The struggle for power post-independence 1956-62

The successful liberation of Morocco in 1956 ended forty four years of French occupation. There is a significant amount of historiography on how Morocco gained independence. However, there is little on the seventeen years that followed which arguably is of the utmost importance as it has helped shape Morocco into the nation it is today. This article will examine the period from 1956 to 1962 illustrating how various political parties along with the monarch attempted to gain control over Morocco.

From the period of 1956 to 1973 Morocco was in an unstable transitioning period in which various groups attempted to solidify control over the state. This time period can also be seen as suggested by Lise Storm (author of Democratization in Morocco the political elite and struggles for power in the post-independence state) in ‘two phases, each dominated by different political dynamics and each culminating in constitutional amendment.’1 The first phase began in 1956 and lasted until 1962 and was a direct struggle for power. This period involved two major political actors both striving for power in Morocco the first was the influential figure who ‘had emerged from the struggle, the King Mohammed V.2 The second was the Parti Istiqlal a group that appeared as the prominent party following the struggle for independence. Fascinatingly, as this article will illustrate it was the King and not the Istiqlal who attempted to implement measures for further democratization of Morocco. Additionally the Istiqlal even attempted to stifle the King’s attempts to institutionalise a party system in the state. As the first phase progressed it became clear that the King had gained support while the Istiqlal began to lose it. This was essential in allowing the King to manoeuvre more freely in the first and second phase.

Morocco gained independence on 18th November 1956: this achievement was primarily due to the Monarchy and the Istiqlal. Both had worked side by side to ensure Moroccan independence based on a French-Moroccan interdependent agreement.3 Thus it seemed Morocco’s lengthy struggle was over. However, the Istiqlal became extremely critical of the monarchy, believing they were instrumental for Moroccan independence and rightly deserved to be in power. On the other hand the King argued that he had a rightful claim to power. Hence within months of independence it was clear another struggle for the right to govern Morocco had commenced.

It had become abundantly clear that from independence the King Mohammed V had developed a much stronger position than the Istiqlal Party. The King had the general public’s support, and was seen by many as the ‘hero of independence.’4 This title had been assigned by the monarch, primarily due to the fact that upon his return to Morocco in 1959 the negotiations for independence began almost immediately afterwards. Additionally the French negotiated terms of independence with the King, and not the Istiqlal. Furthermore the King had vast support due to his position as the ‘Amir al Muminnine’ (the commander of the faithful).

In the eyes of the general public, the King, firstly was the defender of Morocco, and secondly he was the spiritual leader of the state. In conjunction with one another these two roles had allowed Mohammed V to secure an extremely strong position within Moroccan politics. The King was not a mere figurehead for the state nor was he a symbol for national unity. He was actually a highly influential figure who was extremely active in politics. In comparison the Istiqlal emerged from the struggle for independence in a much weaker position. As argued by Bernard Reich it was not the only group and it was forced to ‘share its successes with several smaller parties’5 the main rival to the Istiqlal being the Parti Democratique de L’Independence (Democratic Party of Independence, PDI). However, the Istiqlal remained by far the most popular party in comparison to the smaller ones. What damaged the party was the internal party politics that deeply divided it into two. The left, was led by Mehdi Ben Barka who had the backing of the trade unions and various student groups. The right, consisted of much more conservative members of ex-government officials and was led by Allal-el Fessie. Lastly, the Istiqlal as a whole found it difficult to obtain popular support like the King had across various sections of society. The Istiqlal had in reality appealed to a small stratum of the public, which was the urban middle class. Due to this it seemed since independence the Istiqlal had lost its appeal to the majority of Moroccans and because of this, and with the deep internal splits, support for the Istiqlal was deteriorating rapidly. At the same time, the PDI began to gain the support the Istiqlal lost.

As the predominate figures in the Istiqlal tried to quell the problems regarding party unity, gaining support back from the PDI, and attempting to suppress the actions of the King. Mohammed V, in the midst of this attempted, to establish new institutions to ensure the security of his position as King. Mohammad V committed himself after independence to create a Moroccan constitution (the first in Moroccan history). However, it was other state bodies such as the police and the army that received the direct attention of the King as he felt that the presence of these forces were much more urgent in the aftermath of independence. This strategy was necessary, because the strength of the Shabab Nizam (the Youth of Order which was somewhat the policing force established by the Istiqlal) was a major concern of the King. Furthermore the Istiqlal had made it clear that they had control over the Armée de Liberation Marocaine (Army of Liberation, ALM) which is argued by Lise Storm to have played an extremely ‘important role in the struggle [for independence].’6 Due to this Mohammad V created a national police force and a Royal Armed Forces in May 1956 which ensured the most powerful institution in the newly independent Moroccan state remained firmly under the monarch’s control rather than an individual political party.

The establishment of a national police force and the Royal Armed Forces (Forces Armées Royales, FAR) was greatly damaging to the Istiqlal as it allowed the King to gain control over key state apparatuses. It hindered the party on two fronts. Firstly, the police force had limited the party’s legitimate claim to power as the Youth of Order was now made redundant bar the limited service it now solely offered the Istiqlal. Secondly, its creation damaged the Istiqlal financially as the King appointed Mohamed Laghzaoui the director of national security and the head of the police.

