For a quarter-century, the late King Hassan II's absolute powers were communicated and executed, for good or ill, by one man. Driss Basri, minister of interior and minister of communication, dispenser of favors, crusher of enemies, was the man behind the throne for much of the 38 years that Hassan ruled, an instrument by which the monarch bent to his will the Parliament, the bureaucracy and ultimately the people.
But King Mohammed VI, who took over on his father's death in July, has become known here for his big heart and his big vision for Morocco. And "the Basri system," as it was known, had no place in that vision. So last Tuesday, 36 years old and in office barely 100 days, Mohammed summarily dismissed Basri.
The event was seen by Moroccans as a radical departure. It rocked the country as few things have. "The headline we were tempted to use," declared Aboubakr Jamai, director of Morocco's controversial new weekly Le Journal in Casablanca, "was: 'The King Finally Buries His Father.' "
To many, the firing was an inevitable consequence of the generational shift underway in a country that is historically ancient but demographically young: 70 percent of its 30 million people are under 30. As in Jordan at the other end of the Arab world, power has shifted from a long-ruling monarch with wide experience to a young and untested successor.
But while King Abdullah in Jordan has taken a measured approach, Mohammed has stressed a new way of doing things--and, a royal adviser warned a diplomat here, "you haven't seen anything yet."
The degree to which the new king succeeds in making Morocco's system more representative politically, and more responsive to a difficult economic situation, will go a long way in determining the long-term stability of one of the United States' oldest allies and a longtime force for understanding in the Arab world.
In speeches and conversations, Mohammed has lived up to one of his designations: "king of the poor." He has put significant new emphasis on finding schools and jobs for Morocco's urban young and unemployed, its rural people, its handicapped. The king, also known as the commander of the faithful in this officially Muslim country, has declared that women are equal to men and that the Koran--the Islamic holy book that he is empowered to interpret--says as much.
Mohammed has made extraordinary gestures of reconciliation to victims of both his father's repressive tendencies and Basri's iron-fisted command of the police, security and domestic intelligence agencies. Within weeks of taking the throne, he brought home Morocco's best-known political exile, Abraham Serfaty.
"We always knew he favored democracy and social justice," remarked Mohammed Nabil Benabdallah, 40, a leader of one of the parties in the governing coalition. "But now we know he's actually the avant-garde--he's ahead of us. He's a man who knows the profound realities, and he has a formidable popularity. Now he needs a government capable of taking the initiative to implement change."
Morocco's prospects as it struggles to modernize and democratize may strike many in the West as a paradox: A new, pluralistic, egalitarian, educated and employed Morocco may well be possible. But if so, it is likely to be forged through the enlightened despotism of a monarch whose ancestors have ruled Morocco for most of the last 333 years.
Many Moroccans do not see the paradox. Their king, and the orderly, unquestioned succession from one king to another, represent ancient traditions and national unity. Andre Azoulay, a counselor to Hassan for a decade and to Mohammed since Hassan's death, sought to dispel the impression that the new king represents anything but continuity.
"He is not a clone of his father, but there is no rupture," Azoulay said. "His Majesty has, simply put, his own style, his own values, his own vision to accelerate what his father put in place."
Even so, politicians, journalists, human rights activists and diplomats have been struck by the young king's willingness to break with all kinds of traditions.
Mohammed, who is unmarried, has yet to move from the villa in suburban Rabat, the capital, where he lived as crown prince. When he is not aboard his motor scooter or his Jet Ski, he likes to take the wheel of his own car. His motorcade even stops at traffic lights. Reportedly appalled by the size of the palace staff, he has begun cutting.
In a triumphant early tour of the Rif, a northern area known for its rebelliousness that his father never visited, Mohammed waded into crowds in the rain to shake hands with thousands of cheering subjects.
"No political leader in Morocco could bring out crowds the way he did," said Ali Belhaj, president of a human rights association here. He conceded that this is a double-edged sword for the future of democratic institutions in Morocco.
As crown prince, with a French education and an internship at the European Union, Mohammed was rumored to favor evolution toward a British- or Spanish-style constitutional monarchy, with true power vested in elected government and the king a remote arbiter of national will and a handy overseas emissary. But the zest with which Mohammed has taken up the scepter, and replaced Basri with an inner circle of people his own age, makes many wonder if he is prepared to go that far--and if Morocco is ready.
Asked about this, Azoulay said Morocco, a kingdom for 14 centuries, needs no imported models. He also stressed Morocco's political stability. The Islamic fundamentalist political forces that have split other countries are relatively weak here.
The bigger threat to Morocco is poverty. Half its people live on less than $50 a month. More than a third lack safe drinking water and medical care. Half are illiterate.
Morocco's economy is better off than many in the Third World, with modest growth and low inflation. Foreign investment has leapt in the last decade, from $50 million to $2 billion. But service on $18 billion in debt and the costs of supporting Moroccan populations laying claim to former Spanish territory in Western Sahara seriously hamper economic development and job creation.
Basri's removal was significant, analysts here said, but the real test will be the young king's willingness to install true democracy--and quickly, by organizing clean elections for a new Parliament as early as next year, two or three years ahead of schedule.
It took riots and economic emergencies for his father to finally permit the elections last year that installed the current government of Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi--an opposition Socialist who was once in jail. But the elections were widely suspected of being rigged to benefit politicians and parties who had reached private arrangements with Basri.
"The question is whether we will have the 'state of law' Mohammed VI has promised," said Fouad Abdelmoumni of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. "Many are drawn by the euphoria of the moment, but the people will judge by deeds, not just image and goodwill."