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Human Rights and Freedom from State Tyranny: Country Studies - Morocco

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 5 Political Rights, 4 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


The Kingdom of Morocco, on the northwestern coast of Africa, had a population in 2006 of nearly 31 million people. Morocco was the first country to recognize the sovereignty of the United States in 1777, and in 1786, signed the American-Moroccan Treaty of Friendship, the oldest active treaty between states. Known for its trading centers, scholarship, and general climate of moderation and tolerance, Morocco was once home to the world's largest Sephardic Jewish community before its members largely immigrated to Israel. Morocco is now almost exclusively Berber and Arab, and is 99 percent Sunni Muslim. Today, the kingdom suffers from widespread poverty and low levels of economic development. In 2006, Morocco ranked 133rd in the world for gross national income (GNI) per capita ($1,900), and ranked 135th in the world for GNI measured by purchasing power parity, which takes into account factors such as inflation and local prices ($5,000).



The Berbers, the original inhabitants of the region, arrived around 8000 BC with a developed language. Although at first the Berbers were largely an agricultural and hunting community, they became increasingly nomadic as the climate conditions grew harsher. Around the 12th century BC, the area was colonized by Arab-Phoenicians, who developed trading colonies and integrated the area into the Mediterranean trading economy. From the eighth to the second centuries BC, Carthage held sway over northwestern Africa, until it was defeated by Rome in 146 BC. In both cases, military control and control over trade were established over the coastlines but not the interior, where Berber kingdoms simply negotiated payments of tribute. The fall of Rome in the fifth century AD left Morocco open to invasion by the Vandals, the Visigoths, and then the Byzantine Greeks.

The Origins of Modern Morocco

The origins of modern Morocco can be found in the seventh century with the arrival of Arab traders and settlers and the adoption of Islam by the Berbers. Because of its distance from the Baghdad caliph, Morocco evolved separately and was ruled by the Idrisid dynasty. It quickly became a center of learning and trade. Morocco's Arab rulers ceded power to a tribal confederation that dominated the Maghreb (North Africa) and Spain for 200 years until the 13th century. Arab tribes resumed power in 1511 with the establishment of the Saadi dynasty, and then of the Alaouite dynasty (1664–1912), the longest uninterrupted rule in Morocco history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Morocco consolidated its hold over coastal territory facing Spain and defeated an invasion attempt by the Ottoman Empire. In addition to being the first to recognize the United States, the Alaouite kingdom signed a friendship treaty with the American government in 1786.

French Colonization—Moroccan Resistance

The Moroccan kingdom resisted foreign control until the 19th century, when French and British colonial dominance was established over North Africa. Gradually, the French gained special status over most of the Maghreb. In 1912, Morocco became a French protectorate with the signing of the Treaty of Fez. Spain was awarded control over Western Sahara. As a protectorate, Morocco technically retained sovereignty, and the sultan was the country's leader. In practice, however, Morocco was ruled by a colonial administration.

The general policy of the French colonial administration was to encourage settlement by French citizens (colons), who would receive favorable treatment in matters of business, government, and civilian life. Modernization in transportation, industry, and agriculture was designed to assist the French economy. Following World War I, a nationalist movement arose, partly inspired by Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which encouraged national self-determination. In December 1934, the Moroccan Action Committee (CAM) proposed a "Plan of Reforms" that included a return to indirect rule, the establishment of representative councils, and the inclusion of Moroccans in government, all of which were stipulated in the Treaty of Fez. Radical members split from moderates to form a nationalist political party, which was suppressed in 1937 but formed the basis of the more successful Istiqlal (Independence) Party established at the end of World War II.

From War to Independence

In November 1942, American and British forces invaded the Moroccan coast near Casablanca. The Allied forces, assisted by Moroccans, routed the Vichy French rulers, who oversaw Morocco and remained allied with the Nazis. The Allies then began their desert campaign against the Nazis. As the end of the war neared, the Istiqlal Party, drawing upon the Atlantic Charter's promise of self-government for all peoples, presented a demand for independence to the resident general representing the Free French government. The sultan, recognized by the French as the local leader of Morocco, sided with the call for independence, but the resident general rejected his claim and any change in protectorate status in postwar Morocco. French colons and business interests largely remained opposed both to independence and to reform.

In 1952, the murder of a labor leader sparked riots in Casablanca, leading to a harsh response by the French authorities. Among the actions taken were the banning of the Istiqlal and Communist parties and the exiling of Sultan Mohammed V to Madagascar in 1953. The sultan's replacement, Mohammed Ben Aarafa, was widely seen as illegitimate, and his appointment galvanized Moroccan opposition to French rule. Considering the deteriorating conditions in neighboring Algeria, the French government capitulated to public protests and brought Sultan Mohammed V back in 1955 after two years in exile. The sultan, now universally popular, negotiated the return of Moroccan independence, which was formally recognized on March 2, 1956. In 1975, Spain agreed to end colonial rule in Western Sahara. Morocco gained control over the northern part of the territory, and Mauritania gained control over the southern part.

Authoritarian Monarchy: The "Years of Lead"

Fearing radicals in the nationalist movement who wished to overthrow the sultanate and establish a one-party state, Mohammed V imposed a constitutional monarchy, assumed the title of king in 1957, and harshly repressed opposition. After Mohammed V's death in 1961, his son, Hassan II, assumed the throne for a reign that lasted 37 years. Hassan II sought to establish his own legitimacy through a referendum for a new constitution that established a bicameral parliament and an independent judiciary. But executive powers remained supreme. In response to political opposition, attempted military coups, and upheaval, Hassan declared several "states of emergency." This early period of Hassan II's rule was known as "the years of lead" because of the forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and imprisonments of political opponents.

