North Africa, West Asia

The death of Mohsen Fikri and the long history of oppression and protest in Morocco's Rif

A month after Mohsen Fikri’s death, the ongoing protests in Morocco’s Rif expose a long history of marginalization in the region.

Imad Stitou
2 December 2016

Mohsen Fikri was crushed to death by a garbage truck on October 28. On the evening of October 28, a garbage truck crushed Moroccan fish-seller Mohsen Fikri to death in al-Hoceima city in Morocco’s Rif as he tried to protect his produce. A month has passed since the incident, but protests are still ongoing in the city. While investigations seem to be at a standstill, protesters in al-Hoceima continued their action against the authorities, end of last week. They demanded the punishment of the culprits in this crime, which they believe is premeditated, instead of offering scapegoats to alleviate the pressure in the streets. The protesters were referring to some employees and garbage collectors whom the authorities arrested on the grounds of being implicated in Fikri’s killing.

The Rif protests tell a different story

The flame of public anger in al-Hoceima city is still burning, although the situation has relatively calmed down in other Moroccan cities. In fact, relations between the Makhzen a.k.a the federal state and al-Hoceima city, or the Moroccan Rif in general, have been shaky for decades.

The protests started out with slogans demanding a transparent and impartial investigation to expose the circumstances of Fikri’s death. But they soon escalated into calls for a comprehensive trial of the political regime as a whole, its politics and its behavior towards a marginalized region that has been deliberately shunned from the state’s general policies. This reaction did not come as a surprise. In fact, by exploring the Rif’s rebellious history against the authorities, one realizes that the crushing 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 nominal independence in 1956.

Rifians were forbidden from participating in regulating their region’s affairs or contributing to the rule of their country.

Between 1958 and 1959, an uprising broke out as a natural reaction to the behavior of the new authorities that rose to power as a result of the Aix-Les-Bains negotiations. These authorities disbanded the Moroccan Army of Liberation and killed many of its men, in addition to oppressing, abducting, and torturing their opponents, especially sympathizers with the military leader Mohammed Bin Abd El-Karim El-Khattabi and those espousing his thought. Many Rifians were also forbidden 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.

The uprising was fiercely oppressed by the army, even using aircrafts flown by French pilots. Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested and wounded. Abd El-Karim estimated the number of detainees in the wake of the Rif uprising at 8420. After that, the region was under a tight economic and security blockade until the January 1984 uprising that erupted as a result of the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in Morocco. The January uprising, which students in several Rifian cities spearheaded, was also violently oppressed by the authorities of King Hassan II who gave a famous speech in the wake of the incidents which claimed the lives of many and wounded others. In his speech, he described Rifians as “scum” and other slurs that are still engraved in their memories. One cannot ignore the sporadic events that Rifians lived through during the so-called “new era” such as the al-Hoceima earthquake in 2004 and the arson of five men in 2011 inside a bank in the city during the February 20 protests.

This tense history resurfaced during the latest Rifian protests as they escalated their tone against the regime. Slogans included, "O cowardly regime, Rifians cannot be insulted!”; “this is our Rif! The Makhzen can go fish” and “your Majesty Mohand, do not fret, we will continue the struggle.” The last slogan constitutes a significant historical reference to a unique and symbolic figure for the region—Abdel Karim—who spearheaded the Rif revolution between 1912 and 1926 against Spanish and French colonialism. He remained opposed to the federal state following the declaration of independence in 1956 from his exile in La Réunion island until he died in Egypt in 1963.

In trying to understand the latest public movement, these historical factors cannot be overlooked. The public action had to be understood in its larger Moroccan context in which the Rif and other Moroccan regions appear equal in their suffering from lack of social justice, wide social disparity, as well as the oppression of the security apparatus and the central authority. Still, Fikri’s gruesome death poked an old wound that has not mended yet for Rifians. This death was just another chapter in the crisis between the federal state and the Rif, and a statement of refusal for the unilateral reconciliation that the state apparatus had been promoting for years without offering a public apology for its atrocities and mistakes.

The protests were also an expression of resentment towards the pragmatic alliance between the region’s elites and the regime in the days of King Mohammed VI who visited the region in an attempt to fix his father’s mistakes. However, talk about reconciliation remained a slogan reiterated by the state to get rid of a heavy and dark historical burden it has been carrying around. A new defeated elite helped the state in its task, and this elite accumulated wealth out of exploiting a past marred by violations in the Rif, praising the regime and promoting the legitimacy of a new fake social contract to market the story of the end of the Rif grievances and turn the page forever.

The protests were also an expression of resentment towards the pragmatic alliance between the region’s elites and the regime.

Consequently, it was not possible to take Fikri’s death out of this long historical context of clashes between the state and the Rif. It does not come as a surprise that Moroccan flags have not been raised during the protests in al-Hoceima. Instead, one could spot Amazigh and Rifian flags fluttering to celebrate national ideas and Rifian symbols. This sent a clear political message reiterating that Rifians are not concerned with the state’s situation after the lacking independence of 1956, nor do they care about the country’s flag— a country which isolated them and did not consult them in any matter. Overlooking this collective lack of belonging to the system that bred the modern state after the Aix-Les-Bains negotiations brazenly undermines Rifian national feelings and their role in mobilizing for the latest movement. It is not surprising that the leaders of the recent protests decided to hold the upcoming meeting in Abdel Karim’s headquarters in Ajdir. This is a historical landmark that reflects the legitimacy of the Moroccan Army of Liberation.

