Sidi Muhammad Ben Yusuf was the third son of Mulay Yusuf, a colorless prince and brother of the sultan of Morocco, Mulay Hafid. Muhammad was born in Fez in 1910, at the beginning of the protectorate period; it seemed unlikely he would reign. Two years later, the French nominated his father to succeed the sultan, whom they had deposed because he refused to rule as they wanted. Muhammad V came to power after his father's death in 1927, because French authorities considered him to be more flexible and less ambitious than his brothers. Nevertheless, he used his popularity and his skills in international diplomacy to involve himself in a struggle, at first unequal, with the protectorate's authorities.
After the Berber dahir in 1930, which relieved Berber tribes from submitting to shariʿa (Islamic law), Muhammad became more sensitive to Moroccan nationalism, which was just beginning to awaken. Without breaking off from the protectorate, he supported demonstrations by young traditional and modern intellectuals, such as Allal al-Fasi, Hassan El Ouezzani, and Ahmed Balafrej, which, in 1944, gave birth to the Istiqlal (Independence) Party. World War II presented the opportunity to persuade the protectorate to move toward a cooperative regime more faithful to the spirit of the original agreement between France and Morocco.
Muhammad opposed the French attempt to protect Moroccan Jews from persecution while he helped rebuild military forces to fight again with the Allies. The 1942 Casablanca meeting with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Britain's Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill strengthened his resistance. From then on, he used a strategy of promoting gradual change to regain the sovereignty his country had lost in 1912. He approached French authorities directly to avoid the obstacles set up by both settlers and French civil servants, who opposed any change. But he did not succeed despite his good relationship with General Charles de Gaulle. At the local level, opposition to the French became more and more violent and led to the sultan's deposition and exile in Madagascar on 20 August 1953.
But France could not depose Muhammad in 1953 in the same way it deposed his uncle Mulay Hafid in 1912. The international environment was unfavorable to France, French public opinion accepted unwillingly the pro-consuls' plots, and, above all, Muhammad was the symbol of a very deep opposition movement, which mobilized Moroccan cities as well as the countryside. The nation could no longer be governed, and the French administration collapsed within two years in the face of the uprisings. Muhammad was called back to preserve the French economic and military presence, which, otherwise, could have been swept out by nationalistic currents far more radical than those represented by the king and the Moroccan bourgeoisie.
Once he regained his throne, in November 1955, Muhammad took on the role of spokesman for nationalism. He let the Istiqlal Party exert power without, however, becoming a prisoner of the nationalist movement. He continued to defend the monarchy's privileges. Muhammad kept his country out of the confrontation between France and the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which he supported. But, profoundly hurt by the 1956 hijacking of a Moroccan plane with FLN leaders on board, he then attempted to play an intermediary role in the Algerian conflict, hoping, in vain, that de Gaulle's return to power in 1958 would facilitate his reconciliation with France. The king would die without witnessing success. But, he was careful not to jeopardize his country's position within a new Maghrib that, already, some perceived as dominated by a revolutionary Algeria, the main heir of the former colonial power.
Having succeeded in reestablishing his country's independence on the international stage, Muhammad also consolidated the position of the monarchy within an institutional system, which was shaken by the 1953 - 1955 crisis. Some among the nationalists welcomed a king who reigned without governing. But Muhammad did not share that philosophy for himself or his son, Prince Mulay Hassan, his heir, whom he had gradually introduced to power since the end of World War II.
The support he gained by fighting with the Istiqlal against the protectorate helped him keep his authority over an important part of the nationalist movement. In that struggle, the monarchy recovered its powers that the Treaty of Fes (1912) had alienated and, added to that, the administrative means set up by the protectorate. The military and police forces were placed under monarchical authority, but other administrative sectors depended upon a government dominated by the Istiqlal. Without the help of the monarchy, it was not possible to ensure either the control of the resistance movement or the settlement of rural uprisings. A pluralist text related to public freedom rights allowed, in April 1958, the legalization of new political parties and soon favored the split of the Istiqlal Party, with a right wing remaining close to the king and a left wing following a moderate line. In May 1960, Muhammad took the reins of power by naming Mulay Hassan prime minister. The prince had been, at the beginning of independence, chief of staff in the Royal Armed Forces.
As Algeria's independence approached, the more anxious Muhammad became to grant his country a constitution and to organize its democratization under the monarchy's control. He died suddenly in March 1961 after surgery and left the country to the authority of his son, Hassan II.
During this thirty-two-year reign, Muhammad V listened to his country and took part in its evolution, which allowed it to recover its independence and to project itself into modernity. Chosen because of his apparent docility, he proved, in the long run, to be a cautious opponent, capable of appreciating the modernizing actions of such French resident generals as Auguste Nogues or Eric Labonne. They reciprocated by respecting his dignity. In extreme circumstances, he displayed firmness and intuitively anticipated the reactions of common Moroccan people. As far as the rivalry with the nationalist movement, which gradually replaced the common fight against the protectorate, is concerned, he knew how to take advantage of time, how to safeguard his best cards; he went on being attentive to the rural world and sometimes contributed to undermining the credit modern leaders were already losing. Thus, four years after his return, he regained all the power without having to share it. While favoring Algeria's independence, he feared Nasserist or Marxist influences, which could have come from that neighboring country and be exerted upon Morocco.
A man of tradition, Muhammad V was the symbol both of independence and modernity. That symbol continues today to stamp the monarchy's image and to give Morocco a strong identity highly differentiated from that of its neighbor countries.
Ashford, Douglas E. Political Change in Morocco. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.
Waterbury, John. Commander of the Faithful. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.
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