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  • Democratization in the Middle EastPower and Opposition in Morocco
  • Omar Bendourou (bio)

Since earliest times, Morocco has come under the sway of various occupying powers, but it was not until Arab conquerors from the east brought the message of Islam in the seventh century that any such occupation had a real impact on the populace. Over the centuries, the Muslim faith has placed its profound impress upon the character of the Moroccan people, unifying Arab and Berber around the single standard of Islamic values. Yet even while it embraced Islam, Morocco also sought to preserve its own distinctive identity, especially in relation to the Eastern Caliphate in Baghdad. From 1145 onward, for instance, Morocco’s sultans took on the title of Amir al-Mouminine (“commander of the faithful”)—an appellation that previously had been the exclusive property of the incumbent of the Eastern Caliphate.

Morocco managed to retain its independence throughout even the most troubled periods until 1912, when France and Spain turned it into a protectorate. This interlude ended in 1956, when the “protecting powers” proclaimed their recognition of Moroccan independence.

The way in which power has been exercised in Morocco has always been affected by the country’s geographical remoteness at the western edge of the Muslim world, as well as by the influence of the Kharidjite version of Islam (the Muslim world’s most democratic). 1 The status and powers of the sultan, for example, were carefully specified. At times of succession, the heir presumptive from the reigning dynasty would be named only after consultation with the ulema, the doctors of Islamic law. The new sultan, moreover, would officially ascend the throne only [End Page 108] after receiving their formal act of allegiance. This was considered a contract; under its terms, the ulema had the right to dethrone a sultan who failed to fulfill his mission—a right exercised on several occasions. The sultan’s powers had limits; he had executive but not legislative authority. The power to interpret key Islamic texts resided with the ulema. In short, it was the doctors of the law rather than the sultan who exercised sovereignty, right up to the time of the protectorate.

The French changed this, endowing the sultan with all the powers of sovereignty so as to be better able to rule through him. With the coming of independence in 1956, therefore, the sultan appeared as the sole depositary of sovereignty. This situation, which had not obtained before 1912, would create numerous problems for the nationalist parties that hoped to govern newly independent Morocco.

Independence was gained thanks to an alliance between the late King Mohammed V (d. 1961) and the nationalist forces grouped largely around the Istiqlal Party (PI). King Mohammed V had forged his pro-independence coalition with the nationalists during the protectorate, which had led the French to depose him in 1953. By the time they restored his throne in 1955, the sultan (a title replaced by “king” in 1956) had become the hero of the independence cause—a status that the French had given him by taking away his throne.

The PI, formed in 1943 as the extension of an older nationalist movement that dated back to 1934, brought together leading nationalists from various milieux, including the traditional middle classes of the northern cities (especially Fez), the modern grand bourgeoisie that dominated the world of commerce, and the young left-leaning intelli-gentsia. The PI’s first public act was its “Independence Manifesto” of 11 January 1944. In this document—approved by the sultan—the PI urged Moroccan independence and the creation, under the sultan’s aegis, of a democratic regime comparable to those existing in unspecified Muslim countries to the east. The PI’s leaders had an important following in the country, and some of them made no secret of their desire to turn Morocco into a monarchy of the British type, where the sovereign reigns but does not rule.

In sum, the PI presented itself after independence as the natural “party of power,” destined to be involved in managing public affairs and creating the constitutional monarchy that the sultan had approved in principle back in 1944. The sultan thus found himself...