On October 27 and 28, Moroccan authorities banned all protest activity in the Al Hoceima province of the northern Rif region, in an attempt to quell the ongoing protest movement that began with the death of local fisherman Mouhcine Fikri in 2016. Though temporary, the ban highlights the worsening constitutional and human rights situation in Morocco, in the face of unprecedented resistance to the state.
One year ago, on October 28, Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death as he tried to retrieve his catch of fish from a trash compactor, after local police had confiscated and thrown the fish away. Almost immediately, his death sparked a wave of social unrest across the Rif region, against economic deprivation, police abuse, and the marginalization of the indigenous, non-Arab Amazigh community. The resulting protest movement, referred to as Hirak Rif, has since continued intermittently across the country. Its demands include calls for freedom, dignity, and social justice. The movement has gained so much traction over the last year that the king was prompted to pledge greater investment and development in the Rif region. These promises have since failed to materialize.
Security forces have responded to Hirak Rif by violently suppressing protesters in blatant violation of their constitutional rights. Demonstrators have been forcibly dispersed on several occasions, in some cases leading to injury. In May alone, authorities arrested between 330-400 people for participating in the protests. The charges against Hirak detainees include undermining state security and attempting to lead and finance propaganda attacking the unity and sovereignty of the Kingdom. Hundreds of activists still remain in custody.
Among those arrested is Nasser Zefzafi, the Hirak movement’s leader, who has been detained since May. He has been accused of threatening national security, because of his peaceful protests, and could face the death penalty. Journalists, too, have been among those arrested, including Hamid El Mahdaoui, editor of the news website Badil.info, and Rif Press website editor, Mohamed El Hilali. Like Zefzafi, these journalists have been charged with criminal offenses, such as endangering state security, as the government seeks to prevent any and all media coverage of the Rif protests. Earlier this month, protests surged in Casablanca, demanding freedom for the jailed activists and journalists.
As Kenza Afsahi, a sociologist at the University of Bordeaux who studies the Rif region, has noted, “the Hirak has put a spotlight on the lack of local democracy” in Morocco. The protest movement represents the biggest challenge to the North African kingdom, since the 2011 Arab Spring. At the same time, with human rights in a perpetual state of decline, the Hirak movement has, so far, failed to meaningfully shift the balance of power in Morocco.