A wave of protests in Morocco’s northern Rif region started seven months ago over the death of a fish seller and intensified in recent weeks, upending the otherwise stable country and presenting King Mohammed VI with some of the strongest public opposition since the Arab Spring protests of 2011.
The protests, which started in the city of Al Hoceima in October 2016, have spread to cities outside the Rif including Marrakesh and Rabat, following the arrest of popular opposition leader Nasser Zefzafi in May of this year.
The death of fish seller Mouhcine Fikri, who perished in a garbage compacter after authorities reportedly confiscated his merchandise of banned swordfish, set off a firestorm of protests and criticism after the gruesome images were circulated on social media. The protests in the aftermath of Fikri’s death came to be known as Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or the Popular Movement.
The outpouring of anger appears to be the manifestation of populist resentment against a central government that many in the Rif region feel has largely neglected their economic, political, and even social rights. Many protestors feel frustrated by what they view as the lack of substantive changes following the 2011 Arab Spring protests, arguing that the few government reforms which followed were largely cosmetic, tightly controlled, and changed little to actualize democratic or economic gains. Protestors have called on the government to do more to create jobs, provide government services such as healthcare, and stem endemic official corruption.
As the protests grew in number and intensity, Nasser Zefzafi, an unemployed resident of Al-Hoceima, emerged as the de-facto and unofficial leader of the movement. Zefzafi’s effusive speeches denounced the corruption of the central government and the neglect of the Rif region’s economy. He also expressed anger at what he saw as monopolization of industrial fishing by associates of the regime. Zefzafi developed a wide following and allowed the movement to consolidate under the Hirak banner. According to Newsweek, Zefzafi was also a member of the February 20 Movement that spearheaded anti-government protests across Morocco in 2011 during the Arab Spring.
The Government’s Reaction
Following Fikri’s death in October 2016, the government’s reaction appeared cautious and measured as King Mohamed VI looked to stem the tide of anger and to quell any further public backlash. King Mohammed VI ordered a thorough investigation to probe the nature of the incident as well as to discern responsibility for the fish seller’s death. The General Directorate for National Security released a statement denying several allegations made by protestors of bribery and police misconduct during the incident.
Morocco’s Prime Minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, released a statement expressing his condolences over Fikri’s death, but urged members and supporters of his party to refrain from joining in the protests. The Moroccan Human Rights Association condemned the “heinous” incident and related the death to a similar incident in Hoceima, in which five young people died during 2011 protests by the February 20th Movement.
In November of 2016, the Public Prosecution ordered eleven suspects, including two law enforcement officers, some local fishermen, and a veterinarian, to appear before the investigating judge over their suspected involvement in Fikri’s death.
Protests continued to swell, however, spreading to the cities of Tetouan, Casablanca, and Rabat by February 2017 and leading to clashes between protesters and security forces who were seeking to contain them.
On April 26, 2017, Al Hoceima’s Court of Appeals handed down verdicts in the Fikri case. Seven defendants received prison sentences between five and eight months for their alleged involvement in the incident. In addition, the Moroccan government fired the regional governor in an effort to show greater accountability. Meanwhile, Fikri’s family received compensation in the form of an undisclosed sum of money. According to Morocco World News, Fikri’s brother reportedly expressed anger on behalf of his family concerning the verdicts.
“The state committed injustice against Mouhcine while he was alive and after his death,” he told the news website.
At the same time, protests continued to escalate not only in the Rif but outside, culminating in the Moroccan government’s decision to announce expedited development programs in the region as well as a pledge to hold dialogue with the protestors. However, on May 29, Moroccan authorities arrested Nasser Zefzafi, after allegations that he had interrupted a prayer ceremony at a mosque in Al Hoceima. He is currently awaiting trial on charges of “threatening national security,” prosecutors have said; a charge which carries the death penalty if he is found guilty. The arrest of Zefzafi and the subsequent detention of as many as one hundred other Hirak movement leaders shows the government’s shift toward a more heavy-handed approach to try and quell the unrest. Reportedly, twenty-five Hirak activists were sentenced to eighteen-month prison terms.
In addition to repressive tactics, the Moroccan government has attempted to delegitimize the protests in the eyes of the public by accusing Rif activists of being separatists who wish to tear apart the social fabric of the country, while also implying that they are externally funded.
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Solidarity protests continue to take place across the country. Increasingly, women are making their voices heard in the protests, even leading their own. One Moroccan political analyst has called this a “significant” development, as it breaks with a long tradition of protests as male-dominated spaces. On June 4, Moroccan authorities suppressed a women’s protest in Al Hoceima, encircling hundreds of participants and preventing others from joining.
The largest protest occurred in Rabat on June 11, organized by the banned Islamist group, Justice and Spirituality. It is notable that the Justice and Spirituality successfully mobilized such a large turnout, as the group does not recognize King Mohammed VI as Morocco’s highest religious authority; spelling potential further public backlash against the monarchy. However, the protests themselves continue to appear directed at the Moroccan government more generally, and not specifically toward the King.
As recently as June 28, eighty security force members sustained injuries in clashes with protestors over a two-day period in Al Hoceima and the neighboring town of Imzouren. Videos shared on social media show the police using truncheons to disperse the crowds, leaving some protestors bloodied and even unconscious. A spokesperson for the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) stated that the police arrested approximately 150 people during the clashes, based on the group’s sources.
Zefzafi’s defense lawyers have said that he will appear before an investigative judge for further questioning on July 10 related to the circumstances surrounding his arrest. International Human Rights watchdog organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the police crackdown on protestors.
A Human Rights Watch spokesperson called on the Moroccan government to “investigate the credible allegations of police violence against Zefzafi and refrain from filing any charges that stem from peaceful speech or protest.”
What began as a demand for justice for a fish seller has become a rallying cry for greater economic and political rights in a region of Morocco many feel is consistently ignored and underdeveloped by the central government. Fikri’s death, and the government’s handling of its aftermath, have become representative of the very frustrations Moroccans sought to challenge during the 2011 Arab Spring. The unrest is not only a test of the government’s power, but how the monarchy promotes itself as a model for stability and reform. Whatever steps the government takes next may be crucial; if the monarchy’s response is only superficial reforms, it is unlikely the unrest in the Rif and beyond will slow any time soon.
Margaret Suter is an MA graduate from the American University School of International Service International Affairs Program. Her work focuses on international development and civil society in the Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on Twitter @MAminishakib.