A Deeper Look at the Protests in Morocco [Updated]

June 1, 2017

Isabel Paolini

[Update as of June 16, 2017]

Protests in the Rif region of Morocco have continued throughout the month of June and are spreading an anti-government movement throughout other parts of the country, particularly in Imourzen and Rabat. Authorities have reacted to the protests by detaining more than 100 leaders and participants of the Hirak-led movement across the country in the past three weeks. On June 11, tens of thousands marched through the streets of Rabat, constituting the largest protest since the 2011 movement, demanding the release of dozens of detained protesters from the Al Hoceima demonstrations.

On June 14, the Court of First Instance sentenced 32 people arrested for their involvement in the Al-Hoceima protests – 25 individuals were sentenced to 18 months in jail, seven sentenced to four-to-seven months, and four were released. The protesters were prosecuted for “violence against the security forces,” “unauthorized demonstrations,” “rebellion,” and “deterioration of public property.” Abdessadek Bouchtaoui, a member of the collective defense of the prisoners of the Rif protest movement, stated, “The verdicts are very harsh against the detainees. At the time we were waiting for their acquittal, the [police] reports were untrue and false.”

Detainees in a prison in Casablanca are currently engaged [Ar] in a 72-hour hunger strike that began June 13, protesting the “harsh conditions.” A family member of one of the detainees explained that their protest is due to “ the terrible pressure on them … [There are] four cases of solitary confinement and the rest were prevented from communicating with each other.”

During one of the nightly protests in Al Hoceima on June 15, the direction of the usually peaceful movement changed. Protestors began to chant, “Silmya, c’est fini!” (pacifism is over!) and threw objects at the police, who reciprocated by releasing tear gas for the first time during this series of protests. Anger over recent arrests and a lack of leadership within this movement have contributed to the rising tension.

The original post is below.

*****

Renewed unrest in Morocco’s Rif region the past two weeks has received little coverage, but the roots of the protests appear deep and interesting. Here’s a brief look at what is going on:

Protests began October 2016 in the city of al-Hoceima, following the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a local fishmonger protesting the police’s seizure of his illegally caught swordfish on October 28. He was crushed by a trash compacting machine whilst trying to retrieve the fish, which were valued at 11,000 USD. The accident, which was recorded and went viral, prompted King Mohammed VI to order [Fr] an investigation which concluded in January.

Activists in al-Hoceima held demonstrations demanding transparency about the investigation and accountability for Fikri’s death. A representative from the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) stated [Fr] that “if the investigation does not reach a conclusion, there will be no more confidence in the authorities.” Following Fikri’s death, protests spread [Fr] from al-Hoceima to Tétouan, Casablanca, Marrakech, and Rabat, with thousands of protesters contesting arbitrary enforcement of law, abuse of power, corruption, and injustice. Fikri’s death was ruled a homicide, and in November, eleven people were charged with involuntary manslaughter and forgery of public documents.

These movements for justice catalyzed other pro-Rifian protests demanding reforms to fight unemployment and corruption, largely mobilized by al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or “Mouvance de Rif”, an al-Hoceima-based opposition movement. While this movement has its roots in the 2011 protests, it only emerged [Fr] as a cohesive group in the previous six months.

The Rif, an ethnically Berber region in northern Morocco, has a historically tenuous relationship with Morocco’s central authorities, with pro-Rifian sentiment dating back to the colonial era, that continues to color regional relations. The Rifian people face what Akbar Ahmed, the Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, identifies as “high rates of poverty, unemployment, a media blockade, and brutal tactics employed by the police to crush any unrest.” The al-Hirak group denounces “hogra,” a colloquial term signifying the deprivation of dignity by authorities. Nasser Zefzafi, 39, has emerged as the leader of this movement. Zefzafi was also a leader of the February 20 Movement that galvanized the 2011 Arab-Spring anti-government protests across Morocco.

