Morocco’s Concerning Domestic and Foreign Policies

As Morocco works to become a pivotal power in northwest Africa’s security sphere, it continues to suffer from what can be seen as self-inflicted wounds caused by its domestic and foreign policies. There has been a serious regression in its human rights record, with a clear retreat from commitments King Mohammed VI made in the aftermath of the February 2011 protests and demonstrations that erupted as part of the Arab Spring. Although Morocco’s economy has been showing progress regarding gross domestic product—estimated to rise by 3 percent in 2023—it still suffers from the ills that afflict other developing countries, including high unemployment levels, inequality, and skewed development indicators. In foreign relations, Rabat appears to have made its sovereignty over Western Sahara and its efforts to gain other states’ recognition of said sovereignty its most important consideration in its ties with the rest of the world. How these three dimensions of Morocco’s governing ethos—human rights, economic prosperity, and Western Sahara—and how it responds to them in the coming months and years may determine the outcome of its quest to become the unquestioned regional leader that it wants to be.

A Troubled Human Rights Record

Like other countries in the Arab political order, Morocco suffers from serious human rights violations affecting all sectors of public life. A 2023 report by Reporters Without Borders ranked Morocco 144th out of 180 countries in its press freedom index, down from 135th place in 2022. The report states that independent media and journalists are “harassed and persecuted” and are drowned out by a powerful pro-government “propaganda and disinformation machine.” The 2022 US Department of State’s human rights report, meanwhile, documented instances of torture, political imprisonment, restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, censorship, serious government corruption, and violence and threats of violence. The report listed the cases of Omar Radi and Soulaimane Raissouni, two imprisoned journalists wrongfully accused of sexual crimes—a common practice that the government uses to smear the reputations of those who expose authorities’ malfeasance and corruption—as clear indications of authoritarian practices.

Radi and Raissouni, as well as a third journalist, Taoufik Bouachrine, were the subjects of a European Parliament resolution earlier this year condemning the Moroccan government and calling for the journalists’ release. In a response typical of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, Morocco’s lower and upper houses of parliament came to the government’s rescue and voted unanimously to “reconsider” the country’s relations with the European Union because of its supposed “attack against the sovereignty, dignity and independence of judicial institutions in the kingdom.” Raissouni remains in custody, despite serious health issues and recommendations from a prison doctor that he receive treatment outside the facility. In addition to these violations, former Human Rights Minister Mohamed Ziane, who was close to the regime of the late King Hassan II, was arrested in November of last year for criticizing the royal palace and the prime minister, accusing the latter of corruption. His reputation, too, had been impugned four years prior, when a website close to the country’s security services published a video allegedly showing him naked with a woman, which Ziane then said had been fabricated as a part of a character assassination.

The power of the Moroccan state and its security services is being used to silence freedom of expression and any opposition to or criticism of the government.

In essence, the power of the Moroccan state and its security services is being used to silence freedom of expression and any opposition to or criticism of the government. It appears that Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch, a billionaire and leader of the National Rally of Independents, and Abdellatif Hammouchi, Director of the General Directorate for National Security, have taken it upon themselves to do away with the limited reforms that were instituted as a result of the 2011 protests. They are aided in their quest by surveillance technology provided by Israeli company NSO Group, whose Pegasus software is a powerful tool that aids efforts to spy on activists, journalists, government officials, and others. The aim, as one of the targets of the software, professor and activist Maati Monjib, has stated, “seems to be for everyone to feel like they’re surveilled, including politicians who work for the regime.” In essence, the Moroccan authorities have decided to return to their governing style prior to the post-Arab Spring changes, and they are thus totally in line with others in the Arab world such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Economic Inequality

Despite its aim of continuing to play a pivotal role in northwest Africa, Morocco faces serious economic challenges, from high unemployment (especially among the youth) to rising inflation and higher commodity prices. In the first quarter of 2023, general unemployment was at 12.9 percent, while unemployment among young people reached 35.3 percent. With about 45 percent of its nearly 38 million-strong population under the age of 24, these rates help predict a politically unstable situation that requires immediate and effective action by the government. As drought continues to affect the countryside, conditions are worsening in the agricultural sector, which employs some 30 percent of the workforce, and poverty is expected to increase among the most vulnerable. Last February, on the twelfth anniversary of the outbreak of protests in 2011, discontent boiled over into the streets, where citizens protested conditions in the country and railed against high inflation, which have risen by 10 percent while food prices increased by about 20 percent.

Like all developing countries, including others in the Arab world, Morocco suffers from endemic inequality born of mismatched development between urban and rural areas, differences between and within urban centers, skewed education delivery, and other social indicators. In 2013, the top 10 percent of Moroccans held 32 percent of the national income, 12 times higher than that held by the lowest 10 percent, and things have not improved much since. In 2018, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a report that stated that Morocco had the highest inequality rate in North Africa. A similar report published by international humanitarian aid agency Oxfam in 2014 found that there were 1.6 million Moroccans living in poverty, and that urban children were 2.7 times more likely to learn reading skills than those living in the countryside.

