The Moorish Wanderer

Modern Morocco, Archaic Morocco

Posted in Uncategorized by Zouhair ABH on November 12, 2009

I had many stereotyped ideas about how I should deal with politics in Morocco. Namely, I thought I could understand what it happening in our glorious land, simply by following news, blogs and ‘current affairs’… A sort of a rather radical breakthrough with old, ancient history (before 1912 anyway…) And I was so mistaken, for it I had to go back to the ancient times and read about pre-colonial Moroccan history, and it proved useful.

Whether one should like it or not, modern politics in Morocco are closely tied to our own ancient history, and not the least good part –if any- of it. I do have a modest bookshelf about it, but it is mainly French, or Arabic, sometimes arid though fascinating. Lately, I came across a rather interesting book ‘Lords of the Atlas’ by G. Maxwell. Anglo-saxon literature is usually more accurate and above all, more ‘fair’ in their account of the pre-1912 Morocco. Maxwell, as well as Waterbury or Harris, are uncontested authorities and precious references for the likes of me.

Gavin Maxwell gives a terrible and terrific description of this Feudal Morocco of our : killings, loots, rapes and destruction were the usual share of the day for the common Moroccans as well as the distinguished ones. Though the book is mainly about the Lords of the High and Anti-Atlas, the pattern of behaviour is applicable elsewhere in Morocco. The same story is told by Abdellah Laroui, in his memorable ‘Origines Sociales et Culturelles du Nationalisme Marocain’.

The Makhzen works with simple parameters, which makes it a unique form of bureaucracy that transcends the ages.

I. The Tribes.

One has to be extremely cautious in this ‘racial’ criterion: although spatial mobility was too little and endogamy very current, Moroccan population mixed up a lot. Subsaharian, Arab, Jewish, Turkish, European and Amazigh ancestry all gather up in this land. However, this does not mean that these communities –or tribes, for it is the best concept to describe the social structure that makes Morocco what it is- are willingly admitting that they are mixed, indeed not. Each community tries to preserve its purity –racism is an inherent par of the system- and perhaps its supposed superiority over the others.

In general terms, tribes are usually reluctant to pay taxes to the Makhzen, for many reasons, as a tax collection usually means a proper loot of the meager goods common people have: a sheep, the yearly harvest of crops, a few pieces of silver… whatever the Khalifa or the Caïd could get for themselves and for the Sultan. Tax collection is not a ‘rational’ or ‘Weberian bureaucratic’ process: it is a punctual requirement for the Sultan, to levy and pay his Harka against rebellious tribes that are refusing to neither pay him taxes nor acknowledge his authority. The taxes are also a pretext for the local lords to expand their wealth at the expenses of their populations, as they receive no formal wage for their service. The tribes and the Makhzen therefore have an ambiguous relation. The Makhzen needs money and men to punish renegade tribes and the tribes want full autonomy, little taxation, though they might be willing to lend the Makhzen a hand to oust a rival and get hold of their wealth. The very end of the Makhzenian system is civil war, as a social regulatory tool, a way to temper and punish those that are growing more and more challenging to the Sultan’s authority, and rewards for those who help to crash the early ones.

Amazigh tribes in the mountains are however somewhat different for the ones in the Plains (Amazigh or not). Their inhospitable landscape, the scarce resources one can get out of the high ground, as well as a certain refusal of the Makhzen to get up there and police them up, made the High Atlas a unique place in Morocco : instead of a traditional confederation of tribes, G. Maxwell finds : “The social structure of the Berber communities […] had been exceedingly complex. […] Each community consisted, in facts, of a tiny Berber Republic, each with its own customs and its tradition of Democracy or of Oligarchy[…] a dozen of these or so villages formed a […] canton. […] This structure, and the hierarchy within it, was flexible enough to allow for the very widely varying living conditions of, say, a community at 10.000 feet in the barren High-Atlas and one inhabiting a fertile oasis in the desert.”(p.144-145). This is of course, due to its difficult to conquer landscape, as mentioned earlier on. It is not, as the late King Hassan II said, of Islamic origin, though the democratic aspect of it surely did play a part in it.

The tribes in the plains are frequently moved -or where made- from one place to another, the loose confederations of warring tribes, for or against the sultan, are either rewarded or punished by moving to a more or less favourable land, a tribute for dubious services to the ‘crown’, or a vengeance of the latter on a defeated rebellion. As a result, nothing of a stable agriculture structure took place in Morocco, and agricultural techniques suffered consequently, as it was dependent on rain, leading to numerous cases of famine or starvation. Nonetheless, cities were relatively free of any major changes.

II. The Warlords

Western writers often mistook the Caïds and Khalifas for their aristocratic opposite numbers in Europe, while they simply were not. Makhzenian lords do belong to aristocratic families, and they have to their credit a long tradition of service to the sultan, however, their stronghold are not family estate, in that sense that they could be transferred or removed from their position by imperial whim. A meagre ‘hdiya’, a growing potential rival the sultan suspects, court intrigues… all of that could deprive the lord of his power, his life, and so will suffer his family. The sultan had virtually more power than the absolute monarchs in the Era of Enlightenment. On the other hand, the Caïds and Khalifas had all power and free hand over their region, and were in facts, sultans of their own caïdat. That explains why the various sultans were actually afraid of mobilizing a ‘Harka’ against an overshadowing caïd, or even a ‘rogui’ when they where to weak to levy an army. This absolute power makes a significant difference with the various princes, barons, marquis, earls and counts Europe had known till the French Revolution.

The main mission of a Lord is to establish the Sultan’s predominance over a particular region : security, jurisdiction system, taxation as well as garrison depot for the sultan. The Caïd has no formal allowance for their work, and they have to levy a substantial level of taxes for it has to meet the growing demand of the Sultan’s need, in a time where the imperial treasure was dead empty, and the foreign pressure felt on Morocco. These lords, after the Fez Treaty (March 1912), where the backbone of the Protectorat ruling for some 40 years.

But who are those people ? as stated earlier, some of them belong to famous, long-serving families from some of the Imperial cities : Fez of course or Marrakesh. Some of the black slaves the late Sultan My Rachid gathered into his private army (the Bukhara عبيد البخارى) rose to prestigious positions, such as Chamberlain, War Minister or de facto Regent (in the case of Ba Ahmed and the Sultan My Aziz). M’touggi, El Goundafi or El Glaoui had also an African ancestry. It should be pointed out that a large majority of these lords had -and that is an exceptional fact worthy to be noted- put themselves resolutely as representing and defending France in Morocco. It is a remarkable fact indeed, for it Moroccan pre-colonial politics were mainly a game of ‘hedging bets’ : one should not take sides, as they might lose everything. Ahmed El Hiba -son of Sheikh Maa Al Ainin, an anti-French tribe leader resistant- lost a famous battle near Sidi Bou Othman (North West of Marrakesh) because of a betrayal of tribes under the command of El Glaoui, who eluded all Hibas’s offers to join in and fight the French column that was coming from Settat.

III. Central Makhzen

Now the juicy part… As it turns out, the Makhzen is actually a weak power (I am a definite supporter of Wallerstein’s criterion), and the next article should be devoted to discuss it in length…


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