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Arab Spring Sequel? Unrest Grows in Morocco

Arab Spring Sequel? Unrest Grows in Morocco

Women protest against local government corruption, arrest of opposition leader in Al-Hoceima, Morocco on June 3, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal)

The kingdom of Morocco is not known for political activism or protests. Certainly not when compared to the Arab Spring uprisings that led to regime change in several of its North African neighbors. Yet in the last 2 weeks the traditionally stable Morocco has seen the largest popular protests and government backlash since the 2011 Arab Spring.

At the time of Arab Spring, Morocco’s king ceded some power to the elected government after some protests cropped up demanding an expansion of democracy. However the move has been largely symbolic without any meaningful change—the king retained a large amount of power and influence. King Mohammed VI, in power since 1999, is part of the Muslim world longest-ruling royal family. In addition, since 2011 Moroccan police have cracked down on protests to limit unrest and prevent similar revolutions to those in Egypt and Tunisia.

Tensions between police and activists in the northern city of Al-Hoceima have resurfaced, and spread, in the last several weeks. An opposition group called Hirak had been gathering support in criticizing the Makhzen—the king’s governing authority in the region—since a local fisherman was killed after a dispute with police. On May 26th, after a preacher criticized Hirak leader Nasser Zefzafi, protesters gathered in the streets and clashed with police. Police also issued a warrant for Zefzafi’s arrest, amidst signs from local residents posing the question to them, “Are you a government or a gang?”

Violence ensued as police used force to break up protests. The next day, May 27, authorities arrested 20 people in Al-Hoceima, charging them with “threatening national security.” Zefzafi, a well-known activist aided by large group of supporters, fled the city before he could be arrested.

However Zefzafi was tracked down and detained a few days later. On June 2nd, protests erupted again in Al-Hoceima. This time “several thousand people” gathered in the city’s main square, chanting “we are all Zefzafi” and “the people demand prisoners be freed.” Police quickly surrounded the group in an attempt to limit the number of people with access to the gathering. In the nearby town of Imzouren police fired water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters who clashed with security forces.

On June 4th, police acted to disperse a women’s protest organized by Hirak. In addition to showing outrage over Zefzafi’s arrest, the group demanded action to address Makhzen (local government) abuse and corruption as well as the need for more jobs and improvements to regional infrastructure. Once again police surrounded the protesters, and pushed the leader of the event away from her supporters. “We go to sleep in fear, and we wake up in fear,” said Fatima Alghloubzari, 54 who tried to join the protest on Saturday. “We never imagined our city would become like this.”

Several articles on these events pointed out how rare political unrest is in Morocco (and how police presence at protests is usually significant). Perhaps this explains why, as Patrick Markey of Reuters points out, “the unrest around Al-Hoceima and the Rif region is testing nerves in a kingdom that presents itself as a model for stability and steady reform, as well as a safe haven for foreign investment in a region widely torn by militant violence.” Even limited protest can be dangerous in a country used to very little.

It certainly makes sense why the regional government (and, by extension, the monarchy) would want to quash the Al-Hoceima protests as quickly as possible. The Arab Spring showed how quickly such shows of displeasure can spread. But cracking down could produce the opposite of the intended effect by drawing even more to the people’s cause. Zefzafi’s arrest likely generated more attention to his cause than a peaceful protest would.

It’s still too early to see where this recent unrest will lead, but in a country relied on to be a stabilizing regional force, the Hirak movement is worth paying attention to.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”