`Ash al sha`ab! `Ash! `Ash! [Long Live the People!] `Ash! `Ash!
Maghariba mashi “awbash!” [We Moroccans are not “trash!”]

Ra’s al-mal?! [Where’s our capital?!]

-Hirak protest chants in Fez, June 2017

What began in late October 2016 with protests over the horrific death of Mohcine Fikri, a fish seller in the northern city of Al Hoceima, escalated in 2017 into a broad social protest movement with participants in all of Morocco’s major cities. The Hirak al-Rif movement, so named for Al Hoceima’s mountainous and coastal Rif province, draws symbolism and strength from the region’s painful history of state violence, deprivation and insult. Yet the problems the Hirak identifies—pervasive feelings of indignity and injustice, rampant corruption and security abuses—also resonate nationally.

The Hirak movement thus builds on Morocco’s February 20th movement, which organized major nationwide protests during the 2011 Arab uprisings. Yet while that movement dissipated in the wake of the state’s tactical reforms, the Hirak has maintained its momentum. The state’s predictable response, including imprisoning and defaming its leaders, has both failed to quell protests and drawn nationwide criticism. The movement’s strength, if not its outright success, has, in columnist Taoufik Bouachrine’s words, “laid bare our faults” (`ara `awratna).[1] That is, the Hirak has publicly exposed Morocco’s failures to enact promised reforms that were to mark Mohammed VI’s signature departure from his father’s era of political repression: to supplant the security state with representative institutions on the one hand, and to secure socio-economic development for Morocco’s youth and poor, on the other. The palace has taken note, with the king publically firing a handful of ministers for their failure to enact a promised high-profile economic development project in the Rif region, and ordering disciplinary action against numerous regional and local authorities for failing to properly manage Morocco’s Regional Investment Centers.

This criticism of a failed economic development project, along with quieter criticisms of Morocco’s development model as a whole, is welcome, but it also holds dangers for the Hirak and its allies, whose own demands include economic investment. It remains to be seen whether such tactics by ruling powers will satisfy the Hirak’s call not only for economic opportunity but for social justice. At present, however, in substituting development for justice, the state’s public casting of economic blame appears less a criticism of neoliberalism than an effort to perfect it.

Regional Protests, Moroccan Demands

The Hirak started and spread quickly following Fikri’s death at the hands of local government officials and police in the coastal city of Al Hoceima. According to witnesses, after police confiscated Fikri and other fishermen’s daily haul of swordfish and dumped it into a garbage truck, the men jumped in to retrieve it. With Fikri still inside, a policeman gave the order to turn on the compacter—and “grind the motherf—” [t’han mu]. Video of Fikri’s ghastly death, accompanied by the panicked screams of witnesses, circulated widely on social media, bearing visceral witness to Moroccans’ own intimate suffering within the sadistic machinery of the state. The first outraged protests prompted the central government to take quick and highly visible action on Fikri’s case, with the palace promising swift justice for the deceased and his family. Morocco’s interior minister at the time, Mohamed Hassad, used a televised meeting with Fikri’s family to express Mohammed VI’s condolences. Shortly after, 11 men were arrested and charged in association with Fikri’s death, including two local police and two functionaries from Morocco’s fishing industry. While Fikri’s father publicly acknowledged these efforts, and expressed faith in Morocco’s judicial process, protesters understood the state’s actions to be mere scapegoating, in no way addressing the larger social ills and historical wounds that coalesced in Fikri’s death.

In ensuing months, as the Hirak National Support Committee and Hirak Branches organized protests in Morocco’s major cities, the state’s security response was muted. Indeed, there seemed to be no response at all, as neither the palace nor parliament, lacking a coalition government under the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), addressed the Hirak’s published demands. By June 2017, however, the tide had shifted: The newly formed governing coalition charged the Hirak with a separatist agenda, vitriolic social media posts described the Hirak as an effort by foreign agents to destabilize Morocco, and state television ran a false story and footage of a supposed Hirak-led riot. The security apparatus acted as well. After Hirak leader Nasser Zifzafi interrupted a Friday sermon condemning the movement, police arrested him along with 20 other activists on charges including acceptance of foreign money.[2] A cascade of arrests followed, protests were banned, and those which did take place, including one held on the Eid al-Fitr holiday, were met with severe police repression. The death in early August of 22-year old Imad El Attabi was followed in mid-August by what movement activists reported to be the security related death of a second protester, Abdelhafid El Haddad. By October 2017 the number of activists and citizen journalists arrested passed 400, with more than 30 undertaking episodic hunger strikes.[3] More than a year after Mohcine Fikri’s death major protests continued not only in his name, but on behalf of the Hirak detainees and “martyrs.”

Al Hoceima: Neoliberal Beacon?

