Moroccan activists renegotiate power: a new stage in a forgotten uprising

Miriyam Aouragh reports from Morocco, where she is currently on fieldwork. She researches the role of new media in the (counter) revolutionary movements in Syria and Morocco.

Online campaigns demanding justice and freedom have mushroomed since 2011

Morocco is often forgotten in western reporting, squeezed between more crucial developments elsewhere in the Arab world, but in the last few months, international, mainstream or conservative newspapers have shed a surprisingly critical light on the Kingdom’s political reality. This newly opened-up space and journalists taking an interest in Morocco is badly needed for a movement that is facing increasing repression, and helps release a bit of the pressure felt across the country.

The reason why there is such renewed interest in Morocco is two-fold: firstly, this country of which too little is known, is situated right between Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and is a key ally of the United States and a friend of Israel. Secondly, a growing number of human rights and press watchdogs (e.g. Amnesty, CPJ) have published damning reports about Morocco, in particular regarding its excessive restrictions on press freedom, harsh treatment of political dissidents, its de-facto occupation of Western Sahara and oppression of Sahrawis. All relay a deep concern about the increasing violations of freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests, political detainees, police repression and death threats.

2011: The people speak out

Abdelkrim Al Khatabi

Only a month ago the torture and subsequent death of union activist Karim Lachkar, from the Northern city Al Hoceima, sent shivers across the movement, but it was the most recent, publicized, case. Al Hoceima has a long history of anti-regime and anti-monarchist resistance; it is where the famous anti-colonial resistance leader Abdelkrim Al Khatabi had his roots. He was an epic symbol who managed to unite the main Amazigh (‘berber’) tribes in their struggle against the violent Spanish and French rulers. The sense of betrayal by the sultan who cooperated with colonial generals (and eventually his life long exile) still exists. Similarly, graffiti, necklaces, key rings, banners and online profile photos bearing his name or face are testimony of his legacy.

And yet, it was not anticipated that this place would produce a particularly defiant eruption as part of the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, including burning of police cars, attacks and storming of intelligence buildings. The outpouring of people form rural Bni Bouayech and collecting ever more people on its trail and marching into the city Al Hoceima is already considered a historical phenomenon. Consequently, it was faced by an enormous violent response from the Makhzan (the local term for the deep state): from police cars driving through crowds through to killing, then burning and relocating the bodies, (as happened in this macabre case) of people who happened to be in the march. The state counted on the fact the Northern region does not enjoy the same media-exposure and political relevance as the historic cities Fes or Marrakesh let alone the capital Rabat or metropolis Casablanca.

Other parts of Morocco were also sites of rebellion in 2011. The important and rapidly growing port city Tangier, a strategic place that looks over the Strait of Gibraltar, was set alight, something the city had not seen before and even stunned die-hard activists. In retrospect and without exaggeration we can say that part of the country was on the verge of collapse. The Makhzan had almost lost control. It was taken by surprise by the large numbers of people on the street chanting al sha’b yourid isqat al fassad, [the people demand the downfall of the corrupt]; and some going even as far as al sha’b yourid isqat al malik [the people demand the downfall of the king]. As someone told me in an interview “lmdina kant ka ze’ze’, ‘lain ‘a tertaq – the city was shaking, about to explode”.

It felt as if everyone was saying degage! (leave!) in one breath. In the two years of my research I have spoken to many people and collected piles of visual material in an attempt to archive this unique momentum; so as not to forget, so as to analyze and learn from. One video that best illustrates the symbolic transformation of millions of people from passivity to political agency, is this one below. If the rhythmic and repetitive chanting of “Listen to the voice of the people; listen to the voice of the sons; listen to the voice of the daughters: the makhzan has to leave…And the masses say, the one and only solution out of all solutions, is the downfall of the regime; the dismantling of the government…” had send shivers through our spines, imagine how it worried the rulers.

