Morocco's `Great Survivor' Skillfully Reads the Public

KING HASSAN II's Morocco five years ago was being compared to the Shah's Iran. But today talk of overthrowing the regime has given way to admiration even from the King's critics, as Morocco enjoys his diplomatic and economic successes. July's visit by World Bank President Barber Conable, his first to Morocco, is viewed here and at the bank as an acknowledgment of how far the kingdom has come since bread riots in January 1984 spawned talk of revolution.

At the World Bank's insistence, Morocco has held to a program of massive budget and farm subsidy cuts. The austerity sparked the unrest of five years ago but trimmed the budget deficit to 4.5 percent last year. Cheap food is once again plentiful. Inflation is holding at a record low 2.5 percent. Morocco's gross national product rose by more than 8 percent last year.

In February Hassan crafted the Maghreb Economic Union, wooing former archenemy Algeria and three other North African states.

His hosting of an emergency Arab League summit called May 23-26 to discuss the crisis in Lebanon, with Egypt's participation for the first time in 10 years, was seen as a boon to the moderate Arab camp and proof Hassan was right in meeting with Israel's Shimon Peres two years ago.

``North, South, East, West - the King is numero uno,'' a busboy in a posh Casablanca restaurant volunteered. ``The King knows what he is doing, and without him we might have big troubles.''

King Hassan gains his legitimacy from a 350-year-old dynasty. He also claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad, making him ``defender of the faith,'' an important role in a country whose population of 24 million people is 98 percent Muslim.

Hassan keeps a tight grip on domestic affairs, as the Shah did, through a massive bureaucracy and system of patronage, with the economy controlled by what Moroccans call the ``2,000 families'' with ties to the palace.

Hassan has kept his people's loyalty through a talent for reading the Moroccan mood and adjusting accordingly. It is a skill which has led diplomats to dub him ``the great survivor.''

``The King is brilliant - he understands his people, and he understands politics,'' a foreign diplomat says. ``But he also understands mass communications, public relations.''

As Islamic fundamentalism has grown during the past decade, the King has cultivated a more explicitly Islamic image. During Ramadan Hassan remains in public view, chanting the Koran, visiting holy sites, and leading the festivities at the end of the month of daily fasting.

Sensing Moroccans' growing restiveness under a massive bureaucracy and wealthy elite, the King has recently put forth a number of proposals he says will give power and wealth ``to the people.''

In June Hassan called a much-lauded national conference of local groups to discuss ways of decentralizing the government. Khalid Jamai, editor of the daily L'Opinion, echoed other critics when he said the move will really strengthen the Department of Interior, which oversees local organizations.

Also in June, Hassan issued a public letter to his prime minister stating that any investment proposal not approved within two months would be considered rubber-stamped. It had taken up to three years to penetrate the maze of officials who must OK new ideas.

With calls for economic liberalization rising, the King is pushing a bill through parliament that will privatize hundreds of nationalized companies. The public appears to back the moves, though some intellectuals complained privately the newly privatized pieces may go to the ``2,000 families.''

With all these victories, there may still be trouble ahead for Hassan and his nation.

Morocco is burdened by a $22 billion debt, one of the highest per capita in the world. While recent agreements have eased that somewhat, the nation ``will still need relief along Brady plan lines'' if it is to have any prospects for growth, a senior World Bank official said.

The country's unemployment rate, thought to be near 30 percent, is ``intolerable, '' a Western ambassador said, and presents ``real dangers one can feel at the universities,'' which saw a spate of riots this spring.

A ``new generation'' of Moroccans is demanding real freedoms and an end to the nations' skewed distribution of wealth, Mr. Jamai said. Hassan may have to do more than offer palliatives if he is to keep the country stable, several diplomats said.

The King appears to sense the danger and is slowly tinkering with the system, diplomats believe. But moving too rapidly against privilege and bureaucracy will dismantle the very pillars on which Hassan's support rests, they added.

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