Rif Crisis Reveals Failure of Development in Morocco

On 28 October 2016, at the port of Al Hoceima in Northern Morocco, Mohcine Fikri was crushed to death in a rubbish truck trying to recover his merchandise, confiscated by a policeman. It was in the wake of this event that Hirak (literally “The Movement”) was born, but last May its principal leaders were jailed and since then it has been marking time. Faced with vigorous protests, will the Moroccan power structure be capable of evolving to meet the demands of the people?

Demonstration in support of the Hirak in Rabat, June 2017.
Arm News (screenshot).

Between October 2016 and May 2017, the Palace remained surprisingly passive. Faced with social unrest of an unprecedented vitality since 2011, and which increasingly challenged him personally, Mohamed VI remained obstinately silent. Fruitless attempts to negotiate were conducted by government officials at local levels, but failing to respond to Hirak’s demands, they were unable to silence the protests.

On Friday 26 May, when Hirak leader Nasser Zefzazi interrupted a sermon in which an imam claimed the social movement was tantamount to a fitna,1 the government took this pretext to clamp down on Hirak. Many activists were jailed—over 200 to this day—and demonstrations are now systematically broken up. Zefzazi was arrested on 29 May and is now standing trial in Casablanca along with other members of the movement. The repression has nipped in the bud any hopes for resolving the crisis.

The Ranging Scope of Protests from Local to National

Besides demands for an end of the “economic blockade” afflicting the Rif, “there are agrarian and farming demands to do with soil and water problems. Farmers are also demanding the annulment of arrest warrants issued against cannabis growers. All in all, the smallholders in the marginalized regions of Morocco suffer from inequality and various forms of social discrimination (employment, education, transportation, etc.)” says Kenza Afsahi, who teaches sociology at the University of Bordeaux and has done considerable work on the Rif.

While most of Hirak’s demands concern local issues, its modes of action draw upon a national repertory of protest fueled by the experiences of activists around the country. In the words of Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi who teaches political science at Lausanne University, “ these protests show that the authorities can no longer run the regions by repression alone and/or a clientelist redistribution of rare resources.” In her view, “what is happening in the outlying regions of Morocco is part of a historical trend. In the early days of independence, the construction of a nation-state was attended by violence, both physical and symbolic. The rural areas and more generally the recalcitrant outer regions paid a heavy price. Gradually the center of gravity of protest shifted to the larger cities. However, since the liberalization of the nineties, protests have gradually spread to the smaller cities and towns and finally to the rural areas.”

Towards the end of the reign of Hassan II, Morocco experienced a loosening of the authoritarian grip which accompanied the emergence of a civil society favored by a government which needed to “create a narrative of ‘political change’”. A space for protest gradually appeared. In the outlying or marginalized regions people’s expectations grew apace and under the banners of local collectives and coordinating committees they demonstrated against the unequal development policies.

The 20 February Movement appeared in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring and its modes of organization and action were based on those that had already served in the past, but with innovations. Its heritage can be detected not only in the modes of action employed by Hirak but also in the rhetoric of its leadership. Indeed, Hirak links local demands with a broader, more national discourse addressing the general discredit of Moroccan politics—which may explain in part the support the movement has found beyond the Rif.

While earlier protest movements have voiced a similar distrust of the political establishment, Hirak activists have made it the stock in trade of their movement and their struggle. Remonstrating with the political parties, “protesters insist loud and clear that the bulk of power is in the hands of the King.” This “is aimed at making the ‘good king’ face up to his responsibilities”, stripping the power structure of its disguise, the myth behind which it has hidden for so long: ‘the king is good, it’s the political class that’s bad’ writes Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi.

Distrust of Parties and Development Policies

The local issues raised by the movement also have political implications. Often decided on by the King alone, the local development programs are rarely the object of any deliberation, ministerial or public. The new Constitution, adopted after the 2011 demonstrations, “stressed the mechanisms of participatory democracy and accountability. Yet the people have the impression that the needs they voice are not taken into account and that they are being forced to accept models of development conceived by so-called experts who are completely out of touch with reality. Hirak also points to the incapacity of local elites to carry out development programs and take into account existing vital forces” is Kenza Asahi’s judgment.

This distrust of politics is also evinced in the rejection of any initiatives taken by the parties or local elites. Such was the case with the mediation venues. Conceived by the government as a way of demobilizing and neutralizing the protests, they would have enabled it to weaken Hirak, just as a clientele-oriented strategy of dividing militant groups had defused the 2008 Sidi Ifni protests in southern Morocco.

The movement has also been a source of emulation. For several weeks, the inhabitants of Zagora, a town in the south, protested the scarcity of drinking water under the banner of a local “Hirak”, and managed to obtain a return to normality in October. “The same over-exploitation of water resources prevails in both Southern and northern Morocco, Kenza pursues, “it’s just that it is harder for cannabis growers to voice their water needs directly for fear of a crackdown: they have been tapping into the water tables for an illegal activity.”

“There are for example similarities between watermelon farming around Zagora (partly responsible for the scarcity of drinking water in the town) and cannabis growing in the Rif. In both instances, people have abandoned a traditional market gardening economy of self-sufficiency for large-scale farming of new products for the export trade, thus increasing the monetarization of exchanges in an environment which is often unstable. This over-exploitation of resources (. . .) not only constitutes an obstacle to development, but is a source of conflicts due to the water shortage and soil depletion, and raises issues of food security,” the sociologist also notes.

Reconstructing a Militant Imaginary

Widely covered by national and international media, the protests in the Rif were the occasion for such baldly contrasting accounts that the distortions of the official narrative became glaringly obvious and strengthened support for Hirak well beyond the Rif. The government and its media mouthpieces basically compared Hirak with a secessionist movement or severely criticized its “immoderation,” whereas Nasser Zefzafi has never failed to stress non-violence and advocate self-restraint. This disapproval of the lack of restraint in politics takes on special meaning in Morocco for at the time of the 1990s transition it was leveled at advocates of human rights, Islamists and left-wing radicals, accused of having failed to limit their demands. This obligation to be moderate sets boundaries on what is legitimate and tolerated in terms of political activity and excludes certain practices and players redolent of political conflict.

This accusation of secessionist plotting is directly motivated by the appearance of flags of the Republic of the Rif, an ephemeral entity created by Abdelkrim El Khattabi between 1921 and 1927. Waving this flag on protest marches was seen as a challenge to national unity and an expression of excessive regionalism. Does the revival of symbols belonging to the collective memory of the Rif and the (re)construction of a militant imaginary based on past experience and episodes of resistance confirm such an interpretation? This does not appear to be the case. As with other protest movements, this gesture was mainly prompted by the need to create a spirit of community and to include the present struggles in a narrative of resistance which overrides historical discontinuities. Though it is true that the brief experiment of the Rif Republic did crystallize in its day the contradiction between a monarchic model and a republican one, and that the Rif has always been the locus of rather strong regional feelings. In the face of an official memory which brooks no alternative to the preeminence of the monarchy, always presented as the principal player in all the struggles that Morocco has known, the emergence of such counter-narratives seems inevitable. From the moment of independence, and even more assertively under Hassan II, the monarchy has monopolized the collective memory and national narrative with an eye to tailoring a historical consciousness to order. This has turned out to be singularly incomplete, obfuscating the roles of other figures, many of them regional ones—roles astutely resurrected by movements laying claim to their heritage.

The Majority’s Double Dealing

Having condemned the protest movement on 14 May, the majority parties decided to moderate their approach in response to a public outcry. On Thursday 1 June, they issued a communique urging the government to adopt “a more positive interaction with the protest movement.” But the majority parties can do nothing more than co-manage the fallout from a social crisis over which they have no control and justify repression which they did not order—since the security apparatus is entirely in the hands of the Royal Palace. They have tried to cut their losses by avoiding any stand for or against the protests, thus refusing to carry the can for the monarchy and expose themselves to further attacks from Hirak. By so doing, however, they have exposed the King to criticism. Is this what prompted Mohamed VI to attack the parties in an umpteenth speech accusing them of uselessness? On 29 July, he reproached the political class for jumping to “take center stage and reap the political and media benefits when progress is made. But when the results are disappointing, they hide behind the Royal Palace, holding it responsible.”

The tactic is counterproductive, to say the least: these repeated and often virulent criticisms of the political class only serve to make the King even more vulnerable, putting him in a position to be pressured even more directly by social movements as the only political player capable of satisfying their demands.

How the King Has Turned the Demands to His Advantage

On 13 October, on the opening of the parliamentary session, Mohamed VI gave a speech which might well have been given by Hirak’s leader, but with absolutely no specific reference to the movement. He stressed “the need to adjust public policies to the concerns of citizens, in keeping with the needs and characteristics of each region,” emphasized the idea of “balanced and equitable development, guaranteeing the dignity of all, generating income and employment, especially for young people”, asserted the need for “an equitable and efficient judiciary system’ and ‘health-care services available to all.”

The ploy is anything but new. We need only remember the speeches given at the beginning of his reign, when the king seized upon the demands of the civil society and rephrased them in a more consensual and less political vein, as “a new concept of authority.” In October he also ordered two investigations into the delays in development projects at Al Hoceima, which have resulted in the dismissal of two ministers, and expressed his “dissatisfaction” with the work of five previous ministers “who will be assigned no official functions in the future” according to a press release from the royal cabinet.

Interpreted by sectors of public opinion as a ‘Hirak victory’, these announcements revived hopes for the release of the movement jailed leaders. But this victory needs to be put into perspective: the demands of the social movement in the Rif have been used with an eye to weakening the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS)—its two principal ministers were dismissed, for the Palace has never forgiven it for having publicly criticized Fouad Ali El-Himma, the King’s childhood friend and adviser—and to continue the purge of the security forces.

By promising to outline a new reform agenda on a national scale, and by announcing that the Court of Auditors would look into the development projects under way in various regions, one wonders whether the King is trying to cast his actions not as a response to Hirak but as part of a calendar conceived independently of popular pressure. The timing of these announcements clearly reflects such a concern, coming as they do a year after the protests began.

Be that as it may, these readjustments have legitimized a number of Hirak’s demands. The monarchy has been able to measure the inefficacy of its development policy and the limitations of its social programs. Their achievements do not live up to the hype surrounding them, which deepens the feeling of exclusion in the outlying regions.

Will the Palace be able to draw similar lessons concerning its authoritarian surges? The mode of popular protest has evolved in keeping with the mutations at work in society, among them “the ongoing erosion of the fear of authority, the increasingly rapid loosening of the grip of traditional intermediaries, the growing capacity for coordinating peaceful, lasting, collective actions” as Mounia Bennani— Chraïbi wrote last June. But the Palace responses, which waver between attempts to split the social movements and repressive clampdowns, are totally unsuited to the new realities of the country.

1EDITOR’S NOTE. The term is commonly taken to mean : dissension, disturbance, fratricidal struggle or even civil war within Islam.