Morocco takes to the streets

July 12, 2017

Since late last year, protests against the corrupt regime of Morocco's King Mohammed VI have escalated. They were touched off when a Moroccan street vendor was crushed to death in a garbage truck during a confrontation with police. As the tide of unrest has risen, so has state repression. As Mohammed attempts to hold onto power and preserve the so-called "Moroccan exception"--the country's supposed relative stability and liberalism in contrast to the rest of the Arab world--growing numbers of activists have been jailed and attacked by security forces in the streets in cities and towns such as al-Hoceima, Sidi Abed and Marmoucha. Among them is Nasser Zefzafi, one of the most prominent figures in the struggle. But the repression has only seemed to fuel the protests.

A left-wing activist from near al-Hoceima, in the northeast Rif region of Morocco, did a two-part interview with for Avalanche of Dust blog about the organizing of Al-Hirak al-Shaabi (the Popular Movement), separatism and the Moroccan state, and the possibilities for political change. Here, we are republishing the full interview, conducted in mid-June and subsequently reprinted at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

COULD YOU explain how the Popular Movement developed?

THE MOVEMENT began in October last year, with the killing of Mohasin Fikri. He was a fish merchant, with a relatively large amount of off-season fish.

There are two versions of his killing. The first and more repeated one by the press is that the police asked him for a bribe that he refused, and so they put his fish in a rubbish truck. He tried to get in, and one police officer said "tahan mu" ("crush his mother").

"Tahan mu" enraged people; it's like people of authority don't care at all about citizens. They can crush us at will, kill anyone they like. In addition, it was said in a foreign language, in Arabic; people are particularly sensitive to abuses of power by Moroccan officials.

HE WAS killed on Friday. There were protests in al-Hoceima that night, and the funeral procession was on the Saturday. On the Sunday, there were protests in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech. It seemed to me--maybe I'm mistaken--that protests then stopped.

There was solidarity from other parts of the Morocco. But soon, except in the Rif, all cities ceased their demonstrations. And there were small protests in the Rif but, after them, it was more of a mobilization. Nasser al-Zafzafi and his friends, other activists, went across the small towns, talking to people, discussing their problems. For the first time, people found someone they can talk to; someone they feel with whom there is two-way communication, someone that can understand them. That it was the al-Makhzan [the Moroccan government] fears, and what it can't do; it can't attract people to it. Al-Zafzafi did. You know, every town to which al-Zafzafi went is now staging protests every day, asking for his release.

Mass protest erupts in Morocco against government corruption and inequality
Mass protest erupts in Morocco against government corruption and inequality

HOW WERE the demands of the movement developed?

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 list was to be adopted at a public demonstration on February 5, but it was very heavily repressed. The demands were released a month later, on March 5. February 5 was a symbolic date, the date that Abd el-Krim passed away in Cairo. There was a lot of symbolism. Everything the state does, they respond with something from the past, from history.

Ministers were ignored when they visited al-Hoceima on May 22. It was only a week after they accused the movement of separatism--in a statement produced by the al-Makhzan. When they issued the May 14 statement, activists responded with a question from al-Kitabi who, in response to the mass executions and arrests in 1958, asked "are you a government or a mafia?"

IN OCTOBER, the protests were against al-Hugra ("official abuse"). But after a period of discussion, protest and repression, it's no longer just "official abuse" people are against. People are demanding what we tend to call "social services" in the UK: health care, schooling and so on.

YES. PEOPLE are keeping away from political demands, they are asking for hospitals and schools. Some of those demands, the government say, are already being delivered by a project called "Hoceima, Lighthouse of the Mediterranean." That project was started in 2015, but we haven't seen anything from it.

But the Rifian separatists' claim--they call themselves republicans, and I share some of their ideas--is that there is something rotten in the Moroccan state that you cannot change with a budget; it has to change politically. The movement is not making political demands. I hope it will evolve in time to demand something like home rule or federalism; money can't change the Moroccan state.

