Since the Middle Ages, ruling dynasties in Morocco have resorted to political religious rituals to legitimize and affirm their power. The Moroccan monarchy’s ritual complex reached its height under Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603), the founder of the Makhzen (the governing institution in Morocco). Under the current Alaouite dynasty, which began its reign in 1668, a multitude of political religious rituals coexist. But currently, the most important ritual is, without a doubt, Coronation Day (‘id al-‘arsh). Celebrated in grand pomp to commemorate the king’s accession to the throne, the majority of the population and the elites view this celebration as a ritual that has existed since the dawn of time, however, history proves otherwise.
From its recent creation in 1933, Coronation Day registered as what historians call the “invention of tradition.” That is to say, it was created to establish a set of rituals in order to create a fictitious continuity with the past and instill standards of behavior upon the population in the name of tradition. The promoters of invented traditions choose references and old symbols to respond to the constraints of their times. Under its current form, Hassan II (1961-1999) created this ritual to affirm the monarchy’s centrality and supremacy. It was thus diverted from its original purpose which the nationalists initially intended it to serve: to symbolize and celebrate the Moroccan nation.
The Birth of the First National Day
It was only twenty years after the 1912 Treaty of Fes that a young nationalist elite emerged in the main urban centers of the country, namely Rabat, Sale, Tetouan, and Fes. Influenced by European ideas of the nation and nationalism, as they were presented in publications on the “Arab Orient,” they thought up the idea of Morocco as a geographical, political, and cultural unity: a nation-state. For the first time, an intermediate identity emerged between local ownership (tribe, locality, region, etc.) and global ownership (Islam). But there was more to be done. There was a need to create or adopt a certain number of concepts, symbols, and images in order to reinforce this project and to mobilize the population around it, particularly after the events that followed the promulgation of the “Berber Dahir” in 1930. The “Berber Dahir” was a decree under the French protectorate that Mohammed V signed that was intended to “manage[d] the course of justice in the regions of Berber customs.”
For obscure reasons, the young nationalists decided to center the ideal and ideational construction of the new nation not on folklore, language, ethnicity, or historical values, but on the person of the sultan. They most likely wanted to initiate a collective mobilization that did not break away from traditional structures so as not to arouse the suspicions of the “General Residence,” the Makhzen, and a part of the population. They also wanted to profit from the symbolic capital of the sultanic institution in order to pass their messages more easily. But nothing is certain since this period of infancy is mostly characterized by improvisation due to the modest intellectual level and inexperience of most nationalist youth. Nevertheless, they chose to mobilize people around the figure of the sultan and not around an elaborate ideology and a clear political project.
In order to catalyze the imagination of a greater number of people more quickly, the young nationalists, most notably the teams from the Maghreb Review and the Journal of the People’s Action decided to celebrate Mohammed V’s (1927-1961) accession to power as a symbol of sovereignty and national unity. This event could have been an opportunity to mobilize the population around common sentiments and aspirations and to propagate nationalist “ideas” without threatening authorities.
This was the case in Egypt, the source of inspiration for the Moroccan nationalists, where the al-Wafd party took advantage of the annual celebrations of `id al-julus (Throne Day), established in 1923, to organize public demonstrations exalting national sentiment and denouncing the occupation. It is important to note that this celebration is originally European, and more precisely British. It was celebrated for the first time in the sixteenth century under the name of “Accession Day” before it was adopted by the majority of other monarchies in the world. It has since been adapted to fit the varying local contexts.
Attracting Popular Sympathy
In July 1933, Mohammed Hassar, who died in 1946, published an article in the Maghreb Review entitled “Our Government and Muslim Celebrations,” in which he subtly asks French authorities to establish 18 November, the day of the sultan’s coronation, as a national holiday (‘id watani). Several weeks later, it was the People’s Action, led by Mohammed Hassan Ouazzani, who died in 1978, which took the lead. Between September and November 1933, the journal published a multitude of articles calling for the implementation of a “popular and official national holiday for the Moroccan nation and state.” He proposed the creation of organizational committees in every city and for the establishment of a charitable fund that would help the entire "nation." The nationalist journal also suggested that organizers decorate the streets, sing the sultan’s hymn, organize meetings where speeches and poems would be recited, and send telegrams congratulating the sultan. To reassure the most conservative factions of society, the People’s Action published a fatwa by ‘alim ‘Abd al-Hafid al-Fasi, who died in 1964, which affirmed that this ritual and all that accompanied it—music, celebrations, etc.—was not blasphemous (bida’).
