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North African diversities: a Moroccan odyssey

The evolution of Morocco under its monarchy makes it in many ways an exception to political trends elsewhere in the Maghreb, let alone the wider Arab world. In the latest of his series mixing personal reflection and political analysis, Francis Ghilès reflects on his years of reporting the country and interrogating its circles of power.

"I do not think modern academics understand this country as well as French administrateurs civils did earlier this century." I sensed a growing irritation in our interviewee, King Hassan II of Morocco, as my Financial Times colleague Edward Mortimer insisted that western experts had accumulated a vast amount of knowledge about the Arab world in general and Morocco, one of the oldest Muslim kingdoms in the world, in particular.

"Je suis entièrement d’accord avec Sa Majesté", I murmured. In part to smooth the interviewing process, but mainly in response to a deeper instinct that had accumulated over eighteen years of working for the FT and welled to the surface at that moment: namely, that the sheer inflation of articles and media broadcasts about this part of the world, the profusion of grand theories and easy analogies from an increasing number of experts, had failed to result in any better understanding of the "other" - quite the reverse.

Morocco was a case-study of this broader ignorance. Until the late 1980s, the CIA was not alone in predicting the end of the Alaoui dynasty which had ruled Morocco since 1663. During my years reporting for the FT, and having worked very hard to understand the roots of the Western Sahara crisis, I came to the conclusion by the mid-1980s that those who were forecasting the demise of the Moroccan monarchy in the near future were simply wrong.

Many proponents of this view, for all the surety of their judgment, spoke not a word of Arabic or Berber, nor had ever travelled to the depth of the mountains of this beautiful country. A similar error was made in some western capitals in the 1990s when some senior experts predicted the collapse of the Algerian army in the face of the insurrection then racking that country. More positive assessments were also wrong: many World Bank reports had spoken of the modernisation of Morocco’s economic governance, ignoring the fact that before the royal holding company Siger was un-listed from the Casablanca stock-exchange a few years ago, the royal family’s share of the capitalisation of the exchange amounted to 60% on conservative estimates.

A Moroccan entrée

That hot October afternoon, we had waited for the King to arrive in a gaudy and over-gilded salon (as is the style of Moroccan royal residences) of his country seat and stud-farm at Bouznika, due south of the capital Rabat. Some of his senior advisers - André Azoulay and Driss Slaoui, and Driss Basri, the much feared interior minister - were our company before the King received us very gracefully.

I felt a sense of achievement as I had made a request to interview the monarch more than a decade earlier, long ignored as my views of Morocco had been deemed "too critical". In early October 1994, the moment seem propitious: just as neighbouring Algeria was plunged into civil war, Morocco was about to host the first summit of middle east and north African ("Mena") states, bringing together sixty-four countries (including Israel) in the wake of the Oslo peace process. The gathering, in Morocco's economic hub, Casablanca, was jointly hosted by Morocco, the United States's Council of Foreign Relations and the World Economic Forum, its purpose to discuss how best to integrate Israel economically into the region and build economies ties between all concerned. It was at that time that I met two respected economists, Ephraim Kleiman and Hicham Awartany, who had co-written a draft blueprint for economic agreements in the Oslo "declaration of principles". There were high hopes that the conflict was entering a less destructive phase.

The King chain-smoked and coughed throughout the hour we spent with him but had lost none of his proverbial wit or sense of repartee. The only thing which marred the interview was the heat, aggravated by the many TV cameras and lights - though in the event it was declared a great success and shown a number of times on Moroccan state TV. When it was over, it was a pleasure to get back to the Hilton in Rabat and enjoy a large gin and tonic, followed by a dinner hosted by Mustafa Terrab. Terrab was then an adviser at the cabinet royal, and is arguably the keenest business leader in the kingdom. In 2006 he was appointed CEO of Morocco’s largest state company, the Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), and since then has set in train a revolution is management and strategy which is without equivalent in the Maghreb. In so doing he has given back its lettres de noblesse to the idea of state-owned companies and demonstrated that, even in a highly competitive sector, they can act as nimbly as the best-run private companies in the western world.