The regime was not going to let this pass easily. It proposed a set of reforms and promises on the constitutional level, and many could see the regime was learning from the mistakes made in other countries. Mohammed VI applied a more Machiavellian approach: between a mea culpa (Ben Ali, Mubarak) and insane violence (Gadhafi, Assad). The well-known political acrobatics of Morocco that relies on co-option, divide and rule and wonderful promises in times of crisis was polished and updated.

But after several years of these schemes not much has changed, the social-economic conditions have worsened and activists are getting ever more impatient. The state has now opted for a crackdown light – selectively choosing whom to kidnap and imprison rather than all-out violence, just enough to try and scare the movement but not enough to provoke society.


A notable example of an increasing crackdown is the arrest and process against the ‘April 6’ group – and the arrest of prominent figure of music artist Mouad Belghouat (aka Lhaqed/7a9ed) detained twice before because of his songs against corruption and oppression. Most of us know and follow these activists on social media, but the crackdown is much wider, and involves students and union activists who are rarely at the centre of Facebook campaigns or international networks. All belong to what is loosely referred to as the “20 February Movement”. That the April 6 group was arrested for being at a labour protest – a merging of political and socio-economic struggle – shows the anxiety of the regime. The demands for the release of particular comrades became too many, and were soon simply summarised into one demand: Free Koulchi [free everyone/thing].

Outside Ain Sbe’ court in Casablanca during the 3rd trial of Al 7a9ed (June 2014)
Family from Fes of imprisoned students, at a protest in Tangier in solidarity with political prisoners. June 2014

Moreover, the crackdown goes further than overt repression of outspoken activists: it also involves covert oppression through the denial of a civil society to operate according to the common rules of engagement. This includes prohibiting critical NGOs (such as Freedom Now) to legally exist and be able to defend freedom of expression in Morocco.

The internet is under tighter scrutiny, and a growing number of independent or outspoken journalists (e.g. Mustapha Hassnaoui, Ali Anouzla, Taoufik Bouachrine, Damoune Abdellah Mohamed Rassmi) have found out the hard way what the promises of the new reforms mean in practice. The removal of press cards, the loss of permits, the closing down of papers (e.g. Ali Al Nouzla’s Lakome), the unfair financial fines or fabricated cases (e.g. via land tenure or drugs trials) brought against critics is part of the wider intimidation.

Its important to understand the Moroccan experience as part of the counter-revolutionary surge in the whole Arab world. It is difficult to ignore the impression that the regimes are recovering from the recent political earthquakes, and returning with a vengeance. Having hardly digested the news about the mass-sentencing of Brotherhood sympathizers or the incarceration of revolutionary socialist Mahienour el-Massry, the 15 years jail sentence for international figure Alaa Abdel-fattah, just after a landslide election victory for Sisi, exposed that Egypt’s military-dominated ruling class feels its time to reboot the post-revolutionary scene.

Here in Morocco we can’t even talk of a ‘carrot and stick’ tactics: the reform carrot turned out to be hollow and plastic whereas the stick made of even thicker steel. Activists are smeared and bullied by the propagandists of the Makhzan know as the “royalist youth”. The fact that these people – elite kids parroting the state or paid mouth pieces of the intelligence forces – are more confident now, is a warning sign. The wave of public arrests here is testimony of a Makhzan flexing its muscles and confirms that we are witnessing a resurgence of dictatorial oppression in an attempt to turn back the clock to a pre-2011 status-quo. But this regime overlooks two important things.

Firstly, the activists are spread throughout Morocco and they have a collective memory. Secondly, most of the current arrestees are very young, between 19-25. They are less burdened by the paralysing fear that silenced a previous generation. The old-style repression that demobilized two generations under Hassan II and nearly another one under Mohammed VI began to fade. With the massive protests in 2011, the genie flew out of the bottle. This is a different generation, it is a generation that matured politically in the streets in 2011, hearing chants like ‘Hurriya, karama, adala-ijtima’ia’ [freedom, dignity and social justice], not as a request, but as a demand. We could say that the notion “20 February” itself is both a movement and cause, that it has become an identity in itself, something people try, for better or worse to protect, to keep alive and express in their daily lives. The echoes from the past are nevertheless a reminder of what the Makhzen could do, and have started to do again.

Necklace with 20Feb movement signature, participant at Tangier sit-in, June 2014

Ghosts from the past

The notorious reign of King Hassan II (1961 – 1999) is known as the “years of lead” and is marked by the disappearance of hundreds of political dissidents; arbitrary detention; systemic use of torture; secret detention centres in the desert (e.g. Tazmamart and Qalaat Mgouna) and the work of the secret service DST [Direction générale de la surveillance du territoire]. Political opposition was impossible and rewarded with death. Such was the case of prominent socialist Mehdi Ben Barka who was first put on trial for an alleged conspiracy against the state in 1963 and then ultimately assassinated in 1965. There is a long and painful history of killing or silencing left-wing activists during numerous intifada’s in the 70s and 80s.

When, then new, King Mohamed VI established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (Instance équité et réconciliation, IER) to investigate human rights violations committed by these security services there was a sigh of relief. It was, after all, the shining example in the Arab world of a modern leader assuming a brave stance. The state was taking responsibility, promising justice, financial compensation and health and or job insurance for many survivors of torture. But those with blood on their hand have not been brought to justice and reconciliation mostly a resourceful term. Decades have passed and instead of leaving that time behind for good as the new king had promised, the ugly past resonates even more.

Terrorism (especially after the 2003 Casablanca bombings) and treason (however creatively defined) are the ‘state of exception’ resorted to in order to apply the same mechanisms of repression. As Amnesty documented:

[R]eports of torture and other ill-treatment continue to surface, particularly during pre-arraignment detention and interrogation following arrest by the police or gendarmerie. Victims come from a variety of backgrounds, including activists from the UNEM student union with left-wing or Islamist affiliations, supporters of self-determination for Western Sahara, protesters challenging poverty and inequality, individuals held on suspicion of terrorism or national security-related offences, as well as members of marginalized groups arrested for ordinary offenses.

This is why young people have crafted an extraordinary chant which is chilling in its reminiscence and accuracy: “el mekhzen el ‘abqari, bgha y rja’na lel lawri, lil ayaam rasas ‘awtani, ‘ahd al Hassan tani” [our genius regime wants to take us back in time, to the years of lead, the era of Hassan II].

What about the so-called ‘international community’? The truth is that as the anti-immigration parties are gaining prominence in European governments one must expect even less. As the main transit to Europe from Africa, Morocco guarantees the protection of ‘Fortress Europe’, in exchange for economic deals and a blind eye. As for the United States, Obama is faced with perhaps the most serious challenge to the US’s imperial project in a disintegrating region, why would he challenge one of the few remaining a key allies? No one really wants to rock the boat, so the regime seems to enjoy comfortable impunity.

But revolutionaries are fighting back too. The movement in support of political prisoners (mo3ta9lin) has been steadily spreading and becoming a vocal impulse that has managed to revive the 20 February networks that had been dwindling.

Not taking No for an answer

This month alone we have seen sit-ins and demonstrations in Tangier, Tetouan, Rabat, Casablanca etc. The most important element of the success is that friends, comrades mothers, sisters and brothers of the prisoners travel around the country to build solidarity. The video of the mother of one of the political prisoners (Hamza Haddi) visiting Tangier with a delegation went viral. She was fierce and fearless: her outcries spit straight in the face of the Makhzan. I was there and hardly believed what I saw; she did not bother to polish her message despite the area crawling with undercover agents.

Friends of April6 youth protesting in Casablanca, June 2014

Their no-nonsense clarity and audacity is a lesson for us all. I followed and witnessed these impressive performances in awe and discovered a unique kind of steadfastness. During a speech in the middle of a square in front of several hundred people one of the detainees sisters raised a very sensitive issue – she mentioned that the police brought another arrestees’ sister (who stood next to her looking to the ground), sexually intimidated her and threatened to rape her in front of him if he refused to confess. Amid this painful revelation – to ease the embarrassment and empower the woman – the people surrounding her chanted ‘Ya nidam ya Sahyoun’ ‘Hey you, zionist regime’.

