Morocco’s Burgeoning Resistance

In Northeast Morocco's mass protests for "a university, hospital, and work," a liberatory vision of Islam has played a key role.

Demonstrators in Rabat on International Women's Day, 2011. Nacho Fradejas Garcia / Flickr

“We want a university, a hospital, and work”: it’s remarkable how consistent the residents of al-Hoceima in Morocco’s northeastern Rif region have become in these demands since the Popular Movement (Al-Hirak al-Sh’abi) launched last October. In cybercafes and homes, in taxis and on the streets, everyone agrees: the Rif needs education, health care, and jobs.

While the movement’s growth and coherence has surprised some observers, the Moroccan state’s intense effort to suppress it has not. The regime — or as it is commonly called, the Makhzan, implying hidden, illegitimate power — has combined standard-issue repression with a shifting media campaign designed to slander the Popular Movement.

In late March, the state began arresting scores of activists, and now soldiers, police, and the secret service are acting almost like an occupying army in al-Hoceima and the surrounding towns. The past month has seen the greatest political unrest in the Rif since 2011; people now have to demand the release of political prisoners, too.

The anger isn’t isolated to Morocco’s northeast. Approximately one hundred thousand people marched on Rabat on June 11, many having traveled across the country during Ramadan to attend the protest. So far, the state has restrained itself, and only a thin cordon of police and soldiers guarded the parliamentary building.

The Makhzan’s repertoire of soft anti-protest tactics doesn’t seem to be working, however. News sites like Le Desk are saying things considered unsayable even in 2011, and Popular Movement activists have marshaled social media: Facebook groups are proliferating even as journalists and bloggers face arrest.

Marchers in al-Hoceima in June 2017 carry a banner reading “No to militarization, No to state abuse, No to kidnapping. Pacifism, Pacifism.” Louis Witter / Jacobin

Morocco’s official political parties have lost even more legitimacy since October. Al-Hoceima residents completely ignored a delegation of ministers last month. More than ever, Moroccans recognize that “the king is naked behind his shield.”

The Movement’s Spark

On Friday, October 28, police killed Mohasin Fikri. The now-standard press story explains that the officers put Fikri’s fish in the back of a garbage truck after he refused to bribe them; Fikri tried to retrieve his catch, and both he and the fish were crushed. The other version — which Rifian activists say is more credible — has it that Fikri got in the truck first, as if to say, “This is my livelihood; you must go through me.”

In both versions, a police officer said, “Tahan mu” (“crush his mother” in Arabic), someone started the truck’s mechanism, and Fikri was killed almost instantly. That the command came in Arabic, rather than Rifia, a dialect widely spoken in the Rif, was like salt in the wound.

Protests began immediately in al-Hoceima, and the day after, twenty thousand people joined the funeral march to Fikri’s hometown Imzouren. The day after, protests broke out in every major city across the country. Fikri’s horrible death was taken as a symbol of the regime’s abuse — its corruption, violence, and lack of accountability — and brought people into the streets.

The protests in Casablanca and Rabat ended, and quiet seemed to return to the Rif. It was during this relatively calm period that activists moved through the villages and towns, speaking to people about their demands. One movement activist described the process like this:

There was a long debate in towns, on the Internet, so everyone could contribute — so they can discuss in their own town a solution to their own problem. There were brainstorming sessions. There was a release of preliminary demands in November, and anyone who had any additions, or modifications, was able to contact organizers.

The Popular Movement said it would release its demands on February 5, but the state repressed the event, so the launch was moved to March 5.

That month saw a rash of protests and rallies in al-Hoceima: women led a massive demonstration on International Women’s Day; on May 18, the largest demonstration yet took place, and less than two weeks later, Popular Movement activist Nasser al-Zafzafi interrupted the imam of the largest mosque in town, asking, “Are these mosques of God, or of the Makhzan?”

This event precipitated the movement’s second phase: state repression increased, and the people’s radicalization grew alongside it. What was it about al-Zafzafi’s question that so threatened the Makhzan and so moved the people of the Rif?

As historian Michael Willis explains, after formal independence, “The Moroccan monarchy moved to establish a full institutional monopoly of the religious sphere.” Both Mohamed V’s and Hassan II’s courts worked to limit the power of the salafi-inspired, pro-capital Independence Party as well as the rural sufi brotherhoods.

The king serves as the official Commander of the Faithful, and the Makhzan uses the church for politicking in the most direct sense: according to Le Desk, Minister for Islamic Affairs Ahmed Taoufik “demanded of imams in the al-Hoceima province, all of whom get their salaries from the ministry, to deliver a sermon reproaching the young rebels for promoting fitna, or division among Muslims.”

