On 10 July 1971 a number of high-ranking army officers decided to carry out a coup against King Hassan II, of the Alaouite dynasty. They tried to take over power by attacking and deposing the summer palace where the then king received many guests during a garden party.
Resistance to power has a long history in Morocco. And this coup is one of the attempts to put an end to corruption and abuse of power by a ruling elite.
How it could come to this and what developments led to this coup is explained in this article.
Morocco under occupation
Initially, the Moroccan people rebelled against the occupying forces of France and Spain who had occupied Morocco at the 1906 Convention of Algeciras (Spain) with the consent of the Alaouite dynasty. The struggle to control the North African territory was called pacification by the colonial powers concealing it. This armed resistance, which lasted from 1912 to 1933, is seen as the fiercest anticolonial battle waged against the western powers. Despite the enormous power in men and equipment of the French and Spanish armies, it took more than twenty years to get Morocco and the Rif under control.
In the Rif, the Spanish occupying army experienced fierce resistance led by Mohamed Ameziane (1). This resistance fighter fought until he died on the battlefield in 1912. Although the struggle continued, the resistance was weakened and less well organized until 1921, when the charismatic leader Mohamed ibn Abdelkrim Al Khattabi (1882-1963) managed to reunite the tribes and the Rif resistance fighters won important battles, such as the battle of Anoual (2). In the end they controlled so much territory that in 1923 the Rif Republic could be proclaimed: ‘the Federation of the Riffian Tribes’.
With the support of the Moroccan sultan, the Spaniards and French intensified their attacks, expanded their troops and even used chemical weapons on civilian targets. And with this bombardment with poison gas they managed to put an end to the existence of the Rif Republic in 1926, but not to the desire of the Riffians to be free and independent
The tribe of Ait Atta in the Anti-Atlas survived the longest until they too had to give up fighting in 1933. This terrible war resulted in many deaths and wounded among the indigenous people on the battlefield. Many fled their homes to escape death.
The Alaouite dynasty
Eventually, after the colonial powers had trained a new administrative elite, the national government was transferred to the Alaouite Monarchy in 1956.
The people of the Rif rebelled against this administration in 1958. This population, which lasted the longest in the struggle against the colonial powers, resisted the poor social conditions and unfair treatment by this monarchy.
The Riffians protested peacefully against discrimination and marginalisation by the young ‘Moroccan state’. Because the government in Rabat sent Arabic-speaking officials to the Rif, among others, who spoke neither the native language of the area nor respected the traditions and customs of the Riffians. In addition, investment in the Rif was not forthcoming, causing unemployment and poverty to rise immensely. They informed King Mohamed V of their demands in a letter. King Mohamed V did not respond to these demands, in fact he accused them of sedition and deployed the army against the demonstrators. This army operation against the population of the Rif was accompanied by heavy napalm bombardments, after which 20,000 troops (3) combed out the entire Rif. Eyewitnesses speak of cruel massacres, rapes and looting. At the same time many people were captured, some of whom disappeared without trace.
Also elsewhere in Morocco people were not happy with how the country was governed. This resulted in several demonstrations of the people such as the one in Casablanca in 1965, which was also violently defeated by the army. This protest, which started as a school protest in which the unemployed and slum dwellers joined in, killed many people.
On 7 June 1965 a state of emergency was declared and the then ruler Hassan II sent the government home, suspended parliament, and suspended the constitution, leaving all power in his hands. In 1966 he introduces conscription. The state of emergency lasted 5 years, until 1970. Power was consolidated within a small group around the king, abuse of power and corruption increased considerably.
Corrupt entourage of the king
During preliminary discussions of a state visit of Hassan II to the US in 1970, General Mohamed Medbouh is addressed by an American Senator on the corruption within Moroccan government circles. Also known as the PanAm affair, this affair is said to involve six Moroccan ministers: Mohamed Imani, Yahia Chefchaouni, Abdelkrim Lazrak, Mamoun Tahiri, Mohamed Jaidi and Abdelhamid Karim (4). King Hassan II decided not to take up these allegations, which leads to a lack of understanding within army circles.
The army coup
On Saturday, July 10, 1971, King Hassan II celebrated his 42nd birthday. For this occasion, the monarch gave a reception at his summer residence in Skhirat, a 3 km-long site with pavilions and villas and an 18-hole golf course, near Rabat on the Atlantic coast. More than a thousand guests, men only, were invited to this reception. The company included the entire government, almost the entire general staff, all commanders of the military units. That made this festive event an ideal opportunity for a coup, the whole family of the king was within reach.
