As public criticism mounted over the pace and efficiency of Morocco’s earthquake response, the government of King Mohammed VI issued its first public defense of the operation on Monday, saying authorities had promptly dealt with the disaster and devoted their efforts to rescue operations.
The powerful earthquake struck the High Atlas Mountains outside the southern city of Marrakesh on Friday evening, killing more than 2,800 people, according to the latest government figures. King Mohammed waited hours before making his first public statement about the disaster, and has issued little since.
In hard-hit villages visited by New York Times journalists over the weekend, there was no sign of rescue operations or government aid, although some help began arriving by Monday morning.
It was government spokesman Mustafa Paytas who responded to criticism of the relief efforts in a video posted on social media on Sunday evening, addressing them for the first time since the disaster.
“From the first seconds of this devastating earthquake, and in implementation of the instructions of His Majesty the King, all civil and military authorities and medical teams, both military and civilian, worked to intervene quickly and effectively to rescue the victims and recover the bodies of the victims.” Martyrs,” he said.
Mr. Paytas’s comments appear intended to show that the government is in control of the response. He went on to say that hundreds of doctors, nurses, ambulances and medical equipment were sent to hospitals in areas affected by the earthquake, adding that the government agreed to establish a fund to receive aid donations.
Since the earthquake, the Moroccan government has been generally silent, providing little information about rescue efforts and no regular updates on casualties.
In Morocco, power is concentrated in the hands of the king, and when it comes to all important state affairs, such as the current crisis, it is the royal palace that makes the decisions. This leaves other government institutions paralyzed, waiting for the king to take the lead on major issues.
“The aid has come too late,” Fouad Abdelmoumni, a Moroccan economist, said on Monday. He added: “The vast majority of victims had nothing to eat, and some did not drink, for 48 hours or more, including in areas accessible by roads that are still in good condition.” “Apparently, waiting for the king to give his instructions from above” had a lot to do with it.
“The fear of the king being blocked prevents people from taking full measures until he appears, which is expected, but you never know when that will happen,” Abdelmoumani said. “The fear of ignoring any initiative has also led administration officials to refrain from any action not explicitly sponsored by the Palace.”
Samira Setil, former head of news at state television channel 2M, defended the king, saying over the weekend that some leaders “run their country through Twitter and others differently.”
The kingdom’s leadership has traditionally been cautious about communications and afraid to convey any messages that might put its competence in doubt. Since the earthquake, official media has focused extensively on images showing the army’s participation in relief efforts.
One very sensitive issue is the exposure of poverty in the country. Some of the areas most affected by the earthquake suffer from poverty. Moroccan officials prefer for the world to see the country’s modern airports, high-speed trains and sparkling tourist resorts. This tendency is partly a matter of national pride and partly to attract foreign tourists, who flock in the millions each year and provide a vital source of income.
Some Moroccans said the lack of communication about the earthquake reminded them of the pandemic, while authorities were similarly sparing in disseminating important information.
On the domestic front, King Mohammed is wary of unrest at home and is largely intolerant of criticism or dissent. During the Arab Spring uprisings that swept North Africa and the Middle East more than a decade ago, the king reacted quickly to quell any rumblings of discontent. He amended the constitution, granting more power to the elected prime minister, and took other steps to calm the population.
More recently, in 2016-2017, there were waves of unrest in the northern Rif region of Morocco. The authorities tolerated the protests for a few months, then brutally suppressed them.
The epidemic halted the vital tourism industry in Morocco, but it has recently revived with hotels filling up and foreigners returning to take tours and celebrate weddings. The government may be reluctant to show any images of chaos or insecurity that could scare off these tourists again.
The country’s leaders also appeared slow to accept offers of foreign aid and rescue teams, which is consistent with Morocco’s longstanding caution about who is allowed into the country.
Economist Abdelmoumni criticized “the arrogance with which Morocco mocked offers of assistance from a hundred countries,” adding that “a positive and rapid response would certainly have saved lives and avoided misery.”
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