Al-Zafzafi’s question was, then, both rhetorical and “historically unprecedented,” as one left-wing activist told me. “They’re using religion against the government,” said another.

The high drama of al-Zalzafi’s escape from police demanded an opposite spectacle. Soon after his arrest, a video appeared that was widely believed to show a black-hooded al-Zafzafi being led from a helicopter. However, with the video only prompting more sympathy for al-Zafzafi, the state was forced to deny its authenticity, and seems to have removed it from the Internet.

That weekend, around seventy protesters were arrested, and hundreds of movement activists are now imprisoned. The police have detained journalists, singers, people with late-stage leukemia, and children, arresting everyone from leaders to bystanders. One young protester told me that some of the thirty-two sentenced in al-Hoceima “weren’t even in the protests, they were just lads, walking by.”

A Broad Movement

In the Rif, a region with a long history of anti-imperial and anti-central state politics, the fact that the Popular Movement’s demands are social in nature — rather than territorial or constitutional — is notable.

That’s not to say that activists didn’t consider separatist and even federalist demands, but leadership feared that these would produce rapid and brutal repression. Loyalty to the kingdom’s territorial integrity seems like a necessary position if the movement wants to survive. Indeed, the focus on social issues seems to have increased the movement’s popularity outside the Rif.

Al-Zafzafi has insisted that the group will never work with political parties, trade unions, or NGOs for two reasons: First, Rifian activists distrust any group related to the Makhzan. Second, a strong faction within the Popular Movement hopes that similar non-Makhzan groups will begin to appear across Morocco. They agree with activist Silya Ziani, who explained just prior to her arrest, “The Rifian flag is a symbol of resistance . . . not independence.”

Protestors in al-Hoceima cross their wrists above their heads, signing “silmiyya“, “pacifism.” Louis Witter / Jacobin

The group’s female leadership has also increased the movement’s reach. Ziani has become one of the more prominent figures, and prison has only increased her fame. After al-Zafzafi’s arrest, the anti-cancer activist Nawal Ben Aissa became the movement’s recognized leader until her own arrest.

In the words of one male activist:

I didn’t expect women to participate in this strong way. It was really surprising. I mean, women do take part in smaller aspects of politics, but not like this, in such a strong way. It’s like there’s a change in society.

Others were less surprised. Ben Aissa explained, “The Rif is a conservative region, but that doesn’t prevent the women from going out and making demands.” A mixed-gender group of student radicals told me, “Women’s organizations have been strong here since the 1980s.”

Expected or not, everyone agrees that women have become central to the movement and that this aspect makes it attractive outside the Rif.

Informal Economies

The conditions the Popular Movement is rising up against also exist outside the Rif and outside Morocco. Solidarity messages have come in from across the Arabic- and Tamazight-speaking world, and the Rifian and Moroccan diaspora has protested in support across Europe, especially in Holland and Spain.

At a rally in Tunisia in early June, one person held a sign reading, “Mohasin Fikri, Mohamed Bouazizi, Martyrs of Dignity.” The sign recognized not only that each person’s death sparked protests, but also that both were, like the Popular Movement’s leadership and base, serially underemployed, forced to survive on one informal job after another.

Over the last month, protests in al-Hoceima have been concentrated in residential areas where very few people have regular, waged jobs. The Popular Movement is a working-class movement insofar as the people who built it often can’t find work. The group expresses the radicalism and organization of joblessness.

Underemployment and unemployment have plagued Morocco since its neoliberal turn began. In the late 1970s, the Makhzan enacted IMF-designed structural adjustment measures. Sold as an anti-debt program, this led to the now-familiar battery of privatization, free markets, and ever-diminishing subsidies on basic commodities. These elements worked against working-class interests.

Starting in the 1990s, the Barcelona Process pressured Morocco to further liberalize its economy. This agreement between the European Union and the countries along the southern Mediterranean coast resembles NAFTA, but the Barcelona Process is even more imbalanced and destabilizing. Like its North American equivalent, the deal between the European Union and North Africa made it more difficult for workers to emigrate and find employment.

One of the vaunted aims of the Mediterranean free trade zone — that it would encourage south-to-north exports of anything beyond primary commodities — was laughable even at the time. In reality, it resolved a tension between European capital’s need for an “immigrant work force” and European governments’ needs to avoid an “immigrant society,” to borrow Ali El Kanz’s formulation.

The movement belongs to the working class and takes an implicitly anticapitalist position. More important, however, capital opposes it. One activist told me, “There is no substantial part of the capitalist class that isn’t loyal to the regime.”

The Religious Context

It is necessary to put the movement’s class basis in the context of ethno-linguistic and religious forces. At the same time, focusing only on religion — and especially on the most reactionary expressions of it — would be disastrous. Already, the press is ignoring al-Zafzafi’s radical, pro-Sh’ab break from official Islam and the movement’s liberatory currents.

