Since October 2016 Morocco’s northern Rif region has been the stage of massive protests against corruption, youth unemployment and injustice after a fishmonger was crushed to death inside a garbage truck in the town of Al-Hoceima. In latest developments, on 29 May, leading activist and organiser of recent protests Nasser Zefzafi was arrested by the Moroccan authorities after being on the run for three days. They said Zefzafi, leader of the movement called “Hirak”, had ‘obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals, freedom of worship’ at a mosque where he allegedly interrupted a prayer ceremony, authorities said.
After months of peaceful protests, the events of last weekend turned violent for the first time. After the government released the arrest warrant for Zefzafi, violent clashes erupted between police and protesters in Al-Hoceima. Several police officers ended up in the hospital, and protesters were wounded due to the use of teargas by the authorities. At least 20 people were arrested and many of the arrested were charged with violence and insults against security forces, armed disobedience, holding an unauthorized protest and damaging vehicles used for public service. The Moroccan authorities are aware that seeking violent confrontation is not the solution, but have been late with serious attempts to create dialogue and acknowledging the protests. Both state and protesters fear escalation of the situation.
According to the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH), the Human Rights’ situation in the Rif has been deteriorating, Therefore, the association organized a sit-in in Casablanca to show solidarity towards the Hirak movement. Among the demonstrators was also party leader of the United Party of Socialists (PSU) and chairwoman of the Federation of the Democratic Left (FGD), Nabila Mounib. ‘With this peaceful sit-in in support of the Rif we want to say with one voice that the answer must not be with arrests and repression, but by bringing answers to the socio-economic demands of the population’ Mounib stated.
A Berber movement?
The Berber inhabitants of the Rif region often feel neglected by the state. They have been struggling to get their rights as a minority recognized. Former King Hassan II ruthlessly suppressed a Berber rebellion in 1957, and the area has been marginalized since. Current King Mohammed VI has not been able to win over the population. This is also due to the big socio-economic problems that the region faces, which has a very high rate of youth unemployment. The question arises whether the Hirak movement wants to be defined by its ‘Berber’ identity (and right for self-determination) or by something else. In a statement released by the government after the first arrests on Saturday, they accused the protesters of ‘threatening national security’, because a ‘preliminary investigation showed that the individuals received money transfers and logistical support to undermine the integrity of the Kingdom and to undermine the allegiance of citizens to the Moroccan state and its institutions.’ The money was supposedly from international donors who would support separatism of the Berbers stated the government, but this was revised later. While the government has changed its charges to ‘threatening national security’ and ‘violence and insults against security forces’, the government has been referring to the “Hirak” movement as a externally funded Berber movement.
The movement, however, claims that it simply wants its rights to be recognized, rights which are already in the Moroccan laws, and they want to claim those rights within the Moroccan system. Although several Berber flags can be seen during the protest marches, the protests are about recognition of the big socio-economic problems and acknowledgement of their rights as Moroccan citizens. They hope to live a life in dignity and receive social justice from the Moroccan authorities. The Berber Rif region plays a role, but not because of the ‘Berber’ identity, but because it is a region facing the most severe socio-economic problems of Morocco. That the movement finds supports in other parts of Morocco supports this explanation.
Is dialogue possible?
The government has since a few weeks acknowledged the protesters and their demands, despite the frame of Berber separatism used during the arrests. Spokesman of the government Mustafa al Khalfi said that the government ‘shall not falter in taking all necessary measures to swiftly implement the planned projects.’ These projects, of which the exact content is still unclear, are meant to tackle the imminent socio-economic problems, such as housing and jobs. It can be questioned whether these measures alone will increase trust in the government among the protesters. Since October 2016 there has been little attention from the government to the demands of the protesters. Also, the King has not visited the area, and an official delegation led by Minister of Interior Abdelouafi Laftit was sent only on the 29th of May to the area to speed up the development program. However, recent attempts to create dialogue between the state and the movement have failed when authorities tried to appeal to Nasser Zefzafi. The president of the Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima region, Ilyas El Omari, has announced his commitment to a new initiative of dialogue, but whether a deal can be brokered at this point is very uncertain. Not only the developments of the past few days will leave the protesters hesitant to accept a dialogue with a moderator, but also the experience of the Arab Spring shows that less demands are complied with than was initially asked for.
After the arrest of spokesman Zefzafi, protests have continued to grow in the region. Many of the protesters in Al Hoceima chanted “We are all Zefzafi” and demanded his release from prison. The protest have also spread to other parts of Morocco, although demonstrations there are much smaller. Again more than 20 people have been arrested. On the evening of 30 May, the police violently intervened in a demonstration in Rabat. There has been no violent confrontation between the protesters and the police in Al Hoceima since the weekend, despite the large presence of riot police. Not everyone in Morocco supports the protests however, as citizens fear an escalation which will decrease the stability in the country extremely.