Western Sahara Remains a Crucial Legitimizing Crutch for the Moroccan Monarchy

On Monday, December 14th, a small group of demonstrators attempted to convene a protest outside Morocco’s pretend parliament in the polished French colonial era centre ville of Rabat. The demonstrators, representing a handful of Moroccan Palestine solidarity organizations, hoped to display public opposition to the Moroccan monarchy’s normalization of political relations with Israel, which had on December 10th been announced by Donald Trump and confirmed by the palace. Although several political parties and organizations, from differing ends of the political spectrum, had already voiced their unease with it, there had been no expressions of discontent with the agreement in the streets. Nevertheless, organizers hoped latent sentiments of solidarity with the Palestinians would provoke a significant rebuke to the regime.

As the protesters neared Rabat’s central boulevards they were halted and corralled by armored personnel carriers, water cannons, and phalanxes of riot police. After blocking access to the entire area, the diminutive protest was, as is fairly common, declared “unauthorized” and the assembled protestors brusquely expelled. Needless to say, these events went unmentioned in the state-aligned media, which has remained hushed on the deal since its announcement. Long anxious about publicly advertising its intimate alliance with Tel Aviv, the Moroccan government is certainly sighing in relief at the muted and managable anger its decision has occasioned. It will be unsurprising if it moves, like the UAE, to criminalize criticism of its relations with Israel.

But as little popular contestation as there is about the abandonment of Palestine in the kingdom, there is none whatsoever about the ancillary reward the monarchy has accepted for normalizing relations with Israel – Washington’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. For as few of the brave demonstrators as there were in Rabat on Monday to oppose the normalization of Israel’s occupation, there were no expressions of solidarity with the other denial of self-determination enshrined in the deal. And there essentially never have been, for the Sahrawi cause finds even fewer vocal sympathizers in Morocco than the Palestinian one does inside the self-styled Jewish State.

So accepted by the population as a fait accompli is the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara, that many are simply unaware of the fact that the rest of the planet does not already accept it as such. Maps which show a border between Morocco and the Western Sahara are illegal, and my own bags have been among those regularly searched at airports looking for books containing them. From primary school classrooms to primetime TV, daily life is permeated by delirious, Pyongyang-esque invocations of nationalist bombast, avowing the eternal bond of Morocco to “its” Sahara. Indeed, at home the regime ideologically invests more heavily on the topic than any other, while abroad it relies on lobbyists and lackey stenographers to propagate its pro-occupation narrative to usually clueless audiences. What accounts for the intransigence of Rabat in the face of global consensus in favor of the Sahrawi right to self-determination? To understand what the Moroccan state has at stake in its colonization of the Western Sahara, it is necessary to review the crises the regime faced in the 60s and 70s for which the Green March provided an improvised lifeboat, one on which the monarchy still floats.

A Turning Point that Failed to Turn

The Moroccan state is largely the heir of the autocratic French colonial institutions shaped in the first half of the 20th century. Nearing the point of collapse in the years leading up to its colonization, its authority over large swaths of the country nonexistent, the Alawi monarchy was saved from probable local overthrow by European imperialism, for which it would provide a useful façade of indigenous rule. Granted independence in 1956, it largely remained loyal to its benefactors. If king Mohammad V flirted with hints of tiers-mondisme during his short post-independence reign, his son Hassan II, a stern dandy who took the throne after the former’s death in 1961, reaffirmed complete fealty to Paris and Washington. Forthwith, the Istiqlal, a genuinely popular party which had mobilized alongside the monarchy for independence, was outmaneuvered by the palace, those within it advocating for a constitutional monarchy were sidelined, and legal chicanery dispensed with meaningful political life in the country. With rare exceptions, it has never returned. The mass of the rural population, destitute and at the mercy of provincial landlords, remained a political afterthought.

But the movements of Third World liberation and Arab nationalism came to profoundly challenge Hassan’s rule by the middle years of the 60s: The northern Rif region had already revolted in arms in the 20s and again in the late 50s, retaining its hostility to Rabat; a left split from the now conservative Istiqlal was led by the scintillating Mehdi Ben Barka, henceforth a permanent thorn in the regime’s side; and a major 1965 revolt of impoverished workers and students in Casablanca required the deployment of tanks to be put down, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The vogue of Nasserism and other forms of Arab republicanism in their ascendant phases left the Moroccan monarchy noticeably out of step with the region. By this time the exiled Ben Barka, now an increasingly famous secretary of the Tricontinental and the monarchy’s most active opponent, was judged to present an existential threat to the regime[1]. Hassan arranged with the Israeli Mossad to have him kidnapped and assassinated in Paris, in return for Morocco sharing secret tapes of the 1965 Arab League summit in Casablanca (which ended up significantly contributing to the Israeli victory over Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War).

