Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Moroccan unity After Incorporation of the Sahara

The Green March of October 1975 / Photo HH
The Green March of October 1975 / Photo HH

Despite the failure to win the war over the Western Sahara, King Hassan II and his son Mohammed VI used the opportunity to rebuild their legitimacy. They used the resurrection of what they presented as the fragmented unity of pre-colonial Morocco as the basis to forge an alliance with reinvigorated political parties. The Green March in October 1975 won the support of all the nationalist parties. Although the war went badly for the Moroccan army at first and was extremely expensive, all the main political parties, even those on the left, supported it; opposition was ruthlessly repressed.

Western support and the co-option of the mainstream political parties helped the regime to survive severe riots in 1980, 1981, and 1984. There were demonstrations against unemployment and rising prices caused by poor harvests, and many people were killed. Morocco turned to the European Union, which reduced restrictions on trade, and the IMF, which extended credit under nine ‘arrangements’ between 1980 and 1993. The price was structural adjustments that brought increased inflation and unemployment, though export-led agriculture and tourism.

Economic dependence on the capitalist countries was paralleled by diplomatic dependence. After several defeats by POLISARIO in 1980, the army began building defensive walls of sand across the desert (see Border disputes). This was successful but expensive, and it was heavily subsidized by Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy was increasingly aligned to the conservative Gulf monarchies.

Better relations with other Arab countries, including Algeria, isolated POLISARIO. Finally, the King adopted an engaged but moderate policy in the Middle East crisis, with increasing contacts with senior Israelis as well as important Palestinian negotiators such as Mahmoud Abbas (later a senior negotiator at Oslo). By the end of the 1980s, King Hassan was clearly an ally of the United States and the conservative Gulf States.

Because of political stasis, people began to turn to other sorts of action. One was Islamic activism, which grew in the 1980s, with a vigorous challenge from the Justice and Charity group (al-Adl wa-al-Ihsan) led by Abdessalam Yasin and his daughter Nadia. But 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. Another source of identity was Berber nationalism, which was encouraged by the contacts Moroccan migrants made in Europe. The Berber cultural revival was essentially a middle-class phenomenon.

The regime was under pressure, because it could not control the sources of information in the country. By the beginning of the 1990s, video and then satellite television opened new horizons. There was growing pressure on the government over human rights from outside the country as well as from inside. In 1988, Moroccan activists in Morocco set up the Organisation Marocain des Droits Humains. This was not the first human-rights organization in Morocco, but the growing openness of Moroccan society and outside pressure gave it strength. The cause of General Oufkir’s imprisoned family became an international issue in 1987, and they were released in 1991, after French protests.

As the 1990s began, it was clear that the political structure would have to change. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Morocco lost much of its political importance in the eyes of Washington, although it regained much of it after the beginning of the US-led ‘War on Terror’. Loyal to the Western alliance, King Hassan promised help to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, although he sent only a symbolic force of 1,200 troops.

There were protests on the streets about the Gulf War that developed out of strikes over pay, pensions, and social services. Realizing the risk to his regime, King Hassan prepared to hand his son, Sidi Mohammed, an ordered 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. Privatization of state enterprises and liberalization of trade brought economic aid from the European Union in November 1995.

The new mood led to elections in 1996, which were much fairer than earlier ones. In 1998 Abderrahman al-Youssoufi, the leader of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), who had long been an exile in France, formed a coalition government, although the Interior Ministry remained in the hands of the feared Driss Basri. Even so, the task had only begun. In 1997, GDP per capita was USD 1,227, half the population lived on less than USD 1 a day, at least half of the population was illiterate, and 17 percent was unemployed. King Hassan died in 1999 leaving the politics of real change to his son, Mohammed VI.

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