Wikileaks: The Moroccan king's fears

Two attempted coups in Morocco during the 1970s (which came close to succeeding) continue to cast a long shadow over relations between the king and his military, according to a Wikileaks document.

The document – a memo from the US embassy in Rabat dated August 2008 – says Mohammed VI has slightly more confidence in the armed forces than his father, but "the monarchy still calculates that the military represents the biggest potential threat to the crown".

King Mohammed, it says, had only recently begun to allow armed military flights north of Ben Guerir air base (200km south of Rabat) – "an act not permitted in the past due to the king's desire to keep the military far away from the palace in Rabat".

The Alaouite dynasty depends on a strong military, the note explains, but its commanders "must remain sufficiently docile so as not to arouse suspicions of disloyalty". 

Consequently, the king keeps them on a short leash, with most of the forces stationed far to the south in Western Sahara. "No troop movements, exercises, or even travel of officers domestically or abroad happens without the king's approval."

Morocco's Gendarmerie is controlled separately from the army and air force, "in part as a check against a military coup," the document says:

While it most visibly serves as a state police/highway patrol, it has a wide range of units. Its commander, Lt Gen Benslimane, likely reports in some way directly to the king. He also leads the Moroccan National Soccer League, making him a popular figure inside and out of military circles. 

While there is no direct proof of Benslimane being involved in corrupt activity, low ranking Gendarmerie assigned to highway patrols are expected to pay approximately 4,000 dirhams ($540) to their immediate supervisors with extralegal earnings from motorists above which they can keep for themselves, according to one credible anecdote.

Discussing corruption in the military, the document continues:

Corruption is prevalent at all levels of Moroccan society and the military is also plagued by it, particularly at the highest levels. This may partly reflect a grand bargain struck by King Hassan II following at least two nearly successful coups in the 1970s: remain loyal, and you can profit. (Those whose loyalty was in question were subject to sometimes decades of harsh imprisonment.)

Credible reports indicate that Lt Gen [Abdelaziz] Benanni is using his position as the Commander of the Southern Sector to skim money from military contracts and influence business decisions. A widely believed rumour has it that he owns large parts of the fisheries in Western Sahara. Benanni, like many senior military officers, has a lavish family home that was likely built with money gleaned from bribes. 

Leadership positions in regional sectors are a significant source of extralegal income for military leaders. There are even reports of students at Morocco's military academy paying money to increase their class standings in order to obtain positions in lucrative military postings. 

Command in the southern sector, i.e., Western Sahara, given the predominance of military activity there, is considered to be the most lucrative of the sectors in this regard. Because command in the southern sector is also considered critical to high level advancement in the [Moroccan armed forces], positions there are highly sought after. 

Consequently, positions in this sector are often jealously "guarded" by a number of influential families in the military. The [Moroccan government] seems to be looking for ways to stop corruption, especially among the formative military ranks of colonel and below, but not much is being done to stop the corruption in the general officer ranks.

Corruption also makes it difficult to pension off older officers and promote younger ones:

Senior officers refusing to retire to allow younger officers to move up the ranks has become a significant problem for the FAR. Officers nearing the mandatory retirement age do not want to retire since this would mean relinquishing bribes, money-skimming, and some related sources of income. 

Even for those officers not "on the take", giving up government positions and paychecks is economically difficult for a sustained retirement. This "gerontocracy" problem, coupled with the king's notorious micro-management of the military has had a negative impact on the morale of mid-level military leaders.

In the 1971 coup attempt, rebels troops attacked the royal palace while King Hassan was having his 42nd birthday party. Ninety-two people died and four generals, five colonels and one major were later shot by firing squad.

The following year, three air force planes attacked King Hassan's Boeing 727 as it returned from France. The king allegedly seized the controls and called his attackers on the radio: "Stop firing! The tyrant is dead." Fooled by this, they allowed him to land safely.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 Dec 2010.