Morocco’s Rif Rises against the Makhzen’s Power

Moroccan politics has been captivated by a year-long conflict known in Morocco as al-Hirak ach-chaabi, or Popular Movement, an open-ended cycle of protests against the government that have been faced with the imprisonment of nearly 200 activists, artists, and journalists for “undermining the security of the state.” The trigger event was the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a 31-year old fishmonger in Al Hoceima, in the historically-neglected northern part of Morocco October 28th, 2016 after he was crushed in a trash compactor while protesting the confiscation of his fish stock by local authorities. This incident intensified the widespread feeling of Hogra––endured humiliation and injustice–– among the Amazighs who comprise an estimated forty per cent of the population by a commonly-perceived “abusive” state.

Most observers assert that the deep-rooted factors of these popular uprisings, although they originated in the Rif, “go beyond regionalism and touch upon the whole social fabric of a nation engulfed in social and economic despair.” Furthermore, these frequent protests in Al Hoceima, Rabat, and other cities coincided with a six-month political paralysis as influential advisors to King Mohammed VI opposed the re-nomination of Abdelilah Benkirane, the former prime minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), to form a new government after the October 2016 elections. Instead, Benkirane was later replaced by Saddeddine al-Othmani who formed a unity government with other smaller parties.

Most foreign governments and international organizations assumed Morocco was on the path of reform and modernization when the country approved a new constitution in 2011 following disturbances linked to the Arab Spring. King Mohammed VI was seen as forging “a different model of change in the Arab world—one often talked about but so far honored entirely in the breach rather than the observance.” However, the developments in the Rif have undermined the short-lived hope for democratic progress in the “most politically-stable country in the region.”

Morocco’s Hirak today points to three main and intersecting dilemmas: the future impact of the continuing protracted conflict about the legitimacy of the Moroccan monarchy; poor governance and perpetuation of corruption by the Makhzen elite (the royal court) who remain the agents of the deep state; and Morocco’s risk of losing its political capital of reform, democratization, and respect for human rights in the eyes of the international community. Indeed, Hirak can be seen as the tip of a Moroccan iceberg with several interrelated political, socio-economic, and historical complexities.

Revival of the Rif’s Unwanted Trauma

For exactly a year now, voices of outcry and demonstrations of defiance have been the order of the day. They have showcased, as one activist put it, “a Moroccan initiative against political arrests, called by different actors across the Moroccan political spectrum [who are] gathered and united around one goal, which is this quest for freedom, dignity and social justice and solidarity.”

The most tense confrontation between Riffian protestors and the police and military forces erupted on July 20, during the commemoration of the Battle of Anoual against the Spanish, when the authorities decided to ban the march for “fear the crowd would escape control,” and rounded up more activists. The Battle of Anoual remains a source of pride and a chosen glory for Riffians. It was led by Abdelkarim al-Khattabi (1882-1963) to free northern Morocco from the Spanish occupation, and to establish Jomhouriyat al-Rif (the Rif Republic) between 1923 and 1926. He was celebrated by Time magazine as “Man of the Year” in 1925.

In this context, Moroccan authorities resorted to a tight-fist security paradigm vis-à-vis Riffian activists before the royal palace gave orders in August for a gradual pullback from Al-Hoceima and Imzouren in the north, while large numbers of policemen in civilian clothes remained there. The Moroccan state has struggled with the containment of sizable protests and their discourse of resentment and resistance. Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit was often quoted as saying “The state had no choice but to enforce the law.”

Within a typical “us” vs. “them” dichotomy, the animosity increased when new labels of infissaleyoun (separatists) and motattarrifoun (extremists) were constructed and circulated heavily in the pro-government media against Riffian activists and sympathizers. This deliberate denigration took another turn when 20 other activists were arrested for allegedly receiving financial support from abroad, harming the reputation of the state, and impugning the reputation of its institutions.

Subsequently, the negative castigation of Riffian activists has intensified the trans-generational transmission of an unwanted trauma deeply felt within the Amazigh group identity. Back in 1984 when a few riots erupted in protest against the rising costs of living in northern Morocco, late King Hassan II vowed to punish what he called awbash (savages), reminding everyone of how he had dealt with the Rif revolt between 1958 and 1959; i.e., of a return to the use of force. He asserted in his address to the nation that “the people of the North have previously known the violence of the crown prince [which he was then]; it will be best for them not to know that of the king’s [which he was in 1984].” During the earlier revolt, some news reports indicated that he ordered the use of napalm which killed 10,000 people in the Rif. Today, Moroccan authorities remain out of the loop on the socio-psychological ramifications of the Amazigh’s trauma of the earlier revolt.

