Mistakes and stubbornness still characterise Morocco’s state reactions to the Rif Hirak (“mobilisation”) subsequent to Mouhcine Fikri’s sordid death. Protests, meanwhile, have been relentless and mostly peaceful. Any “violence” by activists has been defensive, while the state seems to be engaged in an unequal tug-of-war with them. With the current developments, the 2011 promises to involve the country in Constitution-based, gradual democratisation seem like treachery.
The context for today’s Hirak is a mix of political, social, economic and historical factors. For some human rights defenders, protests started earlier than Fikri’s death. On 8 October, tensions flared when, in Al-Hoceima, as an exceptional nationwide act, nine political parties protested against local authorities’ excessive electoral fraud which facilitated a large win for the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM). PAM’s leaders had promised to reconcile the Rif with Rabat, but the apparent outcome of their mediation so far is continuous corruption and nonchalance towards local demands.
Adding insult to injury is regression from the 2011 promises. The country has been involved in a political fluctuation that, on the whole, sent a gleam of hope for democratisation. The previous Head of Government used most of his constitutional powers fully, though they were limited. He, somehow, created a political equilibrium, allowing his Justice and Development Party (PJD) to win elections in 2015 and 2016 against the will of the deep state. Abdelilah Benkirane’s ouster has shed gloom and mistrust on the political process in the kingdom.
Halting democratisation is worsened by mistreating the Hirak. Most of its young leaders have been jailed. Nasser Zafzafi, for example, was humiliated further when he was seen naked in a video leaked from some investigation or hospital room; the authorities denied responsibility for the leak. Elmortada Iamrachen, another Hirak leader, was accused of affiliation to terrorist networks, but was then released to bury his father who died in the shock of his arrest. Salima Zyani, renowned as Silya, has allegedly succumbed to depression in her prison cell. When a sit-in demanded her right to freedom, participants, including historian El Maati Monjib, were beaten severely by riot police. This adds to the ongoing militarisation of the Rif region, preventing activists from visiting Al-Hoceima.
Unlike 2011 and the Benkirane days, the general public gets little communication from state leaders. When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Morocco, he declared that the King would like to see the mobilisation abate. People wondered about the palace spokesman’s added value, if not to inform about royal takes on the country’s developments. For the monarchy, against a weakened government, being the strongest player in a fragile political landscape allows viewing the Hirak as not big or influential enough to deserve a public discourse.
Royal advisors have been more visible, however. The main advisor, Fouad Ali El-Himma, visited Benkirane to seek his intervention to stop the Hirak, but in vain. Had the former government head intervened, it would have meant assuming responsibility for the causes and effects of the protests. Even during his mandate, Benkirane denied ordering police brutality. In an interview with a local newspaper, Abbas El-Jirari, another advisor, blamed the government, parties and state institutions for hesitation over the Rif situation, asking them to leave the King out of a thorny issue. However, more government involvement necessitates a wider division of powers and bridging the divide between laws on paper and the reality on the ground, which the Constitution does not guarantee.
With the current situation, the Hirak won’t let up. More serious solutions need more serious steps. In addition to improving the Rif infrastructure, a primary move is to release political activists, especially those who neither ordered nor contributed to stoning the police. Second, investigations into Mouhcine Fikri’s killing should go deeper, to prevent a repetition of the circumstance that led to him being crushed to death. Third, more ambitious projects should be launched. The region has suffered from intentional neglect and state initiatives will gradually lower the tension.
Finally, signs of democratisation should be sent to the whole country. A good start would be to change the ministers who symbolise despotism, including the Interior Minister, who is prone to failure in curbing the Hirak because he favours the security approach. Brutality often prompts a backlash; arresting activists or assaulting protesters triggers protests in other cities. The second to go should be the Education Minister, who is an ex-Interior Minister. He wants to solve the deeply-rooted education problems using a security approach too. Teachers’ protests have mushroomed and the forthcoming academic year promises more mobilisation. The third should be the Minister of Agriculture. The wealthy businessman is quite possibly unprecedented in his open requirement to join the cabinet in order to defend his and the deep state’s interests against the public will.
No matter, other Hiraks may be sparked off anywhere at any moment, since corruption and despotism persist across the country. Morocco needs to resume its nascent atmosphere of democratisation. That will encourage the government, parties, institutions and protesters to restore trust in the political process.