It is important to note that we are bearing witness to all of this thanks to an amazing revolution in global technology. By-passing state media and censorship and tuning in (sometimes instantly) we are able to discover the oppression but also allowed to enjoy the small victories. Such is the case with the release of some of the April 6 group and the earlier-mentioned Hamza Haddi. His mother, after weeks of non-stop campaigning, just this week was able to hug her son again. Hamza was lifted on the shoulders of his comrades in celebration of his release, and began to chant against the regime, less than two meters away from the doors of the prison he just walked out from. Whether as passive spectators or active participants, we recharge are own stamina while watching such powerful images because, in part, we have YouTube and social media. Indeed, these new generations of politically engaged citizens are internet natives, for them it’s second nature. But, much more importantly than the availability of the internet: we can do this because we have activists who stopped mourning over the loss of a movement and started organising and agitating again. They mobilize, mediate and archive their campaigns through the internet, but above all they are actively seeking change on the ground. Their online engagement has political sense by virtue of their offline sacrifices; unlike that of peers whose online engagement revolves mostly around leisure or reactionary (pro-regime/monarchy) nationalist agitation.

‘Ash al sha’b! Long live the people!

Of course the quest for political change in Morocco is hard. It often feels like moving three steps forward and then two, if not three, steps back. It is understandable why some aren’t as optimistic any more or even declare the movement dead. But we must understand that revolutionary upheavals have ups and downs; that a first celebratory outbreak, fuelled by a united and positive dynamic usually makes way for a more difficult more divided (and more violent) stage. What I relay here goes beyond the semantic dispute over the meaning of ‘20 February‘ or whether it is justified to still utter the word ‘revolution’. It is about making sense of a political transformation already in the making. But it is one without any guarantees. These new generations of activists seem to be saying we may lose, but if we don’t try we can’t live with ourselves.

In the meantime, these people are not waiting for some abstract international community of politicians to step in, nor are they asking for any foreign intervention, either. They are, however, very international. They align with an international community of activists: they are in close touch with activists in Tunisia, and with those in Egypt as well as Spain and Greece. Many have shared the news of the Podemos election victory with delight, and the news of the Egyptian election with shock.

Al Haqed (7a9ed) chose his name for an important reason, it means ‘the indignant’ and therefore strikes a cord with millions of Moroccans of his generation. They cannot bear the thought of living in a country with one of the richest kings on the planet and enough resources to feed the people while the poor are violently evacuated from their shantytowns. It has become customary that at each protest, in a rejection of the common  “Long live the King” they shout ‘ash al sha’b “Long Live the People!”. They are not easily pacified because it is not just about bread: they want roses too.

Well, long live these brave activists who against all odds are continuing the struggle. They deserve to be supported, they have been ignored for too long and should be part of international solidarity campaigns that already exist, just as their counterparts elsewhere. We need to demand that activists, students and journalists who received prison sentences be released immediately; and the curbing of press freedom must be revoked unconditionally.


  1. Thank you for the compliments. By ‘de-facto’ is meant ‘effectively speaking’, for in reality Morocco is practicing colonial politics-as opposed to the legalistic mumbo-jumbo used by the Makhzan and its supporters in the international community- and it refuses the self-determination of a people as a result. This is important to stress even in a piece ‘solely’ about internal-Moroccan affairs in order to convey a political principle that is internationalist and non-nationalistic which are in any case the authors politics but a problem with a large part of the moroccan left unfortunately. Yes Morocco needs to stop mines, arrests, torture, discrimination, of all the people. ‘Ash al sha’b.

  2. Very well written. My compliments. One remark. The description of the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara with the phrase “de-facto occupation of Western Sahara” is not correct. Western Sahara is a divided land. It is divided between the Moroccan occupier and the Sahrawi republic by a Moroccan military wall and many, many landmines. It is de-facto a partly occuption. It is important to understand Morocco does not have complete access to the whole of Western Sahara. Also Morocco needs to stop using landmines and start with mineclearing activities to make the land habitable again.


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