Verdict Against Moroccan Protest Leaders Sparks Outcry In Rif And Beyond

A demonstration in support of anti-government protests in the northern Rif region, Rabat, Morocco, May 29, 2017 (AP photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy).

)--In October 2016, a 31-year-old Moroccan fishmonger named Mohsen Fikri got into an altercation with police in the northern town of al-Hoceima. The police had confiscated Fikri’s swordfish, and when he tried to retrieve it from the back of a garbage truck, he was crushed to death.

The incident sparked a wave of protests known as al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or the Popular Movement, that was intended to draw attention to the lack of development and general marginalization of Morocco’s northern Rif region. Last October, a year after Fikri’s death, King Mohammed VI sacked several government ministers to signal his own frustration with these problems. But the events of this week make clear that local anger with the government in Rabat remains high, and that the grievances in the Rif resonate with Moroccans elsewhere.

On Tuesday, a court in Casablanca sentenced Nasser Zefzafi, the leader of the Popular Movement, and three other activists to 20 years in prison for their role in the protests. Reuters reported that 35 other activists received lighter sentences ranging from two to 15 years. “We were expecting such a cruel sentence because officials in this country have never surprised us with good news,” said Zefzafi’s father, Ahmed.

The verdicts triggered protests in al-Hoceima as well as in Rabat. According to The Associated Press, a crowd of hundreds in Rabat chanted “Take us all to jail,” “We are all Rif,” and “State, beware.”

In a briefing for WPR last year, Celeste Hicks wrote that the broad appeal of the Popular Movement points to “wider discontent in Morocco that has rumbled on since widespread demonstrations rocked the country in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.” This discontent persists despite Mohammed VI’s response to the 2011 protests, including the adoption of a new constitution, and despite the fact that “the king himself remains an immensely popular figure who, in marked contrast to his father, appears to have perfected the common touch.”

In order to bring calm to the Rif region, it seems Moroccan authorities will eventually need to address citizens’ demands for a more responsive and effective government that actually improves their lives. It is unclear, though, whether they intend to do that, or whether the plan instead is to continue punishing those who are even loosely associated with the protests.

A second court ruling this week suggested that the latter scenario is more likely. On Thursday, a Moroccan court handed down a separate prison term, this time against a journalist, Hamid al-Mahdaoui, who was arrested in al-Hoceima last July. His offense, according to Reuters, was “not reporting a crime against state security after receiving a phone call from a Moroccan national living abroad saying he would introduce arms to Morocco.” Mahdaoui has said he didn’t take the call seriously.

To Ahmed Asside, a human rights activist, the judgment indicated that the priority of the state, at least for now, is “to intimidate people and deter street protests.”