MICHELIN Travel Discover the world
Home > > > > > The struggle for unification Morocco

Leaving for Morocco

Where to sleep?

View 524 hotels for Morocco

The struggle for unification

Enlarge map

The struggle for unification

Morocco’s often chaotic history is nonetheless marked by a certain number of recurring features.

The division of the country into numerous distinct geographical and ethnic units has contributed to maintaining extremely strong local character traits , which have hindered not only foreign incursions but also any attempts to unify the country.

Politics and religion have always been closely entwined. The first two Berber dynasties were both directly born out of radical religious movements, while the three Arab dynasties were descended from the family of the Prophet. Furthermore, from the 15C, Maraboutism began to play a political role in religious brotherhoods, something which is unusual in Islamic society. Although instrumental in developing a national identity, it also gave rise to anarchy and a certain degree of withdrawal from the outside world.

As early as the 14C, the historian Ibn Khaldun first noted a vicious cycle which continued to repeat itself over eight centuries. This cycle had the following characteristics: during a period of anarchy, the charismatic chief of a Saharan tribe emerged and forcibly unified Morocco over the space of a decade, before finally seizing the imperial throne. The new sultan enjoyed a short-lived honeymoon period and was then succeeded by, at best, one or two descendants before the dynasty collapsed into chaos and the age-old centrifugal forces once again took a grip of the country until a new unifying dynasty emerged.

The intervention of the colonising power of France put a stop to this cycle. France single-handedly unified Morocco and established the uncontested authority of the State, to the great benefit of the monarchs who succeeded to power after Independence.

Morocco’s traditionally introspective attitude has meant that the country has maintained its strong cultural identity . The French Resident General Lyautey helped ensure that the colonial power respected the country’s prestigious heritage and originality.


Prehistoric times

The oldest remains of human life in Morocco date back some two million years and Rabat man (Homo erectus) has been traced back to several hundred thousand years BC.

At the time when Europe was undergoing its last ice age, North Africa enjoyed a tropical, humid climate and the land was covered in savannahs and forests inhabited by elephants and hippopotamuses. The Drâa was at that time a fast-flowing river which finished its course in the ocean. The progressive warming of the climate led to the steady desertification of the Sahara (this process was completed around 2500 BC) and certain tropical species of fauna remained trapped between the desert and the Mediterranean. These species were still in existence in the area in Antiquity and there is evidence that the Romans and even the first Arabs hunted lions and elephants in Morocco!

The Bronze Age (3000-800 BC) is noted for the large number of rock carvings found in the High Atlas and the Drâa valley, which depict animals, weapons and chariots. Libyan inscriptions , using an alphabet of consonants very close to the Tuareg’s ­tifinagh , also date back to this period.


Antiquity

Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Mauritanians (8C-1C BC)

The Phoenicians were a prosperous people of merchants and navigators of the eastern Mediterranean who explored the Moroccan coasts in search of new commo­dities. As early as the 8C BC, they ventured past the Columns of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar), founding Lixus and Sala Colonia, and in the following century, reached the ­ Island of Mogador (opposite Essaouira). The native populations were at that time still ­living a Bronze Age lifestyle, but contact with this ­advanced civilisation brought them the alphabet, among other things.

During the 6C BC, Carthage (present-day Tunis in Tunisia) took over the trading activities of its former metropolis. In around 460 BC, Hanno, a Carthaginian admiral, led a large fleet with ­orders to explore the West African coasts. His legendary voyage took him as far as the Gulf of Guinea and seemed so amazing at the time that its veracity was doubted for many years. The Carthaginians embarked on lasting colonisation, ­although this was limited to the coastal regions. They founded new trading posts, some of which developed into cities, set up salting industries and ceramics works and developed relations with the whole Mediterranean world. In terms of literacy and political organisation, the Punic influence on the inland Libyan-Berber populations was substantial.

