When King Hassan II of Morocco was crowned in 1961, he had already made influential friends. In 1943, as the son of Sultan Mohammed ben Yusef, he had been introduced to Roosevelt and Churchill at the Anfa Conference in Casablanca; in 1945, aged fifteen, he was decorated by de Gaulle. Not long after his coronation he was welcomed in Washington by President Kennedy; France, for its part, had high hopes that he would manage its postcolonial interests in the Maghreb – he was known to be astute and an implacable adversary.
He had been on the throne a little more than two years when Moumen Diouri, a revolutionary firebrand in his mid-twenties, was arrested. Diouri was the son of a staunch anti-colonialist who had been imprisoned under the French protectorate in Morocco. In the run-up to Algerian independence in 1962, Diouri had joined the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). He was an associate of another young anti-colonialist, Ahmed Agouliz (nom de guerre Cheikh el Arab). Agouliz had gone into hiding with no intention of abandoning the armed struggle: both he and Diouri were convinced that independence in Morocco was unfinished business. Many other opposition figures who were arrested at the same time as Diouri agreed, though they favoured a constitutional struggle over revolutionary violence.
All the suspects rounded up in 1963 were accused of plotting a coup d’état against the monarchy. Diouri was said to have stolen weapons from a US military base. After a lie-detector test performed by four US army technicians, he was delivered back to Hassan’s chief of security. His destination was a sumptuous palace in the capital, Rabat. It had belonged to the grand vizier Mohamed el Mokri, who advised Hassan’s predecessors under the French protectorate. Diouri later described being driven to the palace and led down a flight of stairs into an echo chamber where he could hear moaning and whispering – he imagined he was in a Turkish bath or the alley of a souk. When his blindfold was removed, he found himself in a basement where a group of men and women were lashed by their ankles to a hook in the ceiling and suspended upside down. Below them, children were ‘kneeling or squatting’, Diouri wrote, ‘in pools of blood and vomit’.
During the first days of his excruciating torture, which lasted a month, not a single question was put to him. Later he was asked about his links with the FLN and the whereabouts of Agouliz, which he may not have known. In the closing stages, after two detainees were murdered in front of him, his interrogator made an incision in his back, packed it with rock salt and sealed it with sticking plaster. Weakened by his ordeal and sure he was about to die of thirst, Diouri confessed to wanting to kill the king. Many of his fellow accused were put on the rack. When they came to trial, Diouri – the first on the stand – renounced his confession and described his time in detention. There was dismay in the courtroom. Counsel approached the bench with a request to call in medical experts. It was denied and Diouri removed his clothes.
Eleven of the accused, including Diouri, were sentenced to death. Roughly a hundred were convicted, receiving prison sentences of varying severity, from life to a few years. There was an international outcry, led by the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation. Letters and telegrams poured in. Among those who made their disapproval known were the Syrian intellectual Michel Aflaq, the leading theorist of Ba’athism; a score of members sitting in the newly independent Algerian parliament; Willy Brandt, the future chancellor of West Germany; Harold Wilson, on the eve of his first term as prime minister; and François Mitterrand, who as minister of justice approved the execution of at least forty Algerian nationalists during the independence struggle. A separate French protest was signed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Aragon.
The king and his advisers took the view that Morocco must forge its own post-independence path. Why should left-leaning states in the Third World and ex-colonial powers, harping on the rights they had denied in the past, tell Hassan to mind his manners when he was balancing the pursuit of modernity with a revival of sovereign traditions that colonialism had stifled or exploited? Many former colonies were faced with the same contradiction, but Morocco would soon become an unsavoury mixture of repression and conspicuous wealth: for the palace, private jets, golf courses, a portfolio of lavish properties inside and outside the country; for armed rebels and outspoken constitutional democrats, dungeons, torture, disappearance and death. Hassan’s savage treatment of his enemies – not only Moroccans but Sahrawis, the inhabitants of neighbouring Western Sahara, on which he had expansionist designs – continued for most of his reign.
All the same, it would be wrong to see the Hassan era as a headlong flight from the norms of civilised nations, even if it drew their hypocritical fire. For a century or more, Hassan’s colonial predecessors had administered drastic punishment in the name of empire. If exemplary wounds of the kind Hassan inflicted on disloyal bodies were the signature of all despotisms before and since colonialism, they were also a trademark of the colonial era: some injuries, like burns from electric torture (in Diouri’s case, to the genitals), were the result of colonial technologies that successor regimes were happy to inherit. Most colonial possessions, Morocco included, won independence in the thick of the Cold War. Whether they opted for a socialist model or a Western-style arrangement, they were able to spin disappearances, torture and maiming as regrettable features of state formation, much as the colonial powers had described them as instruments of progress.
Aziz BineBine’s book about his own incarceration, which lasted eighteen years, is an intimate memoir that nonetheless forces us beyond the prison gates to consider a century of turmoil in Morocco and the rise of the dungeon culture to which he fell prey. BineBine was held in Tazmamart, a remote facility on the edge of the desert. He is one of a handful of Tazmamart survivors who went on to write accounts of their experience: almost all, like BineBine, were soldiers or air force personnel who crossed the king. Tazmamart was opened in 1973 to house some sixty offenders, of whom fewer than half emerged in 1991. The rest died there, deprived of exercise, light, edible food, clean water, clothing and bedding, medical attention and legal representation. They spent their days in unlit concrete cells with steel mesh ceilings. High above the mesh was a roof of corrugated iron. The cells, 2.5 metres by three, were infested with vermin, including scorpions. Prisoners endured soaring temperatures in summer and sub-zero cold in winter. On occasion, BineBine recalls, there were outings to the sandy yard to bury comrades: a quick recitation of the Salat al-Janazah, a disorienting glimpse of the sky and then back to the dungeon, as the warders spread quicklime over the shallow graves.
Tazmamart is also the setting of a novel by Tahar ben Jelloun, based on a single three-hour interview with BineBine after his release. Jelloun left Morocco in the early 1970s to pursue a writing career in France, but published almost nothing about Hassan’s dungeons. When his novel appeared in 2001, Moroccan dissidents accused him of riding noisily to the rescue after the event. A row broke out between Jelloun and BineBine over how to divide the publisher’s advance. For all its truth to detail, the novel, translated in 2002 as This Blinding Absence of Light, is a work of the imagination; BineBine’s memoir is an unembroidered account of conditions in Tazmamart. It is also the record of his struggle to hang on to his sanity and keep approximate track of the passage of time. In Jelloun’s novel a detainee known to his comrades as ‘the talking clock’ tells the hour of day, the day of the week, the month and the year. Inmates shout over the partitions, requesting updates.
Lulu Norman has done well by BineBine’s original, as Linda Coverdale did by Jelloun’s. Both books belong to a small corpus of detention narratives, fact and fiction, set in the Hassan era. Most, including Diouri’s memories of Dar el-Mokri, are stories we’d sooner set aside, but there are compelling reasons not to do so. Above all, their authors want us to recognise what the regime inflicted on its enemies and to honour their experiences. In a book about Tazmamart published in the 1990s, Christine Daure-Serfaty, a French activist working on behalf of Hassan’s detainees, added that she was frightened of ‘forgetting’ and eager to perform ‘an exorcism’ by sharing what she knew with her readers.
