The Moorish Wanderer

Growth, Convergence and Other Observations

Posted in Dismal Economics, Moroccan Politics & Economics, Morocco, Read & Heard by Zouhair ABH on March 21, 2011

One of the standard techniques to verify whether an economy has indeed created large enough output and value to lift itself from underdevelopment, is to measure how fast its output (the GDP) catches up with a reference time series. Because the US have been a most important economy over the last 50 years (the new post-1945 gave the victorious United Sates such a leverage on economic matters), and because data is much more available to this particular country [we might also add, because academia is concentrated in the US, too. stands to reason, that…] it is conventional to consider US GDP as a reference to those countries one is surveying.

Morocco lagging behind Turkey and Tunisia (not to mention Spain) and gaining only 2.75% growth on the US over 50 years

It is interesting to note that for all the boasting in growth effects and figures, Moroccan GDP  relative to that of the US has remained low, if not markedly decreasing to 1990’s and 1950’s levels. Other countries, on the other hand, fared better.

The graph compares relative GDP for Morocco and a benchmark group of countries shows that Morocco is behind in terms of convergence. it shows that for the last 50 years, relative GDP in Morocco gained a meagre 2.75% over US GDP growth.This is, quite simply, a blow to the razzmatazz of Hassan II and even Mohamed VI‘s propaganda era about ‘grand designs’. It also shows that even on that basic policy so relied upon, i.e. economic growth, results have been well below expectations.

This policy, quite simply, that to overcome the crippling effects of poverty and inequality, the surest mean to achieve such objective is basically to accumulate output, i.e. sustain rapid and durable growth. All of this at the expenses of any noticeable redistributive attempt (progressive or liberal taxation system for instance). Not only it failed, but our growth rate has been chaotic over the last half a century, and as such, failed to improve markedly when compared to that of the US. Though GDP growth volatility abated a bit with the late 1990s, but it is still too high to rely on it as an indicator that Morocco is successfully catching up.

The principle of convergence is a powerful tool to assess, on a long term basis, the efforts put in an economy to ‘develop’. One can argue that considering capital accumulation is a very crude, even simplistic criterion to assess Moroccan growth.

Productivity growth over the same period vindicates the assumption gross accumulation as a valid proxy for Morocco's growth assessment.

And it is a perfectly valid argument. However, the alternative explanation is that of endogenous growth: human capital, scientific research and knowledge, which unfortunately finds its limitations verified in our case (unless there are some top secret research facilities in Morocco, whose applications are jealously kept secret in case of a Nuclear Armageddon…) and in any case, the classic theory of capital/output accumulation fits perfectly the strategic direction our policy-makers chose for Morocco.

What about the institutional variable? There is extensive literature on how institutions can affect capital accumulation (the well-know Lucas’ paradox) and I will not venture into describing these papers, but I would like to bring about a point so much invoked as a justification for status-quo: the pace of change.

Now, according to a seemingly valid point, we radicals and nihilists should not be too hungry for change. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and change takes time to settle. The underlying justification is that history shows progress is better when slow, or quite simply that it should be so, because history shows it.

It might be true, but when I try to compare Morocco between 1956 and 1962, and the last decade, we are, quite simply, way behind the exponential changes Morocco sustained after the French protectorate was dissolved. The Moudouwana? We had a much more liberal and progressive piece of legislation passed in 1957-1958 (and amended to a more conservative setting less than 5 years ago). Legislative production before the 1962 constitution was more fruitful and with a higher quality, especially those pertaining to essential legislation, e.g. Labour regulations (the brain child of then-Labour minister Abdellah Ibrahim) Furthermore, even if levels of illiteracy were higher compared to these we are experiencing today there was a higher positive perception of liberal agenda: gender equality, individual freedom and ultimately the formalized secularization of Moroccan society.

Rapid change can and will take place. The society’s resistance is not due to its tradition, nor is it due to some ideological commitment. In my view, it is simply fear of change.

