Mohammed VI, the absent king of Morocco
RABAT – When their king travels abroad, Moroccans look for news on social media, not the kingdom's official news agency.
Mohammed VI has kept a relatively low profile while in his country. But with his penchant for taking photos during his travels, the king supplements the royal palace's infrequent communiques, jumping at the chance to pose with ordinary Moroccans abroad and renowned artists he meets.
And it was just like this that Moroccans learned in late February that their sovereign had undergone surgery in Paris for an irregular heartbeat.
After weeks without news, a photo appeared on Facebook showing the monarch in a hospital bed, surrounded by his children and siblings.
Translation: "His Majesty, King Mohammed VI, with the help of God, successfully underwent an operation on Monday, 26 February 2018. His Majesty the king showed symptoms of a heart rhythm disorder on Saturday, 20 January 2018. His Majesty's doctors said medical examinations concluded the king was suffering an 'atrial flutter' but that his heart was healthy. The radiofrequency ablation of this arrhythmia, performed on Monday at the Ambroise Pare clinic in Paris, has normalised his heart rate. Following a prescribed rest period, the king will be able to resume his normal activities, with no restrictions whatsoever."
Lalla Salma, the monarch's wife, was notably absent. Around the same time, a little known blogger launched a smear campaign against the first lady, criticising her for "crossing swords with royal family members, and the monarch's inner circle and staff". The blogger concluded that her absence in the hospital photo was likely "the consequence" of marital tensions.
On 21 March, the day of the royal couple's wedding anniversary, the Spanish magazine Hola, citing sources close to the royal palace, said that "Mohammed VI had divorced Lalla Salma" - which many Moroccans had, of course, already suspected.
Translation: "Mohammed VI and Princess Lalla Salma - their romance in review."
The news was widely reported in the Spanish-language press but was largely ignored by Moroccan media outlets.
Ali Amar, a Moroccan journalist and editor of independent website Le Desk, wrote that the story had "sort of froze up the press".
"The argument, privately put forward by other media to justify their silence, that it was non-newsworthy or that it was an infringement of the king's privacy, was in actual fact a poor cover for their fear of drawing the wrath of the powers-that-be in an increasingly unpredictable and difficult context regarding freedom of the press, where widely practised self-censorship has become the accepted norm," Amar wrote.
The divorce has yet to be officially confirmed. The royal palace did not respond to Middle East Eye's requests for comment.
Between Paris and Betz
The king has been in Paris since his operation and, according to Maghreb Confidentiel, has twice cancelled his return to Rabat, first on 16 March and then on 23 March.
But as if to deny rumours of his poor health, Mohammed VI has been busy posting a new round of selfies with Moroccans living abroad and public figures such as Rabbi Israel Goldberg or the rapper and singer Maitre Gims and actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze, two artists to whom the sovereign is allegedly close.
With one photo, Gims posted the comment "with the King, who is in great form", answering the question that has been on the minds of Moroccans for several weeks.
Translation: "Actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze and the singer Maitre Gims in a new photo with King Mohammed VI."
The photos are usually published on a Facebook page administered by Soufiane El Bahri, a mysterious young man who claims he receives the photos from the people with whom the king appears, though in all likelihood they are sent to him by attaches of the royal palace.
"The pictures are judiciously selected to convey a specific message," Moroccan journalist and political analyst Omar Brouksy told MEE.
"There is the one where we see him in the hospital, surrounded by family members, expressing a message of closeness and transparency: the king is not in France for fun but for health concerns, and he wants to keep his 'beloved subjects' informed."
"And the one where we see him with a rabbi in a synagogue, again in Paris, sending a message of tolerance and confirming his status as the leader of the faithful, whether Muslim or Jewish."
Translation: "Seriously, why does the king spend so much time in France? Even if he were not supposed to actually govern, he should at least show a little respect for the taxpayer, who bankrolls his lifestyle, and show a little more diligence at the workplace."
The reasons for some of the king's repeated absences, said Brousky, "are eminently personal, though we do know that the king is attended to by French doctors in Parisian hospitals – public hospitals, it goes without saying. That says a lot about His Majesty's faith in his 'subject/doctors' and his kingdom's hospitals."
