Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco: A New Monarchy

Morocco: A New Monarchy
Protests by the February 20 Movement in Rabat on February 27, 2011, to demand political reforms and a new constitution. In the forefront instigator of the movement on Facebook, Oussama El Khlifi. AFP PHOTO / ABDELHAK SENNA


Hassan II’s funeral was attended by a new Jordanian king, a new emir of Bahrain, a new president of Algeria and a new prime minister of Israel. Shortly afterwards President Hafez al-Assad of Syria died, and was succeeded by his son; Muhammad VI was part of a new generation.

Twelve years later, that new generation was stumbling through the Arab Spring. Like his father, Muhammad VI had studied law in France, but he had never held a military command or executive position. He talked of continuity but framed it as giving real shape to the theoretical promises of constitutional monarchy, political pluralism, law, and human rights. This modernisation was also evident in the portrayal of his personal life. While his father’s wives were kept secret, his own marriage to Selma Bennani, in 2002, was public. She was well-educated in information technology, attractive and an icon for a new generation of Moroccan women.

Human Rights

Mohammed VI moved quickly to release political prisoners, and allow exiles to return. He sacked Driss Basri, the sinister Interior Minister. Many buried human rights scandals resurfaced. The murder of Mehdi ben Barka was one and the vicious treatment of General Oufkir’s family another, as Oufkir’s wife and daughter wrote books about their experiences.

Other former prisoners, officers accused of taking part in the coups of the 1970s, described years of mistreatment in the secret prison in Tazmamart. In 2004, the king responded by setting up the Instance Equité et Réconciliation (IER) to investigate human rights abuses, rehabilitate the victims, and assess their compensation. But there were strict limits: no one would be prosecuted, and there could be no mention of abuses after Mohammed VI became king. The IER attempted to form a collective memory, and was challenged by unofficial public audiences of human rights victims, called ‘Testimonies without Chains for the Truth.’

Elections and the Rise of the Islamists

In the first elections under the new king in 2002, two historical nationalist parties led the polls. The social-democratic USFP came out in front and Abderrahmane Youssoufi became prime minister. Second was Istiqlal. Close behind was a newer party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) formed in 1998 from a coalition of small Islamist parties that had contested the elections the year before and won a few seats. It claimed to be democratic because it participated in elections, and so bolstered the democratic credentials of the regime that ran them.

In the 2002 elections the PJD did not even contest all the seats in order to demonstrate that it did not threaten the political stability of the monarchy; it avoided a too sweeping victory. The PJD was now a major political force, the face of Islamism that the palace could accept. Its MPs were younger than those of the secular parties and it did well in the seats set aside for women in parliament. The PJD recruited many women members too, although that did not mean it supported the Youssoufi government’s proposed reforms in women’s status.

The other Islamist group, Abdessalem Yassine’s Justice and Charity (JC) remained outlawed, but the king lifted the close surveillance on its leader. Although JC condemned political violence, it denied the regime’s legitimacy, saying the king was essentially undemocratic. Its democratic legitimacy was founded on that position.

Casablanca Bombings

Although JC and the PJD completely rejected violence, several small jihadi cells did not.

In 2002, within two years of the king coming to power, groups connected to the Salafi jihadi movement murdered Moroccans they accused of committing “impure acts” such as drinking alcohol.

In February 2003, Osama Bin Laden called Morocco an “oppressive, unjust, apostate ruling” government “enslaved by America”. On 16 May 2003, there were several coordinated suicide attacks on “Western” targets in Casablanca (international hotels and restaurants) that killed 45 people (12 of them were suicide bombers) as well as some Jewish sites (including a cemetery).

Hundreds of Islamist activists were arrested and the PJD was accused by its opponents of paving the way for terrorism. In response, it trimmed its ideology to emphasise constitutional loyalty and patriotism and make “development” its main objective. It supported tightening of the anti-terrorist laws. In 2004, Saad Eddine Othmani became its secretary general.

Eclipse of the Old Nationalist Parties

In the second elections held in 2007, the PJD won two more seats, but much fewer votes than in 2002. The turnout (37 per cent) was very low. The USFP lost power, replaced by a five-party coalition headed by Istiqlal which was inherently unstable. The popularity of the historic parties was undermined by their corruption, inefficiency and irrelevance. In 2008 Fouad Ali El Himma, a former deputy minister of the interior under Hassan II and a former classmate of Mohammed VI formed the Parti Authenticité et Modernité (PAM ). By absorbing five smaller parties it got seats in parliament and as it rejected the urban-based parties, it identified itself with rural areas. With close links to the king, it did very well in local elections in 2009.