300 kilometres from Skhirat, in the Atlas area, stands the military school for non-commissioned officers of Ahermoumou, which has about 1400 cadets and officers. At the head of this school is 33-year-old lieutenant colonel Mhamed Ababou, the youngest officer with the rank of colonel in the Moroccan army. These 1400 cadets were told by the army command that a two-day army exercise would take place on 10 July at Sidi Slimane, about a hundred kilometres from Rabat. That day, a military column of 60 army trucks with on board 1400 officers, non-commissioned officers and cadets and eight tons of ammunition left Ahermoumou. They were divided into 25 command units of 15 to 40 men, each command unit was commanded by an officer and a special command brigade, consisting of 25 carefully selected non-commissioned officers, who coordinated the operation.
The convoy takes a break at Bouknadel in the Maâmora forest. At that moment Mhamed Ababou, his brother Mohamed and other officers joined and the commander of the Ahermoumou school gave his officers the following order:
Two buildings in Skhirat, which were supposed to have been occupied by rebels, had to be besieged and all entrances had to be closed, foreigners present had to be removed and put in trucks and anyone who tried to flee had to be shot at. Colonel Mhamed Ababou divided the convoy into two groups: a first group which, under his command, would invade the complex in Skhirat from the south. The second group, commanded by his older brother, Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Ababou, will invade the complex from the north. Mhamed Ababou informed his men that liberating the king from the hands of subversive elements and traitors was the objective of the operation. More military units were on their way to take part, the cadets of Ahermoumou were told by their commander.
Lieutenant Colonel Mhamed Ababou (1938-1971) was born in Boured, Izennayen in the Rif. His father worked for the French government in Morocco, which gave him access to the French colonial schools. He studied at the Collège berbère d’Azrou (now Lycée Tarik Ibn Ziad) and at the military academy in Meknes. In 1968 he was appointed commander of the Military School of Petty Officers in Ahermoumou. He obtained his commanding degree at the French School of the General Staff. Ababou belonged to the important cadres of the Moroccan army and led large army exercises. One of his officers described him, he made his men subordinate to his power, he was feared and loved and respected by everyone at the same time, including his superiors”.
The column of Ababou drove into the centre of Rabat around half past two in the afternoon. On this warm and busy day, people looked in amazement at the long line of military trucks full of soldiers with loaded machine guns that slowly drove into the capital of Morocco. Upon arrival in Skhirat, the convoy split into two groups, each group entering through the previously agreed entrance to the Royal residence in Skhirat.
Assault on the royal palace
The guarding of the royal residence of Skhirat consisted of members of the Royal Guard, paratroopers, gendarmerie and members of the secret service. The cadets of Ahermoumou invaded, without much resistance, the summer palace of Hassan II. The two units of CMI, Compagnies Mobiles d’Intervention, the Mobile Units, who later wanted to come to the aid of the king, were quickly eliminated by the Ahermoumou cadets.
The cadets of Ahermoumou were no older than 20 years and came mainly from poor families from Atlas and the Rif. They were well trained but had no combat experience. When they entered the palace they were surprised by the luxury life of the king and his entourage. The leader of the faithful, as the constitution states, was feasting on refined food and alcoholic beverages.
Colonel Mhamed Ababou was stopped by the palace guards at the entrance. A lieutenant blocked Ababou’s way, he warned the lieutenant if he did not avoid, he was forced to shoot him, the lieutenant shot the colonel and was wounded, but not killed. Then the cadets shot at the fleeing guests, as their commander had ordered.
After the first shots were fired, the king was led away to the throne room and then placed in an unknown place. He was said to have been hiding in the toilets together with a number of confidants. According to another version, he was in a large garbage container.
One of the guests who usually swung a thick pack of banknotes to the cadets was badly hurt. “That’s not what we came for!” Ahermoumou’s cadets roared.
