Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco: Preparations for Regime Change (1980-2000)

Preparations for Regime Change
The coffin of King Hassan II of Morocco is carried into the mausoleum where he will be buried in Rabat 25 July 1999. King Hassan died at the age of 70, 23 July, after a 38-year rule. MANOOCHER DEGHATI / AFP


King Hassan had failed to crush POLISARIO, but the annexation of the former Spanish Sahara greatly strengthened his regime. It gave him the opportunity to rebuild his legitimacy. The government presented it as a resurrection, restoring the unity of historic Morocco that colonialism had fragmented. All the nationalist parties, even those on the left, supported the ‘Green March’ in October 1975, and they supported the war against POLISARIO. All opposition to the Sahara war was ruthlessly repressed. And although the war was immensely expensive, even that helped the regime too, because it made Morocco reliant on Western powers that wanted a stable local ally in North Africa.

Remaking the Political System

The support of the nationalist parties allowed them to be re-incorporated into the parliamentary system. Istiqlal restructured itself, the Union National des Forces Populaires (UNFP) renamed itself the Union Socialiste des Forces of Populaires (USFP) and even the banned Communist Party was allowed to re-launch itself as the Parti du Progrès et Socialisme. In the 1977 elections all these parties were given seats.

In 1978 many of the independents who were elected to parliament were welded together in a new party, the Rassemblement national des indépendants led by Ahmed Osman, a brother in law of the king. However, the security services treated brutally those who refused to be incorporated – the Marxist-Leninist left and the early Islamist movement. In 1974, Shaykh Abd al-Salam Yasin questioned whether the king was really a Muslim, and was imprisoned. When he was released in 1979 the Iranian Revolution had encouraged Islamic radicalism.


Although opposition to the Saharan war was muted, there were plenty of protests against unemployment and inflation. Harvests were poor. There were serious riots in 1980, 1981 and 1984 when many people were killed. The 1980s were the high-point of the ‘Years of Lead’ (Les années de plomb) when a violent, oppressive state rounded up and tortured Islamists, political dissidents, democracy activists and others the king considered his enemies.

Among them were the young children of General Oufkir, the presumed leader of the 1972 coup attempt. Malika Oufkir later described her experiences in a best-selling book, La Prisonnière (Stolen Lives). Other victims wrote books describing the secret prison at Tazmamart in the Atlas Mountains, which became a symbol of state oppression.

Foreign Support for the Regime

Morocco turned to the European Union (EU) for help. The EU reduced restrictions on trade, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) extended credit under a series of ‘arrangements’ between 1980 and 1993. The price for this help was a programme of structural adjustments that brought increased inflation and unemployment, though export-led agriculture and tourism developed well. Huge subsidies from Saudi Arabia formed another source of aid.

As a result, Moroccan foreign policy was increasingly aligned with the conservative Gulf monarchies and the European Union. Better relations with other Arab countries came when the king adopted an engaged but moderate policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with increasing contacts with senior Israelis as well as important Palestinian negotiators like Mahmoud Abbas (later a senior negotiator at Oslo). The Americans supplied arms. By the end of the 1980s, King Hassan was clearly an ally of the US and the conservative Gulf States.

To isolate POLISARIO, the king sought better relations with Algeria, which was running out of money. He even managed to repair links with Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. Other Arab regimes generally supported Morocco over the Sahara, but POLISARIO found support elsewhere.

By 1984, 73 states recognised the SADR, which was a full member of the Organization of African unity (OAU). In 1985, the OAU and the United Nations (UN) joined forces and started a peace process. In August 1988, Morocco and POLISARIO agreed to a UN-supervised reduction of troops in the Sahara and a referendum. The Moroccan government agreed, as it was still not clear who would be eligible to vote in the referendum. POLISARIO conceded under pressure from Algeria, which was itself coerced by Saudi Arabia. Finally, Algeria and Morocco resumed diplomatic relations.


Due to political stagnation, people began to turn to other sorts of action. One was Islamic activism which grew in the 1980s, with a vigorous challenge from the al-Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Charity-JC) group led by Abd al-Salam Yasin and his daughter Nadia. Many Moroccans found the Islamists unattractive, partly because they rejected the tariqas and local religious notables: there was a minor Sufi revival in the 1980s. Also, King Hassan placed an increasing emphasis on his role as ‘Commander of the Faithful’, including building the third largest mosque in the world in Casablanca.

Amazigh Action

Another source of identity was Amazigh nationalism, encouraged by the contacts Moroccan migrants made in Europe. The Amazigh cultural revival essentially focussed on cultural and linguistic policies. In August 1991, the Agadir Charter for Linguistic and Cultural Rights, demanded that Amazigh culture be part of the country’s official narrative. When in 1994 Amazigh activists were arrested, the King was embarrassed into pledging that Moroccan “dialects” would be taught in Moroccan schools. The intention was to limit ethnic tensions and very little was done to put the king’s words into effect.

Human Rights

The regime was under pressure as it could not control the sources of information in the country. By the beginning of the 1990s, video and then satellite television opened up new horizons. The government was increasingly criticised for its human rights record, both from outside the country as well as inside. In 1988, Moroccan activists inside Morocco set up the Organisation Marocain des Droits de l’Homme. This was not the first human rights organisation in Morocco, but the growing openness of Moroccan society, and outside pressure gave it strength. The cause of General Oufkir’s incarcerated family became an international issue in 1987 and they were released in 1991 after French protests.

Preparations for Succession

It was clear the political structure had to change. Loyal to the western alliance, King Hassan promised help to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, although he only sent a symbolic force of 1,200 troops.

Nevertheless, Moroccans protested against King Hassan’s very limited involvement on the US side in the Gulf War. In addition, there were strikes over pay, pensions and social services. Realising the risk to his regime, King Hassan began to prepare to hand over the reign to his son, Sidi Muhammad, with a stable kingdom and a sound economy. The constitution was reshaped twice – in 1992 and 1996 – giving more power to parliament and promising a greater respect for human rights. Exiled politicians began to return. Privatisation of state enterprises and liberalisation of trade won increased economic aid from the EU in November 1995.

The new mood led to elections, held in 1996, that were much fairer than before. In 1998 Abderrahmane Youssoufi, the leader of the USFP, who was a long time exile in France, formed a coalition government, although the Interior Ministry remained in the hands of the feared Driss Basri, the former head of the security services Even so, the task had only just begun. In 1997, GDP per capita was USD 1,227, half the population lived on less than USD 1 a day, at least 50 per cent of the population was illiterate and 17 per cent was unemployed.

King Hassan died in 1999 leaving the politics of real change to his son, Muhammad VI.

Further Reading