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The Moroccan Non-Exception: A Party, an Army, and a Palace (Part I)

[Image from the Moroccan Liberation Army Museum in Sidi Ifni, Morocco. Image by author] [Image from the Moroccan Liberation Army Museum in Sidi Ifni, Morocco. Image by author]

[The following is the first part in the final installment of "The Moroccan Non-Exception" Jadaliyya roundtable. Read the introduction here.]

The year is 1958. Morocco has entered its second year of independence from France. Sultan Mohammed V is aging and Crown Prince Hassan II, Commander of the Royal Armed Forces, is beginning to assert himself politically and militarily. The northern and southern extremities of Morocco, both strongholds of the Moroccan Liberation Army, are beyond the palace’s control. Spain, under the leadership of Franco, maintains its colonial presence along Morocco’s northern and southern borders. Renowned nationalist figure, Mehdi Ben Barka, is affirming a political prowess that is placing him at odds with those in his political party, Istiqlal, as well as the palace. It is a year during which a series of political and military moves would reconfigure existing power arrangements and alliances, shaping the basic foundations of the contemporary Moroccan state and its relations with civil society.

Historically contextualized, 1958 fits into a period throughout the 1950s marred by the pushes and pulls of power that constitute the practice and process of state formation, which then subsequently shape the state's relations with civil society. Normative approaches to the periodization of contemporary Moroccan history have inadequately addressed the question of state formation by overlooking the period that immediately preceded and followed 1956, the year Morocco attained independence from France. It is only in stepping beyond a periodization structured around the divisions between the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial eras, or around the reigns of sultans and kings that the practice and process of state formation and the state's relation with civil society in Morocco can be critically examined. It is from this point that this contribution aims to contest the perceived organic and enduring centrality of the monarchy that nationalist histories have propagated and the marginalization of political contentions leveled against the state. The contemporary Moroccan state has largely embraced, reproduced, and modified these nationalist histories in public museums, archives, textbooks, and other “sites of memory.” The assumed centrality of the monarchy in these histories comes at the expense of mischaracterizing actors, groups, and events that have long been forgotten and selectively remembered. Moreover, this narrative has largely shaped the normative ways in which the Moroccan monarchy is presented as exceptional.

It is imperative to revisit and trace the shifting relations between the monarchy, the Istiqlal party, and the Moroccan Liberation Army during the 1950s, situating these dynamics within the history of state formation in Morocco. It is within these dynamics and interactions that the foundations of state-civil society relations in Morocco were set since many of the politically contentious civil society groups that emerged after independence were rooted and subsequently branched from either the Istiqlal party or the Moroccan Liberation Army. For example, in 1975, a number of figures within the Istiqlal party branched off and founded the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (Socialist Union of Popular Forces, USFP). These members, along with former fighters with the Moroccan Liberation Army who were formerly living in exile, were also involved in mobilizing and establishing the Union nationale des étudiants du Maroc (National Union of Moroccan Students, UNEM), which was banned between 1973 and 1978. In turn, civil society groups that emerged following this period were also founded and organized by members of the UNEM and USFP, such as the Association marocaine des droits humains (Moroccan Association of Human Rights, AMDH). In establishing this pattern of how civil society groups were established in Morocco, especially in understanding the sources from which they emerged, namely the Istiqlal party and the Moroccan Liberation Army, it becomes imperative to historicize these relations during the context of state formation.

Stepping back to examine the 1950s provides an opportunity to depart from placing 1956 at the beginning or end of an era, but rather as a year among other years during which the foundations of the Moroccan state were set. Nationalist figures have also recently begun publishing memoirs that recount their experiences and assessments of the 1950s, with some getting published as recently as 2011. These texts will be useful through placing them in conversation with one another as a means of painting a more holistic picture of the 1950s.

