Chicago – Nasser Zefzafi, who has emerged as a leader during the recent six months of protests in Al Hoceima, was recently arrested and charged with threatening national security, among other alleged crimes.
His arrest comes amidst protests by people in the northern Rif region of Morocco against corruption, poor infrastructure, and lack of economic opportunities, since the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller, in October 2016.
Fikri was crushed to death in a garbage truck while resisting police who had confiscated his fish and disposed of it in the truck. The protesters are not only asking the government for justice, but they are calling for a university for the region, economic projects, and an oncology hospital to enable the region to overcome decades of systematic marginalization by the state.
The region is a predominantly Berber area that fiercely resisted both the Spanish and French colonization and has had a tense relationship with the Moroccan government for decades. In the early 1920s, the Spanish, later joined by the French colonial regime, faced fierce resistance by the people of the Rif region, “Riffians,” under the leadership of Mohammad Ibn ‘Abd El-Karim El-Khattabi.
El-Khattabi mobilized the Berber tribes to fight against the colonizers. During the Rif War of 1921-1927, the Spanish Army of Africa dropped chemical and toxic gases such as mustard gas and phosgene on civilians, rivers, and agricultural land in the Rif. El-Khattabi, whose memory is highly respected and honored in the region, later surrendered and died in exile in Egypt in 1963.
Riffian resistance continued throughout the subsequent years and intensified again after Morocco’s independence. When Morocco became independent in 1956, the French-educated Moroccan elites, who mainly hailed from the Istiqlal Party, tried to impose French and Arabic language on the people of the Rif region, who predominately spoke Riffian and Spanish.
The Riffians perceived the French-system domination of everyday life — including language, government administration, and professional settings — as a form of cultural recolonization, which they rejected and resisted. In 1958 the Riffians presented the late King Mohammed V, the grandfather of the current King Mohammed VI, with a list of 18 demands.
The list included the return of El-Khattabi from exile, political and administrative reforms, self-governance, schools, and infrastructure for the region. The government ignored their demands and as a result, discontent turned into wide-spread civil disobedience leading to The Rif Revolt of 1957-1959.
Mohammed Sellam Amzian led the Rif Revolt along with others who had kept their military training, weapons, and organization since their resistance against the colonizers. The uprising was eventually crushed by the late King Hassan II, who was the crown prince at the time, along with the notoriously violent General Oufkir. In an attempt to establish order and reaffirm the authority of the central government, the military descended on the region with 20,000 troops.
There were reports of severe human rights violations and injustices done by the Moroccan military during that period, though there is very little documentation of these abuses. Despite the lack of documentation, the collective memory of the Riffians is full of stories of rape, torture, kidnapping, and unlawful detention committed by the soldiers. Since that time, the region has been marginalized and almost completely excluded from economic and human development.
In 2004, King Mohammed VI established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in an attempt to address the grievances of survivors of the crimes committed during the Years of Lead, including incidents that happened during the Rif Revolt. The Years of Lead were a period in Moroccan history marked by violence against dissidents and democracy activists under King Hassan II. Despite the efforts toward reconciliation, many people in the region still recall what happened during that time and the region remains marginalized.
For the last seven months, the Riffians have staged peaceful demonstrations challenging the historic and systemic marginalization they have experienced. There have been few clashes with security forces throughout the months of protest, and approximately 40 protestors and organizers have been arrested Out of this continuous popular protest or “Hirak,” a new leader has emerged, Nasser Zefzafi. Zefzafi is a young Riffian from the city of al Hoceima with only a modest high school education, but a growing following.
Zefzafi has become a strong voice demanding reform and calling for Morocco’s King to intervene directly to solve the region’s long-standing issues. Zefzafi has expressly called for the King’s intervention due to the Rif community’s distrust of the elected and appointed, and often corrupt, officials who are supposed to represent the region.
Moroccans have expressed their support for the Rif region’s demands by holding solidarity marches across several cities throughout Morocco. The demands of the Riffians are considered legitimate by the majority of Moroccans. However, their slogans, flags, and signs have caused concern among the authorities and a small segment of Moroccan society who fear they are challenging Moroccan sovereignty. During the marches, instead of flying the Moroccan flag, the protestors have waved the Amazigh (Berber) flag and the Historical Rif Republic flags while shouting slogans such as “long live the people” instead of the more common “long live the King.”
The tension has now spilled over to social media where scores of Moroccans have accused Zefzafi and other protestors of being separatists and carrying out a foreign agenda. More specifically, Zefzafi and protestors have been accused of trying to destabilize the kingdom and precipitate “Fitna,” a concept of instability or distress akin to chaos that has strong negative connotations in the Arab and Islamic World. The government and its supporters claim that the protestors are attempting to create a Syria or Libya-like situation in Morocco.
The protestors have denied those accusations and assert that they are only asking for basic social, economic, and cultural rights. Notwithstanding such allegations, the protestors have persisted with their peaceful demands asking for basic infrastructure, universities, economic opportunities, and an oncology hospital to help treat the high rate of cancer in the region due to the past chemical attacks.
Zefzafi was detained Monday when a warrant for his arrest was issued after protestors disrupted last Friday’s prayer in the coastal city of Al Hoceima. The public prosecutor has charged Zefzafi with threatening national security, obstructing freedom of worship, and other alleged crimes. If convicted, Zefzafi could face a lengthy prison sentence.
Zefzafi is now on a hunger strike. After his arrest on the second day of Ramadan, he reportedly refused his “Iftar” meal, the meal that breaks the fast each day during the month of Ramadan. Since then, people across Morocco have protested in the streets challenging the legitimacy of Zefzafi’s arrest.
While the protests have been ongoing for six months, the government has attempted to calm the situation only with token gestures. Thus far, the projects the government announced to meet the demands of people in Hoceima have not succeeded in putting an end to the protests. Any further delay in effectively and genuinely addressing the demands of people in Hoceima would be a missed opportunity to facilitate progress and justice and bring a longstanding perceived marginalization of a significant segment of Moroccan society to an end.
In light of the resounding failure of the government to deal with the situation and bring the situation back to normal, King Mohammed VI should step in to mitigate the injury done to the region during the reign of his late father and grandfather. Moroccans in the Rif should not continue to be punished for their proud identity and history of resistance to injustice.
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