The end of 2018 witnessed potentially promising peace talks in Geneva between the Polisario Front liberation movement of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco in an effort to kickstart the stalled peace process for the nearly 45-year conflict over this North African territory. Nevertheless, the forces protecting the status quo, and thus Morocco’s ongoing colonization of Western Sahara, remain durable, and it is unclear whether this new round of talks will presage a broader resolution to one of the oft-forgotten conflicts of our times.
The transformation of the Moroccan city tells a broader story about the transformation of the state and the economy through neoliberal reform. Economic liberalization promised to undermine the power structures of authoritarian states, but in fact authoritarianism has persisted in new globalized forms.
Moroccans have been consuming regular coverage of Donald Trump since the US presidential campaign heated up. I was here in Fez in December 2015 when candidate Trump called for the United States to bar entry to Muslims—his notorious “Muslim ban.” News of it spread quickly. Moroccan students asked me pointedly and poignantly what he had against Muslims, and why Islam was a special target of his campaign. But if they were aware of the Islamophobia sweeping America in 2015, they also were familiar with his reality show, Celebrity Apprentice.
For the past 25 years, every evening around sunset, an elderly man could be seen gingerly crossing the Boulevard Pasteur, Tangier’s busy main thoroughfare. Shuffling toward the Grand Poste, he would walk slowly down the pavement to Café Maravillosa. Regulars would stand up to shake his hand. “Marhba, Si Juan.” Waiters would greet him, “Ja’izat Nobel dyalna, our own Nobel laureate,” and set him up at a table with a pot of green tea. For the next two hours, a steady rotation of old acquaintances, students and tourists would stop by to chat or take a photo. Before his death on June 4, 2017, Juan Goytisolo, the acclaimed Spanish novelist, was the last of his breed, the lone survivor of the American and European writers who settled in Tangier in the post-war years, constructing the myth of the northern Moroccan port as a literary and epicurean capital.
You are not in Gaza, this is al-Hoceima!” This title describes a video clip of tear gas in the streets of al-Hoceima, the epicenter of the ongoing protests by the Hirak movement in the mountainous Rif region of northern Morocco.  Hirak protesters risk their lives demonstrating against corruption and for civil rights and state investment in the peripheral Berber-speaking region. Protests have been ongoing since the October 28, 2016, death of local fish seller Mohcine Fikri, who was crushed in a garbage compactor while trying to retrieve 500 kilograms of illegally-caught swordfish police had confiscated. Solidarity demonstrations spread across Morocco and the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. As tensions between the movement and the Moroccan state (al-makhzen) have intensified, protestors have drawn on the Palestinian question to suggest a reading of state violence, tracing parallels with the Israeli war machine’s actions in the occupied Gaza Strip.
In seventeenth-century Morocco, the scholar Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan Ibn Mas‘ud al-Yusi admonished the reigning Sultan Mawlay Isma‘il in writing. His much quoted letter, the “short epistle” or al-risala al-sughra, instructed the ruler to avoid injustice and oppression. Mawlay Isma‘il was second in line as sultan following the establishment in 1664 of the ‘Alawi dynasty, whose descendants Hassan II (1961-1999) and his son Mohammed VI (1999- ) have ruled as kings of Morocco.
In Nador, a regional capital located on the Mediterranean Sea at the eastern end of the Rif Mountains in Morocco, coffee shop talk often turns to the relationship with the capital city, Rabat, a five-hour car ride or a nine-hour train or bus ride to the west. Nadoris are sensitive about their status as residents of an underserved province that they believe the government disdains. But recent, locally driven economic development is also a source of pride for the region.
A recent report suggests that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may be looking to expand…again. The report says that, during a March summit, the group of six Arab petro-princedoms extended invitations to both Jordan and Morocco to join a pan-monarchical military alliance. And there is a chance, at least, that the GCC states would include a nominal republic, Egypt, in a broader regional military and defense pact (although it is not clear if Jordan, Morocco and Egypt would need to join the GCC or the military bloc would be a separate entity).
Bill Lawrence is director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Morocco), Fulbright scholar (Tunisia), development consultant (Egypt), State Department official, Arabic translator and filmmaker (Marrakech Inshallah, Moroccans in Boston). He has also participated in the production of 14 albums of North African music, including co-production of the first internationally released Arabic rap song. He has lived in North Africa for 12 years, six of them in Morocco. I spoke with him in Rabat on March 15. (Part one of the interview is here.)
On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian itinerant seller named Mohamed Bouazizi had a minor run-in with the cops. It was just another of many, but at this last indignity, the now world-famous produce vendor snapped. Later that day, in protest against his interminable humiliation at the hands of the police, he set himself on fire in front of the local police station. The rest is history.
A familiar song accompanied the massive protests that began on February 20, 2011 in Morocco.
The song, “Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya” (Where Are You Taking Me, Brother?), was first released in 1973 by Nass el Ghiwane, the venerable folk-pop group that continues to dominate Moroccan popular music — its aesthetics and social conscience. It resurfaced in a 2003 cover by the band Hoba Hoba Spirit. And it was broadcast again in the background of the 2011 demonstrations that had much in common with the uprisings across the Arab world, but which in Morocco never became a revolt.
The website of Morocco’s National Tourist Office, a government organization, advertises the North African country as a land of cultural festivals and moussems (traditional fairs honoring a saint). According to the Ministry of Information, about 150 such festivals take place each year. The Ministry of Tourism describes these gatherings as occasions for Moroccans to celebrate the diverse cultural identities of the country as expressed in all artistic fields.
2011 has been a year of unprecedented political tumult in Morocco. As neighboring North African regimes collapsed under the weight of popular pressure, demonstrators have convened in Moroccan cities as well, naming their uprising after the day of their largest initial gathering, February 20, and calling for greater democracy.
As the waves of protest inspired by Tunisia continue to roll across the Middle East and North Africa, analysts have remained puzzled by the mysterious timing, incredible speed and cross-national snowballing of these uprisings or intifadas. In the six months following the electrifying scenes of thousands occupying Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, directing the imperative Dégage! (Get out!) at President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian “virus” has spread across the region, unleashing apparently similar moments of resistance and revolution. Yet a “back-door” view of the intifadas reveals wide variations.
Nearly 50 years after independence, the North African states of Algeria and Morocco face challenges to their national unity and territorial integrity. In Algeria, a
Morocco serves as the backdrop for such Hollywood blockbusters as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies. The country’s breathtaking landscapes and gritty urban neighbourhoods are the perfect setting for Hollywood’s imagination.
Unbeknown to most filmgoers, however, is that Morocco is embroiled in one of Africa’s oldest conflicts—the dispute over Western Sahara. This month the UN Security Council is expected to take up the dispute once more, providing US President Barack Obama with an opportunity to assert genuine leadership in resolving this conflict. But there’s no sign that the new administration is paying adequate attention.
"And now no one wants to get married,” says Muhammad, describing the reaction among men at his mosque to Morocco’s 2004 reform of personal status law. “Everyone is afraid to.”