Wandering Thoughts Vol.10

Ah, we are living in interesting times. In the sense that it feels like someone was shopping at a Wal-Mart of history, and on the way out, messed everything up: Nuclear disaster in Japan, right? The Allies moving (again) into Libya? The French are getting all hot and heavy for Bir Hakeim (I suspect the French president is going to claim the well as the Rightful property of Gaullist France…) we in Morocco, going back to 1996 and discussing the constitution. And there are but a few odd things happening the very year I don’t know exactly what’s happening in my life in 6 months’ time (a thrilling feeling I haven’t experienced since 2007)

So, I had this idea (like they do in West Wing…) walking in the park -in a unusual bright day, where I live- and I suddenly hit upon it: why not make some local administrative positions elective? Like the Moqadem/’Arifa, Sheikh, Caïd, Super-Caïd and so on… will no longer be a low-grade civil servant from the Interior ministry, they would be, quite simply, elected citizens overseeing the borough, the village or small city. What a crazy idea, one might think. I bounced it off in twitter, and well… it was not a wild success. Nor was it a colossal failure. I did get a comment though. And a very sensible one: cost, accountability and efficiency were the three broad issues that might hinder such policy. But still, electing Pachas, Caïds and Mokadems, That’s an idea, isn’t it?

Cost encompasses elections and retribution to the new local elected representatives. Apparently, during the last local elections, Interior Ministry paid up to MAD 550 Million in miscellaneous expenses: logistics and campaigning shared about half the total cost each. Surely if local elections coincided with regional elections, costs in terms of logistics would be shared (thus it reducing by half) and since all public funding for political campaigning can be stopped, the whole operation actually saves money to the taxpayers. It might come to the cost of excluding small parties, but it also get all of them on a sink or swim basis. Those that would be excluded are not necessarily the small organization, but the inefficient (and corrupt) ones. I need to discuss it further of course, but that’s the general setting. What about payment to the elected locals? The solution is either to fund it with small local taxes, by an allocation of dirt-collecting taxes (computed on a joint formula of water consumption and real estate value, mainly), or a percentage of revenue from concessions to the private sector or private individuals (receipts from letting public property for instance), or, if these locals are part of a depressed area, a federal stipend. In fact, and under assumption that these locals have a job on the side, a minimal contribution of MAD 700 per month can keep overall cost to MAD 200 Million.

Accountability is part of the package too. As it happens, an elected Moqadem is less likely to behave like a little Caïd (no pun intended) when their neighbours are the ones that put him, and directly so, in their office. If anything, accountability and local democracy are strengthen with such measures.

Then comes the issue of efficiency: how can Morocco keep itself together, if there are no local branches of central authority? To be sure, we need to get past that French tropism. Caïds and Moqadems have never been endowed with such extensive powers. Their prerogatives are the inheritance of French colonial administration. As such, they should be stripped of these powers, and in the effort of giving back power to the people, instead of being abolished, transferred from administrative to elective power. There is however a more profound motivation for it. It has to do with the unhealthy grip the Makhzen has on local issues. By depriving it from local ends, citizens can topple it down, both from the top and the bottom: at federal level with strong government and parliament, and at local level by turning the local functionaries into elected officials. Do we need a central authority with micro-managing tendencies? Can’t the Moroccan people be trusted to deal with their day-to-day matters by themselves? ‘Associations de Quartier‘ are doing a fantastic job in many cities, and they can be an excellent benchmark for the kind of direct and local democracy that builds the very idea of a responsible citizen. That’s an interesting thought that is going to foster.

For all the talks about constitutional changes in Morocco, and by comparison to the whole region, dissidents are being very moderate in their claims. And yet, for many of our fellow citizens, these grievances are borderline lèse-majesté crimes, if not outright full treason. I assume that is so because of the unbearable lack of historical insight regarding these constitutional matters. Let us have a look at the constitutional process: in our post-1956 Morocco, we have had 5 large constitutional referendums; 1962, 1970, 1972, 1992 and 1996. And when one looks up the main articles shaping up every new constitution, there is ample justification why I remain doubtful of any substantial changes, and why this ground-breaking consultation disappointedly turns out not to be so. (if anything, the 1908 draft constitution was, in many respects,  a more liberal one). Just compare  1962 vintage with 1996 (to give you an idea of the scale of change the constitution went thourgh)

1962: Would you imagine that, since 1962, there still is no ‘organic law’ regulating strikes? Apparently, it’s a bad equilibrium the regime does not want to get legislation going (because it might be too repressive) and trade unions lose a leverage if things are clearly spelt out. Better keep it blurry; both sides agree on it.

Article 19.

Le Roi, « Amir Al Mouminine » (commandeur des croyants), symbole de l’unité de la nation, garant de la pérennité et de la continuité de l’État, veille au respect de l’Islam et de la Constitution. Il est le protecteur des droits et libertés des citoyens, groupes sociaux et collectivités.

