MOROCCO: The Challenger

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Last week a fiery-eyed grocer's son stood among 2,000 cheering Moroccans in a Casablanca movie house to announce the formation of a new political party, the National Union of Popular Forces. It was the most important political development in Morocco since the North African kingdom got its independence 3½ years ago, and it made its leader, 39-year-old Mehdi ben Barka, the most important man in Morocco next to King Mohammed V and the monarchy's unquestioned challenger.

For 15 years Morocco's only major political force has been the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, a coalition of wealthy landowners, eager left-wing social reformers and skillful politicians united by a passionate desire for freedom from French rule. When independence came, the cement that held this unlikely combination together began to crumble, and last January the party fell apart. Its right wing is led by the conservative Allal el Fassi, 49, who is little interested in Morocco's masses, devotes much of his time to visionary schemes for a "Greater Morocco," including large chunks of the Sahara. Istiqlal's left wing, which Ben Barka led away to form the nucleus of his new party, impatiently demands land redistribution and "other reforms to help Morocco's impoverished millions.

"To Be Watched." Diminutive (5 ft.) Mehdi ben Barka has been in rebellion against one thing or another since early youth. A brilliant mathematics student, he was tabbed at 14 by one of his teachers as "first in his class; mixes with nationalists: to be watched." The youngest man to sign the Istiqlal independence manifesto of 1944, Ben Barka showed such talent at organizing and publicizing Morocco's fight for independence that nationalist French newsmen dubbed him "the Moroccan Goebbels."

Last week Ben Barka's enemies, hoping to stop him in his tracks, said he had gone too far and would threaten the existence of Morocco's monarchy. Whether or not King Mohammed took these charges at face value no one knew, but fact was that no sooner had Ben Barka proclaimed his National Union than the palace took away the official car and offices that he had been enjoying as president of Morocco's impotent Consultative Assembly.

No Love for Teacher. Ben Barka himself insists that he fully supports popular King Mohammed ("Morocco is indeed fortunate to have such an enlightened King"). And early in his career he was in high enough favor with the King to be appointed tutor to Crown Prince Moulay Hassan. But there is bad blood between Ben Barka and his former pupil, who has sided openly with Istiqlal's right wing in the current political dispute. And as commander in chief of the army, Moulay Hassan has troops to back him up.

As long as King Mohammed survives, Ben Barka and his National Union are unlikely to challenge the palace directly. But should young Moulay Hassan succeed to the throne, or should he use the army .to make trouble for Ben Barka, Morocco's absolute monarchy would be pitted face to face with Morocco's most adroit and formidable political organizer.