The final portion of this contribution will be dedicated to critically assessing the Moroccan state's presentation of the 1950s at the site of the Moroccan Liberation Army museum, located within the Haut Commissariat des Anciens Resistants et Membres de l'Armée de Libération in Rabat. The Moroccan Liberation Army museum is a useful source of analysis, as it brings together multiple themes guiding this contribution: the convergence of memory and forgetting in constructing a nationalist history; Pierre Nora’s notion of “sites of memory” as vehicles for the display of this memory and forgetting; and the representation of the monarchy as an organically grounded force whose continuity and centrality emerged unscathed through the nationalist struggle and after independence. What will remain central, however, is the consistent interrogation of what can be best described as the selective memory of the history of state formation in Morocco through resituating and rewriting the role of various actors who traversed the fields of politics and civil society fluidly, and events that have long lingered on the margins of Morocco’s modern history.

Before and After 1956

Historiography that has structured its periodization around 1830 or 1912 to 1956 has placed the colonial and nationalist dynamics at the center. Figures such as Abdelkarrim al-Khattabi, Allal al-Fassi, and Mehdi Ben Barka, among others, all represent the varying strands of nationalism in Morocco—rural, urban elite, leftist, etc. The monarchy is characterized as an institution that, to a great extent, managed to maintain its central role amid its constant interaction with the pushes and pulls between the colonial regime and the nationalist movements. Ending at 1956, this historiography has little to say of what happened to these actors and their relations with one another once Morocco gained independence from France. Moreover, even using 1956 as the marker for independence in Morocco is shaky as it disregards the lingering Spanish colonial presence that surrounded Morocco in the north and south. Additionally, jumping from the year of independence, 1956, to 1962, when Morocco's first constitution was promulgated, leaves open a critical six years during which the political landscape and balances of power were enduring dramatic changes. It is during the years immediately before and after 1956 that some of the most important developments took shape in laying down the foundations of the contemporary Moroccan state. This section will begin by outlining a brief timeline that examines the years that preceded and followed 1956, focusing primarily on the Moroccan Liberation Army (MLA), concluding with situating the importance of these years within the context of state formation, and their utility in interrogating normative historical narratives. In order to do so, this section will place numerous texts in conversation with one another, including mainly critical historiographies, memoirs, and biographies.

Among the texts that takes great care to examine the years before and after 1956 in Morocco is Mehdi Bennouna's Héros sans gloire: Echec d'une révolution, 1963-1973. While the primary focus of Bennouna's text is to trace the roots of the failed "revolutionary movement" in Morocco against the reign of Hassan II, he prefaces his analysis by highlighting the overlooked events and actors of the 1950s. An anthropologist in his own right, Mehdi Bennouna is uniquely positioned to write such a text, given the role his father, Mohamed Bennouna, played during the "failed revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s. It can be said that Mehdi Bennouna overstates the role of his father and his contemporaries in leading a "failed revolution.” Moreover, his description of what can be best labeled as a couple of failed military coups as "revolutions" merits critique. However, the strength in Bennouna's text lies in its historiographical aspects, especially in his periodization. Similarly, Zakya Daoud and Maâti Monjib's biography of Mehdi Ben Barka offer insight in tracing the political dynamics between nationalist groups in Morocco during the years around 1956.[1] To complement the historiography of these texts, references to memoirs by MLA veterans will help paint a more holistic picture of the political landscape in Morocco during the 1950s.

Prior to the fissures that took place between and among various nationalist groups in Morocco, Bennouna highlights how some of the most prominent nationalist and future political leaders were all cohorts at the University of Ben Youssef in Marrakech in 1944. Among them were Mohamed Basri (known as Fqih Basri), Abdesslam Jebli, Boras Figuigui, and Mohamed Ben Said Ait Idder--all of whom would emerge as important figures in the leadership of the MLA. In the same year that Basri, Jebli, Figuigui, and Ait Idder were in university together, dozens of nationalist figures, primarily with the Istiqlal Movement, penned the Manifesto of Independence, including Mehdi Ben Barka, Allal al-Fassi, and Abderrahim Bouabid. Reading through Bennouna's periodization aptly traces the lines between and among various nationalist figures from the MLA to the Istiqlal Movement. It also undermines perceptions that these nationalist groups were rigidly defined and separate of one another.