Il garantit l’indépendance de la nation et l’intégrité territoriale du royaume dans ses frontières authentiques.

Article 20.

La couronne du Maroc et ses droits constitutionnels sont héréditaires et se transmettent aux descendants mâles, en ligne directe et par ordre de primogéniture de S. M. le Roi Hassan II. Lorsqu’il n’y a pas de descendant mâle, en ligne directe, la succession au trône est dévolue à la ligne collatérale mâle la plus proche et dans les mêmes conditions.

Article 21.

Le roi est mineur jusqu’à dix huit ans accomplis. Durant la minorité du Roi, un Conseil de régence exerce les pouvoirs et les droits constitutionnels de la couronne.

Le Conseil de régence est présidé par le parent mâle du roi, le plus proche dans la Ligne collatérale mâle et ayant 21 ans révolus, du recteur des Universités et du président de la Chambre des conseillers.

Les fonctions de membre du Conseil de régence sont incompatibles avec les fonctions ministérielles.

Les règles de fonctionnement du Conseil de régence sont fixées par une loi organique.

Article 22.

Le Roi dispose d’une liste civile.

Article 23.

La personne du Roi est inviolable et sacrée.

Article 24.

Le Roi nomme le premier ministre et les ministres. Il met fin à leurs fonctions, soit à son initiative, soit du fait de leur démission individuelle ou collective.

Article 25.

Le Roi préside le Conseil des ministres.

Article 26.

Le Roi promulgue la loi. Il peut la soumettre à référendum ou à une nouvelle lecture dans les conditions prévues au titre V.

Article 27.

Le Roi peut dissoudre la Chambre des représentants par décret royal dans les conditions prévues au titre V, articles 77 et 79.

Article 28.

Le Roi peut adresser des messages au Parlement et à la nation. Le contenu des messages ne peut faire l’objet de débats parlementaires.

Article 29.

Le Roi exerce le pouvoir réglementaire dans les domaines qui lui sont expressément réservés par la Constitution.

Les décrets royaux sont contresignés par le premier ministre, sauf ceux prévus aux articles 24, 35, 72, 77, 84, 91, 101.

Article 30.

Le Roi est le chef suprême des forces armées royales. Il nomme aux emplois civils et militaire et peut déléguer ce droit.

Article 31.

Le Roi accrédite les ambassadeurs auprès des puissances étrangères et des organismes internationaux. Les ambassadeurs ou les représentants des organismes internationaux sont accrédités auprès de lui.

Il signe et ratifie les traités.

Toutefois, les traités engageant les finances de l’État, ne peuvent être ratifiés sans l’approbation préalable du Parlement.

Les traités susceptibles de remettre en cause les dispositions de la Constitution, sont approuvés selon les procédures prévues pour la réforme de la Constitution.

Article 32.

Le Roi préside le Conseil supérieur de la promotion nationale et du plan.

Article 33.

Le Roi préside le Conseil supérieur de la magistrature et nomme les magistrats dans les conditions prévues à l’article 84.

Article 34.

Le Roi exerce le droit de grâce.

Article 35.

Lorsque l’intégrité du territoire national est menacée, ou que se produisent des événements susceptibles de mettre en cause le fonctionnement des institutions constitutionnelles, le Roi peut, après avoir consulté les présidents des deux Chambres et adressé un message à la nation, proclamer, par décret royal, l’état d’exception. De ce fait, il est habilité, nonobstant toutes dispositions contraires, à prendre les mesures qu’imposent la défense de l’intégrité territoriale et le retour au fonctionnement normal des institutions constitutionnelles.

Il est mis fin à l’état d’exception dans les mêmes formes que sa proclamation.

Articl19 was already there… Articles  22 to 35 too. So, let us be correct in our assessment; right from the start, the essential powers the King took for Himself remained the same; And one other thing: Hassan II was not facing a youthful motley of protesters (ok, he was at a certain point, though they were not the main threat) but a more or less resolute coalition of battle-hardened politicians that knew about institutions and politics, and in any case were much more powerful, i.e. able to take to the street higher numbers of protesters. Really? Would February 20th extract more from Mohamed VI in 2011 than did the USFP from Hassan II in 1996? Let’s hope so!

1996: Nada, back to square one. The old ‘Nationalist Parties‘ (the Koutla) protested and railed, plotted and compromised, rebelled and protested, and in the end, a 40 years-long struggle went bust. What a price.

