Morocco and Political Islam
Strategy of concordance explains the lack of revolutionary attempts in Morocco
Throughout history many colonial powers have sought to subdue Morocco. No matter whether the conqueror has been Europeans, Ottomans, or Islam, the Lions from the Atlas Mountains have proven not so easy to tame. The most recent demonstration of this resistance occurred during the unraveling of the Arab Spring in early 2011, when Morocco was one of few countries in the Middle East that did not see any attempts at revolution. Through a well-institutionalised monarchy and a thorough political strategy, the regime has managed to remain unchallenged. This article thus takes a closer look at the regime’s survival mechanisms.
The rise of the Monarchy
Morocco is a country full of contradictions, usually described as differing geographically, historically, and politically from the rest of the Arab world. Its location places it closer to Canada than to Mecca, and its identity is, according to the new constitution, partly Jewish. Furthermore, almost half of its population is not Arabic, but Berber. The country’s history is sometimes referred to as an amalgam of Arab, Berber, European, and Jewish influence (Thunström: 1, 8).
Additionally, Morocco has been sovereign since 17th century, apart from 44 years as a French protectorate in the 20th century. The Alaouites, who have ruled the country since 1664, claim descendance from Prophet Muhammad, which gives the King unprecedented legitimacy which a military, dictator or even an elected president could never attain. The King is also commander of the armed forces as well as the head of the clergy, Commander of the Faithful (Thunström: 1). During the 17th century the ruling Alaouite dynasty managed to resist Ottoman raid from the East (White referred in Gasiorowski et al, 2011: 447). The fact that Morocco, unlike its Arab neighbours, was never part of the Ottoman Empire is sometimes mentioned as an explanation of the diversity of Morocco’s political culture (Thunström: 1).
The French rule between 1912 and 1956, left, however, some traces visible mainly in the infrastructure, education system, and bureaucracy. Furthermore, French is still considered the country’s academic language (Thunström: 4, 7). In 1912, when Morocco was divided between France and Spain, the Sultan was reduced to a puppet of the occupying powers (Selvik & Stenslie, 2011: 118). Despite the French influence, local political hierarchies as well as the monarchy remained untouched (Robins, 2016: 12).
The King’s strong position may also be explained by the monarchy’s engagement in Morocco’s struggle for freedom from the French. The present King’s grandfather, Sultan Mohammed V, was a fierce critic of French governance and was sent into exile together with his family, in 1953. This, however, only contributed to august Mohammed V’s position as a symbol of resistance, and when he returned to Morocco in 1955 he was hailed a hero (White referred in Gasiorowski et al., 2011: 451). When Morocco regained its independence in 1956, Mohammed V appeared as a leader, enjoying both religious and national legitimacy, and his enthroning proved to be a watershed moment in Moroccan political history. On top of the religious authority he already enjoyed, he managed to adopt a nationalist approach, further strengthening legitimacy of the monarchy, which became a symbol of resistance to colonial powers (Selvik & Stenslie, 2011: 118).
Additionally, King Mohammed V’s defiance against the French was encouraged by American president Roosevelt in 1943. Morocco, in turn, was the first country to recognise American independence from Great Britain in 1786. Unsurprisingly, Moroccan monarchy has enjoyed American support ever since (Thunström: 9).
Political strategy as survival mechanism
The present King Mohammed VI succeeded his father Hassan II in 1999. As opposed to other rulers in the region, King Mohammed VI chose to maintain and develop institutions, rather than remove them. This prevented Islamists from benefitting from the vacuum a removal of institutions had created. Furthermore, to avoid opposition with Islamist inclinations, King Mohammed VI adopted a strategy based on three pillars; institutions, surveillance, and modern scientific education (Thunström: 4, 8).
Institutions serve a role in confining Islamist inclinations. The state has established an Imam education, where a more moderate, state friendly version of Islam, espousing openness and tolerance, is taught. The goal is to prevent reactionary Islam from gaining momentum, as has been the case in several other countries in the region. To ensure that the “right” version of Islam is advocated, the mosques are put under state control, Morocco may therefore be seen as a laic state (Thunström: 3, 8).
Morocco was one of few countries in the Middle East to avoid any revolutionary attempts during the Arab Spring. The demonstrations that occurred, most notably the “Uprising of 20th February” in Casablanca, were silenced by political concessions and the announcement of a new constitution weeks after the outbreak of social unrest. The constitution, which was approved in August 2011, transformed Morocco into a constitutional monarchy, meaning that the Prime Minister has to be appointed by the parliament’s biggest party and not by the King. The King, however, continues to serve as a bulwark against Islamists, as no changes can be achieved without his consent. This is sometimes depicted as the Moroccan paradox – to achieve liberal results by illiberal means (Thunström: 2).
The Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) won about 25 percent of the legislative seats in the following elections (Masoud, 2014: 2), and was allowed to form a government, with Abdelilah Benkirane as the new Prime Minister. Furthermore, Berber was approved as an official language (Robins, 2016: 226). The Islamist rule would, however, eventually come to an end in September this year, when it suffered a sounding defeat in the parliamentary elections, losing 112 of 125 seats (Khashan, 2021).
It is clear that the monarchy has chosen a strategy based on collaboration and dialogue, rather than confrontation. As part of the plan to avoid tensions King Mohammed VI has released about 25,000 political prisoners, who were incarcerated by his father Hassan II (Thunström: 4). In accordance with the approach of concordance, and unlike its North African counterparts Tunisia, and Algeria, Morocco has permitted Islamist opposition to exist. The biggest Islamist party PJD also recognises Mohammed VI as head of the clergy. By appealing to political legitimacy in Islam the sultanate has managed to meet the needs of the poor, pious people in rural areas, and by doing so the sultanate has also prevented political dissent from that segment of the population (Linz, 2000: 148f).
King Mohammed VI has made himself known as “The King of the Poor”, and usually refers to himself as “The People’s Servant”. His strategy is based on improving living conditions and by that means avoid public dissatisfaction. Among his goals is to eliminate analphabetism, reduce unemployment, and increase women’s rights in society (Thunström: 4). Women’s rights have indeed been gradually expanded, starting with King Hassan II in the 1990s, and later by the present King Mohammed VI in the 21st century (Zubaida referred in Gerges, 2014: 216). As the country’s Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane stated on an assembly in Davos, “No development will occur if a country is in crisis” (Thunström: 2).
The Western Sahara issue
There remains, however, one controversial issue for Morocco- its relation to Western Sahara. A Spanish province since 1885, Western Sahara has been recognised as an independent state by UN resolutions in the 1970s. At the same time, the matter has served as part of the monarchy’s political strategy. Mainly during Hassan II’s presidency, having lacked the charisma of his father and unable to benefit from the struggle of independence, he managed to find a cause that could increase his legitimacy in Western Sahara (Selvik & Stenslie, 2011: 119).
The day after the last Spanish troops had left in 1976, the Polisario movement claimed the area and named it Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SadR), while launching a guerilla war against Morocco and Mauritania. This would pave the way for King Hassan II’s “Green March”, where about 350,000 civilians embarked on a symbolic walk to the Western Sahara border, an event celebrated to this day as a national holiday. Later, about 80,000 troops were deployed in the former Spanish Sahara (White 454, 468f). Since the issue of Western Sahara unites people all over the political spectrum Hassan II’s popularity increased enormously, at the same time weakening political opposition (White: 454).
Western Sahara is by Moroccans considered a natural part of the country, which has been artificially separated from it by colonial powers. Additionally, Morocco claims the ‘historic right’ to its “Southern Province”, based on its ancient tribes’ sworn loyalty to Morocco. King Mohammed VI’s approach to the issue remains inflexible and he adamantly claims that Western Sahara will remain Moroccan (Selvik & Stenslie, 2011: 119).
Notably, Western Sahara possesses large supplies of phosphate, deep-sea fisheries and, most likely, also oil in the future. These supplies assure great incomes to Morocco, which the country is dependent on to be able to carry on the modernisation process (Thunström: 10).
Although the Islamists managed to stay in power for about a decade after the election in 2011, they did not succeed in changing neither the country’s political dynamic nor its social order. The reason for that should be found in the nature of the Moroccan political system, where all changes are dependent on the King’s consent. This means that the Moroccan Islamists have enjoyed much more limited space for action than has been the case in other, especially North African, countries, where their counterparts have come to power through elections.
To maintain power, the King remains, nonetheless, dependent on securing the people’s welfare. Western Sahara is therefore of great interest for the regime, due to its rich resources of phosphate and oil. In times of lack of support for the monarchy, it can always point to the Western Sahara issue in order to gather popular support for its cause, as was the case during the reign of Hassan II. Although about 80 countries have recognised Western Sahara, no global power does so. It will likely remain so, since Mohammed VI has proven to be one of few loyal allies in a volatile region.
The politics of inclusion and concordance executed by the regime have prevented reactionary underground movements from emerging. Although the legislator has been awarded more power, the King still serves as a deus ex machina, to assure that undesired political opposition, mainly Islamists, that may constitute a threat to the country’s constitution and its social order, does not get any foothold.
Taken into account the above explained robustness of the political system, the monarchy’s fingertip feeling of people’s need, and the lack of foreign support for internal uprising, the King seems to be safe on his throne in the foreseeable future.
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Masoud, T. 2014. Counting Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Robins, P. 2016. The Middle East. 2nd ed. London: Oneworld Publications.
Selvik, K. & Stenslie, S. 2011. Stability and Change in the Modern Middle East. London: I.B.Tauris.
Thunström, A. 2015. Undantaget Marocko.
Zubaida, S. in Gerges, F. 2014. Protest and Revolution in the Arab World. New York: Cambridge University Press.