Inside Politics

Meet the monarch. But no loud noises, please

Stephen Harper visits Morocco - carefully

A protester stands in front of the prime minister's office in Tunis this week to demand the removal of members of the ousted president's regime still in the government. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

At first, we all figured the Morocco leg of the prime minister's trip was an afterthought on the way home from the real business in Switzerland.

Stephen Harper went to Geneva, of course, to discuss the UN's vast maternal health initiative, which involves billions of dollars and millions of lives. The stop in Rabat was surely just a courtesy call on the way home. Morocco, after all, is often dismissed as a sleepy, post-colonial backwater with no oil.

After Tunisia, everything changed.

Suddenly, Harper found himself visiting an hereditary Arab monarchy where the same dynasty has been enthroned since the 17th Century. The king is fabulously rich and the people mostly poor. The king's father ruled for 38 years - that's even more than Mubarak in Egypt! The king appoints the prime minister, the cabinet, the judges, everybody. He owns much of the country and has palaces all over it.

But the average income of his subjects is barely $3,500 per year. Food prices are soaring. And... four people have set themselves on fire in the past week - three on Friday and one on Tuesday.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. On Monday, the government suddenly hiked food subsidies, saying it will protect Moroccans' purchasing power "at any price."

Really? At any price? Does it sound like the king and his ministers are nervous?

Of course, if you are an Arab autocrat and you are not nervous, then you are not keeping up with the news. To be sure, Morocco is not Tunisia - although it has tried to modernize and to improve access to education, just as Tunisia did - so that folks know about Facebook and Twitter. And King Mohammed VI, who succeeded Hassan II in 1999, is not reviled - far from it. He has repudiated his father's habit of "disappearing" dissidents and has improved the rights of women. Still, Stephen Harper clearly detects a need to tread lightly on this visit. Before leaving Geneva for Rabat, Harper was asked directly what he would say to those across the region who are now crying for democracy: "Are you with them?"

Harper skated away rapidly. He was going to Morocco to discuss trade, he said, and there's a strong Moroccan community in Canada. He would have a "interesting discussions" about those things and also about, well, those other things you mentioned in your question...

Whether he supports the calls for democracy, we still don't know.

Well, maybe it's a bad idea to utter such subversive words on the eve of a courtesy call. Maybe it's no time to throw fuel on the fire. And perhaps quiet, moderate Morocco, where the ruler's picture is on every corner, is not the place when an uprising will catch on.

Of course, they said that about Tunisia, too.
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