In Morocco, Hotbeds of Protest Are Not Being Extinguished

Strikes and social disputes followed one another in Morocco, from the Rif to Jerada, without repression succeeding in overcoming them completely. But these movements are struggling to unite, even if we can see in these mobilizations the fallout of the February 20 Movement that shook the country in 2011.

Demonstration in Jerada, March 2018.
Jalal Morchidi, Anadolu Agency.

For three months now the anger of the inhabitants of Jerada has never abated. On last 22 December, the death of two brothers in a coal mine triggered demonstrations in that city in North-West Morocco, already buffeted by the protests against the high costs of water and electricity. As time went by, the street gatherings morphed into a permanent protest.

According to Youssef Raissouni of the Association marocaine des droits humains (AMDH), it remains the only “uninterrupted” movement in a country riven by social tensions. The Jerada protesters are demanding a reorientation of the economy so that the people of a region where unemployment is rampant no longer have to risk their lives in illicit mines. At the end of the nineties, the mining facility was shut down and people had no choice but to go to work in those makeshift mineshafts and sell the coal at a ridiculous price to the “coal barons” who benefit from state permits.

Fearing the protests would spread, the authorities admitted the demands were justified and at the beginning of February announced a number of measures including a ban on illicit mining permits, the creation of new agricultural projects and free medical care for ailing retired miners. However on 10 March last, two of the movement’s leaders, Amine Mkallech and Mustapha Dainane, were arrested, ostensibly on account of a road accident that had occurred two days before. On 13 March, the Minister of Home Affairs banned all “unauthorized” public gatherings. The next day, thousands of people defied the ban and there were clashes with the police in which dozens were injured. Since then, according to the AMDH, nearly sixty people have been arrested. “The government responds by acts of repression to economic and social demands prompted by its persistence in pursuing an economic policy which only deepens inequalities, declared in a joint press release the Fédération de la gauche démocratique (FDG), the Association marocaine des droits humains (AMDH) and the Fédération nationale de l’enseignement (FNE) .

An Endlessly Repetitive Cycle

In Morocco, the history of protest movements is one of endless repetition. The current movement, like those that came before it, is now focused on the release of prisoners. On 2 April, the trial of seven demonstrators in Oujda was postponed once again. According to the Agence France Press, the charges brought against those arrested since 14 March include “incitement to civil disobedience,” “insulting behavior and violence with premeditation against public officers” and “incitement to commit crimes and misdemeanors.”

The Hirak (“movement”) emerged in October 2016 at Hoceima in the Rif. Its history was similar: for several months, the demonstrations were tolerated until the government decided to silence them.

They have been few and far between since the violent dispersal of a march on 20 July 2017 and the wave of arrests begun in May of that same year, which many human rights activists claim to have been unique in the recent history of Morocco. Today, according to the AMDH, at least 400 persons are in jail for having belonged to Hirak.

As in Jerada, it was an accidental death that triggered the first protests. On 28 October 2016, a 31 year-old fishmonger, Mohsine Fikri, was crushed to death in a garbage truck trying to recover his goods confiscated by a policeman. Gradually a movement arose, first to demand an investigation into the circumstances of Fikri’s death, then to put forth economic and social claims: the fight against corruption, the construction of a cancer center, hospitals and universities, and the demilitarization of the region. “A share of the wealth created should be channeled towards the satisfaction of these demands. And yet the government’s only response is repression” is the angry verdict of Abdellah Lefnatsa, an activist with the AMDH.

The repression has never really stopped, says this union member who has participated in every demonstration for some thirty years. And indeed, since 2011, there has been an endless succession of waves of arrests while the hotbeds of protest inspired by the 20 February Movement and its call for far-reaching political and social reforms, have been snuffed out one after another. In the Rif town of Beni Nouayach, in Taza, and in Casablanca, countless activists have been jailed. Though the AMDH is unable to come up with an exact figure, it estimates that 300 political prisoners were imprisoned between 2011 and 2016. Last year, in addition to the repression that shook the Rif, 124 activists (human rights defenders, union members, students) were arrested for political reasons throughout the country, according to Raissouni.

