Is the Tunisian “Arab Spring” about to repeat in Morocco?
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
The Moroccan press reported that King Mohammed VI decided not to attend the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) meeting in Monrovia on June 4, 2017, because he was reluctant to meet Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu who had been invited by the President of Liberia to address the forum. King Mohammed, it was reported, thought he would be the only speaker at the gathering.
However, that is a very dubious explanation for the king’s absence especially since Morocco has been very active during the past year lobbying to regain its position in the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and never missed a forum to recruit African members to support its candidacy. The fact is that the domestic tensions in Morocco are brewing; unrest and protests have been noted in the northern part of the Kingdom, and the regime is unable to control the situation and calm down the passions. In many ways, events in Morocco since late October are a reminder of those that preceded the ousting of the Tunisian President Zein El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
On December 17, 2010, the police of a small, forgotten, and deprived town called Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunisia confiscated the scales of a 26 years-old street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, under the false claim he had infringed upon the law by illegally selling vegetables at a mobile stand. In truth, Bouazizi had refused to pay a bribe to the police. Adding insult to injury, it was reported that a policewoman hit him in the face and insulted his deceased father. In the aftermath, Bouazizi was banned from the provincial government building to file a complaint. Outraged by his public humiliation, Bouazizi poured kerosene on himself and set himself ablaze in front of the governor’s house.
This was the beginning of what was then named “the Arab Spring.” The wave of popular protest ultimately led to the demise of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and his escape to Saudi Arabia. The protest wave did not spare other regimes such as Libya, Egypt, Syria, and others. In some countries, the wave transformed into a tsunami and brought down well-established regimes such as Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Qaddafi while in others it became a prelude to civil wars in Syria and Iraq. The shockwave was felt in all Arab countries. Still, most of them survived at the price of ceding power to the opposition and initializing political reforms.
Morocco survived the tsunami by adopting a series of liberal laws that were enough to calm the popular unrest in 2011 while pursuing a very harsh policy against Muslim extremists. Morocco had become one of the main contributors of volunteers who joined the fighting ranks of ISIS and al-Qaida in the Middle East and Europe. Their threat, however, was predominantly beyond Morocco’s borders.
The Horrifying Death of a Moroccan Fishmonger
With this background, the surface calm was broken by a harrowing incident on October 28, 2016, in the northern town of Al-Hoceima on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. The police threw Mouhcine Fikri’s whole fish catch worth $11,000 into the bin of a waste truck. They claimed the 31-year-old fishmonger had been selling 500 kilograms of swordfish, a protected species in Morocco. The fishmonger tried to save his catch and jumped into the waste bin. He was crushed to death by the grinder after the order to activate the machine was allegedly given by the police.
The gruesome event ignited a series of protests which have been ongoing since then, creating an unprecedented tense situation in a region.
In the immediate aftermath of the event, protests began in the coastal town of Al-Hoceima but very quickly spread to other northern cities such as Nador and even in Morocco’s main cities – Rabat, Casablanca, and Tangier.
Very quickly the protests turned against the central government and endorsed Berber nationalist slogans: Amazigh (Berber) flags were flown high, anti-corruption banners unfurled, and open accusations of the corrupted government appeared. A deep resentment of the neglect of the Al-Hoceima region was persistent; it is a region suffering a deep economic crisis with one of the highest rates of unemployment.4 With this background, a hitherto unknown figure, the unemployed 39-year-old telephone technician Nasser Zefzafi became the leader of a protest movement called “Hirak” (Movement) riding the tide of discontent against the central government.
Singling out Zefzafi and some of his followers, the Moroccan regime accused him and his followers of being part of the Islamic Jihad, agents of the arch-enemy Algeria. The Moroccan authorities stressed the claim that Zefzafi and his supporters are being manipulated from abroad to destabilize the Kingdom. Accordingly and unsurprisingly, on May 29, 2017, the Moroccan authorities arrested Zefzafi and 40 of his followers. The immediate cause was a disturbance three days earlier in a mosque where he shouted at a preacher, stopping him from giving his sermon to the audience and giving a speech instead with religious coloring. He was charged with “hindering religious freedom.”
