Arresting the Protest: Widespread Crackdown on Dissent Undermines Morocco’s Social Movements

Protesters in Rabat, Morocco in October, 2016 demand political reforms and an end to corruption. Photo credit: Reuters
Protesters in Rabat, Morocco in October, 2016 demand political reforms and an end to corruption. Photo credit: Reuters

The verdict shocked the country. On June 26, the marathon trial of fifty-three activists of the Hirak, a protest movement born in October 2016 in the Rif, in the north of Morocco, finally ended. And with it, all hopes of a consensual settlement for the biggest social movement in the country since the Arab Spring began seven years ago disappeared.

The court verdict was seen by activists as well as human rights defenders as part of a larger crackdown on Hirak protesters and dissident journalists and marked an escalation in the wider state suppression of critics of the Moroccan government and its business allies.

Four activists, including Hirak leader Nasser Zefzafi, were found guilty of “undermining internal security” and received a twenty-year sentence. Six citizen journalists who covered the protests – Mohamed Al Asrihi, Rabia Al Ablak, Abdelali Houd, Houssein El Idrissi, Jawad Al Sabiry, and Fouad Essaidi – were condemned to two to five years in jail. Hamid Al Mahdaoui, the director of the website Badil.Info, who ardently supported the Hirak, has already been behind bars for a year for “inciting a banned demonstration.” On June 28, he was sentenced to another three years for “failing to report a threat to national security.”

Right after the judge announced the verdict, protesters took to the streets in El Hoceima, the core of the Hirak, and sit-ins – several were repressed – have since drawn numerous protesters in various cities, including Rabat, Morocco’s capital, and Casablanca. On July 15, in Rabat, thousands of protesters gathered in Bab El Had, where protests usually start, and marched to the parliament, calling for the liberation of all the “political detainees.”

The previous week, on July 8, thousands of people answered the call of leftist parties in Casablanca to protest. But in the meantime, the repression went on. Several people have been arrested in the region of El Hoceima after the court verdict came out, in most cases for “protesting without authorization.” At the Oukacha jail, in Casablanca, where the 53 Hirak detainees and Hamid Mahdaoui have been held for more than a year, many initiated a hunger strike to protest their sentencing.

The anger expressed in Morocco’s streets and on social networks came mainly from activists and sympathizers of the movement. But unexpected support came from certain pro-government figures and even journalists working on official TV networks. For example, the host of the TV show Confidences de Presse, Abdellah Tourabi, usually moderate in his critique of the government, declared the Hirak trial was a “historical mistake” which would reopen wounds in the Rif, a region known for its tense relations with the central governmental power.

However, more than the repression of the protest movement itself – hundreds of people are currently jailed in El Hoceima – and the “unfair” conditions under which the trial took place, according to Hirak lawyers, it is the harshness of the verdict that is fueling discontent among a part of the pro-government elite. With this verdict, state officials and their supporters are facing a new difficulty: It is now impossible for them to continue to publicly defend the official story of democratic progress in the country in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Many activists have raised concerns about a return of the “Years of Lead,” the harsh period during King Hassan II’s reign, from the 1960s to the 1990s, marked by heavy repression, politically motivated disappearances, and the secret detention center of Tazmamart. However, human rights activist and trade unionist Abdellah Lefnatsa explains, “I do not think we have gone back to the Years of Lead, simply because we never left them.”

The repression and the political detention have never ceased, he insists. After 2011, when Morocco’s streets were shaken by protests in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, there was a clear improvement in human rights, he acknowledges. But the freedom of expression gained in the last years is the result of the post-2011 shift in the balance of power, forcing authorities to listen to activists in the streets.

“The same structures are there,” he regrets. “The repression apparatus has never changed… There has been no radical change in the structure of the state and society. There has been a change in the form, according to the context, but not in substance. There is the same minority that dominates wealth and controls the state’s apparatus.”

In October 2016, the horrific death of a fish seller crushed in a garbage truck while he was trying to get back the merchandise authorities had confiscated from him in the city of El Hoceima moved the emotions of the country, and soon prompted solidarity protests in about twenty cities. They went on mainly in the Rif region for seven months, until the government launched an intense crackdown.

“For a while, nobody was saying anything. There were protests every day,” recalls Rachid Belaali, a lawyer and member of the support committee of the Hirak. “But after seven months, sudden arrests took place. They’d even sometimes arrest people walking by the street… People have the right to protest. This right is recognized in Morocco’s Constitution.” Unlike Lefnatsa, Belaali says he was surprised by the recent setbacks. “Until 2017, the situation improved throughout the country. Now it is a catastrophe,” he laments.

