Moving How? An interview with an al-Hirak activist (part two)

This is the second half of an interview with a left-wing activist in the The Popular Movement (al-Hirak al-Sh’abi; The Movement, or al-Hirak). In the first half, we talked about the genesis of al-Hirak, its demands and social composition. Here, we talk about separatism, about religion and political parties, and the Moroccan state. This interview was originally published on avalancheofdust.

Photo by JC

Since the publication of that first part, people in al-Hoceima and across the urban Rif have continued protesting each night.

One friend told me that they watched from a café as a teenager was chased by seven plain-clothed police officers across the four-lane road into town; they caught him in an alley, and together dragged him to the riot vans they arrived in. Another told me they were part of a 50-strong crowd of that surrounded two riot-armoured police, terrified at having been separated from their unit (two vans arrived within a minute). And so on, with al-Hoceima near-enough occupied now.

Could you give a sense of developments over the past two weeks? The state has been making conciliatory gestures through the press, at the same time as increasing police presence in al-Hoceima and Imzouren, with the first rank of leaders and many other activists all in prison.

It is the carrot and stick approach. The state did not anticipate the resilience of al-Hirak and the wave of solidarity with the arrested leaders. The strategy of ‘decapitating’ the movement did not work, because as soon as a leader is arrested, a new one emerges. The Makhzan can’t keep throwing people in prisons. And the protesters are well aware of this. We often hear the slogan ‘ghir shedduna kamalin, kulluna munadhilin’ (‘just arrest us all, we are all activists’). The conciliatory gestures are signs that the Makhzan is feeling the futility of the arrests and trials.

Could we speak more about al-Hirak’s demands. They include ‘matalib ijitimai’a’ (‘social demands’) but not ‘matalib siasia’ (‘political demands’), if we take ‘political’ as referring strictly to state matters.

Social demands are what matters most to individuals, because they feel the lack of social services in their daily lives. Most people will understand why we need a university or a modern hospital but only a few appreciate the necessity of political reform, and we needed as many people as possible on board. Political demands will come after the implementation of the social platform. The shortcomings of the Moroccan administration, especially the lack of accountability, will be exposed.

To this day, the Makhzan has avoided negotiation with al-Zafzafi. When the ministers came to al-Hoceima on 22 May, they did not show a willingness to negotiate with him. Instead, they invited the ‘political shops’, to use Zafzafi’s term for the Makhzani extensions that serve as parties and civil society groups. In a way, the Makhzan was negotiating with itself.

You’ve said that Rifian republicanism would not be tolerated by al-Makhzan. Still, isn’t the absence of such ‘political demands’ strange, in a region with a living tradition of separatist politics, and a diaspora living across several more decentralized European countries?

Republicanism is alive and well in the Rif. The heavier the repression the more people turn to Rifian republicanism. However, showing republican symbols in public is a risky adventure. Mohamed Jallul, one of the top leaders of The Movement, spent 5 years in prison for advocating the right to self-determination of the Rif. He was released in April 2017, only to be arrested again 2 months later.

Besides the heavy price of challenging the Makhzan politically, the republicans have to stick to the social platform that was adopted. But Rifian immigrants in Europe are not subject to the same constraints as the protesters in the Rif. The Rifian diaspora is more politically-minded, and voice their support for political reforms more openly. Many solidarity demonstrations happen in places with a history of separatism Barcelona, Bilbao, Brussels, Antwerp; all of these cities have a relatively large Rifian diaspora that have had a taste of the benefits of decentralisation.

The Movement has its internal differences. What about its relations with other groups? The Reuter’s headline for their story on 11 June march on Rabat said it was ‘led by Islamists’.

No, no, I think this is wrong. There were many organisations that attended the demonstration. The Islamists were a faction amongst many others.

That kind of propaganda will help the regime a lot. When the Makhzan explains its raison d’etre to the West, they say ‘we are fighting for your security’. People in Europe should take this with a grain of salt, and question what the official and mainstream media say about the situation in North Africa and the Middle East, especially concerning Islamism and terrorism. The state inflates the Islamist threat.

Take Elmortada Iamrachen for example. He was an Islamist – a salafi – in his early years, but he changed his politics. He’s now a moderate Islamist, against all forms of violence. He condemns terrorism, tolerates gay people and supports secularism, including the freedom of expression of atheists. He was an activist with al-Hirak. He had some differences with al-Zafzafi, but they were not ideologically related. They took him, though, and they are prosecuting him with terrorism offences. He was the first to speak against calls to armed rebellion.

When al-Zafzafi was arrested, most of the media close to the Makhzan, especially le360.ma, accused him of terrorism and drew comparisons between him and daesh leader al-Baghdadi. The news website le360.ma is known to be operated by the King’s private secretary, Mounir al-Majidi.

By ‘Islamists’, Reuter’s were referring to al-‘adl wa-l-Ihsan (AWL), the semi-tolerated salafi-sufi group that, beginning under that name in the late 1980s, have consistently opposed the regime. Could you give a sense of their strength now?

The group is not that big, although their powerful demonstrations make them appear so. But what they lack in numbers, they make up for in organization and commitment. Their size is estimated at 50,000 adherents, and every one of them is committed, with ‘committed’ underlined.  With such an organization, if you call a protest, you will see 50,000 in the street. But they are not a major player in politics. Is there is a dangerous aspect to them? I don’t think so.

