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Aid, Politics, and the Deadly Earthquake in Morocco

21 Sep 2023
By Anna Mahjar-Barducci
House surrounded by rubble. Source:

Politics does not belong in a disaster zone, where people have lost all, and where a nation needs healing. While the recent earthquake in Morocco continues to produce victims, an untimely diplomatic spat with France has not helped.

At 11:00 PM on 8 September 2023, an earthquake of magnitude 6.8-7 struck central Morocco. It was the deadliest earthquake to hit the country in over 60 years, killing approximately 3,000 people and displacing 300,000, including 100,000 children. What emerged out of the tragic disaster was a remarkable show of national cohesion among Moroccans and a sovereign will to handle their own hardships.

In the wake of this hardship, however, relations with France have pivoted downward once again, with accusations of unfriendly behaviour amid aid distribution efforts.


The earthquake’s epicenter was identified in the High Atlas Mountains, located inside a tectonic plate, 71 km southwest of the renowned city of Marrakesh. In particular, the Al Haouz province, situated in the Moroccan economic region of Marrakesh-Safi, which comprises of 6,000 douars (rural villages), was the area that suffered the most.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, rescuers are still trying to help survivors as they continue searching for the missing people trapped under the rubble of the area’s traditional mud and clay houses. Yet, the main problem that rescuers are facing is the fact that many of these remote rural villages are very difficult to reach, due mainly to the landslides caused by the earthquake, and to the fact that many of these small douars are not even marked on maps.

Meanwhile, the King of Morocco Mohammed VI is already planning the reconstruction of the affected areas. The Moroccan weekly Tel Quel explained: “A rehabilitation program for more than 50,000 homes is in the pipeline. This system will be accompanied by compensation plans [including direct aid] for affected households.”

“Tamaghrabit” – The Strength Of The Multicultural Moroccan Identity

The Moroccan media noted that the tragedy mobilised the Moroccan population in a remarkable show of solidarity. As the winter is approaching, volunteers from all regions and all spectrums of society are organising fundraising and endless convoys to deliver in the affected areas blankets, mattresses, warm clothes, and sleeping bags, in addition to food, medicament, sanitary pads, and school supplies.

This mobilisation has been described as the true spirit of the “Tamaghrabit,” a Moroccan word that identifies a philosophical concept, based on tolerance and solidarity, on which the current Moroccan monarchy has been building its foreign and internal policies. The word “Tamaghrabit” retains the essence of the values that constitute the Moroccan identity, as it brings together the Amazigh (Tamazight, which was added as an official language to the Moroccan constitution in 2011) and Arabic languages.

Generally, Tamazight uses the morpheme “t…t” to construct the feminine form of a word. For example, in central Morocco, guest in the masculine form is “anbgi,” but by adding the morpheme “t…t,” we obtain the word “tanbgiwt,” that is guest in the feminine form. At the same time, this morpheme helps us to build an action noun from a verb. Thus, in the case of Tamaghrabit, the morpheme “t…t” was added to the Arabic word “maghrebi,” meaning Moroccan, to give a feminine connotation. Therefore, the word Tamaghrabit, which combines Tamazight and Arabic together, tells us that the values of modern Morocco comprise of cohesion in diversity, the role of women, and the action of putting these values into practice. In addition, in the Amazigh alphabet the letter “t” of the morpheme “t…t” is written with two lines that cross each other, representing the meeting between human beings.

The role of “Tamaghrabit” in  Moroccan life is important to understand the show of solidarity in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit a great number of Amazigh-populated areas. The great national mobilisation showed that Moroccans are one and united as a nation, despite the ethnic and linguistic differences. In fact, the population is more than ever stating that “we are all Moroccan brothers and sisters,” showing that the country – which comprises primarily of Arab, Amazigh, and Jews – is a cohesive nation.

International Aid

Soon after the earthquake struck the country, French media raised a discussion about the fact that Morocco decided to accept offers of assistance from four friendly countries, the United Kingdom, Spain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, while “refusing” France’s aid. Yet, Morocco repeatedly stated that it never declined the help of any country. The Moroccan weekly Tel Quel further explained that the Moroccan authorities need first to assess and identify the logistical needs of the affected areas, which is as big as Benelux, before requesting coordinated help with any foreign state.

Furthermore, Tel Quel stressed that Morocco is not a failed country and is able to take charge of its own problems: “Morocco is an emerging power, which has significant human and financial resources and extensive expertise in similar disaster management. There was [the 2004 earthquake in] Al Hoceima and the Covid emergency. On top of that, our militant contingents have often had to lend a helping hand to countries plagued by this type of tragedy.” This was seemingly addressed to France, with a pointed message that the country should not face any pressure from former colonialist powers.

Morocco-France relations are getting colder. A few months ago, renowned Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun stated that French President Emmanuel Macron “lacked respect” for the King of Morocco. Ben Jelloun mentioned that, while talking about allegations that the Moroccan intelligence services used the Pegasus mobile phone spyware against some French journalists and government officials, the King assured Macron that Moroccan intelligence has never listened to his conversations. At that point – according to Ben Jelloun – Macron answered in an “impolite way.” “The King did not like it, as he gave his word of honor, but [the French President] did not believe him anyway. So relations got [sic] soured,” said Ben Jelloun, adding that France’s behavior has been trending negatively towards Morocco, hoping to “reconcile with Algeria,” whose relations with Rabat are increasingly deteriorating due to its armed support to the Polisario rebels.

“We do not need compassion or charity, particularly from Algeria”

Algeria itself recently said that it wanted to help Morocco to recover from the earthquake disaster. However, the Moroccan position was clearly stated by Moroccan Professor Youssef Chiheb: “I would like to raise some ambiguities in the Algerian position, which I found incredibly cynical. A few weeks ago, Algerian forces shot dead our compatriots, who got lost in Algerian territorial waters, and today, given the outpouring of international solidarity, Algeria proposed opening its airspace for the delivery of humanitarian aid and logistics. We have not asked anything from Algeria, as Morocco cannot accept such a hypocritical proposal. In fact, two years ago, Morocco offered its help and its assistance with its Canadair aircrafts, to extinguish the fire which ravaged Algeria, receiving a dismissal.”

For this reason, Professor Chiheb concluded: “We do not need compassion or charity, particularly from Algeria.”

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Morocco has shown to be ready to take charge of its own hardships, while stressing that cooperation between countries should be based on equality and mutual respect.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a Moroccan-Italian researcher and author.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.