The King Speaks
An interview with King Mohammed VI of Morocco
By SCOTT MACLEOD

Marrakech

TIME EUROPE
Web Exclusive

Tuesday, June 20, 2000


Since succeeding to the Moroccan throne last July at the age of 36, King Mohammed VI has symbolized a new generation of rulers coming to power in the Middle East, leaders dedicated to greater openness and political accountability. This month Mohammed VI granted TIME the first interview of his reign and he agreed to allow TIME Cairo bureau chief Scott MacLeod to follow him on his travels around Morocco. Mohammed VI spoke to MacLeod during an evening jog in Marrakech, at a jackets-off session at one of the King's palaces in Agadir and on a flight back to the Moroccan capital Rabat. Excerpts:


TIME:  How do you read the new generation of Arab rulers?

Mohammed VI:  One should not think that a new generation will turn everything upside down or bring everything into question. Let us not forget that in our countries tradition is very strong. I do entertain very close relations with King Abdullah of Jordan and Sheik Hamad [of Bahrain]. We are in agreement on many issues and are waiting to meet again to work and exchange ideas in greater depth. Not on official visits though, where time constraints are great and it proves difficult to ... exchange more personal views. I think that we should speak on the phone more often to exchange a few ideas. Contacts will need to be made on a more regular basis. There is also the son of President Assad [Bashar, the son of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad]. I did not know him. I sent him my condolences and will try to call him to wish him good luck.

TIME:  What is your hope for Morocco?

Mohammed VI:  I may appear to be full of myself because I always want better. My childhood was very sheltered. I grew up in a palace. But I lived in Morocco as a Moroccan citizen. May I pay a tribute to my late father's memory: he had insisted that I be educated in Morocco and not abroad, to better know the realities. So whatever I do, it will never be good enough for Morocco.

TIME:  What advice did your father give you?

Mohammed VI:  He told me that the most important thing was 'to last.' In truth, I do not know what he meant. Since he died, I have been thinking about it. I do not deserve my current success. What matters is to be appreciated later for what one has achieved. This needs to be said: I hope that I will not be perceived as a fashionable trend. Short-lived successes are not good. To govern is not to please, that is what my father used to say. You will have to make decisions that will not please yourself or please people. But it will be for the welfare of the country.

TIME:  What are Morocco's problems?

Mohammed VI:  First of all, there is unemployment and agriculture, drought. There is also the fight against poverty. I could talk about this endlessly: poverty, misery, illiteracy. Education is the most important thing in life. There is even a Moroccan saying that goes 'Education starts before school.' Thanks to the policy adopted by my father, Morocco enjoys a certain clout on the international stage. This position needs to be consolidated. By the same token, we need to focus on Morocco's domestic issues.

TIME:  What is the purpose of your travels in southern Morocco this month?

Mohammed VI:  We want to fight rural migration and drought. We need to bring to these people everything they need in their towns, villages and region. I personally feel the need to meet the people and see how they live. You may say that during official tours, one may not have the time to talk to these people. There are many projects and priorities and schedules are hectic. You may have noticed that when I complete an official tour, I stay on for a few days to meet with people incognito and get a real sense for their needs and check whether everything that was done is commensurate with their real needs.

TIME:  Will it be difficult to meet people's high expectations of your reign?

Mohammed VI:  It is a very delicate question. I do not think that it is right for me to be the only recourse for Moroccans. First of all, it is impossible. Unfortunately, I cannot do everything ... People have grown more mature. They know that we must work together. I think that this is the future of Morocco. People need to feel more involved. I do not have a magic wand, and I will never have one ... The new generation knows full well that everyone needs to be involved. I am very honored by the show of affection on the part of the people. I shall forever be grateful. It fuels my drive. In a Mediterranean culture, people are very expressive of their feelings. I also have the same sensitivity and I need to show it. When I wave at people, I try not to greet the crowd but to greet people individually, to make eye contact.

TIME:  How do you envision the development of democracy?

Mohammed VI:  First of all, I need to say that I would not have been able to accomplish what I did during the past six months were it not for the milestones achieved by His Late Majesty. I have come to the helm in a concert of favorable circumstances. Morocco has a lot to do in terms of democracy. The daily practice of democracy evolves in time. Trying to apply a Western democratic system to a country of the Maghreb, the Middle East or the Gulf would be a mistake. We are not Germany, Sweden or Spain. I have a lot of respect for countries where the practice of democracy is highly developed. I think, however, that each country has to have its own specific features of democracy.

TIME:  Would you explain your 'new concept of authority.'

Mohammed VI:  I believe that it is now time for authority to serve the people and not for the people to serve authority. I am positive that Moroccans have grown more mature and have an open mind. We have our own intelligentsia right here. We are one of the rare Arab or Maghreb countries in which our intelligentsia has remained in the country. These people have also helped us in defining this new concept of authority to serve Moroccan citizens. I see myself as the first servant of the Moroccan people. I am of the view that our dynasty is on earth to fulfill a mission and this mission is to strive for the welfare of the Moroccan people.

TIME:  How do you assess Morocco's Islamist movement?