After the fall of Carthage (146 BC), the Berber tribes found themselves suddenly integrated into the Roman world within the protectorate of the kingdom of Mauritania. For 150 years, this kingdom united the whole of northern Morocco and western Algeria, happily combining Punic and Hellenistic cultures. This regime was at its most successful under the reign of Juba II . He established the capital at Caesarea (Cherchell) and built royal residences at Volubilis and Sala Colonia. The kingdom prospered due to exports of olive oil, salted fish, garum , purple dye and wild animals for the arenas in Rome.

Roman colonisation (1C-4C AD)

The kingdom’s wealth attracted the envy of Caligula, who had Ptolemy, son of Juba II, assassinated in Lyon in 40 AD. The subsequent uprising was finally quashed some four years later and Emperor Claudius declared Mauritania Tingitana a Roman province. This trapezium-shaped territory, much smaller than that of present day Morocco, was bordered by Ad Spetem Fratres (Ceuta), Tingis (Tangier), Sala Colonia and Volubilis and served by two roads.

Ever politically prudent, Roman policy was one of restrained ­occupation : their presence, limi­ted to governing bodies and the army, had almost no effect on the daily lives or cities of Mauritania which remained dominated by the ruling Berber class, despite their strong Roman influence.

Towards 285, Emperor Diocletian decided to withdraw from the ­major part of Mauritania Tingitana, retaining only the area ­between Lixus and Tingis. ­However, the departure of the Romans did not result in the disappearance of the inland cities and their Latin flavour was to survive for several centuries, in particular as a result of the spread of Christianity from the 4C onwards. Moreover, after the fall of the Empire, the Byzantines continued to exert a certain hold over the coastal towns.


Islamisation

A protracted conquest (7C and 8C)

North Africa’s reputation for wealth was to attract Arab invasions to Ifriqiyah (Tunisia) and although the Byzantine armies proved relatively easy to overcome, the Berber tribes were altogether more troublesome. It took the Arabs some thirty years to gain military control over the Maghreb, while Spain had been subdued in only three years!

In 670, Oqba ben Nafi founded Kairouan, a military base from which to launch the forthcoming conquest and in 681 a daring cavalcade across the Maghreb took him as far as the Atlantic shore. Thrown into confusion by this surprise attack, the Berber tribes fled leaving substantial booty in their wake. Oqba ben Nafi’s advantage was, however, short-lived and he returned to Kairouan in his coffin. The uprising spread to the whole of the Maghreb and it was not until 710 that Musa ibn Naseyr managed to force the Berbers into submission. One of their number, Tariq , was then appointed governor of Tangier and was sent to conquer Visigothic Spain (711-13), known at that time as Al-Andalus (“land of the Vandals”) .

The army that seized the Iberian peninsula consisted primarily of Berber contingents, because in what was known as the Maghreb al-Aksa (the Maghreb hinterland), the Arab population was almost solely limited to the ruling classes.

Christianity had not managed to penetrate the rural areas of the country, and likewise, the spread of Islam proved to be a slow and protracted process. This was not helped by the emergence of the Kharijite movement, a breakaway sect born out of the early forms of Islam and which preached a message of social egalitarianism and religious rigour. Full of resentment at their lost independence and exploited by their Arab masters, the Berbers embraced this sect en masse. The new converts mutinied once again in 740 and for decades resisted the numerous armies sent from Damascus.

The Idrisid kingdom (8C and 9C)

The first Muslim dynasty of Morocco was to appear in the heart of this troubled region in 788 after Moulay Idris, an Arab fugitive, arrived at Walila (formerly Volubilis). A descendant of the family of Ali (son-in-law of the Prophet and the fourth caliph), he had fled Arabia after his family was massacred by the Abbasid author­ities who were hunting down the Shiites. Making the most of his prestige as a sharif , he made friends with a Berber chief and founded a small principality. The following year Idris I created Madinat al-Fas (Fès) and began to extend his territory. However, the Abbasidian Caliph Haroun Er-Rachid did not take kindly to these early successes and had him poisoned in 791. Idris II , following in his father’s footsteps, extended and organised the kingdom further with the support of Arabs recently arrived from Andalucia and Ifriqiyah. Opposite Madinat el-Fas, he built the town of Al-Aliya: later united, these two districts were to become the city of Fès .

