,” he says, “but the fact is that the Moroccan peohave the Sahara in their blood, and what am I to do?”

David Baird