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Al-Hoceima protests mirror Morocco’s political fragility

Moroccans protest after fishermen Mohcine Fikri was crushed to death in Al-Hoceima, Morocco on 8 December 2016 [yabiladi maroc/Twitter]
Moroccans protest after fishermen Mohcine Fikri was crushed to death in Al-Hoceima, Morocco on 8 December 2016 [yabiladi maroc/Twitter]

Ever since Mohcine Fikri’s gruesome crushing-to-death in a rubbish truck, the mountainous Rif area in north-eastern Morocco has been simmering. In successive escalations, since 28 October, protestors have poured onto the streets in Al-Hoceima province, the Rif’s capital, seeking justice for the fish-vendor’s family while, on a wider level, denouncing the marginalisation, exclusion and militarisation that the area has undergone. The lack of democratisation adds insult to injury, especially post-7 October elections.

Street protests have taken different forms. The seemingly disproportionate sentences against the suspects have intensified marches and sit-ins, sometimes violently. Protesters organised a “March of Candles”. Dignity, justice and the absence of oppression were the main demands, a bit beyond the bread-and-butter requirements. Then, they opted for a “March of Roses”. In addition to demanding more justice for Fikri, slogans about freedom and social dignity were also heard.

Finally, they shifted to a “March of Shrouds”. The idea of shrouds served to indicate not only readiness for martyrdom but also that the region, or maybe the country at large, seems like an open tomb. The most recent innovation in protests has been striking ordinary utensils. The noise is meant to speak louder to public authorities about dissatisfaction with the current situation.

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A neglected aspect in the Fikri affair is specifying the true circumstances behind his killing. Dissatisfied with starting the investigation at the seaport, some activists raised questions about the sources of the swordfish cargo. If the biological rest period had been respected, vendors would have found no commodity to smuggle to other cities. Fishing mafias are difficult to identify.

Yet, some point to Aziz Akhannouch’s awareness of the owner’s identity, since he is the Fisheries Minister. The investigation, nevertheless, did not get deep enough to reveal all of the suspects.

Furthermore, the October election backlash has left its own traces on the Rif region. Ilyas El Omari, Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) secretary general and Tanger-Tetouan-Al Hoceima region president, lost seriously, and unexpectedly, given the financial, administrative and media support he received. He is now a burn card for the deep state. In retaliation, he has withdrawn from mediation between Rabat and the increasingly angry Rifian protesters. PAM’s corruption, links to drug-dealers in the region and the party’s ubiquity in leading the Rif’s local councils put direct responsibility on the state for mismanagement. Clearly, the state is reaping what it sowed.

Feeling the heat, new Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit devoted his very first official trip to the Rif. He met some local representatives and NGOs, and expelled 20 officials, including Al-Hoceima’s governor and several pashas, but in vain. Laftit, despite originating from the Rif, was not welcome. He pleaded for NGOs and parties to intervene.

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Yet, it was questionable whether he really values these civil organisations, given his notoriety as ex-Rabat Governor. He is a minister who not only never belonged to parties, but was also part of the political deadlock that followed 7 October. Furthermore, his experience would not help much. Al-Hoceima is not Rabat, since the demands are not purely bread-and-butter, or diploma-holders seeking jobs, or temporary requests for respect for human rights. Rather, it is a whole region seeking reconciliation with the country at large.

As tension grew, government party leaders held a hearing with the interior minister. The main outcome was two-fold. All the leaders, including the Government President, Saad Eddine El-Othmani, agreed on the legitimacy of social demands; protestors have the right to seek better infrastructure, more jobs, hospitals or a university.

Meanwhile, slogans against militarisation have been heard frequently. The idea of militarisation dates back to a 1958 Royal Decree that considers Al-Hoceima to be a military zone. The main purpose behind the law, back then, was to provide a legal cover for military interventions to impose stability in the historically rebellious area. Though the measure has been frozen to all intents and purposes, activists fear that the state may resort to it whenever social mobilisation transcends all red lines.

Secondly, coalition party leaders expressed a fear of separatist tendencies. The protests have frequently raised the Amazigh flag, Che Guevara flags and “the Rif Republic” flag, added to rare calls for a regime ouster. This is possibly the main reason why the rest of the country has not responded to the continuous Al-Hoceima protests, unlike the nationwide wave of street marches that erupted after Fikri’s death.

However, recalling the “Rif Republic”, despite its historical appeal, does not characterise protests nor is it a priority in slogans. What unites the protests is actually the need for dignity, equality of opportunity and serious initiatives to build trust with the Rif’s inhabitants. Oppression builds more icy divides and opens opportunities for the unknown.

No matter, nobody can defend the devil. Weakening parties, favouring docile political and administration leaders, humiliating elections and normalising with corruption together create enough impetus for social outrage. These are the aspects that Moroccans want to see changing in order to genuinely enjoy the fruits of stability nationwide.

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