Bennouna further indicates the interconnectedness of these movements and their adherents by tracing the increased interactions that took place between Ben Barka, Basri, and Boras during the fall of 1957. It was through these interactions in 1957, Bennouna explains, that the MLA’s operations in the south were becoming increasingly dictated by a "Council of Resistance," which largely adhered to the political aspirations of Ben Barka, who was then still a member of the Istiqlal Party. Additionally, Bennouna's description of these political dynamics leaves notably absent the role of the monarchy. In fact, the only time Bennouna alludes to the monarchy is in its failure to successfully involve itself in the decision-making processes that went behind the Moroccan Liberation Army's operations in the south. For it was after the increased interactions between Ben Barka, Basri, and Boras that the MLA struck an alliance with tribes in the southern Aït Ba Amrane region in 23 November 1957, which made way for the successful takeover of Sidi Ifni from Spanish control. Mohamed Ben Said Ait Idder’s memoir sheds more insight into this strategic alliance. He argues that one of the primary factors that facilitated this alliance and the takeover of Sidi Ifni was that many inhabitants of the Aït Ba Amrane had grown disenchanted over their declining political and socioeconomic situation under Spanish control.[2] These sentiments grew especially after 1956, when regions neighboring Aït Ba Amrane in the north had achieved independence. Ait Idder asserts that the inhabitants of Aït Ba Amrane were conscious of their alienation from the resources and capital Spain was extracting, and aspirations of independence were tied to expectations of controlling the region’s rich resources. During the same day, on 23 November 1957, Bennouna briefly outlines that the MLA offensive that followed the takeover of Sidi Ifni. This included the takeover of Tan Tan, Smara, Oued Dhahab, Dakhla, Laayoune, and Saqiet el-Hamra--all strategic cities in the south which the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces would eventually advance toward nearly two decades later with the 1975 "Green March." While Bennouna’s describes these events with more militaristic terms and connotations, Ait Idder’s account of these events are far more grounded in a critical political economy. Ait Idder uses the term “revolution” to describe these developments—more specifically, the Revolution of Aït Ba Amrane. His use of the term revolution also comes after an overview of Aït Ba Amrane’s material history.

These operations held numerous political consequences: firstly, they indicated the ability of a strong and organized military group to operate beyond the reach of the palace; secondly, these operations threatened the status quo that had been established between the monarchy and the remaining French and Spanish colonial outposts in the south; and thirdly, these advancements were perceived among the French and Spanish as leading up to a possible alliance between the Moroccan and Algerian Liberation Armies, which had already established a level of cooperation through the shared use of arms and resources. The MLA’s advancements in the south were also taking place under the shadow of other regional events that likely had an impact on French and Spanish colonial forces' political maneuvering, all in cooperation with Sultan Mohammed V and then Crown Prince and Commander of the Royal Armed Forces, Hassan II. It would be difficult not to consider how the events that unfolded in Egypt just a few years before had an impact in shaping the Moroccan monarchy's concerns regarding the MLA’s advancements, with the Free Officers Movement overthrowing the monarchy in the 1952 Revolution.

The Moroccan monarchy, along with the French and Spanish, would have had every reason to worry about what the future might hold should the MLA continue to gain traction in the south. Indications that the MLA was also receiving arms from Gamal Abdel Nasser would have also heightened these concerns. Even Bennouna notes that the Moroccan Liberation Army's moves posed a threat to the stability and survival of the throne. All these factors help paint a more lucid picture for the events that followed suit, starting with what the French called Opération Écouvillon, and what the Spanish called Operación Ouragan. This joint French and Spanish military operation targeted the MLA in the south, and included the mobilization of 10,000 Spanish soldiers and 6,000 French soldiers, as well as heavy air force support. Ait Idder described this event as one of the hardest events the MLA endured in the south, forcing it into a precarious situation it was not capable of handling, both in terms of resources as well as manpower. The military operation lasted fifteen days. Just a few months after the operation, in a gesture Bennouna describes as a "reward" for the monarchy's complacency, under the leadership of Franco, Spain withdrew from Sidi Ifni in April 1958, and retreated to the strategically situated southern city of Tarfaya located near the border with the Western Sahara. Soon after, General Mohamed Oufkir would be appointed as the Royal Armed Forces’ commander in Tarfaya.