My professional acquaintance with Morocco had started less promisingly seventeen years earlier. A few weeks before joining the FT in March 1977, I had travelled to Morocco in a Citibank charted plane to attend a loan signing - lavish affairs in those far-off days when the syndicated market for international bank loans (the euro-market) was in full swing. In this case the Kingdom of Morocco paid for two days of sumptuous entertainment hosted by Mohammed Karim Lamrani, then CEO of the OCP former and future prime minister and one of the king’s liege men.

When the king or the grandees of Morocco entertain, it is on a grand scale: the swirl of costumes, the music, the huge trays of fuming couscous or tagine carried on the heads of servants from the royal kitchens into the traditional tents where guests are seated on low divans, eating the food by hand out of the common dish. When they take place on royal occasions, be it under tents or in the palaces in Fez or Marrakech, they are reminiscent of the kind of medieval banquets that grace old movies: baroque, excessive and slightly dangerous.

Karim Lamrani hosted a dinner at his residence in Rabat at which he drew me apart, told me he knew I would be joining the FT in a few weeks' time, and asked: "Would you like to travel to the Western Sahara?" He knew that I had visited the camps of the Polisario Liberation Front, the movement which had contested Morocco’s claim to the former Spanish colony since 1975, and that in February 1975 had written an article in the Times with Edward Mortimer(where he was leader writer) calling on the west to oppose Morocco’s claim. It was an offer I could hardly refuse.

The article I published in the Financial Times on my visit to the territory - a few days before formally becoming the paper’s euro-market correspondent - was not calculated to please the CEO of the Office Chérifien des Phosphates; but for many years, Lamrani not only opened to me a country which I hardly knew but afforded discreet and invaluable political cover. These were the "années de plomb", the leaden years which followed the two attempts on the king’s life in 1971 and 1972, the assassination of Omar Benjelloun, left-wing leader and fierce opponent of the monarchy, by Islamists (with the likely complicity of members of the security forces) in December 1975. They were years when people hardly dared mention the name of Driss Basri in public places, when the ministry of information followed every move or conversation by an international journalist.

During my few days in the Western Sahara capital, El Ayoun - a strange place where the Spanish posada (inn) was next door to a brothel, which had the proverbial red light over its entrance - my movements were closely watched but luck gave a good story. As I waited patiently for a meeting with the Spanish director of the phosphate-treatment plant of FosBucraa, on a beach a few miles from the town I knocked on a door and found myself speaking in Spanish to a secretary. She told me that Polisario commandos had a few days before attacked the conveyor-belt which carried the phosphate rock from the mine to the treatment-plant. I thanked her, closed the door, went through with my appointment and flew back to London. I conveyed the news of the attack in the first-ever piece published under my name in the FT. Moroccan security was at a loss: to their credit they never believed the story.

A journalistic contretemps 

In those early years, three other people were to help me understand the rather unique political construct that is Morocco. Azzedine Guessous was the OCP’s financial director who went on to become minister of trade and industry and a key architect of the reforms initiated in the wake of the kingdom's defaulting on its debt in September 1983. A highly educated and polished man whose wife Anissa was quite his equal, he never shied of arguing and explaining his country.

Mohammed Bennani was rising fast in the Banque Marocaine du Commerce Extérieur and proved to be a stalwart friend, even when he did not agree with my views, not least on Algeria. As he later moved to Madrid to turn the BMCE into a fully-fledged bank, Mohammed's understanding of his country, of the harsh realities of international trade and finance, and his willingness to share information proved invaluable to my understanding of the region. Like the Guessous, he and his wife Wafae, a talented graphic artist who illustrated children’s books, welcomed me to their home, itself a vital key to gaining a better understanding of society.

