Boughaleb El-Attar, 69, was appointed ambassador of the Moroccan monarchy to Cuba on 25 June 2017 at the same time as eleven others, some to capitals as important for Rabat as Madrid, Nouakchott and Beijing. Indeed, China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council where regular discussions are held in view of settling the Western Sahara dispute.
Cuba has less clout, of course, but the Moroccan embassy in Havana has been closed for over three decades and its reopening was announced with much ballyhoo by the kingdom’s public media in April 2017, soon after Mohamed VI had vacationed there with his family. Moreover, this resumption of diplomatic ties, broken off by Rabat in 1980, was presented by the press as a success for the monarch which must quickly be finalized with an exchange of ambassadors.
Yet El-Attar was going to have to wait more than ten months, like all his colleagues, before taking office. It was not until 20 April 2018 that Mohamed VI received the ceremonial visit of the future ambassadors to give them the credentials they will deliver to the head of State where they are to be accredited. The chief reason for this delay is that since the King is out of the country most of the time, he couldn’t see them sooner. This has been one of many consequences of the absenteeism of a head of State who is constitutionally invested with the bulk of executive powers. Morocco is paralyzed in many areas, especially in matters of foreign policy.
King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain know about this only too well! They had planned to make their first state visit to Morocco from 9 to 12 January, but had to put it off “because of other commitments” in the words of the Spanish foreign ministry. On the evening of 8 January, the king was photographed in a Paris restaurant with Melanie Amar, a reality TV actress, and a video shot on 12 January shows him strolling on the Champs-Elysées with his right-hand man, royal councilor Fouad Ali El-Himma.
On the home front, the cabinet meetings that Mohamed VI is meant to chair are seldom held at all. There was a delay of three months, from 25 October to 22 January before the monarch appointed in such a meeting the three ministers and senior civil servants to replace those he had dismissed, accused of dragging their feet to implement the plans for development in the rebellious Rif. Thus Morocco went three months with no one in charge of public health or education.
“A head of state is not a functionary”
This time, however, Mohamed VI has set a new record for absenteeism. While in 2017, from April to December, he spent 45% of his time abroad, during the first quarter of 2018, he spent less than 20 days in Morocco, i.e. 16% of his time (the last week of January and from 16 to 28 April).
Without going into the detail of these absences, the official and unofficial Moroccan media simply remind readers that the king was convalescing after the radio-frequency ablation of a cardiac arrhythmia at the Clinique Ambroise Paré in Paris. Yet the rest period generally prescribed following this procedure is around one week.
“A head of state is not a functionary” tied to a work schedule “behind a desk or a counter” Bahia Amrani, director of the French-language weekly Le Reporter, pleaded at the end of April, adding her voice to the many efforts made to justify these absences. Besides which, she insisted, he is working from Paris, “handling the funeral and burial costs of accident victims (…) or monitoring the Sahara file at the UN.” He even arranges dinner parties for foreign dignitaries visiting Rabat, like Mali’s Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga… dinners which he does not attend.
Yet Bahia Amrami did ultimately admit publicly, as do many Moroccans in private, that she would prefer it if Mohamed VI were in the country.more often “Naturally, the King’s physical presence in his country is something all Moroccans prefer,” she wrote. “It reassures them”. “It energizes our political life,” she concluded.
As per usual, the royal sojourn in France, between the family castle at Betz in the department of the Oise, and the Paris Marais district has been documented by countless photos, in particular “selfies” taken alongside Moroccan immigrants encountered in the streets: or entertainers like the Congolese rapper Maître Gims and the comedian Jamel Debbouze; or with salesmen in the clothing stores where he does his shopping. As always, the Palace circulates them via the same unofficial channel, the Facebook page of a young Moroccan, Soufiane El-Bahri. In April, when the tension between Morocco and its adversaries, Algeria and the Polisario Front, had reached a climax, photos of the king lounging about Paris made a bad impression on many Moroccans, as shown by many hostile comments on the social networks.
On two occasions, 16 and 23 March, Mohamed VI decided to come home but changed his mind in extremis according to the newsletter Maghreb Confidentiel. In fact, he often cancels at the last minute, sometimes on the airport tarmac, the elaborate preparations for his departure from France or some other country in order to extend his stay abroad.
An effective security machinery
The king finally returned home on 16 April and on that occasion several entertainers, like young Hamza Labied, winner of the second season of The Voice Kids Arab, sent him enthusiastic messages of welcome in song.
For twelve days he had a very busy schedule as if to convey the impression he was making up for lost time: an audience with his future ambassadors; another with the Azaitar brothers, world champions in mixed martial arts, a cabinet meeting and, of course, a well-publicized participation on Friday prayers at the Hassan mosque in Rabat.
The highlight of the King’s activities was the visit he paid, on 27 April, to the headquarters of the Direction générale de la surveillance du territoire (General directorate for territorial surveillance, DGST), headed by Abdellatif Hammouchi, where he inaugurated a training institute for its agents. No King of Morocco had ever gone there before. In fact, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Justice are the two branches of the State which keep running in full swing whether the King is in the country or not. They proved their efficacy when it came to putting an end to the protests in the Rif, the mining region of Jerada and elsewhere.
It was therefore appropriate for the head of State to demonstrate his support by paying them visits. The security apparatus is under the control of royal councilor El-Himma, sometimes referred to as the “viceroy” so vast are his powers. It is mainly he who governs from day to day.