King Hassan II of Morocco
Reforming Monarchs

Unusually for an authoritarian leader, in Hassan II's last years of rule, he initiated a reform and reconciliation process, with measures such as freeing political prisoners in 1991, enacting constitutional amendments in 1996, establishing a bicameral parliament with expanded powers, and launching an independent commission of inquiry to begin examining human rights abuses and to make recommendations for prisoner releases. Hassan invited exiled opponents to return and after the 1997 legislative elections, which despite irregularities brought many previously banned parties and opposition members to the Chamber of Representatives, asked the leader of the opposition Socialist Party to lead a coalition government. Previously, in 1993, Hassan II, who had become a proponent of peace with Israel after the 1973 war, established de facto recognition of Israel by welcoming former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to Morocco.

Unusually for an authoritarian leader, in Hassan II's last years of rule, he initiated a reform and reconciliation process...

When Hassan's son, Mohammed VI, assumed the throne in 1999, he expanded his father's political reforms. Mohammed issued two amnesties, resulting in the liberation of thousands of political prisoners and the reduction of sentences for tens of thousands of other prisoners. By the 2002 election, the electoral system had improved to such a degree that international monitors deemed them free and fair. A plurality was won by the opposition Union of Popular Socialist Forces (USPF), and a majority of seats were held by opposition socialist and nationalist parties. In 2003, for the first time, the Berber language was introduced into the school system. In 2004, the government passed a new family law code, which placed restrictions on polygamy, allowed for divorce, and provided for other improvements in women's rights.

Unfinished Reconciliation and Justice

The process that received the most attention internationally was Mohammed VI's establishment in 2004 of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER), with a mandate to investigate human rights abuses that occurred under his predecessors from 1956 to 1999. Mohammed VI named a former opposition leader and political prisoner, Driss Benzekri, as its head. The IER, which fulfilled its mandate in 2005, had the power to determine the validity of complaints and to determine compensation for victims and their families. However, its scope was limited to cases of forced disappearances and arbitrary detention, not broader human rights violations (such as forced exile), and it had no power to compel testimony. The public nature of the commission and its assessment of compensation, however, gave impetus to a number of changes, including the government's support for several international human rights conventions previously unsupported. Although the commission could not name officials, victims and families were able to do so in public hearings, which led to the resignation of several officials.

Human Rights

Although the reforms undertaken by Hassan II and Mohammed VI were seemingly impressive in their scope and openness, they covered up the fact that no real institutional changes to the constitutional monarchy have been made to date. The king retains full decision-making and policy-making powers, and the parliament served mainly as an advisory body. The king appoints all judges, the prime minister (with approval by the legislature), and security and military chiefs. Thus, after the terrorist bombings in 2003 in Casablanca killed more than 40 people, Mohammed VI detained over 1,000 suspects. Given the king's sweeping powers, there is nothing to stop Mohammed from carrying out such actions. Moreover, the king is entitled to declare a crisis or a state of emergency, or to dismiss the government, and his domination of the economy gives him enormous power to enforce his rule.

Newspapers that do attempt to report on sensitive issues, such as Le Journal, have been shut down or fined, and editors have been imprisoned.
Freedom of Expression

Morocco is widely criticized for its lack of freedom of expression. The government exerts significant control over the media and takes punitive actions against the few independent newspapers that exist. All broadcast media are entirely or partially state owned. Although there are many independent papers, self-censorship remains common due to the harsh punishments for libel or for coverage deemed inappropriate to the government. Newspapers that do attempt to report on sensitive issues, such as Le Journal, have been shut down or fined, and editors have been imprisoned. Le Journal has come under government criticism not only for its political coverage, but also for its coverage of corruption throughout the government.

Western Sahara and the Repression of Indigenous Rights

The monarchy's powers are also in full view when it comes to Western Sahara. Historically part of Morocco, the territory fell under Spanish control in 1884 and became a Spanish province in 1934. Although Spain relinquished control of Western Sahara in 1975, both Morocco and Mauritania annexed portions of the territory that same year, and in 1979, Morocco annexed the territory belonging to Mauritania. Since 1973, Polisario, an independence movement, has sought national self-determination for Western Sahara and fought a guerrilla war with Morocco until a peace agreement was reached in 1991 that called for a referendum to determine whether the territory would be granted independence from Morocco. Although a UN-brokered cease-fire has been in effect since 1991, efforts to resolve differences between the two sides have repeatedly failed. The Moroccan government has carried out human rights abuses in the territory and continues to repress Sahrawi nationalists (Sahrawi refers to inhabitants of Western Sahara) as well as Moroccans who express disagreement about the government's policy toward Western Sahara. In 2005, demonstrators in El Aaiun demanding independence (an action called the Independence Intifada) were met with a severe crackdown.


Since independence, the Moroccan government has failed to respect human rights, and its constitutional monarchy does not allow for any serious checks on the king's powers or actions. Unlike in Indonesia, no democracy movement has emerged strong enough to press the resignation of the king or to press for reforms. The recent reconciliation efforts have failed to establish genuine accountability or to provide justice for the victims or their families. Due process and the rights of association and expression remain curtailed. Morocco has challenged the UN system in its blatant violation of the rights of Sahrawis. While there remains some small political space for criticism and expression in Morocco, there is no opportunity for this opposition to gain exposure in most of the mass media, which is controlled by the government.