Fury as 'King M-6' reforms status of Moroccan women

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The Independent Online

A rise in the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18; polygamy only with the permission of a man's first wife; an equal right to divorce, and a fair division of assets between the parties. What could sound more reasonable? In Morocco, these notions are enough to have wise men warning of civil war.

A rise in the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18; polygamy only with the permission of a man's first wife; an equal right to divorce, and a fair division of assets between the parties. What could sound more reasonable? In Morocco, these notions are enough to have wise men warning of civil war.

January 2000 will go down as when the new Moroccan revolution woke up to reality. It was when Islamic activists shouted down ministers in the capital, Rabat, and when a government plan to haul the treatment of women from the Middle Ages to somewhere near the 21st century became the litmus test of King Mohammed VI's ambitions for his country.

This was the month one of the most stable Arab countries became a battleground between modernisers and the forces of conservative Islam.

Little was expected from a shy and untested crown prince, when he succeeded King Hassan II last July. But "M-6" has transformed the mood of his country.

He allowed the return from exile of Abraham Serfaty, the country's most prominent dissident and erstwhile political prisoner, and then sacked his father's dreaded Interior Minister, Drissi Basri. He has twice travelled to the desperately poor Rif region, the largest source of cannabis for Europe, within which Hassan II never set foot in 38 years on the throne.

On the Western Sahara dispute, which has weighed on Moroccan international relations for a quarter of a century, the King hints at a new flexibility. Unprecedented in the Arab world, he has launched a commission to examine human rights abuses. Thus far, the King has governed by dramatic gesture. But the clash with militant Islam over women's emancipation will be a first, perhaps decisive challenge. The Prime Minister, Abderrahmane El Youssoufi, warned: "If this fails the whole reform project fails."

Morocco's Islamists are a minority, but a determined one. They have the backing of conservatives in Mr Youssoufi's eight-party coalition, and a natural recruiting ground in the mosques and universities.

The ingredients that have stoked Islamic movements elsewhere are only too visible here: massive unemployment, $19bn (£12.5bn) of foreign debt whose mere servicing consumes one-third of the annual budget, rampant corruption and vast disparities between a tiny, super-wealthy elite and masses who live in grinding poverty.

The illiteracy rate is 50 per cent; as many live on £1 a day or less. Among women in the countryside, deprived of schooling, jobs and basic legal rights, those figures rise to 80 per cent or more.

The Islamists claim emancipation of women would lead to the collapse of the family, destruction of Islamic values and debauchery of every sort.

The government is not sure of victory. Hamstrung by differences within its own ranks, it has not dared challenge to the Islamists head-on.

All roads lead back to the King, change's best guarantee. The youth of Mohammed VI - he is 36 - could be a vital asset in a country where half the population is under 25.

But not only does he wield vast temporal powers in his semi-feudal kingdom. He is also Morocco's supreme religious authority: directly descended from the Prophet, and such a man religious activists will take on at their peril. To show commitment to Islam, the King has grown a beard since he ascended the throne.

Unlike his father, who survived at least two attempted military coups against him, the King so far has the full loyalty of the army and the police: without it, he could never last. But the plan to help women will be his sternest test. "I am not exaggerating," insists Mr Serfaty. "This is capable of leading us into civil war."

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