On 20 July the police in Al-Hoceima, the North of Morocco, fired tear gas to disperse protesters and prevent them from marching in defiance of a government ban. Organisers from the Al-Hirak al-Shaabi (“Hirak”) movement went ahead with the protest, despite the authoritative warning. Al-Hoceima, the main port in the Northern Rif region, has been hit by unrest since fishmonger Mohsin Fikri was crushed to death in a rubbish truck last year. He tried to retrieve his swordfish, confiscated by the police for being caught out of season. The image of a young Moroccan trying to make a living, while being treated by the authorities like a piece of garbage, quickly spread on the internet and aggravated the country. The uprising that followed has landed hundreds in jail, and led tens of thousands to demonstrate across the country. It has also exposed the divide between the Moroccan monarchy and the anti-establishment street movement.
Events surrounding Fikri’s death
It could have been a passing incident if it were not for the already existing tensions between citizens and state authorities in the past years. Initially the protests started with citizens demanding a transparent and impartial investigation of Fikri’s death, but soon after the protesters called for a comprehensive trial of those belonging to the political regime. As a marginalized region, the Rif has been largely ignored by the state, leading to social injustice and wide social disparities. An example is the refusal of a previously promoted unilateral reconciliation, without apologizing to the public for its atrocities and mistakes. This has triggered high levels of dissatisfaction towards the state apparatus.
Politicians are blamed for lies and deception, as they have not fulfilled their promises. Moreover, the new government of Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani lacks the commitment to tackle longlasting issues surrounding the area’s development. There are many construction sites everywhere around Al Hoceima, but hardly any work is completed. Plans for a new hospital were also made, but funds depend on the willingness of King Mohammed VI. As a result, thousands of people have taken to the streets of Morocco, demanding access to health services, jobs and investment. They also call for an end to corruption and injustice in their marginalized region.
The divide between monarchy and anti-establishment
Leader of protest movement “Hirak”, Nasser Zafzafi, rallied protesters in squares for weeks, where many backed his impassioned tirades against the political establishment. The “pro-palace” media consequently accused him of threatening national security by taking a separatist stance. In late May, he was arrested by the King’s prosecutor together with 100 other Hirak supporters.
Solidarity protests have taken place across the country, with 85,000 people gathering in Rabat on 11 June. They demand the release of the 100 detainees, and they wish for the head of government to resign together with his cabinet. They strongly condemn the torture committed by the authorities regarding the detention and incarceration of the activists. Some of the protesters’ messages included “Immediately release the political detainees,” “Rifis are true Moroccans,” and “The head of government and his cronies are the real separatists,” according to The Moroccan Times.
Protestors who are part of “Moroccan Women Against Political Arrest” have also been attacked by police officers while pressing the government for justice. They advocate for the release of the Rif protesters, including Silya Ziani, who is a singer and a prominent voice in the Hirak movement. The authorities pushed, kicked, abused, and insulted the protestors. “The situation of Moroccan and foreign journalists covering the events in northern Morocco keeps on getting worse,” Yasmine Kacha, the head of Reporters Without Borders North Africa, has said. “By trying to prevent coverage of the Rif protests, the Moroccan authorities are gradually turning this region into a no-go zone for independent media.”
These are the most significant protests Morocco has witnessed since 2011, when the Arab Spring swept the country. Moroccan authorities have surveilled protests heavily, out of fear for a repeat of the 2011 demonstrations. During those protests, King Mohammed VI promised a more democratic rule and transferred some of his authority to an elected government in a constitutional reform. The Prime Minister now presides over the council of government, which prepares the general policy of the state. The Berber language, spoken by the majority of the population in the Rif, was also recognized as official state language as part of the reform. Yet the promised reforms have proved disappointing. The monarchy remains as powerful as ever; the King’s advisers have much more influence than elected officials.
Continuing fight against injustice
Historical factors should not be overlooked when trying to comprehend the latest developments.The death of Fikri was an opportunity to evoke this painful past and the feelings of oppression, disdain and discrimination that are deeply-rooted in the consciousness of Rifians since the country’s de facto independence in 1956. This turned Morocco into a constitutional monarchy with a democratic form of government. Upon achieving independence, Mohammed V proceeded to build a modern governmental structure under a constitutional monarchy in which he would exercise an active political role.
However, many Rifians were prohibited from participating in regulating their region’s affairs or contributing to the rule of their country. They were not integrated in the different governments that were formed during the years 1955, 1956, 1957 and 1958. As a result, the isolated Rif area gained less attention and lagged behind economically because of the significant lack of state funds.