Abdelfettah Benmansour was a senior figure in the Moroccan treasury. He passed documents to me that were highly confidential: when I asked him why, he told me that "he would rather the correspondent of the FT, who was critical of the economic management of Morocco but understood what economic reforms were needed had access to such documents, rather than any other journalist." Fetah went on to become Trésorier Général du Royaume but is now gone: his passion for his country was matched by a strong sense that the monarchy had to change if it wished to survive the challenges of the late 20th century. By the early 1980s the King too knew that major reforms were needed, and asked the World Bank to prepare a series of reports on the great state monopolies. The reports were highly critical and, thanks to Fetah I was in 1984 able, to the consternation of many in Rabat and Washington, to publish an analysis of their content.

In 1987, with the king due on a state visit to London, the FT was commissioned to publish a special report. It duly appeared on the day the monarch started his state visit and the Moroccan delegation was thunderstruck: the map of Morocco published on the front page did not include the Western Sahara. I had warned Driss Basri that it was not for me to decide which map appeared and that he could only take up this contentious issue with my editor. He failed to do so. Worse, the publication of a full-page article criticised overspending by OCP.

The company’s CEO had promised he would give me enough information to write a serious article on this key company in Morocco but as we were preparing the report, he insisted I should submit it to him discreetly before my editor saw it: I refused point blank, telling him that he could call in Pravda and hoist the red flag on the splendid new headquarters of OCP in Casablanca but that I would not play ball. I had meanwhile managed to get hold of a highly confidential report on the OCP written a few years earlier, probably with the help of the World Bank, by Abdellatif Jouhari, a highly polished Moroccan banker who was by 1987 CEO of BMCE. He is now governor of the central bank of Morocco. For reasons of security, I deposited the report with the United States consul in Casablanca and asked him to send it to London through the diplomatic bag. When I told Abdellatif I had read the report, he was not amused but conceded many of the criticisms of the OCP it contained were still true.

As he flew into London with the King, Karim Lamrani was handed a translation of the article: needless to say, he was furious. Two days later, as I left the splendid banquet for the Moroccan monarch hosted by the Lord Mayor of London, I came face to face with Karim. "You planted a knife in my back," he snarled. "Soon you will be accusing me of indulging in Berber practices" I retorted. Some of those present must have been wondering what on earth was going on.

Earlier that day, at luncheon in Downing Street the King had made a reference to Gibraltar which did not best please his host, Margaret Thatcher. "Very good story", I whispered to my neighbour not realising it was the prime minister’s diplomatic adviser, Charles Powell. "You simply cannot publish that", he said to me and I did not, the only time in my professional life I censored myself.

Twenty-five years later I chanced upon an ageing but still alert Karim Lamrani: "I do hope you did not feel I insulted you by what I wrote in 1987", I inquired. His response was in the best tradition of the Moroccan makhzen (the ruling elite round the king), courteous but, I believe, heartfelt: "If I had only had to deal with journalists of your calibre, life would have been easier."

Two years before that, Karim Lamrani arranged for me to revisit the Western Sahara for the first time in eight years. El Ayoun had become "Layoune" and grown enormously; there I revisited the phosphate mines and flew to the southern town of Dahkla. Then I flew by helicopter along the wall of sand and mines that the Moroccan army had completed a few years before to protect the Western Sahara from daring Polisario raids, conducted on the advice of Vietnam's General Giap who had inflicted on the French army the grievous defeat of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. I spent a night in the fort at Amgala where in February 1976, the Moroccan army had come close to annihilating a unit of the Algerian army (the Egyptian army chief-of-staff Hosni Mubarak had played a key role in avoiding an escalation of the conflict).

That night I was entertained to a wonderful dinner under the bright desert stars by the officers of the garrison, where wine and words flowed freely. At one point a young captain asked me directly: "We have been listening to you on the BBC World Service for years and we respect you even if we often disagree with your views; but tell us, why is our king so unpopular and why are the Algerian leaders so respected in the outside world?" This was followed by what must have been one of the frankest exchanges I was ever to have in north Africa during my career at the FT. As we finally rose to get some sleep, the commanding office said to me: "I am delighted to have hosted you tonight, I respect you enormously for your work."

