Morocco: Overview

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arab kingdom in the extreme northwest corner of africa.

Morocco is bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east and southeast by Algeria, and on the south by Western Sahara (claimed by Morocco). Spain administers two urban enclaves in northern MoroccoCeuta and Melillaand the offshore islands of Alhucemas, Penon de Velez de la Gomera, and Chafarinas. Most of Morocco was a protectorate of France from 1912 until 1956; northern Morocco was administered by Spain during that period. An 1860 war between Spain and Morocco established Spain's claim to Ifni, a small strip of land on the Atlantic coast of southern Morocco. The district of Tarfaya, near Western Sahara, became Spanish with the 1912 Treaty of Fes. Spain ceded Tarfaya to Morocco in 1958 and returned Ifni in 1969. Muhammad VI has ruled Morocco since 1999.

Geography and Climate

Morocco has an area of 178,620 square miles (446,550 sq km). It is dominated by the Atlas Mountains, which run through the center of the country from southwest to northeast, and the Sahara Desert, which dominates its frontier with Algeria, Western Sahara, and Mauritania. The Atlas chain comprises the High, Middle, and Saharan ranges, as well as the Rif Mountains along Morocco's Mediterranean coast. The northern Atlantic coastal plains of the Gharb constitute the chief agricultural area. Others include the Tadla plain of the Oum al-Rbi'a (Mother of spring) River south of Casablanca, the Haouz plain of the Tensift River near Marrakech, and the Sous River valley in southwestern Morocco. These rivers, navigable only by small boats, provide water for irrigation. The Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts have relatively moist, mild winter, and hot, dry summers. Eastern and southern Morocco have semiarid climates governed by the Sahara's heat and winds. Higher elevations of the Atlas Mountains, particularly the High Atlas between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, can be bitterly cold, and remain snow-covered year round. Morocco's highest peak, Mount Tubkal, is easily accessible from Marrakech and is a popular skiing area.

People, Language, and Religion

Morocco has 26 million people according to the last available census (1994), but later estimates place the population at about 30 million. About 55 percent of Moroccans live in urban areas, primarily in Casablanca (2,941,000), Rabat (1,386,000; the nation's capital), and Fez (775,000). Other major towns include Marrakech (746,000), Oujda (679,000), Agadir (550,000) Meknes (530,000), Tangiers (526,000), Kenitra (449,000), BeniMellal (387,000) and Safi (376,000). The population growth rate is 1.9 percent. Nearly 48 percent of the population is under twenty-one. Life expectancy for males is sixty-six; for females, seventy. Morocco's illiteracy rates are among the highest in North Africa: 34.4 percent for men and 62.8 percent for women. Most Moroccans are engaged in agriculture and fisheries, but an increasingly large number are in tourism, the liberal professions, commerce, industry, and government.

Morocco's ethnic groups are Arabs, mixed Arab-Berbers who identify as Arabs, and Berbers. "Berber," primarily a linguistic term, applies to about 35 percent of the population. The three primary Berber dialects are Tarrifit (spoken in the Rif), Tamazight (spoken in the Middle Atlas and the east), and Tachelhit (also called Chleuh, spoken in the High Atlas and the south). The Moroccan constitution does not recognize any of these dialects.

Morocco's national language is Arabic, but French is widespread in the media, commerce, education, diplomacy, and most government ministries. Moroccan Arabic differs from the Arabic of Algeria. It is characterized by an intense clipping of vowels and some vocabulary that is not understood outside of Morocco. Many Moroccans have a rudimentary understanding of the Egyptian dialect because films and television shows produced in Egypt are widely popular.

