Discontent behind the image of calm in Morocco

Joe Hayns provides the background to understand the source of bitter discontent in Morocco that erupted in recent demonstrations against state repression.

Thousands rally in the city center of al-Hoceima in MoroccoThousands rally in the city center of al-Hoceima in Morocco

THE MOROCCAN security forces' bloody expulsion of protesters from the central square in the northern city of al-Hoceima on January 4 once again exposed the myth of Moroccan "exceptionalism" in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region--the belief that Morocco is an exceptionally liberal state, governing an exceptionally content population, relative to the region.

Morocco is "a calm, friendly, stable, sane, peaceable and essentially civilized oasis," according to a recent article by Michael Totten. And to Europeans and Americans--particularly the 10.2 million who visited there in 2015--it easily appears so.

But even over the previous year, Moroccan politics have been anything but "peaceable," with clashes over cuts to education, the repression of students and environmental despoliation--all elements of a continuing popular opposition movement.

The Moroccan "oasis," then, is a tourist's mirage. What about the protests in al-Hoceima is it hiding?

The most proximate cause of this eruption was the deplorable killing of fish merchant Mouhcine Fikri on October 28. Police demanded a bribe from the Fikri, and when he refused, the police threw his catch in a garbage truck. When Fikri tried to retrieve his fish from the truck, an officer commanded, "Tahan huwa" ("Crush him"), according to a witness. Fikri was killed in the truck, and protests began immediately.

Thousands attended an almost 14-mile funeral procession the day after Fikri was killed and then demonstrated into the night. The anger in the north spread to major cities, including Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech, as demonstrations continued across the country for a full week.

But while the opposition to state corruption and police violence was nationwide, this phase of protests has continued only in the northern Rif region.

Following Fakri's killing, Duke University political scientist and North Africa expert Abdselam Maghraoui told Al-Jazeera, "The Rif has been structurally and symbolically severed from the rest of other regions in Morocco."

How?

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PRIOR TO French colonization, formalized in 1912 with the Treaty of Fez, the Moroccan state's power over the various groups living across northwestern Africa--some sedentary, some nomadic, some urban, some rural, many both--was both severe and fleeting.

Material surpluses, taxes and "protection" were the stuff of those relations, with political alliances and antipathies as unpredictable as the next harvest. Islam was not so much a single and shared culture as a series of ideological correlates to those back-and-forth relations (there were, as today, several "Islams").

Into the 20th century, anti-central state tendencies developed into anti-colonialism, most successfully in the Rif. France came to predominate in Morocco during the 19th century, though it was forced to cede control of the north to Spain, which had maintained military outposts (presidios) along the coast since the 1600s.

By 1920, an anti-colonial force had coalesced around Muhammad Ibn 'Abd el-Karim. In July 1921, the Rifians fought, beat and routed a much larger Spanish colonial army. The victory left 9,000 Spanish dead, and 'Abd el-Karim's troops their rifles, machine guns and artillery.

The Rifian Republic--not the "Moroccan Republic"--was proclaimed. It was only after engaging the much superior French army to the south--coming within about 15 miles of the crucial city of Fez--that the army of the Republic was destroyed in the summer and autumn of 1926.

Philippe Pétain, later the leader of Vichy France when it aligned with the Nazis, orchestrated the French-Spanish pincer movement, using aerial bombardment and poison gas against Rifian soldiers and civilians. Spanish dictator Franco, too, learned his barbarity in the Rif campaign.

As historian Susan Gilson Miller writes in A History of Modern Morocco, "the legacy of 'Abd el-Karim still agitates and disturbs--an unresolved and contrapuntal note in the narrative of the nation."

Less than two years after formal independence in March 1956, Crown Prince Hassan, later King Hassan II, led a two-week civil war--four-fifths of the army was deployed--against Rifian separatists.

Military-style repression followed, with working-class people in the Rif and the wider north surviving economic neglect by an economically peripheral state, via emigrants' wages and smuggling drugs, into and out of Europe, with each becoming substantial elements of the regional economy.

By the end of the 1970s, the Moroccan state was running a large deficit as a result of debts following its Saudi-leveraged invasion of Western Sahara and the plummeted price of phosphates, the country's main export. This provided an excuse for the International Monetary Fund's restructuring of the national economy, including demands that the Moroccan government privatize and deregulate. The result was increased unemployment and poverty.

In August 1983, the Moroccan government enacted the IMF's demand for a $60 tax on Moroccans entering the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, which especially affected people in the north.

As David McMurray explains in In and Out of Morocco, this "effectively killed" small-scale smuggling--while important before, the activity had become a crucial means of survival after droughts from 1979 onwards forced more people from the rural north into the cities.

In January 1984, riots of students and the unemployed began across the country, especially in the north. King Hassan II threatened, "The people of the North have previously known the violence of the crown prince; it will be best for them not to know that of the king's." Soldiers were given shoot-to-kill orders, tanks were deployed, and helicopter gunships were used against protesters in Nador.

During nationwide protests in 2011 and 2012--involving unions, the unemployed and students, altermondialistes, Islam-inspired groups, liberals and Marxists--the protests in the north were, again, acute, as Samia Errazzouki explains at Al-Akhbar.

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IS IT the Rif that is "exceptional" then? For sure, regional history informs today's protests, with protesters carrying 'Abd el-Karim's picture at demonstration over the past months, bringing the place's past and today's politics together.

Al-Hoceima and the surrounding region is also particularly poor. A 2015 report shows that nearly 25 percent of people in al-Hoceima and the surrounding area are "destitute" or "in severe poverty," and another 20 percent are "vulnerable to poverty."

But as the protests across the country in November show, surviving poverty and repression are not at all particular to the Rif. We might better view these protests as an instance of a wider social movement that, with each expression, puts emphasis on a particular identity or identities.

As for Morocco's exceptionalism, it's not that European and American experts--journalists, academics and policy wonks--simply mistake Morocco as an "oasis." Rather, like the U.S., French and other imperial states, they don't so much misunderstand Morocco's stability as peace, but prefer it to the threat of anti-regime opposition.

Even after the mass demand for political and social justice across the MENA region from 2011 onward, what Aziz al-Azmeh, author of Islams and Modernities, called "a discourse on the congenital incapacities of Others" informs both expert and popular conceptions of politics there, with Islamophobia and suspicions of "Arab authoritarianism" each surviving--even, flourishing--in the post-2011 period.

For example, in the current issues of The Journal of North African Studies, Raphaël Lefèvre writes:

The risk is that if socio-economic and political grievances continue to persist and the King proves unable or unwilling to tackle them, the type of social despair which was on display during the protest movement of 2016 could give rise to violent forms of political expression. One of them, already well-publicized in Morocco and elsewhere, is the growth of Islamic extremism.

Or, put another way, can the working class in predominately Muslim countries be trusted without a leash?

What cannot be trusted are the mixed competencies and the pro-"stability" impulses of professionals for understanding the MENA region. Instead, progressives in America and Europe should attempt to begin or deepen institutional links with people there.

Student unions, radical civil society groups and left-wing parties on either side of Mediterranean can share ideas, resources and strategies more easily than ever. The fact that today's crises--crises of unemployment and poverty, forced migration and Islamophobia--are international demands such sharing, or the unexceptional will continue.