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Morocco's social protests across time and space

Between the Rif republic, the “Arab Spring”, and the diaspora in Europe, to what extent will current and future protests bring about change in Morocco?

A March in Barcelona by the committee for resistance, freedom and justice of the people of the Rif. Picture by Paco Freire / Sopa Images/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved. Many European politicians consider Morocco a stable and unproblematic country in an otherwise unpredictable region. Take the case of Germany, where the Federal Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, aims to classify all the states of the Maghreb as “secure countries of origin”. Jens Spahn, now Federal Minister of Health, has always shared this view and bluntly justified it a few months ago by saying that many Europeans went on holiday in countries like Morocco, “so these must be safe countries”. That this attractive tourism destination is now even applying to host the FIFA World Cup 2026, also fits within this picture. But this is at most half the truth.

In Morocco, last year was marked by the largest social protests since the so-called "Arab Spring". Protesters face massive repression, as evidenced by the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators and the persecution and intimidation of critical journalists and lawyers. The focal points lie in the neglected rural periphery, especially in the Rif, the north of the country.

Meanwhile, a transnational solidarity movement is forming within the Moroccan diaspora across the Mediterranean, and several members of the European Parliament are supporting their demands. These newly emerging networks not only bring together actors in very different locations, they also associate the protest experiences of 2011 with the memory of colonial history.

The protest movement in the Rif – hirak ash-shaꜤbi ar-rif, or simply Hirak – formed after the death of 31-year-old Mohsen Fikri in October 2016. Fikri, a small fishmonger in the Mediterranean port city of Al Hoceima, had bought a load of swordfish. The police confiscated his goods, arguing that they had been fished illegally. When the police threw the load into a garbage truck, Fikri jumped after it to save his goods. Under unexplained circumstances, the truck's garbage compactor was activated and Fikri suffered deadly bruises and died on the spot.

A photo of the dead Fikri in the garbage press spread like wildfire in the social networks, and thousands all over Morocco took to the streets against the hogra, the humiliation of ordinary people by the powerful, as is shown not least in the arbitrariness and corruption of the police. The prevailing opinion was that the police were asking for bribes and Fikri could not pay. Several witnesses testified that one of the policemen gave the order to start the garbage press.

Fikri's case is in many ways reminiscent of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young greengrocer in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, who burned himself in protest after police had confiscated his goods. This act is generally seen as the trigger of the Tunisian revolution, which sparked the 2011 protests in the NAWA region and brought down several authoritarian regimes.

The wave of protests at the time also reached Morocco, but unlike in Cairo or Tunis, the demonstrators in the capital Rabat did not demand a revolution, but primarily democratization, the rule of law and an end to endemic corruption in the country. If one talks to activists of the 20th of February- movement (M20F) a few years later, most of those in the larger cities emphasize that the movement demonstrated new ways of peaceful protest and democratic decision-making and found forms of understanding between otherwise hostile factions of the opposition for the first time.

Above all, they managed to overcome the fear that had previously determined much of the political culture. Many members of the older generation were still paralyzed by the "years of lead" under the previous King Hassan II, who made many opposition members disappear into secret prisons.

Moroccan civil society has been showing a new self-confidence in the urban centers since 2011. However, activists in smaller towns in the Moroccan periphery often tell different stories from back then. Here, the protests focused rather on socio-economic demands and authorities reacted more violently, which sometimes resulted in the dynamic of a revolt.

Growth is benefiting primarily the urban upper class

Activists in both locations emphasize that the M20F hardly brought about structural changes, and that they were taken by surprise by the skillful reaction of the Makhzen, the monarchy’s own network of patronage and repression. King Mohammed VI responded to the protests with a draft constitutional amendment, which was adopted by the population in a referendum in the same year, thus confirming the legitimacy of the monarchy. The new constitution did little to change the actual political balance of power, and even less with regard to socio-economic inequality: Morocco's economy is growing, but growth is benefiting primarily the urban upper class, while the situation in the peripheral region is becoming increasingly dramatic.

2017 was a year of protest not only in Al Hoceima. In September "thirst protests" broke out in Zagora, on Morocco's southeastern border, due to the government's inaction regarding the lack of clean drinking water. Several minors were subsequently arrested and sentenced to prison for throwing stones.

