Although Morocco endured years of French occupation like its neighbors, the European presence was far less invasive and the colonial experience far less traumatic. Unlike in Algeria and Libya, where European imperialists largely dismembered traditional social institutions such as Islamic schools, courts, tribes, and religious orders, colonial administrators in Morocco were careful to preserve these central societal elements.

The limited nature of French occupation meant that the struggle for independence was mostly nonviolent. In 1934, after more than twenty years of occupation, the Comité d’Action Morocaine, a nationalist group driven by a new generation of Western-educated Moroccans began to create rumblings in the general population. The exile in 1953 of King Mohammed V, who supported independence, and his replacement by a king more willing to cooperate with the French was the final straw, drawing massive public condemnation and sparking demonstrations and sporadic attacks across the country. Mohammed was allowed to return in 1955 and full independence from France was declared in 1956 (although Spanish colonial possessions in the north and west of the country continued to exist). Following independence a constitutional monarchy was created. Mohammed’s successor, Hassan II, strengthened the power of the monarchy with a new constitution in 1963 and by disbanding Parliament in 1965. Despite the centralization of power, the monarchy was almost overthrown by several attempted military coups in the 1970s.

In the late 1970s, Morocco annexed the adjacent territory of Western Sahara ,sparking a conflict with Algeria that remains unresolved to this day. The POLISARIO Front, the primary guerilla movement fighting against the Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara, is openly supported by Algeria. Moroccan development of the contested region has only added to the tensions.

During the 1990s, King Hassan II instituted several important political reforms, most notably, the creation of a bicameral legislature.  The first legislature was elected by universal suffrage in 1997. However, his reign remained tainted by widespread corruption, human rights abuses, and authoritarianism. In fact, his rule is known as “the years of lead” because of his brutal crackdowns on any and all political opponents.

When he assumed the throne in 1999, Mohammed VI immediately began pursuing an ambitious agenda of political, social and economic reforms. The state pledged to resolve chronic issues like poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, discrimination against ethnic minorities and to expand basic rights. But despite high profile visits to impoverished areas and soaring oratory by the king, many of these reforms remain unachieved. What’s more, the monarchy remains completely in control of Moroccan political life.

Following the example of Tunisians and Egyptians, Moroccans took to the streets in February 2011 to demand constitutional reform, the end of corruption, political rights and lower food prices.[1] The demonstrations in major cities drew thousands and were noteworthy because of their emphasis on peaceful protest. Unlike in neighboring countries however, the public frustration in Morocco has no clear and singular target. Though disappointed with the king, many view him as a huge improvement from his father while some consider Parliament and the Makzhen, or palace elite, as the main problem.

Facing mounting pressure from protesters, Mohammed delivered a speech on March 9, 2011 promising an overhaul of the constitution and sweeping reforms. Major changes would include allowing the Prime Minister to be chosen by the majority party and not appointed by the monarch. After a several month wait, the constitutional reforms were finally unveiled on June 21, 2011. Major changes include increasing the power of Parliament and the Prime Minister however, the monarchy will remain firmly in control of security, the military and religion.[2] The announcement was met by national demonstrations and complaints that the changes were insufficient and more must be done to increase transparency, battle corruption and reduce the power of the palace.[3]

A terrorist attack on April 28, 2011 in the heart of Marrakech, though unrelated to the protests, seems to have given the government a justification for stalling.[4] Following the attack, demonstrations have been banned by the state and freedom of the press has increasingly been curtailed.[5] Despite these measures, a coalition of activist groups is continuing to organize weekly protests across the country. The death of a protestor at the hands of security forces on June 3, 2011 has reinvigorated demonstrators as thousands took to the streets of Rabat demanding progress on promised changes.[6]

Benjamin Santucci

Summer 2011 Maghreb Center Intern

[1]  Lisa Abend. “Protests in Morocco: Just Don’t Call It a Revolution. Time Magazine. Feb. 22, 2011.,8599,2052901,00.html

[2] Souhail Karam. “Little reprieve for Moroccan king with reform plan.” Reuters.        June 21, 2011.

[3] Elise Labott. “Thousands Protest in Morocco but Support King.” CNN.                          June 20, 2011.

[4] Aida Alami. “Violence Appears to Stall Reforms in Morocco.” The New York Times.   June 15, 2011.

[5] Chana Ya’ar and Elad Benari. “Freedom of the Press Cut in Morocco.” Arutz Sheva.     June 13, 2011

[6] “Independent investigation urged after death of protestor in Morocco. Amnesty International. June 3, 2011.

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