Polling The Numbers

reforme.ma is a very useful website. Its structure does not help, especially when using a facebook interface with comments from any user on everyone of the 108 articles is counter-productive; judging from the de facto mini-forum on each and every relevant constitutional article, I think the webmasters’ views are not being vindicated here, and so I don’t know if it is the best way to go down the debate on the constitutional reforms.

Furthermore, there’s little information: is it a government-sponsored initiative? Or is it the brainchild of a very enthusiastic web-citizens? Or a little of both? Anyhow, web-users should indeed feel grateful such an initiative took place. And I, among all others, have an additional motivation to feel grateful. Merci. This is a laudable initiative, whatever the person or organization behind it, mainly because it provides raw data more or less adequate for some polling computations. This is not criticism per se, but I just need to square things up about the data itself, and then the way I am putting it to use.

First, I am not a pollster -I know a couple of things about it due to a training I received some years ago- but it seems to me, for all its first-hand quality, this data is very messy, from every aspect of it. For one, asking people to vote Yes/No on every article (and there 108 of them) is not the best way to take the nation into confidence, so to speak. The binary choice tears apart any nuanced views on specific constitutional stipulations, and in matter of constitutional law, so I am told, there’s a great deal of nuance (what I call blurriness) to be observed in the enunciation of such legislation. The set of data therefore loses a great deal of its strength in understanding the kind of believes Moroccans nurse toward their own constitution.

There’s also the problem of sampling: to this date, and according to the website statistics, 144,171 likes/dislikes votes were recorded (and 2647 comments too). Now, the number itself is large enough to qualify as a working sample. and one can reasonably argue randomness properties can be observed with a sample of this size. But in real life, the voting sample’s representativeness is biased, and that is so for many reasons. First, there’s gainsay whether 144,000 physical voters did click on the ‘vote’ button. I personally did not vote down or in favour all articles, and as it happens I voted from two computers (or shall we say from two different IPs) as well.

That’s the mess, and it gets even messier when considering the voting population: no idea about their basic specifications, e.g. gender, demographics, education, geographical location, political allegiances or leanings, etc…. We can also be sure that there are large scores of Moroccan population that are left out of the process: how many of these voters already experienced a referendum in their life? How many voted yes or no on the 1962 referendum? How many of them are illiterate?  What about the rural community or any community with a lower internet connection penetration rate? It is great to record the markedly improved figures ANRT (Agence Nationale de Réglementation des Télécommunications) publishes on internet connection, but surely there are substantial caucuses left out of this informal polling.

Note: I am being very harsh both on the idea of using this data for polling and on the validity of what I will present the readers with, but that is out of intellectual probity. I admit my interpretation will be somewhat partisan (beautifully argued with the use of statistics, but nonetheless skewed towards my side of the story) but then again, it will be the first serious attempt to prize up the nation’s shape of opinions.

Before we get down to business, I noticed a few outstanding votes on some articles, and even more remarkable instances of sensitive ones:

Article 19 has 55% votes in favour (with 45% against) but those with intermediate knowledge in statistics know error margin considerably reduce this seemingly clear win for Art.19 on a sample of 3189 votes (less than 160 votes could swing it back) (I was surprised by how narrow votes were on that particular constitutional roadblock)

Article 21 also shows a similar narrow voting (57% in favour indeed, but that could easily scale back to 50% for a 125 votes swing)

Article 23, on the other hand has a clear win (even with a 5% margin error, 67% is way out of the the error interval, as it takes a swing of 532 votes) and it is quite surprising to record a clear vote down on the article that enshrines the most His Majesty. Other outstanding votes are related to government prerogatives with substantial margins: Article 24 and 25 voted down with respective margins of 84% and 74%. Article 29 that delineates Dahir prerogatives is voted down as well, with a margin of 78%.

Large margins on specific articles, and those relative to the King's prerogatives are surprisingly NOT having the voters' favour

The general configuration of the current constitution is very surprising, and as far as I am concerned, very encouraging (as far as web users are concerned). Unless one is thinking all, or shall we say a substantial part of these voters are Algerian, Zionists, or even Libyan agents provocateurs, those who disliked the Kings powers, namely Articles 24 to 29 (basically the core of His Majesty’s prerogatives) and others on the side, that give the King a greater leverage, on appointing judges, or even chairing seemingly marginal constitutions. Again, setting aside the conspiracy theory, there is a large number (perhaps even larger than the historical 9%) that are fed up with the disproportionate concentration of powers in the royal hands.

