Wednesday 28 June 2017

Anger brews in Morocco's neglected Rif region

Anger brews in Morocco's neglected Rif region
(AFP 05/05/17)

In Morocco's neglected Rif region, where outrage erupted last year over the gruesome death of a fishmonger, calls for justice have evolved into a grassroots movement demanding jobs and hospitals.

Mouhcine Fikri, 31, was crushed in a rubbish truck in October in the northern city of Al-Hoceima as he tried to protest against the seizure and destruction of swordfish, which were not allowed to be caught at that time of year.

His death in the Rif -- an ethnically Berber region long marginalised and at the heart of a 2011 protest movement for reform -- briefly sparked protests nationwide and added to long-standing grievances in his hometown.

"We're the sons of the poor, simple people who have taken to the street to say no to tyranny. We're not asking for anything exceptional -- just the rehabilitation of our devastated region," says activist Nasser Zefzafi.

Broadcasting passionate speeches online in the local Tarifit dialect from his home or the street, the unemployed 39-year-old has become the face of the new movement demanding economic inclusion for the Rif.

"The martyrdom of Mouhcine Fikri, which was the consequence of years of the same state policy, was the last straw. The trial was a farce, the judgement shameful," says Zefzafi, the leader of the Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or "Popular Movement".

"For six months we have been resisting... And we will resist until they respond to our demands for the economic and social development of our region," he says.

- 'No money, no work' -

With its apartment blocks hugging the mountain and its main square overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea, Al-Hoceima would seem like a normal seaside city if it were not for the heavy presence of policemen in plain clothes and uniform.

Weekend protests are common in this city of 60,000 inhabitants, with police immediately moving in to contain the demonstrators and prevent them from marching to the city centre.

With the exception of a high school student protest in late March, all demonstrations have been peaceful.

The demands are always the same: jobs, roads, universities, hospitals and investment.

Long excluded from state development plans and with little agricultural produce, the Rif region is economically devastated.

Remittances have stopped flowing in from relatives abroad, a state clampdown has made cannabis production harder, and smuggling towards nearby Spanish enclaves has dwindled.

And fishing, one of the region's main sources of income, is also in crisis. Demonstrators say a mafia controls local fishing ports.

The disillusionment is tangible among the city's residents fed up with the lack of work.

In a region that has traditionally rebelled against central power, Rif residents are feeling increasingly neglected and angry with the state.

"The movement is spearheaded by youth, but it resonates with many people because of the economic crisis, especially with traders and fishermen," Zefzafi says.

- 'Not separatists' -

Faycal Aoussar, a local activist with the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, agrees.

"The youth's demands are fair and legitimate. The whole Rif supports them," he says.

"People are very determined... The movement will continue as long as the social and economic issues are not resolved," Aoussar says.

But, say Zefzafi and Aoussar, the movement is not fighting for independence of the region, despite protesters holding up the flag of the short-lived Rif republic founded in 1922 by local hero Abdelkrim el-Khattabi.

"The Rif flag is our identity, the heritage of our region," Aoussar says.

Zefzafi insists: "We're not separatists... Our demands are economic and social. It has never been about creating an independent state."

The Moroccan state has struggled to respond to the demands.

The governor of Al-Hoceima was fired in late March, and a flurry of ministers have visited the city in recent months, promising projects to boost the local economy.

Local state "institutions are doing their job and listening to citizens", local official Nourredine Boughrane says.

"Many projects are under way. We are doing everything to attract investors. There will be direct aid for fishermen," he adds. "The province has a bright future."

But a local dignitary, who asked to remain anonymous, said state efforts so far were insufficient.

"The authorities are moving but it's not enough. They'll need immediate results to stem the revolt. And (they'll need) to create jobs."

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