Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Moroccan government under fire

Protests against the government in the northern Rif region of Morocco have continued for the past eight months with little prospect of an end in sight, writes Kamel Abdallah

Moroccan government under fire
Moroccan government under fire

Since last October, the Rif region of northern Morocco has seen growing protests against the government, beginning after the death of a young fish-seller, Mohsen Fikri, who was crushed in a garbage compactor as he tried to recover his merchandise after it was confiscated by police and thrown into a rubbish truck.

Efforts by the government have not succeeded in containing the tensions, with many saying that the protests that have been seen over the past eight months in the Rif region are a powerful symbol of the disdain, neglect and disenfranchisement felt by many residents.

The development of the protests into a widespread Rif movement suggests that the demonstrations are gaining momentum, they say, putting pressure on the government to meet the demands of the protesters. Some of the worst clashes with the police occurred last week when many demonstrators were arrested.

“Initially, the protests were about justice for Mohsen Fikri, but they have increasingly been focused on the economic, social and administrative challenges the Rif region faces,” said Intissar Fakir, an expert on Morocco and editor of the Sada website at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Fakir said that “development in Morocco is uneven, large parts of the country are underserved, and many Moroccans face poverty and a lack of access to basic utilities including clean water, healthcare and education, to say nothing of economic opportunities.”

“The Rif region also has a contentious history since the Hoceima area [where many of the demonstrations have taken place] was the seat of the short-lived Rif Republic in 1921-1926, which emerged from a revolt against colonisation,” she said.

 “In the late 1950s during the early years of Morocco’s independence, the then crown prince Hassan led a bloody campaign to quash dissent in the area, neglecting the region thereafter. Various attempts more recently to revive the Rif region have fallen short of meeting its basic needs,” Fakir said.

The current protests were a warning of the danger of the situation getting out of hand if the government did not offer more effective solutions for Rif residents, she added.

Khaled Yamout, a professor of political science in Morocco, believes that the Rif “has a history of distrust of state institutions since the state has resorted to military force several times in the region. The collective memory of the Rif maintains an image of a repressive state whenever there are clashes.”

“When King Mohamed VI came to power in Morocco in 1998, he tried hard to change the image of the political regime, visited the Rif several times, and largely succeeded in changing the image of the state in the minds of Rif residents. However, problems have surfaced again since 2007, especially in 2009 when the state imposed a political party close to the king, namely the Authenticity and Modernity Party [PAM] led by Elias Al-Amri who is from the Rif region,” Yamout told Al-Ahram Weekly by telephone from Rabat.

 “The same thing occurred in the 2015 elections when the votes were rigged in favour of the PAM which controls 98 per cent of elected local offices.” The current clashes in the Rif had “coincided with political tensions between two political camps, the first led by the Justice and Development Party and the Progress and Socialism Party and the second led by the PAM,” he said.

Fikri’s death in 2016 came shortly before the parliamentary elections, but the then prime minister Abdel-Illah Benkirane had intervened and calmed the situation, he said. Matters flared up before and after Benkirane stepped down, with residents of the Rif understanding that “the monarchy had closed the door to the democratic transition which began in 2011.”

Al-Amri “has done little for the Rif and instead has taken advantage of his friendship and proximity to the king to draw a new map of the region that has thrust him into an intense dispute with local residents. His party won the elections through vote-rigging by the Interior Ministry,” Yamout said.

He said that the state had adopted a security approach in dealing with the crisis, accusing the protest movement of being “separatist, pro-Algerian and pro the Polisario Front” that has been fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara from Morocco.

This approach has not had a major effect on the movement “because of its large youth base that has been able to remain connected on the new media,” he said.

He added that the leader of the Rif movement, Nasser Al-Zefzafi, “has a good reputation and no political affiliations. Many Moroccans believe that the security agencies have taken control of the political process. The ouster of Benkirane, secretary-general of the Justice and Development Party, by the king and the way it was done by taming the government and choosing ministers known for their authoritarian tendencies have reignited protests across the country, including at Hoceima which has become the symbol of them.”

Despite efforts by new Prime Minister Saadeddin Othmani to contain the crisis, Yamout believes that “there are no signs the issue will be resolved. Morocco does not now have a popular government like the one led by Benkirane, and the people in the Rif are asking for royal intervention. Meanwhile, the regime is in an embarrassing position because it does not want to intervene and does not understand that the Hoceima protests require the king to intervene” to contain the situation.

Assessing the position of the incumbent government, Yamout said that “seven cabinet members went to the Rif region on a two-day visit, but this only caused more trouble. The state was focused on arresting the movement’s base, some 140 people, which the authorities said was necessary to calm the situation.”

He added that the government’s handling of the Rif crisis had led to “sympathy from the people for the protestors, with a massive march that included 150,000 protesters that was the largest rally on a domestic issue in Morocco’s modern history.”

In an effort to end the crisis in the Rif, several notable figures such as former prime minister Abdel-Rahman Youssefi have proposed various initiatives addressing the demands of the region. These include releasing the political detainees arrested in recent months, launching a dialogue with the protesters, and opening a university and new hospital in the region.

The protesters are also demanding the creation of a new industrial zone in Hoceima and action to be taken to prevent the “real estate mafia” from usurping land from locals. Observers believe that the government will not deal effectively with the crisis and that it will escalate unless King Mohamed VI intervenes.

The government has not proposed initiatives to meet the demands of the protesters, and it refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the Rif movement. It is concerned about the situation in the region because tensions in the Rif upset state strategy based on loyalty to the king, but the relationship between the regime and the Rif region has long been plagued with complications and an unpromising history.

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