| The original inhabitants
of Morocco, the Berbers, have experienced a series
of invaders in past centuries. The Phoenicians
were the 1st of these during the 12th century BC, followed by the
Carthiginians – who incorporated the littoral
region into their large empire. When Carthage was subjugated by
the Romans during the 2nd century BC, the North
African coast came under Roman control. After the Romans came the
Vandals in 429 AD and the Byzantines
during 533 AD. The 1stArabs came from the west
in 682 AD and established a series of empires which have ruled Morocco
ever since. As in much of North Africa, the conflict between Arabs
and Berbers has been a central feature of the Morocco's history.
During the early 15th century, the rising marine powers of southern
Europe started to take an interest in North Africa. The port of
Ceuta – now in Spanish possession –
was initially occupied by the Portuguese in 1415. This early struggle
for power between the Arabs and Europeans came to a climax at the
battle of Ksar Kbir in 1578, at which the Portuguese
led by King Sebastian were conquered by the forces
of Sultan Abdul Malik, who was then head of the
Saadian dynasty. The victory heralded a memorable period of Moroccan
history under the Saadian dynasty, during which
Morocco became a major centre of artistic and scientific endeavour
as well as enjoying economic prosperity.
After the Saadians and the descendant dynasty,
the Alawites, Morocco came under growing European
influence from the Spanish and the French. At the end of the 19th
century, the French had inhabited Morocco and,
in 1912, at the Treaty of Fez, the Sultan was deposed
and control was taken by French Resident-General. The treaty was
constructed to ensure that Spanish interests, of Ceuta and Melilla
An independence movement began immediately and was backed discreetly
by the royal family. But it was not until after World War
II, during 1956, that Morocco eventually achieved independence.
Morocco’s 1st post-independence Head of State was Sultan
Mohammad V, who later changed his title to King
and in 1961, he was succeeded by his son, Hassan II.
Until his death in 1999, Hassan held a strong grip on Morocco with
a combination of repression and concession. For the majority of
his rule, the most well-known opposition to King Hassan
came from the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP),
the orthodox left-wing party.
Since the beginning of the 1990's, the Socialists
have been exceeded by emerging Islamic groups which
have made headway in impoverished urban areas. Both Socialists and
Islamists shared, for different reasons, a dislike of Hassan’s
autocratic rule and his consistent alignment of Morocco with the
West and the United States in particular (the Americans maintain
a variety of military bases in Morocco).
A rise of Islamists coincided with the introduction of a new constitution
and the holding of popular legislative elections. Many national
polls were held in the 1990's, all of which produced inconclusive
results, as the poll split more or less evenly among 4 or 5 major
parties. Hassan kept firm control of the executive by assigning
a premier and a cabinet (representatives of the Islamist parties
were excluded), key executive decisions were taken by Hassan and
an ‘inner cabinet’ of key ministers.
The general election held in September 2002 repeated previous results,
with the difference that under a new electoral system of comparative
representation, no less than twenty-two parties are represented
in the new assembly. Of these, the 3 main players are the Union
Socialistes des Forces Populaires, the Islamic
Parti de la Justice et du Développement and the
centre-right nationalist Istiqlal. The premier,
the socialist Driss Jettou, announced his cabinet
during November 2002 and pointedly disqualified any Islamists from
it, confining it to members of his own party and Istiqlal.
King Hassan had died 3 years earlier and was replaced by his son
and heir Sidi Mohammed, who took the throne as
King Mohammed VI. The new monarch appeared keen
to adopt a more open, liberal image than his father, however in
the 1st 4 years of his rule, few changes have been made. The ‘inner
cabinet’ system of executive decision making continues.
Moroccan foreign policy remains broadly pro-western, with close
ties to the United States and the European Union, especially France
and Spain (Hassan had even aspired to membership of the European
Union at one time). Closer to home, despite political differences
with its North African neighbours, Morocco is a member of the Union
of the Arab Maghreb which it helped to create and functions
as an effective regional lobby.
Morocco has 2 major territorial disputes to deal with. Both involve
the Spanish, but in different ways. During 1975, after the death
of Franco, the Spanish pulled out of the colony then known as Spanish
Sahara and now as Sahrawi. The Moroccans
moved in instantaneously despite the objections of the indigenous
Sahrawi people. During the next 16 years, until a UN-brokered ceasefire
came into effect in 1991, the territory was the scene of a struggle
between the Moroccan army and an indigenous guerrilla
movement, the Polisario Front. The Moroccans believe
the territory is an essential part of the nation and Polisario wants
Since the ceasefire, Polisario has pursued a campaign almost exclusively
through the UN. It has established a government in exile, the Sahrawi
Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), located in Algeria, along
with a Sahrawi national assembly. Despite diverse initiatives mostly
sponsored in 1 form or another by the United Nations, the movement
appears to have made little progress.
Polisario has pinned its primary hope on a plebiscite in
the territory: with the issue of eligibility to vote becoming crucial.
The Moroccans have been moving settlers into the region in the hope
of ultimately outnumbering the native Sahrawi.
A new addition to this already potent mix has been reports of gas
and oil fields in Sahrawi territorial waters. The United States,
backed by other Western powers, has proposed compromising Sarhawi
regional autonomy within Morocco. After an initial rejection, Polisario
accepted the independence plan in July 2003 as a precursor to a
final referendum on the status of the territory, however, the Moroccan
government responded calmly and the future of the plan is uncertain.
Morocco’s other outstanding territorial dispute involves the
Spanish-occupied enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla,
on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. These were originally annexed
by Spain during the late 15th century and are now home to over 120,000
Spanish nationals. They have a particular significance in Spanish
history recently as the springboard for Franco’s campaign
in the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish are determined
to hold on to them and decisively reject any comparison with the
status of Gibraltar which is British run. The Spanish
also hold a group of small, uninhabited islands along the northern
coast. During July 2002, 1 of these, Perejil (‘Parsley’,
after a wild form of the herb which grows there) was engaged by
a token Moroccan force in a diplomatic stroke to raise the issue
of Spanish possessions. The Spanish army unit rapidly retook Perejil,
but the Moroccan move had the desired effect.