The murder in Paris quickly coming to public light, the ensuing affaire Ben Barka severely embarrassed the monarchy, escalating its sense of embattled isolation. By the end of the 60s, a Moroccan New Left, intellectually effervescent and culturally irreverent, openly confronted Hassan’s ultraconservative regime in periodicals like Souffles/Anfas and in student organizations political parties like the Party of Liberation and Socialism and Ila al-Amam (“Forwards”). The monarchy was losing its grip, but whereas these movements were unlikely themselves to attempt an attack on the state, their efforts were rightly considered eminently dangerous by Hassan. As in other post-colonial authoritarian regimes in the period, it was the destabilizing effect this critical milieu had on disaffected middle-level officers in the regime’s armed forces which instigated the opposition which nearly toppled the king. Distrusting the monarchy’s sustainability, and angered by corrupt distribution of Cold War largesse provided by the US, members of the armed forces and security services very nearly killed Hassan in spectacular coup attempts in 1971 and 1972.

The ensuing murderous crackdowns, ushering in what Moroccans call the “Years of Lead”, outlawed all political opposition, regularized torture and disappearances, and further entrenched the population’s nervous mistrust of the regime. In apoplectic off-the-cuff television appearances Hassan would castigate Moroccans as “savages” better left illiterate. An undecorated autocracy, girded by its Cold War patrons, stood atop a population with which it held only tenuous links based on fear. Akin in all these ways to the Shah’s Iran, what was its life expectancy? But it was at this bleak impasse that the king, who unlike the Shah was in fact a remarkably astute political operator—a quoter of Voltaire and Lenin with the latter’s keen sense for the possibilities of the conjuncture—sighted an opportunity developing to his south. Through a political coup of nationalist distraction, Hassan would emerge in 1975 for the first time in his tenure as a popular monarch.

Saharan Salvation

The vast but sparsely-inhabited Spanish-colonized territory to the south of Morocco, officially at the time the Spanish “Province of the Sahara”, had been under pressure for independence by the mobilization of its indigenous population through the preceding years. While its local Sahrawi Hassaniya Arabic-speaking tribes held little historical relationship with the Moroccan dynasties of Fes and Marrakesh, the irredentist nationalists of the Istiqlal had long advocated for a post-colonial “Greater Morocco” which would encompass nearly all of of northwest Africa held by the medieval Moroccan empires, including the then-Spanish Sahara. This unrealistic territorial expansionism had been put on the monarchy’s back-burner, which nevertheless funded small religiously-based groups inside of the Spanish Sahara to advocate for the territory’s eventual incorporation into Morocco. They were repressed by Spanish authorities and defunct by 1970.

Meanwhile, the majority of the population mobilized behind the left nationalist Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Polisario), which had waged an effective guerrilla struggle against Spain since the early 70s for decolonization and national independence. With the help of Boumeddiene’s Algeria, a neighbor eager to score a defeat against its Cold War opponents Morocco and Spain, by 1975 they had expelled Spanish forces from the majority of the territory already. With Spanish Fascist dictator Francisco Franco on his deathbed, decolonization was obviously at hand. Yet a hand-off of power with the Polisario, a leftist national liberation movement of a kind distrusted in Washington, had yet to be agreed. Hassan saw his chance.

Appealing to the fantasy of “Greater Morocco”, the Sahara gave Hassan an opening to suddenly adopt the populist anti-colonial tone which had eluded the monarchy, itself of course legatee of the French Protectorate. Eagerly inserting Moroccan claims to the territory into international fora, he appealed to the International Court of Justice to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. The court rejected the case, instead underlining that the indigenous population alone had the right to self-determination. Undeterred, Hassan moved forward with plans for unilateral annexation. He was aware, of course, that the Spanish would not militarily resist a Moroccan takeover of a colony they were about to ditch. But that didn’t stop the king from posing as a holy warrior, leading his nation to “reclaim” what was suddenly highlighted as a long-amputated part of its territory. Now, in championing the “unification” of the “Moroccan” Sahara with Morocco proper, Hassan would be able in one masterstroke to achieve a military victory consolidating his control over the armed forces, to silence Moroccan critics as “anti-national”, to style himself as an Islamic ruler restoring the authority of the faith, and to embody authentic leadership of the Moroccan masses, resisting the forces of European arrogance alongside his people.

