Since October of last year, Morocco’s Rif region, particularly the town of Al-Hoceima, has been the site of ongoing protests that have intensified in recent days. In order to shed some light on what is taking place, in early June Diwan interviewed Carnegie’s Intissar Fakir, editor of Sada and a Morocco expert. She had addressed events in Al-Hoceima last year in an article written for Diwan titled “A Bouazizi Moment?”

Michael Young: What is the unrest in Morocco’s northern Rif region about?

Intissar Fakir: The ongoing protests began in October 2016, as a reaction to the death of a young fish vendor, Mouhcine Fikri, who was crushed to death in a garbage compactor while attempting to retrieve fish that the police had confiscated and thrown away. Fikri’s death became a powerful symbol of the neglect, disenfranchisement, and disdain of which many people in the Rif region feel they are victims. The protests have been sustained over the course of almost eight months, though they have ebbed and flowed in intensity. These protests—larger ones had been taking place monthly and smaller ones weekly, biweekly, or on a more ad-hoc basis—have increased in intensity and frequency since early April. They are increasingly being referred to as the Hirak al-Rif, or the Rif Movement, suggesting growing momentum and significance. The protests two weekends ago were the largest yet and led to clashes with police and mass arrests.

Initially the protests were about finding justice for Mouhcine Fikri but have increasingly become focused on addressing the various economic, social, and administrative challenges the Rif region faces. Development in Morocco is uneven, large parts of the country are underserved, and many Moroccans face striking poverty and lack of access to basic resources, including clean water, healthcare, and education, to say nothing of economic opportunity. The Rif also happens to have a contentious history. The Hoceima region was the seat of the short-lived Rif Republic in 1921–1926, which emerged from a revolt against colonization. And in the late 1950s, the early years of Morocco’s independence, then-crown prince Hassan led a bloody campaign to quash dissent there, neglecting the region thereafter. Various attempts more recently to revive the Rif region have fallen short of its basic needs.

MY: What has been the government’s response to the protests?

IF: The government has struggled in its response. In the initial aftermath of Fikri’s death, officials sought to calm public anger by proceeding swiftly with investigations into the incident and holding accountable those (directly) responsible. More recently, government officials have talked about the need to address the underlying causes of the anger, notably by proposing new economic and social development programs—something that many in the region feel they have been deprived of. But these initial positive moves have not been sufficient to lessen tensions. The moves have also been overshadowed by the government’s periodic efforts to claim protesters are acting on behalf of “outside powers” or have “separatist” tendencies.

Heavy state security remains in Al-Hoceima, and the security forces have at times intervened forcefully to disperse protesters. There have been reports that police confronted protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas. Following protests on May 25, the security forces arrested about 40 protesters (fifteen of whom have been released so far), including Nasser Zefzafi. There have also been reports in the local press that the protesters might have been tortured. Zefzafi, who rose to prominence in recent months and has caught the state’s attention, has been referred to by local media outlets close to the government as the “self-proclaimed” leader of the Hirak. His arrest drew widespread condemnation, and solidarity protests and sit-ins broke out in other cities—not only in northern Morocco but also in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, and elsewhere. He was arrested for “threatening national security” after interrupting an imam’s sermon to call on the audience to join the protests. The Ministry of Interior’s increasingly heavy-handed crackdown, Zefzafi’s arrest on overblown charges, and statements labeling protesters as “agents,” “separatists,” or “agitators” are certain to inflame these legitimate feelings of anger and disenfranchisement.

Prime Minister Saadeddine al-Othmani and the rest of the government have largely been seen as unable to address the tension. Many in Morocco have highlighted the absence of a national figure who can intervene to calm the situation, hear the protesters’ demands, and promise credible solutions. Political parties and figures have been cautious about wading into what they regard as a potentially explosive situation, especially as the Ministry of Interior and the government struggle to manage a response to the growing crisis. Ilyas al-Omari, the leader of the Authenticity and Modernity Party and a native of the Rif, has called for dialogue to lessen tensions—a call that is seen as disingenuous, as he himself is part of the state apparatus with which protesters are angry.

More recently, local branches of three major parties called for more restraint from the Ministry of Interior and for the release of Zefzafi and other protesters. A government delegation met with local protest leaders on May 22, offering various local development initiatives valued at about $1 billion, but this attempt did not immediately deescalate protests. Other initiatives have also been planned, including Minister of Housing Nabil Benabdallah’s announcement on May 25 that 5,000 housing units would be built in the region in response to housing shortages—as per the king’s instructions, according to the state news agency.

King Mohammed VI, beyond mentions that he has instructed officials to carry out various initiatives, has not spoken about the demonstrations, in keeping with his efforts to remain above the fray. There have been calls on Facebook for the king to personally intervene to calm the situation. Although these calls highlight the image of the king as a savior, they overestimate the impact that such an image carries in the Rif, with its contentious history and long-running sense of marginalization.

MY: Where do things go from here, and what does this mean for Morocco’s stability? Might this affect the king’s legitimacy?

IF: To quell the anger at this point, the government probably has to offer something more concrete and significant than what it has offered so far. While protests are fairly common in Morocco—whether they are organized by various interest groups with specific demands (such as unions and syndicates) or more generalized public protests—they have been sustained for a long period of time, and they still continue to grow in numbers and prominence as the government resorts to crackdowns.

The future of these protests and their propensity for greater unrest will largely depend on how the government deals with them. So far efforts to find the right response have not only missed the mark, but appear to have made matters worse. The frustrations in the Rif can echo across the country—and already have. But if the government unequivocally acknowledges and deals with the disenfranchisement and neglect endured in the region, including but not limited to the incident of Fikri’s death, it is not likely that the protests will spread into wider unrest.

Though Morocco remains stable and the king remains the main legitimate power broker, these protests point toward a greater popular willingness to hold him accountable for conditions in the country. Protests remain the only avenue left in the absence of governance structures that can effectively address the people’s concerns and needs. While the protesters are not calling for the removal of the monarchy, many do increasingly want the government (and the monarchy that runs it) to be answerable for the state of the country. What the king does with his legitimacy and popular support will determine the future of the protests and the country.