The coastal city of al-Hoceima has been plagued by unprecedented protests centered on regional identity and economic justice.
The Kingdom of Morocco is the most westerly of the North African countries. It is a sovereign country located in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Geographically, Morocco is characterized by a rugged mountainous interior, large tracts of desert, and a lengthy coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Its culture is a blend of Arab, Berber, European, and African influences.
Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 to 1956, when Sultan Mohammed became king. He was succeeded in 1961 by his son, Hassan II, who ruled for 38 years and played a prominent role in the search for peace in the Middle East.
Morocco is considered a relatively liberal economy governed by the law of supply and demand. It has followed a policy of privatization of certain economic sectors from 1993. It has become a major player in African economic affairs and is the 5th largest African economy by GDP.
The Rif Movement is a popular mass protest movement that erupted after a fishmonger named Mouhcine Fikri was crushed inside a rubbish truck while trying to recover his fish confiscated by police in the northern city of al-Hoceima in the Berber-speaking Rif region in October 2016. The Moroccan regime responded with repression, with violent clashes between police and protesters in several cities between October 2016 and June 2017. More than 150 people were arrested, who are perceived as leaders or media activists by the government.
Thousands of people had taken to the streets of the Moroccan capital Rabat on Sunday to demonstrate against the jailing of leaders of the Rif protest movement. Crowds were seen holding pictures of the detained activists, and waving Berber blue, green, yellow and red flags. They chanted slogans such as “Freedom, dignity and social justice”, “Long live the Rif”, and “The people want immediate release of Rif detainees”. The march brought together nearly 30,000 people including Berber groups, leftist opposition parties, human rights groups and the banned Islamist movement Al-Adl wal-Ihsan who mobilised between 6,000 and 8,000 people.
In June 2018, a court in Casablanca had sentenced 39 people, including protest leader Nasser Zefzafi, to jail terms of up to 20 years in connection with the Rif protest movement. “We will keep up our protests until the release of our sons,” Zefzafi’s mother Zoulikha said. Zefzafi is currently being held in Casablanca on charges of sedition and conspiracy. Moroccan authorities had chosen to detain him away from his native city and his popular base to defuse the protest movement and to avoid mass escalations.
The al-Hoceima demonstrations, as the Rif protest movement is also known, is the biggest and most peaceful local movement in Morocco since the Arab Spring protests of 2011 which prompted King Mohammed VI to devolve some of his powers to an elected parliament. After the Rif protests the king dismissed three ministers and various other officials over lack of progress in a development plan for the Rif.
One of the founders of the Rif movement, Ahmed Dgherni, called the march “a popular referendum that united different political trends” to back the cause of freedom. “The security approach adopted by the state derailed the peaceful protests in the Rif, leading to confrontations and arrests,” he said. Activists are appealing the sentences and Amnesty International has called for the verdicts to be overturned.
The marginalized Berber ethnic group is the majority in the Rif region. Unrest here is mainly focused on social issues such - as respecting, preserving and protecting the distinct Berber identity and language of the Rif. The demands put forth by the people include the demilitarization of the Rif region, the construction of a regional cancer hospital, university, library, theatre, roads and fish processing facilities, increased government investments and more jobs.
Last month, a lawyer representing the state had said that the sentences were lenient. In fact, some of the accused had been indicted for serious crimes including attacking law enforcement officers. The backlash over the sentences has mounted since government officials stated that the cabinet could not interfere in the matter because the judiciary is independent.
Our assessment is that the regime wants to intimidate the common citizens and discourage other movements that might be subsequently triggered. We believe that it might be difficult for the Rif protest movement to resume, with the imprisonment of its prominent leaders. We feel that the setting up of a democratic system will provide a more inclusive socioeconomic framework for a large number of people.