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Morocco: The Voice of the Mob

4 minute read

Although his government is broke, young King Hassan II has managed—with French and U.S. aid—to start a sugar refinery at Sidi Slimane, a dam on the Moulouya River, a terraced agricultural complex in the rough Rif country, and new tourist hotels along the coast. More important, Hassan has pushed his country toward democracy, with free elections and a freewheeling legislature. Is all this really enough? No, suggested the mobs that swept down the labyrinthine alleys of Casablanca with the violence of the harmattan, Morocco’s fierce desert wind.

The uproar moved through the steep hills of Fez and the souks of Marrakesh, where angry mobs cursed the government, burned police stations and sacked shops. Police and troops hit back in panic with machine guns and rifles, cracking skulls with clubs the size of baseball bats. In the rebellious cities, at least 100 rioters died; 844 more were arrested and given speedy prison sentences. Fourteen Moroccan leftists sentenced to death last year for fomenting revolution were hastily sent to the wall. The firing squad’s aim: dissuading the rioters from further action. It seemed to work. Last week an unsteady truce hung over the country as King Hassan tried to figure out what had happened.

Urban Impatience. The riots were triggered by a government edict that would have shunted failing students over 17 into technical curriculums. Only 300 of Morocco’s 62,000 high school students were affected, but the innocuous announcement was enough to touch off a powder keg of underlying discontent. Unfortunately, Moroccans have plenty to be discontented about.

With the population only 20% literate, a per-capita annual income of $160 and an average life expectancy of 40 years, Morocco is scarcely more advanced than many parts of black Africa. French, U.S., West German and Italian money is providing Morocco with everything from dyeing and shoemaking plants to Caravelle jetliners to chemical, electrical and arms factories. Despite outside help, a sharp economic decline over the past eight months has cost 100,000 Casablancans their jobs, bringing the city’s total unemployment up to 400,000. That brought the total of jobless Moroccans to nearly 3,000,000 —roughly a quarter of the population.

More than half the population is under 20 and eager for schooling. But Morocco’s $85 million annual education budget is not nearly enough to bring scholarship to so vast and desperate a student body. As a result, students and labor leaders, intellectuals and urban workers have grown increasingly impatient with Hassan’s reluctant moderation and economies—and increasingly sympathetic with the instant socialism of such Arab leaders as Algeria’s Ahmed ben Bella.

Regal Candor. Fortunately for Hassan, neither of the nation’s two major leftist opposition groups has yet taken overt advantage of the riots. The Union Marocaine du Travail, Morocco’s socialist, urban-intellectual labor union, staged an 18-hour sympathy strike for the rioters. But discipline was poor—largely because the U.M.T. did not know what the riots were all about. And the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires, which holds nearly a fifth of the seats in the National Assembly, was equally befuddled. Had the two combined forces, Hassan might have been in real trouble.

As it is, the 35-year-old monarch still has the wholehearted support of the countryside. After all, Hassan is the deified leader of a deeply religious nationalism, and nearly 75% of all Moroccans are country folk who revere both royalty and Allah. Confident of rural support, Hassan last week dropped earlier government charges that the riots had been provoked by “foreign agitators” (translated Ahmed ben Bella) and in a radio broadcast couched in peasant Arabic, focused the blame on “three disappointed elements” in Moroccan society: the students, the unemployed and the “malcontents.” He announced no spectacular solution for Morocco’s plight, only demanded hard work and patience. “A politician who promises you a prosperous future is a liar,” declared the King with regal candor. “I cannot promise you a prosperous future.”

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