Mohammed VI:  As Commander of the Faithful, it is out of the question that I fight Islam. We need to fight violence and ignorance. It is true, when one strolls out, one sees women with scarves and men with beards. This has always been the case in Morocco. There is this specifically Western tendency to give a soul to inanimate objects: there are 'Islamic' scarves. A scarf does not think: 'I am Islamic.' That is ridiculous. Or an Islamic beard. I have never seen an Islamic beard. When I said that we must all roll up our sleeves and get to work, I think that all segments of the population have the right and duty to take part in Morocco's development. The only thing I will not tolerate is violence and ignorance. Islam ... is the Moroccan state's official religion. There are also Jews who are perfectly part of the Moroccan social fabric. The Commander of the Faithful ... is not only commander of Muslims but of the [Jewish and Christian] believers. My grandfather once declared that there were no Jewish citizens, but only Moroccan ones. Morocco is built on tolerance.

TIME:  Why did you order the release from house arrest of Islamist leader Abdessalam Yassine. [Sheik Yassine, who was restricted for 10 years after questioning the monarch's claims to religious authority, was released in May.]

Mohammed VI:  Why was he under house arrest? This was the case in a context that no longer applies. The only thing I would like to say is that if he wishes to go out and take part in life like any other Moroccan citizen, he is free to do so.

TIME:  What part do human rights play in your program?

Mohammed VI:  Let us say that I did not speed up anything; developments occurred on their own. All it took was for Mr. Abraham Serfaty and his spouse [Christine Daure-Serfaty] to come back to Morocco for the world to say that Morocco took an extraordinary leap forward on human rights. I do not think that it is because an exile returns to Morocco that we may be considered to have taken that crucial step. There are things that need to be dealt with in a professional manner. Cases need to be examined closely. There is a commission in charge of providing compensation to those who were abusively imprisoned. This concerns many people, be they Sahrawis [the indigenous people of the disputed Western Sahara territory] or political detainees. What we do now: we discuss matters, we meet, we fine-tune our positions and proceed to readjustments. We provide material compensation, but above all there is moral recognition toward all of these people. We do our best. It would be wrong to say that Morocco has made 'a great leap forward.' It is true we make progress and we always will.
TIME:  How should we interpret your dismissal of Interior Minister Driss Basri [who many Moroccans blamed for human rights abuses during his 25 years in office]?

Mohammed VI:  He has worked for his country during 25 years but then I think I may work with whomever I please. No one is eternal. Change is necessary. We need to evolve. Earth keeps on spinning. That's the way it is.

TIME:  How can Europe help Morocco?

Mohammed VI:  We do not want Europe to assist us. We do not want Europe to give us handouts. All we ask is that Europe deals with us as a partner. As long as Morocco feels wronged, a new approach will be necessary. Whenever a country from the north of the Mediterranean looks toward a country on the southern shores, it automatically sees a potential threat. There were of course events that have caused concern in the north. [But] a certain misunderstanding has prevailed. Our role is to reassure Europe that Moroccans in Europe are peaceful, industrious people. They have never taken part in terrorist acts or used violence. Europeans, and Westerners, love to hate Maghreb countries. This mentality needs to be done away with. I think that we are now in a period of readjustment. We need to have a new vantage point. We have outgrown our clothes. All of this is for the good of Europe, not just for Morocco's good.

TIME:  Doesn't the Maghreb need to get its house in order?

Mohammed VI:  Yes, I shall answer frankly even if I were to provoke the wrath of some people. There is a problem between Morocco and Algeria [concerning competing claims to the Western Sahara territory]. There is no problem between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic [proclaimed by the Algerian-backed independence-seeking Polisario Front] because we do not recognize it. This is Algeria's creation ... [If we do] not discuss the issue frankly and logically with Algeria, we will not reach a solution. I refuse to take part in an Arab Maghreb Union meeting should the leaders, me included, enter into a contest on who will speak the loudest. I prefer action to wasting time. We must deal with real economic and social issues, not with dossiers that will result in a greater division. We must build and not destroy. Let me add this: I do very much admire [Algerian] President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who inherited a delicate situation. It is Morocco's duty to facilitate President Bouteflika's task. Our interest will not be served should the Maghreb be divided. The little contacts we have had ... were very positive. He is very pleasant and has a great sense of humor. We do have excellent relations with Mauritania, Tunisia and Libya. It is true that Libya is a privileged partner of Morocco and that, personally, I have a particular affection for [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi. [Tunisian] President Ben Ali welcomed me in a way that moved me. I did very much appreciate his kindness and that of all Tunisians. I did receive the Mauritanian President as a member of my own family.

TIME:  Is there talk about a new compromise settlement instead of a referendum for the Western Sahara conflict [currently being organized by the United Nations and after numerous postponements to be held in 2002]?

Mohammed VI:  This is a decision I will not make on my own. We have our very active political parties and the [Moroccan] people are bound by consensus on the case of the Sahara. International public opinion needs to understand that this is a vital issue for us.

TIME:  Does the United States play a helpful or harmful role in the Maghreb?

Mohammed VI:  The U.S. does play a role. In Morocco, we are flattered by the interest displayed toward this region of the Maghreb in trying to solve the issues. President Clinton is deeply involved. I did say to many U.S. officials, including [Defense Secretary William] Cohen and [Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright, that I do rely on the U.S. to act as facilitator and to preserve and maintain balance in the region. Our interest is not to have a strong Algeria and a weak Morocco, or the opposite. We absolutely want the U.S. and the U.N. to be involved to maintain balance. No party shall feel prejudiced versus the other.