But it is the Rif where all the social contradictions of Moroccan society seem to accumulate and where they are answered with even harsher repression. The most recent incident took place this winter in Jerada, a former mining town near the Algerian border, where two men died mining for coal in the abandoned shafts, for lack of economic alternatives. Here, too, a protest movement was formed and the leaders were soon arrested. In March, the police broke up the rallies by literally chasing the demonstrators with their vans, driving into a minor and seriously injuring him.

The Rif has been systematically neglected by the monarchy for decades in terms of infrastructure and economic development programs. It still has no university, no hospital, the roads are in a miserable state, and most cities are not connected to the railway network. Accordingly, central demands of the Hirak protests are the establishment of a university and a hospital with a cancer treatment center. To fully understand the urgency of this latter demand, one has to go back almost a century in history.

Toxic shadows of the colonial past

Cancer is a defining theme in the family histories of many people from the Rif. Fatima* (21), a Hirak activist from Al Hoceima who is currently studying in Casablanca, lost her father to the disease two years ago, as she stated in an interview in October 2017. Her mother is also undergoing chemotherapy, for which she has to travel 600 kilometers to Casablanca for each new examination, which involves considerable costs and loss of time.

Cancer is a defining theme in the family histories of many people from the Rif

The cancer rate in the Rif is high - however, there are no exact figures, because research into the phenomenon and its causes has been blocked by the government for years. Most likely, these diseases are a late consequence of mustard gas, which the colonial power Spain used on a massive scale during the Rif War from 1921 to 1926. They had acquired it from Germany, which had to liquidate its remaining toxic gas reserves - which were larger than those of all the allies combined - under the Versailles Treaty.

When the Spaniards later started to produce mustard gas themselves, the German scientist and Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Stoltzenberg led the production in a secret mission. Around 500 tons of mustard gas were released over the region and it is believed that groundwater is still contaminated in many areas. Historians consider the Rif War to be the first aero chemical war in history, and probably the first time ever poison gas missions were carried out against a civilian population: markets, fields and villages were targeted in attacks, during which the mustard gas cartridges were mostly dropped off from planes.

In previous years, however, Abdelkrim Al-Khatabi, the leader of the anticolonial guerrillas recruited from the villages of the region, had managed to inflict severe losses on the Spaniards and to push them back into the enclave of Melilla. He had successfully united the population under the banner of the Rif republic he had proclaimed in 1923. This was not only an anticolonial project, but it also contested the authority of the Makhzen.

Only with the use of toxic gas, with the military support of France, which had occupied most of Morocco, and with the support of the troops of Sultan Yousef could the Spaniards secure their rule over the region for another two decades. In 1956, the year of Moroccan independence, Spain finally handed the Rif over to the newly appointed King Mohammed V. Abdelkrim Al-Khatabi, who had been exiled since his defeat in 1926, addressed the newly appointed government with the question: "Are you a government or a gang?"

Historians consider the Rif War to be the first aero chemical war in history

Shortly after independence, in 1958, an uprising broke out here, which King Mohamed V brutally suppressed by the army. His son, Crown Prince Hassan, led the military action. In 1984, another uprising of similar dimensions developed after social protests, and once again, Hassan II, now himself incumbent of the Moroccan throne, let the tanks roll up and insulted the demonstrators on television as "vermin". His son, Mohamed VI, in turn made attempts to reconcile the relations between the central power and the Rif. However, to Hirak activists this is an unfinished reconciliation at best, since the monarchy’s initiatives only benefitted as small local elite.

Mobilizing memory

"Are you a government or a gang?"

60 years after independence, Abdelkrim's provocative question has once again been echoing against the Moroccan government, in the slogans of the Hirak movement. Abdelkrim’s portrait and the flag of the Rif Republic are omnipresent in the protests, and they give the movement a strong dimension of historical memory.

This is a decisive difference compared to the M20F protest of 2011 when all flags except the Moroccan national flag were banned from demonstrations in most places, in order to avoid a division of the movement. The Hirak movement, in turn, makes symbolic references to a certain regional identity and a competing historical project that challenged not only the colonial powers but also the Moroccan sultan.

Against the historical background of decades of confrontation with the central authority, it is not surprising that the Makhzen and government-related media soon defamed the movement as foreign-controlled and violent separatists. However, the Hirak is far from demanding independence. To the contrary, it precisely calls on the government in Rabat to end the marginalization of the periphery, to assume its responsibility, to invest in the region and to improve the socio-economic situation there.

Local activists, like Kenza* (22) from Al Hoceima, thus always reject accusations of separatism:

"We people from the Rif have a long tradition of resistance and therefore a particular identity, but we are not separatists. We admire Abdelkrim precisely because he knew how to unite people, and because all of Morocco could have benefitted from his ideas."

She also emphasizes how proud she was to see that the protests had remained non-violent for so long, at least until the repression became more intense and almost all of its leaders had been arrested. The Hirak leadership had cautiously aimed to prevent the protests to turn into a riot, apparently adopting certain experiences of the open and peaceful approach of the M20F.

With this approach, the Hirak movement has garnered support for its demands well beyond the Rif: A public statement by professors of social sciences and university members in June 2017 made it clear that the problems the movement scandalizes affect the whole country and could be raised in a similar way by citizens in many places in Morocco.

Accordingly, the solidarity marches in Casablanca and Rabat with around 15,000 participants were the biggest demonstrations since 2011, and much like then they united very different political groups. They thus proved that, unlike in 1959 or 1984, the Rif is not protesting alone this time, and that the massive repression and intimidation with which the government overruns the Hirak movement does not go unobserved.

According to Amnesty International over 400 people had been arrested in Al Hoceima by November 2017, including 39-year-old Nasser Zafzafi, the movement's most prominent voice, who is facing life imprisonment. The charges against him could hardly be more serious: treason, violation of internal security, as well as violation of the freedom of religious worship.

The latter accusation was because he interrupted the Friday sermon at a Mosque in Al Hoceima, in which the imam called on the faithful to fight the Hirak movement. Zafzafi spoke up and responded that this was a house of God and not of the Makhzen. He and 52 other Hirak activists are currently in custody in the Oukacha prison in Casablanca.

Here too, the authorities reproduce the spatial and temporal relations between center and periphery: the great distance and poor transport connections to Al Hoceima only rarely allow the relatives to visit the prisoners; and it took almost a year, until April 2018, for Zafzafi's trial to begin. When he was given the floor, he reported torture and humiliation by the prison guards he and the other Hirak prisoners suffered, including rape.

Transmediterranean mobilization

With regard to the socio-economic situation in the Rif, the monarchy reacted according to a well-known pattern: in July, some of the less known protesters were pardoned by the king, who also exhorted the political officials to do their job properly. By the end of October 2017, shortly before the anniversary of Fikri's death, the king dismissed three ministers and several leaders, and appointed new ones.

Little has changed since then.

"As always, the king shirks his responsibility and puts the blame on the politicians – but they cannot do anything without his consent. The regime will not respond to the demands for the time being, because they are afraid that the Rif protests will set an example and that other regions will follow suit," says Abdessamad* (28), whose family comes from the Rif and immigrated to Germany when he was still a small child. Abdelssamad is currently studying economics in Düsseldorf, where he is an activist in the "Committee of the Rif People's Movement".

The Moroccan diaspora in Europe is increasingly mobilizing support for the Hirak

The Moroccan diaspora in Europe is increasingly mobilizing support for the Hirak movement and its prisoners, forming a transnational solidarity movement. In January 2018, some 120 members of support committees from cities such as Paris, Strasbourg, Amsterdam, Madrid, Oslo or Düsseldorf met for the first time in Frankfurt am Main for a joint coordination meeting and laid foundations for further cooperation.

The organizers had also invited the lawyer Abdessadeq El Bouchtaoui who defends some of the arrested Hirak activists. One week after the meeting in Frankfurt, El Bouchtaoui himself was indicted and sentenced to 20 months in prison for supporting the demands of the Rif movement on Facebook. Now he is residing in Geneva, where he has applied for asylum. The repression and the dire social situation in the Rif also seem to increase refugee flows to Europe in general. According to figures from the EU border agency Frontex, the number of clandestine entries to Spain via Morocco has increased steeply, from roughly 700 in 2016 to almost 5000 in 2017.

The Hirak solidarity movement in Europe brings together very different experiences of migration to Europe. Ibrahim* (62), grew up in Meknès where he had been an activist in leftist student groups. He came to study in Strasbourg in the 1980s, took on French citizenship, and describes himself as a convinced European.

Others, like Driss* (37), one of the local organizers of the January meeting in Frankfurt, state that they have never been active before. “My parents come from the Rif, but they hardly ever talk politics. However, when the Hirak protests began I took interest and started to do my research on the situation and the history of the Rif, and my friends and I decided to organize.”

At a rally last February in Frankfurt am Main, on the occasion of the visit of the Moroccan minister for Moroccans living abroad, the speeches also addressed the experience of the diaspora: Only here he had learned how institutions can function under the rule of law, one of the speakers emphasized. Another speaker addressed the Makhzen and shouted: "We live here now, you can't hurt us!" But when asked if they can continue to visit their relatives in Morocco without being bothered, many of the activists answer with uncertainty, especially those who do not have German citizenship.

The assertion made at the beginning - that Morocco must be declared a safe country of origin since Europeans go there on holiday - must feel like a slap in the face to them.

The solidarity movement also directly addresses the EU, Morocco’s most important trading partner, accounting for almost 60% of its trade in 2017, with both sides currently negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). Hirak solidarity committees have mobilized protest rallies not only in front of Moroccan embassies and consulates throughout Europe, but also in front of the European Parliament. Here, they have gained the support of several MEPs, among them Kati Piri, member of the Dutch labour party and of the EU Committee on Foreign Affairs.

“In the Netherlands, we have a community of about 400.000 Dutch Moroccans, of which the vast majority come from the Rif”, Piri states. Members of her party who have their origins in the region approached her with the human rights situation there. In April this year, Piri and the former Dutch minister of development, Lilianne Ploumen, visited Morocco, specifically to learn about to the situation in the Rif, also with regard to their constituency in the Netherlands, as Piri emphasizes. They first attended the trial of Nasser Zafzafi in Casablanca, and met the team of the prisoners’ lawyers, who informed them of the irregular procedures in the trial.

Then, Moroccan authorities would not allow them to continue their travel to Al Hoceima, as they had announced it. Piri wants the EU parliament to take a clear position and address the situation of the Hirak detainees as political prisoners and put the human rights situation in Morocco at the top of its agenda.

“The biggest group of asylum seekers in Spain are now from the Rif. This should really alarm the EU. These are not migrants coming from somewhere else in Africa, they are Moroccans themselves, fleeing. How can you make an agreement with the Moroccan government concerning migration if the cause is how they are handling the situation in the Rif."

In April, Piri and other MPs invited Zafzafi’s parents who spoke at a meeting at the European parliament in Strasbourg and reported on the situation of the prisoners. Encounters like these show that protests in the Moroccan metropoles, the periphery and the diaspora are interacting in new ways to bring forward their demands and to contend the repressive backlash in the country. This is partly due to the activism of the younger generation in the urban centers like Rabat or Casablanca, which in 2011 tested new forms of mobilizations, articulated a new civic self-confidence, and opened further spaces for a political public.

Social demands also organize collective memory - of colonial violence

The social demands that are now being introduced by the periphery into this new framework of contentious politics, such as the demand for a cancer treatment center in Al Hoceima, are in turn closely connected with colonial history and the history of marginalization of rural regions. In this sense, social demands also organize collective memory - of colonial violence, but also of the fact that national history could have been different and that rural Morocco has a claim to the share of the wealth accrued in the metropoles.

Finally, the diaspora increasingly contributes its experiences to this dynamic. These new networks and their dynamic interplay could be of importance in determining to what extent current and future protests will bring about change in Morocco.

*Name has been replaced to protect identity

About the author

Christoph H. Schwarz is a Post-Doc in the Research Network Reconfigurations at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at Philipps University Marburg. Currently, he is a visiting scholar at the University of Strasbourg in the research project MIGREVAL - Biographical policy evaluation by migrants and their descendants. His research interests include migration, social movements, intergenerational relations, and collective memory in the Mediterranean and Europe, particularly in Morocco and Spain.


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