He added: "The king has a French culture [his first governess was French] and feels at home in France, where he has put down roots at the Chateau de Betz [in the Oise] and at his private mansion in the 7th arrondissement of Paris."
When Mohammed VI is in France, but not in Paris, he resides in Betz, the large estate bought by his father, King Hassan II, in 1972. His stays at his favourite holiday destination have prompted a flurry of activity in Betz, with local businesses in particular appreciating his lavishness.
But the king is also unstinting with his chequebook, whether financing a church, a community centre and a local football club.
"For the past several years, 15 children from the town and the region have even been invited to Morocco to discover the country," the magazine Le Point reported.
"The youths and the happy few, supervised by activity leaders, are put up in luxury hotels, like the one in Agadir where they are given the choice of a range of activities like jet-skiing or treks on camelback. To top it all off, the king gives 500 euros of pocket money to each of the children and 1,000 euros to each of the activity leaders."
'The right to be absent'
Though rarely mentioned in the Moroccan press, the king's absenteeism is regularly criticised on social media and a cause of "muted alarm" among his entourage and diplomatic circle, wrote Spanish journalist Ignacio Cembrero last October.
They are concerned about "the stability of Morocco on account of the sovereign's repeated unofficial absences without any explanations given to European representatives".
"Could the daily exercise of power be too much for Mohammed VI? Does he frequently feel the need for more freedom in foreign lands?" he wondered.
Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla had similar questions in 2013. "Does Mohammed VI, with all his royal titles, have the right to be absent so often and for so long without even announcing the dates and the extent of his travels?"
"Questioning the absences of King Mohammed VI and his repeated stays abroad, in particular in France, is not a violation of the king's private life," said Brousky.
"It is a curious phenomenon in the highest spheres of political power - the monarchy - and it no doubt impacts both the image and the exercise of power in Morocco."
He added: "It is perfectly legitimate for observers and citizens to analyse and freely comment on it."
The fact is, despite the adoption of a new constitution in 2011 which expanded the powers of the president, most of the power remains in the hands of the king.
"Political power in Morocco - real power and not that of the puppet Saadeddine Othmani, the president of government - like in any autocratic and absolute regime, is tied to the person and even the moods of the person who wields it," said Brousky.
"It is what constitutionalists like to call 'personal power', because it is closely related to the individual who possesses it, in this case the King Mohammed VI."
Translation: #News_Flash Mohammed VI, virtual king. Confirming his visionary and avant-garde approach, His Sherifian Majesty has decided to rule the Kingdom via a hologram. He would have the same constitutional status as SM.
So, said Brousky, the king's absence "directly impacts the exercise of power because people ask themselves, almost instinctively, if the king isn't here then who is in power, who is leading the country, who is calling the shots?"
"The reflex is typical of eastern non-democratic cultures where it is natural for a single person, the king, to steer the country alone. Therefore the king's repeated absences create an abnormal situation, a void that is often filled by what is called the royal entourage."
"The little information coming from the royal palace seems to confirm the scenario," said Brousky.
"It is Fouad Ali El Himma [senior adviser to the king, who was his classmate at the College Royale] and members of the royal cabinet - a group of 20 who comprise an extremely powerful shadow government - who run the country. His relationship with the royal cabinet and the government is a little like that of a schoolteacher with his students, but in a school for grown-ups."
On the security front, he added, the king "has the support of Abdellatif Hammouchi, who is in charge of the kingdom's different police forces. Together, they have been handling the social unrest in Rif and Jerada, adopting a strictly punitive approach with the assistance of a justice system that is anything but independent."
So as Mohammed VI continues his protracted stay in France, Morocco is caught up in an increasingly tricky situation.
There are a growing number of protest movements in Al Hoceima and Jerada challenging the king on the country's current economic growth policy which he himself has acknowledged as a failure, not to mention the repeated postponements of visits of foreign heads of state, including the king of Spain.
This article is an edited translation of the original French.