As the Dec. 9 evening news proclaimed that King Mohammed VI had decided to award an annual prize for services to human rights, his security forces attacked hundreds of Islamists and human rights activists in the Moroccan capital of Rabat.
The next morning, the king's speech in the official newspaper Le Matin relayed his commitment to international norms of human rights. But in a box below, his interior ministry banned public gatherings marking the 52nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Since then, more than 800 protesters have been rounded up in the worst violence since King Mohammed ascended Morocco's throne in 1999.
The crackdown on the activists underscores the trouble the country is having with a young king who preaches human rights and reform, while his security forces resort to their past practices of repression.
"The messages are so contradictory," says a Western observer in Rabat. "Either he's king con, or the struggle on the streets reflects a struggle inside the palace."
Western observers say Morocco is now in the throws of a social upheaval countries like Iran experienced during the last years of the Shah's reign in the 1970s, and Algeria endured during the late '80s.
While more than half the population lives in rural areas, a two-year drought has sent hundreds of thousands to Islamist strongholds in urban slums. Mosques - hitherto shut between prayer calls - are opening doors to educate the 60 percent of Moroccans who are illiterate.
Under the 38-year rule of former King Hassan II, members of Makhzen, the secretive royal court, amassed vast, unaccountable wealth and power. Hundreds of Hassan's opponents disappeared in secret prisons and asylums. Social development was delayed for fear of upsetting the status quo. Yet Morocco was Africa's most stable state. It was an exotic haven for Western tourists and Europe's bulwark against the spillover of Algeria's Islamist uprising, which has claimed some 100,000 lives.
Today, the United Nations ranks Morocco as North Africa's most backward state. Beyond the walls of the king's 23 palaces, 5 million people live on less than a dollar a day. The king's golf courses are flood-lit, but 90 percent of villages have no electricity. Projects for electrification, water, and schools have now begun. But Moroccans ask how far King Mohammed can modernize while leaving his father's feudal hierarchy in tact.
When Mohammed replaced his father, he promised to turn the page on four decades of iron-fisted rule and launch "a new concept of authority."
Demonstrators marched safe from baton blows, independent newspapers and nongovernmental organizations flourished, and Abdessalame Yassine, leader of Morocco's largest but illegal Islamist group, Justice and Charity, was freed from nearly a quarter century under arrest.
The king also dismissed Driss Basri, the oppressive interior minister who handled his father's security affairs for more than 25 years. But his apparatus remained largely in tact. And most of the old guard security hard-liners have kept their positions.
The new monarch's vision earned him accolades ranging from "king of the cool" to the "Beatles of Arabian monarchy." When he went walkabout in marginalized towns, hundreds of thousands hailed him as "king of the poor."
But observers now fear the hard-liners in the palace no longer go along with the young king's reforms, and have counter-attacked.
The authorities have closed down three of the kingdom's most dynamic and outspoken press outlets - including its bestselling French-language magazine, Le Journal. The country's top foreign journalist, Claude Juvenal, bureau chief of the French press agency, has been expelled.
"There is no new era," declared Ali Lmrabet, editor of the banned Demain. "There is old dictatorship."
With journalists muzzled, human rights groups and the increasingly popular Islamists were the next targets. On Dec. 9, riot police clubbed then arrested the head of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, Abderrahmane Ben Amrou, and 40 supporters as they marched toward parliament square. The next day, Islamists from the Justice and Charity group, attempting to rally in Rabat and seven other cities, were similarly crushed. Hundreds were locked behind bars.
"We don't want Muslim Brothers creating the chaos of a second Intifadah," said a plain-clothes police officer, one of thousands patrolling the tense Rabat streets, referring to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
"They ask why we want human rights? We're human too," says Barri Abdelhaq, an Islamist youth leader who attended the rally.
Morocco's Islamists say they have suffered most from government restrictions. Their weekly paper, Risalat al-Foutawah, has been banned, and Justice and Charity has been denied a license to exist for refusing to recognize the religious authority of the king.
Until now, Morocco's Westernized secular society largely backed the restrictions, fearing the rapid rise of Morocco's Islamist movement would plunge the kingdom into the kind of bloodshed neighboring Algeria is experiencing. But now, secular and religious dissidents alike talk of sharing a common cause.
"We might not like their aims," says Ahmed Adaghani, a secularist and one of 46 lawyers who crowded into the Rabat courtroom to defend the protesters. "But when it comes to upholding civil liberty, lawyers unite as one."
And political commentators struggle to square the king's call for "international norms of human rights" and the security forces clubbing the crowds. "It's not as simple as lying," says Abdelhay Mouedden, politics professor at Rabat University. "The king just isn't comfortable with the actions of the hard-liners. It's not his vision."
But others argue that the system nurtured by Hassan II is simply speaking with double tongues.
"We're used to this Hassanian democracy," says Fouad Abdelmoumini, a spokesman for the human rights activists. "Even at the worst moments of repression, human rights has been the Makhzen slogan for decades."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society