A mercurial world

Wyndham Lewis wrote some magnificent texts about the Berbers of the Atlas mountains where he spent several months in the 1930s. "The only terms upon which a Berber can stand still, much less lie down, is to build himself a fortress. This is an absolute rule for the whole of the Maghreb. Berbery is indeed the bled el khouf ('the land of fear') where cubist-style villages and fortresses built of earth cling to the steep slopes of the Atlas - a land where age old poems about love and death, so hauntingly brought to life in Les Chants de la Tassaoult - transcribed into French by a colonial officer who enjoyed the favours of a beautiful young Berber women were known to all, where time seemed to have stopped."

In Kasbahs and Souks, published in the 1930s, the English essayist argued, after spending six months in southern Morocco, that there were only two types of Berbers - the Berber incessantly on the move, the "nomad", or the Berber who lives in a towered house and battlemented fortress. This land contrasted with the modern metropolis of Casablanca where the brilliant Moroccan graduates of French Grandes Ecoles live cheek by jowl with thousands of slum-dwellers.

Abderrahmane Serghini was an Inspecteur des Finances, Morocco’s most ambitious collector of modern paintings and a man who led, quite openly, a dissolute life. From the early 1980s, one of his trusted aides would show up at the door of my hotel room on the very day I arrived with an envelope containing 200,000 or 300,000 francs "for any needs I might have during my stay in Morocco." I would return the sum intact as I left Morocco and do not know, to this day, whether this attempt at bribery was officially sanctioned. As I was drinking tea in his house in Rabat one afternoon he enquired as to why I had not picked up the beautiful woman whom he had sent to the Hotel Marhaba in Casablanca: "She is one of my mistresses and I thought you might enjoy her" he said, to which I answered that such behaviour was out of the question. "If you prefer men" he added "that is no problem." Years later, in 1987, the FT’s middle-east editor, who had accompanied me on a visit to Morocco, asked me whether I would procure a woman for him. I thought of Abderrahmane but demurred.

Serghini was a brilliant man, well versed in his trade and an avid collector of painting and lovers, both male and female. He gave extravagant parties where the quality of the food and wines matched the beauty of the paintings and women. Conversation was both lewd and witty but could also be serious. I one day witnessed a surprising exchange he had with one of his ex-girlfriends who was, apparently, dating the son of the ambassador of Kuwait in Rabat: "instead of f…… with that asshole, you would be better off with Francis", he told her in harsh tones, "he is both Berber and Jewish, the best combination as far as I am concerned and one which might give you the polish you so desperately need." I was nonplussed, but he dismissed the girl and proceeded to open another bottle of vintage champagne, reclining on his couch in a pink jellabah.

Beyond his knowledge of painting and his description of wild parties at the Crillon Hotel in Paris, Abderrahmane was a bottomless source of information on Moroccan finances and the intrigues of the court. Listening to him was like reading a thriller - he was totally cynical, deeply cultured, always setting off for another extravagant party in Marrakech, Paris or New York and very world-wise: his mixture of coarseness and refinement, high culture and raunchy living was in a way very Berber (the roman historian Sallustus described the Berbers as akin to mercury, very temperamental but capable of immense and enduring loyalty).

Both in Algeria and Morocco, some senior businessmen or officials of Berber origin would never let me forget the origin of my name: indeed a senior Algerian diplomat in Washington once handed me, from his safe, a highly confidential World Bank report on his country with the words "d’un berbère a un autre". So difficult were such documents to get in 1978 that upon my return to London the FT’s managing editor JDF Jones congratulated me and refunded my air-ticket - I had spent a week in Washington on holiday.