What is even more extraordinary, the spread is even larger -in favour of Nay votes- in these very specific articles (24 to 29, 33 and 83 to name a few) and by large spread, I refer to a margin in favour larger than the Yay votes. On the other hand, other dispositions were voted down, related to Parliament as well as Government responsibilities and powers.

This is very encouraging and frustrating at the same time. But first, I should voice my frustration with this web-consultation, not because of its shortcomings, but because it simply underlines the cruel lack of polls in Morocco. Legislative obstructions, defiance towards such interviews from the public, and perhaps a misapprehension of market perspective from polling companies are but a few parameters that can account for the ridiculously low number of polls run in Morocco. This website has done an excellent job in shedding light on it.

I mentioned above the results are encouraging: it means a certain population -whose salient properties remain unknown, unless I can find time to screen 2647 + facebook and twitter profiles,  a certain population that can be receptive of either calls for boycott or voting down (a Nay-l on the coffin of this commission. Pun-time) the draft constitution. It is also frustrating because there is no guarantee whatsoever this commission would hear my voice (read my lines, to be more precise) or draw the accurate conclusions from such vote.

The nihilists are coming, and they are coming to your town… (Let’s see if there’s a post-March 20 spike…)

Thesis Working Paper n°3

Posted in Dismal Economics, Read & Heard, The Wanderer, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on March 17, 2011

In his March 1968 Presidential address, Milton Friedman[1] summarized the broad aims of every mainstream economic policy: ‘high employment, stable prices, and rapid growth’. He was also quick to point out that these goals are not always easy to bring together, and while these aims seem to be the consensus among economists, instrument policies designed to implement these objectives do not elicit the same agreement.

Monetary Policy is one of these instruments that were the subject of much debate; The global economy moved from a decade-long era of low inflation and robust growth –both of which were considered to be partly the result of sound monetary policy- to that of an economy hurled into financial turmoil, and ultimately, into persistent depression. Central bankers, just like government, put together policies and instruments to deal these economies out of recession in ways that were unimaginable a couple of years ago (ironically, Friedman finds the tight FED policy in the 1920’s as a factor in the Great Contraction. It seems Central bankers today did not make the same mistake). Although there is much debate about the efficiency of monetary policies –especially on the long run-, the fact remains, the historically low levels of interest rates are contributing to sustain world growth and OECD growth in particular. In contrast with other policy instruments, monetary policy moved to be a subtle tool, one that is not as interventionist as, say a fiscal stimulus or tax cuts, but proves to be, at least in the short run, a very powerful and effective instrument.

Just as Friedman underlined, monetary policy is there to avoid mistakes. And it seems that this negative proposition somewhat overshadows the other assigned objective to the Central Bank, namely ‘to provide a stable back-ground for the economy’ (Friedman does acknowledge the monetary policy’s ability to balance off non-monetary shocks, though). Later on, empirical research by Taylor[2] (1993) provides policy makers with both a theoretical and practical tool to engage in a more active (but not necessarily activist) policy scope in setting interest rates.

We deal with the following: In a game theory setting, the central bank has to assign levels of interest rates and output as targets for the economy (i.e. other players) to factor-in their own computations. These targets are not computed ex-nihilo; they are the outcome of preferences over two main variables, i.e. the levels of inflation and unemployment, both of which are considered to be the main, if not the only parameters the monetary policy-makers care about. We shall prove that, if a certain set of conditions is met, the monetary policy can deliver systematically optimal welfare for the economy. We shall also verify that this optimal welfare is a Nash and strategy-proof equilibrium as per a social choice function designed by the Central Bank. As a policy-maker, the first step is to delineate the Central Bank’s preferences over levels of inflation and unemployment, levels that can be proxy for setting interest rates and output gap targets, these targets are in turn set so as to reach a certain common welfare (whose existence and salient properties are to be proven and verified in the process)

Barro & Gordon[3] (1981) provided a simple but accurate model of Unemployment and Inflation, which will be adapted to fit in some game theory axioms used in this paper. The Barro-Gordon model can then be used to describe the Central Bank’s preferences and thus provide insight of the way of it computes both interest rates and output gap. This preliminary study of the Central Bank’s own preferences is crucial to the other players in the economy, as it conditions, up to a point, their own expectations and ultimately, their response to the Central Bank’s decisions. We shall also verify whether pre-commitment and other institutional arrangements (such as independence from the Government or ‘special interest’ groups) can help to reach a Pareto-optimal social welfare. Once conditions of rationality and Pareto-optimality are verified, The game theory setting will provide us with elements defining the equilibriums –if there are any-, first in a simple bargaining process between the Central Bank, and a Private Firm. We shall then move to a multi-players game, and verify again that earlier predictions about the Central bank’s preferences can yield an optimal welfare to the economy. Finally, we shall consider the conditions whereby the ‘Lucas Critique[4] effect is either minimized, or precluded altogether.

