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 AlHirak 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.[1] 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.[2]

Escalating protests

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[3]. 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.


Libya: enter Russia

March 16, 2017 — Leave a comment


(By Richard Galustian*)

Since the Libyan civil war began, the question hovering over everything was – will Russia get involved? The answer to that question came when the chief of Libya’s UN-created Government of National Accord (GNA), the so-called Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.

Having stayed aloof from a messy civil war now into its third year, Russia has decided to effectively replace the void left by the US and become the chief ‘powerbroker’ not only in Libya but the entire Middle East and North African region. The bad news for Serraj is that the beneficiary as far as Libya is concerned is likely to be his big rival, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, commander of the powerful Libyan National Army (LNA). The imagined role in Libya of the EU and the UK is just that: imaginary and delusional.

The admirable efforts of British Ambassador to Libya Peter Millett in trying shuttle diplomacy between stakeholders in Tripoli, Misrata and Haftar and his LNA in the east have achieved nothing but to underline that it’s Moscow and Washington that is calling the shots. Sadly London has become as irrelevant as Brussels.

It was Haftar that Moscow turned to in January, inviting him for military talks aboard its aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, cruising off Libya. And equally Haftar was happy to be courted by Moscow. The talks included a full dress military parade and band playing the Libyan national anthem on the deck, underlining for all to see who Russia wants to do business with.

There is no doubt that Russia’s policy on Libya is growing stronger and in a positive way for all involved. Moscow is not only talking with all parties but also trying to find a way for the Tripoli government to acquiesce to Haftar and vice-versa. “We are carrying out consistent work with both key centres of power in Libya,” said the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova.

Moscow is not wrong. Haftar’s battle against extremists in Libya has made him a national hero among the vast majority of the population and brought big victories. Haftar’s army has almost crushed a galaxy of fanatical militants who had terrorised Benghazi, and killed the US ambassador there in 2012. Most significantly perhaps, last September Haftar captured the country’s main oil ports, giving him control of the eastern oil fields – the ones that matter representing at least two-thirds of all the oil in the country.

Already Egypt has given Haftar strong support, as has France, which provided special forces to work with his army in the east of the country.Russia also senses an opportunity. It has all but won the Syrian civil war, cementing an alliance with Syria’s president Bashir Assad and outflanking American efforts to support the rebels. With the oil ticket in his pocket, and rising popular support in a country weary of endless militia skirmishes, rather than decisive battles, Haftar now clearly holds the keys to power.

That much was made even clearer last month when Egypt tried to become peace broker, inviting Haftar to meet with Sarraj in Cairo. Both men showed up, but Haftar said no to a meeting, leaving Serraj stuck in a hotel room with a phone that refused to ring.
There is a reason why Haftar saw no reason to talk to Sarraj: for just as Haftar’s power is rising, so Serraj’s is falling.

His Government of National Accord (GNA), created by the United Nations, is a joke. It is not a government, having failed to win control of key institutions like the Central Bank (CBL) and National Oil Corporation (NOC). It most certainly has failed to win any of the key Libyan tribes. And there is no ‘accord’ – in fact, Serraj is marooned with his presidency in a Tripoli naval base, because militias are the law in the Libyan capital. The rest of his time he spends in Tunis.

Worse, for Sarraj, those militias are fighting with each other, with many backing yet another government in Tripoli, the Salvation Government, in furious street battles recently with tanks and heavy artillery that have turned parts of the capital into a real war zone. Little wonder Haftar refused to meet a man incapable of controlling even his own city.

Officially, Russia takes the side of all Libyans, not one faction, with Lavrov saying: “We would like to see Libya a united and prosperous nation relying on stable government institutions and a viable army.” But Russia also senses an opportunity. Already it has all but won the Syrian civil war, cementing an alliance with Syria’s president Bashir Assad and outflanking American efforts to support the rebels. Now it is poised to do the same in Libya, in contrast to the US, Britain and Italy who have been relentlessly backing the GNA.

But talk of a super-power rift between Moscow and Washington may be premature: the Trump administration’s key policy advisor Steve Bannon has long campaigned against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the main supporter of the GNA, and the White House is expected, like the Kremlin, to get behind Haftar, a move that would help also in its objective of doing business with Russia.

Even Britain, arch supporter of Serraj, is having to rethink. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson now says a place must be found for Haftar in Libya’s government.
Meanwhile, on March 2, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee published a report on the UK’s relations with Russia, urging the foreign office to conduct meaningful dialogue with the Kremlin. The committee’s chairman, Crispin Blunt, said: “Refusal to engage with Russia is not a viable, long-term policy option.”
He’s right: Moscow is spreading its wings in the Middle East and North Africa. Its desire to move into Libya was emphasised in another way last week, when Rosneft, the state oil giant, signed a deal to invest heavily with Libya’s state oil corporation (East NOC). After years in the wings, Russia has finally ‘arrived’ in Libya (and the region), and western powers are slowly becoming aware of that fact.

MENA countries are more and more looking for the power broking role to be taken up by Moscow rather than the US or UN and certainly not by the UK or EU. A new 21st century reality.

* Richard Galustian is a British political and security advisor based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years. He wrote this piece for The Times of Malta, dated 03/07/17.