After the death of Idris II (assassinated in 829, also on the orders of Baghdad), the chronic weakness of the central government gave rise to the emergence of many small rival principalities. However, this did nothing to prevent the region’s burgeoning economic prosperity and urban growth. Fès, for example, was enriched by floods of Andalucian and Jewish immigrants and refugees from Kairouan and Sebta (Ceuta), and other cities, no longer in existence today, such as Sijilmassa, Aghmat (near Marrakech) or Tamdoult (to the south of the Anti-Atlas) were flourishing centres in their time.

This period also saw the almost total Islamisation of Morocco, although strangely enough, heretic sects such as the Kharijite movement or the Berghouata sect were left unchallenged. At the time, the main issue was preserving the independence of the Maghreb hinterland against the distant enemy in Baghdad.


The Berber dynasties and the unification of Morocco

For two centuries, the Maghreb al-Aksa was to experience a period of constant political turmoil: already highly fragmented, the region was torn in two between the Umayyads of Spain and the Fatimids of Tunisia, or between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The situation was further exacerbated by major population movements following the massive influx of refugees of the Sanhajah and Zenata tribes. However, despite all this upheaval, the region remained prosperous, due to its silver and copper mines as well as, initially at least, to its cotton and sugar cane crops. The gold trade, from black Africa, took place in towns bordering the Sahara: Tamdoult and above all Sijilmassa (in the Tafilalt, near what is now Rissani), which was the largest and most stable kingdom.

The Almoravids (11C)

However, in 1053, the wealthy caravan city of Sijilmassa was seized by an important nomadic tribe of the Sanhajah , the Almoravids. The main reason for this attack was undoubtedly economic, namely the desire to annex the fertile lands of the region, but sublimated into religious sentiment. Abdallah ben Yasin, a spiritual leader, had persuaded a militant minority of the tribe to withdraw to a ribat in the heart of the desert to undergo exacting religious, moral and military instruction in order to turn them into fierce Islamic warriors. “Almoravid” is a deformation of the term al murabitun which means the “the men of the ribat”.

Two years after the fall of Sijilmassa, the Almoravid armies, now commanded by Abu Bakr, stormed first Taroudant and then crossed the Atlas to take Aghmat. In 1070, Abu Bakr set up a gigantic military encampment in the plain of Haouz: this was the embryo from which Marrakech was to grow.

Yusuf ibn Tashufin, Morocco’s first great sultan (1073-1106)

After rapidly ousting Abu Bakr, Yusuf ibn Tashufin , his lieutenant, proceeded to conquer northern Morocco, progressing on to central Maghreb (now Algeria) and finally reaching Al-Andalus (Andalucia) in Spain. There, the small warring kingdoms (reinos de taifas) which had taken over the Umayyad Caliphate had left Al-Andalus vulnerable to Christian reconquest . This forced the Moroccan sultan to ask for help from the Almoravids who landed at Algeciras, grouped all the Muslim armies together and defeated Alfonso VI at Zallaqah in 1086 and subsequently seized power of the kingdom in 1091.

However, it did not take long for the Andalucian emirates to find their rugged Berber saviours a burden and they reversed their policy, preferring to renew their former agreements with the local Christian princes. Outraged, Yusuf ibn Tashufin , a ­­die-hard champion of Islam, turned against them and eliminated them one after the other, with the result that, on his death in 1106, Spain and the Maghreb comprised a single, prosperous, peaceful Sunni empire.

His son, Ali ibn Yusuf (1106-43) was of a different calibre, however, more inclined to indulge in “Andalucian delights” than to exert the hand of steel required to maintain his vast empire. During the first half of the 12C, Andalucia had considerable influence over this empire: Moroccan cities were bathed in its sophisticated culture and art; scholars, artists, poets and lawyers flocked to Marrakech and Fès. But the established political power was on the wane and the Christian armies gradually gnawed away at the Al-Andalus territory, while revolt was once again brewing in the Maghreb itself.