The king seemed to have decided that socio-economic development was more important than political reform. The regime’s success would eventually depend on whether it could promote growth and reduce poverty and unemployment. Mohammed VI led efforts to deal with some complex social and economic problems, the role of women and ethnicity, and especially, poverty and development.


Morocco: A New Monarchy
Berber activists demonstrate during the Labour Day rally on May 1, 2008 in Casablanca called by Democratic confederation of Labour. AFP/PHOTO/ABDELHAK SENNA

In October 2001, the king recognised the Amazigh language and culture in a speech. Tamazight would be taught to all Moroccans at school, not just Amazigh children. A new research institution, Institut Royal de la Culture Amazigh (IRCAM) would define how to turn Tamazight into a written language, putting it on the same level as French and Classical Arabic.

This meant standardising the three varieties of the language, in the northern Rif regions, the Middle and High Atlas and the far south, to create a common standard. This also meant children must learn three different alphabets, but there were not enough teaching staff. It was a slow process and impatient graffiti started to appear. The letter ⵣ was used to express Amazigh identity, for example.


The economy was a major point of concern and showed mixed results.

In the first decade of King Muhammad’s reign it seemed to be improving. Annual GDP growth was 1.6 per cent in 2000 and 3.7 per cent in 2010. The poverty rate decreased from 8.9 per cent to about 4.2 per cent.

However, ordinary Moroccans were not much better off. In 2006, the government’s ‘Rapport du Cinquantenaire‘ noted that Morocco was stuck at 124th out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index, with especially low levels of education enrolment.

This drove many skilled workers to migrate, leaving even fewer opportunities for the less well-educated women who remained. In the 1990s the government had privatised many state-owned enterprises, as part of its policy of economic liberalisation, and women’s participation in the public sector workforce had shrunk to 11% by 2003. Women now had to earn an income in a contracting labour market while becoming the effective head of the family after their husbands migrated to Europe for work.

Wealth was progressively acquired by a circle of elites at the expense of the wider population. Agriculture and tourism were two sectors which the government hoped to develop.


Agriculture, which accounted for around twenty per cent of GDP and nearly forty per cent of employment, was declining. More than two-thirds of Morocco’s total exports went to the EU, but the Common Agricultural Policy had raised agricultural production in the EU. That lowered the demand for agricultural imports. Between 1995 and 2006 agricultural food exports fell from 31 per cent to 19 per cent of total exports.

However, agriculture was still important: in 2006 it made up 16 per cent of GDP and employed 25 per cent of the workforce in the period 2003-2005, according to the World Bank Development Index 2008.

In 2008, the Ministry of Agriculture published the Plan Maroc Vert, which aimed to increase Morocco’s agricultural GDP by nearly 50 per cent (from 70 billion to 100 billion dirhams), create 1.5 million agricultural jobs and double or triple rural incomes. It had a budget of 147 billion dirhams over 12 years, mostly from outside Morocco: the African Development Bank, the European Union, the World Bank and French development funds.

According to the Plan, agriculture would encourage growth and reduce poverty. One part of the strategy was to incentivise large-scale farmers and develop a high-value added agricultural sector. The other part was to develop community-supported agriculture to fight poverty in rural areas. Most effort was put into the first aspect by prioritizing crops that fetched higher export prices rather than those that met local needs.

Citrus fruits and vegetables require large amounts of water, but only around fifteen percent of the agricultural land is irrigated, and rainfall is very uncertain. Thus neoliberal economic policies further marginalised the poor, and poor women in particular. Rural poverty (those living below the poverty line) had risen from 18% in 1990/1 to 27.2% in 1998/9.


In 2001 the government inaugurated the ‘2010 vision’ to promote tourism. This proved quite successful. The value of tourism in the GDP increased from 5.5 per cent in 2000 to 7.4 per cent in 2010. The number of tourist arrivals grew from 4.3 million tourists in 2000 to 9.3 million tourists in 2010.