AL-HIRAK HASN'T made explicitly constitutional or territorial demands. They are demanding very serious changes to how people live, though. What struck me about their social claims was that they both spoke to the Rif, but also to people across the whole country. They were both specific and general. This seemed sound, strategically.

THEY ARE, as you say, thinking strategically. They say: What we are asking for are basics, basics for any democratic country. If they started with political demands like home rule, or federalism, or some form of power-sharing, that would have frightened the government. The crackdown would have begun immediately, the same day Mohasin was killed. It was a strategy to make time for mobilizations.

There are places in Morocco worse than the Rif; some places are living as if in the Stone Age, with no aspect of modern life. They need those services even more than us. This is what Zefzafi's idea was.

I think the most important step that the movement has taken is to allow every political group and union onto demonstrations, while preventing them from influencing the leadership. At demos, you see Islamists, the far left from every political group, but they are there as individuals.

HOW DOES the movement formally relate to other political groups? I heard there no are formal relations with other groups, not even democratic forces?

AFTER MOHASIN'S death, Zefzafi said we should not work with other parties. He called them "dakakin siasia" ("political shops"); he wanted this movement to be completely independent from anything to do with the state.

This obsession with organizational independence is because the Rif was cheated, was deceived, many times through history. People have pretended to defend the interests of the population, but they were just seeking their own interests.

After the 2004 earthquake, local notables formed a committee to oversee reconstruction. The committee presented itself as an independent body, motivated only by the common good. They had the approval of the government. But the reconstruction process was plagued with irregularities and embezzlement. Later, an association was formed to hold the committee accountable. The association was presided over by a radical, a communist, who had the support of the population, but he eventually sold out. These and other similar disappointments made the Rifian population skeptical of individuals or groups pretending to serve the common good.

The movement has called for similar grassroots organizations to appear in every part of the country. They can formulate their own demands, depending on what they need. For example, in the Rif, we need cancer hospitals, and also a seismology institute, because this area is prone to earthquakes. It was that idea--that Morocco would see many al-Hirak-like movements in all of Morocco, with localized demands.

WOMEN AND demands for women's rights has been vital to the growth of al-Hirak. Could you explain a little?

RIFIAN SOCIETY is a little conservative: Women don't usually take part in politics. It has been a message, a very strong message, that women have demanded the same rights as men. Some of the strongest and most influential in the leadership are women. Nawal Ben Aissa is an example--before the movement, she was helping women with cancer, especially women from rural areas. She was an activist, even before the movement.

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

AL-HIRAK'S leadership layer is all working-class. Zefzafi was a taxi driver and so on. Al-Sh'abab ("The youth"), those protesting every night, are the poor working class, almost all young, underemployed or unemployed men. Al-Makhzani patrimonialism inevitably excludes or hampers some sections of capital. Are there any Rifian capitalists who support the movement?

YOU'RE WRONG. There is no substantial part of the capitalist class that isn't loyal to the regime. During the February 20 Movement, one multimillionaire, Karim Tazi, was helping the movement, with money for printing and so on. So they came to him with a fiscal audit, and he was found to owe millions to the state. Everyone with any business in Morocco is breaking some law; if you're with the movement, the state will come for you.

COULD YOU give a sense of developments over the past two weeks? The state has been making conciliatory gestures through the press, at the same time as increasing police presence in al-Hoceima and Imzouren, with the first rank of leaders and many other activists all in prison.

IT IS the carrot-and-stick approach. The state did not anticipate the resilience of al-Hirak and the wave of solidarity with the arrested leaders. The strategy of "decapitating" the movement didn't work, because as soon as a leader is arrested, a new one emerges. The Makhzan can't keep throwing people in prisons. And the protesters are well aware of this. We often hear the slogan "ghir shedduna kamalin, kulluna munadhilin" ("just arrest us all, we are all activists"). The conciliatory gestures are signs that the Makhzan is feeling the futility of the arrests and trials.