Ibn Tumart and the Almohad movement (1st third of the 12C)

The sophisticated Almoravid court was soon accused of vice and depravity by those excluded from its pleasures. The seditious speeches of Ibn Tumart , a militant fanatic hell-bent on the downfall of the Almoravids, found a receptive audience among the lower classes of the cities and the rural tribes. In 1123, with the help of a few disciples, he established a ribat at Tinmel in an isolated valley of the High Atlas, where he ruled with an iron fist. He soon proclaimed himself mahdi , that is, an envoy from God sent to re-establish justice on earth. His followers were known as Almohads ( al muwahhhidun , “the unitarians”), due to his insistence on the uniqueness of God.

In addition to his theological and moralistic talents, Ibn Tumart was also an outstanding organiser: with the support of the Masmudah tribes in the High Atlas and in the Sous, he managed to form a coalition of opposition to the Almoravids. In 1130, their first attempt to seize the capital was a resounding fiasco and half the Almohad leaders lost their lives. Several months later, the mahdi himself died, but his death was kept secret for two years, the time it took the new commander, Abd al-Mumin , to establish his reign. In 1133, the latter was officially declared head of the Almohad movement and awarded the title of caliph .

Abd al-Mumin, a tireless conqueror (1130-63)

An ambitious and talented leader, Abd al-Mumin immediately embarked on a methodical consolidation of his power over Morocco. It took him ten years. Finally in 1147, after a long siege, he conquered Marrakech, slaughtered a large proportion of its inhabitants and killed the last remaining Almoravids.

However, his ambitions remained unsatisfied. In 1150, his troops sailed over to Andalucia, where a new generation of taifa princes were being threatened by the Christians. In 1151, taking advantage of the weak Hammad dynasty, he set about conquering the central Maghreb, where the only serious resistance he encountered was from the nomadic Hilalian tribes of Arab origin, who had emigrated from Egypt and were moving slowly westwards, wreaking havoc in their path.

A few years later, Abd al-Mumin dispatched a new victorious expedition as far as Tripoli in Libya. By 1159, Ifriqiyah was completely conquered and for the first time since the Romans, the whole of the Maghreb was unified. In 1161, Abd al-Mumin returned to Spain to conclude his victories over the Christians. He died two years later at Rabat, on the point of embarking on yet another campaign.

After thirty years of war, Abd al-Mumin left his descendants a magnificent empire. Its very heterogeneity, however, made it fragile and his son, Yusuf (1163-84) and grandson Yaqub (1184-99) had to deal with revolts in the central Maghreb and Tunisia. Nevertheless, they successfully fought off Christian attempts to recover Spain: after the victory of Alarcos (1195), Yaqub won the title of Al-Mansur (the Victorious) .

The great Almohad empire did not last however. The dynasty struggled on for another 70 years, but decay had set in. In Spain, the defeat at Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) saw the beginning of the Christian Reconquista : over the next twelve years, the Muslims were to lose Cordoba, Valencia, Murcia and Seville, retaining only the kingdom of Granada until 1492. On the home front, the situation was not much better: Tunis and Tlemcen regained their independence.

The Marinids (2nd half of the 13C-14C)

In the eastern steppes, between Taza, Tlemcen and Figuig, camel and sheep-breeding nomads of the Zanatah tribe, the Marinids , began slowly to secure power. Contrary to the motivations of their Almoravid and Almohad predecessors, neither religion nor politics interested them: they simply took advantage of the chaotic situation reigning in the decaying Almohad empire as a means of capturing new territory.

Encouraged by an energetic warlord, they invaded the whole of northern Morocco, before moving on to gain control of the caravan routes to the south by capturing Sijilmassa and the oases of the Drâa Valley. Marrakech fell in 1268 and Abu Yusuf Yaqub proclaimed himself sultan, establishing his new capital at Fès el-Jedid in 1276. In Spain, the Reconquista was in full swing and the rulers of Castile even considered extending their ambitions as far as Morocco. The Marinid sultans dispatched expedition after expedition, but their successes were short-lived and the territory under their control to the north of the Strait of Gibraltar gradually dwindled: even Ceuta escaped their clutches for a decade! Their victories in the southern and western Maghreb were also dubious (the second siege of Tlemcen had to be abandoned after eight years) and short-lived (Tunis was occupied twice for several months only).