We shall consider the improved version of Kydland & Prescott (1977) model, by Gordon (1980):

Where Ut and Utn are respectively the unemployment rate and the ‘natural’ rate of unemployment,  πt and πte respectively the inflation rate and the equilibrium, ‘anticipated’ inflation rate. As a policy-maker, the central bank values these parameters, but does also take into account a ‘social cost’ function defined by the deviation of both variables from respective anchor values:


We shall however use an altered version of the said model, namely by introducing different axioms/assumptions, mainly about the use of the information set and the inflationary expectations. The rational expectation equilibrium πt is computed on the assumption that “Because there are many private agents, they [the agents] neglect any effect of their methods for formulating πte on the policymaker’s choice of πt[5]. We will not however retain such assumption;

Indeed, in the first very simplified instance, Central Bank faces only one private agent – and so inflationary expectations are going to be part of a strategic game, the information set will have a different use to both players. Then, in a more generalized setting, the Central Bank faces n non atomistic players, which means that their own inflationary expectations cannot be treated as given by the Central bank. Quite the opposite, the social function it devises has to be strategy proof with respect to each player’s anticipations.

This non-atomicity assumption is essential in computing the Central Bank’s desired level of inflation (and thus, the target levels of interest rates and output gap). It goes without saying that the proposed equilibrium in the Barro & Gordon model does not fit in this particular instance. The equilibrium can no longer be computed directly as a rule, but becomes a strategic game whereby each player has a certain type preference over unemployment and inflation (and react accordingly when recording signals of interest rates and output gap), and it is up to the Central Bank to devise a social function that completes the objectives assigned above.


[1] Milton Friedman, ‘The Role Of Monetary Policy’ Presidential Address to the 80th Meeting of the American Economic Association. The American Economic Review, Vol. LVIII, Number 1 March 1968

[2] Taylor, John B. ‘Discretion versus Policy Rules in Practice’ Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy (1993)

[3] Robert Barro & David Gordon, ‘A Positive Theory of Monetary Policy in a Natural-rate Model’ Working Paper n°807, NBER November 1981

[4] Tesfatsion, Leigh ‘Notes on the Lucas Critique’ Iowa State University (2010)

[5] Robert Barro & David Gordon, p.34

Glimpses of Morocco’s History Vol. 2

Today’s piece is about an often disparaged event, with a historical significance that is sometimes overlooked in the standard-issue Moroccan history textbooks: the Battle Of Isly.

A word perhaps about the doxa among Moroccans (especially, I should say, among those better educated in French or American schools) that the Battle of Isly brought down the myth of military invincibility the Moroccan army (whatever it was at the time) acquired vis-à-vis the European military since the Battle of the Three Kings. But then again, that was almost 3 centuries before Isly, and as we shall see later on, military techniques and hardware improved markedly in Europe, but not in Morocco.

Moroccan flags captured at Isly, displayed at the Les Invalides Museum (Military Chapel)

The Battle of Isly finds its roots in the French invasion of AlgiersAyala in 1830. Although Morocco already experienced European raids on its soil as well as durable occupation of some of its coastal cities, the French invasion was a prelude to a radical shift in the European threat: During the 17th century, countries like Spain or Portugal did plan to occupy all North Africa, but that was more of a rhetoric than serious military strategy, so they end up partly due to no serious planning, and partly due to stiff resistance from local tribes (and not from the Makhzen) to either satisfy themselves with a couple of cities (Larache, Mazagan, Mehdia, etc…) or to focus on the much more lucrative conquest of the new world. But the 19th century brought the seeds of modern colonialism, i.e. advanced planning and the accumulation of large resources for a military total victory.