Two days after that surprise visit to the DGST, Mohamed VI left the country again, this time for Brazzaville where he attended the summit of the Climate Commission of the Blue Fund for the Congo Basin. Then, 36 hours later, he took off again for an “unknown destination”, according to the press which dare not print that he is once again on holiday. At the beginning of May, the King stayed on la Pointe Denis, a peninsula in the Komo estuary (Gabon), reputed for its beaches.
A year ago, during a previous Komo stay, the French weekly Jeune Afrique wrote that “Mohamed VI may be seen shopping at the corner supermarket, dressed simply enough if one discounts the flashy colors, the loud printed fabrics and the low-cut T-shirts which the King is so fond of sporting on his famous outings.” Just before Ramadan, Mohamed VI was back in France but was said to intend spending the month of fasting, which normally begins on 15 May, in Morocco.
The King’s frequent absences, associated with rumors about his health, are of considerable concern to Moroccan economic, political and academic elites. They are a common, though discreet, topic of conversation. The sovereign’s entourage is also gradually realizing that this situation, unique in the world, cannot last forever in a country which may not be in crisis but where social turmoil is rampant. The European chancelleries which keep a close watch on Moroccan affairs have come more or less to the same conclusion and are quite worried, according to diplomatic sources.
In the aftermath of the protests in the Rif, followed by those in the Jerada region, both of which were harshly repressed, Moroccan authorities now have an unprecedented challenge to deal with, the boycott of three major brands: Sidi Ali, La Centrale Laitière and Afriquia. Initiated via the social networks, this new protest against the high cost of living is widely adhered to and directly affects people close to the King as the billionaire Aziz Akhannouch, Minister of Agriculture and strong man of the cabinet who owns the service station network, Afriquia. His fuel pumps have been deserted by Moroccan drivers.
Prepare his son?
Abdication could well be the solution to these all but continual absences, especially considering that since 2013, the King seems less and less interested in his function and increasingly inclined to enjoy life, far from the constraints of protocol imposed on a Moroccan chief of State. Moreover he now has an honorable way out, his state of health. Even if it is not a serious condition, his heart arhythmia may well recur. And it provides him with a good pretext to withdraw from the public eye on the grounds that he needs to take care of himself.
However, all the necessary conditions are far from being met to make this option feasible. In the first place, the crown prince, Moulay Hassan, is only fifteen. Hence it would be necessary to set up a regency council, as stipulated in article 44 of the Constitution, which would exercise the King’s enormous constitutional powers until the prince is eighteen, an age at which he will not have completed an education which has only just begun. He is about to graduate from the Royal College of Rabat and according to the newspaper Akhbar al Youm, he will then enter the Royal Preparatory High School for Technical Aeronautics (CRPTA) in Marrakech. His father did not finish his education until he was thirty by completing a thesis at the University of Nice in 1993.
Nonetheless, Mohamed VI already seems inclined to familiarize his son with the arts of government, including their international dimension. Though the youngster had not been invited to the Elysée, he brought him with him to the lunch organized by President Macron on the occasion of the One Planet Summit on 12 December 2017. He also gave him the task of welcoming former president Hollande in Rabat. More recently, on 24 April, he actually replaced his father for the inauguration in Meknes of the Moroccan International Agricultural Show.
A tumultuous divorce
Moreover, the current situation in the Moroccan royal family does not lend itself to thinking about the abdication, traumatized as it is by Mohamed VI’s divorce from 40 year-old Princess Lalla Salma after 16 years of marriage. This was announced on 21 March by the Spanish mass-circulation celebrity weekly Hola which maintains such excellent relations with the Palace as to have a Moroccan edition which has run features on the royal family. This “scoop” was not contradicted by the royal cabinet, even if it was ignored by nearly all the Moroccan media which are afraid of “bringing down the wrath of the powers that be” according to Ali Amar, editor of the on-line journal Le Desk. And yet Lalla Salma has vanished from the public eye since the end of last Fall and was not even mentioned in the hyperbolic audiovisual reports broadcast on 8 May for the fifteenth anniversary of her son.
The divorce proceedings must not have gone very smoothly judging by the insults heaped on Lalla Salma by Le Crapouilot “Marocain”, an obscure on-line journal which, from 27 February to 4 March attacked a member of the royal family without being penalized. She was described as “a disdainful and contemptuous woman” with a “bad-tempered and aggressive” personality, who “persists in quarreling with her royal in-laws” — the King’s sisters — “in spite of her husband’s repeated admonitions” which she ignores.
Now that the royal couple are separated, the problem is finding a statute for Lalla Salma, a challenge for the Palace since no Moroccan king’s wife has ever had such a prominent public role, presiding over the creation of a cancer foundation and inaugurating exhibitions, nor has any member of the Alaouite dynasty ever divorced. The problem for the royal family also consists in making sure she keeps her mouth shut and while allowing her to see her son, trying to weaken her hold over Moulay Hassan for fear she might rule the country from behind the scenes when he ascends the throne, using him to get back at her in-laws. This will not be an easy task, for the teenage boy is much more attached to his mother, with whom he has lived all his life, than to his father whom he saw relatively seldom, especially over the past few years. Most of the latter’s long trips were taken without his family.
When these obstacles are cleared away, then perhaps it will be time to think about abdicating.