The French authorities followed this force closely. They were worried about the political consequences that could result from such a collective mobilization. They attempted to hinder the movement, for example by banning the organization. But in the face of the youth’s enthusiasm and the support of major public figures, the French authorities gave up. The first Throne Day celebration, whose name was not yet formalized (Accession Day, Sultan Day, National Day, etc.), took place in Rabat, Sale, Marrakech, and Fes. Many streets in the medinas were embellished and decorated, people met in cafes and gathered in homes to listen to the music, the poems, and the speeches, all while sipping tea and indulging in traditional pastries. The majority of the gatherings wrapped up with invocations for Morocco and the long life of the sultan. Sale’s organization of the celebration also included a fireworks display. The youth and its supporters also took the opportunity to send congratulatory telegrams to Mohammed V.
Although it remained relatively limited, the first Throne Day celebrations were a success. It drew popular sympathy for the cause and it cornered the authorities. This pushed the nationalists to envision bigger plans for the following year. The preparations began months in advance. To this effect, multiple organizational committees expanded their activities to other regions of the cherifien empire, namely in the Spanish zone. Brochures containing poems and nationalist chants were distributed to schools and children, and journals and reviews published special issues dedicated to the event.
The widespread passion compelled the authorities to react. To take matters into their own hands, the General Residence decided to formalize Throne Day to undermine the nationalists and to turn this into a state celebration instead of a people’s celebration. On 31 October 1934, the adviser, El Mokri, promulgated a decree whose first article stipulated that “beginning this current year, 18 November, the anniversary of His Majesty the Sultan’s accession to the Throne of his ancestors will be dedicated to the commemoration of this event.” It was also named ‘id al-tidhkar (Anniversary of the Commemoration); the current name ‘id al-‘arsh (Throne Day) did not come until later. The rest of the decree’s article describes, with a certain precision, the rituals to be observed during this day: every pacha must adorn his city, musical groups must perform in the souks, give donations to charitable groups, workers must be granted a vacation, and the public figures in the city where the sultan resides must go to the palace to present their good wishes. Unlike previously, it was now strictly forbidden to deliver speeches in public or organize funeral marches. It goes without saying that the nationalists disregarded the latter prohibitions. Moreover, it is interesting to note that this ritual has almost no indigenously traditional element—every aspect of this event was inspired by European customs through the Egyptian model.
Thereby, Coronation Day rapidly became necessary as a national holiday that called out clearly and loudly the birth of the Moroccan nation. It was the first time that a sentiment, that one could call “Moroccanness,” emerged separate from primordial and global identities. It is for this reason that the ritual of consensus became a privileged moment of popular mobilization against colonial powers, even after the exile of the sultan and the prohibition of his celebration on 5 September 1953.
The Authoritarian Hijacking
After independence, the figure of the king carried more and more importance until it eclipsed that of the nation. The first symbolic “amalgamation” was the deliberate confusion between Coronation Day and Independence Day. These are both celebrated on 18 November, even though the actual date of the end of the occupation was 2 March 1956. The trend accelerated after the ascension to power of Hassan II for both subjective and objective reasons. Effectually, the emergence of a “modernist” opposition movement pushed the king to traditionalize the institution of the monarchy and its tools of legitimation to appease the traditional elites. The fellah became the defender of the throne. It should be added that the figure of the monarch aspired to reproduce the absolutist French model of rule.