The death of General Medbouh
After the soldiers of Mhamed Ababou had secured the palace of Skhirat, they tried to find King Hassan II. At that moment General Mohamed Medbouh appeared who came to get his story from Colonel Ababou. The capture of the palace would take place without shooting. Whereupon the colonel, the general asked if his part of the mission had been carried out, namely neutralizing the king. According to the colonel, the general’s answer was not convincing, moreover he saw that Medbouh’s companion, doctor Benaïch, a private doctor of the king, was carrying a small machine gun, on which he ordered his soldiers to kill the 44-year-old general.
This general didn’t just get his name Medbouh. Medbouh in Arabic means ‘slaughtered’. This name was given to the family after the Riffian resistance cut his father’s throat because he had betrayed the resistance to the French at the time of Abdelkrim. Moreover, in 1963 the general himself betrayed a conspiracy against Hassan II of which he himself was part at the last moment. Colonel Abadou knew the family history of his compatriot Medbouh.
But the colonel could not ignore him, he needed someone in his position to move his troops freely through the area of three military districts from Ahermoumou to Skhirat. But also to control the army. Medbouh’s influence was great, he was previously commander of the Royal Guard, served in the French army and had close contacts with the CIA (5) and was Minister of Post and Telecommunications. He was also married to the daughter of a senior army officer, Marshal Mohammed ben Mizzian ben Kassem, (1897-1975).
After the search for Hassan II in the palace of Skhirat, Mohamed Ababou stayed behind in Skhirat together with some of the cadets, and Mhamed Ababou went with the rest to Rabat to continue the coup.
Occupation of government buildings in Rabat
Mhamed Ababou and his cadets took the main buildings of the Moroccan Radio and TV, the Ministry of the Interior and the General Staff in Rabat without encountering much resistance.
Mhamed Ababou, however, made a fatal mistake; to secure the palace in Skhirat the hundred cadets who had stayed behind with his brother were far from sufficient, the area was too large for that.
After the takeover of the radio and TV station, the coup forces reported the takeover of power. The first communiqué read: “The king is dead, long live the republic.
More communiqués followed in the course of the afternoon and evening such as: “The army has revolutionized for the good of the Moroccan people. The royal regime has fallen. We will not let the traitors trample on the honour of this people. The army has taken power and placed all the prefectures and provinces of the country under its command. “This proclamation is made by the People’s Army and the Council of the Revolutionary Army.
There was another proclamation:
“After the destruction of the feudal system, the national armed forces took power in the name of the people. “Moroccans, be vigilant, do not listen to anti-revolutionary and anti-popular orders. Military marching music was broadcast between these proclamations.
Following these radio messages, colonel Mohamed Ababou was informed of the developments, after which he travelled to Rabat. Where after that the main post office of Rabat was taken. Afterwards Colonel Mohamed Ababou joined his brother Mhamed who was in the building of the General Staff of Rabat.
The death of Colonel Ababou
The counterattack didn’t last long. Under the leadership of General Mohamed Oufkir paratroopers were first stripped of the Palace of Shkirat and then moved with tanks in the direction of Rabat.
At the entrance of the General Staff building in Rabat, where most of the deportees were located, General Bachir Bouhali, major of the army’s general staff, appeared at the head of two Rapid Intervention Units.
General Bouhali walked to the main entrance of the building, where Colonel Mhamed Ababou met him, asked the general to surrender and ordered his soldiers to lay down their weapons. The colonel refused and wanted to negotiate this was refused by the general. A firefight ensued in which the general was killed and Colonel Ababou was badly wounded and died on the spot, putting an end to the attempted coup.
The 59-year-old general Bachir Bouhali served in the French army involved in the massacre of Moroccan demonstrators in Oued Zem (Central Morocco) on 20 August 1955. After France withdrew from Morocco he was, like many other Moroccan officers in the French army, handed over by France to Morocco.
During this failed coup, more than a hundred people were killed and wounded in Skhirat: ministers, army officers, doctors of the king, the Belgian ambassador to Morocco Marcel Dupret. The Moroccan army lost five generals during the Skhirat coup: Mohamed Gharbaoui, commander of the tank division, Driss N’michi, commander of the air force, Belbsir Abdelhai, head of the military district of Meknes, Mohamed Medbouh, head of the royal military household and Bachir Bouhali, major of the army’s general staff. Among the wounded was the younger brother of King Hassan II, Prince Abdellah ben Mohammed Alaoui (1935-1983).
The counterattack by General Oufkir
The Minister of the Interior, General Mohamed Oufkir, was given all civil and military powers by King Hassan II to take control of the situation.
