`Sabre of God' is laid to rest

 

King Hassan II, "Sabre of God on Earth", "Forward Sentinel of Islam", "Commander of the Faithful" and 17th monarch of a dynasty founded in 1666, was taken from the royal palace in Rabat yesterday to his final resting place beside his father and younger brother in the Mohamed V Mausoleum.

The Moroccan king's coffin was draped with a green velvet cloth on which the first prayer of Islam, "There is no God but Allah and Mohamed is his Prophet . . .", was embroidered in gold thread. The coffin bobbed on a sea of red fez head-dresses and white djellaba robes as it was carried to a waiting Moroccan army jeep for the 3km procession.

Fifty heads of state had travelled to the Moroccan capital to pay their respects: Arabs and Israelis, Europeans and Americans, President and Mrs Clinton, President and Mrs Chirac, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the new Algerian President, Mr Abdel aziz Bouteflika, and the UN Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan.

King Abdullah of Jordan was there too, only five months after his own father's death, offering condolences to Morocco's new monarch, like himself an inexperienced man in his 30s.

The guest list read like an exoneration of King Hassan's 38-year reign. It was as if the blinding sun that beat down on the 1.5 million funeral-goers had reached into the darkest shadows of King Hassan's rule and bleached his record clean.

President Clinton said, "The Middle East has lost one of its greatest peacemakers." Mr Arafat called his death "a catastrophe for the Palestinian people".

Those who had suffered most under Hassan's iron rule said they too felt sorrow. The king was a symbol of the Moroccan nation, which regarded him as its father, Moroccan and French commentators said.

Yet the Oufkir family's reaction defied understanding. In 1972 their husband and father, Gen Mohamed Oufkir, staged a failed coup against "the great survivor". Officially the general "committed suicide" - with five bullets in his body. His widow and six children were locked up for 20 years in a filthy cell.

Yet the general's son, Raouf, said he wanted "to remember only the good moments" with the king.

"I wept all night," said Ms Fatima Oufkir, the widow. "A whole world has collapsed."

The general's eldest daughter, Ms Malika Oufkir, whose book on her 20-year captivity is a bestseller in France, had been raised in the royal palace as a sister to King Hassan. "It is a time for hope, reconciliation and solidarity with the young king," Ms Oufkir said.

Crown Prince Sidi Mohamed announced his father's death from a heart attack precipitated by lung disease on Friday evening. Overnight the shy, unmarried prince, who will be 36 next month, became King Mohamed VI.

But as Morocco enters 40 days of official mourning, King Mohamed will be contemplating his father's mixed legacy: one of the world's greatest family fortunes totalling billions of dollars in a country with 30 per cent unemployment and 55 per cent illiteracy. Morocco is the world's leading exporter of cannabis, which is the primary source of foreign currency. Government corruption is endemic.

In his last years King Hassan managed to stave off Islamist rebellion and took steps towards establishing a constitutional monarchy. But if Mohamed VI wants to continue his father's charmed existence, he will have to give substance to his father's initiatives.