Morocco Inches Toward Reform

King's popularity after Gulf war allows him to slow pace on meeting demands for change

ON Avenue Mohamed V in Rabat's old city, Mounir the barber quietly offers his political wisdom to the ears around which he carefully clips. "Our problem in Morocco is not the king - he is a very clever man," Mounir says, speaking of Hassan II, the monarch whose photo hangs prominently on the wall, as it does in most Moroccan shops and offices. "Whether he's dealing with other countries or the political groups here in Morocco, he always knows how to come out smelling like a rose, and the people like that."

"Our problem here is the corruption," Mounir continues. "If you wanted to repave this street, it would cost twice what it should, so the officials could line their pockets and drive their shiny cars. And all that while others have trouble scratching up enough to eat."

Mounir's comments capture the major issues facing Morocco as it struggles to modernize its political and economic systems.

The king's resurgent popularity after the Gulf war is likely to allow him to go slow on reforms sought by opposition parties. But observers say the danger is that going slow could exacerbate frustrations over the country's economic difficulties and the striking gulf between the Mercedes-driving privileged and the masses.

Hassan II is well-viewed and considered above the fray of party politics. This popularity complicates difficult efforts to loosen the conservative government's grip on power, which the opposition says has bred corruption.

During the Gulf crisis, some opposition representatives cited massive pro-Iraqi demonstrations as evidence the king was out of touch with the public. Hassan has since replaced a certain willingness to consider constitutional reforms with suspicion and rebuff, observers here say. He is considered to have at least two factors in his favor as he bides his time:

r-Public hindsight seems to have vindicated his Gulf war policy: Many Moroccans, like Mounir, now say the king was right to choose a middle road, sending a symbolic force of 2,000 soldiers to "defend" Saudi Arabia while expressing sympathy for the Iraqi people during the war.

r-The prospect for settlement of the 16-year-old Western Sahara conflict by January 1992.

Moroccans are relieved at the United Nations plan to hold a referendum to resolve the former Spanish colony's status. But in their eyes the only acceptable response is confirmation of the Western Sahara as part of Morocco. When Hassan says Morocco's efforts must focus on monitoring steps leading up to the vote, hardly anyone disagrees.

"The referendum is the priority national issue," says Abdelhag Tazi, an ex-minister and now a leader of Istiqlal, the largest opposition party. "It requires vigilance and a unified mobilization."

Still, Mr. Tazi says "placing the priority on one issue should not rule out acting on another." Reforms to guarantee fair elections and make the parliament a true legislature with checks and balances are needed, he says.

Tazi's party left the ruling coalition in 1985, largely over elections seen as massively falsified.

Opposition parties have threatened to call a strike if reforms are not undertaken, but leaders acknowledge that new laws will not be enough.

"Nothing will change until there is the political will to enforce what is set out on paper," says Fathallah Oualalou, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) parliamentary group leader. In that light, a call by Hassan in March for national elections (expected in summer 1992) was seen as cause for hope.

Government sources acknowledge "problems" with past elections, but insist repeated victories were because of demographics.

"Our country retains a 65 percent rural population, and these people are by nature conservative and suspicious of change," says an official. "That puts them instinctively on the side of the powers in place."

It is primarily the urban population that has reacted against the inequities. An economic restructuring program begun in 1983 earns good marks from international observers. But the belt-tightening coincided with the birth of a new class of wealthy among public servants.

When an opposition leader like Tazi says that "public corruption has thrived because the political system guarantees the absence of any serious controls or sanctions," he gains eager listeners, especially among the growing numbers of unemployed youth.

The king has taken some measures to reach youth. Last year he appointed an Advisory Council on Youth Affairs. The council was recently charged with finding jobs by year's end for 85,000 unemployed youth with at least a high school diploma.

According to Habib el-Malki, the council's general secretary, employing educated youth is one way to guarantee that democratization continues. Whether landing a job is enough to satisfy the youth remains to be seen.

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