Africa Confidential, July 1971

MOROCCO
The royal escape
An incompetent plot by right-wing officers to oust King Hassan II resulted in his 42nd birthday party being disrupted by a spectacular shoot out in the palace grounds. In the aftermath Hassan responded with a characteristic mix of political manoeuvring and a relentless security crackdown. Africa Confidential's correspondent in Rabat had evidently been attending the birthday, or was close to someone who was, and provides an account of the failed coup in considerable and interesting detail.

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From the Africa Confidential archives

AC Vol 12 No 15 | 23 July 1971


Despite his survival of an attempted coup d'etat earlier this month the position of King Hassan remains difficult. The army has lost much of its top leadership and the King is heavily dependent on his faithful strong-man, Interior Minister General Mohamed Oufkir. Morocco's political parties, the moderate Istiqlal and the more radical Socialist Union of People's Forces (USFP) remain in the wilderness, and Parliament is too much a client body to provide any real outlet for popular grievances. The failure of the coup will lead to another period of strict authoritarian rule in the country. Thus the King's genuine hopes for a partial democratisation of his own regime are dashed once again. 

Though the political difficulties together with the country's daunting economic problems combine to produce a bleak outlook for Morocco, some of the King's own personal qualities do give grounds for some hope. He is undoubtedly a courageous man – throughout the nightmarish events he handled himself very well –  and he remains a politician to his fingertips. One says some of his personal qualities because his own and his family's conspicuous wealth and spending inevitably remain irritants in such a poor and relatively urbanised country.

A correspondent in Rabat describes the coup:
As a coup d'etat it was a terribly bungled job. For such happenings two o'clock in the morning has proved a more auspicious hour than two o'clock in the afternoon. And the failure to concentrate the rebel forces in one place was also a mistake. King Hassan himself described the whole business as childish and undeveloped.

There were some 400 guests at the King's seaside palace at Skhirate, 15 miles south of Rabat, including the entire government led by Prime Minister Ahmed Laraki, and the whole Diplomatic Corps. They were invited to come in their sporting clothes, with swimming suits, golf clubs or shotguns. The party was to celebrate the King's 42nd birthday, which fell on 9 July; but being a Friday, the Moslem Sabbath, it was held the following day.

Lunch began at about one o'clock. Very informal. Tables were set in the corner of patios, around the swimming pool, on wide terraces with plate-glass windows overlooking the beach and the ocean.

Buffets were laid out in various parts of the ensemble, heaped up with lobsters, fish-fowl and meat dishes, many of them lacquered and all of them extravagantly decorated. Guests were scattered over a wide area. Gen. Mohamed Medbouh, Minister of the Royal  Military Household, was listening to chatter about the morning's golf game. He seemed his usual self, undemonstrative, rather reserved, monosyllabic. The Egyptian and Argentinean Ambassadors were complaining they could not hear very well, temporarily deafened by a clay-pigeon shooting session. The Portuguese Chargé d' Affaires was mulling over a personal legal problem he had just been discussing with the Minister of Justice. The King was with his personal physician, Dr. Beni Aish, and his uncle, Prince Moulay Hassan Ben Mehdi, and together they had just been playing with a toy helicopter presented to the Monarch's younger son, Moulay Rachid. The King's brother, Prince Moulay Abdallah, was standing with his hands behind his back, wearing a white djellaba robe, one of the few people in traditional dress. His wife, Lamia Sohi, several months pregnant, was one of the few women present. An orchestra played. The sun shone.

Then utter confusion; Prince Moulay Abdallah was seen staggering across a patio, his djellaba stained with blood. Troops who looked like parachutists burst in. Grenades and mortar bombs were exploding. The king was seen walking with Interior Minister Gen. Mohamed Oufkir towards his private apartments. He was not seen again for over two hours. A slightly built man in his early forties stepped forward. 'I am Colonel Boulhimez,' he said. A soldier gunned him down. 'Chine Populaire! Chine Populaire!' shouted the Peking Ambassador; 'Je m'en fous!' (I couldn't care less) yelled a soldier, spraying a burp gun across a terrace. Several Moroccans were called out by name and summarily shot as they stepped forward, including Gen. Driss N'Michi, Commander of the Airforce. Some guests were robbed of money, watches and papers. 'We are doing this in the name of the army and the people,' a soldier explained. 

