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Morocco's Hirak Movement: The People Versus the Makhzen

[Men carrying fish in Essaouira, Morocco. Photo credit to Juan Antonio Segal.] [Men carrying fish in Essaouira, Morocco. Photo credit to Juan Antonio Segal.]

Morocco’s Hirak protests are the latest bout in the tug-of-war between the Makhzen (Moroccan regime) and the victims of hogra. The late Mouhcine Fikri, the political prisoner Nasser Zefzafi, and Nawal Ben Aissa have emerged as the emblematic figures of this movement. Al Hirak al Chaabi, or the Popular Movement, is an independent, popular movement that was started in the northern Moroccan city of Al Hoceima in October 2016 by local inhabitants who were fed up with the status quo. The protests have grown significantly in the last months, despite numerous attempts by authorities to quell the movement, which has now spread throughout the country. Although it is not associated with any political party or organization, a number of political and civil society groups have expressed their solidarity with the movement. Between October 2016 and May 2017, the protesters’ demands evolved from mainly socioeconomic grievances into a more potent political message; slogans used in the protests virulently denouncing the Makhzen’s rampant corruption, poor governance, and outright appropriation of the nation’s resources.

Often considered to be largely insulated from the unrest and upheaval brought about by the Arab Spring, Morocco is now facing mounting turmoil throughout the country. Demonstrations were initially confined to the Rif, which is an Amazigh-majority region that has been marked by persistent social marginalization and economic deprivation ever since the establishment of Morocco’s territorial borders. Yet, they have now boiled over. The country is now witnessing a spate of violence in Al Hoceima and the Rif region, as well as in the country’s largest cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech, Meknes and others. Although there is no official number of participants, live footage shows several thousand marchers in each of these demonstrations.

In October 2016, Moroccans took the streets after a fish vendor was crushed to death in a garbage truck on the orders of the police forces in Al Hoceima. Widely relayed on social media platforms, the footage of Mouhcine Fikri’s murder sparked unprecedented outrage. Thousands are now protesting, demanding that justice be served and the killers held accountable: first by recognizing Fikri’s murder, which has been equated with “the murder of all Rifans” during chants, but also by offering concrete solutions to the crises faced by ordinary Moroccans. This would include socioeconomic reforms to lower youth unemployment and ease the rising cost of living, but also structural reforms to benefit sectors such as education and health, both of which are neglected by the state budget.

Initially met with complete disregard on the part of the authorities, the protests increased in scope and intensity in May, and reached their zenith following the 29 May arrest of Nasser Zefzafi, the figurehead of the Hirak movement, after he interrupted a Friday sermon prayer in Al Hoceima. Zefzafi accused the local mosque’s imam of acting as a mouthpiece for the regime in the hopes of discrediting the growing opposition movement. He was subsequently  arrested after a three-day search for “interrupting a religious ceremony” and “civil disobedience.” 

The brutal murder of Mouhcine Fikri and arrest of Nasser Zefzafi are symptomatic of Morocco’s entrenched social inequalities. They also demonstrate the Makhzen’s bare, yet sophisticated, politics of repression throughout the kingdom, and more specifically in the Rif. This region is often characterized as an outcast in the Moroccan public discourse; it has purposely been marginalized by successive ruling powers as a reminder of its rebellious secessionist past. For instance, until recently, the exclusion of the Rif from integrative educational policies demonstrated an intent to divide rather than to solidify the understanding of Moroccan citizenship. Basic infrastructure in the Rif is sorely lacking; a sole, dangerous mountainous road is the only ground connection that links Al Hoceima with the rest of the country. On the economic front, it took the government over eleven years to start a development plan in Al Hoceima after an earthquake destroyed much of the city in 2004. In a press briefing issued 1 June 2017, Ilyas el Omari, Secretary General of the Authenticity and Modernity party (PAM)—a party founded by a childhood friend and close advisor to the king—and himself a native of Al Hoceima, lamented the crisis and stated that “Not a single dirham was spent by any government department on Al Hoceima’s development plan in 2016.” Here we clearly see the tensions between an exasperated population and a government that did not keep its promises.

Myriam Abouzeid argues that the social and economic neglect suffered in the Rif region has spawned new forms of social and cultural autonomy. Due to these conditions, events in Al Hoceima could very well ignite an intensification of the recent contestation movement throughout the country. 

The protests that spread throughout the country to denounce Fikri’s killing were the largest coordinated protests to take place in the kingdom since 2011. In October, after days of unrest and the silence of the authorities, King Mohamed VI eventually instructed the Minister of the Interior to present his condolences to Fikri’s family, and promised to hold the perpetrators of Mouhcine’s death accountable through thorough investigations, though there have been no tangible results to date.

Since late May, the solidarity demonstrations taking place in Morocco’s largest cities have been met with violence and arrests while the government continues to utterly ignore the core grievances of the protesters. Clashes between the riot police and protesters have led to the arrest of a growing number of demonstrators, as well as journalists, activists, and community leaders. Demonstrators claim that riot police forces received direct orders to assault protesters who did not comply, while the defense attorneys of those incarcerated by the authorities allege that their clients were subjected to torture and abuse while in police custody. Pictures and video recordings circulating on social media show the serious injuries that protesters continue to suffer. According to Reuters correspondent in Rabat, Samia Errazzouki, “Several activists have confirmed riot police used live warning shots and tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters in Al Hoceima.”

