A protest movement that originated in Morocco’s Rif—a northern mountain region with a long history of rebellion—has lasted eight months now. The situation escalated in recent weeks, with the arrest of a protest leader and over 100 activists, and a demonstration of solidarity in the capital, Rabat, that gathered tens of thousands of demonstrators. It’s the most potent protest movement the kingdom has witnessed since the Arab Spring.
But while it is the focus of media uproar and a police crackdown, the Hirak Shaabi (“People’s Movement”), remains poorly understood, many of Morocco’s specialists on the region say.
In an open letter in the independent Francophone news magazine TelQuel, social science scholars deplored the sensationalist or simplistic claims that have dominated the public debate.
“To understand the Rif’s Hirak requires critical thinking, intellectual vigilance, sociopolitical sensitivity and a detailed knowledge of the transformations of Rif society,” the scholars wrote last week.
The Hirak Shaabi began in the town of Al Hoceima last October, when a local fishmonger named Mohsen Fikri was killed in a garbage compactor as he tried to prevent the destruction of fish that had been impounded by port officials. This dramatic example of hogra—arbitrary and humiliating treatment by the authorities—sparked protests across the country.
In Al Hoceima and the northern mountainous Rif region to which it belongs, it sparked a social movement. Crowds of young people came out for rallies in which a charismatic local rabble-rouser, Nasser Zafzafi, delivered impassioned tirades against political figures, corruption and the powers that be.
The Hirak demanded justice for Fikri’s death (several public officials were eventually convicted), but also an end to corruption and the marginalization of the region’s population. They called on authorities to build a university, library and theater, a cancer hospital, better roads, and industrial facilities for processing the fish that is one of the main sources of revenue for the residents.
“The majority of the demands of the Rif protesters are not specific to this marginalized region,” read the statement in TelQuel by Moroccan academics. “These demands concern all Moroccans who aspire to a better present and future for themselves and their children: social justice, an equitable distribution of resources, good governance and sustainable economic development.”
“The role of researchers in the social sciences—anthropologists, sociologists, historians, political scientists, economists, geographers, etc—is to study, reflect upon and participate in the changes of their society as it evolves […] The Hirak of the Rif could be an occasion to rethink sociopolitical change, the political and economic evolution of the country and the serious political problems that block a real democratic process.”
Instead, the authorities have vacillated in their response to protests. The media and public officials have vilified the protesters, accusing them of being separatists bent on instigating civil war and foreign agents receiving funding from abroad.
The Rif region—where a majority of the population’s first language is an indigenous Berber dialect, followed by Arabic—has a long history of rebellion and marginalization. In the 1920s, led by local hero Abdelkrim El Khattabi, it briefly gained independence. But France and Spain, who were colonial powers in Morocco at that time, eventually crushed the rebellion with great violence. The region revolted again, after independence, against the new monarchy. This time it was Crown Prince Hassan II—the father of the current king—who led a bloody military crackdown. During Hassan II’s reign, the region was purposely neglected and starved of public investment. Its economy still relies to a large degree on smuggling and the cultivation of cannabis.
The current king, Mohamed VI, has adopted a different policy, launching several large infrastructure projects in the north. In May of this year, after the Hirak protests escalated, a ministerial delegation promised billions of dirhams worth of investment in the region. Yet earlier promises have been slow to materialize, and locals have seen few benefits. Protesters in the Rif rebuffed the delegations from the capital and refused to accept local politicians as intermediaries, demanding negotiations directly with the palace.
The protests have been quite divisive. After getting into an argument with an imam who said protesters were encouraging fitna—civil strife—the Hirak leader Nasser Zafzafi was arrested in late May. He faces charges of undermining national security. Other members have been sentenced to 18-month jail terms for their role in the protests. The Hirak and its supporters decry this as more injustice. Their opponents say they are troublemakers and ingrates who have disrespected the authorities and gone too far.
Mehdi Alioua, one of the signatories of the letter in TelQuel, is a professor of sociology at the International University of Rabat who specializes in migration and social movements.
“We want to make sense of what is happening,” Alioua said in an interview, rather than pick sides by either defending or opposing the powers that be. Alioua points out that the current protests are in fact evidence of some democratization and development in Morocco—young people have higher expectations, and greater confidence in their right to criticize the authorities. But the current crackdown, says the professor, raises concerns that the country is taking “a step backwards.”
What is important is to focus on reality rather than to analyze what is happening through ideological lenses, says Alioua. Researchers can pose important questions, he says, such as: “Can we have a democratic transition while people live in great poverty? Can we be a modern country with only one axis of development and other regions left out, in which the majority of women don’t work or aren’t paid for their work?”
To find valid solutions to Morocco’s problems, argues the professor, one needs accurate diagnoses of what those problems are. And, given the appropriate support and autonomy, that’s what the social sciences can and should provide.