Connect to share and comment

How popular is Morocco's king? Don't ask.

Over the last 10 years, King M6 has made many reforms. But he retains absolute rule.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI talks with Spanish Queen Sofia during a gala dinner at the Royal Palace in Marrakesh on January 17, 2005. The Spanish royals' three-day state visit to Morocco was the first in 25 years. (Alberto Martin/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — The word “kingdom” is easy to gloss over in the official name of this North African nation, but that’s a risky slip to make.

The Kingdom of Morocco’s reigning monarch this month finished celebrating his 10th year on the throne, a period marked by unprecedented advances in democracy, women's rights and press freedom. Yet even as local and foreign media ran fulsome tributes to Mohammed VI — chummily known as “the cool king,” or “M6” — the ruler demonstrated just how absolute his power remains.

On August 1, the government seized more than 100,000 copies of publications that dared print the results of an opinion poll showing 91 percent of Moroccans approve of their king. The government’s explanation?

“The monarchy cannot be the object of debate, even through a poll,” Communication Minister Khalid Naciri announced as the offending publications were confiscated. Authorities destroyed the entire print run of the Moroccan newsmagazine “Tel Quel” and its Arabic-language sister publication “Nichane,” which both carried the poll.

“I was at the printers the day the copies were seized,” said Tel Quel’s editor-in-chief, Ahmed Benchemsi. “They wouldn’t let me out with even one. There were police everywhere.”

Moroccan authorities said the censorship does little to tarnish the king's record of reform that stands as an example for other Arab nations. Observers here and abroad acknowledge the gains of the past decade but many wonder whether further progress is possible while power remains so concentrated. “The system is way more open now but any crackdown can happen, anytime, for any reason,” said Benchemsi, who was hauled into court in 2007 and 2008 for other articles critical of the king.

He said the timing of the latest crackdown — at the moment set aside to celebrate the monarch's first 10 years in power — was particularly unfortunate. “It just ruined the whole thing,” Benchemsi said.

The communication ministry says the sacred status of the monarchy is written into Moroccan law and, because opinion polls undermine that status, authorities had no choice but to censor the findings. “Even if the results are 100 percent in favor of the monarchy it’s a problem,” Naciri said.