Even if Abu Hassan (1331-51) and Abu Inan (1348-58) were not the great conquerors they had dreamed of being, they bequeathed a legacy of a different nature. Both were pious, intelligent sultans who surrounded themselves with scholars and men of letters and their reigns represented a golden age of culture. They had large numbers of madrasahs built to spread the teachings of the Malikite school, more tolerant than the Almohad brand of Islam. The religion spread through the rural regions and mysticism gave birth to the first brotherhoods , which were to develop greatly over the coming centuries. Among the writers and scholars of the time, two achieved universal renown: the traveller, Ibn Batutta and the historian, Ibn Khaldun .


The Sharifian Arab dynasties

In 1358, Abu Inan was strangled by his vizier. This started a pattern in which sultans and viziers took turns assassinating one another until the dynasty collapsed. In the remoter regions of the land, powerful feudal systems developed and the Arab guich tribes (those given land in exchange for their military services), imprudently brought into Morocco by the Almohads, obeyed no-one. Moreover, the Black Death was to decimate the population and seriously damage the economy. The situation reached rock bottom in 1415 when the Portuguese stormed Ceuta. A new dynasty related to the Marinids, the Wattasids, attempted to seize power, but their authority extended hardly any further than the region around Fès.

Portuguese expansion and the development of Maraboutism (15C)

The Portuguese took advantage of the weakness of the Moroccan kingdom to take over the gold trade (and that of black slaves) which had been the prerogative up until then of the caravans travelling through the Sahara. During the 15C, they established a sea route between Lisbon and the Gulf of Guinea, via the Island of Arguin (to the north of Mauritania) and finishing at the gold mines of San Jorge da Mina. Caravels had won the day over caravans!

Within Morocco itself, the Portuguese set about systematically taking over all the natural harbours along the Atlantic coast (particularly the estuaries) and building impressive fortifications , less against attacks by the Moroccans than to prevent landings by the vessels of their Spanish and Italian rivals! Between 1471 and 1515, Asilah, Tangier, Agadir, Mogador, Safi, Azemmour and Mazagan, as well as the ­fronteiras and other more modest fortresses, were all captured, and attacks were made on Anfa and Mamora. The Portuguese were not inspired by a desire to acquire territories, even less by any missionary zeal, they simply wanted to trade and, each time an opportunity occurred, to plunder the neighbouring villages.

This extortion only served to inflame the local population’s xenophobic tendencies which found expression through Maraboutism . This popular religious movement is characteristic of the Maghreb and has an essentially rural following; the worship of saints (which is forbidden by the Sunni) and sharifs (real or supposed descendants of the Prophet), forms the backbone of this movement. The saints’ tombs (koubba) became places of worship and the faithful flocked there on pilgrimages (ziyara) or to take part in annual semi-religious festivals (moussem) . In addition, brotherhoods (zawiyah or tariqa) , created by disciples of the saints (sheikhs) , were established close by. They were responsible for educating the rural populations and, given the negligence of the governing bodies, their networks became highly militant propaganda movements (jihad) against the heavy-handed Portuguese. El-Jazuli was a renowned mystic and preacher who lectured all along the Atlantic coast, before he was poisoned.

The Saadians (16C)

The Saadians were Arabs , who claimed to be sharifs . Established in the Drâa Valley, some had left the region of Zagora in the mid-15C for Sous where they combined forces with the powerful southern brotherhood of Chadiliya-Jazouliya . In 1511, when the Saadians accepted the leadership of the jihad against the Portuguese, they killed two birds with one stone: by pursuing the infidels, they also eliminated their main trading rivals who had devastated the trans-Saharan trade route and the Drâa caravans.