In October of 2016, then Minister of the Interior Mohamed Hassad had already threatened demonstrators and online activists with the famous “Rakom me3rofin”- which roughly translates to “You are well known.” This was a signal that any support for Hirak is being monitored by the authorities and could lead to reprisals. Activist circles have now appropriated the expression, and it has become a popular hashtag, proving that the politics of fear strategy is no longer sustainable. 

It is important to note that the media, civil society organizations, and online activities fall under the scrutiny of the Penal Code and the broadly defined notion of national security, all of which pose serious concerns for civil liberties and freedoms. Morocco’s highly repressive Penal Code, promulgated in 1963, is in fact a revised version of the Napoleonic Code of 1810, which was extended in 1953 by the French colonial apparatus to severely crush the “terrorist nationalist movement” and to punish the resistance of local populations against their oppressive rulers.

Following independence in 1956, King Hassan II used the same French project to increase his authoritarian grasp on the country. More recently, King Mohamed VI has been in charge of reforming the Penal Code, in partnership with the government. This façade of reform aims to bolster the state apparatus while simultaneously narrowing the spectrum of civil liberties in the name of national security. It is in this context of subjugation that the Moroccan state developed the current counter-terrorism strategy that also applies to peaceful, yet angry, protesters. Today, the legal definition of a terrorist has changed as little as the Penal Code: The nationalists, who represented a danger to the French establishment, and were the target of French anti-terrorism legislation, have been replaced by a similar category that encompasses anyone who criticizes the regime or demands reform.

The methods inherited from colonization and currently used by the government are doing little to appease the basic demands of a population hungry for equal opportunities and social justice.

Moreover, the figures and symbols of the Hirak are consistently employed by the nationalist media to discredit the movement’s goals and message. After Zefzafi’s arrest, the yellow press began to leak pictures of Zefzafi in the company of women and leading a luxurious life on yachts, which presented a stark contrast to his activism. Still, the raging media campaign against him that sought to portray his message as inconsistent with his personal life only served to further establish his plight with the government.

Zefzafi is facing heavy charges for threatening national security and receiving foreign aid, crimes for which he is likely to face the death penalty or a long prison term, depending on the judge. The large Rifan diaspora that has been based in Europe for decades makes the allegations of foreign support easy to establish; immigrant families often send money to their families and invest in their hometowns as they prepare for their return. A large Hirak protest is already planned for 20 July, at a time when many families will have returned to Morocco. The role that the diaspora could play in these protests is yet to be determined, but it is likely that their number and status will exert additional pressure on the government. Videos of protesters tearing up their Moroccan passports circulating on the internet show their refusal to pledge allegiance to a state that no longer represents them. These tensions increase the likelihood that similar events will occur this summer. 

In a manifest effort to continue the contestation, female figures such as Nawal Ben Aissa, a 36 year old mother of four, have rapidly come to the forefront of protests and provided new faces for the movement. Ben Aissa announced in a video, which subsequently went viral, that she was turning herself to the police after an arrest warrant was issued against her on 1 June. She was interrogated and released shortly afterwards.

Moreover, in spite of its remarkable silence, the state is carefully working behind the scenes to invalidate the Hirak movement. For instance, the waving of the Rifan and Amazigh flags during the protests is also seen by the state as a direct attack on Morocco’s territorial integrity and as a clear, separatist message. This sentiment is nurtured by pro-palace media platforms designed to spread fear, deter solidarity and isolate the protests from the wider population. Nevertheless, this effort has been unsuccessful and an ever-increasing number of demonstrators are taking to the streets and displaying unconcealed support for the Hirak on social media.

While the government has issued several general blanket statements on the situation, the propagandist media is stoking popular fear by suggesting that public demonstrations could degenerate into a complete breakdown of law and order similar to the ongoing crises in neighboring Libya and Syria. This narrative has worried the larger Moroccan public and led to ambivalent reactions.

In the same vein, the media has charged the Rifan movement with receiving foreign support from separatist entities such as the Polisario and Algeria. This is a common strategy of the Makhzen to stigmatize any kind of antagonism against the official discourse. Yet, these accusations bear little credibility in light of the scarcity of independent media and the vulnerability of its position within a heavily controlled state apparatus that fosters a repressive environment in which dissent and legitimate demands are equated with disloyalty, foreign influence and treason. In reality, as argued by Aboubakr Jamaï, the underlying reasons of the current uprisings, although they began in the Rif, go beyond regionalism and touch upon the whole social fabric of a nation engulfed in “social and economic despair.”

In short, the government continues to dismiss the grievances of its citizens and has failed to take concrete reform measures to address underlying inequalities. It has written off these protests as isolated events instigated by malign foreign influence or disloyal domestic actors bent on the overthrow of the state. As long as this continues, the situation has the potential to degenerate into  a full-blown crisis.

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