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Morocco’s Crackdown Won’t Silence Dissent
Across the country, protesters are increasingly willing to criticize the government and the monarchy—even in the face of repression.
When she joined the National Union of Moroccan Students in 1978, Khadija Ryadi knew she’d face hardship. “At that time,” she recalled, “we were constantly followed by the police.” But today, she told me, life may be even harder. “Now not only are we followed but we are also listened to and photographed, and everywhere. The repression has remained, but the instruments have changed. I never feel at ease.”
Recently, Ryadi, who was the president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (also known by its French acronym, AMDH) from 2007 to 2013 and won a United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 2013, has raised eyebrows. In interviews with me, she denounced “a return to the Years of Lead”—a reference to the decades of harsh oppression in the 1960s to 1990s under Morocco’s King Hassan II.
Today’s repression may be much less brutal, but just denouncing the recent crackdown could land critics in jail. Indeed, in recent months, human rights defenders have pointed to a major rise in harassment, arrests, and police violence against activists. One of them, Abdellah Lefnatsa, said that “achievements such as freedom of expression [and] the right to protest” have started to be rolled back. Over the last two years, over a thousand people have been jailed on politically related charges, according to Youssef Raissouni, an executive director at AMDH and a member of the leftist party Annahj Addimocrati (The Democratic Way).
Beyond the big names, there are people like Nawal Benaissa, a 37-year-old mother of four who has been arrested four times for her involvement in protests denouncing corruption and demanding jobs, hospitals, and schools as part of the so-called Hirak movement, which began in the country’s northern Rif region after a fishmonger was crushed to death in a garbage truck in October 2016 while trying to reclaim fish that local authorities had taken from him.
The official charges against her were participating in an unregistered demonstration, insulting law enforcement officers, and inciting others to commit criminal offenses. Last February, she was given a suspended 10-month sentence and handed a fine of 500 dirhams (about $50).
Another Hirak activist, Mortada Iamrachen, was arrested in November 2017 and later sentenced to five years in prison after making two posts on Facebook. The first, in December 2016, was a news report about the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. The second post, in June 2017, included his account of a conversation in which a purported journalist had asked him whether he had tried to bring weapons to Morocco on the orders of al Qaeda and he had responded, sarcastically, that he had. He was charged with promoting terrorism.
Over the summer, meanwhile, Nasser Zefzafi and three other Hirak protest leaders were sentenced to 20 years in prison for “undermining state security.” Protesters staged rallies in Casablanca and Rabat last July to condemn the harsh sentences handed down to them and 49 other Hirak activists and citizen journalists.
Now housed in the Oukacha prison in Casablanca, the activists have initiated several hunger strikes to denounce their sentencing and the conditions of their detention. Zefzafi was held more than a year in solitary confinement after his arrest, in violation of U.N. standards, according to Human Rights Watch.
An appeal trial for 42 of the detained—11 have been pardoned by King Mohammed VI since the verdict last June—started in Casablanca on Nov. 14, 2018, but human rights defenders aren’t optimistic.
Morocco has seen waves of protests and detention before. People marched against high food prices in 2007, against unemployment in 2008, and for democracy during and after the Arab Spring. But the number of prosecutions has risen dramatically to around 1,000 since 2017, up from 124 in 2016, according to Raissouni.
Among those imprisoned are Hirak activists, protesters in the northeast and the south, students from the National Union of Moroccan Students, and journalists. (Rachid Belaali, a lawyer defending Hirak activists, said at least 1,200 Hirak protesters have been arrested since 2017; about one-third have been charged simply for expressing their support of the movement on social networks, mainly on Facebook.)
The question, of course, is why now? In part, the government’s harsh response stems from its profound insecurity since the protests of the Arab Spring eight years ago, which saw marches in as many as 115 cities at its peak. In Morocco, the February 20 Movement demanded the creation of a democratic constitution and the dissolution of Parliament—and it largely won.
Voters approved a new constitution in July 2011, and early elections that brought the Islamist Justice and Development Party—which had never taken part in the government—into the majority were held soon thereafter. But rights groups and critics claim that no real change has taken place.
The king continues to hold most of the executive power, and corruption is still rampant. In turn, disappointed citizens have taken to the streets once more. The protest movement is relatively weak for now. But given that the government has had to make concessions in the face of mass marches before, it is eager to avoid new uprisings now.
Particularly worrying for the government is the spread of social movements from the big cities to smaller towns, where locals are tired of poor living conditions. After two miners died on the job in December 2017, residents of Jerada took to the streets to demand an economic alternative to mining coal in unsafe clandestine shafts, which is one of the few options for work there.
Now more than 70 people there have been held awaiting trial since March, according to AMDH and the Unified Socialist Party activist Jawad Tlemsani. Among them, 40 have been recently sentenced to up to five years in prison. For now, such incidents are isolated, but they could portend a nationwide protest movement in the near future.
And that may be why the government’s crackdown on recent protests has been harsher in many ways than its reaction to the Arab Spring, even though the activists’ demands are less extreme. The Hirak protesters have not demanded the resignation of the government but rather more spending on jobs, education, and an oncological center—the Rif region’s cancer rates are the highest in Morocco, allegedly because of bombing by Spanish colonial forces in the early 20th century.
The government responded by putting back on track an ambitious development plan that it had launched two years before but had then faced significant delays. This is part of a pattern of giving activists some of what they want before cracking down again. Beyond the rise in prosecutions, AMDH and other organizations like it have recently had trouble obtaining funding and official authorizations from local authorities. This year, out of 100 AMDH bureaus, 54 have failed to get their registration documents, which means they cannot legally work. AMDH activists haven’t had to grapple with problems like this since the 1980s, the activist Lefnatsa said, when the organization was banned and its offices closed.
As repression takes root, a culture of protest is slowly emerging throughout the country. And unlike during the Years of Lead, activists and ordinary citizens are prepared to publicly criticize the government and, at times, the monarchy.
“There’s no way this would have been possible” when he started out, Lefnatsa told me, looking back on his 40 years as an activist. “What people say now on social networks, it would have cost them years of prison.” Indeed, during the Years of Lead, activists were imprisoned for years simply for distributing leaflets. Even if protest remains costly today, something fundamental has changed.
“Youngsters who were considered apolitical now speak up against despotism and the unequal distribution of wealth, and ordinary men and women struggle for their social and economic rights in the most remote parts of the country,” Lefnatsa said.
“The repression hasn’t succeeded in suppressing the protest movement,” he added. “And that is new.”