Islam is the state religion. Progovernment imams are appointed to all mosques under the direction of the ministry of religion. Important mosques, such as the Qarawiyin in Fez and the Kutubiyya in Marrakech, receive substantial endowments from the state. Most Moroccans profess Sunni Islam. A small Jewish community (estimates vary from 5,000 to 20,000) exists in Morocco and enjoys religious freedom and civil liberties. Following historical precedents, the monarch continues to include Jews within his circle of personal advisors. King Muhammad VI, as the symbol of Moroccan Islam, maintains the title Amir al-Mu'minin (Commander of the Faithful). He endeavors to buttress his religious legitimacy through ostensible piety, simplicity, and generosity. Closer to the masses than his father was, Muhammad VI is often referred to as the "king of the poor." His donations as well as his publicized visits to hospitals and crowded medinas have had a strong impact on the Moroccan population.

Islamism generally appears to be a growing force in Morocco. The Party of Justice and Development (PJD), a political party of Islamist base that gained legal status in 1997, is currently the third most powerful in the Chamber of Representatives. The most popular Islamic movement of the countrythough still considered illegalis al-Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence). Its leader, Abdessalam Yacine, spent eleven years under house arrest until King Muhammad VI freed him in 2000. Events in the first years of the twenty-first century revealed the existence of Islamist armed groups in Morocco and their possible link to transnational Islamism. The terrorist attacks that killed forty-four people in Casablanca in May 2003 were attributed to al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (the Straight Path), a small Islamist group suspected of being loosely connected to al-Qaʿida.


Since 1992 Morocco has been dealing with recurrent droughts that have deeply affected the agricultural industry and, ultimately, the country's overall economic performance. About 40 percent of the labor force is engaged in agriculture (especially citrus and cereals), fishing, and raising livestock. These sectors of the economy contribute over 15 percent of gross domestic product. The decreasing fish stock in the Atlantic Ocean has led to diplomatic tensions with Spain and the European Union regarding the renewal of licenses to fish in Moroccan waters. Manufacturing is geared to phosphate production, but higher fuel costs have sparked inflation, and phosphate price declines have reduced export earnings. Tourism has been steadily growing since the 1980s and has become an important source of jobs and hard currency. Emigration is Morocco's safety valve for its unemployed population. About half a million to one million Moroccans reside in Europe as expatriate workers; their remittances are an important source of foreign exchange for Morocco. Among the country's most pressing economic problems are urban unemployment (which reached 20.2 percent in 2001) and the increasing foreign debt, which amounts to nearly eighteen billion dollars. In 1995 the privatization program supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank was extended to key state firms such as the Office Chérifien des Phosphates and Royal Air Maroc. These privatizations were intended to attract foreign investment and to cover budget deficits. Yet the results are not fully satisfactory to the IMF because the Moroccan government maintains its expensive program of food subsidy.


Between 4000 and 2000 b.c.e., Berber peoples arrived from the Sahara and Southwest Asia. Most lowland Berber peoples eventually Arabized and Islamized. Beginning in the twelfth century b.c.e., Phoenicians began to explore the North African coastline. Their early coastal enclaves have been found in northern Morocco. By the late first century b.c.e., Rome's power had reached northern Morocco, and by the middle of the first century c.e., Morocco was the province of Mauretania Tingitana. The Vandals moved into North Africa in the 420s and ended Rome's presence. The Arabs' invasion of the late seventh and early eighth centuries transformed Morocco into an Islamic society with a powerful Arabic-speaking ruling class. Ruling dynasties were the Idrisids of Fez (early ninth century), the Almoravids and the Almohads of Marrakech (eleventh to thirteenth centuries), the Saʿadis (sixteenth century), and the Alawite dynasty (seventeenth century to the present).

Throughout the nineteenth century, Morocco integrated into the capitalist world economy on mostly unfavorable terms. The country also became the object of diplomatic rivalries among European powers. Britain pressured the sultans to open Morocco to commerce and free trade but preferred to keep a weak sultanate south of the Strait of Gibraltar. Military and administrative reforms failed to reinforce Morocco's position vis-à-vis European countries. Defeated by the Spanish armies in 1860 after a border conflict, Sultan Muhammad IV (r. 18591873) signed treaties that led his country to bankruptcy, financial subservience to Europe, and increasing foreign occupation.

