On 6 November 1975, 350,000 Moroccan civilians flooded into northern Spanish Sahara. They moved in a sea of red: Moroccan flags, shawls, and Qur’ans—brought overland by trucks full of people—came rippling across the Moroccan border, flanked by vehicles carrying tents and food rations. Planes from the Moroccan air force airlifted supplies overhead. Government convoys hurtled through the desert to transport people from the border town of Tarfaya. Pressing south, the Moroccans chanted nationalistic slogans and hoisted pictures of the Moroccan King, Hassan II, who had announced the event on television. Thus began the Green March: a massive strategic protest to expel Spain, then the occupying colonial power, from the Sahara. Looking on, Spanish troops held their fire as the marchers advanced further into the area, setting up camp at night and continuing during the day. Four days later, King Hassan again came on the airwaves to hail it as an unqualified success. He deemed the Sahara officially annexed by Morocco and concluded the action on 9 November. Civilians then returned home.
The origins of the Green March lie in international law. They begin with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which Morocco petitioned in 1975 to adjudicate the status of Western Sahara. In October 1975, the ICJ handed down an opinion that rejected Morocco’s historical claims to the area, prompting King Hassan to speak on television and proclaim the Green March: a civilian march into Spanish Sahara to reclaim the territory that, Hassan asserted, was rightfully Moroccan. As a symbol and a diversion, the Green March had large effects. It forced Spain to the negotiating table, and it allowed Morocco to begin occupying the Western Sahara militarily—an occupation that still persists. The march’s impressive technological and logistical feats helped engineer a groundswell of new support for the monarchy, and Hassan enjoyed renewed legitimacy in his throne. Moroccan diplomats hailed the achievement as a major victory. And Morocco’s Marxist-Leninist movement, which advocated for the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination, found itself considerably weakened in the context of the march’s widespread embrace.
As a strictly domestic political act, however, the Green March achieved less. On the contrary, it was later seen as a strategic photo op, for three reasons that dispel its image as a watershed moment in Moroccan history. First, the marchers went only ten kilometers past official borders. Second, before the march, King Hassan quietly brokered a ceasefire agreement with the Spanish soldiers. Third, the march itself acted largely as a diversion from more serious strategic goals, distracting Spanish troops as the Moroccan army seized two Saharan cities located further south. The Green March’s actual import, therefore, was comparatively small. Moreover, the historical event has only an indirect relationship to current Moroccan politics. Jerome Weiner has explored the underlying causes of the Green March, attributing it to a general social “malaise” in Morocco at the time. Moroccan civilians, especially students, felt their country “lacked a sense of national purpose and mission,” prompting cognitive disunity among the youngest civilians in the 1970s. It also occurred on the heels of two assassination attempts against Hassan, whose merciless authoritarian rule sowed widespread social ire against him. As such, the Green March answered both a social need for direction and a governmental need for consolidated political support (and, in fact, Hassan faced no further coup attempts in the march’s aftermath). While these motivations help frame the political context for the Green March, they also prove that it was very much a product of its time—an event entangled in 1970s Moroccan politics, with little lasting impact beyond the ethos it generated. Much as King Mohammed V’s 1953 exile to Madagascar no longer directly influences Morocco’s political scene, so the Green March continues to bear on contemporary Morocco in a mostly symbolic capacity.
Nevertheless, this lasting impact has been magnified through the decades. The Green March continues to figure into state propaganda today as a bedrock image in Moroccan politics. Every 6 November, Morocco observes dhikrā al-masīra al-khaḍrā’, or the Green March Remembrance Day, marking the annual federal holiday with television programming, street decorations, official celebrations, and a speech from King Mohammed VI. Morocco’s one hundred Dirham bill contains an illustration of marchers holding Moroccan flags. Moroccans will freely defend the March’s reasons or integrity. And Green March-themed films, clothing, textiles, and other paraphernalia regularly feature in Moroccan homes. More than simply propagandizing the Green March, however, the state continues to use the “spirit” of the Green March. Through international diplomacy and public statements, the Moroccan government extends the meaning of the Green March to other areas of Moroccan life, extolling official state actions or exhorting its people to participate in specific tasks because the Green March—and the nationalist zeal it embodies—compels them to. In 2014, “the same peaceful spirit” of the march led Morocco to submit its autonomy plan for Western Sahara to the United Nations. Similarly, in 2018, King Mohammed reminded his people of their “unwavering commitment to make whatever sacrifices are needed to defend the homeland” as a “token of loyalty” to the Green March and to his father, King Hassan. To this day, then, the March plays an outsize role in Morocco’s current affairs.
