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A kingdom in its truest meaning, Morocco and her subjects are watched over by the 18th king of the Alaouite dynasty, King Mohammed VI.

Groomed from birth, then 36-year-old Mohammed Ben al Hassan was swiftly enthroned as the country's king in 1999, after the death of his father Hassan II. The king's former reputation as a "playboy prince" who preferred jet skis to jellabahs preceded him, and almost immediately the young monarch set about distancing himself from his father's past and modernizing his reign. He pledged to tackle poverty and corruption, stimulate the economy, and improve Morocco's human rights record.

Early in his reign, Mohammed VI, along with his sisters, princesses Lalla Meryem, Lalla Asma, and Lalla Hasna, strongly advocated women's rights. A key reform has been the creation of a new family code, or Mudawana, which raised the minimum age of marriage for women to the same as that for men (18 years), discourages polygamy, and allows for freedom of choice in both marriage and, perhaps more importantly, divorce -- a freedom Princess Lalla Meryem exercised in 1999. Some Moroccans, however, feel the level of personal freedom has actually eroded since Mohammed VI's ascension to the throne. New anti-terrorism laws and a campaign against Islamic extremists in the wake of the 2003 and 2007 bombings in Casablanca have been seen by some as an infringement of human rights. Media freedom is regularly questioned, and journalists are censored, even jailed, over the taboo subjects of the monarchy, Islam, political corruption, and the Western Sahara.

The general public is also not immune from scrutiny by the authorities, with two recent and very public examples reflecting the country's clash between traditional conservatism and modern liberalness. In 2008, 29-year-old local blogger Mohammed Erraji was arrested -- and jailed for 2 years just 3 days later after a 10-minute court hearing -- for suggesting on his blog that the king was too charitable and was encouraging Moroccans to beg. In the same year, 26-year-old Fouad Mortada was jailed for 3 years for creating a false Facebook profile of the king's brother, Prince Moulay Rachid. Both men could be seen as scapegoats, used by the king to remind Moroccans of their boundaries. Perhaps to further demonstrate both his control and humanity, the king subsequently pardoned Mortada after only 43 days in jail. Erraji was also swiftly released, his sentence annulled by an appeals court just 2 weeks after his incarceration.

International NGOs such as Amnesty International have recently publicized cases of excessive human rights abuses, in some cases resulting in deaths, against an increasing number of mainly sub-Saharan Africans -- but also Moroccans -- caught attempting to illegally cross the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Mellila and Ceuta. For those Moroccans wishing to enter Europe legally, the depressingly long lines at the French and Spanish consulates constitute an infringement on their freedom of travel.

Although the economy has and still is undergoing an impressive liberalization that is attracting foreign investment -- especially in the previously neglected Rif Mediterranean region -- poverty, unemployment, and a high illiteracy rate are the daily curses of many Moroccans, who still see the majority of the political and military elite as untouchable and corrupt.

Some Moroccans also see a sense of hypocrisy in a king who espouses political and civil freedom while still enjoying almost absolute power over his subjects as both monarch and Commander of the Faithful. Although Mohammed VI seems to be slowly moving toward a constitutional monarchy, the albeit democratically elected parliament is effectively run by the king and his royal advisors, and the country's prime minister and his key ministers are still directly appointed by the king. Although there is speculation that the Moroccan monarchy will evolve like the Spanish one, Mohammed VI himself replies that there should be a Moroccan model specific to Morocco and that applying a Western democratic system would be a mistake.

In 2002, Mohammed VI married computer engineer Salma Bennani, and while his father's spouse (some say spouses) was never seen in public, Mohammed VI's marriage has been a very public affair. His wife was granted the title of princess while assuming a prominent role in women's rights. The births of a son in 2003 and daughter in 2007 provoked genuine celebration throughout the country.

Mohammed VI's popularity is hard to measure, as any negativity toward his rule is kept largely behind closed doors. The Islamist extremist threat is, at this stage, still largely confined to the country's major slum area in Casablanca, and it is from here that opposition to his policies and power are most visible.

Terrorism in Morocco -- In recent years, a spate of bombings and foiled suicide attempts has raised fears of a surge of radical Islamist violence previously unwitnessed in Morocco, with one Spanish anti-terror judge labeling the country as "the worst terrorist threat for Europe."

In 2003, Morocco sentenced three Saudi men to 10-year jail terms for attempting to form a Moroccan branch of Al Qaeda and plotting to attack NATO ships in the Straits of Gibraltar. That same year simultaneous suicide bomb attacks targeting Jewish, Spanish, and Belgian buildings in Casablanca killed more than 40 people, the first such coordinated terrorism attack in Morocco. In the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid, the majority of those accused were Moroccan nationals. In 2007, Casablanca was again struck with three separate suicide bombings within 2 months.

