Morocco protests intensify despite government clampdown

Rif region demands social investment and release of demonstrators

A wave of demonstrations in Morocco's Rif region that began several months ago with the death of a fish seller has escalated in recent days, presenting King Mohammed VI with his sternest challenge since the Arab Spring.

On Sunday, thousands took to the streets of the capital Rabat with a series of demands including the release of dozens of people who have been arrested in the Rif town of Al-Hoceima, the focus of the recent unrest.

In October 2016, vendor Mouhcine Fikri was killed by a rubbish truck grinder in the town while trying to recover some fish the police had confiscated from him and thrown into the back of the vehicle. Many locals accused the police of ordering the driver to turn on the grinder despite knowing that Fikri was inside.

That incident sparked a series of demonstrations in Al-Hoceima, a small town on the Mediterranean coast, with locals decrying a lack of basic infrastructure and social investment. The surrounding Rif region has had a difficult relationship with the Moroccan state for decades – a 1958 uprising by nationalists there was brutally suppressed.


In Rabat on Sunday, demonstrators chanted “we are all Apaches”, a reference to an insult the late King Hassan II aimed at the people of Rif.

Although the authorities initially took a conciliatory approach to the protests, they have started to clamp down. On May 29th the leading activist, Nasser Zefzafi (39), was detained after interrupting the sermon of an imam who had been denouncing the protesters in a mosque.


Mr Zefzafi’s arrest provoked a backlash from the protest movement both on social media and on the streets, with a general strike staged in the Rif region two days later, followed by other demonstrations leading up to Sunday’s event. At times, violence has broken out despite the organisers’ insistence on peaceful protests.

Dozens of activists have been arrested and the authorities have accused Mr Zefzafi and others of receiving support from foreign rivals such as Algeria and the Polisario Front, which contests Morocco's claim to Western Sahara.

“The government’s increasingly aggressive response and the resultant spike in tensions illustrate the high stakes the situation holds for one of the few remaining stable countries in the region,” noted Sarah Feuer, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a report.

As the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and reached Morocco in 2011, King Mohammed managed to prevent major upheaval by promising sweeping reforms. Although human rights groups say he failed to follow through on that pledge, the protest movement lost momentum.

But the current turmoil in the Rif region is threatening to overshadow the events of 2011. A 36-year-old mother of four, Nawal Benaissa, has taken on the leadership of the so-called Hirak, or protest movement, which is demanding the construction of a hospital and a university in an area that has a jobless rate of 65 per cent.

“I was born and I grew up in Rif, this land crushed by corruption, marginalisation and injustice,” Ms Benaissa wrote on her Facebook page. “I have taken part in all the peaceful demonstrations because I demand my rights, the rights of the Rif people to healthcare, education and work.”

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain