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During the Arab Spring, King Mohammed VI passed sweeping reforms to quell popular dissent, including ceding some power to parliament and officially recognizing the Tamazight language of the Amazigh, a people indigenous to North Africa.
Yet discontent continued to fester, culminating in an eight-month uprising in the historically marginalized and mainly Amazigh Rif region. Protests exploded in October 2016 when a fishmonger, Mouhcine Fikri, lunged into a garbage truck to retrieve a stock of swordfish that authorities had confiscated. The compactor then crushed Fikri to death, seemingly at the order of the police. The police cracked down by firing teargas, beating protestors with batons and arresting hundreds of people.
By November 2017, it was clear that the crackdown in Rif was pushing hundreds of young men from the region to migrate irregularly to Europe, in hopes of finding a better life. The Guardian, a British Daily, interviewed asylum seekers in the Spanish cities of Algeciras and Tarifa who had fled in the summer.
“The Moroccan riot police beat us up during the protests. I have marks on my hand. [And] we left for work. There are no jobs in Rif,” one of the men told the newspaper.
Harsh repression in Morocco continued into 2018. But this time, it was the neglected southern town of Jerada that was making headlines.
More than 20 years ago, the Morocco Coal Mine shut down, leaving most residents in Jerada unemployed. Despite government promises to develop the town, nothing materialized. Miners were instead left with little choice but to extract coal by hand from Jerada’s ‘death mines’, only to sell it to corrupt officials for a few dirhams.
Long-standing grievances finally boiled over in December 2017, when two men died after they became trapped in the shaft of an abandoned mine. Unrest continued until March 2018, when security services crushed the demonstrations with excessive force.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that riot police even drove a van into a 16-year-old boy. Police agents also broke into houses and beat several men before hauling them away. While carrying out its research, HRW said that its employees were closely monitored by security services, effectively scaring activists from cooperating with the organization.
‘Human Rights Watch researchers who visited Jerada on 4 April were stopped and interrogated at two security checkpoints, then closely followed all day by a car containing three men in civilian clothes,’ the rights group stated in its report. ‘The researchers observed a heavy presence of security forces, with armed uniformed police posted in every major street and square of the small city, and more than 100 police vans in the vicinity.’
By the summer, the verdicts of the imprisoned leaders of Hirak Chaabi, a grassroots movement that emerged in Rif following Fikri’s death, were announced. On 26 June 2018, Nasser Zefzafi was sentenced to 20 years in prison for ‘undermining public order and threatening national security’. The same verdict sentenced Nabil Ahmijeq, Wassim el-Boustani and Samir Aghid to 20 years in jail. Three other dissenters were handed 15-year prison sentences. In total, 53 people were sentenced to jail following a nine-month trial.
The sentences ignited more protests across Morocco. In the capital Rabat, the families of detainees were among tens of thousands of people who took to the streets carrying signs that read ‘Justice’ and ‘Free the Activists’.
Zefzafi’s father, Ahmad, told reporters that his son was in prison when he was informed of his conviction. Ahmad added that his son did not care if he was imprisoned for 20 or 30 years but wanted others to champion his cause. The imprisoned activist also told his father that hearing people protesting his sentence made him proud.
Since the verdict, several cosmetic steps have been taken to modernize the country. On 15 November 2018, Morocco unveiled Africa’s first high-speed rail line, with French President Emanuel Macron in attendance. However, activists were not impressed.
“We are buying a high-speed line, so the rest of the world will say Morocco is a very modern country,” Karima Nadir, a publisher and activist, told Radio France International. “We need to fix the infrastructure for the normal trains first. We need public transport in a decent state, and we need hospitals, schools and jobs.”
Mohammad Masbah, an associate fellow at Chatham House, agrees. He wrote that the authorities can appease protestors through dialogue and by reversing a royal decree that has designated Rif a military zone since 1958. But in the long term, said Masbah, limiting corruption and reducing poverty in Rif, and other impoverished regions, is the only solution.
However, the authorities do not seem interested in dialogue. Officials have framed Rif protestors as foreign agents or separatists who want to restore the Rif Republic, which was proclaimed in 1921 by the anti-colonial fighter Abdelkrim al-Khattabi after he successfully lead a revolt against the Spanish.
Just five years later, Spanish and French forces used German-made chemical weapons to terrorize civilians in the region and destroy the republic. At the time, the Rif Republic not only angered the colonial powers, it also contested the Makhzen, the ruling authority of Morocco and Tunisia.
The people from Rif rose up again in the late 1950s. But Prince Hassan II, future king and father of Mohammed VI, violently cracked down on demonstrators. He also structurally discriminated against Rif by refusing to invest in services and adequate infrastructure for more than 40 years. Mohammed VI reversed that policy, but his investments have failed to improve the standard of living of most people.
Nevertheless, Ursula Linsey wrote in The New York Times that it is a testament to the relative openness of Morocco that Rif protestors believed they could revolt without major consequences. They were wrong, of course. And as history has proven, repressing the demonstrations will not eliminate grievances that promise to boil over again.