Especially after al-Zafzafi interrupted the imam’s sermon, the compliant media began representing the Popular Movement as religious extremists, with al-Zafzafi described as similar to al-Baghdadi, the now deceased leader of Daesh. At least for the moment, these portrayals are ridiculous enough to be self-defeating.

The Reuters headline on June 11 blared that the Rabat march was “Led By Islamists.” This refers to the group that first called for the demonstration, the Organization of Justice and Spirituality (Al Adl Wal Ihsane, or AWL).

AWL’s founder Abdeslam Yassine left the Boutchichiyya sufi order in 1971, rejecting their political quietism. Two years later, he published an open letter to King Hassan II, called “Islam or the Deluge.” The missive “criticised [Hassan II’s] wealth, closeness to the West, and even questioned his Islamic faith,” as Michael Willis explains. As punishment, Yassine spent time in psychiatric hospital before being confined to house arrest.

This repression achieved the opposite of what it intended. Yassine’s following grew, and the AWL was founded in 1987. By 1990, most of its leadership was in prison for their stark anti-monarchism.

The state then offered them legal recognition and even money, provided that they accept the king’s legitimacy. They refused, and the Makhzan began developing what has become the largest parliamentary Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), as a counterbalance.

The AWL continues to develop outside of legal recognition. Some activists believe it has become the second-largest, most disciplined political force in Morocco, trailing only the state’s repressive apparatus. (“Was the march orderly? Then yes, it was AWL,” one trade unionist explained.) Others think that the organization’s discipline makes it appear far more popular than it really is.

Further, focus on AWL’s role in the Rabat march obscures the demonstration’s leftist and Amazigh-rights components — indeed, its overwhelming focus was on those issues. Neither the AWL nor the PJD have any influence on the Popular Movement’s leadership or base, activists in al-Hoceima have reported.

Leftists in Morocco don’t all agree on the AWL. Some see it as anti-democratic (“Islamists see democracy as a means to an end,” as one said), while others view it as a socially aware element of a broad opposition movement and distrust the anti-religious criticism the AWL often faces.

While it might be split on the AWL, the Moroccan left agrees on two things. First, that the Makhzan — not groups like AWL — is the primary institutional antagonist of any progressive movement; second, that the state will use the charge of religious extremism against any serious opposition movement, regardless of its actual ideological tenets.

The same anti-AWL activist mentioned above also objected to the Reuters headline:

That kind of propaganda will help the regime a lot. When the Makhzan explains their raison d’être, they will say, “We are fighting for your security.” People in Europe should doubt what news agencies say about the situation in North Africa and the Middle East, especially concerning “Islamism” and “terrorism.”

Liberatory Islam

In his great history of the Haitian revolution, C. L. R. James writes, “To neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.” This also applies to ethno-linguistic and religious difference in Morocco.

Everyone recognizes that the Rif needs an oncology unit, because the Spanish empire used chemical weapons and made the whole place carcinogenic. But that doesn’t mean that only this region needs vastly improved health services.

The Popular Movement promotes inclusivity through cultural specificity. Its version of Rifian identity, as a sub-type of Amazigh identity, is far more open to difference than the official versions of Moroccan identity or Arab identity have ever been.

Despite generations of urbanization, the curve of mountains running from northeastern Rif to southwestern Souss remains an area where Tamazight languages are spoken, especially in the home.

A protester draped in the Amazigh flag in al-Hoceima, June 2017. Louis Witter / Jacobin

Anti-Amazigh racism structures Moroccan life, but 40 percent of the population speaks a Tamazight dialect, and many others self-identify as at least part Amazigh. “I don’t speak Riffia, but my roots are in Nador,” one Rabat-based activist told me.

The three types of organized Islam in Morocco — the official version, the AWL’s unofficial sufisalafi-ism, and the emergent liberatory type — have important political distinctions and relate differently to the working class and to capital.

The biggest group embodying the latter type in Morocco, Al-Hirak al-Sh’abi, is a working-class, antiracist, Islam-suffused social movement fighting against a regime that, under the control of the IMF and European Union, can barely acknowledge its social demands, much less accede to them.

The 2011 uprisings and counterrevolutions that followed gave the Makhazan useful propaganda; it now holds up Syria as the new Algeria. One leftist told me that the government leaves Syrian families to beg in the streets of Rabat “to scare us.”

The fact that two counterrevolutions are now taking place in the Middle East — one led by the neckties, the other by the long-beards, to borrow Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s phrase — should not lead people to believe that Islam per se created or exacerbated these divisions. Indeed, liberatory Islam, as supported by secular forces, has become the most progressive force in Morocco.