Official country name: Kingdom of Morocco
Area: 172,414 squ mi (446,550 sq km), slightly larger than California
Population: 33.8 million
Median age: 24.3 years
Ethnic Groups: Arab-Berber, more than 99 percent
GDP and GDP per capita: $58 billion and $4,600
Government and Politics:
Morocco is an autocratic monarchy ruled by King Mohammed VI since his accession to power in 1999, when he was 36. His father, King Hassan II, ruled the country ruthlessly from 1961 to 1999. The king appoints all ministers, heads the military and serves as the nation's spiritual leader. Religion-based political parties are mostly banned to prevent Islamic parties from gaining influence. Morocco's 295-seat national assembly is largely powerless. Mohammed VI pledged to open government to various parties, rule according to law and give women greater roles. The king has yet to deliver on most promises.
More than 99.5 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. About 100,000 are Christians, remnants of French colonial days. Casablanca and Marrakech have tiny communities of Jews. Religiously coherent, Morocco nevertheless faces the challenge of political Islam. Islamist parties are banned or, as with the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), given conditional authority (PJD has 47 seats in the nation's 295-seat assembly). Salafia Jihadia, an Islamist party, organized the Casablanca suicide bombings in 2003. Islamists were behind similar bombings in Casablanca in March and April 2007.
From 2002 to 2006 Morocco averaged economic growth of 4.8 percent a year--not a significant rate for a country whose population is growing at 1.5 percent a year. Nepotism, bureaucracy, corruption and an arcane taxation system hold back the Moroccan economy. Morocco produces textiles, phosphate and citrus fruit for export. Tourism is also a big part of the economy. The United Nations' Human Development Indicators, which combine various economic, educational and health indexes, rank Morocco 123rd out of 177 countries.
Morocco spends about $3 billion a year, or 5 percent of its economic output, on the nation's military. Moroccans, conscripted at 18, must serve 18 months. In 2006, Morocco received $35 million in aid from the United States, with $16 million earmarked for its military and security apparatus. (The United States considers Morocco a close ally in the "war on terror.") The Bush administration's 2008 budget requests $29 million in aid, and specifies that Morocco use $7.5 million for military aid (Morocco is required to use most of the money to buy U.S. military hardware).
Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:
Morocco's human rights record was improving until 2003, then reversed course following that year's terrorist attacks. Citizens can be held for 12 days without charge. State security forces are implicated in various abuses. The state's monopoly on media, while officially lifted, remains evident: The satiric Arab-language weekly Nishan was shut down in 2006 for "undermining Islam." Censorship and harassment of independent media is pervasive. Reporting on human rights is censored. Domestic violence and discrimination against women is severe, although the king is encouraging more open dialogue on once-taboo subjects.
In ancient times, Morocco was a Carthaginian province, then a Roman province. It was conquered by Arabs in the late 7th century, but local Berber dynasties rather than Arab conquerors ruled the region for most of the next millennium. Spanish, Ottoman and French influences then controlled the nation's fate over the following three centuries. Morocco has the odd distinction of being the first nation to recognize the new American republic in 1777. Colonized by France for the first half of the 20th century, Morocco gained its independence in 1956, and annexed the disputed Western Sahara in the late 1970s.
Morocco is considered a moderate Arab regime where democracy seemed to be making small strides. But parliamentary elections have yielded little substantive change, and voters have responded by taking decreasing interest in elections (the turnout in the September 2007 vote was 37 percent, lowest in the nation's history). Morocco is still battling with the Polisario, the nationalist movement battling for independence in the Western Sahara, over control of the vast former Spanish colony on Morocco's southern border.