COULD WE speak more about al-Hirak's demands. They include "matalib ijitimai'a" ("social demands"), but not "matalib siasia" ("political demands"), if we take "political" as referring strictly to state matters.

SOCIAL DEMANDS are what matters most to individuals, because they feel the lack of social services in their daily lives. Most people will understand why we need a university or a modern hospital but only a few appreciate the necessity of political reform, and we needed as many people as possible on board. Political demands will come after the implementation of the social platform. The shortcomings of the Moroccan administration, especially the lack of accountability, will be exposed.

To this day, the Makhzan has avoided negotiation with Zefzafi. When the ministers came to al-Hoceima on May 22, they did not show a willingness to negotiate with him. Instead, they invited the "political shops," to use Zefzafi's term for the Makhzani extensions that serve as parties and civil society groups. In a way, the Makhzan was negotiating with itself.

YOU'VE SAID that Rifian republicanism would not be tolerated by al-Makhzan. Still, isn't the absence of such "political demands" strange, in a region with a living tradition of separatist politics and a diaspora living across several more decentralized European countries?

REPUBLICANISM IS alive and well in the Rif. The heavier the repression, the more people turn to Rifian republicanism. However, showing republican symbols in public is a risky adventure. Mohamed Jallul, one of the top leaders of the movement, spent five years in prison for advocating the right to self-determination of the Rif. He was released in April 2017, only to be arrested again two months later.

Besides the heavy price of challenging the Makhzan politically, the republicans have to stick to the social platform that was adopted. But Rifian immigrants in Europe are not subject to the same constraints as the protesters in the Rif. The Rifian diaspora is more politically minded and voices its support for political reforms more openly. Many solidarity demonstrations happen in places with a history of separatism, like Barcelona, Bilbao, Brussels, Antwerp--all of these cities have a relatively large Rifian diaspora that have had a taste of the benefits of decentralization.

THE MOVEMENT has its internal differences. What about its relations with other groups? A Reuters headline for an article on the June 11 march on Rabat said it was "led by Islamists."

NO, I think this is wrong. There were many organizations that attended the demonstration. The Islamists were a faction among many others.

That kind of propaganda will help the regime a lot. When the Makhzan explains its raison d'etre to the West, they say: We are fighting for your security. People in Europe should take this with a grain of salt, and question what the official and mainstream media say about the situation in North Africa and the Middle East, especially concerning Islamism and terrorism. The state inflates the Islamist threat.

Take Elmortada Iamrachen, for example. He was an Islamist--a Salafist--in his early years, but he changed his politics. He's now a moderate Islamist, against all forms of violence. He condemns terrorism, tolerates gay people and supports secularism, including the freedom of expression of atheists. He was an activist with al-Hirak. He had some differences with Zefzafi, but they were not ideologically related. They took him, though, and they are prosecuting him with terrorism offences. He was the first to speak against calls to armed rebellion.

When Zefzafi was arrested, most of the media close to the Makhzan, especially, accused him of terrorism and drew comparisons between him and Daesh [ISIS] leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The news website is known to be operated by the King's private secretary, Mounir al-Majidi.

BY "ISLAMISTS," Reuters was referring to al-'adl wa-l-Ihsan (AWL), the semi-tolerated Salafist-Sufi group that, beginning under that name in the late 1980s, have consistently opposed the regime. Could you give a sense of their strength now?

THE GROUP is not that big, although their powerful demonstrations make them appear so. But what they lack in numbers, they make up for in organization and commitment. Their size is estimated at 50,000 adherents, and every one of them is committed, with "committed" underlined. With such an organization, if you call a protest, you will see 50,000 in the street. But they are not a major player in politics. Is there is a dangerous aspect to them? I don't think so.

The group does not promote violence. Their politics, they say, will be spread with peaceful means. Abdasallam Yassin [the group's founder and leader, who died in 2013] sent Hassan II an open letter in which he asked him to give up his power and share his wealth. Hassan II put him in psychiatric hospital.