In February 2017, the “Mouvance de Rif” organized sit-ins [Fr] in Boukidaren, Beni Bouayach, Imzouren, and al-Hoceima, commemorating the death of Emir Mohamed ben Abdelkrim El Khattabil, a Rifian opposition leader of the short-lived Republic of the Rif (1921-1926). In al-Hoceima, police used [Fr] tear gas and rubber bullets to disband the ‘illegal’ gathering; ensuing clashes injured 27 officers and 60 protesters.

Another 130 protesters were wounded in Boukidaren, sparking subsequent sit-ins and larger protests. Throughout these months, counter-protesters have clashed [Fr] with the “unrealistic demands” of the Rif movement.

On May 18, 2017, Zefzafi called [Fr] “students, craftsmen, grocers, civil servants and all the forces to come from all over Morocco to take part in this historic march” via Facebook. Zefzafi, refuting accusations of promoting separatism, claimed the movement’s “demands are social and belong to our right to a decent life and have no separatist dimension.”

This week, Zefzafi was accused of disrupting Friday prayers at an al-Hoceima mosque and “obstructing freedom of worship” as he called for more demonstrations (video). On May 27, a government prosecutor ordered [Fr] the arrest of Zefzafi “for the purposes of the investigation and his presentation before the prosecutor’s office.” He faces charges [Fr] of “willfully obstructing the exercise of a religious worship,” and possible imprisonment of three to six years.

Fleeing the police, Zefzafi published a video [Ar] on YouTube in which he called on his supporters to continue to demonstrate “peacefully” against the “Makhzen” – the governing elite of Morocco. On May 27, several hundred people took [Fr] to the streets of al-Hoceima and Imzouren to show their support, chanting slogans like “Vive le Rif” or “We are all Zefzafi.” He was finally arrested on May 29, and was also charged with undermining the interior security of the state.

Thousands have protested [Fr] his arrest in al-Hoceima, calling for his release, decrying [Fr] the militarization of the area, and demanding social reforms. May 31 marked [Fr] the sixth sequential night of protest with thousands of people shouting “We are all Zefzani,” waving Berber flags, and calling for an end to corruption. In a newly released video of Zefzafi, filmed before his arrest, he says, “My brothers … If I am arrested, I have defeated the Makhzenean State […] Stay peaceful.” There have been rumours [Fr] about the King expressing willingness to free Zefzafi, although this action would not halt the judicial proceedings against him. Najib Ahamjik, the second in command of al-Hirak, is also reportedly fleeing authorities.

Since May 26, many protesters have been arrested and accused [Fr] of obstructing police work, assaulting security forces, and assembling unlawfully. AMDH claimed 50 people have been detained in Al-Hoceima and that “the number of arrests continues to rise.” There have been more than 70 arrests across the entire province.

Government spokesperson Mustapha El Khalfi responded to the protests and arrests, stating, “The government affirms that its approach in dealing positively with the legitimate demands in Al Hoceima and other Moroccan regions is constant and will be based on dialogue.” He also asserted that the government will be responsive to requests made by the lawyers and families of those detained. In another press statement on June 1, he assured that “the peaceful protests are legitimate rights guaranteed by the law.”

Protesters congregated [Fr] in the cities of Imzouren, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Fès, Oujda, and Nador in “solidarity” despite strong police presence.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Elasrihi, the director of the newsource Rif24 [Ar] – the most active source of coverage on the al-Hirak movement – has disappeared. There hasn’t been any contact with Elasrihi since May 26. Reporters Without Borders confirmed Elasrihi’s disappearance, stating, “He has disappeared since Friday, but we do not have any news at the moment.” Elashiri’s last activity was recording a video [Ar] of Zefzafi speaking to a crowd in al-Hoceima as security forces tried to apprehend him. The website and the Facebook page of Rif24 were inactive for several days, but are currently back online.

Protests in Rabat, Morocco on February 20, 2011. Photo credit: Hasna Lahmini/Flickr