The Legacy of The 20 February Movement

Though it has now run out of steam, Hirak in the Rif has provided fresh impetus to various social movements. However, this momentum is not unprecedented. Many such movements sprung up in Morocco after the 20 February events, with many activists ensuring continuity between them. Some, in particular, took part in the 2011 demonstrations, and later in Hirak. Mohamed Jelloul, one of the 54 activists currently on trial for their participation in Hirak is representative of the links between the various movements. A member of the 20 February Movement, convicted for his participation in the Beni Bouayach events in 2012, released after serving a five year sentence, he was jailed again a few weeks later.

Lefnatsa sees the vitality and multiplicity of these social movements as a direct result of the impact of the 20 February Movement on Moroccan activists. “The 20 February Movement has moved from the center to the periphery. It began here [in Rabat]. Now the vanguard is in the provinces. The Movement has been decentralized and at present is a source of inspiration for all the local protests, he explains. “The demands are no longer political, they are social, they go deeper.”

“When the watchwords are political, the government has a great deal of latitude. It can convey the impression of heeding the demands but it is only an illusion. In 2011, there was the new Constitution while in fact there was repression. It was just a maneuver. [When the government is faced with economic and social demands], it has no room for maneuver. To satisfy them, it has to put some money on the line. You can’t build hospitals with slogans. So they have to back down, make concessions as to how the wealth of the nation is to be shared.”

In Errachidia, Tinghir, Ouarzazate, Outat El-Haj, Fqih Bensalah, Khouribga and Tan Tan the same watchwords are chanted, independently of the particularities of this or that region and despite the absence of any structural links between the various movements. “ From time to time, smaller protests are held, with very precise demands: water, electricity, Sulaliyyate lands. Others have arisen following the deaths of children in hospitals or in certain shantytowns, to denounce some people’s exclusion from the rehousing programs in Casablanca and Mohamedia,” Lefnatsa continues.

Protests in Defiance of Repression

During the summer of 2017 there were again protests in the Southern town of Zagora. These appear to be intermittent but they have been going on since the turn of the new century, as Brahim Rizkou of the local AMDH office reminds us. Until last November, street demonstrations were organized to complain about water supply stoppages and the absence of medical facilities which oblige patients to travel to Ouarzazate for the simplest treatment, including childbirth.

However the arrest of 31 demonstrators as well as the improved weather conditions have put a damper on the protests. Fourteen people received sentences of from two to three months and one is still in jail, accused of having started a fire, Rizkou specifies. “The days are getting hot again and it is impossible to know whether the demos are going to start again or how frequent they’ll be.”

Khadija Ryadi, former president of the AMDH and winner of a UN prize in the field of human rights, is nonetheless convinced that the wall of fear has receded. “Repression does not prevent social movements from getting under way. A few years ago, people took to the streets, there was a crackdown and it was all over. Now the movements last, in Jerada and in the Rif. And they involve a lot of people, not just activists. There are many women, whole families come out, all of which gives the movements social depth.”

Except for Hirak in the Rif, now considerably weakened on the ground but whose demands have found an echo throughout the country, no social movement appears to have actually worried the Moroccan power structure. The oldest such movement, the sit-in at Imider in Southern Morocco, is a telling example of the way the government has relied in the past few years on the isolation and deterioration of the movements. Indeed, since 2011, at the top of Mount Alebban, the inhabitants take turns guarding a water pipe they have closed which leads to a silver mine operated by the mining group Managem, part of the royal holding Société Nationale d’investissement (SNI).

At the beginning of this year, the activists, who continue tirelessly denouncing the pollution and water shortages which they blame on the mine, celebrated the release of the last three of their thirty-three prisoners, jailed since 2011. Amidst total indifference.