At about 4.30 p.m. King Hassan was seen, 'looking livid', coming out of his private apartments, accompanied by a young officer and several soldiers of the attacking force. There was a muttered conversation, the officer saluted, kissed the King's hand and stood to attention.  There were cries of 'Wahia Hassan Tani!' (Long live Hassan the Second). 

By this time the troops (all of them Ahermoumou cadets) were scurrying out of the palace, piling into waiting trucks and driving towards Rabat. Ambulances screamed to the scene, meeting the convoy of trucks full of singing soldiers waving their weapons and shouting , 'Vive la Révolution!' but their cries were drowned by the ambulance sirens. 

The King was calm and decisive. He called Oufkir, invested him with all civil and military powers, and commanded him to restore order. The General donned a battle dress, shouldered a sub-machine gun and left. 

Gen. Bachir Bouhali, Inspector General of the Royal Armed Forces, was ordered back to Army HQ in Rabat, but when he arrived he found the buildings occupied by hundreds of non-commissioned officer cadets from the Ahermoumou training school, commanded by Colonel Mohamed Ababou

By midday on Sunday the situation was almost back to normal. Later at a press conference, the King's sang froid was superb. When the lights went out at his villa where the conference was being held, he calmly pulled out a cigarette lighter, lighted pink candles on gold candelabra on a cupboard behind him, and walked over to a corner of the room where he opened a fuse box. 'The system is overloaded with all these camera lights,' he said, touching the fuses to see which one was hot. Earlier, during the coup itself, he kept his cool all the time, throughout the shooting and shouting. 

The government story 
The official version is that the coup was the work of 'a bunch of bloated potentates' led by the 'paranoid schizophrenic' Medbouh, who 'grossly misled' a group of 1,400 cadets from Ahermoumou by telling them the King was in danger and had to be 'saved'. Saturday morning, according to officials, the cadets left Ahermoumou in a convoy of trucks thinking they were going on manoeuvres with live ammunition to be staged in, of all places, Ben Slimane near Casablanca and, when they arrived on the main highway in front of the Skhirate palace, they were suddenly told a coup d'état was under way inside the palace. They were then each issued with a phial of a stimulant drug and shot their way inside. The King said they were all sweating profusely (it was a hot, dry day), had jerky gestures and staring eyes under the influence of the drug and, when the effect wore off, they surrendered.  Even making allowances for dramatisation in the heat of the moment, this version lacks credibility, to say the least, unless Ahermoumou is really a lunatic asylum. 

The outlook
On the home front the outlook is definitely for increased authoritarianism, almost as if the coup had succeeded in fact. The King said more 'seriousness and severity' would be necessary in the conduct of state affairs. He made it clear also that he now thinks there is too much freedom to criticise; he claimed the country had been ' intoxicated' by the defeatist propaganda.  He did not mention austerity. He has a considerable amount of fence-mending to do in the Army, with nine out of 15 generals dead, but it seems unlikely that Gen. Oufkir will fill all the gaps himself, or remain the top dog. Oufkir needs the KIng too much, but he is distrusted, even hated, by everyone else, inside and outside the country. An Oufkir republic, or a royal regime with the King the prisoner of Oufkir, are both unthinkable. Some observers believe the King will try to break out of this circle of courtiers and sycophants, where he must think he can be trust no one, to enlist the support of the parties which have been out to grass for three years now. On this possibility the parties themselves were silent in the first week, obviously waiting to see what was going to come up on the horizon next. A Government Commission of Inquiry will investigate the coup, but it is highly unlikely that its findings will be made public.