Depicted by many as a model of stability in the MENA region, especially after the outburst of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 in the Middle East and in North Africa, Morocco has undertaken, since then, a path towards more democratic institutions, through constitutional reforms that mainly aimed at improving civil rights and gender equality. However, recently the new Moroccan government has to face the external and internal challenges, such as the new wave of popular protests, started in the Rif region in October 2016 and spread in the country.
Birth of the Hirak movement
The protests started in October 2016 in Al-Hoceima, in the northern region called Rif, after the death of Mouchcine Fikri, a fish vendor crushed to death in a garbage truck, while resisting police who had confiscated his fish. The news rapidly spread on the social networks, giving birth to the so-called “Hirak movement,” followed by solidarity manifestations all over the country. The protests reached their peak at the end of May after the arrest of Nasser Zefzazi, the elected leader of the movement, who was arrested, together with about 80 other protesters, after having stopped the Friday sermon of an Imam, accusing him of being a mouthpiece of the regime. He is now on trial for “obstacle to religious freedom” and “threat to national security.” Manifestations started by demanding investigations on Fikri’s death, but they soon became a symbol of a wider discontent in Morocco.
Many have made a direct link between the Hirak movement and the 2011 protests, due to the growing dissatisfaction of the population towards the Makhzen and the persisting political, economic and social problems in the country. Steps forward a more democratic government and a greater fulfillment of human rights and civil liberties have been undertaken by King Mohammed VI since 2011–more power to the Head of Government and to the Parliament, the institution of the CNDH (National Human Rights Council) as an independent body, the changes made to the Penal Code in favor of more civil liberties and the decentralization of powers at a regional and local level.
However, issues concerning social reforms–such as women’s rights, homosexuality, and sexual relations out of wedlock and children protection–are still far from being addressed, as well as freedom of religion and expression. In fact, any speech against the monarchy, the royal family, the Islamic religion or “undermining” the territorial integrity are still punishable with prison and the fulfillment of human rights remains a central issue.
Moreover, the still strong political influence of the King and his entourage continues to raise concerns among many people. This appeared clear after the dismissal of the official elected Prime Minister, Abdelilah Benkirane–first in command of the winning political party, the PJD (Islamist justice and development party)-after a six-months political deadlock. At his place, the King appointed Saadeddine El Othmani, party’s second in command, more favorable to form a coalition government and to reduce the party’s political weight, in favor of monarchy-backed parties, such as the RNI (National Rally of Independents), which now holds key ministerial portfolios.
Besides social and political struggles, the lack of investments, the high level of youth unemployment and the delay in the implementation of planned national development projects, especially in the northern region, fostered the population discontent.
Fikri’s death had the effect to make population’s frustrations against social and economic injustice, police abuses, corruption and the unquestionable power of the Makhzen re-emerge.
The Rif, a history of marginalization
If some of these frustrations had a great resonance all over Morocco, it is important not to forget where protests have started. The Rif, a mountainous region that goes from the outskirts of Tangier to the suburbs of Melilla is, in fact, characterized by a specific cultural identity and a more fragile economic situation. The term “hogra,” often used in the past by Riffians to designate their deprivation of dignity and the feeling of oppression due to official abuses and corruption, re-emerged after the protests outbreak.
The Rif, in fact, has a history of marginalization and conflict with the central power, starting from the proclamation of the independent Republic of the Rif by Abdelkrim Al-Khattabi in 1923, which lasted until 1926. After Moroccan independence, the relationship with the central power did not improve, as shown by the repression of new separatist tendencies in 1958 carried out by King Hassan II. From that time, the Rif has been subjected to military law and Berber culture has been neglected for years, leaving the region isolated from the rest of Morocco. This at least until the ascension of King Mohammed VI to the throne in 1999, who started a policy of reconciliation with the Rif, by starting with the establishment of the “Equity and Reconciliation Commission” in 2004 and the replacement of the term “Berber” with the term “Amazigh” in official discourses to refer to the population coming from this area. Moreover, with the 2011 Constitutional reform, Amazigh language obtained the status of official language in the country.
However, as protests have shown, cultural recognitions were not sufficient to wipe out the traces of years of marginalization and underdevelopment, whose evidence persists in the lack of services, the high rate of youth unemployment and the alternative economic activities that have developed during these years to face the failure of an effective national development strategy–such as the production of cannabis and the contraband of goods from Europe. By taking advantage of its strategic geographical position and the implicit acceptance of this illicit activity by the Makhzen, Morocco (and the Rif in particular) remains the first cannabis exporter to Europe, according to UNODC.