While the Moroccan state has built the institutional and security mechanisms to deal with social unrest caused by socioeconomic disparities, inequality and the general lack of freedoms are potential triggers of instability for the monarchy. After all, conditions before the protests of 2011 were similar to those today, and King Mohammed VI was forced to devolve some political power to a prime minister, the choice of whom depended on the results of general elections instead of the wishes of the monarch. With current Prime Minister Akhannouch leading a regressive state apparatus dedicated to the preservation of elite economic interests and the suppression of demands for political rights and freedoms, unrest this time may not be as manageable as it was in 2011.

Western Sahara, First and Foremost

Since 2020, when the Trump administration recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for the kingdom’s normalizing relations with Israel, the territory’s special status in Rabat’s foreign policy has gained new ground. This recognition was codified by the Biden administration, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken supporting Morocco’s autonomy plan for the area as “serious, credible, and realistic.” Indeed, recognition of the territory’s status as Moroccan has become a litmus test for Morocco’s relations, not only with the United States, but also with neighboring countries and other world powers.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune stated a few months ago that his country’s relations with Morocco have reached “the point of no return” after Algiers severed its diplomatic relations with Rabat in August 2021. While other issues lie at the heart of the Algeria-Morocco discord—such as Morocco’s normalization with Israel and troubles with the two countries’ bilateral relations—the dispute over Western Sahara is a significant part of the rift because of Algeria’s longstanding support for the Polisario Front, a nationalist liberation movement that seeks the territory’s full independence, and has its own interests to pursue there. Indeed, Morocco is at odds over Western Sahara with the African Union, in which the Polisario’s Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a member state. Morocco also recalled its ambassador to Tunisia in August 2022 after Polisario chief Brahim Ghali attended a Japanese development summit in Tunis, which prompted Tunisia to recall its envoy to Rabat in response. For its part, the League of Arab States has supported Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara, but remains divided over the issue because of political, ideological, and alignment differences, and due to attempts to maintain as much unity as possible between its member states.

In 2021, Morocco protested Spain’s hosting of Brahim Ghali as he sought treatment for a COVID-19 infection by recalling its ambassador from Madrid. This prompted a major shift in Spain’s position on Western Sahara, marked by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s announcement, similar to Secretary Blinken’s the following year, that Morocco’s autonomy plan was “serious, realistic, and credible.” This in turn prompted Algeria to sever its diplomatic ties with Spain, although it continued to supply the latter with natural gas, estimated to be about 25 percent of its needs. German-Moroccan relations also witnessed the same rise in tensions and subsequent de-escalation over the Western Sahara issue, with Berlin deciding to accept Rabat’s position in exchange for more cordial relations between the two countries. Morocco’s insistence on Western Sahara being a test of its relations with the outside world even affected its ties with Israel, with which it normalized relations in 2020. The kingdom has refused to open an embassy in Israel before the latter recognizes its sovereignty over the territory.

Inequality and lack of freedoms are potential triggers of instability for the monarchy. 

This insistence is complicated by the international community’s understanding of and position on Western Sahara. A 1991 UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front stipulated that the kingdom must conduct a referendum on independence among the territory’s population. Said referendum has not yet taken place, specifically because Morocco refuses to allow for any doubt about its control. Instead, in 2007, the kingdom advanced an autonomy plan that promised self-rule for the area, but under Moroccan sovereignty. With the Polisario and Algeria having rejected the plan and continuing to insist on holding the referendum, UN envoy to Western Sahara Staffan de Mistura has no choice but to conduct more negotiations between the different parties on a possible way forward. It is, however, doubtful that any new ground will be broken regarding a resolution to the conflict, which means that the regional tensions surrounding this issue are likely to continue for years to come.

However, one thing is sure to continue to give Rabat more reason to reject compromise on Western Sahara and to forestall the agreed-upon referendum: its good relations with the United States. While the Trump administration was the first US administration to openly approve of Morocco’s position and its autonomy plan for the territory, the Biden administration has more clearly committed the United States to this one-sided position. Following mutual visits by CIA Director William Burns and Morocco’s intelligence chief, Hammouchi, coordination between the two countries on terrorism is at its highest point. The United States has also recently approved the sale of roughly $750 million of advanced weapons to Morocco, indicating that cooperation in military affairs is another facet of the mutual interests between Washington and Rabat.

A Reversion to Past Behavior

Morocco appears to have reverted to the politics of repression that dominated the rule of the late King Hassan II, who presided over an era of brutal oppression from the mid-1960s to 1999, known as the “years of lead.” The country also continues to suffer from poverty, inequality, and skewed development, which have benefited old economic elites and new upstarts close to the makhzen—the collection of Morocco’s political power institutions, including the royal palace and interested elites. Morocco has also succeeded in making Western Sahara its primary foreign policy issue, forcing its neighbors and other regional actors to either antagonize it or accept what international law and agreements have rejected. In a sense, its policy on Western Sahara has recalled and reinvigorated that of King Hassan II, who in 1975 organized the Green March on the territory to claim it for his kingdom following the end of the Spanish occupation.

It is these conditions that Morocco must work quickly to address in ways that will help it secure its social peace and good regional relations in an area of serious challenges. Morocco must correct its poor human rights record and buttress its democratic credentials by eschewing repressive security-oriented policies, and must also ameliorate its dire economic straits by instituting plans for equal development in its various regions. Finally, Morocco would do well to accommodate the wishes and interests of the Sahrawi people in a referendum to decide whether they want independence or wish to remain under Moroccan sovereignty. The sooner the kingdom sets out on this course of action, the better.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/SmallWorldProduction