Morocco’s Rif: A History of Hidden Discontent
By: Samia Errazzouki
Published Saturday, March 24, 2012
As the latest display of rebellion in Morocco’s Rif comes to light, the government is scrambling to hide the news about a region which has been marginalized since before the establishment of the Kingdom.
Unlike the revolts in Libya and Tunisia, Morocco’s regional mass uprisings did not lead to the overthrow of the regime. The monarchy has enjoyed and continues to enjoy wide support among the Moroccan population. Consequently, the February 20 pro-democracy movement never called for the fall of the monarchy, it only demanded constitutional reforms. While months have passed since Morocco’s constitutional referendum in July and parliamentary elections in November, little has changed and protests have continued, especially in one specific part of Morocco – the Rif region.
The Rif, meaning the “edge of cultivated land,” is a region that extends across northern Morocco. It is now divided into multiple prefectures under the 1997 regionalization law. For decades leading up to Morocco’s 1956 independence, the Rif region was shaped by a history of political turbulence, historically warding off European colonial powers.
Revolt and Oppression
For nearly five years during the 1920s, the Rif was an independent republic. The Rifian flag replaced the Spanish Moroccan flag, and the region was no longer under Moroccan rule.
However, the Rif Republic came to a bloody end in 1926 when the Spanish, with French reinforcement, the complicity of the Moroccan sultan Mohammed V, and the use of German-made chemical weapons, fought the Rifian forces, bringing an end to the short-lived republic.
The following years were marked by bitterness between the Rif and the Moroccan government. Under the terms of independence in 1956, political power in Morocco was consolidated and centralized. This was heavily enforced under the reign of Mohammed V. When the Rifian people launched a revolt in 1958, Mohammed V's response was brutal and violent.
Thousands of troops were sent to suppress the protests and within days it was brought to an end, with many dead or arrested while hundreds of others fled to neighboring countries and Europe.
For years, the sour memory of the revolt remained in the minds of all involved. Anti-government dissent was consistent in the Rif, and any hints of dissent, such as the protests and bread riots of the 1980s, were immediately suppressed by Hassan II’s regime. In an infamous speech, the King referred to the Rifian people as savages and thieves.
Today, the Rif has become increasingly marginalized. Investment in relative terms to neighboring areas in the north, such as Tetouan and Tangiers, is minimal at best and poverty rates are among the highest in the country. Coupled with the remnants of decades-long oppression, a popular uprising is inevitable.
A New Beginning
For the past few weeks, the Rif has been rife with protests. Yet, consistent with the policies of the past, government response has been as firm as ever.
The protests began in early March when police arrested Bachir Benchaib, a member of the local February 20 Movement chapter in the city of Ait Bouayach.
During the months leading up to Benchaib’s arrest, protests in the city of Taza, which falls in the same regional prefecture, were calling for economic opportunities in one of the country’s most impoverished regions.
Activists were denouncing the rise in water and electricity prices, in addition to the lack of employment. Protests in Taza were violently suppressed by security forces and arbitrary arrests became common.
Meanwhile, an activist on the ground in Ait Bouayach, who chose to be referred to as Mohamed, gave an account of the past few weeks. “Police have damaged private property and the tear gas used has penetrated the inside of homes and buildings,” he said. Mohamed explained that both police and protesters had been injured during the protests.
Activists who sought medical treatment at local hospitals were arrested and questioned. A state-led media blockade prevented journalists from entering the center of the confrontations.
Keeping Eyes Away
Only recently has international media begun to report on solidarity protests outside of the country.
Other protests in the Rif region have gone uncontested and are accompanied by public debate and discussion. Members of the February 20 Movement have been joined by unemployed graduates and local citizens.
For several weeks, footage of protests has circulated on social media sites showing protesters being violently suppressed. Yet, the Moroccan media blackout led by the government has prevented the plight of the Rifian people from being heard.
As a result, non-traditional media has taken the lead providing coverage, with citizen media powerhouse Mamfakinch launching the “MediatizeRif” initiative, calling for widespread media coverage on the ongoing situation in the Rif.
On Saturday, 17 March, Nabil Azouhri, a 20-year old from Taza, died from a fall after being chased by police. The police claimed that he fell on his own and, according to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, forced the family to adopt their story.
The state-led media blackout’s purpose is twofold: it prevents the spread of information to other rural areas and allows the state to resurrect the rhetoric of separatism to demonize the Rifian protesters.
Morocco’s staggeringly low 55.6 percent literacy rate, a figure brought down largely due to the vast illiteracy in rural areas, has been advantageous to the regime. The lack of independent media not influenced by the state in rural areas has stifled the dissent of the Rif, one that could easily spread to other impoverished rural areas.
Moreover, the recent memory of the Rifian revolts under Hassan II’s reign lives on. Various supporters of the regime have largely dismissed the demands of the protesters and argued the rhetoric of decades-past.
Claims that the Rifians are intending to spark a civil war with the goal of seceding and reestablishing the Rif Republic have been advantageous to the regime. Many Moroccans have been discouraged from publicly expressing dissent after witnessing the way protests in Libya and Syria have led to instability.
Despite the government’s reforms, the reaction to protests in areas like the Rif region have demonstrated that the systematic violation of human rights remains unchanged – and so have the people's demand for genuine reform. However, through consistent police repression and media blockades, the regime has prevented the spread of protests.