Prince Moulay Hicham Benabdallah '85, third in line to the throne of Morocco, is smart, urbane, charming, articulate and highly educated. He is also a passionate, outspoken democrat and reformer. This has gotten him into all sorts of trouble.
In the archly traditional world of the Moroccan royal family, praising democracy is indulged, but criticizing the monarch is a strict taboo, akin to insulting Islam. In 1995, the prince went on the record with his view that the royal family should surrender its power to an elected politician. When his cousin King Mohammed VI took the throne, he expressed his displeasure by banning the prince from the palace for good.
These days, Moulay Hicham, as he prefers to be known, resides in Princeton, in the same graceful gray stone mansion he lived in for part of his undergraduate years.
"My father bought this house," he said. "When he traveled he always had a lot of people with him— bodyguards and aides — so it was easier for him to stay here."
The sitting room embodies the contradictions of Hicham's life in America. The Arabic news channel Al Jazeera plays on a huge flat-screen TV. The Quran is prominently displayed above the fireplace, next to photographs of Hicham's two daughters. A Christmas tree glitters nearby — "for the children," he explained. "They are asking questions ... 'why have we come here?' It was a negotiation."
The bookcase is straight out of a style magazine, with Buddha statues and tasteful vases. Amber prayer beads are draped over the coffee-table and Hicham relaxes in a leather armchair. A servant brings sweetened mint tea served in slender glasses on a silver tray. "It's traditional Moroccan tea," said Hicham, "but the mint is from New Jersey."
At home, Hicham wears jeans, a navy blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of a spa resort and immaculate black leather brogues. Although he prefers to dispense with ceremony, he exudes well-bred, casual elegance. He plays with Muslim prayer beads as he talks about Morocco, drumming on the chair to add emphasis.
Hicham grew up in the Royal Palace complex in Rabat, a grand city-within-a-city, with its own mosques, schools, libraries, stables, guards and a staff of thousands. Hicham was 19 when his father died of cancer, and the notoriously authoritarian King Hassan— famous for his lavish lifestyle and repressive state security apparatus — took on responsibility for his upbringing, becoming a father figure.
Hicham, who arrived in Princeton in 1981, said he had fond memories of his time on campus. He lived in Witherspoon Hall and ate in the dining hall as an upperclassman instead of in an eating club.
One night, he and a friend pulled an all-nighter before their last exam. Wandering along Nassau Street at 3 a.m., they were picked up by local police, who mistook them for the armed robbers who had just held up Hoagie Haven. They spent an hour in custody before the matter was cleared. This caused a minor diplomatic incident, Hicham said, with the police apologizing to the Moroccan embassy the next day.
When Hicham returned to Morocco, his relationship with the king became strained.
"There were two worlds colliding, one traditional world and one of a young person who was very conscious of who he was in terms of his heritage but also adopting other ways from the West," Hicham said. "In a sense this wasn't any different from what happens in any Moroccan household, except this was at the center of it all ... I started having my own political views, which were very progressive for the context."
Tourists in Marrakech might regard Morocco as one of the most secular, liberal countries in the Arab world, but an undercurrent of despotism lurks beneath this veneer. Just before his death in 1997, King Hassan took the unprecedented step of allowing the opposition leader Abderrahmane Youssoufi to become prime minister. In doing so, Hassan conceded the longstanding debate — simmering ever since Morocco's independence from France in 1956 — over how the monarchy should relate to its people. But the King remained in charge, and the Parliament continued to automatically approve his decisions.
When Hassan's 35-year-old son, King Mohammed VI, took power, Morocco was swept by tremendous hope and desire for change. Journalists and pro-democracy politicians began calling for a new constitution that would limit the enormous power of the royal family.
"I was part of that group, and I was extremely vocal, because I thought it was not only in the interests of the country, but also of the monarchy," Hicham said. "A royal prince takes part in that debate and is in the camp of those who say we have to have an institutionalized monarchy. Some close family members said, 'Are you crazy?' "
In response to this pressure, King Mohammed VI instituted some reforms, including a sweeping review of personal status law that gave women many more rights, and a South Africa style "Forum for Truth and Justice" to hear accounts of abuses from his father's day.
