The protest movement that has shaken northern Morocco for the past eight months is as creative as it is persistent. After being blocked from the main square in Al Hoceima, the epicentre of the unrest, and then beaten by police as they marched down side streets, the protesters decided to go to the beach, thinking that the authorities would not follow them. But on July 1st police in full riot gear waded into the sea as protesters in swimming trunks splashed them with water.
The trouble began in October after a fishmonger called Mouhcine Fikri was crushed by a garbage compactor at a port in Al Hoceima, which is located in the Rif, a northern mountain region with a rebellious streak. Fikri was trying to retrieve fish that had been confiscated by the authorities. To locals, his death was a striking example of hogra—humiliating treatment by an abusive state. (Something similar triggered the riots in Tunisia in late 2010 that led to the upheaval of the Arab spring.) So they took to the streets, demanding justice for Fikri and venting pent-up frustration over corruption and economic neglect.
The government has since exacerbated the situation with yet more hogra. In May it called the protesters separatists, though most are not, and suggested that they were foreign agents. It then arrested one of the movement’s leaders, Nasser Zefzafi, and dozens of other activists. The unrest not only increased, but spread to other parts of the country, including Rabat, the capital, where on June 11th thousands of people rallied in support of the Riffians. All told, it is the largest display of public anger in Morocco since the Arab spring in 2011.
As the country’s reputation for stability has suffered, the prime minister, Saad Eddine El Othmani, has turned conciliatory. But the protesters have had it with the government, which they see as corrupt, ineffectual and insulting. “We were waiting for a helping hand; we received a slap in the face,” says one protester. They want the prisoners released and are demanding to meet representatives of King Muhammad VI, who has expressed “displeasure and concern” over the plodding pace of development projects in the Rif.
The king is popular, even among the protesters. Unlike his father, Hassan II, who crushed a Riffian revolt in the 1950s, suppressed the local Berber culture and neglected what he called the “savages”, Muhammad VI has recognised the Berbers and tried to turn the northern coast into a manufacturing and trade hub based around Tangier. But progress has been slow and locals feel the authorities are out of touch. The monarch deserves much of the blame. He maintains a tight grip on power, and few decisions are made locally.
The protesters’ list of demands shows how long they have been neglected. They want a university, a library, a theatre, a cancer hospital, roads and facilities for processing fish. They say local investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars, promised by the government in 2015, have yet to materialise. Moreover, they want a say in how that money is spent.
The protests have resonated in other marginalised areas, where demonstrations have broken out. Rural Moroccans say they feel alienated. Poverty has declined considerably over the past decade, but the unemployment rate is nearly 11% and probably higher in the countryside.
Political reform has stalled, leaving the government ill-equipped to respond to local concerns. The country is still relatively stable and unlikely to suffer its own version of the Arab spring. But Morocco is looking more like its turbulent neighbours, run by out-of-touch autocrats.