During the same year, Crown Prince and Commander in Chief of the Royal Armed Forces, Hassan II, was leading another offensive in the north aimed at weakening the last bastion of armed resistance affiliated with the MLA in the Rif region and removing Istiqlal presence that had not fallen in line with the palace. According to Moroccan historian Nabil Mouline, the offensive took shape under a "magical formula" which constituted the following: "trigger[ing] a rebellion in a rural area to make way for the declaration of martial law and military intervention." The plan was also aimed at instrumentalizing and playing on rivalries between Istiqlal and the MLA in the Rif, which largely stemmed from the allegations that Ben Barka ordered the assassination of Abbass Messaadi in June 1956, a primary figure in the MLA leadership in the Rif. According to Bennouna, Ben Barka ordered Messaadi's assassination over what was perceived as Messaadi's intentions of rallying with the Royal Armed Forces at the palace's behest.[3] This claim would bolster the assertions made in Ben Barka, a biography on the figure written by Zakya Daoud and Maâti Monjib. Daoud and Monjib cite an interview conducted with Ben Barka's brother, Abdelkader, who explains how throughout 1955, Ben Barka made numerous "dangerous" visits to the Rif. The aims of these visits, according to Abdelkader, were to establish some level of coordination between Istiqlal and the northern branch of the MLA. Had Messaadi intended to rally with the Royal Armed Forces, it would have undoubtedly undermined Ben Barka's plans of striking an alliance between Istiqlal and the MLA. Thus, the assassination of Messaadi would have largely been convenient for Ben Barka.[4]

Another element to the Istiqlal-Moroccan Liberation Army rivalry in the Rif stemmed from Ben Barka's demagogy, which clashed with the Moroccan Liberation Army's conception of independence. Whereas Ben Barka was willing to negotiate a more "politically pragmatic" notion of Moroccan independence, the MLA adhered to the notion of a "total independence in the entire Maghreb," which would have included Algeria, the Spanish enclaves of Cueta and Melilla, the Western Sahara. These political clashes would be a source of contention during the Aix-les-Bains negotiations—the negotiations for Moroccan independence—during September 1955. Basri (in his capacity as a leader of the Moroccan Liberation Army in the south) would have to intervene in order to convince members of the Moroccan Liberation Army in the north to sit at the negotiating table alongside Ben Barka. These antagonistic relations between the MLA in the north and Istiqlal colored the backdrop for Hassan II's plan of triggering a rebellion that would have created an opening for the palace's intervention in the Rif. According to Mouline, the plan was to "exhume the body of a number of resistance fighters who fell in combat or were assassinated, the most notable of whom was Abbas Messaadi, the coordinator of the MLA in Nador, in order to organize pompous funeral services." Mouline also highlights the decision to organize these funeral services on 2 October 1958, which marked the third anniversary of the MLA’s establishment. Once underway, the funeral services evolved into mass demonstrations against Istiqlal, triggering violent clashes, and creating an opening for military intervention to restore order. A little over a month later, Mouline points to how the sultan decided to hold Throne Day celebrations in the northern city of Tetouan, mobilizing 13,000 soldiers "under the guise of organizing a military parade." Instead, martial law was instituted on 26 November, allowing the palace to appoint loyal allies in the Rif, much like what drove the appointment of General Oufkir in Tarfaya.

