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Modern History of Morocco

Romans, Visigoths, Vandals and Byzantine Greeks ruled successively in early years of Moroccan history. Arab forces began occupying Morocco in the seventh century A.D., bringing their civilization and Islam. The Alaouite dynasty, which has ruled Morocco since 1649, claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad.


Enter the European traders in the late 19th century, and a long era of colonial renovations. Suddenly France, Spain and Germany were all keen on hijacking the country for its strategic position and rich trade resources. France won out and occupied virtually the entire country by 1912. Spain clung to a small coastal protectorate and Tangier was declared an international zone.

Following recognition by the United Kingdom in 1904 of France's "sphere of influence" in Morocco, the Algeciras Conference (1906) formalized France's "special position" and entrusted policing of Morocco to France and Spain jointly.

The Treaty of Fes (1912) made Morocco a protectorate of France. By the same treaty, Spain assumed the role of protecting power over the northern and southern (Saharan) zones.

Nationalist political parties, which took shape under the French protectorate, began a strong campaign for independence after World War II. Declarations such as the Atlantic Charter (a joint U.S.-British statement set forth, among other things, the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they live), served as a base for the independence movement.

The Struggle for Independence

The first French resident-general, Marshal Lyautey, resisted the urge to destroy the existing Moroccan towns and instead built French villes nouvelles (new towns) alongside them. Whether this was out of respect for the Arab culture or because the French had no desire to live in rundown medinas with no modern services is a topic up for debate. Whatever his reasons, Lyautey made Rabat on the Atlantic coast the new capital and developed the port of Casablanca.

The sultan remained, but as little more than a figurehead. Lyautey's successors were not so sensitive. Their efforts to speed French settlement prompted the people of the Rif Mountains, led by the Berber scholar Abd el-Krim, to rise up against both colonial forces.

It was only through the combined efforts of 25,000 Spanish-French troops that Abd el-Krim was eventually forced to surrender in 1926. By the 1930s, more than 200,000 French had made Morocco home. WWII saw Allied forces use Morocco as a base from which to drive the Germans out of North Africa.

A strong threat to European rule was posed (1921–26) by the revolt (the Rif War) of Abd el-Krim. In 1934 a group of young Moroccans presented a plan for reform, marking the beginning of the nationalist movement. In 1937 the French crushed a nationalist revolt. Francisco Franco's successful revolt against the republican government of Spain began in Spanish Morocco in 1936.

During World War II, French Morocco remained officially loyal to the Vichy government after the fall of France in 1940. On Nov. 8, 1942, Allied forces landed at all the major cities of Morocco and Algeria; on Nov. 11, all resistance ended. In Jan., 1943, Allied leaders met at Casablanca. During the war an independence party, the Istiqlal, was formed. After the war the nationalist movement gained strength and received the active support of the sultan, Sidi Muhammad, who demanded a unitary state and the departure of the French and Spanish.

The Independence

A manifesto of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party in 1944 was one of the earliest public demands for independence. That party subsequently provided most of the leadership for the nationalist movement and remains a dominant political force.

Vast numbers of Jews emigrated to the newly formed state of Israel in the early 1950s, although a small number remained.

Faced with growing nationalist agitation, the French outlawed (1952) the Istiqlal and in Aug., 1953, deposed and exiled Sidi Muhammad.

In 1953, France exiled the highly respected Sultan Mohammed V and replaced him with the unpopular Mohammed Ben Aarafa. Ben Aarafa’s reign was widely perceived as illegitimate, and sparked active opposition to French rule.

These measures proved ineffective, and under the pressure of rebellion in Algeria and disorders in Morocco, the French were compelled (1955) to restore Sidi Muhammad. France allowed Mohammed V to return in 1955, and by 1956, Morocco had regained its independence.

After gaining independence on March 2, 1956, Morocco regained control over certain Spanish-ruled areas through agreements with Spain in 1956 and 1958.

The internationalized city of Tangier was reintegrated with the signing of the Tangier Protocol on October 29, 1956. The Spanish enclave of Ifni in the south became part of Morocco in 1969. Spain, however, retains control over the small coastal enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in the north.

With the war over, Sultan Mohammed V inspired an independence party that finally secured Moroccan freedom in 1956. Tangier was reclaimed in the process, but Spain refused to hand over the northern settlements of Ceuta and Melilla (to this day they remain Spain's last tenuous claim on Africa).

Mohammed V promoted himself to king in 1957 and was succeeded four years later by his son, Hassan II. This popular leader cemented his place in Moroccan hearts and minds by staging the Green March into the Western Sahara, an area formerly held by Spain. With a force of 350,000 volunteers, Hassan's followers overcame the indigenous Sahrawis to claim the mineral-rich region as their own.