But Abdassalam Yassin was against the cultural rights of the Amazigh people, and this lost him the support of the Amazigh community. He had a long correspondence with Mohamed Chafik in the 1990s. In the letters they exchanged, Chafik explained to him why cultural rights are important for any community, that people need to learn their own language and so on. But Yassin, while acknowledging his own Amazigh ancestry--his "Amazigh microbe," as he called it--was impervious to change. He also rejected secularism, as we should expect from people with his politics.

His project was the establishment of a caliphate, though not an al-Baghdadi-style caliphate. He looked back to the prophet as a model for administration, which he called "minhaj al-Nubuwa," or "the Prophet's way."

IT HAS taken me some time to realize that Islam, like any faith, can and does blend with other, outwardly incompatible forces, including Marxism and socialism. This is true "philosophically" and also "practically." How do you think Amazigh and leftist groups should relate with the two Islamist groups, the AWI and the largest parliamentary group, the PJD (as developed by the Makhzan in the 1990s as a counterweight to the AWI, a right-wing religious party that led two coalition governments between 2012-16)?

MARXISM/SOCIALISM and Islamism may look compatible, but the reality is complicated. They both oppose the regime, but each from a different perspective, and their political projects are based on different principles.

AWL for example does not believe in democracy if that entails un-Islamic phenomena entering the Muslim's life. In AWI's imagined caliphate, democracy would be limited to legislating inside the Islamic framework. We cannot expect such a framework to protect the rights of minorities, especially ones that are not recognized in Islam as full members of society. Atheists, Christians, gays and even Shiite Muslims will be persecuted or reduced to second-class citizens, at best. Some members of AWI say today that their group supports a secular state, but those are not the ideas of Abdessalam Yassin, and the AWI is built around Yassin's personality, like other Sufi orders. The PJD represents itself as Islamic, but contrary to the AWL, does not advocate a caliphate. It merely suggests injecting today's politics with a shot of Islamic tradition. Some analysts compare the party to the Christian Democrats of Europe.

There was a noticeable shift in rhetoric after the party came into government. For example, the party stopped its criticism of the TGV project, which it had previously described as a waste of money. Such a reversal reinforces its picture as a party too weak to stand up to pressure from the palace, the TGV being a gift from the king to a French company.

But the main question that people ask is how would the party behave if it had the ability to form a government alone, or a coalition of like-minded parties? This is a tough question, and the experience of other countries in the region suggests a painful outcome. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood adopted democracy as a means to an end. Once in power, it took steps to make its stay permanent. Instead of dealing with Egypt's most concerning issues, it started filling key positions in the state's institutions with members of the party.

These moves alarmed the Egyptian people who called on the military to intervene. Now Egypt is back to square one. I do not think it is wise to unite with Islamists.

THAT WORD "unite" may be the issue. In a near--or immediately--revolutionary situation, when the state is unstable, the left and the Islamists have a common enemy; they don't need to unite, so much as be against the same thing, for a time.

THIS IS what the people thought in Iran during the revolution. The unpopular and foreign-supported regime was the common enemy that both the left and Islamists wanted gone. But the Islamists and their leadership hijacked the revolution. Now, the Iranians are stuck with a theocracy.

IN THE UK, there is a wide sense that different political parties do, to some extent, reflect different interests, especially after Jeremy Corbyn's "internal insurgency" against the Labour Party center and right. There is a sense that Corbyn's Labour represents labor, and that in government it would have some power to affect the socio-economy.

In Morocco, nobody thinks that any of the political parties either represent them or have any real power, except as camouflage for al-Makhzan. There are now two serious extra--and indeed anti -parliamentary forces in the country, al-Hirak and the AWI. Is the post-alternance political system that began in 1999 with King Mohamed VI's inauguration now in crisis?

I THINK it is. When the activists ignored the ministers that day in al-Hoceima, it was a very powerful sign, that the traditional means of social control adopted by the Makkzan, are methods that are failing. One journalist from Spain said "the king is naked behind his shield." I think he's right about that.

