Tue, May 27, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Moroccan king's silence puzzles observers, envoys

SUICIDE BOMBINGS The absence of a public statement by the king has led some to wonder if there was a new style of monarchy at foot

REUTERS , RABAT, MOROCCO

Morocco's bloody suicide bombings presented King Mohammed with the first real political challenge of his four-year reign, but more than a week later he has still not said a word in public about them.

The attacks in Morocco's business capital Casablanca on May 16, blamed on radical Islamists, killed 43 people and shocked a pro-Western country and US friend that has long prided itself on being an oasis of stability in the Arab world.

"This silence is puzzling," a Western diplomat said of the the 39-year-old king, who has earned a reputation as a modern, reform-minded monarch.

"He needs to deliver a strong message, whatever the message is. Moroccans are expecting it," the diplomat said.

Morocco, a constitutional monarchy, has started to crack down against Islamic radicals in recent months.

Analysts fear the crackdown in the Muslim North African state could widen and include less-extreme groups, such as the Muslim fundamentalist association Al Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity) which is allowed to function only as a charity.

"Will it be dialogue or violent crackdown?" said one political analyst, who preferred to remain anonymous.

"What do you do about the PJD?" the analyst added in a reference to the Justice and Development Party, the only Islamist political force represented in parliament.

If Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda was to blame for the Casablanca attacks -- the government has said links with international terrorism are clear -- it chose a country that has traditionally been a staunch ally of the US.

Rabat and Washington are currently negotiating a free-trade agreement.

Morocco, a nation where more than half the 30 million population is illiterate and 5 million live under the poverty line, was listed as "most eligible for liberation" in a tape believed to be from bin Laden released in February.

The king earned his reformist reputation with moves that shook a tightly controlled apparatus inherited from his father, King Hassan, who ruled for 38 years until his death in 1999.

Mohammed sacked long-time Interior Minister Driss Basri, a powerful and feared figure of Hassan's reign, and let prominent exiled political opponents return home. He has also allowed inquiries into past human-rights abuses.

Mohammed visited three of the bombed sites in Casablanca and waved to spectators who cheered: "Long live the King! Long live Morocco!" He comforted wounded survivors in hospitals and pledged to give financial assistance to their families.

The king rarely addresses his countrymen on radio and television, except for set events or official anniversaries. He has not given a news conference in four years, unlike his father, who also granted frequent interviews to foreign media.

The absence of any public statement by the king prompted analysts and diplomats to wonder if this was part of a new style of monarchy in Morocco.

It was Prime Minister Driss Jettou who addressed Moroccans on television two days after the attacks to condemn them. He later denounced in parliament "forces of evil ... who seek to impose a model of an obscurantist society that will never find a place in Morocco."

"The king's silence begs the question -- is he governing, as the absolute ruler his father was? Or is he standing back and letting the government do its job?," one analyst asked.

This debate was unlikely to be aired in Morocco where the king's person is sacred but the stand-back option would mark a departure from the way his father ruled.

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