The ousting of the Portuguese from Agadir by Mohammed al-Shaykh in 1541 had immense repercussions both in Portugal and Morocco and contributed to his rise to power. The Wattasids had been definitively eliminated in 1554, while the Portuguese retained control over three strongholds (Ceuta, Tangier and Mazagan). The Saadians nonetheless had to protect themselves from the Ottoman Empire which was by this time in control of Tunisia and Algeria. But Morocco’s new rulers had created a model modern Islamic state and called upon Turkish mercenaries to back up their army.

In 1578, the conjunction of a dynastic quarrel among the Saadians and King Don Sebastian’s exalted conquering ambitions resulted in a return of Portuguese forces to northern Morocco. The subsequent legendary “Battle of the Three Kings” on the banks of the Makhazin was a total fiasco, the Christian armies were thrashed and a new sultan, Ahmed el-Mansur inaugurated a long and glorious reign (1578-1603). The battle had earned him great prestige, in Morocco and abroad, where he gained the epithet of Al-Dahhabi (“the golden”), thanks to the vast booty and ransoms he amassed.

The strength of his position enabled him to re-establish an organised state (makhzen) throughout the country, to boost the economy (primarily thanks to the sugar-cane industry) and to establish a glittering court at Marrakech. To fund the vast expenses resulting from his policy of major public works and the upkeep of a powerful army, he maintained a firm control of the Sahara and attacked the Sudan (in around 1590) in an attempt to control its source of gold. By the early 17C, Timbuktu and Gao were both part of the Sharifian Empire.

The death of Ahmad al-Mansur in 1603 saw the onset of a period of incredibly brutal decadence. The country split into several principalities and for 60 years, violent civil wars set all those with any power – princes, tribal chiefs, zawiyah leaders – at each other’s throats. A number of religious brotherhoods took advantage of the weakened central government to establish genuine regional power-bases, such as at Dila in the Rharb or at Illigh in the Sous. At Salé, or more precisely Rabat, a pirate republic , was set up known as the Salee Rovers , roaming the Atlantic between the Canary Islands, Ireland and New England.

The Alawites (17C-18C)

The Alawites, who like the Saadians, were both Arabs and sharifs , had moved to the Tafilalt oasis in the 13C. Like so many before them, Moulay al-Sharif and his eldest son, Moulay Mohammed took advantage of the general anarchy to carve out their own local kingdom , to the detriment of Dila and Illigh.

Moulay Rachid , the younger son, had grasped the vital potential of controlling the trade route, called the trik es-soltan , which led from Sijilmassa to Fès and the Mediterranean ports. In just five years (1664-69), he eliminated the two main zawiyahs and conquered the whole of Morocco. He died in 1672, leaving his younger half-brother a fully reconstituted state.

Moulay Ismail was an outstanding character who reigned for 55 years (1672-1727). Although he didn’t take part in any foreign wars, half his reign was spent in consolidating Moulay Rachid’s lightning conquests and in repressing domestic revolts. To do so, he employed a vast army of almost 150 000 men, the core of which was made up of a regiment of black slaves (abid) specially trained and entirely loyal to the sultan. He also set up new tribal guich and established a network of powerful kasbahs throughout the land.

Moulay Ismail set about subduing the Berber tribes of the Rif and Middle Atlas mountainous regions, but he also sought to weaken the zawiyahs. In the south, he controlled all the oases of the Sahara, the Sudan and Mauritania as far as Senegal. However, his efforts in terms of maritime trade proved to be counter-productive and highly unpopular taxes had to be levied in order to pay for his vast army as well as the palaces of the new capital at Meknès.

The death of Moulay Ismail resulted in anarchy: the black slave army mutinied and proceeded to wreak havoc in the country and among the sultans. It took one of the great sultan’s sons, Moulay Abdullah, 25 years to finally get the better of them and restore law and order.