A year after the beginning of the crackdown of the Hirak in May 2017, the number of detainees is the highest since King Mohamed VI came to power in 1999. According to Belaali, more than 800 people have been prosecuted in connection with the movement while more than 300 remain behind bars. Out of the detained held in the Rif region, he says about a third have been charged simply for expressing their support for the Hirak, mainly on Facebook. In recent months, dozens of protesters have been heavily sentenced, amidst the indifference of not only Morocco’s political elite but also a major part of the civil society. Authorities have long covered up the repression, claiming that no political detainees exist in the country.

Over these years, Khadija Ryadi, the former president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), the most influential human rights association in the region, has never stopped expressing concerns over human rights violations. She denounces a “blatant regression” dating back to 2013, after the pro-democracy February 20 Movement started to weaken.

“As long as there will not be political will [to change], the repression will continue. It is a continuous fight, with ups and downs. Some theoretical things have been obtained. [For example,] in the Constitution voted in 2011,” she explained. “There is the recognition of the Amazigh language, [advances] on rights and liberties. These are theoretical achievements. We have to fight for their application.”

Since last year, about a thousand people have been detained for politically related motives, according to the AMDH. The AMDH says about 90 people are currently held for taking part in demonstrations in the mining town of Jerada, after the repression of a protest last March, while dozens of others have been jailed for taking part in social movements such as the one in Zagora last summer. According to Brahim Rizkou of the AMDH bureau in Zagora, thirty-one people – one remains detained – were jailed for having taken part in sit-ins to defend their access to clean water and the improvement of health infrastructures.

As she looks back on her path as a human rights defender, Ryadi assertively denounces the contemporary human rights situation in Morocco. She felt freer in the 1990s, at the end of late King Hassan II’s reign, than she does today. To those unfamiliar with Morocco, her views on its recent evolution might be astonishing.

In the 1990s, King Hassan II initiated political change, raising hopes of a democratic transition after decades of repression. Heated political debates took place while an independent press was burgeoning. “It is the only moment when we breathed a little bit of freedom,” Ryadi explains. “There was a public debate within society on women’s rights, on education. There was a real political debate.”

Today, Ryadi’s life as an activist is marked by political pressures, intimidations, and more importantly, a lack of hope. “We feel we’re watched. We don’t feel free, at ease. We have the feeling that we’re being tracked down,” she regrets. In 2013, she was awarded a prestigious UN  Prize in the Field of Human Rights. Five years on, the human rights organization she ran for six years (2007-2013) is struggling with financial constraints and prohibitions. The AMDH has challenged Moroccan authorities, mainly due to its support of the pro-democracy February 20 Movement.

Ryadi’s story, however, is largely unheard of, not only in Morocco’s newspapers but also in a rather conciliatory international press, which has put forward the image of a “Moroccan exception” in an agitated and repressive region.

Youssef Raissouni, member of the Marxist-Leninist party Annahj Addimocrati (The Democratic Way) and administrative director of the AMDH central bureau, is similarly not optimistic. “There is a regional and international context which favors despotism,” he explains. “For the Makhzen [a complex system of power stemming from the Palace] as well as the international community, the most important issue is the struggle against terrorism. Human rights are secondary.”

But while Morocco has witnessed an intense regression in human rights in the last two years, freedom of assembly has paradoxically greatly evolved. “There is still a confrontation with the state when it comes to freedom of expression and human rights, but the fear of getting out [to participate in protests] doesn’t exist anymore,” stresses Jawad Telmsani, a 26-year-old AMDH activist and member of the Socialist Union Party (PSU) in Oujda, in the east of the country. “People are taking to the streets for just about anything.”

The progress has not been easily won. Neither has it been linear. “Freedoms have broadened at a certain moment when the context was in favor of the street, but this context doesn’t exist anymore,” regrets Tlemsani.

In 2011, while Tunisia and Egypt were shaken by so-called revolutions, a protest movement unique in Morocco’s recent history was born on February 20. For months, Morocco’s streets were animated by protests and discussions on political change never heard before. Throughout the country, protest demands targeted the political establishment, the king’s entourage and even the king at times – although protesters didn’t demand he stepped down. The king was nevertheless asked to give up some of his power to the government and clean the political landscape from widespread corruption.

As protests were spreading, King Mohamed VI announced political measures such as the formation of a new constitution. From then on, during a few months, the king’s palace built its own narrative, one of change and democratization.