One question that remains largely contested is the origins, evolution, and extent of coordination between the northern and southern branches of the MLA. What is clear is that the MLA had already established its branch in the north before the one in the south. Abdallah Kikr puts forth multiple scenarios and explanations for how and why the MLA decided to expand its operations to the south. Some of these explanations vary from the MLA drawing inspiration from Allal al-Fassi’s claims that Mauritania was in fact part of Morocco, and that the southern branch of the MLA was established to realize that nationalist aspiration.[5] Another explanation is that the MLA’s southern branch was established upon the release of a number of nationalist fighters in the south from prison and part of a calculated political deal. The lack of consensus over the origins and extent of coordination between the MLA’s northern and southern branches suggests either a democratization of structure or a democratization of memory—perhaps both. What is clear is that at its height, the MLA constituted a dynamic organization that regularly engaged in rich debates over questions of nationalism, conceptions of citizenship, history, and politics in general. This is exemplified in the latter half of Ait Idder’s memoir, which comprises nothing but letters exchanged between the leadership of the MLA’s southern branch. These letters, all of which date the year 1957 and after, include urgent pleas for medical aid, accounting records, intelligence gathering on Morocco’s relations with Spain, and even internal discussions over what the purpose and role of the MLA should be after Morocco’s independence. The conclusions drawn on the latter topic were that the MLA’s armed anti-colonial resistance would not cease until Algeria and the “Greater” Sahara were liberated. The exchanged letters also include environmental and geographical surveys of the Sahara. Collectively, these exchanges indicate that even after independence, the MLA was a force that rivaled the Royal Armed Forces capabilities at the time.

By September 1959, figures broke away from both the Istiqlal Party and the Moroccan Liberation Army in order to establish the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP), including Ben Barka, Bouabid, and Basri. By March 1960, the MLA was effectively dissolved. Bennouna argues, “With the progressive dismemberment of the MLA, by 1960, it was nothing more than a network of cells dispersed throughout the country, whose leaders, if they were not in prison or in exile, sought refuge underground.” Mohamed Ben Said Ait Idder describes the monarchy's targeting of Moroccan Liberation Army leaders in 1960 as having "surprised a great number of wataniyyin (nationalists) in the political sphere who underestimated the extent of this campaign." Abdallah Kikr is more cynical in his assessment of these attempts at undermining the MLA, attributing its divisions and collapse to a few individuals’ “pursuit of self-gain, or interests tied to family, political, or tribal ties.”[6] In May 1960, the palace replaced the government led by Abdallah Ibrahim, placing the cabinet and parliament directly under the palace's control with Hassan II presiding as a sort of "vice president" alongside Mohammed V. In July 1960, General Mohamed Oufkir (who would later kill himself or be executed--the official cause of his death remains contested--in 1972 over his role in the second attempted military coup) was appointed as head of the Royal Armed Forces division in the southern stronghold of Tarfaya and named director of National Security and Intelligence.

Bennouna's assessment of these political developments leading up to 1960 is the following: “The palace’s principle objective was to paralyze the Moroccan Liberation Army by neutralizing the main leaders.”[7] While there was certainly a systematic targeting of the Moroccan Liberation Army, situating these events within the process of state formation and synthesizing the discussions of these events with other texts would suggest that a more calculated plan of cementing and centralizing palace authority was taking shape. Additionally, Ait Idder recognizes that these events had much greater implications for the balance of power that existed at the outset of independence: "The truth is that these maneuvers were not ordinary or isolated actions, but many analysts consider this the beginning of an attempt to change the scales that the nationalist struggle had created."[8] These events demonstrate that the monarchy's authority during the last years before and immediately after independence was shaky, especially when it came to the kingdom's extremities. It was not solely the fact that the monarchy was seeking to assert its reign in the far extents of the kingdom, but it also was simultaneously seeking to assert a certain kind of reign that eliminated checks and balances, where a potential Istiqlal-Moroccan Liberation Army alliance could undermine the monarchy's monopolization of power. Therefore, by the time Morocco's first constitution was promulgated in 1962 and then put to a referendum (which the UNFP, under Ben Barka, boycotted), the centralized and unchecked authority of the king had already been a reality, and instituting the legal framework for such power arrangements was merely a formality.