His successor, Mohammed ibn Abdallah was an energetic, enlightened ruler who managed to reorganise the state, control the mountain tribes, reorient the country towards its Atlantic coast and renew diplomatic and trade relations with Europe. He was responsible for the revival of Anfa (the future Casablanca), the taking of Mazagan and above all, the creation of Essaouira in 1765. Treaties signed with England, Holland and finally France and Spain guaranteed free competition and resulted in a booming maritime trade. Trans-Saharan trade, half of which was in black slaves, also experienced a period of renewed prosperity. However, the late 18C was darkened by seven years of famine and by an outbreak of cholera which killed half the population and gave rise to vast social upheavals.

The 9C crisis and European interference

At the outset of his reign, Moulay Sliman pursued the work of his predecessor but from 1810 the situation worsened and Morocco was once again the prey of its former demons:

– rebellion among the mountain tribes, who continued to advance towards the Atlantic plains, throwing the fragile ethnic balance into turmoil. Dissident regions were known as bled siba in opposition to bled makhzen ;

– renewed meddling on the part of the religious brotherhoods in national politics: Illigh underwent a revival and new zawiyahs were born, among them Derkaoua , Nasiriya , Tijania ;

– dynastic quarrels: it was commonplace for sons to rebel against their ruling fathers and to try and eliminate their brothers, with the support of such and such a tribe or brotherhood.

The result was such that during the whole of the 19C, England, France and Spain were able to take advantage of this crippling weakness and implement first their trade, then their territorial ambitions.

Initially, under the influence of the brotherhoods, the country sought salvation in tradition and withdrawal, forbidding exports and imports (1822). But the currency suffered badly and the State was deep in debt. Moreover, the Battle of Isly in 1844, followed by the brief war with Spain (1859-60), only served to highlight Morocco’s military handicaps and the country was unable to resist foreign pressure.

Successive treaties, culminating in the Conference of Madrid in 1880, were to ratify the growing influence of the European powers, not only in the realms of trade and the economy, but also over whole areas of the country’s sovereignty, in the form of protective systems . This was accompanied by the establishment of consulates, businesses, public building firms, farms, military sites and religious missions. Between 1832 and the end of the century, the European population had increased from 250 to over 10 000.

Reform of the makhzen was attempted by Mohammed IV and Moulay Hassan (1873-94), but on the whole such efforts were unsuccessful. In some regions, the sultan’s rule was even replaced by that of caids (feudal lords) such as Glaoui or Goundafi .


French colonisation

After an early diplomatic crisis (Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Tangier), the Act of Algeciras (1906) recognised the independence and integrity of the Sharifian Empire. However, this was only a way of confirming the country’s tutelage and distributing chunks of the territory to various European powers.

Several incidents gave France and Spain pretexts for military intervention . In 1907, French troops from Algeria invaded eastern Morocco and a little later, a Franco-Spanish expedition landed at Casablanca, before invading Chaouia. From 1909, the Spanish were present in the Rif. In 1911 Larache, Ksar el-Kébir and Asilah also fell under Spanish influence. That same year, Germany engineered the Agadir crisis , but was finally bought off in return for relinquishing all claims to Morocco.

Despite his early hopes of safeguarding Morocco’s independence, the new sultan, Moulay Hafid, finally agreed to negotiate. On 30 March 1912, he was forced to sign the Treaty of Fès , which inaugurated a French Protectorate over Morocco, and in August of that year he abdicated, leaving the throne to Moulay Yussef. In November, a Franco-Spanish treaty defined a similar type of protectorate over the Spanish zone, while the international zone of Tangier was awarded a special status with a legislative assembly and a mendoub representing the sultan.

The protectorate allowed the sultan to retain a façade of sovereignty, but the majority of power lay in the hands of the Resident General , who enjoyed a great deal of autonomy from the French government. Central and local administration was mixed, but it was the French who dictated terms to the pashas (city governors) and caids (Feudal lords) . There were no representative bodies, and even the French colonists had no vote.

General Lyautey , Resident General from 1912-25, both conquered (in the sultan’s name) and radically modernised the country. This French “pacification” occurred in several stages: first the central plains (1912-14), followed by the Middle Atlas (1914-26) and finally the South (1926-34) which proved to be particularly difficult. In the meantime, the Spanish had to contend with the Rif uprising (1921-26) in the course of which they suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Abdel Krim, forcing the French to intervene and rescue them.