What little was reported in the English-speaking world about Hassan’s regime went largely unexamined. There was nothing like the press coverage of the Pinochet years in Chile, still less the West’s strategic obsession with the Soviet Gulag and the reminiscences of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Hassan, after all, was one of ours. And although this dark period of Moroccan history is thought to have ended thirty years ago, it’s far from clear that Mohammed VI, the present king, is the new broom he was thought to be when he succeeded his father in 1999. Finally, as we read about the long struggles between prisoners and invigilators, we encounter a brutal parody of high politics in the outside world: shame, betrayal, self-deception and the art of deceiving others, though the guards in Tazmamart were the inmates’ only public. BineBine pitied them. They were ‘the dregs of colonisation, poor wretches, who had lost their souls after selling their consciences to a system they had never understood’. They were haunted by the thought of inmates they had buried in the yard without proper Islamic rites.
Hassan II’s ‘years of lead’ are sometimes said to have begun in the 1970s, but they’re better seen as a continuation of his approach in the 1960s, and as a protraction of the colonial past. France and Spain were Morocco’s colonial masters, each with tranches of its own in the territory. The foundations of colonial rule had been laid by European mercantile adventurers, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the pretext for state intervention arose, when foreign lenders lured Moulay Abdelaziz IV, the young, spendthrift sultan, into a fatal debt trap. He was deposed after a revolt led by influential notables and his older brother, who rapidly came to terms with the Europeans. Following the default of the Moroccan treasury, two protectorates were created. In the French acquisition, by far the larger and the more influential, divisive schemes were introduced to foist different legal identities – ‘Arab’ and ‘Berber’ – on colonised Moroccans: uprisings against this racial distinction were rapidly suppressed. Crucially, Hubert Lyautey, the French resident-general, opted for indirect rule as the colonial modus operandi, empowering the sultan as a proxy for government by the metropole. This arrangement, which had the trappings of modern, centralised authority, laid the foundations for absolute monarchy in Morocco – and the miseries that attended it – once colonial rule came to an end.
Both protectorates were held in place by extreme policing and expeditionary violence. The largest European deployments took place in the 1920s, against an autonomous republic declared in the Rif – the Mediterranean coast and its rugged hinterland – by Abdel Krim al-Khattabi. The Rif was administered by Madrid, but Spanish counterinsurgency was no match for Abdel Krim, and in 1925 the French sent Marshal Pétain, ‘the lion of Verdun’, into the field at the head of a joint force. It took hundreds of thousands of troops from the armies of both colonial powers to subdue the republic, along with squadrons of Spanish aircraft loaded with chemical weapons. Abdel Krim was sent into exile in La Réunion. Hassan’s methods – banishment, detention, disappearance and harsh crowd control – were already standard practice in the era of European rule.
In the 1930s, when the forerunners of Morocco’s independence party, Istiqlal, put forward a reform programme, their figurehead, Mohamed Allal al-Fasi, was arrested by the French and deported to Gabon. In 1947, on the eve of a crucial pro-independence speech by the young anti-colonial sultan Mohammed ben Yusef in Tangiers, colonial troops opened fire on residents in Casablanca: two days of repression left at least 150 dead. The French had stirred up trouble in the vain hope of forcing the sultan to cancel his speech. In 1952 the Moroccan trade unions and Istiqlal led a protest strike after a senior trade unionist was murdered in Tunisia, another French protectorate. In Casablanca there were dozens of killings by French security personnel. The following year the French encouraged feudal collaborationist chiefs to turn on Ben Yusef, forcing him to abdicate. He was sent into exile. Angry protests and more casualties followed.
Imperial France was in retreat in Indochina: 1954 saw its crushing defeat at Dien Bien Phu at the hands of the Viet Minh. (Ho Chi Minh was said to be an admirer of Abdel Krim). Within months of that debacle, France was waging an undeclared war in Algeria. In 1955 a series of uprisings in Morocco met with violent repression. Meanwhile the Moroccan Armée de Libération Nationale, an anti-colonial guerrilla movement, embarked on a series of attacks against protectorate forces. The ALN had links to the Algerian FLN – both had headquarters in Cairo and support from Nasser – and a do-or-die conviction that the deposed sultan must come home: independence would follow in short order. France was forced to concede and, amid general rejoicing, Ben Yusef was reinstated in 1955. The colonial system came to an end the following spring. Seventeen months later he was crowned Mohammed V.
Independence had opened a triangular power struggle: on one side the new king, wary of the hardline republicanism of Istiqlal’s radical factions; on another Istiqlal, convinced that the king would eventually hand over real power to a national assembly; on the third the ALN, which had fought for the return of the sultan but now refused to lay down its weapons until Algeria won independence and Morocco became part of a ‘progressive’ united states of the Maghreb, an idea that enjoyed support in Cairo. There was no love lost between Istiqlal and the guerrillas: Abbas Messaâdi, a former Istiqlal member who had broken away to form the ALN, was murdered in 1956. For their part, ALN commanders hadn’t been keen on the fledgling technocrats who ran Istiqlal to begin with, and didn’t trust the new leadership that emerged after its predecessors were banished or jailed by the French. Into this volatile situation came thousands of demobilised Moroccan soldiers, who had fought for France on the battlefields of Europe and Indochina but were no longer its responsibility.
Mohammed V ruled for another three years, creating a police force, a security apparatus and a rudimentary bureaucracy, as well as a new army – the Forces Armées Royales (FAR). All these provided openings for former colonial troops and an opportunity for dissenters to think twice before turning down lifelong jobs as civil servants. Many of Istiqlal’s leaders were liquidated by the new security forces; others fell in line with the palace. The ALN, meanwhile, was a nuisance not only to Mohammed V but to Spain, the colonial power in neighbouring Western Sahara: Madrid’s hold on the territory had been formalised during the colonial carve-up of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, long before the Moroccan protectorate system came into force. By the late 1950s, ALN fighters were active on both sides of the Moroccan/Spanish border in a bid to drive Spain from its remaining enclaves in newly independent Morocco and to free Western Sahara, top to bottom, from Spanish rule. In 1958 – four years into France’s war in Algeria – a joint French and Spanish force was sent, with the king’s assent, to subdue the guerrillas. Some enrolled in the FAR. Others, convinced that the palace had betrayed the anti-colonial cause, went into hiding; many Sahrawis began to favour an independence movement of their own against Spain. Hard on the heels of the ALN’s defeat, the FAR was deployed to the Rif, where an uprising against the king was put down at the end of a long campaign. Crown Prince Hassan, appointed chief of staff by his father, took part in military operations. Mohamed Oufkir, the king’s aide de camp, was chosen to chaperone the crown prince in the field.
Oufkir was a key consigliere, a security fanatic and logistics expert who had helped to organise the new army and later rose to the rank of general. He was also a French war hero: after tours in Italy during the Second World War and in Indochina, he was loaded down with decorations, including the Croix de guerre. He kept an eye out for the king and the crown prince, and served as a conduit for French influence at the palace. He knew how to handle Hassan, who liked to be advised but never instructed. In the 1940s, the young prince had developed an aversion to one of his teachers, Mehdi ben Barka, a mathematician and a senior figure in Istiqlal with left-leaning, internationalist views. After independence he left the country, suspecting he would be detained again during Mohammed V’s triage of Istiqlal, perhaps at the insistence of Oufkir and his ferocious protégé.
