Turmoil in the Rif: A New Chapter for the February 20th Movement? (By Camille Ford *)
On June 5, 2017, two central figures of the grassroots protest movement Al–Hirak which developed in Northern Morocco over the past six month, were arrested. Nabil Ahamjik and Silya Ziani, leading figures in the movement, have been detained since then in Casablanca, where about 20 other protesters were already being kept. The face of the movement, Nasser Zefzazi, was arrested earlier this year, on May 29th. He is being detained on the grounds of “threatening national security,” amidst a slew of other criminal charges.
These arrests reflect the escalating tensions in Morocco, as protests overtake the Northern Rif region of the country, which started in October 2016 following the brutal death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller in the Rif town of Al-Hoceima who was crushed to death by a garbage truck as he attempted to retrieve confiscated goods, later identified as illegally acquired swordfish that he were about to sell. The police officers who were arresting him stood idle as he faced a violent death. The scene was caught on tape and widely shared, and sparked outrage throughout the country, with protests sprouting locally, but also as far as Rabat, the capital city, and Casablanca, the economic epicenter of the country.
The Al-Hirak movement is by no means an isolated event, and can be considered in connection with the Arab Spring, the series of protests and uprisings which sprouted across North Africa and the Middle East, demanding democracy, and social and economic justice. In Morocco, the protests were organized by the 20 February Movement, named after the first demonstration held on that date in 2011. To prevent the spread of the movement, the monarchy quickly introduced reforms towards the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and avoided the harsh and violent responses that met the Arab Spring protests and uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. But the general situation in Morocco is still not much different than that of other countries in the region: persistence of authoritarianism (although in a more benign form), lack of social and economic justice, rising unemployment particularly among the youth, an economic system dominated by cronyism and corruption, etc.
Like the southern and central regions of Tunisia where the Arab Spring started, the Rif is a rather poor region, and neglected by the central government. However, unlike his father King Hassan II who ignored the region, King Mohammed VI has launched several economic and social programs there in an attempt to alleviate the distress of the local people. But this is far from being enough.
Thus, over the past six months, the Al-Hirak protest movement has amplified, with participants denouncing the government hogra, a colloquial Moroccan Arabic term for “contempt” (or “utter neglect”). Although King Mohamed VI expressed his deepest condolences to the people of Al-Hoceima, and called for a thorough investigation of Fikri’s death, the protests went on.
The Rif and Morocco: A history of tension
The Al-Hirak movement brings to light not only the complex relationship between the Rif region and the rest of Morocco, but also the effectiveness of the measures taken by the King and the government in favor of democracy and economic development in Morocco.The Rif region has been inhabited by Berbers, the native people of North Africa, since prehistoric times. It is considered a Berber stronghold. The Berbers of the Rif have faced consistent marginalization and lack of proper recognition by the authorities. The region has historically sought greater autonomy, even briefly declaring itself an independent state in the 1920s during the so-called Rif War (1921-1926) between Spanish colonial forces and the peoples of the region. In recent years, the Rif has felt largely abandoned by the central government, suffering from a lack of investment and development initiatives. With Nasser Zefzazi as the voice of the movement, the people of the region are demanding increased economic aid in light of the region’s high unemployment rates, and persistent and widespread poverty. The movement, which echoes largely the message of the February 20th movement, has garnered rapid support beyond the rebellious Rif region, and comes at a time of major transformations in Morocco.
Morocco at a crossroads
As Morocco finds itself faced with tides of change, on both the economic and political fronts, the protests in the Rif region come as a major challenge, and a reminder that the political reforms, and the development initiatives implemented recently in Morocco are not enough. While the Moroccan intellectual elite has showed open support for the movement, the government’s reactions, with the wave of protesters arrests that he carried out, are a sign that the nation is divided about its future direction. As Islamist politicians have asserted themselves as a dominant force in the Moroccan parliament, and civil unrest grows, Morocco faces a sociopolitical crossroads reminiscent to that seen in 2011. Despite the increased incarcerations of the Hirak leadership, the people continue to take to the streets demanding change. The response of the ruler and the Moroccan government to these growing protests, could very well be a defining moment for the country’s future.
 Agence France Presse, and Le Monde. “Au Maroc, arrestation de deux meneurs du mouvement de contestation dans le Rif.” Le Monde.fr. June 05, 2017.
 Agence France Presse. “Maroc: Qui est le leader de la contestation populaire dans le Rif qui vient d’être arrêté?” 20minutes.fr. May 29, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2017.
 MEO Staff. “What’s behind Morocco’s Rif protests?” Middle East Observer. May 28, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2017.
* Camille Ford is a student in International Studies and Islamic Civilizations and Societies, at the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Boston College, and a Summer 2017 Maghreb Center intern.