WHEN A Middle East dictator faithfully follows US policy in the region, you can be sure that he will be mourned 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 at the demise of the longest-serving Arab monarch.
No mention, of course, of the decades of imprisonment without trial for his political opponents, of the secret mountain prisons, of the "disappearances", of the occupation of the Western Sahara. For was this not the man who helped set up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the Oslo agreement, the Jordanian peace treaty, 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 anger and envy - King Hassan was on "our" side. Indeed, there was a tendency towards the end to regard the monarch - 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 in our 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 more than six months." And the people were almost right. His own airforce tried to shoot him down. In July 1971, army officers angry at Hassan's abandonment of thousands of square kilometres of his country in an Algerian border war, organised a coup and 2,000 men overran the king's birthday party, killing almost 100 guests. Hassan was ruthless. Enemies "disappeared" forever. There were no political prisoners, he said, only "traitors". Moroccans, he once wrote, "need a popular monarch that governs. That is why the king 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, the king - in the words of the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikel - counselled the PLO leader to continue his negotiations with the Israelis. "Those people [the Israelis] are very powerful," Hassan said. "Consider what 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 his rule. He protected his own Moroccan Jewish community, welcomed Moroccan Jews with Israeli passports to return to the country of their birth, secretly hosted half the prime ministers of Israel - Golda Meir 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 almost looked 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 the few you would actually go to listen to more out of pleasure than loyalty", as one Palestinian put it tartly yesterday. Well-versed in the Koran - he inherited the title "Commander of the Faithful" from his father King Mohamed V - his oratory was spontaneous. So was his anger. Amnesty International's reports are littered with incidents of torture and ill-treatment by Morocco's security police. In 1997, 120 political opponents calling for a boycott of municipal elections were arrested, including the mother of a seven-month-old child.
He dealt ruthlessly with "Islamist" militants when they killed westerners in his country, threatening to spill Algeria's blood over the frontier into the clean, secular, increasingly wealthy tourist centre that Morocco was becoming. Hassan was never squeamish when it came to signing death- warrants and never afraid, in later life, to pardon the condemned.
For, like so many ageing dictators, he grew gentler with age. By the early 1990s, he was releasing left-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 the wicked list of human-rights abuses that runs from the Atlantic to the Gulf, Morocco is - by comparison - a mild offender. Which makes it all the easier for our leaders to praise his name in Rabat today when they attend 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 is dead. Long live our king.
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