The two faces of King Hassan II

He is mourned by the West as a peacemaker, but in Morocco it's a different story, writes Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online

WHEN A Middle East dictator faithfully follows US policy in the region, you can be sure that he will bemourned in death as a "peacemaker", a "moderate", a "friend of the West". And so it was for Hassan II,Commander of the Faithful, as the world's leaders set off for Rabat yesterday to express their sorrow atthe demise of the longest-serving Arab monarch.

WHEN A Middle East dictator faithfully follows US policy in the region, you can be sure that he will bemourned in death as a "peacemaker", a "moderate", a "friend of the West". And so it was for Hassan II,Commander of the Faithful, as the world's leaders set off for Rabat yesterday to express their sorrow atthe demise of the longest-serving Arab monarch.

No mention, of course, of the decades of imprisonment without trial for his political opponents, of thesecret mountain prisons, of the "disappearances", of the occupation of the Western Sahara. For was thisnot the man who helped set up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the Oslo agreement, the Jordanian peacetreaty, who produced an Islamic call against "terrorism"?

However much he received in cash from the CIA - and the Arab world still speaks of this with both angerand envy - King Hassan was on "our" side. Indeed, there was a tendency towards the end to regard themonarch - whose country is closer to London than it is to Jerusalem - as a kind of honorary European,chain-smoking, eloquent, anxious to clean up that little problem of human rights, happy to participate inour local festivals as he did only a few days ago at the Bastille with President Chirac.

He once told King Juan Carlos of Spain: "When I ascended the throne, people said I wouldn't last morethan six months." And the people were almost right. His own airforce tried to shoot him down. In July1971, army officers angry at Hassan's abandonment of thousands of square kilometres of his country inan Algerian border war, organised a coup and 2,000 men overran the king's birthday party, killing almost100 guests. Hassan was ruthless. Enemies "disappeared" forever.There were no political prisoners, hesaid, only "traitors". Moroccans, he once wrote, "need a popular monarch that governs. That is why theking governs in Morocco. The people would not understand if the king did not govern".

He was pragmatic to the point of cynicism. Confronted by a tired, beleaguered Yassir Arafat in 1994, theking - in the words of the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikel - counselled the PLO leader to continue hisnegotiations with the Israelis. "Those people [the Israelis] are very powerful," Hassan said. "Considerwhat they have done for you. In 24 hours they have changed your image from terrorist to peacemaker,enabling you to go to the White House, to dine at the State Department, to have lunch at the World Bank,to enter 10 Downing Street."

King Hassan's relations with Israel will remain the most controversial - and fascinating - aspect of hisrule. He protected his own Moroccan Jewish community, welcomed Moroccan Jews with Israelipassports to return to the country of their birth, secretly hosted half the prime ministers of Israel - GoldaMeir arriving dressed in men's clothes and Yitzhak Rabin in shades and, apparently, a false moustache.When Arab states closer to Israel complained, Hassan simply ignored them.

And in an odd way, this made him all the more popular in the Arab world, an insouciance that almostlooked like freedom and certainly was not devoid of self-criticism.In his 1993 book Memory of a King,he admitted that 60 per cent of his decisions had been wrong.Hassan was an eloquent man - "one of thefew you would actually go to listen to more out of pleasure than loyalty", as one Palestinian put it tartlyyesterday. Well-versed in the Koran - he inherited the title "Commander of the Faithful" from his fatherKing Mohamed V - his oratory was spontaneous. So was his anger.Amnesty International's reports arelittered with incidents of torture and ill-treatment by Morocco's security police. In 1997, 120 politicalopponents calling for a boycott of municipal elections were arrested, including the mother of aseven-month-old child.

He dealt ruthlessly with "Islamist" militants when they killed westerners in his country, threatening tospill Algeria's blood over the frontier into the clean, secular, increasingly wealthy tourist centre thatMorocco was becoming. Hassan was never squeamish when it came to signing death- warrants and neverafraid, in later life, to pardon the condemned.

For, like so many ageing dictators, he grew gentler with age. By the early 1990s, he was releasingleft-wing opponents and rebellious army officers who had been locked up, in some cases, for decades.More than 800 political prisoners were freed and 195 death sentences commuted. And, of course, in thewicked list of human-rights abuses that runs from the Atlantic to the Gulf, Morocco is - by comparison - amild offender. Which makes it all the easier for our leaders to praise his name in Rabat today when theyattend his burial.

"Yours has always been a voice of reason and tolerance," President Clinton gushed to the king in 1995.He'll be saying the same in Rabat today when he meets Hassan's successor, Sidi Mohamed. Our king isdead. Long live our king.

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