Mohammed V died in 1961 after an operation for a nasal obstruction. His death at the age of 51 was the subject of speculation in a culture where conspiracy theories were rife. The ‘student prince’, as Hassan was known, was in his mid-thirties when he became king. As the nation mourned his father, anti-monarchist elements held their peace. Mohammed had made life easier for his heir by neutralising the ALN and wooing amenable leaders of Istiqlal, now an institutional pillar of Morocco’s postcolonial monarchy. Membership was a passport to success in the bureaucracy and the private sector. More important for the new king, Istiqlal had split, leaving Hassan with a clear view of the enemy: a republican, Third Worldist contingent on the left of the party which had struck out on its own to form the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP). Mohammed V had done his best to move against this group, but Crown Prince Hassan advocated harsher measures. In this and much else, Oufkir was his mentor.
The alleged plot in 1963 that led to the detention of Diouri and the others was cooked up by Hassan to damn the UNFP by association with the stubborn remnants of the ALN. It’s true that Diouri had a foot in each camp, while Agouliz and Ben Barka were allies of a kind. Ben Barka, a revolutionary working for the constitutional settlement that Hassan was determined to resist, was the fountainhead of UNFP ideology. Having left the country, fearing for his safety, Ben Barka had returned in 1962. But, after an assassination attempt, he left again for exile in Cairo, where he proselytised for a Third World order to which Hassan, who enjoyed good relations with Moscow and a fair share of Soviet weaponry, was nevertheless opposed by allegiance and temperament.
Yet Ben Barka’s paramount sin in the eyes of the palace was committed on the eve of the plot trial, when he sided with Algeria in a border dispute that led to a brief outbreak of hostilities. The so-called guerre des sables lasted a mere five months; casualties were relatively low. The point of contention was a strip of Algerian territory claimed by Morocco. The border remained unchanged when the conflict petered out, but mistrust between the two neighbours turned into lasting enmity, and Ben Barka, who had taken to the radio in Cairo to accuse the palace of waging an imperialist war, was once again a marked man. He was one of the alleged 1963 conspirators condemned to death in absentia.
For the remainder of the decade Hassan tightened the screws as Oufkir went off in search of enemies, real and perceived. In 1964 he tracked down Agouliz in Casablanca. His reputation as an interrogator preceded him and, according to Diouri, Agouliz took his own life rather than give himself up. The following year the rhythm of rigorous surveillance, much of it low-key, was broken by a burst of spectacular royal violence when students in Casablanca protesting against restrictions on entry to the baccalauréat were pursued into the shanty towns. They reappeared the following day with family members and large numbers of sympathisers. Dozens were killed after tanks and armed helicopters appeared on the scene. As the dust settled, Hassan pardoned some of the alleged coup plotters, Diouri among them. But this gesture of clemency came with a harsh lesson. ‘Better that you had all been illiterate,’ he told his subjects in the wake of the massacre: nothing was more dangerous to the state than ‘so-called intellectuals’.
A few months later, on 29 October 1965, Ben Barka, the exemplary Moroccan intellectual, was taken out. He was in Paris, about to fly to Havana to preside at the Tricontinental Conference, a gathering of liberation movements from Asia, Africa and Latin America. In more than one account, he had an appointment with de Gaulle before his departure. Several stories about his disappearance have emerged over the years. Journalists and scholars have suggested that the CIA was involved, or Mossad: theories in no way weakened by the release last year of previously classified papers showing that he received payments from the communist secret service in Czechoslovakia. But in 1967 the French judiciary found Oufkir guilty of Ben Barka’s murder and condemned him in absentia to prison for life. It was a way of pointing the finger obliquely at the king. There was threadbare speculation that Hassan had wanted Ben Barka brought back alive to Morocco; Hassan, of course, told the same story.
Gunning down students and trade unionists, curtailing educational opportunities and liquidating radical internationalists while living in capricious splendour: all this set the monarchy at odds with the enthusiasm for liberation movements that began to build across the Global South after Algeria gained independence. Tensions between Morocco and its neighbour remained high. Hassan’s cloak-and-dagger relations with Israel, common knowledge among Third World activists, violated the anti-imperialist taboos of the period. So did his relationship with Washington. After the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (1964) and the Six-Day War (1967), the king was a pariah in the eyes of the Non-Aligned Movement, the ruling FLN in Algeria, the North Vietnamese, Havana and fellow-travellers in Europe and the US. Over the years, Arafat performed a diplomatic pas-de-deux with the king, but Palestinian parties to the left of Fatah never trusted the couple as they took to the floor.
In 1970, Hassan proposed further constraints on democratic governance in a new version of the absolutist constitution he had drawn up with the help of French lawyers shortly after his accession. For the first time since their split, Istiqlal and the UNFP came together to denounce the draft. By the time of the constitutional referendum – overseen by General Oufkir, who secured a 98.8 per cent vote in favour – UNFP leaders, lawyers and journalists were being detained and the palace was spreading word of a Ba’athist conspiracy, hatched in Damascus, to take over the Maghreb. About 180 accused duly went on trial in Marrakesh the following summer. Less than a month later a group of army officers decided to topple the king.
One of the plotters, General Mohamed Medbouh, was commander of the palace guard, and a hugely powerful figure in the army. He had been furious to discover that Pan Am was having second thoughts about a deal to buy up an old French barracks and build a luxury hotel after it learned that the king and his entourage required an enormous cut. A fellow conspirator, M’hamed Ababou, was head of a military training academy in the Atlas mountains and a member of an influential family in the Rif. Ababou set off in July with a column of soldiers, mostly cadets and trainers, to carry out the putsch. His young charges were kept in the dark until the last moment: as far as they knew, they were on a routine exercise, although they had been puzzled by the order to carry live rounds. They were dispatched to the king’s seaside palace at Skhirat, where Hassan was throwing a lavish birthday party: he had just turned 42. During the bloodbath that followed, matters went disastrously wrong for the plotters. By late evening Medbouh and Ababou were dead, General Oufkir and the palace guard were in control of the situation and Hassan was unscathed. A number of the king’s guests had been killed, including the Belgian ambassador. A dozen army officers were executed in the days that followed.
Aziz BineBine was a promising young teacher at the military academy. Like his comrades, he had been mystified by the sortie in Skhirat and claims not to have fired a shot during more than two hours of chaos and violence, as dignitaries dived into the bunkers on the golf course or made a dash for the beach. The cadets had been terrified at first, but the extravagance of the buffet was a call to arms: they blasted away at the pyramids of food and any guests who were still on the terrace. BineBine crept away, stole one of the guests’ cars, drove to the house of an uncle, then to the residence of a Libyan diplomat, and finally handed himself in at an army barracks. State radio, seized earlier by the putschists, was still announcing that the coup had been a success. Within days BineBine and dozens of others were jailed in Kenitra, awaiting trial. In February 1972, amid general astonishment, a special tribunal handed down a single death sentence – the prosecution had asked for 25 – but the officer in question received a royal pardon. Around seventy of the accused would serve sentences ranging from a year to life. BineBine was looking at ten years. The king was disposed to forgive the survivors of the cadet corps, which had been thinned down during the fracas and its deadly aftermath, when an unknown number were shot after being told they could walk free from a police station in Rabat.