The importance that this activity represents for the region, however, should be taken into consideration in case of repressive actions against it. The lack of real and sustainable alternatives, in fact, could only worsen the already weak social and economic situation of the Rif.
Government reaction to Rif protests, between repression and reconciliation
More than 250 protesters have been arrested from the start of the demonstrations, included activists, bloggers, journalists, and children. Moreover, 25 years-old Imad Attabi died during the protest held on 20 July in Al-Hoceima, apparently hit by a tear gas canister fired by security officers. Crackdowns, in fact, resulted in violent beatings of protesters, destruction of private properties, use of tear gases and injured children.
Critics about human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces came out after the manifestations. According to Amnesty International’s reports, about 66 people, in fact, denounced violence by the police, including being beaten, tortured and forced to sign documents without reading them during their custody. However, the Courts of First Instance and Appeal in Al-Hoceima admitted contested “confessions” without opening investigations and refused to order forensic medical examinations for the detainees who denounced the violence. A behavior, this one, which goes against Morocco’s Code of Penal procedure and Morocco’s obligations under the “Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” as well as against the international standards on detention.
What it seems evident is that the police conduct and the population’s perception of an unfair criminal justice system, as well as constraints to civil rights and freedom of expression would not certainly calm the feeling of frustration that fueled protests this year. Moreover, congratulations addressed by the King during his Throne Day’s speech in July to Moroccan security forces for having “bravely and patiently fulfilled their duty, showing restraint and commitment to the rule of law” did not certainly help the cause.
Criticism remains, also, about the Penal Code’s definition of “national security” (one of the charges brought against Nasser Zefzazi), that for many would represent a tool to avoid any kind of dissent towards the regime. Through this definition, in fact, protesters have been often accused of threatening territorial integrity and of spreading separatist messages. Moreover, official media have often referred to protests with the term “fitna,” a religious term meaning “discord,” but also “trial,” in order to discourage their spread.
On the other hand, during his speech in July, the King pardoned 41 prisoners who had taken part in the protests and called for real actions in the Rif. He also blamed political parties for the delay in the implementation of the “Manarat Al Moutawassit”: Al-Hoceima national development program, launched in October 2015, in order to achieve an agricultural, touristic, infrastructural and social development of the area.
Beyond the Rif
The strategic geographical position of the Rif exposes it to external struggles as well, like migration flow management and counter terrorism strategies, which are now at the center of the regime and European countries agendas.
Official data report that the number of irregular migrants passing through Morocco has doubled from 2010 to 2016, reaching up 10,231 people, coming from 49 different countries. According to the IOM (International Organisation for Migration), only in August 2017, 8,193 refugees arrived in Spain through the Western Mediterranean route. Efforts to regulate the flows have been made through the signing of a “Mobility Partnership Agreement” with the European Union in June 2013 and the launch of the second regularization campaign in December 2016.
However, country’s migration policy remains incomplete and HRW (Human Rights Watch) denounces abuses carried out by security forces in refugee camps and at borders. What it is true is that Morocco is no more only a crossing point for migrants, but it became a destination country for many of them. That means that effective measures should be taken to avoid that the needs of refugees and asylum seekers would take their toll to the already difficult living conditions of the Rif population.
Another topic of concern is the risk of radicalization among the young population of the region. According to the BCIJ (Judicial Investigation Central Office) one third of the Moroccan foreign fighters comes from the Northern region, in particular from Tétouan, Tanger, Fnideq and their neighborhoods and 67% is under the age of 25. Poverty, lack of employment and social marginalization represent push factors towards youth radicalization, as well as frustration deriving from a corrupted environment, the loss of faith in political institutions and the still high level of inequality among the population. Moreover, the young age of these people raises questions about national politics concerning children. In particular, children in “difficult situations” might be indirectly exposed to radical groups due to the vulnerable conditions they live in. According to the CNDH, in fact, the protection centers in which they are placed together with children in conflict with the law expose them to further abuses and difficult living conditions, which do not benefit their future reintegration in the society.