By the 1960s it had become clear that the 100,000 or so inhabitants of the 'territory' wanted independence. Western Sahara's Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario) didn't take kindly to the invasion and embarked on a protracted war of independence against Morocco.

Despite attempts at international mediation the issue remains unresolved. While the Moroccan masses applauded the southern invasion, it left nearby Algeria about as happy as the Western Saharans themselves. Morocco's relations with this particular war-torn neighbour have been poor ever since.

The sultan became (1957) King Muhammad V (Sidi Muhammad) and soon embarked on a foreign policy of “positive neutrality,” which included support for the Muslim rebels in Algeria. After the king's death (Feb., 1961), his son Hassan II ascended the throne. He soon enacted a new constitution that established a bicameral parliament. Border hostilities with Algeria in 1963 cost both sides many lives; final agreement on the border was reached in 1970.

In June, 1965, following a political crisis that threatened to undermine the monarchy, King Hassan declared a state of emergency and took over both executive and legislative powers. The country returned to a modified form of parliamentary democracy in 1970, with a revised constitution that strengthened the king's authority.

Opposition groups, later called the National Front, rejected the constitution and boycotted legislative elections. An attempt on Hassan's life by military leaders took place on July 10, 1971.

Hassan announced a new constitution in Feb., 1972, which lessened the king's powers. In August another assassination attempt took place, when the airplane carrying King Hassan was strafed on its way back from France. The king continued to rule in isolation and maintained relative order through a policy of suppression.

In the 1990s, King Hassan promulgated “Hassanian democracy,” which allowed for significant political freedom while at the same time retaining ultimate power for the monarch.

During the 1990s, King Hassan made great strides toward economic and political liberalization. King Hassan died on July 23, 1999, and was succeeded by his son, Mohammed VI, who pledged to continue these reforms. Under Mohammed VI, the Moroccan Government has undertaken a number of economic, political, and social reforms, including the 2003 Moudawana, a reform of the family status code, and the 2006 Equity and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated allegations of human rights abuse from 1956 to 1999.

King Hassan died in 1999 and was succeeded by his son Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed, as Muhammad VI. Initially extremely popular, the new king revealed himself to be a strong advocate of social change and economic improvement, but the monarchy nonetheless remained the unquestioned center of power in the country.

Since then Muhammed VI has pledged to make the political system more open, allow freedom of expression, and support economic reform. He has also advocated giving more rights to women, a position opposed by Islamic fundamentalists.

In July, 2002, Morocco occupied an uninhabited islet off Ceuta that is claimed by Spain, drawing international attention to the disputed Spanish enclaves along Morocco's Mediterranean coast. After Spanish forces removed the Moroccans, both sides agreed to leave the islet unoccupied.

The entrenched political elite and the military have also been leery of some reform proposals. With about 20% of the population living in dire poverty, economic expansion is a prime goal.

Western Sahara

Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) has been repeatedly criticized by the international community. In the 1970s, tens of thousands of Moroccans crossed the border into Spanish Sahara to back their government's contention that the northern part of the territory was historically part of Morocco.

In 1974, Morocco pressed its claim to sovereignty over Spanish Sahara, and in Nov., 1975, Hassan lead the “Green March” of over 300,000 unarmed Moroccans to the disputed region. In 1976, Spain relinquished control of the area, ceding it to Morocco and Mauritania as Western Sahara.

However, the Polisario Front, a group of Western Saharan guerrillas with Algerian and Libyan backing, fought for independence for the territory. Morocco took over Mauritania's portion of Western Sahara in 1979 and continued to battle the Polisario throughout the 1980s.

Spain, which had controlled the territory since 1912, withdrew in 1976, creating a power vacuum that was filled by Morocco in the north and Mauritania in the south.

When Mauritania withdrew in Aug. 1979, Morocco overran the remainder of the territory. A rebel group, the Polisario Front, has fought against Morocco since 1976 for the independence of Western Sahara on behalf of the indigenous Saharawis.

Normalization of relations between Morocco and Algeria in 1988 cut off Algerian support for the rebels, and in 1991 the Polisario and Morocco agreed to a cease-fire. A UN-sponsored referendum to decide the territory's permanent status was ordered for the early 1990s.

The Polisario and Morocco agreed in Sept. 1991 to a UN-negotiated cease-fire, which was contingent on a referendum regarding independence. For the past decade, however, Morocco has opposed the referendum.

Disputes regarding who would be permitted to vote delayed any referendum into the 21st cent., during which time the region was integrated administratively into Morocco. In 2002, King Muhammed VI reasserted that he “will not renounce an inch of” Western Sahara.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008