The next step, for Hassan and Oufkir, was to implicate the UNFP in the failed putsch and present the various sources of opposition as a single, homogeneous threat to the monarchy. As the ‘Ba’athist plot’ trial was resumed in Marrakesh, Hassan was still at risk from tens of thousands of disobliging members of his armed forces and their senior officers. In August 1972, with BineBine entering month six of his ten-year jail term, a group of air-force pilots tried to shoot down the king’s Boeing 727 as he returned with his entourage from a holiday in France. The rebels took off in US-supplied fighter planes from the air-force base in Kenitra and strafed the royal jet, killing eight people on board and wounding dozens more. Legend has it that the pilot suggested announcing over the radio that he and his co-pilot had been killed, and that the king too was dead. A third crew member prepared to transmit the message, but Hassan, who was in the cockpit as the disabled 727 lurched down through Moroccan airspace, corrected him: not dead, but ‘seriously injured’. Word of the king’s death would trigger a bid for power during their last few minutes in the air. ‘You’re with me,’ Hassan told the pilots. ‘You’re with your king, there’s nothing to fear.’
The pilot pitched the plane onto the runway at Rabat and Hassan disembarked. The desperate rebels refuelled, rearmed and took off again, targeting the airport’s VIP building, but Hassan had already slipped away. Their next destination was the palace in Rabat, but he wasn’t there. General Oufkir had also hastened away from the airport, presumably to restore order: soon the army was swarming into the base at Kenitra, detaining the ringleaders and dozens of personnel. Two air-force officers who had flown by helicopter to Gibraltar and filed for asylum in the UK had their claim denied by Edward Heath’s administration. They were returned to Morocco for trial with hundreds of others and executed along with nine of the plotters.
To Hassan’s credit, most of those thought guilty by association were acquitted or pardoned. By 1973, with condemned putschists from the two failed attempts on his life serving time, there were sporadic outbreaks of violence. Students in Casablanca were out on the streets. Mohamed Basri, an exiled ALN chief, was trying to pull off a remote-control insurrection, with bombing campaigns in the cities and peasant mobilisation in rural areas, modelled on Che Guevara’s disastrous expedition to Bolivia. Two coup attempts in quick succession, the unreliability of the armed forces, and a new surge of revolutionary anger against the monarchy: this was an existential challenge for the king.
The students’ union was proscribed, Basri’s jacquerie was put down, and in August 1973, in a gesture of cold fury on the part of the palace, BineBine and his army comrades were dragged from their cells in Kenitra at night and flown, blindfolded, to an unknown destination. A journey by truck from the landing strip brought them to the hastily constructed facility in Tazmamart. With them were about thirty air-force personnel, some of whom were facing long sentences. Without setting eyes on one another, air-force and army detainees were dispersed to separate blocks.
Oufkir’s hand in the second coup had become clear on the day it failed. Later, as evidence of his complicity emerged at the trial of the air-force staff, many Moroccans were sceptical. If he had played a leading role, they reasoned, the coup would have been a resounding success. The grand inquisitor himself was unavailable for comment. On the night of the disaster, he had fled to his office and committed suicide, or so the palace said. But bullet wounds in his lower abdomen and chest – and in one account, the back of his head – didn’t square with the official version. The reasons for Oufkir’s change of heart are unknowable: he was a complicated figure, trained as a warrior, inclined to austerity and self-indulgence in equal measure. Perhaps he was ashamed of Hassan’s sybaritic lifestyle – an embarrassment to the country – and perhaps, too, he saw it as a vulgar threat to his own sense of entitlement as a war veteran. Like the king he was a philanderer, a keeper of the small hours and a cruel adversary: he was the interrogator who had cut open Moumen Diouri’s back and filled it with rock salt.
Once the general was dispatched, the regime moved swiftly against his widow, Fatima, and her children, packing them off to a safe house and a few years later into the depths of Hassan’s dungeon matrix, to live for a further fifteen years in customised detention. Abdellatif, the youngest member of the Oufkir household, was two years old when they were detained. As they were moved from one location to another, family members were put in separate cells. At least three attempted suicide. The oldest daughter, Malika, wrote in her memoir, Stolen Lives (2001): ‘We became experts in the art of salvage, scavenging for crumbs on the floor, even eating bread soaked in the urine and faeces of the mice.’ The family had been beneficiaries of Hassan’s largesse before Oufkir’s change of heart. On the day of their arrest, they had packed their belongings in a set of Louis Vuitton luggage.
In Tazmamart it paid to forget family and friends. BineBine dismissed the past by an act of will. ‘I had no personal memories and no future,’ he writes. ‘I was here and here only.’ Expunging all trace of his father was easy: Mohamed BineBine had been Hassan’s court jester. He is also the subject of a novel, Le Fou du roi (2017), by BineBine’s brother Mahi. When the king was out of sorts, BineBine Sr, a prodigious memoriser of the Arabic canon, came to the rescue with an apposite line of verse or a witticism of his own. He never once asked the king to pardon his son. But BineBine and his comrades in Tazmamart also had mothers, brothers, sisters, fiancées; many had wives and children. Those who pined for their families, BineBine suggests, put their own mental and physical health at risk. He had already become devout during his earlier incarceration in Kenitra: faith, he discovered, was a defence against the profanities of Tazmamart.
There were others suffering in detention in Morocco at this time. In 1972 the cultural-political journal Souffles (‘Breaths’) – Anfas in the Arabic edition – was closed down by the authorities and its editor, Abdellatif Laâbi, was jailed: Souffles/Anfas had undergone a dangerous makeover in the service of a far-left party, Ila al-Amam (‘Forward’), founded by Abraham Serfaty, a former Communist Party member who had been briefly expelled from Morocco by the French in the 1950s. Laâbi wrote a chilling prose poem about being waterboarded before his trial (he was sentenced to eight years).‘Pour it in little by little,’ he hears the interrogator say to one of the henchmen. Serfaty was still on the run when Moroccan security went after his sister Evelyne. Laâbi wrote another documentary poem about her torture in detention, from which she never recovered, dying shortly before the intelligence services caught up with her brother in 1974. After the formalities of the torture chamber, Abraham Serfaty was given a life sentence and locked up in Kenitra.
News about the fate of Laâbi and the Serfaty siblings trickled out in the late 1970s, but nobody knew much about the inmates of Tazmamart. Within moments of their incarceration, they were a mystery to the world at large; for the inmates, in BineBine’s account, the world at large barely existed. No word reached them of the US evacuation from Saigon in 1975 or Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara six months later. Tazmamart was a place of darkness and banishment: not only were inmates cut off from their families and lovers; they were exiles from history. BineBine recalls a couplet from ‘Recueillement’ in Les Fleurs du mal, which is addressed to the demon of suffering: ‘Hush now … try to be good/you were longing for nightfall, here it is.’ And yet, he writes, ‘our suffering knew neither night nor day.’ Everyone was quick to grasp that jail terms were notional: release dates came and went like any other day, with no jangling of keys or signing of papers.
It was Christine Daure – later Daure-Serfaty – who lifted the lid on Tazmamart. During Serfaty’s time on the run in the 1970s, she was a French expat teaching in a lycée in Casablanca. She had hidden him for months in a nearby apartment, along with Abdellatif Zeroual, a fellow member of Ila al-Amam. Zeroual died under interrogation and Daure was thrown out of Morocco. She returned to France and became a full-time ambassador for Serfaty and others in the obscure realms of the detained and disappeared. Danielle Mitterrand, France’s first lady, took Daure’s evidence about abuses in Morocco seriously: she is said to have refused a state visit to Rabat until Daure was allowed to re-enter the country and marry Serfaty. The marriage went ahead, in accordance with Jewish ceremony, in the Kenitra penitentiary: it was the only way for the couple to ensure visiting rights.
