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King Hassan II of Morocco

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

King Hassan II of Morocco

Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review

King Hassan II of Morocco died on 23 July, having ruled since 3 March 1961, a period of almost 40 years. Note the 'ruled" though a constitutional monarch his tenure of power was absolutist to a degree probably unique in the present century. He was the seventeenth of a dynasty which came to power in the 17th century, at about the time of our own 'Glorious Revolution.' There was nothing revolutionary about the means by which it came to the throne or has exercised power thereafter, but the story of their accession has a certain charm about it. Descendants of the Prophet Mohammed the family, originally from the Hejaz, emigrated to Morocco in the 15th century and settled at Tafilalet, a string of oases to the south east bordering on the Sahara. To a long established reputation for extreme piety and business acumen (a not unusual combination in the Muslim world) they added one for skilful mediation which led in due course to an invitation to assume the throne at a time when the question of succession had become unusually complicated.

Hassan II succeeded his father, King Mohammed V, at the unexpectedly early age of 30 when the latter died in the course of a simple intestinal operation. Mohammed V, chosen as Sultan by the French mandatory authorities before the war in the belief that he would be pliant and cooperative, turned out to have a mind and will of his own. He was quick to recognise the strength of feeling behind the nascent independence movement, later to become the Istiqlal party, and lent it discreet encouragement. He combined this with unequivocal support for the allied war effort, after the Casablanca conference of 1943 at which, despite the disapproval of Churchill and the displeasure of de Gaulle hovering impatiently in the wings, he gained Roosevelt's unqualified support for independence, contributing some 350,000 Moroccan troops to the Free French side, and a genuine understanding of national unity, resisting Vichy French instructions to permit legislation which would have allowed for the deportation of Moroccan Jews to Germany. He was exiled with his family, including the Crown Prince, by the French in 1953 first to Corsica then to Madagascar in an effort to deprive the independence movement of a focus. When in 1955 the French finally threw in their hand he returned, a national hero. One of the great might have beens of twentieth-century history is the course Morocco might have followed had he survived, like his son, into old age. He was a difficult, if not impossible, act to follow as the architect of Moroccan independence and a man of wide sympathies endowed with the common touch.

Hassan II was a man of different attributes. He seems to have accepted, without question, the constitutional description of his person as 'inviolable and sacred'. From the start he made it clear that he would be an absolute ruler. Under the French the great Caids, territorial magnates of immense influence, had been reduced to the status of accomplices, though some resisted up to the end. Hassan II consolidated the process, reducing them further still to the equivalent of the subservient aristocracy in the France of Louis XIV. Politics and the media were subject to censorship, not of an overt kind, but dependent, like the Caids, on the King's whim. In the case of wrongdoing, even only suspected wrongdoing, retribution was swift. It was all the more effective for the realisation that it was never easy to regain the King's favour. The parallels with Louis XIV are obvious enough already, without adding the grandiose building projects (inter alia the enormous Hassan II mosque at Casablanca, that beacon of Islam facing west across the Atlantic) and self-indulgent lifestyle. But like Louis XIV, Hassan II genuinely felt that he knew what was best for his country. It would be difficult to argue with the contention that its security was indissolubly bound up with his own, an argument deriving additional force from his status as religious leader and descendent of the Prophet.

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