Since the Moroccan Liberation Army was the primary organized force in the outer reaches of Morocco during this period, centralizing palace authority had to come at the expense of either coopting or liquidating the Moroccan Liberation Army. What happened was a combination of both cooptation and liquidation: some elements were integrated into the Royal Armed Forces (what the official state narrative claims was the only post-independence scenario), while other elements were violently terminated, and the remaining elements sought exile, mostly in Algeria, or went underground. These events also shed light on the reconfiguration of the southern branch of the Moroccan Liberation Army, who, disenchanted from the Moroccan nationalist project, especially following the violence incurred during Opération Écouvillon/Operación Ouragan, would form the foundations of subsequent Western Saharan liberation movements, such as the Movement for the Liberation of Seguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro in 1967, and later, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro in 1973.[9] Between instituting martial law in the Rif and establishing a permanent Royal Armed Forces presence in Tarfaya under the leadership of General Oufkir, the palace was able to extend its reach beyond the imperial cities of Rabat, Fes, Meknes, and Marrakech, and claim its sovereignty in the further reaches of the kingdom from the north to the south. This assertion of sovereignty came at the expense of liquidating the Moroccan Liberation Army, whose role in the nationalist struggle for independence was critical and lauded, but whose lasting existence after independence proved to be a political and military inconvenience for the palace. It is through this historical lens that the official state historical narrative selectively remembers and forgets the Moroccan Liberation Army, as demonstrated in the memoirs published by the Haut Commissariat des Anciens Resistant et Membres de l'Armée de Libération and based on the historical narrative that is on display in the National Museum of the Moroccan Liberation Army, as will be explored in the following section.


[1] Zakya Daoud and Maâti Monjib, Ben Barka. Paris: Éditions Michalon (1996).

[2] Mohamed Bensaid Ait Idder, Watha'iq jaysh altahrir fi janoub almaghrib 1956-1959, Casablanca: Nashr markaz Mohamad Bensaid Ait Idder, 2011, pp. 45.

[3] Mehdi Bennouna, Héros sans gloire: Echec d’une révolution, 1963-1973. Casablanca: Tarik Editions (2002), pp. 35.

[4] Under the same section that Daoud and Monjib cite the above interview with Ben Barka's brother, they also mention how Ben Barka's activism in attempting to establish coordination between Istiqlal and the Moroccan Liberation Army drew the animosity of French extremist group, La Main rouge. In retaliation, in June 1955, members of La Main rouge carried out the assassination of Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, a liberal French businessman who was allegedly sympathetic to the Moroccan nationalist cause. This paper will revisit this event under the following section on the National Museum of the Moroccan Liberation Army, where the car in which Lemaigre-Dubreuil was assassinated in sits on display in the museum's entrance. Zakya Daoud and Maâti Monjib, Ben Barka. Paris: Éditions Michalon (1996), pp. 139.

[5] Abdallah Kikr, Tajawzat jaysh altahrir aljanoubi fi Souss min khilal alriwayat wa alshihadat 1956-1960, Rabat: Imprimerie Rabat Net Maroc, 2011, pp. 20.

[6] Ibid, pp. 16.

[7] Mehdi Bennouna, Héros sans gloire: Echec d’une révolution, 1963-1973. Casablanca: Tarik Editions (2002), pp. 37.

[8] Mohamed Bensaid Ait Idder, Watha'iq jaysh altahrir fi janoub almaghrib 1956-1959, Casablanca: Nashr markaz Mohamad Bensaid Ait Idder, 2011, pp. 27.

[9] Osama Abi-Mershed and Adam Farrar, "History of the Conflict in Western Sahara," in Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms, and Geopolitics, edited by Anouar Boukhars and Jacques Roussellier, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, pp. 24.

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