Serfaty’s draconian sentence had to do with a threefold transgression on his part. First, he was a member of a large, integrated community of Moroccan Jews who had been loyal to the sultanate for centuries. Second, he was a troublesome pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist, at odds with Hassan’s equivocal foreign policy in the Middle East. Third – and most egregious – he was in favour of independence for Western Sahara. Serfaty’s support for Sahrawi independence was an affront to the king and, on the face of it, to a majority of Moroccans.
At the time of Serfaty’s arrest, the decolonisation of Western Sahara was in the offing. There was already an armed Sahrawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, which had been carrying out minor actions against the Spanish. When the time came for independence, Spain’s possession would, in theory, be handed intact to the indigenous Sahrawis, a plausible nationality defined in modern law – like Kenyans, Senegalese, Congolese and Malawians – by the colonial boundaries the Europeans had drawn around them. Their right to independence would be affirmed by the UN, the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) and the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
But Hassan and many of his subjects were committed to the concept of ‘Greater Morocco’: a swathe of former fiefdoms and emirates which had pledged allegiance to the Alaouite sultanate during the 17th century. In this view, which gained ascendancy in the 1950s, Greater Morocco – most of Mauritania, all of Franco’s Sahara, and parts of Mali and Algeria – should be reincorporated by the sultanate as the colonial powers withdrew. Spanish Sahara was first on the list for annexation. Istiqlal was the champion of Greater Moroccanism, which began as a reaction against colonial rule, but turned rapidly into a vehicle for Moroccan neo-imperialist sentiment and a means of challenging Algeria: Istiqlal had always called for Spain to decolonise the Sahara and hand it to Rabat; it had also banged the drum for the guerre des sables with Algeria. As time went on, this expansionist ideology began to lose its appeal. Even so it cast a long shadow over the Sahrawis’ aspirations and the fate of any Moroccan activist, like Serfaty, who spoke up in their favour. He was one of a very small minority: more than half a century later, the Palestinian cause can bring thousands of Moroccans out on the streets, but there is no support to speak of for an independent Sahrawi state.
The dispute over Western Sahara became heated in the early 1970s. It was complicated by the fact that Spain had contrived to hang on to Ceuta and Melilla, two enclaves on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast which it holds to this day. The palace continues to argue that Ceuta and Melilla should be retroceded to Morocco, just as Spain argues for the retrocession of Gibraltar from the British. Both countries have a good case. Moroccan designs on Western Sahara, on the other hand, were always in breach of the international consensus on decolonisation. In 1975, as Franco lay on his deathbed, Madrid was on the point of relinquishing its colony to Polisario when Hassan made a dramatic last-minute intervention, announced by the palace as the ‘Green March’. It involved busing 35,000 Moroccan civilians to the border and chaperoning them into the territory in a show of popular longing. Madrid instructed its troops not to open fire and caved in almost immediately; days later it signed Western Sahara into the administrative charge of Morocco and Mauritania. As Sahrawi resistance escalated, the Moroccan air force took to the skies and the FAR was deployed on the ground: tens of thousands of Sahrawis, loyal to Polisario, fled to Algeria along with their leaders.
Polisario was now drawn into a long war with Morocco and Mauritania, which saw their administrative roles as permission to appropriate the territory, just as the European powers had appropriated theirs. Rabat no longer asserted ancient rights to Mauritania, but the Mauritanians were happy to see Western Sahara as a buffer between themselves and their unpredictable, neo-colonial neighbour. In 1979, however, after its army was beaten back by the Sahrawis, Mauritania renounced its claim to the territory and acknowledged Polisario’s. By then, Hassan was already envisaging a new carceral project – in essence an open-air prison for Sahrawis transferred from one colonial regime to another – in the territory he was holding by the skin of his teeth against Polisario.
In the 1980s, with advice from Washington and logistical expertise from South Korea, Israel and South Africa, Morocco began work on a vast sandwall that protected the ‘useful’ areas of Western Sahara (phosphates, fisheries), and most of its inhabitants, from Polisario’s military incursions. The key parts of the wall – about 2700 km in all – were finished in 1987 and stalemate followed. One hundred and fifty thousand Sahrawis or more now live under Moroccan rule, west of the earthworks. About the same number are still in refugee camps, supervised by Polisario, on the Algerian side of the border. They are largely the descendants of an earlier generation driven out by the FAR in 1975. Others live in camps in Mauritania or are resettled in Algeria. A figure for the total Sahrawi population – probably fewer than half a million – is both elusive and highly political, given Polisario’s interest in talking up the numbers under its control: in 2017, according to a UN count, 173,600 Sahrawis were living in Algerian camps.
In the absence of military victory, both sides agreed in 1991 to a referendum for the Sahrawi population: outright independence versus integration within Morocco. Among potential voters were Sahrawis living under occupation, the descendants of the families who had fled into Morocco in the 1950s at the time of the Franco-Spanish campaign against the ALN, and those stranded in the Algerian camps. The UN spent millions of dollars determining who was eligible to vote. By the mid-1990s their rolls were pointing to outright independence as the likely result: Morocco moved swiftly to abort the process, raising byzantine objections to thousands of potential voters, which set the process back indefinitely. The palace continued to fill Western Sahara with settlers, who now outnumber Sahrawis by roughly three to one. It also insisted that these settlers should have the right to vote in the referendum.
The UN mission in Western Sahara has been foundering for thirty years. The Sahrawi population is monitored by a large Moroccan security presence – army, gendarmerie, intelligence services, freelance informers – and the only choice that Rabat will countenance in a referendum is between regional autonomy within Morocco and full incorporation. Independence for Western Sahara, in other words, is a remote prospect. Down the years, the Algerian military has kept the Sahrawis and Polisario on life support, but this has also cast them in the eyes of the world as little more than counters in the great postcolonial game between Algeria and Morocco.
Within a few years of her departure for France, Christine Daure-Serfaty’s work on behalf of her husband and hundreds of other prisoners had begun to pay off. Blankets and food started arriving for M’Barek Touil, one of BineBine’s fellow inmates in Tazmamart. Salah Hachad, a fighter pilot, began receiving medicines: his wife, Aïda, a pharmacist, had bribed the guards. Precious blister packs of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, vitamins and analgesics began to circulate among the prisoners. Dozens had already died, most from ailments easily managed in normal prison conditions, but there was now a lifeline. Later, a transistor radio and batteries arrived. The surviving inmates were able to catch up with the world, while the international media began to investigate the possibility that thousands of dissidents had disappeared in a loyal pro-Western redoubt in North Africa.
In 1987 General Oufkir’s daughter Malika escaped with two of her brothers from the secret prison where the family was kept; before she was recaptured, she alerted a French reporter to their fate. In 1990, Gilles Perrault published his bravura attack on the monarchy, Notre ami le roi, which Daure-Serfaty helped him to research. With human rights NGOs sounding the alarm, the US State Department was increasingly edgy about Hassan’s detention policy. The king was due to make a state visit to Washington in September 1991; as the date approached he released a batch of political prisoners, including the thirty or so Tazmamart survivors and roughly three hundred Sahrawi independence activists, though the fate of many more remains unknown.