Nor could Morocco’s leaders win the communications battle with the Hirak leadership or engage it in serious dialogue. Some 300 Moroccan lawyers have volunteered to defend detained activists, including Nasser Zefzafi, a prominent leader of the protests. Lawyer and political activist, Mohammed Ziane, passionately stated that Riffian protestors “are not separatists or extremists” and maintained that they will “no longer accept marginalization, but demand justice.”

Morocco’s Protracted Conflict Dilemma

The complexity of the Hirak reveals accumulated layers of underdevelopment and failed public policies. Despite the recent pursuit of regionalism by the Moroccan government as a semi-federal reorganization of tasks between Rabat and various provinces, the official political philosophy still follows a colonial era (1912-1956) policy of distinguishing between what in Morocco is known as Almaghrib Annafi’a (worthy Morocco) and Almaghrib Ghayr Annafi’a (non-worthy Morocco).

The rift between rebel leader al-Khattabi and the monarchy throughout the first half of the twentieth century resulted in the Rif region being subjected to economic deprivation, socio-cultural marginalization, and suppression of the Amazigh identity; all ingredients for a protracted social conflict. Not surprisingly, Hirak’s dynamics today reflect four manifestations of this conflict in Morocco.

  1. There is strong Riffian resentment and mistrust of government officials that have spread to other areas and urban centers of the country;
  2. There is widespread neglect of the mountainous Rif in economic reform plans. Only one road connects the region with the rest of the country. The government has promised some piecemeal projects; but human needs have not been fully gratified either as material `low needs’ for employment and medical care or `high needs’ for recognition of the Amazigh language and cultural and political rights. There is a noticeable double-standard irony when the locals are “second-class citizens and … their region is being left out of the country’s development…”
  3. The Hirak raises questions about the promised governance and the state’s role in abusing its own social capital and trust of citizens. Unlike the wave of optimism in the first years of Mohamed VI’s reign [1999-2003], the majority of Moroccans now express deep concern about his indecisiveness and the unchecked power of his Makhzen entourage. Outside observers have also scaled back their expectations about Morocco’s democratization since “the monarchy has continued to concentrate most power in its hand.”
  4. Unlike the suffocation of the 1958-1959 revolt, Riffian diaspora groups, residing mainly in Belgium, Holland, and France, have backed the demands of their Hirak colleagues. Parallel demonstrations marched in Brussels and Paris and chanted anti-Makhzen slogans in front of Moroccan embassies. Morocco’s intelligence agency, Directorate General of Territorial Surveillance, alleges that the protests “are not completely organic and have been remotely controlled by small separatist organizations in Europe.”

Imprisoned and later pardoned singer and activist, Salima Ziani, captured the plight of the Rif when she said “As citizens, we lost faith in political parties. The King inaugurates projects and nothing else happens. Many of the protesters have degrees and no jobs. Everyone lives from fishmongering here – that’s all we have.”

The Makhzen’s New Low

Morocco’s Makhzen represents a supra-state within the state, and includes a network of powerful men in the royal palace, military leaders, and intelligence officers who benefit from surrounding the king, shaping his decisions, and having more clout than elected officials. Morocco’s political `exceptionalism’ derives itself from a de-facto separation, not between three standard powers––legislative, executive, and judicial––but from four arms of the state dividing the executive into two tiers: an `upper government’ formed by a network of royal advisors who oversee mega-projects, international aid packages, and grants from friendly states, and a `lower government’ that is populated by partisan and technocratic figures whose nominations for public office depend on the blessings of the Makhzen institution.

Hirak represents the most serious challenge for the Makhzen circles in managing the conflict or at least containing the growing trend of mistrust. The public discourse of preserving stability, protecting national unity, and mobilizing the masses against the Riffian activists who seek to spread Fitna (sedition) has been less than effective.