And right after 1830, the French military campaign put the Makhzen in a difficult position: Moroccan elite knew, from various diplomatic visits to and accounts from Europe, as well as the regular skirmishes with their navies, well about their military weaknesses and had a realistic understanding of the growing European (especially Spanish and French as well as British) colonial hunger for new territories. Furthermore, the Makhzen rulers were in a quandary on the Algerian case: on the one hand there was a religious duty to support resistance (like the epic Emir Abdelkader resistane) as well as a popular support for this defensive Jihad. On the other hand, a direct support meant French reprisals, and the possible threat of British naval intervention as well. And just as John Waterbury noted, Makhzen elite sat on the fence and ended up alienating both sides: Emir Abdelkader was not given full support, and irate French forces started bombing and shelling Moroccan cities and territories from the sea and on the borders.

Depicts the Battle of Isly on 14 august 1844

The Battle of Isly on 14 august 1844

In August 1844, on the eastern frontier, A French army corps routed the Imperial forces. It was a blatant rebukal of outdated military tactics from the Moroccan side, and a textbook victorious outcome for the Bugeaud column.

Let us consider the balance of forces here: The French had 11,000 troops against 30,000 Moroccan troops (with 2,000 irregular volunteers on the French side, and auxiliary tribes amounting to 30,000 Moroccan troops). But the main feature of the Moroccan army was its disproportionate use of cavalry forces: about 20.000 cavalrymen, a handicap not only in view of battlefield configuration, but also the inefficiency of cavalry concentration against compact fire from the enemy side. Besides, most of the Moroccan corps was made up of irregulars, just like the expected reinforcement (that showed up only at the later stages of the battle, and dully withdrew into their mountains without taking part of rear-guard operations). The French troops, on the other hand, were mostly made up of professionals or well-trained volunteers and a higher grasp of military engineering and artillery.

The Moroccan forces had never fought a large-scale engagement with a foreign power since 1578. Except the ‘Abid guardsmen and Guich tribes, there is no regular army, i.e. in the sense of fully-fledged -and regularly paid- professional corps of soldiers and officers.

'Black Guardsman'. The 'Abid Guard moved from a crack unit status to that of a Pretorian guard involved in palace coups and intrigues at the expenses of its military value. (Image LIFE)

There was however an extensive experience in punitive expeditions against rebellious tribes (Harkas), an experience in civil war that was forged in a very codified ritual: first, the army rabble meets the rebellious tribe(s), and by using the crude advantage of numerical superiority, force them to surrender, slice them or feed them to the Imperial lions. Then comes the looting, raping, killing and other mediaeval victors’ perks. In contrast, the French forces accumulated priceless experience in battlefields and rational military organization: French armies were fighting all over Europe for half a century and adapted military tactics and hardware for more efficient use. The heavy influence of Napoleon Bonaparte’s core training (Artillery) came in handy in 1800’s tactics (i.e. the use of intensive artillery barrage to break the enemy lines, the application of principles of fire superiority.)

Even though Moroccan troops outnumbered the French forces with a ratio of 4 to 1. What the Moroccan high command perceived as its decisive advantage turned out to be a heavy handicap: Of all the 60,000 troops, about 25,000 of them were cavalry, and these were the ones attacking the French column. The attack itself was very stylized, merely a fantasia with real bullets. The trouble is that the other side had adopted tactics to face large cavalry charges, thus rendering them ineffective and costly in human lives: the use of ‘redoubt squares‘ with a battery at the centre made all the cavalry charges look heroic, but fundamentally silly, ineffective and costly in human lives. As it happens, the French army had a vivid memory of futile cavalry charges; the Battle of Waterloo, among others, saw the slaughter of the Emperor’s ‘Dragons’ (the British Empire experienced a similar bloody disaster with the Charge of the Light Brigade, almost a exactly decade later)

'Fantasia' put the fear of God in the rebellious tribes' hearts, but it had little effect on a disciplined western army.

Tactics and military hardware went hand in hand: both sides had made extensive use of firearms, and even though Moroccan warriors were much better marksmen than French soldiers (and renown for that), their rifles had smaller range, and were more rustic than their French counterpart’s. The ‘line’ was not part of Moroccan tactics, and that provided the French with a decisive advantage in keeping a well-disciplined and rhythmic fire on their enemy. On artillery and military engineering, the French army had, by far, the upper hand.

The Battle Of Isly was a prelude to a series of blows (the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1859-1860 where the Imperial troopers fared no better) and a signal to all western powers on what they have already assumed: the Moroccan military potential did not evolve much over 3 centuries, thanks to the perpetual state of quasi-civil war the Imperial Sultan waged against His subjects.