Several of the prisoners in Tazmamart were taken out on stretchers. BineBine’s destination was his old military base, repurposed as an infirmary. He noticed that the armed escorts were looking at him oddly, ‘as if at an exotic animal’. In the dentist’s surgery he glimpsed his own reflection for the first time in eighteen years. ‘I went back to my room, unable to rid myself of the vision of the half-mad ascetic I’d seen in the mirror. His gaze would follow me for years to come, and still today I don’t know if I’ve seen the last of him.’ Three civilian detainees in Tazmamart, Ali Bourequat and his two brothers – glamorous, Paris-based entrepreneurs and distant relatives of the king – were among the last to leave. They had fallen foul of Hassan for reasons that were never clear, even to themselves. After their departure, the bulldozers moved in and the facility was razed.
The Oufkir family were also freed. Their physical ordeal was over, but they were followed and monitored by Moroccan security and denied passports until 1996, when they left for France. Serfaty, too, was released from Kenitra and ejected from Morocco on the puzzling grounds that he was really a Brazilian. Like BineBine, he had to be carried out of prison. He still had trouble walking when I met him in London after his release. He suffered from agoraphobia, he said, especially in supermarkets. A collection of notes he had kept in Kenitra on the Palestinian question was published in France the year after his release.
With the end of the Cold War and Bush Sr’s proclamation of the ‘new world order’, a liberalising wind was gusting in Morocco: Hassan even made an overture to the country’s Islamists which would eventually lead to the re-emergence of the long dormant Justice and Development Party, which duly took its place in parliament. But there was no suggestion that the kingdom was set fair for a fully constitutional monarchy of the kind that heritage dynasties in Europe had settled for, or that the PJD would challenge this arrangement. An Islamist party could only enter mainstream politics, as the secular Istiqlal had done in the wake of independence, by becoming an auxiliary of the palace, which answered to the king, ‘commander of the faithful’. There was no word, in all this, of the many Sahrawis whom Hassan had kept under lock and key: it was one rule for the coloniser’s subjects and another for the colonised. But when the throne passed to Mohammed VI on Hassan’s death in 1999, the time was right for a reckoning: slowly but surely the son would try to distinguish himself from the father. Serfaty was allowed to return to Morocco: he was no longer an unambiguous defender of Sahrawi independence.
In 2004 an Equity and Reconciliation Commission, convened by royal decree, began a review of more than 25,000 human rights violations since independence. There had been no upheaval of the country’s political order – a fact that set Morocco’s ‘truth and justice’ process apart from comparable exercises in South Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. With the old firm in charge, the powers of the commission were circumscribed. No interrogator or murderer could be named in public testimony by survivors or relatives of the dead; any abuses since the coronation of the new king were off limits, as was any mention in the final report of ongoing repression in Western Sahara. Dozens of families of the disappeared boycotted the process. By 2006, at least $100 million had been set aside for the rehabilitation and compensation of Hassan’s victims and their families. More followed, along with acts of clemency. Moumen Diouri was finally allowed to re-enter Morocco, having spent years in France as an outspoken refugee with whom Mitterrand eventually lost patience, packing him off to Gabon in 1991 in a brief blaze of international controversy: Diouri’s deportation was the subject of an early day motion in Westminster, signed by Jeremy Corbyn and Dennis Skinner.
With the reconciliation process done and dusted, the pay-off for the palace’s long partnership with the Global North had started to come good for many Moroccans. Per capita GDP is still higher in Tunisia and Algeria (even after a murderous civil war), but Morocco now has a minimum wage and modest unemployment benefit, near parity in unemployment levels with Algeria, a steadily rising literacy rate, and trophy infrastructure projects, including a high-speed rail line built by the French. The successful occupation of Western Sahara has converted risky war expenditure – roughly a million dollars a day in the mid-1980s – into manageable year-on-year budgets for military deployments, surveillance and detention. Hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers have carved out a colonial livelihood in Western Sahara, with work in or for the security apparatus, phosphate mining, petty trade and fisheries. Morocco has also finessed the threat to its strong position in the phosphate markets that an independent Western Sahara would have posed as a rival producer.
Yet human rights – political rights – are still an issue under Mohammed VI. Western Sahara is the outstanding case, with refugees from the Moroccan occupation and their descendants still stuck in camps, and compatriots under pressure in the territory itself. According to Amnesty International, 2020 saw a ‘crackdown’ in the occupied areas, which continues to this day, with around forty activists held in Moroccan jails and unknown numbers in Western Sahara itself. Last May the home of Sultana Khaya, a Sahrawi human rights activist, whose family were already under effective house arrest in Boujdour, was raided by masked security. In Amnesty’s account, Khaya’s sister Waraa was raped with a police baton.
In Morocco itself, the uneasy truce between the monarchy and civil society has come under increasing stress. The Arab Spring saw the emergence of a vibrant protest movement, M20F (20 February Movement), with demands for broader democratic freedoms, the rule of law and an end to top-down corruption. In the same year the palace made lofty, cosmetic alterations to the constitution to head off a full-scale revolt – though as the journalist Ahmed Benchemsi pointed out at the time, the new wording was still ‘resolutely absolutist’. The PJD signed on as a compliant party; its leader, Abdelihah Benkirane, became prime minister at the head of a parliamentary coalition. M20F kept up its protests on the streets: a younger generation of Moroccans, sick of revamped constitutions, was immune to the fear that stalked their elders. In Algeria, a similar confidence informed the Hirak – the ‘movement’ or ‘revolution of smiles’ – in its unequal struggle against the ruling FLN and the army.
These impressive shows of dissent had little bearing on the poor in either country. In 2016, there was trouble in Al-Hoceima, a port in the Rif, when Moroccan police confiscated an illegal catch from Mohsen Fikri, a local fish vendor, and threw it in a garbage compactor. Fikri and a group of onlookers tried to retrieve it; the compactor was switched on to discourage them and Fikri was crushed to death. The Rif erupted in fury. Protests and violent contestations lasted well into 2017 as some fifty ‘leaders’ of a regional Hirak were arrested on charges of plotting to undermine the security of the state: the same charge that had been levelled against student protesters and leftists as they coalesced into a major movement after the Casablanca massacre in the mid-1960s.
In 2018 eleven of the fifty received a royal pardon, but the rest had their sentences confirmed in the appeal courts the following year, with twenty-year terms for the figurehead, Nasser Zefzafi, and three of his comrades. Allegations of torture were made by the defence during the trials. In the cities, M20F activists and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights looked on in dismay. Unrest in the Rif has more to do with economic disadvantage and the memory of military repression in the 1950s than the metropolitan freedoms demanded by protesters in Casablanca and Rabat. Everywhere, however, freedom of expression – everything from public assembly to posting opinions on social media – has come under pressure, with attacks on scholars, lawyers, journalists and online activists.
The current approach relies on a combination of information-theft from activists’ smartphones and online denunciation. Outspoken targets of the regime are liable to prosecution under the penal code and press laws, which prohibit publications impugning the honour of the king. In 2019 the rapper Muhammad Mounir, aka Gnawi, was sentenced to a year in prison after a spat with the police about the lyrics of ‘Aacha Chaab’ (‘Long live the People’, 36 million YouTube views). Ayoub Mahfoud, a secondary school pupil, was sentenced to three years for a Facebook post which reproduced the lyrics; on appeal he received a suspended sentence of three months. In the same year Moul L’Kaskita (‘the guy with the baseball hat’), another YouTube celebrity, was looking at a four-year sentence for defaming the monarchy, and the internet polemicist Moul L’Hanout (‘the shopkeeper’), was sent down for three years on similar charges.
