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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Berbers in Morocco

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Morocco Facts
Area:    458,730 sq. km.
Capital:    Rabat
Total Population:    29,347,000 (source: U.S. Census bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Moroccan Berbers have no significant risks for rebellion in the near future, despite their history of violent uprising as recently as the 1980s. Political protest has continued at low levels throughout the 1990s and 2000s, consisting primarily of verbal and symbolic protests. The largest protest of recent history came in the aftermath of the 2004 earthquake in the Rif mountains. Factors that could ignite violence include the gross economic disparities between the Arab and Berber populations and the lack of official recognition of the Berber language. Recent cultural and educational reforms may help to prevent future violence. The Berber population is territorially concentrated in the rural mountainous regions of Morocco, primarily the Atlas and Rif mountain regions. While the Rif population is more sedentary, Atlas Berbers continue overwhelmingly to be nomadic. The Mouvement Populaire and the Mouvement National Populaire, Berber political parties, continue to be the main expressions of Berber grievances through conventional means. The partial liberalization of Morocco will continue to provide opportunities for Berber protest.


Analytic Summary

The settlement of Morocco began under Phoenician rule and accelerated under Roman, Vandal, Byzantine and Arab rule. The Arab invasion of the seventh century brought about the Arabization and, eventually, the conversion of the Berbers to Sunni Islam. However, Berbers of Morocco are the descendants of the prehistoric Caspian culture of North Africa. The de-Berberization of North Africa began with the Punic invasion. The Berbers, as well as many other North African Muslims, retain some of their prehistoric observance of saintly cults. (This is known as Maraboutic Islam.)

Most Arab Moroccans would be better described as Arabized Berbers. The process of assimilation began with the seventh century Arab invasion and took place mostly in the cities and costal regions. As is true in other North African countries, the principle determinant of ethnicity in Morocco is language. The majority of Berber speakers are concentrated in the mountainous regions of Morocco, Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti Atlas regions; smaller population lives in the Rif mountains (GROUPCON = 3; LANG = 2). Even today, assimilation and intermarriage continue to occur.

Moroccan Berbers are divided into several tribes which speak one of three principle dialects of the Berber language which are: Rifi of the Rif; Tamazight of the Middle Atlas, the central High Atlas and the Sahara; and Tashilhit of the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas. Moroccan Berber tribes are divided into three regional groups: the Rifians of the North; the Shluh of the southeast; and the Berraber in the center and the Sahara (LANG = 2).

Despite their conversion to Sunni Islam (BELIEF = 0), the Berbers resisted Arab and other foreign rule whenever possible. At various times they were able to maintain autonomous states, the most recent of which was established in the Rif region under French colonial rule, but was not recognized by the Moroccan government when the Kingdom gained independence in 1957. This resulted in two unsuccessful Berber uprisings during the first three years of Moroccan rule. Berber discontent was formalized in 1958 with the establishment of the "Mouvement Populaire," an explicitly Berber political party (GOJPA = 2). The party was a member of the ruling coalition in the Moroccan legislature from 1984 to 1993, at which time the King appointed a non-partisan government, but this is mitigated by the fact that for all practical purposes, the King's authority is generally greater than that of the legislature. In 1973, there was a Berber in the Atlas and another in the 1980s in the Rif. Moroccan Berbers continue to have a strong group identity, despite some tribal cleavages, and are territorially concentrated.

Politically, the Berbers in Morocco seem to have and exercise the same rights as other Moroccans and are well represented in the government. Although Berbers have faced some political repression in the past, especially regarding associations’ rights, these difficulties have subsided significantly since the turn of the century (POLDIS04-06 = 0). There is no evidence to suggest that Berbers are at a substantial political disadvantage when compared to the Arab population.

A primary cause of discontent seems to be economic deprivation and the feeling that the Moroccan government is ignoring their problems. Moroccan Berbers make up the majority of the poorest classes in Morocco, and Berber regions have traditionally not seen the development aid coastal and urban Arabized region have. Berbers function primarily outside of the Moroccan economy, relying on growing cannabis for subsistence; neither the Berber population nor the Moroccan government are actively pursuing policies to integrate Berbers into the mainstream economy (ECDIS04-06 = 2). Economic grievances continue to be important in Berber protests. After the earthquake in 2004, 600 Berbers protested that the Moroccan government was not providing enough economic and humanitarian assistance to the victims (PROT04 = 3). Some argue that King Mohammed VI, who has made economic opportunity for Moroccan poor a cornerstone of his domestic policy, may improve the economic lot of Moroccan Berbers, but the disparity between the Arab and Berber population continues to be prominent in Berber life.

In addition to economic grievances, the most salient grievances for most Moroccan Berbers are cultural. Although the Berber language, Tamazight, is not an official language, Berbers have seen improvements with the rehabilitation of Tamazight in Moroccan society. In 2003, the Moroccan government authorized Tamazight to be taught in the Moroccan schools; in 2004, the first Berber language textbook was introduced; and in 2006, the Moroccan Minister of Education announced that children as young as fourth graders would be taught the Berber language (CULPO204-06 = 1). These reforms bring hope that more Arab Moroccans will be fluent in the Berber language and that Berbers will be better able to function within mainstream Moroccan society.

Moroccan Berbers have increasingly linked themselves with Berbers in other North African states, such as Tunisia and Algeria, and also with people of Berber descent in the Canary Islands. Differences occur within the kin groups however, as Algerian Berbers are far more rebellious and have an active autonomy movement (SEPKIN = 1). World Berber Congresses have been held since the late 1990s with the express purpose of promoting Berber cultural rights within the various states. Moroccan Berber groups have been active in these congresses.



Afrol News, 2001.

Amazigh World, 2002.

CIA World Fact Book, 2004-2006.

The Christian Science Monitor, 1990-1994.

Crawford, David. “How ‘Berber’ Matters in the Middle of Nowhere,” Middle East Report, 2001.

Gellner, Ernest & Charles Micaud (eds.) Arabs and Berbers: From Tribe to Nation in North Africa, Lexington: Lexington Books, 1972.

Gurr, Ted R. Minorities At Risk, United States Institute of Peace, 1993.

Joshua Project, 2004-2006.

Keesing's Contemporary Archive, Keesing's Record of World Events, 1990-1994.

Lexis/Nexis, All news files, 1990-2006.

Nelson, Harold D. (ed.) Morocco: A Country Study, The American University, 1985.

U.S. Department of State Documents 1990-1994.

The Washington Post, 1990-1994.

Zartman, I. William (ed.) The Political Economy of Morocco, New York: Praeger, 1987.

Zartman, I. William & William Mark Habeeb (eds.) Polity and Society in Contemporary North Africa, Boulder: Westview, 1993.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006