|The Rif Mass Movement 2016–17|
Amussu Arifi 2016–18
|Date||From 28 October 2016|
|Location||Rif region, northern Morocco|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
|Death(s)||At least 1 in Imzouren|
|Injuries||Numerous, but unaccounted for because of the palace-imposed media blockade|
Hirak Rif or The Rif Movement (Berber: ⴰⵎⵓⵙⵙⵓ ⵏ ⴰⵕⵉⴼ, Arabic: حراك الريف) is a popular mass protest movement that has taken place in the Berber-speaking Rif region in northern Morocco between October 2016 and June 2017 as a result of the death of Mohcine Fikri, a fishmonger who was crushed to death in a garbage truck after jumping in the back, following the confiscation of his allegedly illegal fish merchandise—of which he was selling on the local market—by local authorities.
The mass protest movement was met with violent repression from the Moroccan regime with many violent clashes between police and protesters in various cities and towns, such as the Elḥusima, Eddriwesh, Ennaḍor provinces and led to the arrest of more than 150 Moroccans, seen by the regime as protagonists/leaders or media activists in the movement.
The leader of the Rif mass protests, Nasser Zefzafi, was violently abducted and/or arrested (according to him) by Moroccan secret police and intelligence operatives using telephone tracing technology on May 29, 2017, close to a beach near El Hoceima. Right after his arrest, Zefzafi was flown in a military helicopter directly to Casablanca (500 km away), where he is being held and tried by a court of law for charges of sedition and conspiracy as of March 10, 2018. The Moroccan authorities chose to detain him away from his native city and his popular base to defuse the protest movement and to avoid mass escalations in his home city.
Mouhcine Fikri, a 31-year-old fish seller, was crushed to death in a rubbish bin on October 28, 2016 in the city of Al Hoceima after trying to recover his confiscated merchandise. This death has led to a set of protests that were regularly held and included more and more demands. The protests were led by activist Nasser Zefzafi.
The list of demands is the ground of the protests and includes:
- Respecting, preserving and protecting the distinct Berber identity and language of the Rif and the Riffians.
- Release of political prisoners.
- Serious inquiry and trial of those responsible for the death of Mohcine Fikri.
- Demilitarisation of the Rif region.
- Construction of a regional cancer hospital, university, library, theatre, roads and fish processing facilities.
- A say in how promised local investment money is spent.
On May 29, 2017, Nasser Zefzafi was arrested in Al Hoceima. Following this arrest came hundred others. Following these arrests, daily protests began in Al Hoceima, Imzouren and other neighboring cities demanding the release of Zefzafi and the other activists.
King Mohammed VI's only official direct response came in a communiqué read on Sunday 25 June 2017, by the spokesperson of the Palace, Abdelhak El Mrini. The king's statement was framed as part of a routine council of ministers, which the king presided over the same day. In this statement the king alluded to what he described as "delays" in a project he claims to have launched for the development of Al Hoceima in October 2015, while he was in Tétouan. The king then blamed his ministers for presenting projects to him which do not have realistic expectations and budgets, and added that "he would not allow those ministers to go on vacation this summer". The king then went on, in what looked like blame directed at the protestors, when he stressed that his "development and social projects should not be politicised".
The king's first direct response was when the issue was brought up by French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited him on 14 June. During the brief press conference held after Macron's arrival, the French President said that he questioned the king in a direct and frank manner about the turbulence in the Rif, and that he sensed in the king's response a "will that goes in the sense of appeasement and not escalation of the situation". Macron also reported that the king said to him, that "he inaugurated the practice of spending vacations on Al Hoceima", and the king claimed to Macron, that "contrary to other countries, people in the Rif were free to protest".
On 28 June 2017, speaking on behalf of the king, Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani issued a video statement, in which he commended the king's directives to conduct development projects in all of Morocco, not just Al Hoceima, while he expressed his regrets regarding the crackdown of El Eid, and regretted the injured amongst the police and population. In the statement, Othmani also reported the king's wish for a very strict respect of the conditions of a fair trial of the 150 arrested in the Hirak, while also calling for respect of the law in dealing with claims of torture reported by the Rif detainees.
Timeline of crackdown
- On Monday 26 June, which coincided with the celebration of Eid el-Fitr, the king's security forces (police, gendarmerie and auxiliary forces) launched a vast crackdown in Al Hoceima and the surrounding areas, to disband a planned march in solidarity with the detainees. This resulted in widespread violence and beating of protestors, including women, and various acts of theft by the so-called Mroud (stealing of smartphones, destruction of private property of residents such as electricity meters) as documented by various videos posted on social media. The crackdown started early on the day of the feast by surrounding places of prayer, and preventing people from gathering in large numbers for the Eid's prayer. The gendarmerie and police then completely surrounded and blocked all accesses to the city of Al Hoceima, including patrolling the surrounding hills and mountains and stopping people trying to get to the city on foot. The king's forces strictly prevented all cars and taxis from entering Al Hoceima, fearing a potential influx of protestors to the city from neighbouring populous areas such as Nador and El Aroui. The violence of the day resulted in the arrest of about 60 people, and many more unaccounted for and a large number of injuries amongst the population, also unaccounted for because of the media blockade. The king's official press then published various stories in its media claiming that 39 members of police were injured.
Crackdown on free speech
A central person in the conflict about free speech is the journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui. Born in 1979, he graduated from college in 2004 and from the journalism institute in 2010. He worked in various publications, where he was known as a go-to-guy for sensitive issues that are generally avoided by the average reporter. He championed advocacy journalism, freely expressing his views and criticizing the government. He has also once said, "… a journalist has to shape public opinion by reporting the news but also by giving his own views." Since he launched the news site "Badil.info" in 2014, Mahdaoui has become one of the most prominent faces in the media world in Morocco, not only because of his iconoclastic personality, but also because of a series of law suits that have been filed against him by various state security services and ministries. In June 2016, a court in Casablanca sentenced him to a four-month suspended sentence and $1000 fine for defamation over his report on corruption by then-Minister of Justice. Mahdaoui's journalism became more opinionated. Through critical reports and long format videos posted on his news site and on YouTube, his followers base grew with each video that gets viewed by several hundred thousands soon after its posting. His profile continued to grow during the latest flare up of protests in the Rif, when he posted several critical videos supporting demands by the peaceful protesters and decrying repression by security forces. Mahdaoui was eventually arrested, mistreated, denied health treatment, sentenced to three months then to one year in jail, and accused of a felony that will likely end up with a heavy sentence. Speaking on Mahdaoui's arrest and mistreatment by Morocco's police, M. Aabid, a fellow reporter, said, "This is not about one single person, this is about the issue of freedom of expression." "El Mahdaoui has personified the idea that you can criticize the policies of the king without fear and the authorities don't like this idea."
Reaction from Congress
US Senator Tim Kaine, "a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism," as well as a vice presidential running candidate in the 2016 presidential election, has issued a letter regarding the current situation in Morocco during August 2017.
Kaine wrote in his letter, "I have concerns regarding the state of democratic institutions and human rights in Morocco. Citizens are not fully protected with respect to expressing themselves, independent media outlets are significantly restricted."
About the current social unrest, he also added:
"In the past several months, tens of thousands of Moroccans joined protests calling for economic opportunity, political rights, and an end to corruption. In response, the government has arrested over 100 leaders of the protest movement. […] I am very concerned about these developments and strongly support the right of all people to peacefully express their grievances."
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