The recent protests in the Rif region in Morocco were actually ignited back in October 2016, after the gruesome death of a fishmonger named Mouhcine Fikri. The event very much resembled the death of fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which triggered the Tunisian uprisings leading to the Arab Spring in 2011.
In Morocco, however, protests that emerged within the context of the Arab Spring, the February 20th movement, did not call for a revolution but mainly for reforms, a new constitution, a more democratic government, basic human rights, and an improvement of quality of life. And over the years the movement lost its momentum.
But since Fikri’s death last year, a new set of protests have started to take place in Morocco’s Rif region, known historically for its rebellion against central authority. The shocking photos of Fikri being crushed to death in a rubbish truck after he jumped to protest against the authorities’ confiscation of swordfish caught out of season were widely circulated in social media and caused public outrage. In time, the protests following his death came to be known as Al-Hirak al-Shaabi or the Popular Movement.
Last week, the protests intensified after several demonstrators were arrested for “undermining the security of the state”, “incitement to commit delinquent acts and crimes”, “humiliating of public officials”, and “hostility towards the symbols of the monarchy”.
According to official forces, the number of detainees has reached 23, including the movement’s leader Nasser Zefzafi, who was arrested last week. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), on the other hand, said at least 70 people were arrested in relation to the protests across the country. The protests spread from the northern city of Al-Hoceima to other parts of the country, including Rabat, Casablanca, Tangiers, and Nador.
An alternative to mainstream politicians
The recent web of protests started after Zefzafi interrupted a preacher’s sermon at a mosque in Al-Hoceima. Mobile phone footage shows Zefzafi called the preacher a “liar” and asked whether mosques are built to serve God or those in power.
Prosecutors ordered Zefzafi’s arrest, claiming that he had “obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals, the freedom of worship”. Yet, many believe that by stating that religion should not be used for political ends, Zefzafi was actually trying to protect the sanctity of the mosque as a place of worship.
As well as being accused of “obstructing the freedom of worship”, Zefzafi was also criticised for the lack of structure and eloquence in his intervention at the mosque. The protest leader, who is not a highly educated person, was accused of being a misogynist after making comparisons between the political corruption in the country and the “corrupt mores of women”, criticising the way women dress and even using language that implies men’s “ownership” of women. This is indeed a worrying discourse, especially for women who are concerned about not losing control over their bodies. But the Hirak Movement recently sent out a more egalitarian message by including a woman, Nawel Ben Aissa, among the leaders of a protest following Zefzafi’s arrest.
Zefzafi, albeit his lack of education, found resonance among the people of the Rif who designated him as their leader, because he presents an alternative to the well-polished discourses of politicians, whom he considers to be pawns.
Rif activists, who are ethnically Berber, demand jobs, economic development, accountability of the justice system and dignity. They are angry against what they call “Hogra” – a colloquial Moroccan Arabic term for deprivation of dignity from official abuses or corruption.
Coming from a disenfranchised and marginalised youth living in a region that has traditionally been neglected by the government, these demands are legitimate. However, the government initially accused Rif activists of being separatists and threatening the country’s territorial integrity, while also suggesting that they are externally funded. The activists denied the accusations.
The criticism of the protesters’ actions, beyond their initial framing by the government as separatists who have external funding and backing, is also embedded in a rhetoric of “fitna”.
The Arabic word “fitna” signifies discord. It additionally has a heavy religious connotation that includes the meanings of “trial” and “temptation”. The word “fitna” was used in Facebook posts, phone messages, and politicians’ statements in the immediate aftermath of Mouhcine Fikri’s death and it is still being used in relation to the recent protests. Instead of exploring the underlying causes that led poor people to rise up, many in Morocco are choosing to frame these protesters’ actions as “fitna” or as an attempt to cause chaos.
Misinformation and the use of force
In Morocco, the act of nonviolent protesting, a basic tenet of any country aspiring to be a democracy, is becoming impeded along with the freedom of expression. Television channels have been misinforming the public by associating the recent rallies with images that have nothing to do with the Popular Movement. And security forces have been clashing with nonviolent protesters.
But there are people who are fighting for Morocco’s democracy. In a joint statement three political parties condemned media practices that deform the facts about the protest movement. Civil society leaders and intellectuals have come out to condemn the government’s use of force and crackdown of activists. They argued that the problems will not be solved though instilling a culture of fear.
In response, the government retracted its original accusations about protestors being “separatists” that are backed by external forces. The king sent a large delegation of ministers to Al-Hoceima, with promises of billions of Moroccan dirhams to fund projects to boost the local economy and build infrastructure.
Furthermore, the provincial offices of three parties released a joint statement on May 29 expressing that they are “greatly preoccupied” with the situation and calling for the immediate release of all the Hirak protesters who were arrested.
Refusing to negotiate
Zefzafi’s response to all this has been interesting: he refused to sit at the negotiation table, prompting some to ask if he was the right person to lead the Hirak movement.
His response however, can also be viewed as a representation of a deeper issue: the loss of trust in government and central authority. Instead of excitement at the prospect of receiving large development funds, the government’s proposals were met with indifference in the Rif region. Perhaps this was a result of recent events in Morocco.
Following the general election in October last year, the Islamist Justice and Development (PJD) party failed to form a government for 6 months. As a result Morocco’s King Mohammed VI replaced Abdelilah Benkirane as prime minister with another member of the PJD, Saad-Eddine El Othmani, in order to end the deadlock.
In response to the move, Din Wa Dunia magazine published an article titled “Does the fall of Benkirane sound the death knell of political Islam?”. The article suggested that the most popular political party in Morocco is losing its legitimacy.
Perhaps this lack of trust for the political establishment is what’s really behind the recent protests in Morocco and what is happening now in 2017 is not completely disconnected from the February 20th movement, which was launched in 2011.
After all, activists this month have been chanting the February 20th movement slogan “freedom, dignity, and social justice”. Two of the main leaders of Hirak, according to Telquel magazine, were once February 20th movement activists. Furthermore, the people who took to the streets in Moroccan cities in solidarity with the people of the Rif included members of the Amazigh movement, the Islamic movement Al-Adl Wa Al-Ihsane (Justice and Benevolence), and the Democratic Left Federation (FGD) – all of which took part in the he February 20th movement six years ago.
In the days after the arrests of protesters and their leader Zefzafi, 600 lawyers volunteered to defend the detainees, demonstrating that the Hirak movement has the backing of different components of the Moroccan society.
The February 20th movement may have lost its momentum in recent years, but its legacy is still alive in terms of organising tactics and aspirations. It remains to be seen how the country will evolve from this difficult juncture.
Kenza Oumlil is Assistant Professor in Communication and Gender at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. She holds a PhD in Communication from Concordia University in Montréal, Canada.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.