The 2003 attacks were attributed to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), a hard-line Islamist group based in an impoverished slum in Casablanca called Sidi Moumen that advocates violence against Jewish and U.S. interests within Morocco. The Moroccan authorities' response to the Casablanca bombings was swift and predictably harsh, with 87 defendants facing trial that same year and receiving sentences ranging from 10 months' imprisonment to the death penalty.

Two of the 2007 attacks took place within another poor district of Casablanca, El Fida. These bombings ran parallel to worse conditions in neighboring Algeria, and Moroccan authorities and civilians fear that the suicide bombings are the work of the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), recently renamed Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. Members allegedly receive training in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Algeria, where they have claimed responsibility for a number of bombings in the capital Algiers, and some are said to have infiltrated the relatively porous border between Algeria and Morocco. The group's main focus has historically been to establish strict Islamic rule in Algeria, but it is now thought to harbor regional, even global, ambitions since becoming a franchisee of Al Qaeda. Immediately prior to the 2007 incidents, Moroccan authorities arrested eight Algerians in Casablanca who were accused of being members of an armed group that was preparing an attack. Further arrests and convictions were made in 2008 and 2009, including Abdelkader Belliraj, accused of being Al Qaeda's main man in Morocco. Others have been imprisoned for openly recruiting Moroccans to fight in Iraq.

Morocco has been vocal about its alliance with the U.S. and its fight on terror, and it is said that there has been an increase of CIA presence in the country. In 2004, Morocco was deemed a "major non-NATO ally" by the alliance organization, and a Tactical Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2009, specifically paving the way for a Moroccan contribution -- ranging from information exchange to naval and air assistance -- to NATO's anti-terrorism mission.

King Mohammed VI has come under international scrutiny after it was known that some of those arrested or killed in the 2007 attacks had been jailed in connection with the 2003 Casablanca bombings but had subsequently received a pardon by the king in 2005. Mohammed VI constantly finds himself treading a fine line between his responsibilities as the country's reigning monarch and supreme Islamic leader.

Overall, Morocco appears to be at least on level terms with the extremists. The 2007 bombings could all be considered "foiled attacks," and subsequent sweeping arrests -- assisted by anti-terrorism laws some human rights organizations describe as excessive -- netted many of the alleged ringleaders, which was largely possible because of the isolation of the extremists within Morocco, and more specifically Casablanca. It is solely within the slums of Casablanca that the terror cells are gaining a foothold. It's estimated that a third of the city's population resides there, most of them rural workers who journeyed to the "big smoke" in search of their fortune only to find themselves with no regular work, no family or institutional support, and socially alienated. Some slums are severely lacking in, if not totally devoid of, basic infrastructure, and to some, the Islamic fundamentalists offer a way out of the black hole.

While some Moroccans may sympathize with the extremists' views of a "Western war on Islam," the majority of the population deplores any violent action, as illustrated in the "No to Terrorism" march in 2003, when tens of thousands took to the streets in Casablanca just days after the bombings. Indeed, throughout my travels in the Islamic world it was a Moroccan who informed me that the true meaning of jihad simply means "striving," and that its generally accepted interpretation explicitly forbids killing an individual purely because of his or her religious preference.

The government's current strategy plays on this nonviolent emotion by encouraging Moroccans to inform them of anyone or anything suspicious, and security agents are beginning to watch new arrivals in the suburbs, account for casual workers on construction sites, and even mix in with the crowds waiting in front of certain consulates. For the first time the government has also begun to publicly advertise the names of those who are under suspicion.

The visible police presence throughout Morocco can be a bit disconcerting for the visitor upon arrival, but it actually lends itself to a more secure environment throughout the country. The police can be overly officious and, at times, blatantly open to corruption, but this is not the case when it concerns terrorism. Wherever you travel in Morocco, locals will be at pains to assure you of your safety and that they welcome your presence.

The Western Sahara -- Morocco's deep south is a largely barren, desolate, good-for-nothing expanse that just happens to be the stage for Africa's longest territorial conflict and one of the United Nations' most protracted and expensive peace missions. Depending on which map you look at, this region is called the Western Sahara, the Disputed Territory of the Western Sahara, or even the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The dispute over this sovereignty between Morocco and the indigenous Sahrawis has been going on since 1975, when more than 300,000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the city of Tarfaya in what was dubbed the Green March. This peaceful "invasion" was orchestrated by King Hassan II in response to the rejection of Moroccan and Mauritanian territorial claims to the region by the International Court of Justice, which recognized the Sahrawis' right to self-determination pending the imminent withdrawal of Spain after nearly 100 years of colonial rule.

