Vish Sakthivel is a Robert A. Fox fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a doctoral candidate at Oxford University writing her dissertation on Islamism in Algeria and Morocco.
Morocco has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most stable regimes in the region, but ongoing protests in the northern province of Rif have raised questions about the so-called Moroccan exception. The demonstrations erupted last year after the gruesome death of a fishmonger and have burgeoned into a mass movement for development, better governance and dignity — culminating in the death last week of the movement’s first “martyr,” Imad el Attabi.
The unrest began in October, when fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri dove into a garbage truck to recover swordfish confiscated by government officials. Fikri was crushed in the compactor, seemingly at the behest of local authorities. The harrowing image of his death brought thousands to the streets in Rif — a region that has struggled for decades under economic neglect, political repression and racism against the region’s ethnic Berber minority — and beyond. Fikri has now become the symbol for the popular Hirak Chaabi protest movement, which has turned conventional wisdom about Morocco on its head.
Moroccan officials — and, indeed, the regime’s foreign allies with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo — have historically peddled the Moroccan exception, the idea that some unique set of characteristics protects Morocco against instability and makes it deserving of special support. The notion of exceptionalism stems in part from the monarchy’s religious legitimacy; the king is believed to be descended from the prophet Muhammad and is the “Commander of the Faithful,” keeping people loyal and the system stable. This was initially the case after Fikri’s death: Most Moroccans squarely blamed involved authorities, then police corruption at large, then the abstract “state” and so on. They blamed everyone but the king, who remained above the fray.
But Hirak is harnessing popular anger to shine a spotlight on what more and more citizens see as the palace’s own tyranny and economic predation. The movement started with a Rif-based focus, demanding an inquiry into Fikri’s death and previous mysterious killings during the 2011 Arab Spring-inspired protests. Demonstrators also called for improved infrastructure, hospitals, educational facilities and jobs for the region. As protests have multiplied, so have the demands: to demilitarize the Rif, free political prisoners and end prosecution of small cannabis farmers (the Rif is the chief exporter to Europe).
Now, countrywide solidarity marches use increasingly anti-king language; in one instance, protesters replaced the nationalist slogan “Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik” (God, the Nation, the King) with “God, the Nation, the People.” Nasser Zefzafi, Hirak’s charismatic leader, has told interviewers, “if [the king] alleges to be the Commander of Faithful, he cannot enslave his people.” In another passionate monologue, Zefzafi asked whether Morocco’s mosques — whose sermons are dictated by a palace-controlled ministry — belong to God, or the king and his cabal.
A year ago, I couldn’t imagine this anti-system rhetoric catching on, but now I see Hirak hitting a nerve countrywide. One activist as far away from Rif as the southern Souss region told me, “This has made us realize a lot about our king … when I demonstrated in Agadir in 2011, I still said ‘A’aich al-malik’ [long live the king] while marching for reform. But this time, I say ‘A’aich ach-cha’ab!’ [long live the people!]” Referring to recent concessions aimed at neutralizing demands, another tells me, “The media thinks we’re stupid [donkeys], that we don’t know what the king is doing.”
Rising awareness is chipping away at the aura that has long surrounded the palace. The notion that Moroccan citizenship means royal subjecthood is fading. After all, the grievances of the Moroccan public — mass unemployment, inflation, economic inequality and police brutality — echo those that helped propel neighboring regimes out of power six years ago. The Fikri incident has even invited comparisons to Tunisia, where a fruit vendor set himself on fire in 2011 after authorities similarly confiscated his wares — an event that catalyzed the Arab Spring. Tunisia, too, was considered stable, until it wasn’t.
And the Moroccan regime’s insecurity is starting to show.
Among its softer methods, it has used the media to cast protests as isolated and irrelevant to Moroccans outside Rif. Headlines depicting Hirak as drug smugglers, separatists, Polisario proxies, agents of Morocco’s rival Algeria or Islamic State-linked insurgents are common. Moreover, portraying the movement as purely identity-based and “ethnic” allows the regime to counter the demands with shallow identity-based concessions and avoid genuine economic and developmental reform. To maintain the veneer of magnanimity, the king also pardoned several detainees and rebuked local officials late last month.
The regime has also used harder repressive measures, which people increasingly attribute to the palace: blocking the Internet during tension periods, using violent force against demonstrators and journalists, arresting dozens and reportedly threatening and torturing them in prison. Imad el Attabi’s recent death from injuries sustained during the police crackdown has once again highlighted these brutal methods.
To be sure, many still love the king, while others are too preoccupied with everyday survival to take on the larger system. It is still too early to start writing the monarchy’s epitaph. Yet key components of Morocco’s balance — the fear of regional chaos, the sanctity of the monarchy, public indifference to the regime’s excesses and the government’s shrewd PR machine — are becoming untenable. And if the Arab Spring taught us anything, it is that many stable regimes maintain a delicate balance — until they can’t any longer.