The 40-day-memorial service of Fikri coincides with the latest Rifian attempts to reach common grounds to reach a mature and clear vision, and to set goals in order to give the movement more momentum. The protests that have been ongoing for a month in al-Hoceima demostrated major points of strength, including their complete peaceful aspect, their unique and creative ways, and their strict organization. They also broke free from ideological narrow-mindedness and steered clear of eloquent slogans; relying instead on a simple language and on the strong participation of women.

The state’s official media outlets have been highlighting the Rifian and Amazigh flags in the protests to make the public believe that protesters have separatist goals. These do exist, but to a limited extent. The focus on these flags, though, stems from a desire to force the state to declare a new political contract that would engage Rifians in the affairs of state administration and rewrite Moroccan history in order to acknowledge the pioneering role that the real resistance played in liberating Morocco from occupation. By doing so, the state would admit to its historical oppression of the Rif. It is noteworthy that the Rif protests included many parties other than the usual groups and organizations.

Retaking the streets

The killing of a fishmonger in al-Hoceima in Morocco’s Rif could have been a passing incident if it weren’t for the larger Moroccan context of tensions between citizens and state institutions in the past years. This is not the first time that citizens face the erratic and irresponsible behavior of individuals affiliated with the state, thus breeding a general feeling of social injustice resulting in the death of a human being.

This is not the first time that citizens face the erratic and irresponsible behavior of individuals affiliated with the state.

Perhaps the horridness of crushing Fikri with a garbage truck while he tried desperately to protect his fish from being thrown away, which went viral on social media, added insult to injury and reignited the flame of protest. However, it definitely was neither the sole nor main reason that pushed thousands to take to the streets in dozens of Moroccan villages on October 30 to participate in a protest unparalleled in Morocco since February 20, 2011. At the time, people were demanding political changes in the ruling structure and calling for social justice. This time, however, al-Hoceima protesters went beyond demanding a transparent investigation and punishment for the culprits in Fikri’s murder and attacked the state’s social policies and development projects, thus making October 30 an opportunity to hold the state liable for its errors.

The collective action in the street indicates structural changes in the nature of relations between the authority and the public and proves that people can take the initiative and express their reactions without waiting for the state’s approval. October 30 was a date for a revolution against typical protest forms in Morocco, as it defied the construct of political, human rights and community organizations that previously framed such protests or called for them.

By exploring the slogans and discourse of the furious people, whether in the protests or on social media, we realize that Fikri’s murder was not taken as an isolated incident or an individual violation. It was rather considered part of the state’s oppressive and authoritarian culture and structure and its way of governing its relations with the citizens. This awareness reflects public understanding that has matured as a result of successive disappointments with the state’s authoritarianism, and broken promises to investigate similar social tragedies and accidents that led to bloodshed. In this context, blaming the state for Fikri’s murder is understandable, regardless of whether it is directly or indirectly implicated. This showed the frailness of the social agreement between state and society, and clearly announced the renewal of the crisis. This is an opportunity for the state to learn from the lessons of the past, revisit its choices and implement radical reforms instead of betting on time to buffer the anger, tensions, and reactions that are fueling its clashes with the public.

The state’s predicament

The state tried to contain the situation by reassuring protesters that it understood their anger. However, it would not have reacted this way, had it not felt that the calls for protests constituted a confrontation with the state as an entity. The rage was not directed at a figure of authority or a security officer per se, but was the result of an institutional culture and upbringing. Therefore, the response came from the highest political authority, not from an administrative or security one, when the head of state urgently sent his Minister of Interior and his representative to al-Hoceima to pay their respects to the victim’s parents and announce a series of strict measures to punish the culprits.

The state had to reluctantly accept what had been previously out of the question: that the public space would be an open arena to freely express anger towards power and criticize it.

The Minister of Interior transmitted the president’s commitment to opening a thorough investigation involving everyone to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents relaying that “the King resents the occurrence of such incidents in Morocco.” Through this discourse in times of crisis, the minister expressed the extent to which the political system is aware of the danger of such incidents and their negative impact on its image. Even without declaring it, the political authorities have realized that the balance has tipped and that it is no longer possible to separate and distinguish between the behavior of the political authority and that of those affiliated with it.

The state had to reluctantly accept what had been previously out of the question: that the public space would be an open arena to freely express anger towards power and criticize it. The scene was a reminder of the first protests of the February 20 movement in 2011, when security officers evacuated the streets and the government bitterly accepted being brutally attacked. This is another message that the protesters succeeded in communicating. To them, the public space is theirs, and they can reclaim it and free it whenever they see fit. As long as there is monopoly (embodied in disdain and in the social system), absence of dignity, social inequality, oppressive security and politics, and as long as the government’s institutions do not understand the pressing social need for a fair social government that is not authoritarian, legitimacy through the streets could be summoned at any moment.

It seems that the government today is betting on time and is planning on letting protests repeat the same itinerary as previous movements in Morocco over the past few years — to grow tired of fighting and fade away as they lose the crowds who cannot stay in the streets forever without clear objectives, visions, and gains. Such popular withdrawal would then give legitimacy to governmental intervention to crack down on the remaining protesters in the streets. This is the new-old approach which reflects the state’s predicament when it comes to understanding change and keeping up with it, and it is a renewed, yet, wrong bet on the capacity of time to heal the tensions and allow a swift return to the status quo.

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