Major focus points were Marrakech and Agadir. One scholar remarked that “Marrakech has become more of a product than a place” – its historical and cultural attractions won 2.05 million tourists in 2011. Agadir, the most important tourist city on the coast, was centred on luxury beach resorts.

More specialised were local initiatives and cultural festivals in cities such as Rabat and Salé (an annual festival of world music) and Casablanca (an annual hip-hop and rap music festival). The Festival des Musiques Sacrées du Monde that began in 1994 in Fez, was expanded in 2001. It was regularly opened by Princess Selma.

Cultural tourism also helped project Morocco internationally as a centre of tolerance. The expense raised criticisms and religious conservatives saw the festivals as challenges to Moroccan cultural values. More generally, tourism was an unreliable market in the political instability of the second decade of Mohammed VI’s rule.

Western Sahara

The push to solve the issue of the Western Sahara came from outside Morocco. In December 1997, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had appointed James Baker, the former US Secretary of State, as his personal envoy to mediate between Morocco and POLISARIO.

Although it seemed he had succeeded in getting agreement on who would be allowed to vote in a referendum, in December 1999 the negotiations stalled over how to handle the appeals process and the repatriation of refugees. Baker soldiered on, but POLISARIO refused a Moroccan offer of autonomy, provided it acknowledged Moroccan sovereignty and territorial integrity. Baker then proposed his own Framework Agreement of a referendum after five years, with Saharan local autonomy and Moroccan control over foreign relations, security and external defence.

Polisario rejected this. In 2003, Baker presented a new plan to the Security Council, giving each side an equal chance to win the referendum. The Moroccan government refused it, but POLISARIO accepted it and the Security Council adopted it (resolution 1495). After Moroccan counter-proposals led nowhere, Baker resigned in June 2004.

Moroccan troops, safely behind their sand barriers, controlled most of the Western Sahara territory. At the end of the decade, King Muhammad VI began his own initiative. In January 2010 he set up a Consultative Commission on Regionalisation (see local government) that offered the Sahara a large amount of autonomy.

Approach of the Arab Spring

By the end of the first decade of the king’s reign, political liberty was still limited. Censorship and bans of newspapers and magazines were left in place, although less than under Hassan II. The Saharan war had reached a stalemate, even if it was more favourable to the regime. It remained strictly off-limits to criticism though.

Attempts to rein in the rampant corruption in the administration were thwarted by the involvement of the monarchy in the private sector and the determination of the elites not to be called to account.

In short, the democratisation process had stalled. The emphasis on economic development served the regime well but the international economy was not favourable. In 2008 and again in the second half of 2010 there were global spikes in the cost of food and energy that increased the misery of those living close to the poverty line. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that in the second half of 2010, the maise price increased by 74 per cent, wheat by 84 per cent.

20 February Movement

The revolution in Tunisia late 2010 began with the self-immolation of a vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, protesting that police corruption meant he could not sell from his cart.

On 21 February 2011 a young woman, Fadoua Laroui, burned herself alive in front of the town hall of Souk Sebt, in central Morocco. She had been excluded from a social housing scheme because she was a single mother.

The day before, on 20 February, protests had erupted across Morocco. The demonstrators included liberals, leftists and Islamists. While the focus was not the king, protesters demanded a genuine constitutional monarchy and the dismissal of Prime Minister Abbas al-Fassi.

Outbreak of the Arab Spring

The revolution of 2010-2011 did not sweep away the monarchy. The Moroccan government had already begun to restructure how the country was run. In January 2010 the king set up a Consultative Commission on Regionalisation (see local government). |In addition, the events in Tunisia and Libya made the regime acutely aware of the dangers of such protests, and it quickly took account of them.

After the Casablanca protests of 20 February the king moved quickly. On 21 February, he declared he was committed to “pursuing the realisation of structural reforms.” In early March, he set up a Constitutional Reform Committee, to produce a new constitution. Published in June, it was approved in a referendum on 1 July. Although the numbers resembled the usual rigged results of Arab elections (98.5% “yes,” with a turnout of 73%), and the king retained important absolute prerogatives, including control of the military and security services, it transferred many powers to parliament and made Tamazight an official language.

Elections followed in November 2011, when Islamists won a plurality in Parliament. Abdelilah Ben Kirane, leader of the PJD, became prime minister of a coalition with Istiqlal, the Popular Movement and the Party of Progress and Socialism.

Further Reading