Standing beside the extraordinary Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca – the world’s second-largest religious building, built jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean between 1986 and 1993 – it is easy to conceive of Morocco as a country on the edge. On the edge of Africa, kissing Europe’s southern lip; on the edge of the Arab world, valued by successive White House administrations for its readiness to accept Israel’s existence.

But it is on the edge in a much more meaningful sense, with popular resentment building, the economy in freefall and a royal regime running so scared of Islamism that it is falling back on the bad old habits of repression.

When Muhammad VI succeeded his father Hassan II in 1999, it was widely hailed as the dawn of a new era in which the young king would take the country boldly forth into a new era of democracy and respect for human rights. And there have been a few promising developments. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have welcomed a greater openness on human rights issues, pointing particularly to the Equity and Reconciliation Committee set up at the beginning of 2004 to investigate the 6,000-odd cases of ‘disappearance’ or arbitrary imprisonment and torture during Hassan II’s reign – the first such initiative in the Muslim world.

But democracy remains a sham, despite the existence of a directly elected house of deputies. In practice the King retains absolute power, the ruling élite is corrupt and elections are seen as irrelevant, not least by the urban poor. On the eve of parliamentary elections in 2002, a newspaper poll showed that 9 out of 10 respondents could not identify, by name or ideological orientation, any of the political parties standing.

Islamism is the spectre at this feast. Morocco’s rulers are justifiably terrified at the prospect of the country descending into a civil war between Islamists and secular forces like that in neighbouring Algeria. The most popular Islamist party – al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) – is banned and its leader, Abdessalam Yassine, who advocates nonviolent change, has been under house arrest. Other Islamists have turned to terror – bomb attacks in Casablanca in May 2002 left 45 dead. In the wake of this, sweeping counter-terror legislation was passed at a stroke and a huge crackdown resulted in the arrest of more than 2,000 suspected militants, many of whom were held in prolonged incommunicado detention.

Faced with the growing appeal of Islamism to the urban poor, the King has clutched at the same straw as his father – the illusion of national unity supplied by the Western Sahara issue. Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony in 1975 and has since built a fortified wall the length of the occupied territory, in defiance of repeated UN attempts to persuade Rabat to allow a referendum on self-determination – Saharawis are the last colonized people in Africa not to have been given their chance of independence.

Morocco’s intransigence on this issue is indefensible, though the West has turned a blind eye because of its status as a reliable ally in the Arab world – and the European Union has just concluded a deal with Rabat to fish in Western Saharan waters, in contravention of international law.

Mass Saharawi demonstrations in the occupied territory and in southern Morocco since May have been met with brutal repression. Over 100 people were detained, many of whom were tortured, and 37 of those still imprisoned launched a hunger strike on 3 August. By the time it was suspended on 29 September, 14 of these had lost consciousness and been hospitalized.

Human-rights groups in Morocco and Western Sahara are now increasingly making common cause. The King cannot any longer play at democracy and social justice just to improve his image: the storm clouds are gathering fast.¦

Chris Brazier