Globalization of Morocco: Transnational Activism and the Post-Colonial State
Stanford University Press, 2019
The story is a cruel companion. Most often it enlarges, avoids, or grotesquely changes the lives and achievements of those who helped write events. The inevitable judgment of the present eye can only partially be countered by the continual collection of changing viewpoints. The North American historian David Stenner does just that in his book Globalization of Morocco: Transnational Activism and the Post-Colonial State. Using network analysis and thoroughly documented research, Stenner traces and links the biographical trajectories of key figures in the Moroccan global nationalist campaign in the 1940s and 1950s. What emerges is a new representation of the transnational strategies behind the scenes, of the personal contacts tactfully and skillfully established by the leaders of the nationalist movement. Brokers, intermediaries or bridges, whether Moroccans or foreigners: the resulting story is sometimes surprisingly entertaining and full of unexpected characters who at some point became passionate and made contributions to the Moroccan cause.
Five global cities
The first chapter of the book takes us to Tangier in the 1940s. The city’s international status gave anti-colonial activists opportunities and relative freedoms, and created an atmosphere of networking between nationalists from the Spanish and French zones and with foreigners. In 1951, the National Front between the two largest nationalist parties, the National Reform Party (PNR) and the Independence Party or was formed in Tangier Istiqlal (IP) and minor movements like Hizb al Wahda al Maghribiyya (Party of Moroccan Unity) and Hiz al Islah al Watani (Party of National Reform).
When Stenner focuses his focus on the US connection, the book becomes most interesting and original. Here his analysis is thicker in detail. After Operation Torch in 1942, the US grew in strength and relevance in Morocco, especially when compared to France’s relative weakness (el-Mustafa, 1995). U.S. military, political, and economic assets are increasingly viewed as potential allies in the nationalist cause. In 1946 in Tangier, Abdellatif Sbihi co-founded the Roosevelt Club, a US American gathering between nationalists and North American delegates. From Stenner’s report we even find out that “mint tea and cake” were served (p.24). The abundance of colorful details almost feels like the telling of a spy movie. The case of the former rebellious intelligence officer who became Coca-Cola executive Kenneth Pendar best illustrates this. The rapid implantation of Coca-Cola in French Morocco went so far that Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef was sponsored by companies at the Feast of the Throne (the company’s board of directors included nationalists and members of the royal family). In 1952, Coca-Cola even sponsored the celebration of the returning exile leaders Abdelkhalek Torres and Mehdi Bennouna of the PNR. It was the approach to business that convinced some of the key American figures to support the cause, as their interests were in direct personal convergence with the urban bourgeoisie, the strongest and most important base in the United States Istiqlal Party. US policy would be torn between the need for a stable North Africa, cordial relations with France, and the pursuit of liberal and commercial interests.
Nationalist activists quickly recognized the strategic importance of friendship with foreigners in positions entirely different from anthropologists, diplomats or journalists like Margaret Pope and Nina Eptone, who would reach audiences outside of Morocco. But the most fascinating character, certainly for Stenner, is that of Rom Landau, writer and journalist who became a global expert and academic and is a very close friend of the monarchist nationalists of Morocco. All of these foreign allies would contribute to the nationalist cause and, through media or personal connections, reinforce the cause abroad in Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere.
The second chapter takes us to Cairo. In 1938 the Spanish protectorate had that Casa de Marruecos ((Bayt al-Maghrib) In the city. Using short-sighted Francoist Arab policies, the PNR leaders came to Cairo in 1946 to represent the Spanish protectorate in the newly created Arab League, but took the opportunity to raise support for the nationalist cause. In February 1947 they founded the Maktab al-Maghrib al-Arabi (Office of the Arabic Maghrib), an alienating name for the Amazigh people. Through a pan-Arab narrative, the nationalists active in the city built a network of religious and political supporters in the country. They also found support from Iraq and the first general secretary of the Arab League, Abderrahman Azzam Pasha, who years later remained an indispensable ally at the United Nations.
The analysis in Cairo shows that building these networks with key supporters has proven to be a double-edged strategy. While the flexibility of informal and personal relationships might be profitable for the cause, a change in political winds could potentially destroy carefully crafted power structures. With the regime change in Egypt in 1952, the tide turned and weakened the successful progress made by Moroccan nationalists in the Middle East. Nasser’s Egypt supported arms and military training for the Moroccans, but strong political support was not expected. Nasser was not interested in fighting France and was particularly averse to the non-revolutionary approach of Moroccan nationalists. The result has been the destruction of the carefully built network of alliances among elites in Cairo and an unwelcome atmosphere, especially given Istiqlali’s previous relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the third chapter, Stenner turns to Paris. In the colonial metropolis, the Istiqlal uses its energy to cultivate the elites of the Fourth Republic and at the same time attracts the mass of Moroccan workers and students present in the hexagon. Through the Office for documentation and information of independenceThe Moroccan nationalists cultivated relations with the main political elites of France and in 1955 paved the way for the support of the National Assembly for negotiations with the Sultan. At the center of activism in the metropolis was Ahmed Alaoui, a controversial figure from Istiqlal, whose work with the French press and a well-connected lobbyist appear to have been protected by his role as an informant for the French authorities.
