How Rifian are the Rifian Protests?

Joe Hayns reports from Rabat on the protests that started in the Rif and are now spreading across Morocco. This piece was originally published on his blog. If you enjoy reading it, then please consider donating here to help to fund his continued documentation of the current situation in Morocco.

‘Are they Moroccans, or what?’

Analysts have used different metaphors to explain the relationship between the alleged murder of Mohasin Fikri – allegedly killed by police last October in al-Hoceima, in the Rif region, after refusing to pay a bribe – and The Popular Movement (‘al-Hirak al-Sh’abi’; al-Hirak), the grouping that is now doing what the Moroccan state fears above all: spreading beyond al-Hoceima, beyond the Rif, and across Morocco.

From the most used images, ‘spark’ is better than ‘trigger’, the second too suggesting a series of things already finished (a gun, bullet, a hand); for sure, the Popular Movement has its base, cadres, and leadership, arguing together now for a series of crystalline and enormous social demands. But in its relationship to other groups, especially, al-Hirak is still fledgling, a moving movement amongst others.

There were protests in October across the country, then, apparently, quiet. Only apparently: al-Hirak was growing, and in the last three weeks, after a huge demonstration in the al-Hoceima on the 23rd of March, things have shifted rapidly. There have been nightly protests in the town and its hinterland since then – three weeks and people still out each night – and most of the bigger cities and several smaller towns across the country have seen repeated solidarity protests. Last Sunday’s pan-opposition demonstration, easily the biggest in Morocco since the 2011 protests, marched from the Rabat Old Town to the parliament, people there from across the county: is al-Hirak no longer ‘Rifian’?

At a pro-al-Hirak protest in Rabat the previous Sunday (4th June), organised by the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), one passer-by asked with disgust, ‘wach huma magharaba, ula ashnu?‘ (‘are they Moroccans, or what?’).

To give a chauvinist more than their due, the relationship between the Rif and Morocco, and between Rifian-ness and Moroccan-ness, is exactly what is being decided now. His question needs reversing, though: will Moroccans become huma, ‘them’, part of the Popular Movement, or not? The 150,000 people in Rabat last Sunday made it seem possible. Who are ‘them’?

A Republic, a King, and the IMF

After beating a Spanish colonial army in 1920, the movement around Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Karim proclaimed The Rifian Republic, which then fought for six years until defeat by the French and Moroccan state armies, 15 miles from Fez. In 1958, two years after formal independence from France, four-fifths of the Moroccan army was deployed against Rifian separatists. Led by Crown Prince Hassan, later King Hassan II, the uprising ‘ended in a sea of blood‘, as historian Susan Gilson Miller wrote last November.

Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Karim

Anti-imperialist nationalism morphed into anti-central state politics in the Rif, with the antipathy fully returned. The entire region was then and still is militarised, though the demands of the IMF and the World Bank from the mid-1970s onwards – privatize services, open boarders to capital, and later, close them to working-class Moroccans – meant almost-inevitable protests, in 1981, 1984, and 1991: ‘the people of the North have previously known the violence of the crown prince; it will be best for them not to know that of the king’s’, Hassan II said in 1984.

There have been pictures of ‘Abd el-Karim at al-Hirak demonstrations, the print-outs of his face blurring ‘then’ and ‘now’; even The Popular Movement’s demands for better healthcare bring a Rifian past and a Rifian present together (the Spanish state’s use of chemical weapons leaving the place itself carcinogenic, and the oncology unit barely functioning). And, that demand, like all the others, are made in Rifian-accented Arabic and indeed in Rifia, one of three Amazigh or ‘Berber’ languages spoken in Morocco (‘Berber’ is the more recognised word, but considered insulting).

History, current conditions, ‘culture’: All of these are present together, and appear to mark out the Rif from the rest of Morocco, being the appearance that led Moroccan political scientist Abdselam Maghraoui invoked to al-Jazeera: ‘the Rif has been structurally and symbolically severed from the rest of other regions in Morocco’. With perhaps 150,000 at Sunday’s Rabat protest, ‘severed’ seems strong now.

Against more than al-Hugra

20,000 people marched from al-Hoceima to Mohasin Fikri’s hometown the day after his being killed, and there were solidarity demonstrations across the country the night after that. Then, people were against the murder as an instance of ‘­al-Hugra’ (‘official abuse’; against repression and corruption). About the protests, radicals used the word ‘revolution‘.

