Morocco is in many ways a country apart. It is one of the westernmost states in the Maghreb region, and is the main refuge for descendants of the original Berber inhabitants of northwest Africa. The Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert separate it from the rest of the continent, and its climate, geography, and history are all more closely related to the Mediterranean than to the rest of Africa. Sunni Islam is the religion of almost all of the population, and while Christianity is present, the population is very small (about .01%), and is generally of French descent from the colonial times, or immigrants. Many Moroccans consider themselves to be Arabs, while ethnically they are Berbers who have adopted Arabic language and culture. Their present makeup of religion, ethnicity, and politics is best understood when their history of colonialism is known.
Early History (2000 BC – AD 700)
Morocco’s history begins with the Berbers, the aboriginal people who have inhabited the country since the end of the second millennium BC. Berber identity currently is linked to the language—many of the North Africans calling themselves Arabs are more Berber in origin than Arab. In many areas (especially Tunisia), Berber identity is regarded as negative, mainly because many Berber societies are less developed than those in urban settings, where almost all inhabitants see themselves as Arab.
Morocco enters recorded history about 1100 BC, when Phoenicians founded two trading posts on the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Morocco. There isn’t much of a glimpse into Morocco until 600 years later, but it is certain that there were a number of other trading posts established in Morocco during that time that operated separately from the communities in the interior of the country (Barbour 34). The interior was largely left to its Berber natives and chiefs (Sloane 18).
By AD 42, the Roman Empire had imposed direct rule over the Moroccan coastal region. It became part of the province called Mauretania Tingitana. There is very little knowledge of this province and there are indications that it was relatively undeveloped. Today there are little or no traces of Roman influence in Morocco, and in AD 253 Roman forces began to withdraw from most Moroccan settlements (Barbour 40). But whatever the extent of Roman remnants in Moroccan culture may have been, it was the arrival of the Arabs and Islam at the end of the seventh century that gave Morocco the character and culture that is still possesses.
Arrival of Islam
The first Arab raiding parties reached Tripolitania about AD 647 , about 25 years after the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina (Barbour 43). By AD 670, an Arab governor, Uqba ibn Nafi, had founded the city of Kairawan, and was in control of southern and central Tunisia (Jackson 40). Uqba is believed to have spread Islam to Morocco with a 3000-mile long march around the country, and many Berbers were converted to Islam. Another Arab governor, Musa ibn Nusair, had established Arab rule in northern Morocco and at this point, both Arab culture and Islam started to gain strong positions in Morocco. The converted Berbers played an important part in the Islamic conquest of Spain (Jackson 32). The first Moroccan dynasty was installed with Idriss I who ruled from 686 AD to 917 AD. They installed Morocco’s monarchy in Fez, which is today’s spiritual capital (Gifford 308).
From the 12th century onward the history of northern Africa is concerned with the rise and fall of local dynasties, with constant warfare, religious dissensions and a feudal order comparable to that of Europe. Zirites and Hammadiets, Almohades and Almoravides, the three kingdoms erected on the results of the second Arab invasion, Merinides at Fez, Abd-el-Wadites and Zeiynaites at Tlemcen, Hafsides at Tunis, one and all had some religious beliefs that resulted in civil war and the decline and ruin of the land (Sloan 27). These tumultuous times lasted until the 15th century, when Spain and Portugal saw their opportunity to advance. Although Morocco successfully repulsed these invasions, the tide of European imperialism eventually proved too great, and by the middle of the 19th century Morocco’s strategic importance had become evident to all of the European powers and they engaged in a protracted struggle for possession of the country (Sagay 36).
The French were able to extract trading concessions from the Sultan (at the time it was Mawlay Abdul-Rahman) and he was used as a weapon in the diplomatic warfare of European powers (Gifford 328). The authority of the Sultan was undermined by the activities of Europeans and ignored by many of the Moroccan chiefs, and between 1860 and 1880 foreign activity in Morocco increased steadily (Sagay 40).
In 1904, France made agreements with Britain and Spain, dividing Morocco into their own spheres of influence. A protest came from the German emperor, Wilhelm II, and he declared his intention of protecting Moroccan independence (Sagay 212). A compromise was reached at the Algeciras Conference the following year when Morocco’s independence was formally recognized by the European powers but Spain and France were allowed to “police” the country in order to restore law and order. The French interpreted this agreement as a license to conquer and began moving troops into their sphere in 1907. Then Spain set out to occupy their sphere in northeastern Morocco. Effective resistance came not from the Sultan but from many of the mountainous tribes, but in 1912 the Treaty of Fez, was signed, and France was given the right to defend Morocco, and a similar treaty was signed with Spain. The European conquest wasn’t complete until 1934 (Gifford 416).