In the fourth chapter, Stenner meticulously records Mehdi Bennouna’s first months in New York. Bennouna had been sent to build support for the Moroccan cause among UN delegates. The tactics of the Moroccan Information and Documentation Office, which takes special care of Jewish lobbies and distances the Moroccan struggle from anti-Zionist movements, shows a very pragmatic positioning. Nationalist work in New York turns lukewarm in 1952 when the United Nations General Assembly passes a mild resolution on Morocco (A / RES / 612 (VII)), which, however, helps popularize the issue in the US media, think tanks and some Washington officials.
Rabat is the last stop on the journey, the homecoming, as Stenner puts it in his fifth chapter. Most of the characters we encountered during the narrative will reappear in the construction of the state after independence. Many of them like to stand behind the monarchy, others are cleverly co-opted by the Sultan or “ambassadors” to represent Morocco in distant, non-threatening positions, which weakens the leadership of the Istiqlal at home. Stenner’s network analysis visually illustrates the sultan’s quick pace in the appendix to the book. The network visualizations that are being created in Rabat are astonishingly informative, from a varied and complex network of actors in which Balafrej, Al-Fassi or Ben Aboud stand out in March 1956 (p.212), to an almost perfect centripetal network less than two years later where the only knot standing in the middle is Sultan M. ben Youssef (p.213).
Anti-revolutionary internationalism: the class factor
The book’s argument – that networking tactics were a major factor in globalizing and facilitating the anti-colonial struggle – needs nuances. Although transnational networking was an indispensable tool, its mechanics did not really differ from the tactics of Algerian activists (Mokhtefi, 2020). Indeed, what differs are political and ideological positions (and thus the potential alliances), geostrategic interests and the type of European colonial project from which they emerged. Ultimately, centuries of settler colonialism in Algeria had wiped out the power of traditional Algerian elites (Bustos & Mañé, 2009). In contrast, the Moroccan nationalists shared “a class background that vaccinated them against any notion of radical change” and moreover “wanted to regain their rightful social status” (pp. 14-15). Its ideology and its connection to global actors was indeed as pragmatic as it was determined by the class and its position in the history of Morocco.
The success of key brokers and alliances of strategic networks for the nationalist campaign is a consequence of the tactics, but also an honest positioning of the nationalists in favor of the western-oriented, elite-oriented moderate project for Morocco: an anti-revolutionary internationalism (p. 14) that agrees the class interests of the leaders. Part of the key success of Moroccan nationalism, particularly in the US, was its anti-communist narrative, which was based directly on the idea that communism had been imported from France into North Africa (el-Mustafa, 1995).
Stenner’s reading of the 1940s and 1950s is related to the long-debated question of agency versus structure. The danger is to understand history as a series of personal and fairly rational choices made by some nationalist actors. Stenner is well aware of this (as I discussed with the author) and the geostrategic and sociopolitical factors behind the global nationalist campaign. The advantage of an explicit focus on the agency, however, as Stenner notes, is that it provides new tools that can be used to save key characters and stories that have a decisive influence on the historical results of the transnational campaign.
Stenner’s tempting book is about the globalization strategy of the anti-colonial struggle and he succeeds in masterfully highlighting the international support networks that have worked closely with Istiqlal and the nationalist movement. The amount of work behind this documentation work – working with personal, untold trajectories, ordinary details of seemingly ordinary people – cannot be overstated. They make this book an important contribution to the history of nationalism in Morocco, especially US-Moroccan history.
This is a book to read as much as you think the author enjoyed researching and writing it. It’s always amusing to read about the eccentric stunts by freeride journalists and artists that attracted North Africa in the early years of the Cold War. The visualization tools that network analysis offers are also an enriching contribution to historiography and a great example of how new techniques can shed light on hidden elements of the past. The book does indeed open up the ground and suggest tools that could be picked up by others, as many interesting contexts remain unexplored or are only mentioned in passing – networks with workers and other left-wing solidarity campaigns, but also with French companies and political elites. With this book, Stenner adds a new dimension to the history of Morocco’s struggle for independence and highlights important actors who, because of their informal but effective positions, may have fallen under the radar of historians or political scientists. After all, personal accounts and the dangerous elements of life can somehow humiliate the strict structuralists among us.
Further reading on E-International Relations