Morocco's Hassan dies of heart attack

Wily Arab autocrat survived many plots

crown passes to son

July 24, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

King Hassan II, who ruled Morocco for 38 years, prolonging the life of a 300-year-old dynasty in an era when monarchies in Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Iran fell to socialist revolutions or the force of militant Islam, died yesterday in Rabat, Morocco. He was 70.

The cause of death was a heart attack, Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed, the king's 36-year-old son and successor, announced. The king, who had been in fragile health since he was hospitalized in the United States four years ago for lung problems, had been admitted earlier in the day to a Rabat hospital for an acute lung infection, according to a palace statement.

The United States and its allies considered Hassan one of the most Western-oriented Arab leaders. Through the years he acted as a go-between in Middle East diplomacy, helping to arrange a visit to Jerusalem in 1977 by Egypt's leader, Anwar el Sadat, and, during the 1980s, meeting with the Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

He survived a half-dozen assassination attempts and uprisings. On one occasion, he intimidated the leader of rebel troops by looking him in the eyeand reciting the first verse of the Koran.

Another time, when pilots of his own air force attacked his Boeing 727 jetliner, the king, himself a pilot, seized the radio and shouted, "Stop firing, the tyrant is dead," fooling the rebels into breaking off their attack.

The heir to the Alawite dynasty that claimed direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed, Hassan was the author of Morocco's first constitution. But he was at heart an autocrat.

He tolerated opposition parties and a relatively free press that could offer opinions on policy matters. But criticism of the monarchy was forbidden, and his ruthlessness in crushing opponents was severely criticized by human rights groups.

His success lay in an ability to be different things to different people. He kept Morocco's elite content with royal patronage and instituted market-oriented reforms that improved the lives of the urban middle class. He used his position as "Commander of the Faithful" to woo the rural peasantry, quadrupled the number of mosques and constructed the world's largest, the Great Mosque of Hassan II.

Moroccans said of Hassan that he had "baraka," or "blessedness," an Arabic expression for a charismatic person blessed with divine protection. Yet, when he ascended the throne on Feb. 26, 1961, most observers expected him to fail.

Moulay Hassan ben Mohammed Alaoui was born July 9, 1929, the oldest of six children of Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Youssef. Most of Morocco was then a protectorate of France.

The young prince attended the imperial college at Rabat. Later, he earned a law degree from the University of Bordeaux and served in the French navy.

But his father's agitation for Moroccan self-government continued, and in 1953 the French forced the sultan into exile. In 1954 and 1955, Hassan's father regained his title, and the following year Morocco won independence.

Hassan worked with his father, now Mohammed V, to maintain the monarchy's authority. In 1957, he became the commander in chief of the Moroccan army.

After the death of Mohammed V, Hassan, who had been named prime minister in 1960, moved quickly to establish his rule. His constitution, which was ratified in 1962, guaranteed freedom of the press and of religion, and created an elected legislature.

As the 1970s unfolded, the king took several steps to dampen domestic turmoil. In 1973, he put through measures to increase Moroccan ownership and employment in companies doing business in Morocco and redistributed farmland owned by foreigners to peasants.

"He alternated very cleverly between the kinds of reforms that would be popular with the people and the kinds of reforms popular with the ruling elite and in doing so was popular with both," said Robert H. Pelletreau, a former assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Hassan was adept at managing Arab-Israeli relations and liked to say that he viewed Morocco's Jewish population, which numbers around 8,000, as a bridge between Israelis and Arabs.

In 1982, he was the host of a meeting of Arab leaders in Fez and he pushed through agreement on a peace plan that called for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital but implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist.

Although it was rejected by Israel, the plan laid the groundwork for the king to meet with Prime Minister Peres in 1986. When he was criticized by Arab leaders for meeting Peres, he assailed them for having neither the ability to make war on Israel nor the willingness to make peace.

In September 1993, Morocco gave de facto recognition to Israel by welcoming Rabin in the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to an Arab nation other than Egypt.

The king is survived by his wife, Lalla Latifa, three daughters and two sons, including the crown prince.

Like his father, the crown prince comes to the throne with the reputation of a playboy. He was educated in France.

Pub Date: 7/24/99

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