Hirak leaders have repeatedly denied any separatist aims, even as they demand recognition for the Rif’s cultural specificity and economic marginalization, as well as historical episodes of violent political suppression. The common visual markers of the protests include photographs and drawings of Mohcine Fikri and Berber nationalist flags (including one decorating the hood of Fikri’s hearse), as well as colonial-era photographs of Abdelkrim al-Khattabi, an Islamic judge and leader of the Rif Republic (1921-26), which was ultimately quelled only by coordinated French and Spanish aerial bombardment. The Hirak’s formal statement of demands references Hassan II’s (then Crown Prince Moulay Hassan) brutal suppression of the Rif’s post-independence uprising of 1958-59, and calls for lifting the region’s subsequent de facto martial law. Protest chants recall the state’s contempt for Rifi people as well: Fikri’s death by lethal insult, T’han Mu, resonates with Hassan II’s famous 1984 dismissal of the Rifians as mere trash (awbash).

Far from articulating separatist aims, such historical references call precisely for the opposite, that is, for state recognition of the Rifi people’s dignity, as well as an equitable share of the country’s wealth. A list of demands posted in the name of the movement calls not for less but rather for better administration: a state judicial inquiry into Fikri’s murder; funding for elementary schools, a university, jobs and hospitals.[4] These demands are shared by the vast majority of young lower and middle-class Moroccans. They seek integration into the state apparatus and an end to the state’s contempt for those impertinent enough to make demands. The Hirak’s major march on Rabat in June 2017 unfurled under the apt banner: “One People, One Nation, One Hogra.”

While the radical autonomy of the 1921-26 Rif Republic offers a stirring image of dignity and strength, a better analogy for the current Hirak movement is the 1958-59 Rif uprising, whose leaders called not for freedom from central administration but rather for greater incorporation into the new postcolonial state, government programs to end unemployment, more public schools and greater Rifi political representation.[5] The theme of the region’s integration was also foregrounded in 1957 with Istiqlal leader Mehdi Ben Barka’s organization of volunteer work crews (with the symbolic participation of the king and crown prince) to build the Unity Highway (Tariq al-Wahda or Route de l’Unité) between Taounate and Ketama, as an infrastructural and symbolic step toward Morocco’s territorial and spiritual unity.] The difference today, however, is that the Hirak demands access to public services and forms of social solidarity that Morocco’s neoliberal development model increasingly assigns to the private sector. In this sense, the rage in the Rif and throughout Morocco must be understood as responding not only to a historical legacy of state violence, but also to promises accompanying Morocco’s economic liberalization begun under Hassan II and intensified under Mohammed VI.

The latter’s reign began with promises of political change, including a “new concept of authority” to be adopted by the country’s administrative apparatus—one that placed the state in the service of the people.[6] Well documented efforts followed to lay to rest the violence of the Years of Lead, for the nation as a whole and the Rif in particular. Mohammed VI’s rule offered a change in the relationship of the state to the Rif, as he emphasized not the divisive legacy of his father, but rather the unifying memory of his grandfather, the nationalist icon Mohammed V. Following a 1999 visit to the region, Mohammed VI promised to remedy the state’s history of cultural repression in the Rif. Similarly, as part of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, known in Arabic as Hay’at al-Insaf wa al-Musalaha, and in French as the Instance Equité et Reconciliation (IER), the state established a truth commission dedicated to mending the Rif’s particular history of state abuse.[7]

These political gestures were insufficient for many in the region. Rifis, among others, protested the IER rule prohibiting victims of abuse from naming the perpetrators. More to the point, while these reforms were launched in the name of political liberalization, the state’s aims were more fundamentally economic. Mohammed VI’s full embrace of neoliberalism meant that judicial reform and governmental transparency, and even calls for social “inclusion” and “solidarity” did not serve the Moroccan citizenry so much as the global market—the key goals being to encourage foreign investment and, via development programs like the World Bank funded National Initiative for Human Development and the Mohamed V Foundation for Solidarity, to imbue that citizenry with entrepreneurial drive.

The state’s neoliberal engineering, in other words, privileged economic development over social and political reform. In a telling irony, the Rif Truth Commission’s fact-finding visit to Al Hoceima and Nador in late April 2005 came shortly after a security crackdown against Rif protestors demanding greater state assistance in recovering from a deadly 2004 earthquake. Under Mohammed VI, the state’s equating of social justice with economic development and investment has justified the very administrative indignities and security abuses liberalization was meant to erase.[8] As Miriyam Aouragh notes, writing of Fikri’s death and the state’s local application of international fishing regulations in the Rif, “Fish and fishery, the coast and the sea are part of the social fabric. All the new rules and regulations, to the point of violent prevention of personal retail, are experienced by residents and fishers as aberrations to normal life.”[9]

At present, the ruling powers’ response to the Hirak al-Rif has similarly privileged economic liberalization over political reform. The danger for the movement is that this response might be deemed sufficient by fellow citizens, and indeed that the Hirak’s demands for regional investment—a university, a cancer treatment center, a state of the art sports stadium—might outweigh its calls for social justice, including the release of its leadership. The most high-profile responses in favor of the movement have all emphasized its roots in economic marginalization, and thus proposed an economic solution. The most recent public discussions of the Hirak emanating from the palace and parliament have concerned neither the putative separatism of the movement nor the international demands to release movement leaders from prison, but rather the uncertain status of a major foreign investment scheme called Al Hoceima, Manarat al-Moutawassit (Beacon of the Mediterranean), touted as the answer to the Rif’s marginalization. Announced by the king in October 2015 and initially slated for completion in 2019 at a cost of $667 million, the Manarat al-Moutawassit project is meant to boost the coastal tourism industry, but also to comprise major social investments in health, education and the environment.