The staged apotheosis came, after assuring the tacit approval of Kissinger and commitment of Soviet indifference, in November 1975. Arranging the spectacle carefully, Hassan had hundreds of thousands of Moroccans collected from across the country, bussed down to the uninhabited borderland, and furnished with copies of the Quran, Moroccan flags, and his portrait. On the 6th the signal was given—lights, camera, action. The assembled masses were filmed enthusiastically striding across the moonscape border with their assigned paraphernalia, then swiftly sent back home as soon as the cameras were shut off. A neighbor of mine once described his father’s bewildering experience which came without warning, of being collected along with the other young men of the village by its muqaddam, a sort of informal neighborhood regime intermediary and informant, and being driven in a commandeered school bus 15 hours away, fed out of tin cans, all to walk for a few hours in a remote desert he had never heard of. Many Moroccan families tell such stories, rarely without a comic element. Never mind, amidst a wave of nationalist hysteria and unprecedented popularity of the monarch, the myth of the Green March was born.

The Green March State

Accords reached shortly thereafter in Madrid, days before the butcher of the Spanish Republic himself left the scene, divided the formerly Spanish Sahara between Mauritania and Morocco, leaving the Polisario and the indigenous Sahrawi population which it represents to wage a war of independence against these usurping invaders. The events of that war are well-known and take us down to the present: the declaration of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976, the tenacious effectiveness of the Sahrawis who forced a Mauritanian defeat in 1979, the suffering of the Sahrawi refugees in the camps, the long drawn-out stalemate during which Morocco built its vast wall enclosing the Saharan territories it holds under occupation while attempting to move Moroccan settlers into the territory à la the Israeli settlements, the eventual 1991 ceasefire which has only just recently been broken, and the fearsome police state the Moroccan occupation forces have created in the zone they control. Meanwhile, no country in the world has ever recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the territory until Trump did, and the international consensus remains that the indigenous Sahrawi population has the right to vote in a credible referendum which includes the option of independence.

The view from Morocco couldn’t be more at odds with the rest of the world. For since 1975, the Moroccan monarchy has come to fundamentally refound its legitimacy on being the Green March State. The event which allowed it to escape the impasse of the 70s has been mythologized since as nothing less than the central moment of modern Moroccan history. It is annually celebrated on November 6th, a national bank holiday, as a veritable national rebirth stewarded by the pious genius of the monarchy. It has succeeded in constructing a suffocating consensus of genuinely popular patriotism linking the masses to the monarch, whether Hassan or his son, the current king Mohammad VI. No political party sings apart from this chorus led by the palace. The stultifying national pact inaugurated by the Green March has played the crucial role in paralyzing any political resistance to the regime and its legitimacy. Hassan’s Saharan venture has proved of lasting utility—anti-monarchical politics have never meaningfully been expressed in public since.

Substantively, the regime has remained a tawdry, near-absolute monarchy, unrepresentative of and unresponsive to those it sees as its subjects. Its parliament is a fig leaf. The Human Development Index results for its population place it near the bottom of the Arab world. While it is to no small degree also motivated by the windfalls of fish and phosphate revenue collected via the occupation, the monarchy remains uncompromising primarily because it can present few achievements to its disenfranchised and destitute population besides the glorious “return” of the “Moroccan” Sahara. Deprived of that legitimating life raft, how long could it swim against the tides of history? Even the most militant moments of the 2011 February 20th and the 2017 Hirak movements avoided outright criticism of the principle of hereditary rule. While it is the Sahrawis who are the most threatened by Trump’s normalization of the Green March State, Moroccans themselves hostage to it will find it necessary to challenge its illusions if they wish to reawaken political life in their country.

1. For more on the outstanding figure of Ben Barka, see Nate George, ‘Traveling Theorist: Mehdi Ben Barka and Morocco from Anti-Colonial Nationalism to the Tricontinental’, in Laure Guirguis, ed., The Arab Lefts, Edinburgh 2020.

Matthew Collado is a teacher and socialist who has spent three years living in Morocco.