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On October 28, 2016, fish seller Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death inside a garbage truck in Al Hoceima, a town in Morocco’s northern Rif region. Authorities had seized Fikri’s haul of 500 kilograms (over 1,000 pounds) of swordfish, a species they claimed was illegal to fish for at that time of year. Fikri reportedly jumped into the garbage truck to grab his fish back from the authorities, when he was accidentally killed. According to witnesses, however, the police purposefully crushed Fikri to death after he refused to pay a bribe.

Video of his death quickly spread throughout social media, leading protesters to take to the streets throughout the country. They demanded justice for Fikri and an end to “hogra,” a term referring to the daily humiliation, lack of dignity, and oppression practiced by state authorities against ordinary poor and working class Moroccans.

In the context of Fikri’s death, “hogra” also represents the long-standing struggles of the Rif region’s Amazigh community, the indigenous, non-Arab people of Morocco. For many years, the Amazigh Riffians have sought political autonomy and an end to economic marginalization. But, rather than addressing the systemic problems that have created hogra for the Amazigh, the Moroccan monarchy has attempted to contain Amazigh activism, by sponsoring cultural organizations and music festivals for their supposed benefit. As the recent protests demonstrate, however, this strategy of cultural containment is no longer working.

The Significance of the Rif Region

The Rif region has been particularly significant to the government’s relationship with the Amazigh. It was the location of Morocco’s most intense anti-colonial struggle. In 1921, Abdelkrim Al Khattabi, briefly formed an independent Republic of the Rif. Forced into exile by the French in 1926, Al Khattabi later lent his support to a Riffian revolt against the Moroccan monarchy, after independence in the late ’50s. King Hassan II, father of Mohammed VI, brutally suppressed the Rif revolt that lasted from 1958-59.

Today, the Rif is a site of opposition to the Moroccan monarchy’s economic and political policies. Though the current king, Mohammed VI, has tried to mend relations between the monarchy and the Rif, memories of the suppression of the late ’50s rebellion have led many Riffians to support a movement for autonomy.

The imposition of neoliberal economic policies on the region has also soured relations between the Amazigh Riffians and the state. In 1984, “IMF riots,” which broke out across Morocco, were particularly robust in the Rif. These riots coincided with the beginning of a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), first implemented in 1983 after Morocco began to seek assistance from the IMF and World Bank in 1980. Though marginalized long before these neoliberal policies emerged, the Rif felt the impact of structural adjustment particularly acutely. Structural adjustment programs brought austerity, soaring prices for basic food items, and an increase in unemployment among urban educated youth, as fewer jobs were available in the public sector.

As neoliberalism has intensified in Morocco, tourism and major development projects have frequently been prioritized at the expense of social services. Prior to structural adjustment, the economic prospects of many Riffians were limited to emigration to Europe, smuggling across the border to the Spanish-controlled cities of Melilla and Ceuta, and producing and distributing hashish. Following the implementation of neoliberal policies, Riffians also experienced cuts to welfare, public education, and health care.

Cultural Concessions or Co-optation?

Despite calling himself the “king of the poor,” Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has failed to address the longstanding political and economic marginalization of the Amazigh community in the Rif. Instead, since coming to power in 1999, the king has initiated policies meant to appease the country’s significant Amazigh activist movement, by responding only to their cultural and linguistic demands. In so doing, the Moroccan monarchy has attempted to curtail political and economic demands that pose greater threats to its hegemony, as well as the neoliberal economic order.

On October 17, 2001, Mohammed VI released a dahir (royal decree) that established the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (IRCAM). That same year, a series of protests were violently suppressed in the Kabylie region of neighboring Algeria, which is also home to a large Amazigh community. These protests were triggered by the murder of Amazigh teenager Massinissa Guermah while in police custody.

In response to the 2001 Kabylie protests, the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK) emerged in Algeria. It inspired a similar movement in the Rif. This growing movement for Riffian autonomy challenged the Moroccan monarchy’s political and economic control over the region. The government responded by doing little more than continuing its attempt at cultural cooptation.

In the dahir creating the IRCAM, Amazigh culture was described as one aspect of Morocco’s national heritage, tied to the “sacred” values of religion, patriotism, and veneration of the king. The dahir’s discourse of a unified Moroccan Amazigh identity came at the expense, however, of both regional identities, like those in the Rif, as well as ties with other Amazigh communities, particularly in Algeria. It also placed Amazigh cultural promotion under the king’s control. It stipulated, for instance, that the king should name the IRCAM’s director, who must submit an annual report to the monarch. As an extension of this state control, IRCAM worked to standardize the Amazigh’s Tamazight language, ridding it of the variance found in its three Moroccan dialects, including Tarifit, which is spoken by Amazigh in the Rif.  

