In what is perhaps the boldest move yet by Morocco's new king, Muhammad VI on November 9 dismissed his late father's right-hand man, Interior Minister Driss Basri. Under the late King Hassan II, Basri was thought to be the second most powerful man in Morocco. He was said to have controlled most of Morocco's affairs, from the contentious Western Sahara issue to the detention of political prisoners down to the most mundane affairs.
While the move comes as no surprise given the apparent reduction of Basri's powers upon the ascension of King Muhammad, Basri's removal is a sign of the growing momentum behind the new king's government. Muhammad's latest move is the clearest indication thus far that things are changing in Morocco.
Basri entered the government in 1974 as Secretary of State for the Interior and, having developed close ties with King Hassan, became Interior Minister in 1981. But Basri's powers soon extended beyond that of an interior minister and he was said to control security operations, communications, elections and anything else in which King Hassan's will, no doubt already colored by Basri's advice, was to be implemented. A November 9 BBC report by analyst William Edmundson says, "Few decisions could be taken without Mr. Basri's approval."
From the beginning of Muhammad VI's rule -- when the new king appeared without Basri at his right hand in the public ceremonies -- Basri's role has been slowly diminished. The appointment of Abderrahmane Youssoufi as Prime Minister certainly foreshadowed Basri's imminent downfall. Youssoufi was once sentenced to death under Basri's reign and Edmundson writes that the Prime Minister found it difficult to push forward with popular reforms with Basri still in power.
With Basri gone, the government of King Muhammad and Youssoufi can be expected to increase the speed of the reforms currently in progress. And while Basri's dismissal was carried out with an apparent air of respect for Basri's services -- the new king perhaps being reluctant to directly challenge the legacy of his father -- the new administration seems more focused than ever on reforming a country that suffered a long list of human rights abuses under the 38-year rule of King Hassan.
King Muhammad's most visible reversal of his father's policies has been the release of thousands of political prisoners. Most recently, the King allowed a long-time critic of his father, Ibrahim Serfaty, to return from exile. There is also talk, according to the North African Journal on October 19, that Muhammad will soon allow the return of Abdel Salam Yassin, the leader of Al-Adl Wal Ihsan (Justice and Goodwill) Islamic movement who has been in exile since 1989.
Unlike his late father, who was frequently condemned by human rights groups, King Muhammad's moves to grant amnesty to political prisoners and exiles have earned him the praise of the Moroccan Organization of Human Rights (OMDH) and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. An OMDH October 1 press release lauds the King's moves towards amnesty as of being "a positive nature and in line with the consolidation of the rule of law," as quoted by the North African Journal.
Another significant break with the former administration of Basri and King Hassan has been King Muhammad's attempts to deal more fairly with the Western Sahara issue. Correspondents cited by the BBC on November 9 say that Basri's recent crackdown on independence demonstrators in the province could have been the immediate cause of his undoing, as the new king is anxious to break with what many consider to be the brutal policies of his predecessor. King Muhammad has so far evidenced his commitment to resolving the Sahara dispute by the appointment of a special envoy to the United Nations to organize a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara.
A further area of reform over the previous administration has been the alleviation of poverty, a campaign based on a notion of solidarity rooted in the nation's Islamic principles, according to a November 5 report by Maroc-Hebdo International. In this campaign, as with a similar one to protect the rights of women in Morocco, the administration is no doubt responding to what the North African Journal calls the popular "hopes of radical government changes."
While the new Moroccan administration has yet to deliver on badly needed assurances against torture of prisoners and corruption, Basri's dismissal is a sure indication that King Muhammad is committed to the rejuvenation of Moroccan society. But changing a few officials and freeing a few prisoners is a long way from reversing decades of rights abuses and poverty. Every new administration comes in with new officials and a new agenda. It remains to be seen whether King Muhammad and the Youssoufi government will remain committed to reform, or whether the apparent enthusiasm will fizzle out once the rhetoric of reform seems to have sufficiently appeased popular demands for change.
Zakariya Wright is a regular contributor to iviews.com