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The Birthday Party Coup Attempt on Morocco’s King Hassan II

The Arab world’s longest-ruling monarch at the time of his death, King Hassan II survived several coup attempts during his reign. By far the strangest occurred in the middle of his forty-second birthday party. The King had provoked strong opposition, protest demonstrations, and riots in response to his centrally controlled rule. He had dissolved Parliament in 1965 and was accused of rigging elections to favor loyal parties. On July 10, 1971, King Hassan held a large party at his seaside palace in Skhirat to celebrate his birthday. About a thousand soldiers from the nearby cadet training school stormed the palace and fired on the guests. They killed Belgian Ambassador Marcel Dupret along with 91 others and injured 133, including the King’s brother.

Meanwhile, a group of the rebels in Rabat fought for control of the radio, Army headquarters, and Interior Ministry. The rebels announced on the radio that they had successfully assassinated the King and established a republic. However, the King’s forces led by General Oufkir retained control and shortly thereafter court-martialed and executed by firing squad the leaders of the coup. The next month, General Oufkir led an unsuccessful coup against the King himself. Ambassador Stuart W. Rockwell, who served in Morocco from 1970-1974, was a guest at the ill-fated birthday party. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in October 1988.

You can read about the effort to get those tangentially involved in the coup released from Hassan’s underground prison.


Those aren’t fireworks you hear…

ROCKWELL: This was the King’s annual celebration of his birthday, which took place at his summer palace south of Rabat, between Rabat and Casablanca, at Skhirat. It usually involved all the notables of the realm and all the chiefs of foreign diplomatic missions. It was a stag party, and everybody was very informally dressed in sports clothes, and there were opportunities for golf and tennis and swimming and clay pigeon shooting, but mainly for a huge banquet at mid-day in this summer palace.

It was a very sportive affair, supposed to be, until just as we were about to go in to sit down to lunch, we heard these sort of popping sounds, and somebody said, “Oh, the King has arranged fireworks for us this year.”

And until people started to fall with blood pouring out of them, we realized that the palace was being attacked, and the King’s entourage, especially the military members, rushed out to defend it and were cut down. The rest of us were trapped inside or out on the golf course or wherever we might be. There must have been a thousand guests there, at least.

Eventually, the guard was overcome and the attackers forced us all out of the palace and required us to lie down in front while they searched for the King, who had hidden in the men’s room of the palace, which they didn’t know about, with some of his key people. They never found him until the very end, but at that time, the command of the rebels had figured out that the King had fled to Rabat somehow, so they had gone to Rabat to try to catch him.

When the subordinates finally uncovered him and realized that contrary to what they had been told, that the King, instead of being endangered by devious foreign types and disloyal Moroccans, was being endangered by themselves, they reversed their attitude and declared their loyalty to him.

The King dispatched General Oufkir (at right) to Rabat to get control of the city, which was being attacked by the rebel group. In fact, the Ministry of Information had been seized and the radio was under rebel control. So the ringleaders were court-martialed instantly and shot.

Executed on the spot

It turned out to be an offshoot of this problem that the head of the military household of the King was a very personable officer who was personally affronted by the degree of corruption and felt the King was not doing enough about it, and felt that the King should make way for the Crown Prince.

He got the cooperation of Colonel Ababou, who was the head of the cadet academy at Fez, and owing to the position of the head of the military household, it was possible to infiltrate during the night 1,000 or 1,200 of these young men, cadets, into the surroundings of the palace. They were the ones that attacked the palace, who had been told apparently that the King was in danger, and that it was their patriotic duty to liberate him.

But obviously, what happened, apparently, was that Colonel Ababou decided that this was a good opportunity to get rid of the King and establish a sort of Libyan-style republic. The fact of the matter is that Colonel Ababou asked the head of the military household where the King was, and the man knew where he was, because I saw him lead the King into his hiding place, and he didn’t let on.

Colonel Ababou had him executed right then, right on the spot, as being a traitor to the cause. So there were two people with different motives.

Q: What happened to you and the other diplomats?

ROCKWELL: We were lying on our faces outside the palace until the King was uncovered by the cadets who were left in charge, and as soon as they laid down their arms, everything returned to normal. It was very strange. I mean, there we were with all our limousines parked down in the parking lot.

Although the Belgian ambassador had been shot dead and the Syrian was wounded, we all went back to Rabat, and the countryside seemed perfectly normal. People were selling fish by the roadside, there were swimmers at the beaches. It was hard to believe that this bloody event, which must have cost the lives of about 130 people, had occurred only two hours or so ago.