(A digression: if the FT stands today as a newspaper of truly global coverage it owes a huge debt to JDF Jones who, four decades ago, put so many of the initial building-blocks in place. As a newcomer to the paper, I found JDF, as he was to many of my peers, a constant source of support and encouragement. Two other colleagues, the first of whom became a very good friend also proved invaluable. Anthony McDermott joined the FT from the Guardian at the same time as I did: possibly the finest analyst of his generation on middle-eastern affairs, Anthony pulled off, in the summer of 1972, one of those scoops dreamed of by journalists when he learned through his wife’s Egyptian family that President Anwar Sadat was going to expel all Russian military advisers from Egypt. Anthony had a brain as sharp as a razor, an unequalled sense of humour and never shied from telling me what he thought of my articles - being a bon vivant, I was able to share many a delicious and well lubricated meal. The other FT journalist whose encouragement was a great source of strength was Robert Graham, who well before 1979 openly questioned the strength of the Shah’s regime, not a popular posture in those days. He knew Algeria and his analyses were always worth listening to.)

After 1987, the Moroccan beat became altogether easier. The importance of the Western Saharan issue had receded and the new minister of finance Mohamed Berrada and his directeur du trésor Mohamed Dairi opened up the books of the kingdom as never before. Instead of spending days fighting for some basic piece of financial or economic information, I was handed over most of what I asked for. I was able to tackle a broader range of issues, travel more easily in the country and thus report from the ground.

Morocco is such a bundle of contradictions and contrasts that providing a rational explanation for a given event or policy is difficult. Foreigners often assume that the mentality here is much more "modern" than in Algeria, but they are wrong. Unlike its eastern neighbour, Moroccan social fabric was not torn to shreds by colonial rule, its institutions were not destroyed, nor simply sidelined as in Tunisia. Its officials was less dour than their Algerian counterparts, though dealing with Driss Basri could be quite as intimidating as with the late former president Chadli Bendjedid’s kingmaker and former head of security, Kasdi Merbah. Those two men were the only ones who literally gave me a cold sweat when I interviewed them.

A lost opportunity

What the Moroccans never lack though is grandeur. Karim Lamrani once handed me a beautifully embroidered tablecloth and I told him I would give it to my girlfriend. "But you might lose her", he said. He checked a few months later and indeed I had split up with my partner: "You see, I warned you". Maybe I was being too scrupulous but then I kept to a strict rule of never accepting any gift of any real value throughout my years at the FT. When his ambassador M Ben Abdeljalil accused me of spying for Algeria in a series of reports to the King he enquired of my relations with King Hassan’s envoy to the Court of St James. I told him that a few months earlier the ambassador had invited the chief executive of Pearson Longman, the CEO of the FT, its editor and foreign editor (but not me) to lunch, pleading for greater support as Morocco was in the process of rescheduling its foreign debt - only to see his wife join the luncheon and show off the silver birds she had just purchased at neighbouring Harrods. After an hour with the prime minister he asked me to meet him halfway between Rabat, the capital and Casablanca, by the roadside: it was the only place we could have a serious conversation without being listened to.

I have only one professional regret about the many years I spent reporting on Morocco. It occurred in September 1993 when the Israeli and Palestinian leaders shook hands on the lawn of the White House and it seemed that peace might break out in the middle east. I was in Morocco, preparing an article on the country’s economic prospects when, on 14 September, one of the king’s senior advisers, André Azoulay rang me and said, rather cryptically: "You will have to turn intro a firefighter as something unusual is going to happen." I quickly understood that there was a high chance of the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin and his minister of foreign affairs, Shimon Peres, stopping off in Morocco on their way back to Jerusalem from Washington. Unfortunately I failed to convince the editor Andrew Gowers of this. I wrote a lengthy piece which I used for a BBC World Service interview but the FT never carried an in-depth analysis of Morocco’s longstanding role as a conduit and meeting place for exchanges between the PLO and Israelis.