Modernisation took the form of major building works: ports, roads, railways, dams, schools and hospitals, to which was added mining and agricultural development, run by French firms or colonists.

In the 1930s, nationalist aspirations began to emerge, leading to the creation of the Istiqlal party in 1944. Sultan Mohammed ibn Yussef supported the movement for independence and relations between the Residency and the Palace became more and more strained. In August 1953, a plot actively supported by Glaoui , resulted in the sultan’s deposition and exile to Madagascar. However, unrest grew to such an extent that the French government was forced to recall Mohammed V , who returned triumphantly in November 1955. Moroccan Independence was proclaimed on 2 March 1956. One month later Spain ended its protectorate over the north of the country and Tangier’s international status was abolished on 29 October of that year. At the same time, the creation of the state of Israel resulted in the massive departure of the country’s Jewish population (some 200 000), leading to the virtual disappearance of several thousand years of Judeo-Berber culture.


Independent Morocco

Henceforth a king , and no longer sultan, Mohammed V managed to guide his country relatively safely through the early years of independence, avoiding difficulties which neighbouring Algeria has still not resolved some 40 years later. Despite two years in exile, the sultan maintained cordial relations with France and avoided the trap of making a clean break with the former colonial period. He particularly managed to prevent the exodus of some half a million Europeans and their foreign capital, both of which were essential to the country’s development. Mohammed V set out a semi-democratic constitution which was never promulgated due to his short reign.

He died on 26 February 1961, while undergoing routine surgery, and was replaced by his son Hassan II . This new king had political talent and had been well-prepared for his future role: his education was both Arab-Muslim and French and his father had cleverly trained him in the exercise of power. He quickly centralised all political power, earning himself the hostility of the left wing movements – Istiqlal and above all, the UNFP – which had been so instrumental in winning the country’s independence.

From 1963 to 1975, disorder and unrest reigned in the country. A border war was fought against Algeria in the winter of 1963, urban riots took place throughout the 1960s and two failed coups d’état were carried out in the early 1970s. Popular uprisings were inevitably followed by bloody repression, as indicated by the state-sponsored assassination of the leader of the UNFP, Mehdi ben Barka in 1965 and the “disappearance” of General Mohamed Oufkir soon after his coup attempt in 1972.

In 1975, however, Hassan II managed to divert attention away from Morocco’s internal problems with a well-timed political gamble. In what became known as the Green March, he led 350 000 civilians south into the desert to claim the Western Sahara from Spain. This began 10 years of guerrilla war with the Algerian-backed Polisario movement seeking independent territory in the Western Sahara. The Polisario fighters knew some success at the beginning of their campaign, but a network of sand walls constructed by the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces (FAR) succeeded in pushing them back. A cease-fire was finally agreed in 1989, but a referendum proposed by the UN has still to take place. Although the war saw Morocco united under an almost unprecedented wave of patriotism, it had a devastating effect on the country’s economy.

During the Gulf War of 1990-91, Hassan II pledged 1 300 troops to defend Kuwait and this, combined with his moderate position on the Middle East, earned him the respect of the West. Domestically, the regime made timid steps towards liberalisation in the 1990s. Many leading political prisoners were released. A new constitution set up a bicameral parliamentary system, of which the lower house is entirely elected by universal suffrage. “Free” elections held in 1997 led to the formation of a centre-left government and a socialist Prime Minister, Aberrahmane Youssoufi, was appointed in 1998.

On 23 July 1999, Hassan II, weakened by illness, died at Rabat and his eldest son, Mohammed VI , was proclaimed king at the age of 36. The young crown prince was almost unknown to the general public and was an enigma for political observers. He immediately set about forging himself a reputation as a modern, liberal monarch: the king removed the unpopular Minister of the Interior, Driss Basri, from power and authorised the return of exiled Abraham Serfaty. These gestures immediately earned him the goodwill of both the Moroccan people and European nations.

Top of page