In French Morocco, the Sultan remained the head of state but the real power lay with the French Resident-General. Traditional forms of administration and justice were maintained but all the Sultan’s officials were subject to French control (Sagay 337). Mining rights were all in the hands of French companies and between the two World Wars production of lead, cobalt, phosphates, coal, manganese and oil began (Jackson 78). In the interests of building up an economy based on the output of European farms and industries, Morocco’s roads, railways and harbors were rapidly developed; electricity and irrigation schemes were introduced. These improvements were paid for out of taxation, the burden of which fell heaviest on the Moroccans (Sagay 338).
Spanish Morocco was a much poorer country. The Spanish protectorate was harder to control because of the mountainous country and the fierce independence of the people. It was here that the first effective nationalist resistance emerged. In 1921, Abdul-Karim launched a rebellion against Spanish rule. He quickly increased his territory, and in 1925 he moved into French territory but he was defeated in 1926 (Jackson 79). His defeat proved to be a triumph for Moroccan nationalism.
In the mid-1920’s a group of Moroccans began to meet in secret to discuss the need for reform. In 1930 some of them formed the National Group. The numbers grew and by 1932 the organization became known as the National Action Bloc (Barbour 57).
The turning point for the nationalist movement came in 1936-7. Poverty and ill treatment led to protest and when the government refused to allow Moroccans to join trade unions, the people realized that the nationalist movement was the only outlet for the expression of their grievances (Sagay 338). The French realized that the membership of the National Action Bloc was expanding, and they banned it in 1937, but its leaders simply organized themselves under a new name—the National Party for Realizing Reforms (NPRR). There was a lull of activity during the Second World War, but in 1943, the NPRR returned to their cause with full force. First of all, they changed the name again to the Independence Party to show that they were not just concerned with reforms, but independence. Secondly, the party emerged as a national party, drawing support from all areas. Thirdly, there was a move to involve Sultan Mohamed VI the nationalist movement (Gifford 428).
In 1947 the growing determination of the Independence Party forced the first important compromise from the French. Moroccans were admitted to the Council of Government, but in 1950 the Resident-General told the Sultan that he must either keep his throne or support the nationalists, and the Sultan decided to retain his throne (Gifford 429). The French threat to the Sultan enraged the Moroccan people and led to increased support for the Independence party. In March 1952 the Sultan demanded total sovereignty over his people, and in 1953, the Resident-General exiled the Sultan to Corsica. This action united all the people against the French. There were attacks all over Morocco, and the French allowed Mohamed V to return in 1955, and upon arrival, he appointed a new government. France and Spain could no longer deny independence to a people united under the leadership of its traditional ruler, and Morocco regained its freedom in March 1956 (Sagay 339). The Sultan formed a government and Moroccans gradually replaced French officials.
In 1961, King Mohammed V was succeeded by Hassan II who presented a new constitution (Barbour 63). The new King worked intensely for his kingdom’s future, and under his reign Morocco’s mentality and demographics changed drastically allowing it to become liberal with a pluralist political system and vast interior developments giving Morocco the status of an emerging country which has attracted large sums of foreign investments (Barbour 68). With his death in 1999, his son, King Mohamed VI, ascended the throne, and his focus has been on the integration of the youth, women, and the rural regions of the Kingdom into politics. Work conditions, administrative transparency, globalization and new technology all share an enormous importance for the young King. And with about 20% of the population living in poverty, economic expansion is a prime goal.
The struggle for independence in Morocco was shorter and less distressing than in neighboring French Algeria, and this was partly because Morocco’s colonial ties were much looser, and partly because Moroccan independence involved no substantial change in the form of government. Morocco has become a magnet for visitors wishing to explore a country that encompasses the best of Arabian and European culture.
Barbour, Nevill. Morocco. New York: Walker and Company, 1965.
Gifford, Prosser and Louis, Roger. France and Britain in Africa. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1971.
Jackson, James. An Account of the Empire of Morocco. London: Frank Cass and
Company Limited, 1968.
Sagay, J.O. and Wilson, D.A. Africa—A Modern History. New York: Africana
Publishing Company, 1978.
Sloane, William. Greater France in Africa. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924.