Considered a terrorist, Zefzafi was transferred to a prison in Casablanca and put under the responsibility of the “Brigade Nationale de la Police Judiciare” (BNPJ). On May 29, 2017, the attorney general declared that Zefzafi and his companions were accused of “undermining national security” which in the Moroccan codex of law is punishable by five years in jail. Since his arrest, protests have been held around the country and even in European cities almost nightly, with protesters demanding the immediate release of Zefzafi and his companions. The Moroccan Authorities justified the harsh repression stating that the state had no choice but to impose the law and to quell those “traitors” “who received funds and logistical support from abroad” to “undermine the unity of the kingdom.”
The northern Rif region of Morocco, a Berber region, has been historically a challenge to the central authority. Twice the regime had to quell riots that broke in the region with the power of arms and with a heavy price of countless lives shed in merciless repression. The most famous rioting occurred in 1958-1959 which was repressed by the then-Heir Prince Hassan, assisted by the notorious General Oufkir. Other riots broke out in 1984 under the name of the “bread riots of 1984.” Although claiming he was apolitical, Nasser Zefzafi, in all his appearances in the media, was very meticulous to appear in front of the portrait of Abd el-Karim al-Khattabi, the mythical figure of the RIF resistance against the Spanish and French colonizers. Al-Khattabi proclaimed the independence of the Confederation Republic of the Tribes of the Rif in 1922, a republic that lasted five years before being defeated in a bloodbath by a joint Spanish-French intervention force. Al-Khattabi was sent in exile to the La Reunion Island from where he escaped to Egypt. He died in 1963.
Morocco has been struggling since the beginning of the millennium to maintain its stability while facing a steady attack by jihadists, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda, organizations whose ultimate goal is to destabilize the kingdom and create havoc in this north African state.
Moroccan Jihadists Return to Morocco
According to Abdelhak Khiame, the chief of the Bureau Central d’Investigations Judiciaires (BCIJ) (the Moroccan parallel of the American FBI), more than 1,600 Moroccans have joined the ranks of the jihadists in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, while 200 to 240 out of that number have returned either to Morocco or European countries. According to Khiame, 132 terrorist cells have been uncovered in Morocco since 2002, and more than 2,720 terrorists arrested. In the last three years, the number of uncovered terrorist cells have tripled. Between 2011 and 2013, 18 such terrorist cells were dismantled while between 2013 and 2015, 27, and in the year 2016, 24 terrorist cells were discovered, together with signs of terrorists planning biological and chemical attacks.
Facing the growing danger of extreme Islam, the Kingdom under the directives of King Mohammad VI has embarked on a special religious education program aimed at neutralizing all extremist interpretations of the Koran. Mohammad VI instructed the ministry of education to remove from school books all references to Jihad and killing while initiating an innovative program for the training of religious clerks, preachers, imams, and kadis. This new approach to Jihadism follows a historic speech given by Mohammad VI on August 20, 2016, on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of the “Revolution of the King and the People.” As the “Commander of the believers” and “Gatekeeper of the Sunni school,” he denied the appellation of “Muslim” to the Jihadists whom he qualified as “criminals.”
How does Jihad permit the killing innocent people?” asked the King. “Jihad can be envisaged only as an act of self-defense, and the taking of life in the name of Jihad is illegal… Is it conceivable that God orders an individual to blow himself or to kill innocents? Islam forbids all forms of suicide for whatever reason… Those who incite to murder and those who use the Koran and the Sunna (oral law) to their goals are but generating lies… All Muslims, Christians and Jews should create a joint front to stand against fanaticism, hatred and the proliferation of ignorance spread in the name of religion.”
It is crystal clear that the Moroccan regime cannot yield to the Berber protest and will have to repress it. Facing the threat of extreme Islam, the Moroccan regime has a paramount interest to subdue the northern social and political eruption and adopt all necessary measures to prevent the interaction between the Jihadist organizations, the Algerian subversive activities via the Polisario and other organizations, and the Amazigh protest. Infiltration of the Rif by the Jihadists could destabilize the kingdom.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.