However, Moroccan counter terrorism strategy, which takes into consideration legislative, security and socioeconomic measures, as well as a more rigorous control of religious activities in the mosques, has gained the confidence of the international community, as demonstrated by the re-election of Morocco to co-chair the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
In conclusion, despite the big efforts Morocco made, internal and external challenges continue to put the new government to the test. The interconnection between them makes it clear, however, that effective measures in favor of a region which has been marginalized for a long time cannot wait anymore. Recognizing the Hirak movement as a movement that asks for better living conditions and not as a separatist tendency against the national integrity and security might be a first step towards reconciliation and development, considering that the initiatives undertaken against youth radicalization would benefit as well.
Nevertheless, no durable results could be achieved without a multidisciplinary, human rights-based approach, comprehensive of the political, social, economic and cultural dimension, without forgetting that an inclusive civic and political culture that respects pluralism, human rights and cultural diversity is the key for a sustainable path towards a culture of peace and a sustainable development.
Master in International Cooperation (Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale – Milan, Italy)
 Term referring to the Moroccan political, economic, and social power, represented by the King and his entourage.
 Morocco refused 44 recommendations filed by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
 According to a study released in November 2014 by the Moroccan NGO “Observatoire du Nord des droits de l’homme”. See: https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/comments/2015C46_msb.pdf
 The term “child in difficult situation” is defined in Article 513 of the Code of Procedure Criminal Code (Title VII of Book III) as “any minor who has not reached the age of 18, whose physical, mental, psychological or moral security or education is in danger because of his attendance of delinquent persons or known for their bad reputation or having a criminal record; when he rebels against the authority of his parents, his guardian, his tutor dative, the person who takes care of him, the person or the establishment to which he has been entrusted; when he gets used to fleeing the establishment where he follows his studies or training; when he leaves home or when he does not have an adequate place where to settle.”
Amnesty International (2017, August 11). Morocco: Dozens arrested over mass protests in Rif report torture in custody. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/08/morocco-dozens-arrested-over-mass-protests-in-rif-report-torture-in-custody/
Bozonnet, C. (2017, July 20). Maroc : « La longévité de la crise s’explique par l’absence de démocratie locale ». Le Monde. Retrieved from http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2017/07/20/la-longevite-du-hirak-s-explique-par-l-absence-de-democratie-locale_5163053_3212.html#PxkMIjdrTtVJvkwl.99
El Malki, F-Z. (2017, June 2). Morocco’s Hirak Movement: The People Versus the Makhzen. Jadaliyya. Retrieved from http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/26645/moroccos-hirak-movement_the-people-versus-the-makh
Freedom House (2017). Freedom in the World 2017 – Morocco. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/morocco
Guerin, C. (2017, April 18). What’s next for Morocco’s new government?. Global Risk Insights. Retrieved from http://globalriskinsights.com/2017/04/whats-next-moroccos-new-government/
Human Development Report (2016). Human Development for Everyone – Morocco. Human Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/sites/all/themes/hdr_theme/country-notes/es/MAR.pdf
Human Rights Watch (2017). Morocco and Western Sahara – Events of 2016. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/morocco/western-sahara
Istituto Italiano per la Politica Internazionale (2017, April–June). Focus Mediterraneo allargato. Osservatorio di Politica Internazionale, 4, 63–68. Retrieved from http://www.ispionline.it/sites/default/files/pubblicazioni/med_allargato_n4_aprile_giugno_2017.pdf
Khoury, N. (2017, October 11). The Limits of Democratization in Morocco. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-limits-of-democratization-in-morocco
Lahsini, C., (2017, September 21). Morocco Rejects Multiple UN Recommendations on Women’s Rights as ‘Unconstitutional.’ Morocco World News. Retrieved from https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2017/09/229025/morocco-rejects-multiple-un-recommendations-on-womens-rights-as-unconstitutional/
Morocco American Center (2016, July 6). Constitutional Reform in Morocco Five Years On. Retrieved from http://moroccoonthemove.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/IB_ConstitutionalReform5Years6July2016.pdf
Oumlil, K. (2017, June 4) Making sense of recent protests in Morocco. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/making-sense-protests-morocco-170604092533766.html
Zerhouni, H. (2017, June 3). Al Hoceima Protests: Morocco’s Choice Between Perpetuating Injustice or Pursuing Progress. Morocco World News. Retrieved from https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2017/06/218592/alhoceima-protests-morocco-perpetuating-injustice-progress/