A Reconstruction of the Rif’s Uprising
Sara Borrillo 26 July 2017

In recent months the Rif’s ‘people’s movement’ is playing a leading role in Moroccan current events and has been named the Hirāk shaʻabī. The central government has reacted to protests with arrests and repression.

Reasons for the protests

The first protests were sparked by the death of a fish trader called Mohsine Fikri, who died in the garbage truck he had jumped into to retrieve a load of fish seized by the authorities because it was considered to be non-compliant with regulations. The people’s rage exploded when news circulated about the involvement of the police in ordering the activation of the compactor. These events took place on October 28th, 2016. A spontaneous and peaceful sit-in outside police headquarters in Al-Hoceima led the authorities to announce that there would be an enquiry to establish responsibility for what had taken place. Since then thousands of people have taken to the streets of Al-Hoceima, and then also to those of nearby towns such as Imzouren, giving life to what has been called the People’s Movement (Hirāk shaʻabī). This was initially a spontaneous movement using protests methods that always remained peaceful and that later became organised, assuming political status. The slogans used at protests marches now once again include the words karāma, dignity, ḥurriyya, freedom and ‘adāla ijtimāiyya, social justice, as happened during the movement’s protests on February 20th, 2011.

Just as happened at the time, the objective of these protests is to decry the hogra, the humiliation suffered mainly by the young and the unemployed inhabitants of a region historically affected by economic alienation. This in spite of the launching in 2015 of a Development Plan for the Al-Hoceima region and the approval of a regionalisation law that was meant to stimulate the local economy in which most revenue comes from fishing as well as the production and smuggling of hashish. Now even more than ever protests are characterised by the Berber cultural element, marches are characterised by the presence of the coloured flags of the Amazigh Movement (yellow, red, blue and green), by banners and portraits of Fikri and the Rif hero Abdel Karim Al-Khattabi (1882-1963). Furthermore, the movement’s socio-economic demands are well set out in detail in a sort of manifesto. In it Hirak asks for the end of the economic ‘freeze’, for productive investments and jobs, infrastructure and professional training, a battle against corruption also requesting development as well as, in practical terms, a hospital, a university, libraries, a theatre, roads and other welfare services needed to lead a worthwhile life.

The movement’s ever increasing importance both as far as popularity achieved in the country and its presence in the national and international media are concerned (especially in the Spanish and French press but in recent months also in English language media), has resulted in increased tension with the authorities in Rabat. In January, during a sit-in held to commemorate Fikri, there was a first violent intervention by the police to disperse protesters. Since then, confrontation with security forces has become increasingly harsh. Following changes at top government levels early in April (in which the king, as the representative of an “executive monarchy” replaced Prime Minister Benkiran, leader of the Justice and Development Party, with Saad Eddine El-Othmani), the appointment of Abdelouafi Laftit, originally from the Rif, as Interior Minister, does not appear to have facilitated a dialogue between the central government and Hirak. The institutions’ reaction to the demands made on the streets have been perceived as slow and inadequate and the first sentence handed down on April 26th in the trial concerning the Fikri affair (7 people between police officers, fishing sector employees and garbage collectors received prison sentences ranging from five to eight months and a fine), did not calm the people’s anger. Protests continued while the movement was accused of receiving funds from abroad (from Algeria), separatism and treason. On the other hand, as had happened during the 2011 protests, protesters were accused of atheism or homosexuality, considered an internal threat to a nation founded on the pillars of the monarchy, Islam as the state religion and territorial continuity (including the disputed Western Sahara).

In the second half of May, following an attempt made by a ministerial mission to reassure the population as far as reform plans for the region were concerned, an effort to negotiate with local players belonging to associations did not obtain the hoped-for results. Later on, repression by security forces attempted to fragment the movement by dispersing protests held every evening in Martyrs’ Square in Al-Hoceima also during Ramadan, arresting various representatives of Hirak. On May 29th the movement’s leader Nasser Zafzafi was arrested and charged with “threatening national security”.

