Hirak: The new name of the Rif rebellion by Soraya El Kahlaoui

13 October by Soraya El Kahlaui

This article was commissioned and paid by The Funambulist for its 13th issue (Sept-Oct. 2017) “Queers, Feminists & Interiors” as part of its guest columns section. We invite you to consider ordering the full issue in its digital or print+digital version.

On October 28, 2016, fishmonger Mohcine Fikri was crushed and killed by a dumpster when he attempted to retrieve his goods that authorities had seized. Fikri’s death paved the way for a historic protest movement in the Rif, a region located in the north of Morocco.

Al Hoceima, the city that Mohcine Fikri originated from, raised a wave of unprecedented indignation. Al Hoceima became a stage for strong mobilization that quickly spread across the country. Numerous rallies were organized throughout Morocco for several weeks in order to pay tribute to Mohcine Fikri’s memory and denounce the increase of social inequalities in the country. Despite the scale of the first mobilizations, the protests were quickly stifled. Indeed, the media diverted their gaze from the Rif once the organization of the COP 22 in Marrakech began in November 2016. In the eyes of the general public, Mohcine Fikri’s death was quickly reduced to a forgotten issue.

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A child chants “silmya” (peaceful) in front of a police roadblock during a demonstration in the neighborhood of Sidi Abed in Al Hoceima/ Photo by Thérèse di Campo (June-July 2017).

The Rif paid the consequences of its opposition. In 1984, during a period of state violence called the Years of Lead, King Hassan II made a harsh speech directed at his opponents, calling Rifains, inhabitants from the Rif, “waste” — awbach. “The Awbach: Nador, Tetouan, Al Hoceima and Ksar El Kebir. The unemployed Awbach, are those who live on smuggling and robbery,” he said. The sentence marked the onset of long years of repression and economic marginalization of the Rif region.

Today, in 2017, more than 30 years later, inhabitants from the Rif have not forgotten anything; neither Abdelkrim El Khattabi’s instructions, nor the years of repression. Of course, the political and economic context has changed. At the beginning of his reign, Mohammed VI initiated a process of reconciliation with the Rif region and many investments saw the light of day. However, Hirak considers these investments as insufficient and unproductive for domestic wealth. Indeed, once caught in the neo-liberal process, Morocco embarked upon a development focusing on foreign investment and privatization. These two development paths have contributed to the increase of inequality that deprived the local population of its right to resources. Consequently, the Rif, a Mediterranean region, is seeing large foreign companies exploit almost all of its fishing resources. Artisanal fishing has nearly disappeared so local fish have become beyond reach for the local population. In return, no employment area has been developed, which brings unemployment of youth to a record high.

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A young man with the Amazigh (Berber) flag facing the police/ Photo by Thérèse di Campo (June-July 2017).

In this context, Hirak, led by Nasser ZefZafi, came to light in April 2017. Until his arrest on May 29, Nasser Zefzafi was a popular icon of Al Hoceima. As the stage for numerous demonstrations that brought together thousands of citizens each day, Al Hoceima quickly became a symbol of national resistance. The Hirak’s social slogans, as well as Nasser Zefzafi’s incredible popularity, created a wind of protest across Moroccan localities, which began demanding more economic and social justice. Tinghir, Kelaâ El Segharna, Imintanout, and other small rural towns rose up one after the other. Demonstrators’ slogans were clear in all these rural areas: “No marginalization.” Hirak’s specificity lies in the uprising of the marginalized. Unlike 2011, it is not the big cities of Casablanca or Rabat that set the tone for protests but instead what the colonizer referred to as “useless Morocco”, more or less the Morocco of the Amazigh world. Rising up against marginalization, Hirak broke the chains of colonial Morocco by rebuilding the Amazigh question. For the first time in a broad protest movement, it was not mobilized only through its cultural aspects, but also through the question of socio-economic exclusion, like the racial struggles in the North. Thus, Hirak undoubtedly paved the way to question colonial foundations of Moroccan national identity. This is a questioning that will take time but had the merit of being posed.

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Hundreds of women gathered in Casablanca to express their support to the Hirak and to call for the liberation of political prisoners / Photo by Thérèse di Campo (June-July 2017).

If during the first weeks of May nothing seemed able to stop the force of Hirak, whose Moroccan internet users lived at the pace of protests broadcast on Facebook, the success of the boycott against Friday’s official preaching gave the movement a new dimension. This action brought to light the state’s manipulation of religion to delegitimize every social movement by broadcasting official anti-Hirak propaganda preaching. On the other hand, the symbolic force of the boycott unleashed a strong wave of repression throughout Morocco.

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Thousands of demonstrators marching peacefully on the day of Eid al-Fitr in Al Hoceima. Photo by Thérèse di Campo (June-July 2017).

Today, Hirak from the Rif is the victim of ferocious repression. In June, all of the movement leaders were arrested. The city of Al Hoceima has been militarized for months. The movement’s activists suffer from police raids at every demonstration. Today, there are over 200 political prisoners from Hirak in Morrocco. It’s a hard blow for the image of a country that claims to have been in democratic transition since 2011. It’s been an even harder blow since the national protest that occurred at Al Hoceima on July 20. A demonstrator, Imad El Attabi, was killed after teargas was thrown at his head. Embarrassed, the Moroccan authorities announced his death only after making sure that the speech of the king, given for the feast of the throne, proceeded without disruption, i.e. more than twenty days later. Families of political prisoners waited for the King’s speech with lots of hope. Rumors circulated that the King would pardon the Hirak’s political prisoners. He instead fell shy; from all of the figures of Hirak, only the movement singer, Silya, as well as a dozen prisoners who had been rounded up during the manifestations, were pardoned. The speech of King Mohammed VI was severe towards the political class while complimentary to the security forces. Today, Morocco seems deadlocked. No solution to the political crisis is being brought, while the security approach is increasingly strengthened. While the release of political prisoners from the Hirak became the main slogan of demonstrations in Al Hoceima, the Hirak, for its part, continues its journey by enflaming consciences for social justice in remote localities of the Rif and elsewhere.


Soraya el Kahlaoui, “#Hirak: The New Name of The Rif Rebellion” (guest column), in The Funambulist 13 Queers, Feminists & Interiors (Sept-Oct. 2017)


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