Hirak. Stick Approach, the Only Response of Moroccan Power

The heavy sentences which struck the leaders of the Hirak confirm that the Moroccan power refuses to hear the popular demands. It knows only one response to social and democratic aspirations: repression.

June 2017. — Protest in Al Hoceima.
Mohamed Mouha

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN

Nothing in the world can force you to bend the knee renounce your human identity. Do not weigh your strength on the scales of your tormentors. Abdellatif Laâbi, In Praise of Defeat, First Archipelago Books edition, 2016.

In September 2017, after the Moroccan state imprisoned a number of Hirak protestors, the New York Times’s editorial board ran an article that it titled “Morocco’s Refusal to Listen.” Now after the heavy verdicts fell on the protesters, the Moroccan state has unsurprisingly proven deaf to the people’s voice. But what is by now also proven beyond a speck of doubt is the people increasingly growing refusal to bend the knee. As such, the authorities have entered into a contentious relation with the people. On one end there are the traditional authorities who own the country’s wealth and are fuelled by autocracy and authoritarianism. And on the other there are the people who got fed up of being locked down for speaking out and now are experimenting with leaderless movements that run on the Internet. They trust the state no more.

“Did they kill Kennedy?”

Imagine if you collectively raise your voice to ask for a better tomorrow and what you get in response is three centuries of accumulated jail time. Before the sentence, you attend your first trial. The state lawyers say you undermined the internal security of the state, making the case for your life imprisonment. You defend yourself by saying you simply want employment, a hospital, a university, an end to the omnipresence of the police and their informants in your region. You say that your peaceful protest for the realisation of these legitimate demands is a constitutional right. The trial repeats 84 times over nine months and three days. It becomes a farce. People in the street ask: “Did they kill Kennedy?”

But who are these people? They are the second-wave Hirak leaders and protestors to be jailed after a first wave of protestors got a 7-month sentence each after appeal last July, after Hirak activist Elmortada Iamrachen got a five-year sentence, and after 18-year-old Jamal Oulad Abdennabi got a twenty-year sentence that was reduced to five after appeal. These second-wave prisoners include Nasser Zefzafi, Nabil Ahamjik, Ouassim El Boustati, Samir Ighid, each sentenced for 20 years in jail. Mohamed Jelloul, formerly detained for five years for his activism, now sentenced to 10 years more. Mohamed Asrihi, director of Rif24 newspaper, and Rabie El Ablak, correspondent of Badil newspaper that is now closed after the detention of its founder journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui, got five years each. Hamid El Mahdaoui got three years. The list, characteristic of an authoritarian regime, is made of 54 political prisoners in total. The prisoners are expected to appeal, although news circulates that some of them are hesitating.

Statements under Torture

A great number of convictions are based on the protestors’ verbal statements concocted under unfavourable conditions that sometimes amount to pressuring and even torturing detainees to sign prepared statements they do not agree with or cannot read due to illiteracy. Human Rights Watch writes:

Under Morocco’s code of penal procedure, no statement prepared by the police may be admitted into evidence if it is obtained through coercion or violence. In practice, however, courts routinely admit into evidence contested “confessions” and base convictions on them, without opening investigations into allegations of torture and other physical mistreatment.

It is true, for instance, that violence occurred when policemen were trapped inside a burning 1st floor building and had to rely on cords and a ladder to escape from the building’s windows and rooftop. Some of them had no choice but to jump, risking their lives in the process. But the 19 years old Jamal Oulad Abdennabi, who was convicted for burning the buildings and attacking the police, categorically denied all the confessions that figure in the police statement. A brother of Jamal told TelQuel:

My brother, speaking Tarifit only—he quit primary school at sixth grade—could not read the [Arabic] statement. In the heat of the moment, he signed the document because the police reassured him that my father will come to take him home later.

The judge went on to convict Jamal based on the signed police statement although Jamal denied to the judge all the confessions included in the document. Jamal appealed. Three witnesses insisted he was in the souk vending his merchandise during the time of the events. The court dropped the accusation of “voluntarily setting fire to goods belonging to others.” The defence, lawyer Rachid Belaali, is convinced that Jamal is innocent and will keep pushing for a verdict that will acquit him of the other accusations.

Behind the story of Jamal and all the imprisoned protestors there is the complicated story of the Riffians, a historically state-marginalised people in the north that famously crushed the Spanish coloniser in the Battle of Annual and were subsequently sprayed by mustard gas in a colonial chemical revenge. Now Zefzafi the father, in a statement to Febrayer, likens the behaviour of the Moroccan state to the Army of Africa that enforced the Spanish protectorate in Morocco (1859–1956): “We fought the Battle of Annual, what the Spaniards call the Disaster of Annual, and now we are living the curse of fighting the coloniser, a kind of revenge for our resistance.” And behind the story of the Rif, still, there is the story of Moroccans of all regions who are sick of poverty and a corrupt state.

Makhzen Against the People

The harsh verdicts, compared to colonialism, could also be interpreted as a move to reinstate state power through incarceration terror after the ruling elites felt challenged by the peaceful Hirak movement. By distributing three centuries of jail on the protestors, the state aims at redrawing the borders of power that protestors keep crossing in a whack-a-mole game ever since the 20 February Movement. This is well exemplified by a newly crafted protest chant that is only some months-old. You could hear it chanted in front of the parliament a day after the verdicts: “This is the age of the boycott/ bye-bye the age of obedience.” The protestors were alluding to the ongoing and historically leaderless consumer boycott that runs entirely on the Internet. The digital force of the boycott is juxtaposed with the subjugating and outdated force of obedience, the latter perfectly illustrated in the annual allegiance party during which all politicians bow and genuflect to the king.