France secured its preponderance in Morocco between 1900 and 1904 through various bilateral agreements with Italy, Spain, and Britain. Most of Morocco became a French unofficial protectorate until indigenous protests provided Paris with a
pretext for further intervention. The 1912 Treaty of Fes officially divided Morocco into a protectorate under France over most of the country and a protectorate under Spain over the north, including the Rif Mountains. The country, however, was not yet conquered. Once the protectorates were established, the military forces of Spain and France became preoccupied with suppressing rebellion primarily among the highland Berbers of the Rif and the Atlas mountains. The troops of France began a long and systematic campaign of subjugating Atlas Berber rebels. Spanish troops, with assistance from France, finally broke the Rif rebellion of Abd al-Karim in the late 1920s and consolidated Spain's rule from the capital of Spanish Morocco at Tetuan. France's painstaking campaign, named "pacification," ended in 1934.

Moroccan nationalism gained momentum when both religious reformists and Westernized elites united to oppose the Berber dahir (decree) of 1930. This divide-and-rule legislation intended to marginalize Berber Muslims by placing them under the jurisdiction of French rather than Islamic law. The nationalists founded the Istiqlal Party in 1944 and began asking for formal independence. Sultan Muhammad V tacitly supported their efforts, and as a result was exiled from 1953 to 1955. Morocco gained its independence in 1956, and the following year Muhammad V changed the Sultanate of Morocco to the Kingdom of Morocco. In the nationalist fervor that accompanied the first few years of independence, the king was able to push through a law making a one-party state illegal. This enabled the monarchy to break the power of Istiqlal by encouraging leftist elements to splinter off and create the National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP). The monarchy supported the fractionalization of political parties and the emergence of new ones in order to split the opposition. When Muhammad V died in 1961, Hassan II became king. Opposition to his personal rule and to the corruption within the
system peaked in 1971 and 1972 with two failed coup attempts, one by army cadets and a second by air force personnel.

King Hassan's resolve to recover Western Saharaa project that also aimed at bolstering his own positionled to a crisis with Spain when he ordered a Green March of 300,000 Moroccans in October 1975. His strategy bore almost immediate fruit, for in November Spain negotiated a withdrawal of its forces and the reversion of the area to Morocco and Mauritania. In February 1976 Morocco received the northern two-thirds and Mauritania gained the southern third.

In the meantime, indigenous inhabitants of Western Sahara (who call themselves Sahrawis, "Saharans") had undertaken a war of national liberation from Spain, establishing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saqiya al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), with a national government in exile (Saharan Arab Democratic Republic; SADR) in Algeria. As Morocco's forces replaced those of Spain in 1976, POLISARIO irregulars began a guerrilla war against Morocco that lasted until 1991. The long-delayed referendum on Saharan self-determination has still not taken place because of discrepancies concerning voter identification.

From 1992 onward, Hassan II embarked on a series of political reforms that gave opposition parties (including the Islamists) more participation in the government. After the legislative elections of 1997, the king invited the leader of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), Abderrahmane Youssoufi, to become prime minister. The accession of Muhammad VI to the throne in July 1999 occurred peacefully. Although he continued to enforce the centrality and the inviolability of kingship, Muhammad VI furthered the political reforms. He removed several of his father's clients from office and freed more political prisoners.


Bourqia, Rahma, and Miller, Susan Gilson, eds. In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power and Politics in Morocco. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Damis, John. Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.

Oussaid, Brick. Mountains Forgotten by God: The Story of a Moroccan Berber Family, translated by Ann E. Woollcombe. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1989.

Pennell, C. Richard. Morocco since 1830: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Shahin, Emad Eldin. Political Ascent: Contemporary Islamic Movements in North Africa. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997.

Spencer, William. Historical Dictionary of Morocco. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Zartman, I. William, and Habeeb, William Mark, eds. Polity and Society in Contemporary North Africa. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.

larry a. barrie
updated by henri lauziÈre