Morocco was the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to an Arab nation other than Egypt - the last time Yitshak Rabin had visited in 1976, for secret talks with King Hassan, he was disguised in a shaggy wig and fake moustache. When Anwar Sadat had made his initial speech declaring his willingness to go to Israel in order to make peace with Israel, he had worked out the main points in advance in secret negotiations with Menahem Begin which were conducted through King Hassan and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania.

This time, the Israeli leaders were received with pomp at the King’s summer palace in Skhirat and heard greetings in Hebrew from the monarch for the Jewish new year. At the press conference afterwards I put questions to bother Israeli leaders: the words of Yitshak Rabin carried conviction, those of Shimon Peres less. It is Peres’ misfortune that his enunciation makes him sound like a man "one would not buy a second-hand car from". But his political acts and continuous ingenuity in trying to further some understanding with the Palestinians attest to his sincerity in this matter. After all, it was he, as foreign minister, who backed his then deputy Beilin in reaching the Oslo declaration of principles, the first Israel-PLO agreement signed on the lawn of the White House on 15 September 1993 and fleshed out after lengthy negotiations about details in Cairo on 4 May 1994. It was he who penned an agreement with King Hussein, who at that time was still regarded by many as representing the Palestinians, which was then repudiated by the then prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir.

I have visited Israel several times, notably at the invitation of Shlomo Ben-Ami in 1994 when hopes of a progressive rapprochement of Israelis and Palestinians were high. But I never forgot my mother’s warning of the dangers of Israel prolonging their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. My mother was convinced that, with the erosion of belief, God had been replaced by Israel as the credo of the Jewish people. The constant apologies that diaspora supporters are required to make on Israel’s behalf and the harsh military occupation of another’s people’s land, while settlers annex what they can of it, had, in her view, coarsened and corroded the moral standards on which the Jewish state was founded. We often discussed what we both felt was the internal paradox that the three monotheistic faiths had to resolve - how to cope with growing religious stridency in their ranks, on the one hand, and growing secular defection on the other. After my father’s death, my mother refused to pay a visit to her paternal grand father’s tomb in the cemetery which overlooks the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, despite a pressing invitation from cousins living there. "I did not due my duty in 1943-45 in the British army to see Jews oppress the Palestinians", she said.

Another friend shared this critical view of Israel. Paul Steinberg was arrested in 1943 in Paris and deported to Auschwiitz. A chemistry student, he was assigned to the camp’s laboratory alongside Primo Levi who would later immortalise his fellow inmate as Henri, the ultimate survivor, the paradigm of the prisoner who clings to life at the cost of his own humanity. "One seems to glimpse a human soul but Henri’s sad face freezes in a cold grimace and he is again intent on his hunt and his struggle, hard and distant, enclosed in armour, the enemy of all, inhumanly cunning and incomprehensible like the serpent in the Genesis." Paul asked my mother to read the draft of the clinical description he wrote of his months in concentration camp, Speak You Also, which he published just before dying of cancer in 1999. The book - which I helped get translated into Spanish and then English - hauntingly describes a survivor’s reckoning with culpability and survival.

I will never forget the passionate debates on world events that raged around the very lively dinner-parties he and his wife Simone invited me to in their elegant flat in the Marais district in Paris. Paul was as dismayed by the way Israel was evolving as the French sociologist of Tunisian-Jewish descent, Albert Memmi - author of the famous book The Coloniser and the Colonised (1957) - who had noted a few years earlier: "Les Juifs ont fait de leur malheur historique une election métaphysique…de toute facon il n’existe pas de rente perpétuelle de l’histoire." How right the MP for Grenoble and former prime pinister, Pierre Mendès-France had been when, at the end of a very large demonstration in favour of Israel in Grenoble during the six-day war in 1967 - and upon hearing that members of the extreme right, in which Jean-Marie Le Pen was already a leading light, had joined the march - he had mused "Ceci n’augure rien de bon."