Two years after the IRCAM was established, the Timitar Festival, described as an Amazigh and “world” music festival, was founded in Agadir, the capital city of the Souss-Massa region of southwestern Morocco. The festival’s close connection with the state is clear from its website, which announces that the festival is held “UNDER THE HIGH PATRONAGE OF HIS MAJESTY THE KING MOHAMMED VI.” The event receives sponsorship from private corporations, including BMCE Bank, Moroccan cell phone company, Inwi, and Coca Cola.

The Timitar Festival de-historicizes and de-politicizes Amazigh culture, by repacking it as a “tradition” that can be sold to tourists under the sponsorship of major corporations. To the Moroccan public, the festival presents Amazigh culture as a national heritage equally accessible to all.

On the festival’s website, Director Khalid Bazid writes that “since the accession to the throne of His Majesty the King Mohammed VI, our country has placed culture and the arts in the center of an approach aimed at promoting the ideals that make his grandeur.” By sponsoring the Timitar Festival, however, the king merely promotes himself as benefactor of (safely depoliticized) Amazigh culture, as well as a supporter of the neoliberal goal of increasing tourism.

Protesting against Hogra

As the 2011 Arab Spring protests spread throughout Morocco, the protests in the Rif represented the most overt challenge to the monarchy. Riffian protesters burned political party headquarters, banks, and hotels on February 20, the first night of demonstrations.

Unlike protesters in other parts of Morocco who called for constitutional reforms, demonstrators in the Rif waved the Republic of the Rif flag and held meetings with the image of Abdelkrim Al Khattabi replacing that of Mohammed VI. Since 2011, Al Khattabi’s image has been widely embraced by Riffian youth who identify with him more than with Mohammed VI, who is one of the ten richest people in Africa.

It was this struggle for liberation from a neocolonial regime that was ignited once again by Fikri’s death in 2016. Most international news reports about these renewed demonstrations featured images of protesters waving Amazigh flags and flags of the Republic of the Rif. An AFP article for example, featured a photo of a female protester in Al Hoceima covered in the flag of the Rif Republic. Reuters featured photos of protesters in Al Hoceima waving Amazigh flags. None of these articles, however, mentioned the movement for autonomy in the Rif or broader Amazigh activism.

Over six months after the protests began, there are still frequent demonstrations, marches, and occasional rioting in the Rif. Widely referred to as Hirak or the “Popular Movement,” protests are not only demanding justice for Fikri, but also a release of political prisoners and an end to “state terrorism” against the Riffian people.

As the Riffian protests continue, the Moroccan government is confronted with a scream it cannot silence and a strategy of cultural containment that no longer works. One Riffian band, Agraf, has spoken up in support of the protest movement. In an interview with Ymouled, Agraf’s singer and composer Naser Elouazizi said,

[W]e want to break the fears, the borders. There are still many things in the Rif that people are still afraid to speak about; for example, they do not talk about their rights, their freedoms. We want to change and unite people. Although the current context–it is good, because people start losing fear. They feel the pain and they start to scream.

Recently, the government cracked down again on Riffian protests with mass arrests, igniting a new wave of demonstrations across the country. Protesters expanded their tactics in response, calling for a general strike in Al Hoceima on June 1. Then, on June 2, protesters and riot police clashed in Imzouren, with demonstrators throwing rocks and trash, and police spraying protesters with water cannons. Two days later, hundreds of women gathered to protest in Al Hoceima for “freedom, dignity, and social justice,” as Al Jazeera English reported.

Videos of Riffians and other Moroccans burning state passports have spread across the Internet, reinforcing the renewed push for autonomy. Internationally, there has been an increase in solidarity with the Rif, including a sit-in in front of UN headquarters in New York on May 26.

Thanks to the recent uptick in state repression, international human rights organizations have finally showed interest in the Rif’s protest movement, as evidenced by Amnesty International’s condemnation of the Moroccan government’s response to the protests. While the state accuses protesters of receiving funding from “foreign agents,” it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Moroccan state to hide its oppression of its own citizens from the world.

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