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By Samia Errazzouki
AL-HOCEIMA, Morocco (Reuters) – Under the banner of the People’s
Movement, Moroccans have just staged the country’s biggest
political protest since the “Arab Spring” and some now say that
only intervention by their king can defuse a deepening crisis.
For months, demonstrators have taken to the streets in Rif region
around the northern city of Al-Hoceima to vent their frustrations
over the economic, social and political problems of a kingdom
that presents itself as a beacon of stability in a turbulent
Authorities have responded by arresting as many as 100 leaders
and members of the movement, called Hirak al Chaabi in Arabic,
since the end of May.
Undaunted, tens of thousands marched through Rabat on Sunday, the
greatest number to join a demonstration since a wave of rallies
in 2011 forced King Mohamed VI to allow some democratic reforms.
In a country where political protests are rare and the royal
palace remains the ultimate power, the demonstrators have
directed their anger at the government and the king’s entourage
rather than the monarch himself. Some, however, believe he must
“I have nothing to say to the government. I address my grievances
to the highest authority,” said Ahmed Zefzafi, whose son Nasser
led the Hirak movement until his recent arrest.
“With one phone call, all of this can be resolved,” Zefzafi told
Reuters at his family home, just days after a police raid broke
down their front door.
So far, the palace has remained silent despite activists’ calls
for a royal intervention.
The government spokesman declined comment on the issue, saying
only: “All the steps and initiatives taken by the government with
regards to Al-Hoceima were under direct instruction from King
Following a meeting with the king on Wednesday, French President
Emmanuel Macron told reporters in Rabat that Mohammed VI is eager
to “calm the situation in the Rif region by responding to the
demands of this movement”.
DEPRIVATION OF DIGNITY
The Hirak movement was born after the gruesome death in October
of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in Al-Hoceima, which lies on the
Mediterranean coast. Local police confiscated fish they said he
had bought illegally and dumped it in a garbage truck. Desperate
to recover his stock, Fikri jumped inside and was killed by the
vehicle’s rubbish crusher.
“We’ve never seen anyone die that way,” Silya Ziani, one of the
Hirak leaders, told Reuters shortly before she was arrested
herself. “Even Hollywood doesn’t think to depict death in that
Ziani, too, believes the king is the only authority able to ease
the tension, with economic development vital for creating jobs
and easing poverty. “We hear about the king investing in major
projects abroad. What about us?” she asked.
Fikri’s death has become a symbol of “hogra” – a colloquial
Arabic term for the deprivation of a person’s dignity due to the
abuse of power, corruption and injustice.
The protests – including Sunday’s march in the capital which was
largely led by the banned Islamist Adl Wal Ihsan (Justice and
Spirituality) Movement – echo Morocco’s “Feb. 20th” movement of
Inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt that year, it staged
protests over unemployment, judicial reforms and other freedoms,
with thousands joining demonstrations nationwide led by
activists, leftists and Islamists.
King Mohamed eventually ceded some powers to parliament, and
managed the protests with a combination of limited constitutional
reforms, heavy policing and hefty public spending.
As in 2011, no-one now openly calls for overthrowing the king,
who heads the Muslim world’s longest-serving dynasty. Many
Moroccans are wary of the kind of instability rocking Libya and
other parts of the region. The almost daily protests have been
mostly peaceful, with only occasional clashes.
The demonstrators are demanding the release of the dozens
detained on charges including “threatening national security” and
“receiving foreign funding”. However, “hogra” is the main
motivation, with Fikri’s death still angering many.
Moroccan authorities have arrested 11 people over Fikri’s death
and promised development projects for Al-Hoceima and the wider
Rif region, long a hotbed of anti-government dissent and unrest
among the indigenous Berber community.
But while protests persist, government officials trade blame over
responsibility for the unrest and for delayed projects. The
Islamist Party of Justice and Development leads the government,
but the pro-palace Party of Authenticity and Modernity holds most
seats for Morocco’s northern region.
The unrest comes at a sensitive time as the country prepares more
economic reforms, including floating its currency. Many Moroccans
depend on money sent by relatives abroad, and the kingdom is also
trying to attract investors by presenting itself as a safe haven
in a region rocked by strife.
“We have an economic model of development that relies
significantly on tourism, remittances and foreign direct
investment,” said economist Najib Akesbi. “If there isn’t a
detente through the release of prisoners and real, credible
initiatives that address grievances, then the situation is likely
Rights groups including Amnesty International have criticized the
arrests in the Rif region, citing claims of torture, beatings and
lack of immediate access to legal counsel. Officials say those
arrested are charged in due process.
Even the current holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are fasting,
has not slowed the protests in Rif, which once briefly declared
itself a republic to contest former Spanish colonial rule in the
Zefzafi, who himself was involved in politics in his youth,
evoked an Arabic proverb to express his feelings of helplessness
over his son’s arrest.
“What can a corpse do in front of the corpse washer?” he asked.
“Nasser didn’t kill anyone, he didn’t hurt anyone. I don’t have
any expectations about how things will continue to unfold.”
(Editing by Patrick Markey and David Stamp)