Morocco’s Rif: A History of Hidden Discontent

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Police officers in Rabat run after unemployed graduates who were marching in solidarity with anti-government protesters in the north on 14 March 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Youssef Boudlal)

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.

Comments

The Rif Republic came to a bloody end in 1926 when the Spanish, with French reinforcement, the complicity of the Moroccan sultan Mohammed V, ...

In 1926, Yossef was in power, not Mohamed V.
The Moroccan monarchy contributed 400,000 men to bring down the Rif Republic, and after the surrender of Mulay Muhend, the Moroccan sultan rushed to thank the French General Resident and congratulated him for his victory, calling Mulay Muhend an anarchist.

The Amazigh's are over 60% of the Morrocan population. Where is their representation in the government? And why should they not be free to propagate an identity? We have treated them badly so we can hardly be shocked that they hate us. However, breaking up states is dangerous. A binational state might be a solution?

ask the berbers themselves. The berber fascist don't represent Berbers. They try very hard to hijack the calls for dignity of all moroccans and change it to a Berber uprising. It`s also worth mentioning there collaboration and visits to zionist entity. And now they play the arab spring card. They want to change History all the time. They claim recently that the libyan uprising was an anti-arab uprising. The world amazigh forum chooses recently a libyan chairman even if the majority of Berbers are living in morocco.

I hope that the person that called Berber fascists understands that not only did a Moroccan Arab king call all Riffians Berbers savages and thieves but also stood behind the massacres of thousands of Berbers in 1958/59.
Talking about fascist, we are forced to learn Arabic at school and use Arabic to sign documents and administrative papers despite that our native language is Tamazight/Berber. We are forced to give our children Arab names. We are forced to see ourselves and our country as Arab, even thought we are the native inhabitants of this wonderfull Berber country.
I can go on for hours writing everything the Arab fascists has done and are doing to the Berbers and their culture! Learn your history before even putting the words Berber and fascist together. Riffians want dignity and it will be achieved with our without the rest of the country,

Talking about fascist, we are forced to learn Arabic at school and use Arabic to sign documents and administrative papers despite that our native language is Tamazight/Berber.

Give me one Book that is written in your invented language? Just one. Ahhh the Arabs destroyed the books right. They destroyed the berber Pyramids, Persepolis, Golden Gate Bridge, Acropolis an too right.

What do you thin about Tariq ibn Ziad or Abd Kriem Khatabi or Andalusia. You want to separate us from our islamic heritage.

Typical pro-Arab comment bringing in Islam! Arabs are the biggest hypocrits. I dare you to take a trip to the Amazigh areas in Morocco and compare them to the "Arab" areas and see whos most Islamic. Dont bring religion in to this, this is about the rights of a people! This is our country therefore our language shall and will be used.

And concerning the language, guess what, our "invented" language is older then Arabic. Now enlighten yourself and learn something, then come back and write.

I know that Berbers are much more islamic. And this is what you want to change. Even the uprising in he 1950`s had an islamic component. Did you know that the only thing that stopped the berber from finishing King Hassan off was the Kings recitation of the Koran in front of him?. After the Berber than start to cry and give up his weapon.

" Learn your history before even putting the words Berber and fascist together. Riffians want dignity and it will be achieved with our without the rest of the country,"

What history. Your invented history written by algerians living in france?.

I hope that tis newspaper knows that the Berber fascist refer to Arabs as Kharabs and that there leaders are trained by france.

This quote should be further discussed somewhere:

"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."

Many Moroccans may interpret this uprising as yet another "self-determinationist" enterprise (a Western Sahara of the north) -a development which should be passionately opposed at all costs - and judge it as either (1) something that is viscerally more threatening and awful for/to Morocco than the usual nation-wide social injustice and dictatorship; (2) or a struggle that is not theirs since its very vindication would create a new country separated from their own.

When a person can see Rif Republic flags above the protests, it doesn't seem perceptive and reasonable for them to then describe such protesters as anything but secessionists.

You seem to imagine this Rifian turmoil will climax to the benefit of all the country; I take a different view.

Wish those in the Rif well.

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