The Hirak: looking back at a year of social unrest in Morocco


The leaders of the “Hirak” movement are currently on trial in Casablanca. The movement in question, founded a year ago, has brought to light the developmental delays of certain regions in northern Morocco. Furthermore, it has increased freedom of speech, despite harsh repression by the authorities.

In October 2016, in the city of Al-Hoceima, home of 60,000 inhabitants, situated in the Moroccan Rif region and bordering the Mediterranean, a police check turned tragic. A fishmonger’s goods were confiscated as, according to the authorities, he had fished illegally. While trying to prevent his goods being destroyed, the fishmonger was accidentally killed, crushed in a garbage truck. Following this event, which spread quickly on social media, protests broke out in the city to denounce the abuse of power by the authorities as well as to shed light on social injustices. The demonstrations then spread to other major cities of Morocco; to Tétouan, Casablanca, and Rabat. This chain of events serves as a reminder of how Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in late 2010 which sparked the birth of the “Arab Spring.”

The king quickly sent for the Minister of Interior to stifle any disputes. In the following weeks, however, the demonstrations grew and were severely repressed by the police. On February 6, during a demonstration in the name of a sort of “Riffan nationalism”, dozens of protesters and police ended up injured. The protesters’ demands are socio-economic, in a region often neglected by the public authorities, largely supported by the economic profit from the cannabis industry, and whose rebellious – or “separatist”, according to the authorities – nature is historic.

In May 2017, one of the leaders of the demonstrations, Nasser Zefzafi, was imprisoned after interrupting the Friday sermon and accusing the imam of serving as an intermediary for the rulers to blame the protesters. That was the first “strategic mistake” on the part of the authorities. A wave of arrests were waged against the leaders of the movement to put an end to the disputes: during the months of May and June, it was estimated that at least 200 people were arrested. However, the result of the arrests was the opposite of the expected outcome; as the demonstrations grew.

A change in strategy

In June 2017, thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Rabat, demanding the release of Zefzafi and other detainees of what is now called the “Hirak”, or the Hirak movement. Faced with the turn of events, the king intervened at the end of July and pardoned some forty prisoners – an obvious change in strategy, not devoid of political motive. In a striking speech delivered on the ‘Throne Day’, the anniversary of the king’s enthronement, Mohammed VI directly addressed the protesters. He questioned the responsibility of officials and used an unusually harsh tone against them: “Some of them practice absenteeism, […] showing no devotion at work and no professional ambition”. At the same time, an investigation was launched to explain the delays in developmental programs in the Rif region.

In October 2017, the results from the investigation led to the incrimination of several officials in the unjustified delay of the development project named “Al-Hoceima, Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” launched in 2015. On October 24, three ministers and two senior officials were dismissed, and other ministers were sanctioned; a clear message from the king. Through this decision, the most severe since the beginning of his reign, the king wanted to show that no one is unstoppable, that he heard the protesters and that repression is not the only measure that protestors may face. However, the coordinator of the families of the detainees estimates that 350 protestors are still imprisoned and awaiting their trial.

Leaning towards authoritarianism?

In November 2017, trials began in Casablanca for about twenty protesters, including Nasser Zefzafi, on the grounds of “undermining the security of the state”. The prisoners were looking at between 5 and 20 years in prison. By these convictions and the severity of the penalties incurred, the State wanted to show that it was able to maintain order throughout its territory. Nevertheless, the events that have unfolded over the course of more than a year have highlighted hints of authoritarianism in a power that stands on the edge of a new “Arab Spring”.

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