Morocco is a country of 32 million people, and occupies the northwest corner of the African continent. Just eight miles from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco has long been a crossroads of Arab, African, and European cultures, languages, trade, and religions. It was known to Medieval geographers as Al Maghreb Al Aqsa, the Farthest West, as it marks the farthest extreme reached by the Prophet Mohammed’s warriors in the seventh century, as they pushed Islam to the edges of the known world. First unified by the Idrisid Dynasty, which was founded in 788 C.E., Morocco became the dominant power in the region during the zenith of Muslim Spain, and the seat of a Moorish Empire that extended throughout southern Spain and to the borders of Libya and Ghana. Its capital of Fez was one of the world’s leading centers of religious and secular learning throughout much of the Middle Ages. As the military victories of the Catholic Reconquista pushed successive waves of refugees across the sea, Morocco also became heir to the famed artistic and courtly traditions of Andalusia.
By the nineteenth century, Morocco was being buffeted by the expansionist designs of its European neighbors, which culminated in the French occupation and protectorate, beginning in 1912. This period witnessed the modernization of Morocco’s transportation infrastructure and mining industry, and bequeathed to it the French language, as well as its bureaucracy, and educational and legal systems. Following the Second World War, it also spawned an independence movement led by Mohammed V, Morocco’s last sultan, and after independence in 1956, its first king. Under his son, Hassan II, Morocco consolidated its borders and its monarchy, while maintaining a close strategic relationship with the West in general, and the United States in particular.
Today Morocco is a constitutional monarchy ruled by Mohammed VI, who inherited the throne from Hassan II in 1999, and whose Alaouite dynasty has reigned since 1666. It is a nation marked by extremes of geography and climate, and whose native Berbers have maintained their distinct languages and cultures despite thirteen centuries of Arab presence, but it is also a nation united by an intensely shared identity. Due perhaps to its long history, or to its relative religious homogeneity, Morocco remains an island of stability and continuity in a frequently tumultuous region, and boasts an economy and infrastructure that are steadily improving. The peaceful protest movement that has emerged in the first half of 2011 has created an opening for constitutional reform which has been endorsed by the King himself. Whether it portends a democratic transformation will become clear in the years to come.