Demonstrations have been rocking northern Morocco after a popular protest leader, Nasser Zefzafi, was arrested following seven months of consistent protests in the Rif region. The protests have been largely contained because of defensive government messaging, but Zefzafi’s arrest may just be the beginning of a more protracted social conflict in the country.
The protests started on October 2016 after a 31-year-old Moroccan fisherman was killed trying to stop local policemen from confiscating his goods. The gruesome death of the young man, who was crushed in the back of a garbage truck as he was trying to stop the destruction of his merchandise, resonated strongly with the inhabitants of the Rif region, a mountainous and traditionally neglected part of northern Morocco. Centered in small cities with high unemployment rates, protesters mobilized through social media and took to the streets to express a wide range of demands, ranging from social and economic rights to cultural and political ones.
While popular demonstrations continued almost uninterrupted since the death of the young fisherman, Nasser Zefzafi, a 39-year-old former bouncer from the city of al-Hoceima emerged as the unofficial leader of the movement. Zefzafi’s speeches vividly captured the grievances of the inhabitants of the region and allowed the movement to consolidate under the “Hirak” movement. His videos denounced the corruption of senior officials, real estate speculation, the monopolization of industrial fishing by associates of the regime and, more recently, the militarization of the region and the demonization of the movement by pro-regime journalists.
Before his arrest by the authorities earlier this week, Zefzafi’s speeches drew tens of thousands of supporters from all over the region, many of whom are plagued by unemployment and the absence of economic opportunities and are upset by the succession of scandals involving associates of the regime who cannibalize all important business opportunities and state investments. For instance, most provisions of an ambitious five-year investment plan launched by the Moroccan king in 2015 with a budget of $600 million have not been implemented or, when initiated, have been dominated by associates of the regime who captured the lucrative aspects of the project and failed to deliver the promised economic and social results to the population.
With a significant proportion of the inhabitants in the region living off family solidarity, foreign remittances and illegal trafficking — mainly in drugs and smuggling — many in the region found Zefzafi’s confident style appealing and answered his numerous calls for political mobilization sometime using highly symbolic means of contention such as “the march of the shrouds,” a 10,000-strong demonstration organized on April 9 during which demonstrators walked with white shrouds representing the economic death of the region.
However, while the grievances expressed by Zefzafi and his followers are also shared outside the Berber-speaking Rif region, particularly in relation to the need to put an end to corruption and the predatory practices of local crony capitalists, the demonstrations of the Hirak movement are thus far unable to take a national dimension. Despite the momentum created by the succession of demonstrations in the north of the country, the Hirak protests are not generating support at the national level. One reason why the protests are not cascading to the rest of the country is due to the covert ethnic nature of the Hirak protest.
While most (if not all) the demands expressed by Zefzafi and his followers are shared by the rest of the population, his populist discourse has an ethnic undertone that does not resonate well outside the Rif region. While Zefazfi and his followers refuted the notion that the Hirak is a secessionist movement, other disenchanted groups outside the Rif region are put off by the constant references to the Rif revolution (which opposed Rifan tribes to French and Spanish colonial troops during the 1920s), “Arab colonialism” and the conspicuous absence of Moroccan flags during the protests, replaced exclusively by Amazigh flags or flags of the short-lived Rif Republic).
The Moroccan government was quick to take advantage of the inexperience of Zefazafi and painted the movement as a secessionist security threat controlled by neighboring Algeria. The discourse of pro- and anti-regime advocates is reflective of this dynamic. While online activists dismiss pro-regime voices as “slaves (to the monarchy),” the latter describe the protesters as a racist ethnic separatist group funded by foreign hostile interests.
While the regime seems to have things under control for the moment, it remains dependent on the negative optics of the movement, with the rest of the population perceiving it mainly as a cultural/secessionist project. However, should this perception shift or should a more mainstream figure emerge elsewhere in the country, the regime may not be able to keep the upper hand so easily in the future.
Merouan Mekouar is assistant professor of international development studies in the department of social science at York University in Toronto and a visiting researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg.