The Rif and the Moroccan State’s Economic Pressure Cooker

Photo: Thérèse Di Campo.

“Awbash!” he said, repeating it two more times, each with the same cool, eerily calm voice as he stared directly into the camera in a televised address on January 22, 1984. The word can simultaneously mean “scum,” “insects,” or “savages” and the man who uttered it was Hassan II, then the king of Morocco. He was referring to the people of the Rif, in the north of the country, who had taken the streets in protest on January 19. “The people of the North knew me as a crown prince, it’s better for them not to know me as King Hassan II,” he continued, threateningly alluding to the bloody 1959 massacres he personally led there — a crown prince with a rifle in-hand.

But by the time he uttered those words decades later, troops had already showered the crowds again with bullets and hundreds were thrown into his infamous prisons.

The protests he was responding to were initiated by students, angered by the introduction of baccalaureate subscription fees in public schools. The measure, taken by the ministry of National Education, was a result of the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the time. The students were joined by their families, workers and the unemployed who had a plethora of other reasons to protest.

Today, the wretched of the Rif have risen again and the causes are very much alike. But how did the movement begin? What are its demands and how do they indicate a relationship with the country’s past, its rapidly changing economic order and the way political power is unevenly structured? Is corruption really at the heart of this uprising or are there much larger forces at play?

The Birth of a Popular Movement

Sparked by the murder of fish vendor, Mohsin Fikri whose horrific death inside a garbage truck was ordered by a state official, the Rif’s latent popular anger exploded last November. Thus, the birth of Anhezzi N’ Arif (Rif Movement), more simply known as #Hirak (Movements). Fuelled by increasingly predatory economic policies — imposed by the same global financial institutions which provoked the rebellions of the 1980s  —  the movement spread like wildfire from Biyya (the Amazigh name for the town of Al-Hoceima) to the rest of the Amazighophone Rif.

Initially beginning with spontaneous protests demanding justice for Fikri, the movement quickly materialized into an organized, grassroots popular movement with a commendable list of demands. The list, which reads more like a manifesto, outlines specific economic, social and environmental demands and details on how to implement them. Presented in a general popular assembly in March, the demands were drafted through an elaborate democratic process which involved the participation of different marginalized social groups Riffian society consists of. From fishermen to workers, students to the unemployed, landless peasants to artists.

The resulting manifesto dispels the misleading notion propagated by many international media outlets that the uprising is essentially against corruption or, for some, an ethnic struggle between Imazighen (Berbers) and Arabs. Instead, this text points to a well-founded, complex popular struggle for social justice for which corruption and cultural identity are just two, albeit important, aspects amongst many.

The text situates the movement historically, as a continuation of past struggles, demanding justice for the many unresolved murders committed during each uprising — from 1958, to 1984, to 1991 all the way up to 2011. In addition to carrying some of the same demands from the 1958/59 rebellion, the movement calls for the abolition of the militarization decree which was instituted as a response. That decree continues to affect the daily lives of Riffians who, amongst many other consequences, are forced to endure a permanent state of emergency.

But this isn’t the only way historic injustices have made their way to this contemporary struggle. Expressing the anger of landless peasants, the list also calls for the return of confiscated collective tribal lands to their rightful owners. They also demand a cancer treatment hospital for the generations of Riffians still affected by Spain and France’s chemical bombings. According to the Research Group on Chemical Warfare Against the Rif (GRGCR), 80% of Moroccans affected by pharynx and larynx cancer come from the Rif as a direct result. The Makhzen (Morocco’s ruling regime including the monarchy, security forces, religious institutions, and ruling business elite) has not only refused to recognize these war crimes but has even worked actively to stifle discussion about them, banning at least two medical conferences regarding this issue. It has also worked closely with political parties in Spain in order to oppose a 2007 measure in Spanish parliament which would have paid reparations to the victims.

For an international observer, it may be difficult to understand how a state would work against colonial reparations benefiting its citizens. Yet, this type of behavior has been a normal feature of Makhzenist politics for decades. It is widely known that the Moroccan monarchy takes revenge against regions and towns that have resisted it or been disloyal to it in the past. Revenge is usually served in the form of sabotage or economic and social marginalization: roads don’t get paved, hospitals and schools don’t get built, names of towns get changed, provincial maps redrawn, and local cultures and history alienated. Thus, punished for its rebellious past, the potent, beautiful Rif region is left with some of the worst economic conditions in the country.

The Hirak’s demands reflect this marginalization. Like their predecessors from 1984 and 1958/59, they stress the need for public education, with calls for a university, libraries, schools in every village and particularly women’s access to education;  the need for public health, with demands for a university hospital and more clinics in villages; the right to local resources, land and the environment; the right to employment, through the promotion of tourism and canning factories; and the right to affordable pricing of basic goods and services. But that is not all. The Hirak, in one of the most extraordinary paragraphs of its grassroots manifesto, explains that banks are also responsible. They are described as conveyer belts which suck capital out of the Rif, and thus, must pay their share in the construction of local economies.

The Wide Margins of the Makhzenist State

Although these demands were drafted to respond to the concerns of the Rif, they echo similar ones carried by social movements throughout Morocco. The Hirak emerged from similar economic injustices found throughout the wide margins of the Makhzenist state, the neglected “backlands” that actually constitute the vast majority of the country. It should come as no surprise then that their movement has spread more easily to villages and towns in the Atlas (Central Morocco) and Asammr (Southeast) than to the former colonial metropolises (Rabat-Casablanca). Vestiges of colonialism, roads and train lines point to these wealthy urban centers, taking capital, raw resources and cheap migrant labor from the margins in return for remittances, “development” aid and weak tourism.

In these epicentres of Moroccan capital, business goes on as usual. The neoliberal war waged on the poor rages on, encouraged and facilitated by institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Today, the state works diligently to meet the requirements of their international debtors, beginning to sketch out the grounds for a new social contract. “It is time for the state to take its hands off certain sectors, like health and education” declared former Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane at the African Bank of Development’s 2014 conference, “the role of the state should be limited to assisting private operators who wish to engage in these sectors.”

Indeed, the state has began to savagely privatize the education sector, making the 1984 fee hike of $5 appear miniscule. In the last few years, public elementary and secondary schools have been closing left and right.  According to a report by militant organisations, 191 have closed in Casablanca and Rabat alone between 2008 and 2013. Those that remain are seeing overcrowding with some classrooms sometimes holding more than 70 students. Meanwhile, students at public universities will begin to pay subscription fees and graduate students will begin to pay tuition.

Public health has also been undermined with the state completely disengaging itself from the sector — no new public hospitals are planned, increasingly fewer doctors are employed and equipment is rarely purchased or renewed. Instead, the state works in favor of expensive private clinics which escape regulations and controls. Public water and electricity services have also been privatized, with the public National Office for Electricity and Potable Water (ONEE) seeing entire cities taken off its grid, its tax-funded infrastructures given almost for free to foreign multinationals like France’s Suez Environnement and Veolia.

Privatization has meant increasing costs across the board, while the minimum wage has remained low at $250 per month. And that’s if you’re not part of the 10.7% that is unemployed, reaching 25.5% amongst younger Moroccans. Meanwhile, higher costs of rent, subsidy cuts on fuel (with more to come on other basic goods) and increasing costs of living in general have ravaged both proletarian and middle class households. Even lentils, considered the food of the poor, have almost tripled in price from about $1 to almost $3 per kilogram.

Yet, it is not difficult to see why the state has so fully embraced these neoliberal policies despite the anger they provoke. Rampant liberalization of the public sector has generally meant its recuperation by multinationals owned by the private Societé Nationale d’Investissement (SNI), the royal investment holding: from mining corporations like Managem, to banks like Attijariwafa Bank, to real estate giants like Addoha.

Cracks in the Pressure Cooker

In this context of capitalist predation, the uprising in the Rif should be seen as a justified expression of the popular anger which has been boiling both, under and over the surface for decades. But the last decade demarks itself as a period of unprecedented proliferation in social, political and even environmental movements. According to sociologist Abderrahman Rachik Social, labor-related protests and strikes have shot up by 200% since 2012, while the totality of protest actions in the country have gone from 700 protests in 2005 to 18,000 last year.

But the breadth and grassroots strength of the Hirak, makes it stand out as an extraordinary force, capable of shifting and revealing the contradictions within the seemingly stable grip of the Makhzen. The Makhzen knows this, which is why its response has been so brutal. Eight months into the uprising, the mask of democracy which it has tried to construct since Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne has fallen. With de facto curfews imposed on villages, military gendarmes mobilized, police forces looting Riffian villages, entire towns put under siege, and hundreds of Hirak protesters arrested in the last few weeks, it has become difficult to see how the country is somehow considered an “exception” by Nicolas Sarkozy, or a model” for democracy by Hillary Clinton.

Thus, cracks have begun to grow in the steel surface of the Makhzen’s pressure cooker. Even its discursive response has been contradictory and confused. Some of the Makhzen’s institutions are beginning to conflict with each other in ways that haven’t been seen for decades: security agencies “waging war” against officials appointed by the King; conflicting reactions, statements and orders between high-level officials and institutions; defections of five mayors in the Rif; and widespread uncertainty amongst Moroccans about who is really making the decisions.  It is true that violence, censorship and imprisonment may save this mess for now, but the pressure cooker is letting too little steam out for it not to blow.

Nadir Bouhmouch is a film-maker and photographer