Tradition and progress: Striking a balance between cultural continuity and economic gains

Morocco has been perhaps the most stable and peaceful country in North Africa in recent years, while other countries in the region have been afflicted by political turbulence and war. The reforms implemented by King Mohammed VI since coming to the throne in 1999 have played a major role in ensuring Morocco has remained a stable and tolerant country, as well as an increasingly open society politically.

The kingdom has also enjoyed consistent economic growth in recent years, despite international economic difficulties. Additionally, an expanding middle class has benefitted from rising foreign direct investment and trade with worldwide markets, while the government has invested in improving infrastructure and public services.

At The Crossroads

Morocco’s location at the gateway to the Mediterranean, between the Maghreb and Europe, has led to a wide range of civilisational influences over the centuries. The region has seen human habitation for many millennia and some of the world’s oldest jewellery has been found at sites in Morocco.

The region’s history was changed forever by the Arab conquests of the seventh and early eighth centuries CE, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. These brought the Arabic language and Islam to what is now Morocco, and the rule of successive Islamic dynasties.

The Great Berber Revolt, which lasted from 739 CE to 743 CE, saw the country pass out of Arab control and brought a series of Berber dynasties to power, ruling over local Berber states. Morocco then became a major trading power, with trade routes both across the Sahara and south to the gold-producing kingdoms of West Africa.

In the 17th century the Alaouite dynasty rose to power, and the family remain rulers of Morocco today. The Sultan Mulai Al Rashid united much of Morocco’s current territory under his rule, and his successors secured Morocco’s independence for many years. However, in the 19th century the country came increasingly under the influence of European powers, particularly Spain and France. In addition, Portugal and Spain established trading colonies, including Ceuta and Melilla, which remain Spanish territory to this day.

Domination & Independence

The 1912 Treaty of Fez established a French protectorate over Morocco, with Spain establishing a similar protectorate in the north and south of the country, though the Moroccan royal family remained in place. However, internal unrest and France’s preoccupation with the war of independence in neighbouring Algeria contributed to France granting Morocco full independence in 1956, with some territory also clawed back from Spain.

Mohammed V, previously Sultan, assumed the title King of Morocco in 1957 and instituted a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch played an active political role. On his death in 1961, Mohammed V was succeeded by his son Hassan II, who closely aligned Morocco with the Western bloc in the Cold War, at a stage when other leaders in the Arab world were swayed towards the Soviet Union. This period was characterised by political changes and tensions, with Hassan staving off two attempted military coups and the government taking a heavy-handed approach towards dissent. Liberalising reforms and the release of political prisoners in the 1990s brought Morocco into the fold of European-style governance.

After Spain relinquished control of the Moroccan/Western Sahara in 1976, a conflict already emerging in the region escalated, with Moroccan and French forces pitted against separatist guerrillas of the Polisario movement. Meanwhile, the once-dominant Istiqlal Party fragmented and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires, USFP) emerged. Externally, Morocco took an active role in the Arab world.

A New Era

Reform accelerated in 1999 as Hassan’s son Mohammed VI came to the throne. Elections in 2002 under a new system were seen as free and fair, and were followed by changes to the family code to strengthen women’s rights, the introduction of Berber-language education and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to address past abuses. Morocco has remained a close ally of the US and NATO.

The Arab Spring of 2011 did not affect Morocco as much as some of the less liberal and democratic Arab countries across the region, though there were protests galvanised by political, social and economic issues. In response, Mohammed VI implemented further liberalising reforms via a royally appointed commission, including strengthening the Parliament and the position of prime minister, greater rights for women and the recognition of Berber as an official language.

System Of Government

Recent reforms were enshrined in a new constitution approved by referendum on July 1, 2011, with a reported 98.5% of the votes cast in favour. Morocco remains North Africa’s only constitutional monarchy, with the king as head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and responsible for foreign policy. He is also head of the Supreme Court and Supreme Council of the Judiciary; the latter appoints the other members of the Supreme Court, giving the king a central role in Morocco’s judicial system. The king appoints six of the 12 members of the Constitutional Court, which ascertains whether or not new laws are in compliance with the constitution, with the other six appointed by Parliament.

Morocco has a bicameral legislature. The directly elected Chamber of Representatives (the lower house of parliament) consists of 325 members elected for five-year terms. The upper house is the Chamber of Councillors, which has 120 members serving six-year terms, appointed by regional councils, trade unions and professional associations. Under the new constitution, the prime minister is taken from the largest party in Parliament and chooses the Council of Ministers in consultation with the king. The country’s current premier is Abdel-Ilah Benkiran, head of the Justice and Development Party (Parti de la Justice et du Développement, PJD), the ruling party.

Political Parties

Party politics in Morocco have historically been highly fragmented, with the leading parties rarely topping 20% of the vote over the past three decades. Furthermore, electoral systems have generally ensured that single parties cannot dominate. Thus governments are usually composed of multi-party coalitions, including that currently headed by the PJD.

The PJD is considered a moderate Islamist-leaning party with a conservative economic approach. Its focus has been on fiscal consolidation, including the reform of subsidies that have historically been popular, but have weighed public finances and distorted economic incentives. Moroccan governments had not previously included Islamist-leaning parties, so the PJD’s leadership of the government is seen as a breakthrough, as well as the continuation of a shift away from technocratic government towards a party-led model.

Other major parties in the country include Istiqlal, an Arab nationalist party; the conservative Berber-dominated Popular Movement; the National Rally of Independents (RNI) and the new Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), both monarchist groupings; and the left-leaning USFP and Party of Progress and Socialism.

Elections & Coalitions

Following the approval of the new constitution, parliamentary elections were held in November 2011. On an official turnout of 45%, the poll was topped by the Islamist-leaning PJD, which won 107 of the 325 seats available in the Chamber of Representatives. Initially, the PJD formed a coalition with the long-lived Istiqlal Party, but the latter left the government in 2013 over the PJD’s fiscally conservative economic agenda, being replaced by the RNI.

Local and regional elections were held in September 2015. These were particularly significant as it was the first time that Moroccans elected local and regional representatives directly, and were part of a broader policy of devolution initiated in 2008 to give regions and municipalities more power and greater control over funding. As well as being a positive sign for the development of Morocco’s ongoing democratisation, the elections showed a continuing trend of the rise of newer parties and the decline of longer-established ones. The PJD did particularly well in big cities, while the PAM made inroads in rural areas.