All the coup forces were quickly apprehended on that 10th July 1971: Generals Khiari Bougrine, head of the military district of Fes-Taza, Amharech Mustapha, general director of military schools, Hammou Amahzoun, Hassan II’s brother-in-law, head of the military district of Rabat-Kenitra, Abderrahman Habibi, head of the military district of Marrakech, and Colonel Larbi Chelouati, officer in the General Staff.
At a press conference the same evening Hassan II said threateningly, Within 24 hours the leaders of the rebellion will be executed. We’ll give them just enough time to tell us what they have to say.”
The executioners were given an extra night to work on their prisoners. The four generals, Hammou, Bougrine, Mustapha, Habibi and five colonels including Chelouati and one major were executed on Tuesday 13 July 1971. This execution was broadcast on Moroccan state television, the executed showed clear traces of torture. Many questions were asked about these executions and the time within which they were carried out without trial. Partly in view of the fact that there was no longer any danger to state security.
The Moroccan army lost nine of its fifteen generals in three days. Never before in a war, however bloody, had the loss rate under the highest command been so high.
Witnesses reported shooting at cadets of Ahermoumou by the royal troops while they had already surrendered and laid down their weapons. Colonel Mohamed Ababou was arrested near Achaoun (Chefchaouen) on Wednesday, 14 July 1971 after fleeing from Rabat.
The trial of the military of Ahermoumou
The captured officers, non-commissioned officers and cadets of Ahermoumou were tried by the Kenitra Military Court. At the beginning of February 1972, the public prosecutor had demanded prison sentences ranging from one year to death against officers, non-commissioned officers and Ahermoumou cadets at the Kenitra Court. They were all detained for one year in the Kenitra Military Prison after which they were transferred to the Kenitra Central Prison.
The cadets of Ahermoumou were all acquitted and dismissed from the army corps. At the end of February 1972, 74 officers and non-commissioned officers were sentenced by the military court to sentences ranging from one year to life imprisonment. Colonel Mohamed Ababou was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for his part in the coup against the King of Morocco.
Lieutenant-colonel Mohamed Ababou (1934), four years older than his brother Mhamed, was originally from Boured in the Rif, studied at the French officers’ school. Dar el Beida in Meknes. He served in the Moroccan army during the UN mission UNOC, peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1960s. He has held various civil and military positions in Morocco. In 1971 he was an instructor at the High Military School in Kenitra.
After his conviction in February 1972 he served his sentence in Kenitra’s Central Prison and was visited until 1973. In 1975 Mohamed Ababou escaped together with other prisoners from the so-called PF3 (Point Fixe 3) in Rabat, a secret detention centre of the secret service. After this escape attempt an investigation report was issued in the Moroccan media. Since then, every trace of him has been missing.
Disappearance from prison
The other convicted escapees were secretly taken from Kenitra Central Prison to the secret Tazmamart Prison in 1973. Some of them died there after years of imprisonment, even though they had already served their sentences. The survivors were released in 1991, after Hassan II, under international pressure, had recognized the existence of Tazmamart prison and had it closed.
The name of the town of Ahermoumou where the military school was located also had to pay off: by order of the palace, the name Ahermoumou was changed into Ribat Al Kheir which means Fortress of Fortune.
More than a year after Skhirat’s failed coup, the Moroccan army will again attempt to overthrow King Hassan II. On Wednesday, August 16, 1972, the Moroccan Air Force opened fire on the plane of Hassan II.
2 The Battle of Anoual
The battle of Anoual is one of the greatest battles in modern Riffine history that took place between Riffine resistance fighters and the Spanish army between 22 July and 9 August 1921 in Anoual. An area in the Reef between Nador and Al Hoceima. More than ten thousand Spanish soldiers died in this battle, including Spanish general Manuel Fernández Silvestre. This battle is written in Spanish history books such as The Disaster of Anoual or El Desastre de Annual.
Gilles Perrault: Notre ami le roi (1990, Gallimard; 1992, Folio) French
Mohammed Raiss: De Skhirat à Tazmamart: retour du bout de l’enfer (2002) French
Thomas K. Park & Aomar Boum: Historical Dictionary of Morocco, (2016) English
Aziz BeneBine: Taz ma mort (2009) French
Ahmed Marzouki: La Cellule n° 10 (2001) French
Translated by: Najat M.