Authorities in Morocco today arrested the fugitive leader of a protest movement that has occupied the country’s northern Rif region for months.
According to the prosecutor of the northern city of Al-Hoceima, where the protests have escalated in recent days, Nasser Zefzafi had been taken into custody after being on the run reportedly since last week.
Zefzafi was detained “along with other individuals” and transferred to Casablanca for “undermining the security of the state” and other “criminal” acts, the prosecutor confirmed.
The Rif region has been the centre of Morocco’s protest movement for years but has taken on a new sense of urgency since the death of a fishmonger crushed in a rubbish truck in October as he protested against the seizure of swordfish caught out of season.
Calls for justice for Mouhcine Fikri evolved into a grassroots movement which demanded jobs and economic development. Zefzafi emerged as the leader of the “Popular Movement” based largely in Al-Hoceima.
Seeking job opportunities
Morocco’s northern region has been largely underdeveloped and has not enjoyed the same investments by the kingdom as the country’s south. This has led to high unemployment amongst other issues which resulted in protests taking place on an almost weekly basis.
Protests subsided following a series of political reforms including constitutional changes that saw King Mohamed VI give up some of his wide-ranging powers after mass protests during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Zefzafi’s arrest was ordered after he allegedly interrupted a preacher at a mosque on Friday and called for further demonstrations.
Prosecutors said the arrest was ordered after Zefzafi “obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals, freedom of worship” at the mosque in Al-Hoceima.
The protest leader appeared in footage which emerged online where he was seen berating mosque leaders for being mouthpieces of the government and questioning whether mosques were places of worship or centres of propaganda for the government.
Protests in Al-Hoceima were held on Friday and Saturday which spiralled to other cities in the region and beyond. Demonstrators clashed with police who were mobilised to contain the protests.
“We cannot take a single step, the police are everywhere,” an activist speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP.
Demonstrations were also reported in Nador and Tanger, as well as in Casablanca, Marrakesh and the capital Rabat, where some 300 people took part. Twenty-two people have been arrested in connection with the disturbances in Al-Hoceima so far, according to officials.
The protesters have been accused of receiving money and other support from abroad “to carry out propaganda activities”.
Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit led a large delegation to Al-Hoceima last week where officials have promised increased support for the local economy.