Mohasin Fikri’s funeral procession

With the quiet after though, this seemed premature. Mohasin Fikri and al-Hoceima stopped making press, and the solidarity protests with the big cities stopped, too. Al-Makhzan, connoting the ‘corrupt’, ‘deep’ state, had left the protests relatively unrepressed. King Mohamed VI, Hassan’s son, sent his condolences; some lower-level officers and officials were dismissed.

One Rabat-based trade unionist said:

After the martying of Mohasin Fikri, everyone was talking about it. But then the King went across Africa making investments, and the news about the African Union. No one cared about the Rif. But, now everyone knows about The Movement.

But it was then that al-Hirak began growing in al-Hoceima and the surrounding towns (‘in some ways, more radical than al-Hoceima’, a leftist activist said to me), and that Nasser al-Zafzafi – the unemployed leader and orator, now in prison, like scores of al-Hirak activists – rose to prominence, first in al-Hoceima and the Rif, then beyond. Demands were developed through ‘participatory’, ‘open’, and ‘direct’ debates in al-Hoceima; in December they were made public, as addressed to the ‘popular masses’ (see here for them in full, in Arabic).

Those that struck most: full investigations into the killing of Mohasin Fikri and the five killed during the 20th February protests, 2011; the ending of the militarisation of the province surrounding al-Hoceima, and recognition of it instead as a ‘disaster area’ (this, since the deaths and damage of earthquake there in 2004 were largely ignored); an improved school system, with especial attention to girls’ and womens’ marginalisation; improved health provision including a working cancer hospital, with urgency; a restructuring of the fishing, agricultural, tourism, craft, and banking industries; an end to the expropriation of public lands without fair compensation; price controls on imports.

There is a regional framing of the demands that shouldn’t be dismissed. But, there is something unignorably general about them. One example: demanding price controls is to ask that international agreements – not least with the EU, via the socially destructive, security-obsessed Barcelona Agreement – be not so much revised as rejected, as contrary to ‘sh’abi’ (‘populaire‘; ‘working-class’) needs. The demands aren’t so much against the grain as beyond it: beyond what seemed possible, much less ‘reasonable’, even six months ago.

A serious demonstration in al-Hoceima on International Women’s Day barely surprised activists in Morocco (‘women’s organisations are relatively strong across the country since the 1980s’, one student radical said). Then, on the 18th of May, the largest demonstration in al-Hoceima yet, resulting in gear-shift for state repression.

Friday May 26th, emboldened, al-Zafzafi interrupts the imam in the Hassan II mosque, the biggest in al-Hoceima, with the line ‘These of mosques of God, not of the Makhzan’ (video here). There is much more to say on the relationship between the church and the state in Morocco; two things now.

First, al-Makhzan uses the church for politicking in the most direct sense, with the Minister for Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Taoufik, having ‘demanded of imams in the al-Hoceima province, all of whom get their salaries from the ministry, to deliver a sermon reproaching the young rebels for promoting fitna”, or division amongst Muslims’, as Le Desk reported on the 28th.

Second is that popular progressive opposition to this relationship – al-Zafzaf’s rupture – is ‘historically unprecedented’, as one leftwing activist told me; ‘they’re using religion against the government’, said another.

Especially France-based analysts have described al-Zafzafi as having a ‘a conservative discourse, punctuated with references to the Korahn’ (le express, on the 31st); there’s seemed some unease at an Aristide-like figure being a Muslim, and readers were ‘assured’ the Rif is ‘one of the least Islamist’ regions. There’s certainly unease from the Moroccan state, with the most lurid claim from the compliant media – that al-Zafzafi is a Rifian al-Baghdadi – so ridiculous as to be self-defeating, at least for the moment.

‘You are well known’

The public prosecutor issued a warrant for al-Zafzafi immediately, for obstructing others’ freedom to worship (the warrant in Arabic is here); al-Zafafi escaped arrest the Friday and Saturday – that night, at least twenty other activists were detained; water cannons and gas against crowds in al-Hoceima – but, on Sunday, al-Zafzafi was caught.

The high drama of al-Zalzafi’s escaping the police that Fridaydemanded an equal, opposite spectacle, and so his arrest – a black helicopter, a black hood, a Casablancan prison – was filmed, too (the authorities has since denied the latter video is real). Over that weekend 70 or-so were arrested, and since then the number of Popular Movement activists in prison has grown to over 100.

‘Freedom to the Grandchildren of ‘Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi’, at the Sunday 11th protest in Rabat.

