Demonstrations in Al-Hoceima, part of Morocco’s neglected Rif region on the Mediterranean coast, have continued for over six months. In October 2016, a fish seller, Mouhcine Fikri, was crushed to death in a rubbish truck as he attempted to retrieve his fish. The Police had thrown it away as Fikri was attempting to sell his fish out of season which is not permissible. Initially wanting justice for Fikri’s death, protests developed into activism and a movement Al-Hirak, al-Shaabi, was formed. This movement has focused on demanding improved economic development for the Rif region. Nasser Zefzafi has emerged as the leader of this movement and was arrested by the authorities for internal security issues. A member of Al-Hirak, al-Shaabi, Nawai Benissa, explained to Al Jazeera, “The people are convinced that a solution to this injustice, to the suppression, is needed.” Many activists and intellectuals including university professors, human rights activists, writers and poets, have issued a supportive statement noting the legitimacy of the economic, social and cultural demands of Al-Hirak, al-shaabi. They have also challenged the government to genuine engagement with this movement to find outcomes which can successfully be implemented. They have also asserted reconciliation between the Rif people, and the government is essential if all parties are to move forward in a positive way.
On 1 June 2017, after a long silence, the Moroccan Prime Minister, Saad Eddine El Othmani, spoke at a government council meeting about the protests. He asserted “….issue of Al Hoceima is always on the government’s agenda.” He also explained that the government was following up on development projects in this area and claimed protesters’ demands would be met if they proved feasible. Additionally, he emphasized the importance of stability and security in Morocco as everyone benefited from this. According to Celeste Hicks, a freelance journalist, the Moroccan government had attempted unsuccessfully to meet the leader of Al-Hirak, al-Shaabi. Eventually, the movement leader, Zefzafi, was arrested because of his behaviour. He was reported to have insulted an imam, interrupted a religious sermon, and shown disrespect towards a place of worship. Feedback on Facebook shared mobile phone images of this.
Unfortunately, political systems of long standing in Morocco have prevented people of the Rif region from fully engaging in and influencing politics. The monarchy in Morocco values its powerful and privileged lifestyle and has centralized political power to ensure it is kept. Bribery and corruption have the potential to occur at all political levels in Morocco as strict laws and procedures within an authoritarian culture are part of the political structure. Modernization of the Moroccan economy through neoliberal ways is initiated at a very slow pace if at all and appears to hinder those living in the Rif region. Unemployment, poverty and long-term stagnation have made the Rif people disillusioned as they feel marginalised by those holding political and economic power. Before these issues can be sorted, the state must acknowledge past damage and hurts it has caused. A public apology is one way to do this and may provide a more positive environmental context for reconciliation between the parties involved. Rhetoric from the state promoting reconciliation has occurred for years yet no practical action has been initiated. Once achieved, meaningful dialogue between the state and the Rif people could happen. Areas of commonality could then be used to initiate planned reforms which could be implemented in a set time frame to produce tangible outcomes. The monarchy must be prepared to give up some of its power to improve the quality of life for those who are marginalized. Failure to do so will force the King to be more repressive and this will encourage the people to take further direct action.
Moroccan history clearly shows the monarchy has controlled the multi-party political system for some time. All major political parties need to have a positive relationship with the King although some are more closely linked than others. By having allies in both the government and the opposition ranks the power sharing between the coalition government and the monarchy does not occur in practice. An example of the King’s influence has been noted in the last election. The winning party, The Justice and Development Party, was required by the King to have as one of its coalition partners a party which only managed to win 6.2% of votes. Additionally, the King asked the previous prime minister to step down although he had been asked to complete a second term. The reason given for this was to end the deadlock which had developed over coalition negotiations. Before the winning party had time to meet and discuss the position of leader, the King preempted events and suggested a name. This reduced the power and legitimacy of the main coalition party.
The death of the fish seller at Al-Hoceima in 2016 symbolized the oppression experienced by the Rif people due to government action. Ongoing demonstrations have shown the state that the Rif people have found their agency and are determined to use it. They had formed a movement which is pushing for positive economic development and jobs. This movement is a powerful political force which demands accountability. The Moroccan government must ensure their rhetoric is put into practice if it wants an end to the demonstrations.