A survivalist dynasty

The second article I failed to convince the FT to publish was the text of an interview I had with Yasser Arafat after the the Israeli air-force's bombing, on 1 October 1985, of his headquarters in Hamman Chott in the suburb of Borj Cedria just outside Tunis. The FT’s middle-east editor in those days, Richard Johns, a man I highly respected, simply did not see the point of it despite the fact that operation Mivtza Regel Etz ("wooden leg"), as the Israelis called it, made headlines across the world. The raid incensed an ageing Habib Bourguiba to such a degree that he called in the United States ambassador Peter Sebastian and insulted America to his face. The Ronald Reagan administration, which at first had given its full support for the Israeli action, later softened its stance. One amusing aspect of that episode was that for a few hours after the raid, many tunisois were convinced that the culprit was Muammar Gaddafi. Distrust, not to say hatred, among north African, indeed Arab leaders, often runs very deep and encourages western powers to meddle in the region at will.

Bourguiba was all the more incensed in that he had tried to convince the Palestinian leader to negotiate with Israel fifteen years earlier. At a dinner given in his honour before the appearance of Arafat at the general assembly of the United Nations in 1974, Bourguiba had suggested to his guest that he should accept Resolution 181, which recommends the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine. It was on the basis of this resolution that the state of Israel was proclaimed and accepted by the UN. By accepting that resolution, the legality of the Palestinian state would be on the same basis as that of Israel and the UN, and the US and Israel would have to accept it.

Bourguiba, one of the few really wise Arab heads of state of this past half century, pointed out to his guest that he had to decide whether he wished to be a revolutionary leader or a statesman. Arafat answered that in order to obtain a state he had to be a revolutionary. He was appalled by Bourguiba’s suggestion because, as he saw it, he would have to renounce the rest of Palestine. "The longer you wait, the less you will get", Bourguiba retorted. History has proved the wisdom of those words. I interviewed Bourguiba two years later and was very moved to see a signed photograph of Pierre Mendès-France, for whom I had worked as a student ten years earlier, on his desk. He was already a sick man but very impressive. The notes I took were however confiscated as we left the president’s office by the secretary of state Mustafa Masmoudi, as his master’s remarks did not quite correspond to official Tunisian policy.

Distrust among Arab leaders continues to bedevil their relations. Meanwhile, misrepresentation and lies, often aired on TV stations in north Africa (and in Europe and the US) continue to make any serious understanding of the region that much more difficult. My mixed parentage and experience of living in so many different places had made me not merely an outsider but given me an anthropologist mindset as a participant-observer, sitting on the edge of a culture and learning it well enough to understand it from the inside, yet never really feeling part of it. This singular position at least made me feel better informed than most western pundits, who remained unable to judge north Africa and the broader middle east by means other than a narrative of European history since the Renaissance. This state of affairs, already damaging before 9/11, when our interview with King Hassan took place, would grow worse after it.

The question which lies at the heart of any long-term analysis of Morocco is whether the monarch will ever be willing, let alone able enough, to modernise the country in depth. After the death in 1992 of the leader of the opposition Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP) Abderrahim Bouabid, I concluded that King Hassan had totally emasculated the opposition. The USFP leaders who followed were but pale copies of Mehdi Ben Barka, the Socialist leader assassinated in France in 1985, and of Abderrahim Bouabid himself (with whom I had had a long conversation in the mid-1980s). The party was fully co-opted into the Makhzen system of government where all important decisions are taken at the palace and not by the government of the day. The Alaoui dynasty has weathered the last few decades better than many of its peers in the Arab world, but Morocco’s vital statistics remain very poor and cronyism rampant in royal circles. The Alaoui do however retain legitimacy. This suggests that their history and that of Morocco will continue to be intertwined for some time yet.

This text is dedicated to Abderrahim Bouabid, leader of the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (1922-1992), who passionately believed in a united Maghreb

About the author

Francis Ghilès is senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (Cidob). He was the Financial Times's north Africa correspondent from 1981-95, and now contributes to newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais and La Vanguardia. He is a specialist in emerging energy markets and their relationship to political trends, and has advised western governments and corporations working in north Africa


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