Activists have explained that al-Hirak, democratically organised and able to cadre members, has produced not only a leader, but a layer of leaders able to replace those in prison. After al-Zafzafi, the most prominent of these is Nawal Ben Aissa, one of several front-rank women activists, who joined al-Harak to help women with breast cancer. She too is a forceful speaker – ‘they can arrest all the militants, youth, and women they want: we will not give up’ [‘baisser les bras’] – and, so, also now in prison.

‘You are all well known’ (‘rakum ma’arufin‘) as Mohamed Hassad, then Minister of the Interior, said to protestors in October. Part threat, part unintended prophesy, the state’s aggression has produced at least martyr, and several immense-appearing personalities. It is still able to judiciously use – to choose to not use – physical violence, with the Rabat protests yesterday barely policed, barring a thin line of soldiers (of course there were ‘al-Hanash‘snakes’, or plainclothes police – in the crowd and, waiting somewhere, groups of 50 dirham bullies). At least outside the Rif, where less-lethal arms are a nightly standard, authority can still control itself.

The minute pro-regime, anti-Movement group, in Rabat last Sunday
Popular Movement activists, protecting that same pro-regime group

Whether the regime can maintain its self-control will be crucial. Two Moroccan men, hearing the news of the Catalunyan independence referendum on the radio, agreed that ‘if we had Hassan II again, there’d be no problem’ (later, ‘maybe the government will be able to saubhum[clean them up]’) They’re lucky, though, to have an eagle’s son, a fox, as a King, with Mohamed VI’s regime able brilliantly to mix repression with conciliation, neglect with attention, and the appearance of change with the reality of anti-sh’ab normalcy.

The gutsier press have criticized the regime’s more recent reactions to The Popular Movement, and even the parliamentary-Islamic, full-tilt neoliberal party, le parti de la justice et du développement (PJD), have called for dialogue. Whatever their motives, the state knows that it cannot only use ‘repression, arrests, and defamation campaigns’ against al-Hirak. The spectacle of the scaffold works, until it doesn’t, with a report that on al-Zafzafi’s entering the Casablancan prison, his new co-domiciles chanted ‘Guards Watch Out, We Are All al-Zafzafi’.

This isn’t to say that The Popular Movement is ‘Moroccan’, yet, but the tendency since the murder of Fikri and the building of al-Hirak has been towards a deepening and a widening of solidarity and, increasingly, a fuller identification with the movement far beyond the northeast.

This move towards national generalization might end, for sure, though several aspects of al-Hirak – its generating circumstances and response to them – suggest both traction and broad purchase. Traction, since there is now an organisation and a series of demands in the Rif that are fully against the social conditions of not only the Rif but the country, being conditions that are deep, ‘structural’. The demands are, in substance, against the broader forces, institutions, and relations in the country that, together, constitute what Miriyam Aouragh recently called ‘hyper-capitalism with a crown’. One of al-Hirak’s chants – al-Sh’ab yurid isqat al-Fasad!‘ (‘the people demand the downfall of the corrupt!’) – only sounds reformist if ‘corruption’, defined broadly or not, is considered accidental to patrimonial neo-liberalism: it isn’t.

Purchase, since those conditions are recognizable and indeed familiar to the Moroccan working-class at large. The fact that the demands are both against police repression and for something like social democracy, in a country that appears by dint of its positioning in the world economy, and the reciprocal effect that this has on facts and politics of distribution and redistribution there, makes them both broadly attractive and almost transitional-like: it is an extraordinary document.

Rifian-ness and Amazigh-ness are clearly features of The Popular Movement, and will play a role in its political dynamics. But, to paraphrase CLR James, to make those ‘identities’ singularly important is as big a mistake as to ignore them.

‘Political dynamics’: similarity and difference, recognition and misrecognition, are not so much ‘cultural’ – which, like ‘race’ has come to mean ‘essential’ – as political phenomenon, with the ‘identity’ of The Popular Movement being, like any progressive social movement, potentially greatly more capacious than the politics of their antagonists; in Morocco, everything is being brought together and pushed apart, rapidly.


  1. A lot of protests took place in October across the country, then there was a lull. Only apparently: Al-Hirak was growing, and after a large demonstration in the al-Hoceima on Wednesday, 23 March, things have shifted rapidly. outside knee pain running

  2. Nevertheless, they are lucky to have a fox as a King, with Mohamed VI’s regime able to mix repression with conciliation, neglect with attention, and the appearance of change with the reality of anti-shab normalcy. bone bruise


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