Dressed in white, sometimes wearing the traditional red fez cap, a faint smile on his lips, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI looks majestically out of countless photographs hanging in shops, banks and restaurants in the capital.
The monarch, who seems to watch incessantly over his 33 million subjects, is far from being a European-style royal figurehead with hardly any power and constant prying into his private life.
Moroccans know little of what goes on behind the walls of the royal residence, but none of them fails to be aware of the enormous power wielded by the 44-year-old king, whose Alawite dynasty has ruled the north African country since the 17th century.
Not only do the media keep up a respectful coverage of royal activities, but almost any conversation on politics or economics soon turns to the king, whose will rules over that of the government, and whom many ordinary people see as an almost mythical figure.
“The king is good,” said Karima, a 30-year-old teacher of autistic children. “He helps the poor.”
That view, in a country where open criticism of the monarchy can lead to a prison sentence, contrasts with a typical comment from political analysts: “The king is well-intentioned, but he is ill-advised, and the government is corrupt and incompetent.”
Mohammed’s accession to the throne in 1999 raised enormous hopes in Morocco, which his father Hassan II had ruled for 38 years with an iron fist.
Hassan ruthlessly suppressed political opponents and failed to solve problems including rural poverty, urban slums and an illiteracy rate which still surpasses 40 percent.
Mohammed VI became known as “the king of the poor,” driving his own car, launching a royal foundation and a development program to reduce poverty, increasing press freedom and creating a commission to compensate victims of human rights abuses under Hassan’s rule.
The king continues to visit poor areas, launching infrastructure and other projects and distributing gifts such as taxi driving permits, housing and reportedly even money.
He has also begun breaking down the secrecy surrounding the palace, allowing his wife Princess Lalla Salma to play a discreet public role and appearing before the press with her and their two young children.
However, the king’s young advisors have begun giving way to king Hassan’s old guard and other hawks, analysts say.
After suicide bombings in Casablanca killed 45 people in 2003, the threat of Islamist terrorism has contributed to the curtailment of democratic freedoms, with police clashing with demonstrators, newspapers closed and journalists jailed, fined or forced to resign.
Morocco has dozens of political prisoners, including Islamists, Western Saharawi separatists, Berber cultural activists and army officers who denounced corruption in their ranks, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights says.
“Moroccans are disappointed with Mohammed VI,” said columnist Khalid Jamai, one of the few people in Morocco who do not hesitate to criticize the king as a person.
The king’s apparent concern for the poor does not mask the fact that he continues to live in breathtaking luxury. His wealth includes sumptuous palaces around the country and control over large sectors of the economy mainly through the gigantic ONA conglomerate.
The palace also wields the most political power, with the king appointing five key ministers, regional governors and other decisionmakers. The king can veto any government decision, and has launched major agricultural and development programs without even informing the government about them, several sources said.