The people in the king's inner circle are not able to serve him as they did before. Both the Makhzan elites and the opposition are in disarray. The USFP had a legitimate base during the "Years of Lead"--the authoritarian years of Hassan II's reign--and carried the hope of the working class in Morocco. The party was weakened by the alternance experience [the process of apparent political liberalization that King Mohamed VI initiated during his 1999 ascension] and sold out in a laughable way when they signed that statement against the movement's "separatism." Now there are no mediators, only "political shops." The crisis put a spotlight on the King, alone.

GILBERT ACHCAR seems to perfectly describe al-Makhzan when he writes of "patrimonial" states as "constituted by interlocking pinnacles of the military apparatus, the political institutions and a politically determined capitalist class," provided we include the media and the church as "political institutions."

Such states may have their internal disputes--capital wants this, others wants that, and they compromise--and it has to admit new members, groups, forces, etc., as the cost of co-optation. But it seems unlikely that the Makhzan will be anything but a solid unit against a working-class or broader-based revolt--less Tunisia or Egypt, more Syria. Could you give a sense of why the state--in the broad sense, including the government, the army, the church, the media, etc.--at least appears to be so unified?

THE POLITICAL landscape in Morocco is carefully constructed and monitored from the top. The King and his men intervene in all aspect of politics. To create a political party, you must accept "al-thawabit al-wataniyya" ("national pillars"): monarchy, Islam, and territorial integrity. A legal party can never support the Sahrawi's right to self-determination; never question the monarchy or religion. Once a party has given those up, it has given up on genuine reform and becomes another tool for the Makhzan to reproduce itself.

The King relies a lot on his title as "amir al-Mu'aminin" ("Command of the Believers/Faithful"). As such, he is the alpha and omega of religion, and he decides what is right or wrong. This monopolistic use of religion was being challenged by the AWI and to a lesser extent by the PJD. But Zefzafi's interruption of the Friday sermon--like all of them, a script written by the state propaganda machine--was unexpected and sent the regime into a frenzy. The next Friday, people boycotted mosques and prayed in the streets. This meant only one thing--that this propaganda machine was collapsing. The Rifians are turning off the television.

It's hard to do business in Morocco without taking part in some form of corruption. Regime supporters are rewarded with leniency and more opportunities to grow their business, while dissidents are scrutinized. For example, Aziz Akhannouch, the Minister of Agriculture, comes from a family with a long history of serving the Makhzan. His father was close to Hassan II, and he was rewarded with an exclusive contract to import and distribute oil and gas products in Morocco. The son, Aziz, played an essential role in weakening the PJD after the 2016 elections.

Regime stability is due partly to French and American support. These two powers shield it from exterior shocks. Take the MINURSO, for example [the UN mission to the Western Sahara]. The mission is 26 years old, and the "R" in its acronym stands for "referendum." Thanks to French support, the regime obstructed the implementation of the referendum for 26 years. The connections between the regime and France are so strong that Morocco looks hardly independent. In fact, the document that ended the French "protectorate" mentions "interdependence," which makes the King more of a viceroy than a sovereign.

The army is the only apparatus that is loyal to the King and still effective. The high-ranking officers are loyal to the regime, and they enjoy a lavish lifestyle thanks to the generous gifts and permits ("lagrima") from the King. As you said, we cannot expect a Moroccan Rachid Ammar [most senior officer to join the Tunisian revolution] to save the day.

WHAT DO you expect in the short term, over the coming summer?

I THINK the demonstration scheduled for July 20 will be the biggest in the Rif. It was called before the arrests in late May. Now that the leaders are arrested, it's the only way to fight against the injustice of their arrests.

Like everything al-Hirak does, the date has symbolic meaning. It's the date of the first victory of Abdelkrim's anti-colonial war against the Spanish. It happened in Anwal, near Temsaman. That date used to be celebrated, on a small scale; people used to go there, but only in the hundreds. This time it will be big. There is also a high probability it will be repressed.

First published at Avalanche of Dust . Reprinted at revolutionary socialism in the 21st century.

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