To finger their critics, the Moroccan authorities rely increasingly on the Israeli company NSO, whose Pegasus spyware can access almost any mobile device: all links between NSO and Israel’s state apparatus are denied, even though NSO overseas sales are licensed by the Israeli ministry of defence. When Amnesty International’s Security Lab and its media partner Forbidden Stories published their findings about Pegasus last summer, it emerged that Morocco was an assiduous client of NSO. It’s since been alleged in the French press that Morocco’s key surveillance chief, Abdellatif Hammouchi, an expert on local Islamist groups who rose rapidly in the intelligence services during the 2000s, has a long inventory of potential phone targets, including the king and members of his entourage (General Oufkir would have approved), as well as Emmanuel Macron and a dozen French cabinet ministers. Last September, the French news site Mediapart produced convincing evidence that Morocco’s contract with NSO had allowed it to hack the phones of at least five French ministers on Hammouchi’s wish list.
Rabat and the Elysée will find ways round Israeli malware, but that’s not so easy for dissidents in Morocco and Western Sahara, who are prey to a track-and-smear approach by Moroccan intelligence: Pegasus is used to monitor the activities revealed by their smartphones, while scurrilous bulletins on ‘news’ websites set up by the intelligence services (known locally as ‘Srabs’, or secret service websites publishing in Arabic) are used to discredit them. Social media platforms are also bombarded with ad hominem posts against enemies of the palace. In 2020, Soulaimane Raissouni, the editor of an independent investigative newspaper, Akhbar Alyaoum, was accused in a pseudonymous post on Facebook of sexual assault: he was sentenced to a five-year jail term. In 2019 his niece Hajar Raissouni, who reported on the latest upheaval in the Rif for Akhbar Alyaoum, was arrested on charges of having sex with her fiancé a few weeks before their wedding – sex outside marriage is still proscribed in Morocco – and trying to terminate a pregnancy (she had had medical treatment for a blood clot), also illegal in most cases. Her doctor and fiancé were detained and sentenced to prison. Akhbar Alyaoum was forced to fold last March.
An international outcry led to a royal pardon for all three, but the paper’s publisher, Taoufik Bouachrine, who had been sent down for twelve years for charges including rape and sex trafficking, had his sentence increased to fifteen on appeal, while Omar Radi, a high-profile human rights activist, stands accused of ‘harming external and internal state security’, and for good measure, of rape, tax evasion, ‘espionage’ and drunkenness. In 2020 the historian Maâti Monjib, who has written critically of the monarchy, was detained on charges of alleged misuse of funds from foreign human rights NGOs and ‘undermining internal state security’. Like Radi, Monjib had his smartphone colonised by Israeli malware before he was arrested. He was released after a twenty-day hunger strike, despite having been handed a one-year sentence, which his lawyers have appealed.
The fate of Radi, Monjib and the Raissounis received wide coverage in the international press. So did the case of Mohammed Ziane, a former president of the Moroccan bar and secretary of state for human rights before he turned against the regime: last year a video posted on social media appeared to show him in a compromising position with a client, who denounced the footage as a confection by the intelligence services. Dozens if not hundreds of activists, journalists and academics have been victims of similar campaigns. Allegations of transgressive sex – gay rape in the case of Soulaimane Raissouni, sex outside marriage in the case of his niece, and the rape of an office colleague in Radi’s – are central to this wave of persecution: the West’s anguished fascination with sexual misconduct has been weaponised by Hammouchi and his operatives and transposed to Morocco to shut down critics of the regime. We are a long way from the days when European and American expats – Jane and Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Joe Orton and others – enjoyed the sexual courtesy of Moroccan lovers while the colonial regime and its successors turned a blind eye.
Crucially, in Morocco – though not in Western Sahara – the regime has moved on from its traditional methods. Physical torture is no longer run-of-the-mill, or necessary: the Moroccan judiciary is now fully compliant with the wishes of the palace. Introducing Israeli malware into dissidents’ phones and shaming them on Srabs media before they’re sent to trial strike the proper, clinical tone for 21st-century methods of incrimination, not unlike those used by China, or by Saudi Arabia, which added a third, old-fashioned ingredient – extreme violence – to its offensive against the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh used Pegasus to hack the phone of a Saudi dissident in Canada with whom Khashoggi was in contact and to smear Jeff Bezos, the proprietor of the Washington Post, where many of Khashoggi’s critical pieces about Mohammed bin Salman were published. Mohammed VI is already using judicial and police violence against dissidents in the Rif. He is now in his late fifties; he has been on the throne for more than twenty years; the habits of autocratic rule have returned to Morocco after a brief and promising interlude.
Pegasus is available to several states in the Middle East that enjoy good strategic co-operation with Israel, but the Moroccan-Israeli bond is older and stronger, based on the presence of a thriving Jewish population in the Maghreb which dates from the late Roman Empire. A wave of Jewish émigrés began arriving in Morocco as a persecuted minority from the Iberian peninsula at the end of the 15th century; by the middle of the 20th, the Jewish community in Morocco numbered at least 300,000. The arrival of their forebears predated the founding of the Alaouite dynasty – of which Mohammed VI is a scion – but for three hundred years the entrenchment of Alaouite rule and the integration of prosperous Iberian Jews proceeded hand in hand. During the Second World War, when the present king’s grandfather was a young sultan with limited powers, he refused to sign off a transfer of Jews to Europe and brought Vichy’s ambitions in Morocco to an obstinate standstill. The creation of Israel in 1948 saw the first significant departure of Jewish Moroccans, amid anti-Jewish protests in the Spanish and French protectorates; at the end of the 1950s, in his new role as king of an independent country, Mohammed V enacted an ‘anti-Zionist’ law to appease the Arab League, making it illegal for Jewish Moroccans to emigrate to Israel.
In both cases, the king hoped to protect his country from the unimaginable loss of its Jewish population, but by the 1960s aliyah was a fact of Moroccan life. Throughout the postwar period, strained relations with Israel were held together by the demographic continuity between the two states. After his coronation in 1961, Hassan came to an agreement with Mossad to let more than 80,000 Jews leave, mostly for Israel, in return for a handsome down payment, along with per capita disbursements from the Israeli government to the Moroccan treasury – up to $250 – for every Jewish Moroccan who made aliyah. The arrangement was shortlived, but a spontaneous, cash-free emigration followed in 1967 after the Six Day War. Today between two and three thousand Jewish subjects remain in Morocco, which – pre-Covid – was a destination for tens of thousands of Israeli tourists, as well as members of the Moroccan-Jewish diaspora in Europe. One of Serfaty’s arguments in his prison writings on Palestine was that Moroccan émigrés to Israel should challenge the Zionist state for their own good – as second-class Israelis – and recognise their own plight in the mirror of the Palestinians’: a call to solidarity that met with no enthusiasm.
Hassan was respected in the West as an intermediary on the Israel/Palestine question, hosting the Saudi peace plan initiative of 1981, keeping diplomatic channels open with Tel Aviv and talking up the Palestinian cause as hostilities between Israel and its neighbours led to eruptions of pro-Palestinian sentiment in Morocco. But his public defence of the Palestinians was shadowed by a growing rapprochement with Israel behind the scenes. Before the Oslo Accords of 1993, Israel’s informal relations with the palace were a hide-and-seek affair. In 1965, according to Shlomo Gazit, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, the king had allowed a Mossad-Shin Beit team to slip into Casablanca and spy on an Arab League summit taking place as the fervour for military confrontation with Israel was building. Amid fears that their cover was blown, the palace persuaded the team to pull out as the summit got underway. In Gazit’s account, Moroccan intelligence recorded the proceedings, which revealed key weaknesses in Arab military dispositions, and sent the tapes to their Israeli counterparts. Meir Amit, director of Mossad at the time, called it ‘one of the crowning glories of Israeli intelligence’.