Prior to the court ruling, tens of thousands of Moroccans had already crossed the border into Spanish Sahara to back their government's contention that the northern part of the territory was historically Morocco's. Following the ruling, King Hassan II sent his army to attack positions held by the Sahrawi guerilla army (the Algerian-backed Polisario Front founded in 1973 to contest Spanish rule), followed by the Green March a week later. This forced Spain to ignore the court ruling and negotiate the Madrid Agreement, which partitioned two-thirds of the territory to Morocco and the remaining third to Mauritania. Polisario consequently launched an armed struggle that succeeded, 3 years later, in Mauritania withdrawing its territorial claims, but Morocco simply overran the remainder and has stood firm to the present day.

Between 1981 and 1987, Moroccan forces constructed a 2,700km (1,674-mile) wall to separate the Polisario-controlled areas from the rest of Moroccan Western Sahara. The United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991 and established a mission to both enforce the cease-fire and implement a peace plan that would eventually allow Western Saharans to choose independence or integration with Morocco. Although both parties initially agreed to the plan, the referendum has never eventuated largely due to disagreement over voter "identification" -- the Sahrawis wanted it based on a census carried out by Spain in 1973, thereby ruling out those Moroccans who settled in Western Sahara after the Green March. Morocco, perhaps eyeing the vast phosphate and fishing resources within the territory, proceeded over the next decade to consistently delay talks at resolving the issue. From 1997 to 2001, the UN's special envoy, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, mediated talks between Polisario and Morocco and eventually came up with a new Framework Agreement. This agreement offered the Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty -- including Moroccan control of internal security and the judicial system -- over a 4-year transition period, followed by a referendum in which Moroccan settlers residing in the territory for longer than a year were allowed to vote. Giving little way to their independence aspirations, the Sahrawis rejected the plan and threatened to return to guerilla war.

In 2001 and 2002, Mohammed VI visited his southern provinces and reaffirmed his late father's position of Moroccan historical rights to the territory, proclaiming that Morocco "will not renounce an inch." Tensions between Morocco and Spain escalated at this time, apparently due to the latter's refusal to back a behind-the-scenes French initiative that would have strengthened Morocco's case at the UN It was at this time that former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed partitioning the contested territory between Morocco and the Sahrawis, which was predictably and forcefully rejected by both parties.

The political tide started to turn in favor of the Sahrawis when South Africa, followed by a number of other high-profile African countries, urged support for self-determination and opened diplomatic ties with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, an act the Moroccan government called "disappointing." In recent years, the Sahrawis have become more politically savvy. In 2005, the Polisario Front released Moroccan servicemen they had detained in southern Algeria for almost 20 years. The 404 men, considered the world's longest-serving prisoners of war, were released in a gesture that the Polisario Front hoped would pave the way to peace with Morocco.

Money is a silent, but inextricably strong, factor in the struggle for this piece of Saharan-battered land. In addition to the Western Sahara's phosphate deposits and fish reserves, oil has been discovered fairly recently. The 2000 U.S. Geological Survey of World Energy estimated substantial oil and gas resources off the Western Saharan shore, an appealing factor for Morocco, which produces fewer than 1,000 barrels of oil a day and heavily imports its energy needs. Western Saharan reserves will provide a direct route to the refineries of Europe and the eastern seaboard of the U.S., and with both regions publicly stating they are looking for alternative sources to the Middle East, the stakes are high.

Recently, a new struggle between Morocco and the Sahrawis has developed over who has the authority to sign over the exploratory rights, with both countries granting licenses to separate gas and oil exploration companies. In a major blow to Morocco, the UN undersecretary for legal affairs ruled that Morocco had no right to award contracts since the "exploitation of natural resources in a non-autonomous territory" is only allowed "if it benefits local populations, is carried out in their name, or in consultation with them." In somewhat of a coup for the Sahrawis, the 2004 U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement specifically ruled out trade within Western Sahara, and a 2006 E.U.-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement, which opens the Western Saharan coastline to European fishing fleets, has been opposed by some E.U. member countries.

Today, Morocco's Western Sahara policy has shifted toward regional autonomy -- but with no referendum on independence -- while the Sahrawi demand for outright self-determination has grown more vocal and public. Both parties have been treading the diplomatic streets, with the U.S. and France publicly backing their longtime ally Morocco, while various European nations, such as Belgium and Germany, hosted Sahrawi independence activists and government members. Major African players South Africa and Nigeria have also declared their acceptance of Sahrawi sovereignty, much to the ire of both the Moroccan government and Moroccans in general. Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has reiterated the body's intention to stay in the Western Sahara until an agreement between the two countries is realized, and in early 2009 appointed former U.S. ambassador to Algeria Christopher Ross as the UN's new special envoy to deal with the disputed territory.

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