Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco after the Arab Spring

Morocco after the Arab Spring
Thousands of Riffian people gathered during a peaceful demonstration in the streets of al-Hoceima, Morocco, on 20 July 2017 to demand the freedom of the Hirak members detained. Guillaume Pinon / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

Getting Past the Arab Spring

Mohammed VI’s accession had excited hopes of political liberalisation, which were watered down in the first ten years of his reign. After the Arab Spring, despite the promise of the new constitution, that downward spiral has continued. Repression got worse with full-blown attacks on freedom of expression and the press. These were directed not only at media companies that criticised the regime and its officials, but also at individual journalists, who were arrested or smeared for supposed sexual or financial misconduct.

Maati Monjib, a historian with an international reputation and co-founder of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, was accused of fraud in 2015 and rearrested in December 2020 on charges including embezzlement and offences against state security. Anyone arrested in Morocco faces extensive periods of imprisonment even before they are tried, because procedures are extremely slow.

Western Sahara

Intransigence also marked Moroccan policy in the Western Sahara. In January 2017, Morocco rejoined the African Union and began undermining the SADR’s international support, particularly among the poorer states of the Sahel. The number of states that recognised POLISARIO’s state – 84 at the beginning of the 2000s – shrank to about 36 a decade later. The Moroccan government repaid the UAE’s support for its sovereignty over the Western Sahara by backing the UAE’s normalisation of relations with Israel in 2020. And in return for US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, Morocco also agreed to normalise relations with Israel as part of the so-called Abraham Accords brokered by the US.

The now overt diplomatic relations with Israel were out of line with majority opinion in the country (nearly 90 per cent of Moroccans disapprove), and it upset the Justice and Development Party (PJD).

After winning a plurality of seats in the elections in 2011, Abdelilah Benkiran had formed a five party coalition. But the party membership was not always satisfied with his very moderate Islamist policies. Although the PJD was still the largest party in parliament after the 2016 elections, the Parti Authenticité et Modernité (PAM) came close behind.

Due to difficulties in forming a coalition, the king replaced Benkirane with another former leader of the PJD, Saadeddine Othmani, in March 2017. The PJD leadership appeared to many of the party’s rank-and-file membership to be too much under the thumb of the Palace, and they strongly disliked the decision to open relations with Israel. The Palace’s revenge on its troublesome ally came in the elections in September 2021. The winner was the Rassemblement National des Indépendants, the pro-Palace party founded in the late 1970s, second place went to the PAM and Istiqlal came in at third. The PJD lost 112 seats and won 13.


The economy rebounded after the Arab spring and attracted foreign investment. Between 2010 and 2020 the GDP increased from $US 93.22 to 114.73 billion.

The private sector grew quickly: car assembly, of Chinese as well as French vehicles, brought 148,000 new jobs between 2014 and 2019. In 2019 400,000 were built, 60 per cent of which were exported to Europe. Those exports made up 25 per cent of total exports and were worth $10.5 billion, overtaking phosphates.

Investment in solar energy has been huge – the massive Noor solar power plant at Ouarzazate on the edge of the Sahara Desert was commissioned in 2016 with the aim of providing 42 per cent of Morocco’s energy needs by 2020 and 52 per cent by 2030.


Morocco weathered the coronavirus quite well. According to the World Health Organisation, there were 16,061 deaths between January 2020 and April 2022. A total of 23,361,571 people were fully vaccinated (63% of the population), with vaccines made in China and India. Even though the GDP contracted by 6.3 per cent in 2020, it bounced back and was expected to rebound to 5.3% growth in 2021, helped by better agricultural conditions after good rains. The World Bank predicted that the budget deficit would start falling in 2021.

Despite these hopeful statistics, the informal sector contributes a third of Morocco’s GDP and the agricultural subsistence sector still provides the majority of employment. These sectors are extremely volatile and insecure, and working conditions are dangerous. In addition, one major agricultural product, cannabis resin, of which Morocco is one of the world’s biggest producers (19% of world production), is subject to strict policing and security forces seizing cargoes.

Rebellion in the Rif

The cultivation, commerce and smuggling of hashish is the main source of wealth in the Rif, along the northern coast. This is one of the most deprived regions of Morocco and one that is set apart culturally by being Amazigh and politically by its history of rebellion and repeated state oppression.

In October 2016, a new popular movement, Hirak al-Rif emerged there following the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller in Al Hoceima, the principal town in the region. He had attempted to retrieve from the back of a garbage truck the fish that the police had confiscated from him. He was crushed to death when the compacting mechanism was turned on. This was recorded and spread through social media. There were street protests which evolved into a popular movement.

Its most prominent leader was Nasser Zefzafi, son of a former USFP activist and great-grandson a minister in the government of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi in the 1920s. In May 2017, Zefzafi was arrested and taken from Al Hoceima to Casablanca, and charged with “threatening national security”. Others were arrested afterwards, and there were more protests in the Rif during which the old Rifi flag was raised alongside the modern Amazigh one. Al-Hirak differed from the 20 February Movement in the main cities of Morocco in having a far more focussed series of demands, a more stable framework, a defined local identity and, in Zefzafi, a recognisable leader.