07:37 AM 08 August 2017
Moroccans taking part in the 2011 protests (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
- Morocco has been rocked by anti-government protests for the last 10 months during which residents of the northern Rif region have voiced their frustrations with the government over high unemployment levels (9% overall) and rampant corruption.
- The protestors include vulnerable segments of the population such as women and children.
What You Need to Know about the Rif Region
- At its core, residents of the Rif feel marginalized on account of their ethnicity and language. The Amazigh, one of Morocco’s three ethno-linguistic groups and at the forefront of the protests, constitute about 40% of Morocco’s population.
- The Rif region has historically been the site of anti-government movement. In 1958 and 1959, the government quelled a peaceful protest movement that fought for social and political rights.
- As a legacy of this suppression, many Amazigh Riffians have supported a movement for autonomy.
Who’s Who in the Protests
- A fishmonger called Mouhcine Fikri best personifies the Moroccans’ frustrations with the government. Fikri was crushed to death by a garbage compactor in northern Morocco while he was trying to retrieve fish confiscated by the state. His death incited the ongoing protests.
- Nasser Zefzafi, 39 and unemployed, quickly assumed leadership in the protests against the Moroccan government following Fikri’s death. Broadcasting his speeches via social media, he highlighted the social ills that plagued the country such as the government’s autocratic rule. He was arrested on the 29th of May 2017, along with 40 of his followers.
Legitimacy of Central Government on the Line?
- Despite promised political reform during the 2011 Arab Uprisings, the monarchy remains omnipotent. The king’s advisors have more political influence than elected officials and this has further alienated people in the Rif who still feel under-represented in government policy.
- Apart from poor political representation, promises for more economic opportunities have not been met. Local investments in infrastructure amounting to 600 million dollars have yet to materialize since the government’s announcement in 2015.
- The authorities' repressive response to these protests illustrates their unwillingness to address the grievances of residents in the Rif. This unwillingness in turn can be explained by the monarchy’s fear of systemic corruption being exposed if measures are introduced to make the government more transparent and accessible to the people. Instead, the government labels the protestors as a “secessionist security threat”, fully aware of the threat to their rule.
A Repeat of the Arab Uprisings?
- The Moroccan disillusionment with autocratic rule reflects the sentiments felt during the 2011 Arab Uprisings when the frustrations of ordinary people in the Middle East and North Africa were expressed regionally.
- The inclusion of women in the Rif protests and the spread of these protests to major cities such as Rabat is a reminder of the momentum that was gathered in 2011 and which cut across gender and territorial boundaries.
- In an attempt to alleviate anti-monarchy sentiments, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI recently pardoned a number of protesters who had been arrested and issued a warning to government officials. However, the continued imprisonment of Nasser Zefzafi indicates that this was merely a symbolic gesture.
- Though the Moroccan monarchy did introduce constitutional reform in 2011, the citizens’ grievances need to be addressed. This would require attention to the investment projects in the Rif, to unemployment rates, to issues of political corruption and last but not least, acknowledging the Berbers not just as a culturally legitimate group but as political and economic citizens.
Imad Alatas is a Research Assistant at MEI. He recently graduated from the National Univeristy of Singapore.
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