Officials’ potentially criminal mismanagement of the project is the subject of open debate. In an annual speech to parliament in October 2017, Mohammed VI condemned the delays and announced a new governmental body to monitor development projects. Later in the month, the king charged the head of the court of auditors, Driss Jettou, with compiling a progress report on the Manarat al-Moutawassit project (a task for which he subsequently requested, and received, an extension). The court’s final report laid blame not with the political system as a whole, but rather with a handful of ministers from past and present governments, and while it acknowledged mismanagement, it stopped short of accusing anyone of embezzlement. In the following days Mohammed VI provoked what the national press deemed a “political earthquake” by publicly dismissing high ranking functionaries, though only for incompetence rather than corruption. Subsequent reports from the court have resulted in disciplinary proceedings against more than 180 officials.[10] Yet these dismissals do not concern the security apparatus and its quotidian abuses, of which Mohcine Fikri’s treatment was exemplary. Nor has any such report been ordered.


The roots of the Hirak al-Rif lie in the region’s historical and contemporary experience of abuse and indignity, as well as marginalization, but also in the vast majority of Moroccans’ capacity to identify with that experience. With the movement surviving state television and social media smears, security abuses and arbitrary arrests, political discussion of the movement has turned to the question of marginalization, grasped primarily as economic rather than political or cultural. This turn, consistent with the Mohammed VI era of neoliberal development projects, certainly fits with some demands of the movement. Indeed, among the repeated chants in a July 2017 Hirak protest in Fes was the wholly un-ironic demand, “Ra’s al-mal?!” [Where’s our capital?!] Such an emphasis holds risks. In the long term, the most debilitating state response to the movement may be neither the imprisonment of leadership or propaganda, but the state’s diversion of attention from social justice to development, that is, from the profound violence of the security state to the easily discussable and putatively separable matter of economic investment. Far from questioning neoliberalism’s empty promise, the state’s developmentalist approach calls rather for its more perfect application.



1. Taoufik Bouachrine, “Hirak al-Rif has laid bare our faults,” Alyaoum24, June 17, 2017. (Arabic)

2. Lmaghrib TV, “In the mosque: Nasser Zifzafi loses temper after facing Imam’s accusations,” May 26, 2017. (Arabic)

3.Yassine Benargane, “Hirak: Sentences ranging from 1 to 20 years in prison for 9 detainees,” Yabiladi.com, August 30, 2017. (French)

4. “Dossier of Demands,” www.zafzafi.com, March 29, 2017. (Arabic)

5. What is often described as a Rifi tribal rebellion in 1958 included, to the contrary, the “major Rifian complaint [of] under-administration and neglect of their region” (David Hart, “Rural and tribal uprisings in post‐colonial Morocco, 1957–60: an overview and a reappraisal,” The Journal of North African Studies 4.2: 84-102, 92-93). See also Ernest Gellner, “Patterns of rural rebellion in Morocco: tribes as minorities,” European Journal of Sociology 3.2:297-311, 299.

6. Kingdom of Morocco, Ministry of Culture and Communication, “Royal Discourse to region, governorate, prefecture, province administrators and representatives of the citizenry,” (al-Khitab al malikiyya) October 12, 1999. See http://www.maroc.ma.

7. See Susan Slyomovics, “Morocco’s Justice and Reconciliation Commission,” Middle East Report Online, April 4, 2005. Human Rights Watch, “Morocco’s Truth Commission: Honoring Past Victims during an Uncertain Present,” Human Rights Watch 17, November 11, 2005.

8. The thematic linking of “social justice” with “development” and “investment” is a repeated motif in Mohammed VI’s Throne Discourses from 1999-2017, an annual national platform for articulating the palace’s major policy directives. See Kingdom of Morocco, Ministry of Culture and Communication, “Royal Discourses (al-Khitab al malikiyya).”

9. Miriyam Aouragh, “Fishy neoliberalism in Morocco,” Historical Materialism. n.d.

10. “Des mesures disciplinaires prévues contre 186 agents d’autorités et plusieurs dysfonctionnements relevés au niveau des CRI,” Le Matin, December 11, 2017.

How to cite this article:

Emilio Spadola "Justice and/or Development," Middle East Report Online, December 24, 2017.

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