But many in Morocco would say that this was just a facade. Critics point out that the monarchy remains as absolutist as ever, controlling the economy and dispensing power and patronage to the lucky few. "I always felt that the reforms fall short of the potential Morocco has," Hicham said.
The Moroccan monarchy has existed for 12 centuries, and the person of the king is regarded as sacred and inviolable. King Mohammed VI reacted badly to Hicham's critique, banishing him from the royal household. But Hicham, who is a fervent and thoughtful advocate for democracy, stuck to his guns.
A few years later, the Moroccan secret police resorted to hardball tactics to persuade Hicham to keep quiet: they embarked on a smear campaign. People around him were intimidated and forced to sign false statements, while Hicham was accused of destabilizing the state. They constructed a dossier, saying he was preparing a coup and that he was in contact with the Algerians or with radical fringes of Islamists.
At first, he was undeterred. "You have a natural drive to defend yourself. You have courage, a natural aversion to injustice," he said.
But he realized that Morocco was not going to change overnight. "I was taking on some very conservative attitudes within society," he said. "I really had to do some soul-searching. Moroccans want change, yes, they want to ameliorate their lives, live in dignity, in full rights, but what does that concretely mean in terms of constructing a new order and institutions they want?"
In 2002, Hicham left Morocco and moved to Princeton with his wife Malika and young family. "I decided this was a diversion and distraction to what the country needs to debate," he said. "It is ultimately dangerous and pointless to myself and my family. I decided I needed to get some distance from it — not just distance but altitude." He visits Morocco at least once a year, where he sees members of his close family on a personal basis, though never the King.
Hicham boasts an impressive string of achievements. Before his break with the Moroccan royal family, he was a successful businessman in real estate and agro-industry. In 1999, shortly after the war in Kosovo, he worked for the United Nations mission there, and he has had stints as an election observer with the Carter Center in Nigeria and Palestine. He speaks Arabic, French and English fluently and slips smoothly between all three when chatting with Malika and their daughters at home. He also speaks Spanish.
With a Master's degree in international relations from Stanford, he is independently wealthy and owns his own business, Al-Tayyar Energy, which generates renewable energy from biomass in Thailand. In 1994, he founded Princeton's Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, which he says is his way of expressing his gratitude to Princeton and of building bridges with the Arab world.
Hicham is as outspoken in Princeton as he was in Morocco. He says that the war in Iraq has radicalized Muslims, that American policy in the Middle East has been a failure and that political Islam will have to be reckoned with seriously as a force for good. "Without being naive, I think the danger of fundamentalism is when it is the only source of protest," he said.
He adds that American support for authoritarian regimes in the "war on terror" is a dangerous game. "America has really weakened civil society ... [because] the security services love to inflate the menace so there is no pressure on them to democratize," he said.
He takes a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which formed the topic for his senior thesis at Princeton. He believes that calling Hamas a terrorist group is overly simplistic and self-serving but also that Israel has the right to exist.
Hicham remains staunchly pro-democratic. "My positions remain the same. I will never renege them," he said. The proudest moment in his life, he said, was when he visited the Moroccan dissident Ali L'mrabet in prison and persuaded him to give up his hunger strike. But now, he says, "I do not want to be some dead weight, causing havoc in the Moroccan political landscape."
Hicham admits that he dislikes his nickname, the "Red Prince," as he was dubbed by the Moroccan palace for his liberal views. "It's simplistic, stereotypical and like the 'good king, bad king' distinction, puts people in conceptual boxes," he said. "It's intellectually lazy."
Some might say that Hicham would make a good king himself, the kind of progressive ruler from which many countries in the Arab world might benefit. To this, the rebellious prince has only one thing to say: "No. That was resolved before I was born." He switches on his computer and turns to his next pro-democracy project.