In the first interview he has given since becoming king last July, Mohammed VI of Morocco talked last week with TIME's Cairo bureau chief, Scott MacLeod. Their conversation focused on the challenges facing the young monarch, and the Maghreb region's relations with Europe: TIME: How do you read the new generation of Arab rulers?
Mohammed VI: One should not think that a new generation will turn everything upside down or bring everything into question. Let us not forget that in our countries, tradition is very strong.
TIME: What is your hope for Morocco?
Mohammed VI: I may appear to be full of myself because I always want better. My childhood was very sheltered. I grew up in a palace. But I lived in Morocco as a Moroccan citizen. May I pay a tribute to my late father's memory: he insisted that I be educated in Morocco and not abroad, to better know the realities. So whatever I do, it will never be good enough for Morocco.
TIME: What advice did your father give you?
Mohammed VI: To govern is not to please, that is what my father used to say. You will have to make decisions that will not please yourself nor please people. But it will be for the welfare of the country.
TIME: What are Morocco's problems?
Mohammed VI: First of all there is unemployment, and agriculture, drought. There is the fight against poverty. I could talk about this endlessly: poverty, misery, illiteracy.
TIME: How do you envision the development of democracy?
Mohammed VI: Morocco has a lot to do in terms of democracy. The daily practice of democracy evolves in time. Trying to apply a Western democratic system to a country of the Maghreb, the Middle East or the Gulf would be a mistake. We are not Germany, Sweden or Spain. I have a lot of respect for countries where the practice of democracy is highly developed. I think, however, that each country has to have its own specific features of democracy.
TIME: People speculate that the Moroccan monarchy will evolve like the Spanish one.
Mohammed VI: I do not know. I have a lot of respect for His Majesty Juan Carlos. I call him Uncle Juan because he is an extraordinary person whom I have known for a long time. He is a relative almost. We often speak on the phone and I ask him for his guidance. But Moroccans are not Spaniards and they will never be. Democracy in Spain was very good for Spain. There should be a Moroccan model specific to Morocco.
TIME: How do you assess Morocco's Islamist movement?
Mohammed VI: As Commander of the Faithful, it is out of the question that I fight Islam. We need to fight violence and ignorance. It is true, when one strolls out, one sees women with scarves and men with beards. This has always been the case in Morocco. Morocco is built on tolerance.
TIME: How can Europe help Morocco?
Mohammed VI: We do not want Europe to assist us. We do not want Europe to give us handouts. All we ask is that Europe deals with us as a partner. As long as Morocco feels wronged, a new approach will be necessary. Whenever a country from the north of the Mediterranean looks toward a country on the southern shores, it automatically sees a potential threat. There were of course events that have caused concern in the north. [But] a certain misunderstanding has prevailed. Our role is to reassure Europe. Moroccans in Europe are peaceful, industrious people. They have never taken part in terrorist acts or used violence. Europeans, and Westerners, love to hate Maghreb countries. This mentality needs to be done away with. I think that we are now in a period of readjustment.
TIME: Doesn't the Maghreb need to get its house in order?
Mohammed VI: Yes, I shall answer frankly even if I were to provoke the wrath of some people. There is a problem between Morocco and Algeria. There is no problem between Morocco and the Saharan-Arab Democratic Republic [proclaimed by the Algerian-backed independence-seeking Polisario Front]. This is Algeria's creation. I refuse to take part in an Arab Maghreb Union meeting should the leaders, me included, enter into a contest on who will speak the loudest. We must deal with real economic and social issues, not with dossiers that will result in a greater division. I do very much admire [Algerian] President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who inherited a delicate situation. It is Morocco's duty to facilitate his task. Our interest will not be served should the Maghreb be divided. The little contacts we have had — not many, I must say — were very positive. He is very pleasant and has a great sense of humor.
TIME: Is there talk about a new compromise instead of a referendum for the Western Sahara conflict?
Mohammed VI: This is a decision I will not make on my own. We have our very active political parties and the [Moroccan] people are bound by consensus on the case of the Sahara. International opinion needs to understand that this is a vital issue for us.