Morocco's Dissent and Subjection


Photo source: The New Arab

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

To mark the eleventh anniversary of the 20 February Movement, thousands of activists rallied in more than fifty cities in Morocco in February 2022. They wanted the release of journalists and activists. Waving black flags, they chanted slogans praising the people, instead of the king. 

In an interview with New Arab, Alali Aitaoui, a prominent activist in the 20 February Movement believed that none of the legitimate demands first raised by the people in 2011 has been fulfilled. The brutal phase of repression testified itself after the arrest of prominent activist, Noureddine Al Awaj. He was convicted in 2020 with a two-year sentence for insulting constitutional provisions after saying in an interview that Morocco became a ‘disaster’ due to failed policies of the regime.

Morocco’s Spring started in 2011 after it imitated other Arab nations. The revolution sustained for more than five months. The protests brought together a myriad of political factions, including the secular left, independents and youth from Morocco’s largest Islamist association, the Justice and Charity Group, which is officially banned by the Moroccan monarchy.

The aspiring demands divided the movement between those who insisted that no real revolution was possible without removing ‘the king’s sanctity,’ and those who believed that the movement had reached its goals after the palace’s reforms.

The success of the Islamist Justice and Development (PJD) party in the November 2011 elections relieved tensions on the streets. Morocco was in euphoria because it believed that the election was a step towards freedom and democracy.

Despite not officially joining the protests, the PJD had charmed working-class voters with its religious principles and its sharp criticism of classism in the country.

Under the 2011 constitution, King Mohamed appointed the PJD’s leader, Abdellillah Benkirane, a palace outsider known for his ‘humour’, ‘tie-less wardrobe’, and his promises to end corruption, as the prime minister.

However, the new Moroccan leader quickly became a controversial leader. With vague posturings, he blamed his cabinet members as ‘crocodiles’ and ‘demons’ because there were some shortcomings. Despite this, his party won the national, municipal, and local elections in 2016 second time in a row. But, there was an eventual decline of the party mainly due to its inability to form political alliances, resulting in a political blockage. This led King Mohammed VI to remove Benkirane and appoint Saad Othmani, another PJD member as prime minister.

Under the leadership of El Othmani, Morocco experienced a critical period marked by political instability, economic decline, and a crackdown on dissent. 

In 2016, the Hirak Rif movement was also born, when Mouhcine Fikri, a fishmonger in the Rif region, was crushed to death inside a garbage truck after he climbed in to retrieve his shipment of fish that was confiscated by authorities.

The video of Fikri’s death, with a male voice in the background saying ‘crush him,’ fuelled outrage online. The incident spiralled into widespread protests across cities in the often-neglected mountainous region of northwestern Morocco.

As the protests escalated, in May 2017, the PJD and other governing parties issued a statement condemning the Hirak, accusing it of secession and receiving foreign funding. The government then recruited religious officials to condemn the movement.

Authorities had launched a campaign of mass arrests, including the arrest of the movement’s leader Nasser Zefzafi. 

According to activists' estimates, eight detainees from the Hirak remain in Moroccan prisons to this day, most notably Nasser Zefzafi and Nabil Ahamjik, who are both sentenced to 20 years for ‘serving a separatist agenda and conspiring to harm state security.’

In the aftermath of the movement, journalists covering its stories became targets. Claiming the arrests have nothing to do with their professions, Moroccan forces imprisoned three Moroccan journalists namely Taufik Bouachrine, Omar Radi and Soulimane Raissouni, by accusing them of sexual assault. However, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention says the cases were politically motivated.

In 2021, an investigation by Forbidden Stories, a network of journalists dedicated to defending reporters and fighting censorship, listed Moroccan authorities among the regimes using the infamous Israeli Pegasus spyware to keep an eye on their rivals. But, the Moroccan government called these stories false and unfounded.

In the  September 2021 elections, Moroccan billionaire Aziz Akhannouch’s National Rally of Independents (RNI)  party won with a landslide, putting an end to Islamist rule in the Kingdom. Although, after less than 200 days in power, the billionaire has already become the target of frustrations.

During the reignition of the 20 February movement in February 2022, the most notable incident happened when citizens stormed a market in the village of Wlad Jelloul, seizing produce and meat in a move of rebellion against the rising costs of living. 

Some Moroccans are now accusing the prime minister, who owns Afriquia Gaz, one of the biggest fuel distribution companies in Morocco, of benefiting personally from the fuel price crisis.

According to local analysts, the combination of social struggles and the lack of confidence in the political institutions ruling the country may give birth to a new reform movement.


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