From these facts arises a seeming paradox. After more than four decades, a strategic protest with no direct impact on Moroccan politics continues to guide government policy. An event that created little more than a strategic photo op now serves as one of the dominant rationales with which the state justifies its decisions. Stranger still, the Green March looms large in the minds of not just its participants, but also today’s Moroccan youth. Scores of younger Moroccans, for whom the March is distant history but not lived reality, nevertheless treat it with reverence or intuit personal connections to the march’s legacy. Its ideas endure among adults and college kids alike, resulting in a broad coalition of citizens who back the Green March wholeheartedly, yet belie straightforward patterns of temporal or generational alignment. In other words, time and again, the Green March figures into state commemorative practices, commanding a symbolic importance that far exceeds its actual importance historically. But why?
Understanding this puzzling contradiction requires examining the generational dimension of the historical Green March. In the three weeks preceding the march, government departments organized food, transportation, lodging, and other necessities for 350,000 people, who signed up with such fervor that the state auctioned off some spots via lottery. That exactly 350,000 were recruited was no accident: according to Weiner, this number “represent[ed] the number of births in Morocco each year.” When registrations seemed to fall short of that number, the state forced some Moroccans to participate by conscripting them against their wills. King Hassan even made a point to mention this number in his announcement speech. The government’s focus on births suggested a march that was self-consciously designed to resonate with an entire generation of Moroccans. In this way, an entire generation of Moroccans could commiserate over a unique and cathartic shared experience. Although it was not effective as a domestic political event, it almost certainly succeeded as a generational event.
Yet over the years, there emerged a second Green March that was, at once, contemporaneous to and bigger than the historical Green March: the intergenerational Green March. Outside of its stated goals, the historical Green March facilitated a number of smaller, primarily social functions. It allowed marchers to meet friends, build relationships with diverse groups of Moroccans, and become deeply influenced by the seeming gravity of the event. Indeed, the outpouring of zeal that followed the march was not unlike Émile Durkheim’s classic formulation of collective effervescence. It guaranteed that marchers would take their stories from the desert to the living room, sharing tales of their participation with family members or passing them onto their kids. Thus, from the late 1970s onward, children living in their parents’ homes would grow up listening to the exciting adventures of their families’ personal involvement in the Green March. The same fervor that first energized the marchers carried through to the next generation, who, in turn, tell their parents’ stories to the generation after that.
In the interim, the intergenerational Green March has been defined through music, theater, and film. The famous Moroccan anthem “Ṣawt al-Ḥassan yunādī” (“Hassan’s Voice Calls”) includes lyrics extolling “the march of a nation and its people, sons, and daughters”—a nod to the March’s familial element. Elsewhere, Jawad Al-Senani’s 2008 Moroccan play Hassan al-Klishi depicts Yatou, a character with a relative who walked in the Green March. Before long, the same relative literally runs onstage to tell Yatou about his experience in the Sahara, thus continuing a theatrical and performative act of intergenerational storytelling. Moroccan director Youssef Britel sustained this trend with his 2016 film al-Masīra: La Marche Verte, a dramatization of the event told through the perspectives of several Moroccans. One of them is Youssef, a dying man who sees the Green March as the final chance to reconcile with his brother Mohammed. Ultimately, the two attend the march together, centralizing family once again within the Green March’s thematic tapestry. Even now, some Moroccan marchers have written their stories down, patriotically praising the “human development” (al-tanmiyyaa al-bashariyya), “equality” (al-musāwāt), and “children and women’s rights” (ḥuqūq at-ṭṭifl wa ḥuqūq al-mar’a) they found there. Such documents become the central narratives in Moroccan families—the pivot points around which a collective understanding of the Green March is formed.
In one respect, the marchers’ generation plays a starring role in this transmission. Through their personal histories, they tie their children directly to a nationalist movement that has, from the end of the Green March, been carried within them as a tale of both their own and their country’s political development. In another respect, however, the next generations are key. They keep the March alive by recounting the specific and largely positive narratives transmitted to them by their families—what Christoph Schwarz calls “the presence of the past.” Hence, it is these narratives, more so than others, that pass into Morocco’s collective mythology as the nationalistic, yet deeply personal and intergenerational, story of the Green March.
The upshot of this process is a sort of “double infallibility” that protects the Green March, so termed for its complementary effects at the social and at the familial level. At the social level, the Moroccan government preserves the popular myth of the Green March in two ways: inflating its importance and co-opting its meaning. As is evident in many of Morocco’s formal communications, in which the Green March is described as “glorious,” “one of the most beautiful epics of the twentieth century,” or “the largest ever peaceful March in the history of humanity,” the state grafts inflated importance onto the March. Implicitly, such statements praise the marchers who partook, generating broad social approval for the March and additionally working to help the state accomplish its second function: co-opting the March’s meaning. By extending its “spirit” to other areas, and by linking unrelated ideas together under the March’s aegis, the state pre-empts and suppresses opposition. The very fact that the Green March happened is now shorthand for a different message: the Sahara is Moroccan. The joining of these two ideas indicates the creation of a politically convenient metonym. Consequently, when one challenges the Green March, one actually challenges the Moroccanness of the Sahara and, by extension, the entire Moroccan regime—a far more repugnant social position, and thus a more difficult one to maintain. In areas as far-reaching as Morocco’s judicial system, the opposite logic also applies: as David McMurray writes, “[m]any of the transcripts from the quasi-show trials of leftists […] made a point of presenting the accused as critics of the Green March.” When one challenges the regime, one challenges the Green March; the two are tightly intertwined.
Meanwhile, at the familial level, tens of thousands of living Moroccan family members walked in the Green March. Their participation, and the state’s emphasis on civilians in general, ensured that an entire generation of Moroccans could gatekeep and defend particular, nationalistic narratives. To be sure, these narratives have met various forms of contestation over time. Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy note that several scholars have “criticiz[ed] that aspect of the national master narrative” in Morocco, including a “revisionist account” of the March published by the Moroccan periodical Tel Quel. Although Morocco officially denies Sahrawi involvement in its version of the Green March, pointing to Spain as the main problem, many Sahrawis have, themselves, spoken up about the march, disputing its official characterization and motives. In the Sahara Press Service, a quasi-official news source for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, authors Hana Saada and Sidi Mohammed Omar, the Polisario Representative to the United Nations, denounced the event as “what [Morocco] called a ‘Green March’ to officially invade the North of Western Sahara moving 350,000 Moroccan settlers to the territory” and a “so-called ‘green march’ [sic] by which Morocco began its expansionist offensive on Western Sahara,” respectively. Despite this activism, popular opposition to the Green March remains small among the vast majority of Moroccans, particularly among participating families. By contrast, popular support for the March remains widespread and stable. In using civilians, therefore, the Moroccan state insulated itself from modern-day criticism: to criticize the politico-strategic goals of the Green March is to criticize one’s own family history. By and large, the twin pressures of society and family have shut the mouths and changed the minds of four decades of Moroccans.
Yet today, the intergenerational Green March has never mattered more. Once again, Morocco is co-opting the March to advance its most ambitious socioeconomic development plan in decades—the linchpin of which is developing in the disputed Western Sahara. Speaking on 6 November 2019, the forty-fourth anniversary of the Green March, King Mohammed announced that “the spirit which enabled us to recover the Sahara in 1975 is the same one which urges us today.” He pointed to the Sahara’s prospects for tourism and migration, calling the region “a link between Morocco and the rest of Africa from the geographical, human, and economic perspectives,” and suggested the need for more progress on nationwide development, job creation in the Souss-Massa region, and more regional dialogues between North African states. Central to this proposal is the idea that the Sahara is Moroccan—a proposition that is itself upheld by the double infallibility. Like other Green March propaganda, it forecloses a potential marketplace of ideas for national development and insists on locating major strategic objectives in unsettled diplomatic terrain. It fuses the state’s quotidian development goals with its most contentious political problem. In short, it unites Morocco’s economic future with that of Western Sahara, creating another convenient metonym: the Green March is the fulcrum on which national development now turns.