This shift was expressed ritually, notably vis-à-vis the co-optation of Coronation Day. What was at first a ritual of consensus transformed into a ritual of confrontation, where the king looked to symbolically express his centrality and hyper-power. In a single word, the third of March (the date of Hassan II’s ascension,) became a moment of monarchic autocelebration. Little by little, its original signification evaporated from the collective memory.
As a state and palatial ritual bar none, Coronation Day, was designed by and for Hassan II. It is composed of several ceremonies of Muslim and European origin whose objective is to deliver political messages and to reinforce sociopolitical hierarchies. If the ceremony of allegiance (hafl al-wala’) is the most famous and spectacular, the importance of the royal address, the ceremony of the swearing-in of officers, the new laureates of various military and paramilitary schools and the ceremony of awards to local and international celebrities should not be overlooked. Furthermore, during these celebrations there are a flow of both tangible and intangible gifts (the royal pardon, for example,) in an apparent concern, but no doubt unconsciously, to compete with the religious festivals that remain quite popular. State media and officials spare no effort to paint a glowing picture of the royal era.
The royal address, covered by national media, generally follows a very precise script: a reminder of the unity between the monarchy and the people and of the struggle of Mohammed V and Hassan II to liberate and unify the country, a review of the achievements (injazat) of the year, the presentation of principal political, economic and social projects, general directions for the government to improve the life of its subjects, and (re)distinguishing the rules of national politics if necessary. In sum, the monarch gives the impression that he is the chrono-master: he, and only he, controls the political time in Morocco.
A good autocrat, the monarch well knows how to offer public incentives to circumvent or neutralize certain “elites.” This practice is inspired by the work of Napoléon Bonaparte (d. 1821), who created a Legion of Honor to coopt and mollify the French elites. During a pompous ceremony, the king offers decorations (awsima) of various orders to artists, intellectuals, politicians, religious figures, etc. But the criteria and motivation for awarding them are far from clear.
In authoritarian systems, the leader always tries to show that he has the unwavering support of military and paramilitary forces, as these are the supreme tools of domination. This translates into ritual in Morocco by the organization of a ceremony on Coronation Day during which new laureates from different schools pledge allegiance directly to the king. The message is clear: the troops have one single and solitary leader. Furthermore, superior officers respect a rigid protocol in the presence of the king, notably after the attempts at a coup d’état in 1971 and 1972. They must demonstrate, even more than other dignitaries, their absolute submission during public demonstrations, particularly during Coronation Day when several among them are promoted to higher grades.
That said, the ceremony of allegiance (half al-wala’) is without a doubt the height of the spectacle. Integrally inspired by the ceremony to renew the oath of loyalty (tajdid al-bay’a) that was established by the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur al-Dhahabi in the sixteenth century, it places the monarch face-to-face with those he considers his most loyal servants: high officials of the Ministry of the Interior. All the other members of the elite are simply spectators.
Everything in this exaggerated ceremony has the purpose of showing anew that the figure of the king is a transcendent entity that is at once central to and above Moroccan society. In effect, the ceremonial garb, the insignias of power and the solemn music that accompany the royal procession are intended to prove that he is the porter of the sacred history of the Muslim city and the guarantor of its continuity and stability. The traditional white costumes and uniforms that the dignitaries of the interior wear are intended to demonstrate that in the lapse of “sacred” time, the hierarchies and differences disappear, bringing to light one unified and homogenous body behind and around its leader.
The political liturgy itself begins when the procession begins to cross the groups of dignitaries assembled according to their region. As the mkhazni calls out the patriarchal formulations that express his blessing and satisfaction with the sovereign, the dignitaries wish him a long life while religiously prostrating themselves at several reprises. Like an image of angels surrounding a divine throne while proclaiming his omnipotence, the officers of the Interior Ministry must offer their absolute submission to earn their place as the carriers of the chérifen throne and as intermediaries between the king and his subjects. This analogy with certain rituals and religious narratives is ever more commonplace as kings consistently try to imitate divine beings to sacralize their power in the domain of rituals.
[This article was originally published in French on Lakome and translated by Samia Errazzouki and Allison L. McManus.]