ON 2 MARCH 1956, Muhammad V, the sultan of Morocco—seen here riding to Friday prayers a week later—proclaimed his country’s independence from France. In doing so, he repudiated the Treaty of Fès, which his uncle Abd al-Hafid had signed, in 1912, after French troops helped him suppress a rebellion. The treaty established a French protectorate over most of Morocco, with Spain controlling the Mediterranean coast. Muhammad’s father, Yusuf, was installed as sultan, but real power was vested in a resident general answerable only to Paris.
Following Yusuf’s death, in 1927, the French authorities selected Muhammad, his third son, as the new sultan. Three years later, they drafted a decree that established two separate legal regimes. While most of Morocco would retain shariat, regions that were primarily inhabited by the Amazigh—an ethnic group scattered across North Africa—would have their own laws. The decree enraged Moroccan nationalists, most of whom were urban Arabs. They rallied around Muhammad, who convinced the French to withdraw the decree, which he had initially signed. The sultan began offering tacit support to nationalist sentiments.
Muhammad supported the Allies during the Second World War and, in 1943, the US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, urged him to seek independence. After a number of leading Moroccan nationalists were arrested on charges of collaborating with the Nazis, riots broke out throughout the protectorate. Muhammad began refusing to sign the resident general’s decrees. In 1951, under the pretext of protecting him from an Amazigh rebellion they had encouraged, the French took Muhammad prisoner and forced him to denounce the nationalists. Two years later, they deported him to Corsica and, later, to Madagascar. The nationalist movement began guerrilla warfare, often finding shelter in the Spanish Zone. The French, who were also facing a rebellion in Algeria, allowed Muhammad to return, in October 1955, and eventually agreed to complete independence.