Morocco's new king faces tough choices

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PHOTOGRAPHS of the newly enthroned Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who takes power this week after 40 days of mourning for his father, Hassan II, are already on sale in the souks of Rabat and Casablanca.

The official portrait that will be hung in all public places shows him in serious pose, on his throne in the traditional red fez hat and jellaba. But the most popular one, on sale in the markets, depicts the 36-year- old monarch riding a jet-ski - his favourite sport and a symbol of his modern outlook.

After 38 years of autocratic rule by his father, Moroccans are waiting to see which image is a better indication of the direction to be taken by Mohammed, the latest scion of the Alouite dynasty. Claiming direct descent from the Prophet, it has held power since the 17th century.

The young king faces a daunting agenda. The international dispute over the Western Sahara, which preoccupied Hassan for most of his reign, remains unresolved. Within Morocco there are demands for greater democracy and a drive to close the gap between rich and poor. The official unemployment rate is 19 per cent, but most observers believe it to be much higher. Almost half the population is illiterate and a poor harvest has increased poverty in rural areas.

Even before he takes over, there have been signs that Mohammed plans to increase the pace of political and social reforms undertaken by his father over the past few years. For the first time, he has appointed a palace spokesman, 37-year-old Hassan Aourid, signalling a desire to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the workings of the monarchy. Although public festivities, such as music at weddings, were banned during the period of mourning for Hassan, a royal edict allowed Moroccans to continue to serve alcohol to tourists, avoiding damage to a crucial sector of the economy at the height of the season.

The new monarch has already ruffled the feathers of the religious establishment by proclaiming himself in favour of a draft bill supporting women's rights, initiated by the country's liberal government. Although Moroccan women have greater freedom than in many other Muslim countries, family law is still dominated by sharia traditions. The bill seeks to outlaw polygamy, raise the legal age of marriage for girls from 14 to 18 and give divorcees and widows the right to half their husband's property. "How can we hope for progress and prosperity when women, who make up half of society, see their interests held up to ridicule?" Mohammed asked in a recent speech.

There are also signs that the grip of the much feared interior minister, Driss Basri, responsible for internal security and the embattled Western Sahara, will be loosened. Last week an MP from the Rif mountain region of northern Morocco dared to criticise Mr Basri in public. The new king met negotiators from the Saharan independence movement, the Polisario, when he was still crown prince, and has promised to keep parliament informed about developments in the former Spanish colony. One Moroccan academic who knows the king said: "He won't be as soft as people think on the question of the Western Sahara."

On the international front, Mohammed VI is expected to maintain his father's friendly relations with Israel and to play an active role in the Middle East peace process. But he has caused a stir in Spain by moving on to the offensive over Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves on the north African coast.