One particular scene that took place in a mosque in Al-Hoceima during a Friday sermon illustrates the alliance between political power and the religious establishment in normalizing status-quo politics. Hirak leader Nasser Zefzafi decided to denounce the Imam’s claims in his “Security is a Blessing” sermon and asked “What does fitna mean when our young people have little to eat? Whom do mosques belong to? God or the government?”

Paradoxically, the state has undergone some fatigue in reconstructing its official discourse and refurbishing its image. The security apparatus seems to be working off the textbook of hard power shaped by the late King Hassan II (1961-1999) and his powerful interior minister Driss Basri (1979-1999). Makhzen strategists have basically recycled the same power politics while seeking to delegitimize popular demands for reform. By doing so, the establishment risks the country’s stability. Some peacebuilding activists have also cautioned against the decline of the state’s legitimacy by asserting that, “One of the deepest roots of the Hirak movement was the bad relationship with the state. There is a political apathy and a complete loss of trust in politicians. And these problems need to be fixed.”

Two Rival Legitimacies: The King and His Opposite

The Hirak’s trajectory has deepened the disarticulation between state and society, and mobilized most Moroccans into two opposing camps. The first is that of the A’ayacha (cheerleaders of the monarchy and the state) as they contest the Riffians’ demands. Several reports have pointed to a deliberate encouragement by the authorities to sabotage the protests. The second is that of the Hirakiyoun (pro-Hirak) and challengers of conformity with the state. They persistently wave the Amazigh flag and banners of their historical leader al-Khattabi.

In various videos on social media, Rif interlocutors position themselves in a symbolic visual frame where al-Khattabi’s poster gives them political and moral resonance among their audience. The underlying statement is the pride of being the grandsons of a rebel leader who established an independent state between 1923 and 1926 “before it fell to Spanish colonial rule.”

This battle of narratives and visual symbols in the often-heated debates has energized fearless Riffian interlocutors in their investment in al-Khattabi’s legacy as a counterbalance to the monarchy. Moreover, this return to al-Khattabism is being stimulated by several internal and external political undercurrents. The resentment of underdevelopment, mistrust of the state, and Hirak’s appeal may lead to the solidification of Amazigh nationalism in the Rif region and beyond. Morocco’s year-long protests represent a new hope to Kabyle nationalists in neighboring Algeria, and other Amazigh minorities in southern Tunisia and southern Libya. By the same token, the recent referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will inspire more Amazigh activists across the Maghreb to seek a similar path of self-governance and possibly full-fledged sovereignty.

A Way Forward for Morocco

Morocco remains a strategic ally of the United States in a region that is challenged by various advocacies of radicalization and fanaticism. In the context of constructive exchange and positive bilateral relations, the Trump Administration can play a major role in forging a new relationship between Rabat and the Rif region.

  1. Moroccan officials can be encouraged to reconsider their security-legal stance vis-à-vis the demands of reform and development in a region that has been underprivileged for nearly a century. The upcoming reports by the State Department, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch are expected to reflect considerable deterioration of human rights and civil liberties in the country. There is a dire need for King Mohamed VI to assess the Makhzen’s approach toward protests in Al-Hoceima and other cities.
  2. Washington would do well to urge Rabat to implement a complete pullback of the military, and reduce the presence of plainclothes security forces from Al-Hoceima, the epicenter of the protest movement. An exaggerated presence of various security arms can be counterproductive in the pursuit of restoring calm and stability among any disgruntled population at the time of tension and uncertainty.
  3. As the axiom goes, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” A nuanced approach to the Hirak can be an adequate point of entry for the Moroccan monarchy to initiate a serious reconciliation process with large segments of frustrated Riffians. The American stance of supporting freedom of expression should be imparted to Moroccan authorities to accept different views and accommodate voices of criticism and calls for accountability.
  4. The Trump Administration should not narrow the scope of bilateral cooperation to the imperatives of counterterrorism solely within the framework of the new Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) which currently formulates a co-venture between Washington and Rabat.
  5. The United States should seriously reconsider the intended cut of its development assistance to Morocco by one third. Instead, it should allocate more aid and call on American companies to consider starting new projects in the Rif region to help alleviate the impact of unemployment.
  6. With the growing shift from French to English among the young generation of Moroccans, the State Department should establish a cultural center in Al-Hoceima and engage local students in benefiting from its courses and resources.

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and former member of the United Nations’ Panel of Experts. He sits on the Academic Advisory Board, and is a Guest Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC