After inheriting the throne of Morocco in 1961, King Hassan II (born 1929) became a stabilizing force in northwest Africa.
Mouley Hassan, son of King Mohammed V, was born on July 9, 1929, taking the name of his great grandfather who was Sultan of Morocco from 1874 to 1897. He received a classical education in both French and Arabic at the palace and at the imperial college, completing his higher education in the field of law at the University of Bordeaux in France.
By training and outlook, the future king was a "modernist." He soon became weary of the decorative character of the Moroccan leadership under the French protectorate and aware of the need to build a modern and independent state. He persuaded his father to embrace the nationalist cause and, when the French arrested Moroccan activists, followed him in exile to Corsica and Madagascar (1953-1955). Yet he was also a man who upheld the importance of the monarchial tradition of power: the king is both caliph (religious leader) and zaim (national leader), directly linked to his people.
At independence from France in 1956, Mouley Hassan was named chief of staff of the royal armed forces, which he successfully reorganized. In 1957, and again in 1959, he took charge of suppressing uprisings in the south and in the Riff in the north.
After the split of the Istiqlal, the nationalist party, the election of 1960 was won by the leftist wing, the National Union of popular forces (led by Ben Barka and Ben Seddick, the leader of the Moroccan workers union). King Mohammed V then took over the government and named his son his vice-premier. At the unexpected death of Mohammed V in 1961, Mouley Hassan, now King Hassan II, assumed the post of premier and head of the Ministries of Defense, Interior, and Agriculture. The following year he proposed a constitution patterned on the 1958 French model and providing for two elected chambers.
But the increasing tensions with emerging social/political forces—notably those of the National Union—led the young king to end the constitutional experiment. The next two years saw the dismantling of the opposition, marked by the elimination or arrest of its key leaders, including Ben Barka. The king chose to rule alone with the support of liegemen and technocrats, in many ways like the traditional and patrimonial mode of the Moroccan sultans. The constitutions of 1970 and 1972, which established a strong executive in the hands of the monarch, gave a legal-rational authority to this system of power. From time to time referenda permitted the expression of the people's loyalty to the regime while allowing a political intercourse evoking a parliamentary monarchy.
The sovereign relied in turn upon three forces: the people, the bourgeoisie, and the military. The popular attachment to the regime was stronger in the countryside than in cities. Such measures as periodic land redistribution and the suppression of an agricultural tax revitalized the perennial devotion of the fellahs to the commander of the faithful. Hassan II kept the support of the bourgeoisie by encouraging the formation of political parties, but at the same time he limited their power and fostered internal divisions within the organizations.
The military establishment, which had been the favored instrument of power at the beginning of Hassan II's rule, lost prestige after the failed coups of Skhirat (1971) and Kenitra (1972). The king himself took over its control, acting not only as the armed forces supreme commander but also as general chief of staff. However, involvement in combat operations (in Syria and Egypt in 1973, in Mauritania from 1977 to 1979, or in Zaire in 1977 and 1978, and especially in the war of the Sahara) offered the armed forces opportunities to recover a sense of professional purpose.
A key characteristic of Hassan II's reign rested on his desire to assert himself as a leading international actor in Africa and in the Middle East. He aided negotiations between France and Libya in Chad in 1984. In the continuing Middle East unrest Hassan II played an arbiter's role. He met regularly with the chiefs of state of the region and organized international meetings, such as the Islamic Congress of Casablanca in 1984 and the Arab summits in Rabat in 1974 and in 1985. Choosing moderation and appeasement, he sought the recognition of Israel and invited the Jewish Communities Council to Rabat in 1984. He also presided over the Al Qods committee for the settlement of the status of Jerusalem, a theme discussed during his visit to the Vatican in 1980 and during that of Pope John Paul II in Morocco in 1985.
But the most troublesome issue remained that of the former Spanish Sahara, which Morocco claimed against the Sahrawi resistance upheld by Algeria and Libya. This conflict in which Hassan II involved his people tightened the links between the masses and the throne. Morocco left the OAU (Organization of African Unity) in November 1984 after the admission of the Arab Sahrawi Democratic Republic. On the other hand, Hassan II created the Arabic-African Union with Libya in August 1984. At home, the royal armed forces fought off the claims of the Polisario guerrillas to the key area of Western Sahara (the Saguia el Hamra with its rich phosphate deposits) through a strategy of "mobile walls" (the fourth and most advanced one was completed in 1985). However, Hassan II agreed in 1984 to accept the result of a referendum to determine the status of the troubled province.
In July 1986 King Hassan broke ranks with other Arabic states by holding two days of talk with Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres. Syria, Algeria, Iraq, and Libya criticized the attempt to find a basis for Middle East peace. Only Hosni Mubarak of Egypt applauded the effort. The brief union with Libya was dissolved.
Always a political moderate and an able negotiator, Hassan's talks with Shimon Peres led to the establishment of closer relations between Moroccan Jews and Israel, and permission for Israelis to visit Morocco.
During the 1990-1991 Gulf War between Iraq and the United States-backed international coalition, Hassan sent a contingent of the Moroccan Army to defend Saudi Arabia and oppose Iraq, despite mass demonstrations in Rabat and pro Saddam Husseim public opinion.
In September, 1996, King Hassan II initiated a referendum on the Moroccan constitution, which provided for a second chamber for the country's parliament. He removed one-third of the indirectly-elected membership of the single chamber representative body enabling Hassan and his ministers to veto the opposition parties. Elections to the newly designed bicameral parliamentary system were scheduled for spring of 1997; however, the major opposition parties and the government had to prepare new electoral laws, and the election was postponed until late 1997.
King Hassan was a skillful ruler of a turbulent country in a troubled region for nearly four decades, and modernized and democratized Morocco as rapidly as was feasible; considering the political and social unrest fostered by extreme Islamic fundamentalist propaganda and the armed terrorism of Hamas inspired groups.
Douglas E. Ashford's Political Change in Morocco (1961) ends with the reign of Mohammed V. Two interesting sources are in French: King Hassan's own book, Le defi (The Challenge) (Paris, 1976), and John Waterbury's Le commandeur des croyants (The Commander of the Faithful) (Paris, 1975).
The magazine Presidents and Prime Ministers (May/June 1996), featured a section on Diplomacy and World Peace which covered the summit talks in Egypt and Hassan's role as mediator. The Economist (September 28, 1996) discussed Morocco's election and Hassan's constitutional changes; and a later edition (January 2, 1997) of the same magazine discussed Hassan's relations with the Islamic fundamentalist and Moroccan militants. Yaacov Shimoni's Biographical Dictionary of the Middle East (1991), although an Israeli publication, outlined a sympathetic sketch of Hassan II as a just and fair-minded ruler beset by a myriad of political problems.