Hassan skilfully adjusted course for the Israeli-Arab confrontation in 1973, approving an auxiliary role for the Moroccan armed forces in the coalition against Israel. It was the first time that his pilots had been on battle alert in a major international conflict. Two years later, as he forced his way into Western Sahara, they were sent to expedite the flight of Sahrawi refugees into Algeria.
In 2020 the lame duck president Donald Trump added Morocco to the list of Arab states – Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates – he had persuaded to normalise relations with Israel. It’s been many years since the taboo against ‘normalisation’ was actually observed in the Gulf, but Trump was interested in the ritual of Arab acquiescence, which Morocco had resisted for decades, as Hassan and his son dissembled their long romance with Israel and proclaimed their allegiance to the Palestinians. André Azoulay, a Jewish Moroccan, an advocate of the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine and a senior adviser to Mohammed VI, was confident that Morocco’s initiative would lead to further normalisations, but there is no royal road that leads from the Abraham Accords to any acceptable solution in Israel/Palestine or Morocco/Western Sahara.
Unlike Israel, Morocco has a rich history of governance, including the administration of distant provinces acquired by war or diplomacy, and the experience of being overwhelmed, in turn, by foreign powers. But both are settler-colonialist regimes in the postcolonial era, at odds with international law. Here is a compelling reason for the palace to accept Washington’s terms. If the king agreed to normalise relations with Israel, the US would recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara – a step the State Department had resisted for 45 years. The result was a gift to Morocco and a gesture of contempt for Palestinians and Sahrawis, whose diminishing rights were traded into outer darkness in a swap between their respective occupiers. This isn’t to say that a perfect symmetry exists between the two signatories and their management of subjugated populations; rather that the deal has allowed them to celebrate a long-standing diplomatic bond, forged in the postwar era, when both were under assault from an alliance of intersecting ideologies: pan-Arabism, non-alignment and national liberation. More immediately, Morocco’s open rapprochement with Israel can only sour its relations with Algeria – already dismal – as Israel sets up shop (including a fully functional embassy) in the most westerly of the Arab states.
In November 2020, on the eve of the deal, Mohammed VI sent troops into what Polisario refers to, euphemistically, as the ‘liberated territories’ of Western Sahara – in reality, the resourceless and unusable territory beyond the sandwall. The Moroccan army cordoned off a road to Mauritania, violating the 1991 ceasefire agreement, and a brief artillery exchange followed. Polisario announced that it would resume hostilities after thirty years of unproductive truce and no referendum, raising the prospect of renewed ill-feeling between Morocco and Algeria, its only military backer. Several commentators at the Atlantic Council, a pro-Nato think tank, warned that Washington’s concession to Morocco would lead to new instability in north-west Africa, but the last thirty years suggest otherwise. Until now, Morocco and its African neighbours, Algeria especially, have learned to live with their differences, despite bouts of overt hostility. Meanwhile the occupation of Western Sahara continues as if the UN had never existed. As the years drag on, Polisario’s wish to run a state of its own – which it proclaimed in the mid-1970s as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – has an anachronistic air, just as the denial of its right to do so had in the closing stages of the independence era. In the international community, new nation-states – Eritrea, Kosovo and South Sudan are among the most recent and least satisfactory – have lost their appeal.
But patience between Morocco and Algeria is wearing thin. Last August, Algiers broke off diplomatic relations with Rabat. There were many reasons: Moroccan suggestions at the UN that Kabylia, in northern Algeria, should be allowed independence; an Israeli diplomat’s suggestion in Casablanca that Algeria was playing an unhelpful role in the region; the fact that hundreds of Algerian phones have been infected by Pegasus at Morocco’s behest; and perhaps a determination by Algeria to assert its presence on the international scene after a decade of introspection. Then, too, contention between the regime and the Hirak has put both under enormous pressure: for the FLN to point a finger at the enemy across the border makes eminent sense.
Last year, Brahim Ghali, Polisario’s chief, came down with Covid and was flown to Spain for treatment. The transfer was meant to be discreet, but Polisario’s communications are closely monitored. A case was mounted for arresting Ghali in Spain on grounds of genocide. Polisario is certainly responsible for human rights violations in the camps, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, but ‘genocide’ is a misleading accusation, even if the Spanish lawyers had a shaky precedent: their model, presumably, was Judge Baltazar Garzón’s warrant, issued in the 1990s, for the arrest of Pinochet, who had travelled to the UK for medical reasons. Rabat’s stronger suit by far, when it wants to exert pressure on Spain (and Brussels), is the spasmodic release of sub-Saharan migrants, bottle-necked in Morocco, into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. True to form, the palace was so enraged by Ghali’s visit to Spain that it freed eight thousand migrants to enter Ceuta. As the EU has learned in Libya, there is no argument against human rights abuses in Africa that can’t be answered by the selective release of people trying to get to Europe.
In parliamentary elections last September, the PJD’s seats were reduced from 125 to 13: Mohammed VI’s strategy – treating the party as a loyal wing of the monarchy and watching it fail to deliver – had paid off. The hands-down winner was the National Rally of Independents, a descendant of the ‘independent’ party, which Hassan’s brother-in-law founded during the years of lead. Aziz Akhannouch, the new prime minister, is the CEO of Akwa, a Moroccan conglomerate that delivers fossil fuels to non-producers, manages many of Morocco’s petrol stations, and has a stake in its tourism industry – a thriving sector worth nearly £7 billion per annum pre-Covid – as well as telecoms and high-end real estate. Akhannouch is one of the richest people in the country. Like his father, Mohammed VI likes to keep the money close.
Since Hassan’s day, Morocco has become a key destination for foreign investment and European development funding. Routine public obligations that the palace was once willing to fulfil have devolved to the private sector. Many big infrastructure projects now involve Gulf companies and benefit from EU grants. In an ambitious vision approved by the king, seafront condominiums on the Atlantic coast will one day be the envy of Dubai and Tel Aviv. The last of the wretched slums in Casablanca will give way to new housing, along with the completion of grand Haussmanisation schemes, originally devised to clean out warrens of subversion. The palace has been mulling over these plans since the anti-IMF riots in the 1980s and, more seriously, after a round of jihadist suicide bombings in 2003. In terms of design and execution the results are impressive, but not everyone wants to be a pioneer on the outskirts of their own city.
Aziz BineBine, the ‘prehistoric man’, as he described himself post-Tazmamart, forgave his father, the court jester who kept King Hassan amused throughout his son’s imprisonment; he may even have forgiven the king. He writes: ‘Condemn! you say? Condemn whom? And what?’ These questions are harder to answer now that the will of the palace and the requirements of its overseas investment partners co-exist so seamlessly. Post-Hassan, the monarchy appears more nebulous and indistinct – one of many sovereign clients and providers in a flourishing international market – but it would be wrong to think that globalisation has archived Moroccan absolutism in the cloud. Less saintly figures than BineBine are tired of living in the culture of surveillance that Mohammed VI has revived since his father’s death.
Listen to Jeremy Harding discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.