Among today’s Moroccans, the intergenerational Green March has only supercharged this belief. The fight for the Sahara is not a separate struggle over identical geography, but a continuation of the goals that the Green March first advanced. The relationship between its historical motives and its present-day context is made plain and direct by the generations who keep it alive, obscuring many developments that have occurred in Western Sahara since 1975. These include a sixteen-year armed conflict; multiple condemnations of Morocco’s position from the United Nations; the UN’s formal rejection of Morocco’s claims of sovereignty; and the peacekeeping operations of MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, whose efforts the Moroccan government has officially obfuscated more than once. The intergenerational Green March both elides and supersedes all of them.
In a sense, then, the next generation serves as the temporal link between—or, more accurately, the bridge connecting—the present and the events of 1975. The memories they popularize serve an altogether different purpose than those of their parents. Whereas their parents’ stories created the intergenerational Green March, their children’s stories paper over any narratives that might contradict or seriously question it. By learning and spreading a family account of the Green March that is closely in line with that of the state, they lend credence to its validity and implicitly reject competing understandings of the March. They propound a bold idea—that the Green March narrative put forward by the Moroccan government is not only infallible, but singular, beholden to no legitimate historical or historiographical challenge. Recent years have underscored the importance of this idea for the monarchy: a 2019 survey by Arab Barometer found that many Moroccan youths have low levels of trust in their government institutions. The king, however—constitutionally mandated to be the guarantor of Morocco’s territorial integrity—is beyond reproach.
If the government has created a rigid and ideologically infallible picture of what the Green March is, and continues to co-opt that image in order to impose the same kind of infallibility upon the modern-day politics surrounding it, then it dramatically complicates any potential for a solution to the Western Sahara conflict. It is thanks to such assiduous intergenerational propagandizing that the state now faces a terrible irony: geopolitical confidence in Morocco is growing, but public opinion is intractable. Moroccans tend to approach the conflict in Western Sahara with near-total ideological unity, making compromise far less likely. Without greater flexibility, Morocco is poised to squander its newfound diplomatic credit—particularly in the African Union, which it rejoined in 2017—and fan the flames of regional instability in Algeria, Mali, and beyond. These behaviors may seem unproductive in the abstract. They can be better understood by considering the familial and generational factors that augment them. First and foremost, this means an examination of intergenerational memory and how states use it to create political narratives that influence broad swaths of people, old and young. Morocco’s youth may be the future. But through the intergenerational Green March, they bear unmistakable traces of the past.
 For a longer conversation, see “Our Master’s Call: The Apotheosis of Moroccan Islam,” the third chapter in Emilio Spadola’s The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).
 The author lived in Tangier and Meknes, Morocco between June 2019 and March 2020. During that time, he had many conversations with Moroccan youth and adults that bore out this ideological coherence.
 “مسيرة أمة وشعب بولاده وبناته.” Translation original.
 While living in Meknes, the author discovered that the father of one of his host families participated in the Green March and wrote an account of his experience. These quotes are taken from that account.
 “[U]ne des plus belles épopées du vingtième siècle.” Translation original.
 The constitution also explicitly forbids political parties from advocating forms of “infringement … to the territorial integrity of the Kingdom.”
 William Lawrence and Francis Ghilès, in an article from July 2012, write that, “For the most invested Moroccan nationalists (chez les nationalistes marocains les plus engagés), the will to return to a version of precolonial borders—in the south as in the north—is as ‘sacred’ as supporting Sahrawi nationalism is for their Algerian brothers.” See Lawrence and Ghilès, “Comment sauver le Sahel,” Slate Afrique, July 26, 2012, http://www.slateafrique.com/90715/comment-sauver-le-sahel-geostrategie (accessed June 29, 2020). Translation original.