Since the death of a riffian fish seller in october 2016, protests keep on going in the Rif, a berber-speaking region in the north-east of Morocco. After this tragic event, a protest movement came up named « Hirak Chaabi », led by Nasser Zafzafi, denouncing the widespread corruption and « hogra » (ed. suffering). Since the end of May, demonstrations tremendously increased, spreading throughout the rest of the country.
It is important to take a glimpse into Moroccan history to understand the protest movement today. In 1912, the Treaty of Fas was signed by Moulay Hafid, giving Morocco to France as a protectorate. Moroccans felt betrayed and a lot of them fought the french colonial forces and the Makhzen (ed. the Alaouite government under the French protectorate and well-known Fas family). Among those who fought where the Riffians; who waged war to Spanish and French colonial forces with the support of the Sultan. During this decolonization war, Riffians established the Republic of the Rif, that lasted from 1921 to 1927 under Abdelkrim Al Khattabi.
That is why a lot of Riffians happened to be waving the flag of the Republic of the Rif during protests, but also portraits of Abdelkrim Al Khattabi. It is a symbol of the Moroccan resistance against colonization, the War of the Rif against Western colonial forces, therefore of freedom, and not a threat nor separatist revendications.
Under Independent Morocco
After colonization, the king of Morocco (ed. back then Hassan II) jailed, tortured, and killed a lot of political opponents in the secret prison of Tazmamart. He also ordered the massacre of Riffians, because they were seen as “hooligans”, “disturbances”, names they still use today to talk about them, their demonstrations and the leader of the protest movement Nasser Zafzafi.
All of this combined with the arabization policies led to the deliberate marginalization of Berber regions in Morocco. This marginalization and systematic oppression is the very source of all the Rif’s protests. Most of them don’t even have access to basic things like hospitals, schools, a descent way of living in the Berber regions of Morocco. (we recall the case of 3-year-old Idya who died from a traumatic brain injury because she was transferred from a hospital to another due to lack of material).
Mohsin Fikri’s Death, Trigger Element of Protests in Al Hoceima
The trigger element of today’s revolts in the Rif was the death of 31-year-old Riffian Mohsin Fikri. He died trying to save his merchandise a policeman threw in a garbage truck after he refused to pay a bribe. Fikri jumped in the truck and the policeman told the driver to « t7an mo », « crush him » in Moroccan darija.
Arrest of Nasser Zafzafi, The Leader of The Protest Movement
Moroccan authorities ordered the arrest of Nasser Zafzafi last may 26, for interrupting an imam’s khûtbah (ed. friday sermon) as the imam was condemning the protests, calling it a « fitna » (ed. dissension between believers). What you need to know is that imams in Morocco receive their friday sermons directly from the Ministry of Religious Affairs; they can’t choose the topics freely. The words they speak are the written words from the Ministry, who’s been using Islam as a political tool against the people.
« Are the mosques for God ? Or for the central power ? » yelled Zafzafi.
Nasser Zafzafi and his community claimed many times that they didn’t want to establish a Republic of the Rif, but only basic rights. They don’t have separatist motives, but the government still spreads this propaganda in order to discredit the movement.
« نحن نطالب بحقوق مشروعة وهم يتهمونا بالإنفصال
(“We ask for human rights, they accuse us of separatism”)
The demands of the people are clear. One of them is that they want jobs and they want universities. The unemployment rate in the entire region high. Because Al Hoceima is a military zone by royal decree, companies are scared away and refuse to invest in the region, keeping the unemployment rate an ongoing issue. The people of Al Hoceima are asking to change that status.
Another demand is a hospital, specifically specialized in the treatment of cancer. When French and Spanish colonial forces were met with a lot of resistance, they used mustard gas against the Riffian people. Today, the Rif has the highest percentage of cancer in Morocco, a direct result of those chemical weapons used against them. The fact that they still have to ask for a decent hospital decades later is quite disturbing.
They have justified their discontent by comparing how it should be in Islam, until then instrumentalised by corrupted imams working with the Makhzen. Thereby, Zafzafi was called a « radical islamist » by western newspapers, and in the same time a « kafir », anti-Islam, an atheist who wants to divide people, by the Makhzen.
Many Moroccans, who happen to be royalist, showed reticence towards protests in Al Hoceima. Those people try hard to invoke Islam to stifle protest movements, speaking of fitna, a desire to divide the Moroccan people, arguments first given by the Makhzen to demonize the demonstrators. It is obvious that Moroccans, including riffians, disavow a potential fitna. This refusal to divide is instrumentalized by the Makhzen, who still tends to call Zafzafi a separatist, using the media. They want to reduce the protests, taking place in the Rif, as an ethnical movement. But corruption and abandonment is a struggle felt by the entire Moroccan population, although louder in Berber regions because of marginalization policies. And it’s proven by the many arab-speaking regions that followed the protests, espcially after Nasser Zafzafi was arrested. People came out to protest in Tetouan, Rabat, Casablanca, Tangiers…
But how come those people who condemn the protest movement by genuinely invoking fitna and Islam, are the most quiet when it comes to the government abuses? Is claiming basic rights in opposition to Islam, but being an unfair governor not? Does Islam only apply to the people and forbids them to denounce an unfair and un-islamic government?