Laghzaoui had been a key financial sponsor of the Istiqlal and he had now clearly sided with the monarchy. In addition to this, despite the party’s claim of being in command of the ALM in reality it was not.7 This assumptions of the ALM’s backing had come about through the support of the Istiqlal‘s cause by Mohammed Basri and Hassan, two important figures in the ALM. However, several other leaders in the ALM ranks did not support the Istiqlal and had major disagreements with the Istiqlal as they stated that the independence struggle was over. Additionally, numerous leaders of the ALM wished to continue the fight against other foreign militaries and demanded an administrative presence, not only in Morocco, but in the Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali and Mauritania as the ALM considered parts of these nations as traditionally part of Morocco. Some FAR members also harboured thoughts of Moroccan expansion towards the Western Sahara and as a result ALM leaders began to join the FAR to form a new unified armed forces. This demonstrated the ever growing weakness of the Istiqlal as in reality they only controlled a small part of the ALM and their own personal militia was no competition to the sheer size of the new FAR. The King strengthened his position once more as the upper echelons of both, the new police and the FAR, (the latter more so) were made up of largely rural notables. Many of these were of Berber decent who were part of the Moroccan public that was traditionally loyal to the monarchy and had ‘very little in common with the urban middle class based Istiqlal.’8 The ALM continued to damage the Istiqlal as the party’s small support base was damaged once more as two of the leading figures of the ALM: Abedlekrim el Khatib and Mahjoubi Aherdane established an alternative political party: the Popular Movement. This party came into being, primarily because el Khatib and Aherdane, believed that the Istiqlal focused solely on the middle class and thus alienated large parts of the rural population (most of whom were Berber). The Popular Movement began to gain momentum, filling the power vacuum that was being left behind by, not only the Istiqlal, but also the PDI. Thus it was clear that the King had began to establish control in Morocco, while the Istiqlal was weakening, ensuring that the military might lay in the power of the monarchy.

The Istiqlal attempted to fight back through desperate methods in an effort to remain a powerful political party. This was done through the Istiqlal banning the PDI newspaper. Prohibiting basic civil liberties, began to cause unrest amongst the public, which was further worsened when Abbes Messaadi, one of the leaders of the ALM, was assassinated on the orders of Istiqlal. This further demonstrated that the Istiqlal was unwilling to further democratize, but rather use heavy handed tactics to ensure their position.

The Istiqlal repressive stance failed, as economic difficulties and popular dissatisfaction led to a rebellion in a rural part of Morocco (Rif). This was eventually quelled by the FAR, further consolidating the monarchy’s power above the Istiqlal. The Istiqlal faced further struggles and reached the verge of collapse. Tensions rose further, as the left wing of the Istiqlal protested for the removal of American military bases from Morocco. While the right wing suggested American economic aid would still be required and hence American bases would have to stay. Furthermore, the Prime Minister understood that removing the USA from Morocco would not be easily done, during the Cold War era and with nations such as Egypt becoming increasingly susceptible to communism the USA would not be willing to potentially lose its presence in North Africa.9 Thus the Istiqlal finally split on this matter in 1958 which signalled the beginning of the end of the first phase, but resulted in the Monarchy being unable to develop a new Moroccan constitution.

By 1962 the Monarch had succeed in the construction of a constitution. The constitution was democratic in some respects while it overlooked other aspects of democracy. For instance, political competition was fair and it secured full citizenry participation. However, parliament was to be composed of two houses, of which one (the House of Representatives) would directly be elected through universal suffrage. The second chamber, the House of Councillors would be selected through electoral colleges, while one third was to be directly elected by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Chamber of Artisans and members of the trade unions. Thus this constitution did not guarantee a parliament composed exclusively of members elected by the citizens of Morocco. Additionally the King had the power to dissolve parliament under this constitution. Thus significant flaws were present in this constitution, despite it being democratic in some aspects. This signalled the end of the first phase struggle for power with the Monarchy emerging as the clear victor.

Overall, this is a vital period in history as it built the foundations of modern Morrocco. It also illustrates how the Istiqlal began to lose sight of their objectives, as they looked towards more violent and repressive solutions to secure power. Additionally, the King was able to manoeuvre his way to a position of power, due to the disunity of the political parties which was fundamental, especially in ensuring that the monarchy gained control over vital institutions such as the FAR.

1 Storm, L, Democratization in Morocco the political elite and struggles for power in the post-independence state, (Routledge 2007), p.13. return to main text
2 Abdelhadi, M, 2005, Accused Morocco Islamist speaks out, BBC News 30th September. return to main text
3 Verzijl, J, International Law in Historical Perspective: State succession, (Martinus Nijhoff 2005), p.244. return to main text
4 Pennell, C, Morocco Since 1830: A History, (C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd 3 Jan 2001), p.299. return to main text
5 Reich, B, Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa, (Greenwood Inc 1990), p.198. return to main text
6 Storm, L, The Persistence of Authoritarianism as a Source of Radicalization in North Africa, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 85, No. 5, North Africa in Transition (Sep., 2009), p.1009. return to main text
7 Storm, L, Op cit. p.15. return to main text
8 Zartman, W, Morocco: Problems of new power, (Atherton P.; Prentice-Hall 1964), p.16. return to main text
9 This was still a period in which the ‘domino theory’ was widely accepted. return to main text
Pennell, C, Morocco Since 1830: A History, (C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd 3 Jan 2001)
Reich, B, Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa, (Greenwood Inc 1990)
Storm, L Democratization in Morocco the political elite and struggles for power in the post-independence state, (Routledge 2007)
Verzijl, J, International Law in Historical Perspective: State succession, (Martinus Nijhoff 2005)
Zartman, W, Morocco: Problems of new power, (Atherton P.; Prentice-Hall 1964)


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