The new constitution, which was adopted by over 98 percent of the voters on July 1st, 2011, gave more executive power to the government and guaranteed freedom of expression and assembly. Anticipated elections were held the following November in 2011 and enabled the Islamist Party of Justice and Development, a party which had never taken part in the government, to win, giving the illusion of a political renewal.

But as these changes were granted, the old repressive practices of the deep state continued. Dozens of activists were jailed for taking part in protests.

According to the AMDH, at least 2,000 people have been detained from 2011, when protests erupted, to 2017, when a new wave of harsher repression started. Among them, the majority were released shortly after being arrested, but AMDH says at least 300 hundred people were jailed and tried officially for common law crimes like “humiliating the police” or even selling cigarettes without a permit.

In February 2011, while the first day of protests was tolerated and positively covered by the press in major cities like Rabat and Casablanca, little has been said about the death of a protester in Sefrou – he was injured on February 20th of that year and died a few days later – and of five people in El Hoceima who died in unknown circumstances after a fire spread in a bank. The following day, on February 21, a sit-in with primarily founding members of the February 20 Movement and AMDH activists was violently repressed in Rabat, sending a clear message to those who wanted to build a long-lasting movement for change.

Like other founders of the February 20 Movement, Raissouni never believed the official rhetoric about promoting democratization. He knew it would be a long struggle. The main difficulty, he claims, remains in the lack of separation of powers, leaving most of the executive power in the hands of the king. The Constitution passed in 2011, in spite of a few advances in the text, doesn’t translate the progress made in the streets and gained by Morocco’s civil society, leaving the royal Makhzen to take back anything it has granted, he says.

Pro-democracy activists unanimously claim that the freedom of expression won in the months following the 2011 protests has slowly been taken away. Repression and political detention have been an effective way to draw protesters and sympathizers of the movement away from participation. Over the recent years, the succeeding trials took more and more energy and commitment on the part of activists. The Casablanca coordination of the February 20 Movement, one of the liveliest groups, has become slowly depleted.

The rap singer Lhaqed, a prominent February 20 activist in Casablanca, has since been left with no other choice than to leave Morocco, after having completed three jail sentences. Like him, another activist, Hamza Haddi has also been jailed several times, for what human rights observers denounced as trumped up charges. The local coordinating groups of several cities such as Fes or Safi have been silenced not only by the repression but also internal political divisions.

As the Makhzen was gradually gaining back the prestige it had lost in 2011, a clear warning to activists was made publicly in 2014. The Minister of the Interior Mohamed Hassad declared at Morocco’s parliament that local NGOs were following foreign agendas and harming the country’s struggle against terrorism.

This declaration translated into four years of hurdles for human rights defenders. One hundred and forty activities organized by the AMDH have been forbidden or prevented since, officially because of unavailable conference rooms or lack of electricity. “We have problems to get a room in every Moroccan city,” claims Raissouni. “During the last two years, we haven’t been able to organize an event in any hotel or other public space. We have to go to locations held by friendly organizations such as trade unions.”

But this is not the only difficulty that AMDH activists are facing. Out of a hundred bureaus, roughly sixty have not obtained their legal documents from local authorities, in violation of Morocco’s law, according to Raissouni. He claims AMDH won several trials against the government but the courts decisions have never been executed.

The leftist party Annahj Addimocati (The Democratic Way), the Socialist Unified Party, and even the Party of Justice and Development, which is part of the government, have also encountered occasional setbacks and obstacles when trying to set up events. Those who are not considered political opponents are also prevented from expressing their opinions. Last June, the president of the Collectif Democratie et Libertes Noreddine Ayouch, close to the monarchy, was not authorized to organize a conference on individual liberties and religious minorities.

“There was a parenthesis which opened in 2011, but it quickly closed,” sums up journalist Imad Stitou. “I feel less comfortable now. You feel less free when you think a thousand times before writing something. You think more about the reaction of the power. It forces us to self-censor inevitably. We are now in a critical situation. The taboos are more and more numerous. And the less radical critics are also sanctioned. We understand the message: it’s over with tolerance and openness.”

Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance reporter based in Morocco. Rachidi has written extensively on protest movements and human rights issues, publishing articles in the French newspaper Mediapart (where she has worked as a correspondent for four years), Rue89, Al Monitor, and The Christian Science Monitor.

See these related Toward Freedom reports on Morocco by Ilhem Rachidi:

Morocco’s Movements Take to the Streets for Water, Labor Reforms, and Human Rights

“People Are Not Afraid Anymore:” The Legacy and Impact of Morocco’s February 20th People’s Movement

The Press and the Palace: Moroccan Journalists Denounce Government Crackdown on Media

The Hirak: A Moroccan People’s Movement Demands Change From the Streets