Thousands of Moroccans took to the streets last October protesting the death of a fisherman Mouchine Fikri, who was crushed to death inside a garbage compactor as he tried to save his fish which was confiscated by the local officials. That particular death of a fish vendor in Morocco’s impoverished Northern Riff region shocked the common citizens resulting in a popular revolt, which came to be known as Al-Hirak al-Shaabi or the “Popular Movement” against corruption and abuse of power by the authorities.
For its part, the Moroccan government cracked down hard on the protests, including the arrest of Naser Zefzafi, one of the familiar faces of the activists. Public outrage, however, persisted.
Although the intensity of the recent protests have come down, the eventual impact of this protest may not contain itself to the Riff region, and may spread across Morocco if other parts of the country join the protesters demanding social justice, dignity and freedom in the near future.
Zafzafi is a less educated 39 year old unemployed man who publicly alleged that the Moroccan ‘state is corrupt’ and ‘dictator’. His fiery speech in the Tarifit language of the Riff region has turned him into the de facto leader of the anti-government protests. Zafzafi was arrested along with many others, which sparked fresh protests across the country. In Morocco’s capital Rabat large number of people protested in solidarity with the people of Riff last week.
These recent protests have eerie similarities with the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, which started after a fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire protesting against a police assault on him. Bouazizi’s self-immolation gave birth to widespread protests, which later spread across the entire Arab region, besides toppling the then Tunisian government.
Riff is Underprivileged since the Independence of Morocco
Home to the ethnic Berber people, Al Hoceima the town where the protests started, is in the Northern Riff region of Morocco that has been marginalized socially and economically since the country’s independence from France.
The region’s relation with the central government in Rabat is fraught with tensions. The genesis of the apparent rift can be dated back to the Riff War (1920-1926) when the then Republic of Riff used to be autonomous. Engaged in a war with Riff, Spain was almost crushed to defeat until the French appeared in the scene. Humiliated Spain managed to emerge victorious with crucial support from France.
Riff’s longing for being an independent republic resurfaced after the French left Morocco in 1956. During the reign of Sultan Mohammed V, there was a military uprising in the region during 1958. The rebellion was eventually crushed and the central government emerged with complete control over Riff.
These recent protests have eerie similarities with the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, which started after a fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire protesting against a police assault on him.
Ever since then, Riff’s relation with the central government never really healed. As the other parts of Morocco experienced relative economic prosperity, the rocky relation between the central government and the Riff region has left the latter lagging in development. With the number of jobless young people rapidly swelling, central government’s predicaments in Riff will only compound. From that angle, the latest protests around Mouchine Fikri’s death can be deemed as Riff peoples’ means to demand socio-economic reforms.
If the central government loses its credibility in the Northern Riff region owing to the latest protests, this may have downstream impact over stability and security for the region.
Level Headed Handling of the Protests is Key to Morocco’s Stability
Moroccan King Mohammed VI managed to survive the Arab Spring with a clever referendum in 2011 pledging certain constitutional reforms. The constitutional referendum asserted more power to the Prime Minister and promised some social reforms. But six years after the Arab Spring, many of the promised reforms didn’t materialize, as the King still exercises his supreme authority more regularly than not over the Prime Minister.
When the latest wave of protests hit, the initial reaction from the government was fierce. They labeled the protesters as ‘separatists’ and claimed that the ongoing protest is a Fitna, an Arabic word that means discord, with serious religious connotations.
Heavy handed governmental action targeting the protesters may backfire in the end, so long as people’s demands for jobs, infrastructure, and political reforms stay unaddressed.
Although the intensity of the recent protests have come down, the eventual impact of this protest may not contain itself to the Riff region, and may spread across Morocco if other parts of the country join the protesters demanding social justice, dignity and freedom in the near future. Massive recent protests in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, must signal immediate need for sincere efforts from the King Mohammed VI, who so far have been one of the key survivors of the Arab Spring.