The leader, the repression, the people’s reaction, women’s’ protests

A 39 year old and the owner of a mobile phone shop affected by the crisis, Nasser has been described by TelQuel as the grandson of Mohammad Zafzafi, who sided with the anti-imperialist AbdelKhrim Al Khattabi. Before Fikri’s death he was active on-line posting videos against the “corrupt state”. He was one of the first to harangue protesters following Fikri’s death and since then, speaking in dharija or in tarifit Berber, he has attacked corruption and authoritarianism, calling for the movement to continue to use peaceful methods and inviting everyone “not to betray the Rif’. In April, in an interview with Le Monde he accused the Moroccan authorities of incompetence and racism as far as the Riffians were concerned. A very charismatic and respected man, judged to be an excessively instinctive populist by some, Zafzafi was aware of being wanted and that – in his opinion – someone would try and bribe him. According to the local media, there was one specific event that led to his arrest and that was the occasion on which Zafzafi interrupted the sermon during Friday prayers at a mosque where, it is said, the Imam accused the People’s Movement of fitna, being a threat to order. Zafzafi allegedly accused the Imam of corruption and invited the faithful to join the protests.

In addition to Zafzafi, there are now thought to be about 200 detainees from Hirak in Casablanca’s Ouakhacha prison. On June 2nd Reporters Without Borders asked that all journalists reporting on events in the Rif be guaranteed their freedom. This followed their reports on the arrest of Houssein Al-Idrissi, a photographer working for Rif Press, and of Fouad Assaidi from AwarTV, as well as the disappearance of Mohammad El-Asrihi, a web Rif24 journalist and a member of Hirak’s central nucleus, the so-called Galaxi Committee, from the name of the bar in which Zafzafi met with him as well as with the February 20th Movement activist Mohammad Jelloul, the trade unionist professor Mohammed Mejjaoui and Nabil Ahamjik, author of many of the movement’s slogans.

In this political climate, the Hiraki News partnership was formed in Casablanca with the objective of keeping a high level of media attention on the movement. Its Facebook page publishes calls to protest and video updates. Solidarity protests supporting activists have been organised in Rabat, Tangiers, Agadir and Casablanca where a “Support Committee for Hirak’s detainees” has also been set up.

The role played by women in this movement should not be underestimated.

Nawal Benaissa, the young mother of four children and leader of the protests in Al-Hoceima, handed herself in to the authorities on June 1st because a warrant for her arrest had been issued. In a video filmed on a terrace just before she went to the police station and posted on her Facebook page, she spoke of the movement’s values; peaceful protests, requests that detainees belonging to Hirak be released and the region’s development. In some videos posted on YouTube, she attacks the central government for being “responsible for discrimination against the people of the Rif” and specifies that women in this region “suffer the same alienation as men and like men are responsible for the fight for dignity”. In another more recent video she invited the population to take part in the July 20th protest “for the right to education, health, for the children of the Rif, for freedom.”

Salima Ziani, the 23-year-old artist and singer known as Silya, has also distinguished herself by leading protests in Al-Hoceima. Since June 5th she is the only woman belonging to Hirak who has been detained and placed in solitary confinement in a prison in Casablanca. Mobilisation for her release and that of all others was quickly organised. On July 8th, a protest called “Moroccan women for the release of Hirak’s political detainees” had hundreds of people outside parliament in Rabat shouting Kullunā Silya, kullunā al-Rif(‘we are all Silya, we are all the Rif’). The protest was interrupted by the police who “used ferocious and frenzied violence against women, men and passers-by’, according to Khadija Riadi from the Moroccan Human Rights Association. Nonetheless, the women launched a national protest campaign for the release of Silya and all Kirak’s political prisoners.

These protests followed a wave of national and international solidarity that on June 11th saw thousands take part in an imposing “March for Dignity” held in Rabat and that, because of the extraordinary number of protesters, reminded many of events in February 2011. Hirak expects one million people to attend the next protest on July 20th and an international presence is also planned with activists coming mainly from northern Europe and the cities of the Riffian diaspora.

In this local versus global dialogue, one must also include the statements made during a press conference by French President Macron following a private visit to the king in mid-June. The French president referred to the king’s intention to resolve the situation, a singular fact considering Mohammed VI’s silence, as he has not yet publicly spoken about the Rif. These statements resulted in a lively debate concerning colonial legacies and Macron’s unusual intervention in Morocco’s internal affairs, reawakening anti-colonial feelings among many activists, while another group of citizens and intellectuals have instead sent an appeal to the French president asking him to speed up the solution of the crisis in the Rif.

Historical continuity and possible developments

There seem to be two key aspects linked to these protests; their historical continuity arising from a lengthy analysis of local social movements playing a role in national and regional history and the Moroccan regime’s problems in managing bottom-up protests and mass demands without using repression.

As far as the first aspect is concerned, it is possible to set the events of recent months within a historical context that links them to anti-colonial resistance in the early 20th century, including battles during the post-independence period, starting in 1956, all the way to the so-called “Political Springs” in 2011. The Rif was the homeland of Abdel Kharim al-Khattabi, hero of the resistance against Spanish and French troops (1921-1926) and was the Rif Republic’s leader. The very first chemical attacks on defenceless civilians took place in this region, while the Rif was also the theatre of the 1958 autonomist uprising, bloodily repressed by the newly-independent monarchy.

On the one hand, the People’s Movement should be linked to the February 20th Movement that, in 2011, on the wave of events in Tunisia and throughout the Middle East, loudly called for political and economic reforms. Chanting words such as dignity, freedom and social justice, thousands of people took to the streets to denounce the humiliating conditions in which most of the population lived, opposing the widespread corruption of the bureaucratic system known as the Makzen [‘warehouse’, a word used to indicate the mammoth state apparatus Editor’s Note]. These were protests that marked a change of pace in national political life, in which the population clearly indicated its disapproval of constantly increasing class inequality and shameful living conditions with unemployment, illiteracy and extremely inadequate health and education systems for the disadvantaged members of society, compared to an ever-increasing wealth gap. A spectrum of heterogeneous social forces had gathered on the streets, ranging from the Islamists of the anti-monarchy movement Al-ʻadl wa-l-isān to left-wing movements, political parties’ youth groups, the Amazigh, feminists and ecologists. The demands made were also many, ranging from the acknowledgement of cultural rights, such as that of the official status of the Amazigh language (then added to the constitution in 2011) in addition to Arabic, to material rights such as an increase in the number of jobs available and wages. Known for its stability, partly also linked to the Islamic legitimacy of the monarchic power in virtue of the Alawite dynasty’s direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad, the regime soon reacted to these protests with a speech to the nation (March 9th, 2011) and a constitution issued from above and subjected to a confirmative referendum (July 1st, 2011). In addition to the official status of the Berber language and formal equality between men and women, little appears to have changed in terms of equilibrium between the powers of the state, of which the king remains the central and national arbiter.

As far as the second aspect is concerned, regarding the regime’s problems in guaranteeing the country’s stability without the use of repression, the recent Arab Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2016) links the high probability of a new wave of protests in the MENA region to regimes’ inability to incorporate demands made by the people in structural economic policies, aimed above all at the younger more alienated generations. The slogans chanted in the Rif such as ‘God, Homeland, the People’ instead of the classical national slogan ‘God, Homeland, King’ or ‘Long live the people’ and ‘Long live the Rif’ instead of ‘Long live the King’, indicate a wide rift between the people and the central institutions, which intermediate bodies and above all political parties, clearly do not know how to mend. Economic reforms therefore seem necessary, especially as far as employment and development are concerned, and must be capable of regaining the citizens’ confidence through a new social and economic contract. According to the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH), tension in Al-Hoceima remains very high and during Ramadan militants were constantly hunted down. Amnesty International has reported the use of torture during interrogations and accused the authorities of using mass arrests as a punitive measure following months of peaceful dissent. In spite of repression and the interruption of protests in Martyrs’ Square in Al-Hoceima, peaceful protests have continued following a pattern of various marches, organised in a different way on every occasion to avoid police repression. During the evenings of Ramadan, for example, protesters fled the police by hiding in suburban roads or avoiding road blocks by using mountain paths. On July 1st, Hirak protested on the beach in Al-Hoceima and the police became involved in a curious and unusual hand-to-hand (semi naked) battle with protesters. In the meantime the flow of information, updates on the situation in the city and new appeals for the release of detainees continue in the social media.

Similar forms of resistance, diversified at a strategic and operational level, alongside the clarity of demands and the inclusivity of participation, have led The Economist to describe Hirak a ‘creative and persistent movement’. It is necessary to also underline other aspects that make it a movement that appears to be experiencing a phase of growth. The movement has the ability to turn knowledge of and attachment to the land into an opportunity, to the point of ‘coinciding with the Rif’, as observed by the Moroccan researcher Montassir Sakhi. It also has the ability to quickly create supportive networks for the release of detainees in the country and abroad, also thanks to visibility on-line and on social networks, as well as through real local and foreign networks. This has facilitated a rise in symbolic capital, which had for some time been dormant, since the Rif’s battles are not just an example of socio-economic demands and cultural acknowledgment, fuelled by identity-linked elements characterised by historical memories, but also a resource for symbolic emancipating procurement beyond the region’s borders. These are fighting practices that added to a renewed image of resistance appear to have reawakened the hoped-for change seen in 2011.

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Photo: Ḥizb al-karāma (the party of dignity)



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