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Morocco: Massive show of force as authorities confront public anger in Hoceima

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The North Africa Journal – May 30, 2017: There have been intense clashes between demonstrators and the Moroccan security forces in the northern city of al-Hoceima over the weekend and into early this week.  Tension escalated after the police arrested nearly two dozen people, who are being accused of threatening national security.  Riot police intervened to prevent demonstrators from gathering.

Despite the government accusing them of seeking to destabilize the country, the demonstrators say their demands are for more cultural rights and economic opportunity.   The leader of the movement was apprehended on charges of “undermining interior state security,” according to the local public prosecutor. Several other were arrested on 29 May on suspicion of “obstructing freedom of worship”, as they reportedly interrupted Friday’s prayer sermon in Mohammed V mosque in Al Hoceima in protest of the sermon’s content, which he said was critical of the protests movement. Zefzafi and the other militants were transferred to the Judicial Police in Casablanca to be interrogated. The arrests caused a wave of protests in Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Marrakesh, Nador, al-Hoceima and M’diq.

The public outcry, as it is happening across the entire troubled Maghreb sub-region began when Mohcine Fikri, a 31-year-old fish seller was crushed to death by a garbage truck on October 28, 2016, as he tried to protest against a seizing by municipal police and destruction of his merchandise.  This is the exact same story of government abuse that toppled Tunisia’s Ben Ali regime.  The killing of Fikri sparked outrage over lack of accountability and substandard and abusive governance. The Hoceima region has been in turmoil since then, with protestors extending their demands to cultural rights and more economic development for the Rif region.

Emergence of a figurehead:

The movement in the al-Hoceima crisis is headed by Nasser Zefzafi, an Amazigh Rifain figurehead, considered by the Moroccan authorities as a rogue agent who wants to destabilize the country.  Zefzafi has been vocal about what he calls the “corruption of the Moroccan state.”  In an interview with a Spanish news site in January 2017, Zefzafi said: “What happened to Fikri also affects us: if we remain silent today, it will continue. That is why we must go out to stop this.”

Nasser Zefzafi was born in a family of activists. He asserts that his grandfather was Minister of the Interior of what he calls “the Republic of the Rif of Abdelkrim El Khattabi”. According to him, his uncle, murdered in 1978 near Larache, was the director of cabinet of “Moulay M’hand”, as the Rifains liked to call their revolutionary figure “Emir Abdelkrim El Khattabi.”  His father is reported to be an early activist of the National Union of Popular Forces and then of the USFP from which he resigned when the party entered the government.

The trouble in al-Hoceima is not just an isolated case in an isolated town, or specific to Morocco only.  It is the case all over the deeply troubled North Africa, with all governments unable to cope with growing public demands and authorities retracting through the use of repression to solve basic problems.  As we look into the future, we see more of these escalating tensions to persist, aided by the proliferation of information and social media that the youth have easy access to. Governments must begin to change their narratives and deploy policies (instead of police and confrontations) that open opportunities for these new generations, cement security and stability instead of perpetuating conflicts.

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The North Africa Journal is a leading English-language publication focused on North Africa. The Journal covers primarily the Maghreb region and expands its general coverage to the Sahel, Egypt, and beyond, when events in those regions affect the broader North Africa geography. The Journal does not have any affiliation with any institution and has been independent since its founding in 1996. Our position is to always bring our best analysis of events affecting the region, and remain as neutral as humanly possible. Our coverage is not limited to one single topic, but ranges from economic and political affairs, to security, defense, social and environmental issues. We rely on our full staff analysts and editors to bring you best-in-class analysis. We also work with sister company MEA Risk LLC, to leverage the presence on the ground of a solid network of contributors and experts. Information on MEA Risk can be found at www.MEA-Risk.com.