The group does not promote violence. Their politics, they say, will be spread with peaceful means. Abdasallam Yassin [the group’s founder and leader, who died in 2013] sent Hassan II an open letter in which he asked him to give up his power and share his wealth. Hassan II put him in psychiatric hospital.

But, Abdassalam Yassin was against the cultural rights of the Amazigh people, and this lost him the support of the Amazigh community. He had a long correspondence with Mohamed Chafik in the 1990s. In the letters they exchanged, Chafik explained to him why cultural rights are important for any community, that people need to learn their own language, and so on. But Yassin, while acknowledging his own Amazigh ancestry – his ‘Amazigh microbe’, as he called it – was impervious to change. He also rejected secularism, as we should expect from people with his politics.

His project was the establishment of a caliphate, though not an al-Baghdadi-style caliphate. He looked back to the prophet as a model for administration, which he called ‘minhaj al-Nubuwa’, ‘The Prophet’s Way’.

It has taken me some time to realise that Islam, like any faith, can and does blend with other, outwardly incompatible forces, including Marxism and socialism. This is true ‘philosophically’ and also ‘practically’.

How do you think Amazigh and leftist groups should relate with the two Islamist groups, the AWI and the largest parliamentary group, the PJD [as developed by the Makhzan in the 1990s as a counterweight to the AWI. An austerian, right religious party that led two coalition governments between 2012-2016]?

Marxism/socialism and Islamism may look compatible, but the reality is complicated. They both oppose the regime but each from a different perspective, and their political projects are based on different principles.

AWL for example does not believe in democracy, if that entails un-Islamic phenomena entering the Muslim’s life. In AWI’s imagined caliphate, democracy would be limited to legislating inside the Islamic framework. We cannot expect such a framework to protect the rights of minorities, especially ones that are not recognized in Islam as full members of society. Atheists, Christians, gays and even Shiite Muslims will be persecuted or reduced to second-class citizens, at best. Some members of AWI say today that their group supports a secular state, but those are not the ideas of Abdessalam Yassin, and the AWI is built around Yassin’s personality, like other sufi orders. The PJD represents itself as Islamic but, contrary to the AWL, does not advocate a Caliphate. It merely suggests injecting today’s politics with a shot of Islamic tradition. Some analysts compare the party to the Christian Democrats of Europe.

There was a noticeable shift in rhetoric after the party came into government. For example, the party stopped its criticism of the TGV project, which it had previously described as a waste of money. Such a reversal reinforces its picture as a party too weak to stand up to pressure from the palace, the TGV being a gift from the King to a French company.

But the main question that people ask is how would the party behave if it had the ability to form a government alone, or a coalition of like-minded parties? This is a tough question, and the experience of other countries in the region suggest a painful outcome. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood adopted democracy as a means to an end. Once in power they took steps to make their stay permanent. Instead of dealing with Egypt’s most concerning issues, they started filling key positions in the state’s institutions with members of the party.

These moves alarmed the Egyptian people who called on the military to intervene. Now Egypt is back to square one.  I do not think it is wise to unite with Islamists.

That word ‘unite’ may be the issue. In a near – or immediately – revolutionary situation, when the state is unstable, the left and the Islamists have a common enemy; they don’t need to unite, so much as be against the same thing, for a time.

This is what the people thought in Iran during the revolution. The unpopular and foreign-supported regime was the common enemy that both left-wing and Islamists wanted gone. But the Islamists and their leadership hijacked the revolution. Now, the Iranians are stuck with a theocracy.

Photo by JC

In the UK, there is a wide sense that different political parties do to some extent reflect different interests, especially after Corbyn’s ‘internal insurgency’ against the Labour Party centre and right. There is a sense that Corbyn’s Labour represents labour, and that in government it would have some power to affect the socio-economy. 

In Morocco, nobody thinks that any of the political parties either represent them, or have any real power, except as camouflage for al-Makhzan. There are now two serious extra – and indeed anti -parliamentary forces in the country, al-Hirak and the AWI. Is the post-alternance political system , that began in 1999 with King Mohamed VI’s inauguration, now in crisis?

I think it is. When the activists ignored the ministers that day in al-Hoceima, it was a very powerful sign, that the traditional means of social control adopted by the Makkzan, are methods that are failing. One journalist from Spain said ‘the king is naked behind his shield’. I think he’s right about that.

The people in the king’s inner circle are not able to serve him as they did before. Both the Makhzan elites and the opposition are in disarray. The USFP had a legitimate base during the ‘Years of Lead’ – the authoritarian years of Hassan II’s reign – and carried the hope of the working-class in Morocco. The party was weakened by the alternance experience [the process of apparent political liberalisation that King Mohamed VI initiated during his 1999 ascension], and sold out in a laughable way when they signed that statement against The Movement’s ‘seperatism’. Now there are no mediators, only ‘political shops’. The crisis put a spotlight on the King, alone.

Gilbert Achcar seems to perfectly describe al-Makhzan when he writes of ‘patrimonial’ states as “constituted by interlocking pinnacles of the military apparatus, the political institutions and a politically determined capitalist class”, provided we include the media and the church as ‘political institutions’.

Such states may have their internal disputes – capital wants this, others wants that, and they compromise – and it has to admit new members, groups, forces, etc., as the cost of co-optation.  But it seems unlikely that the Makhzan will be anything but a solid unit against a working-class or broader-based revolt; less Tunisia or Egypt, more Syria. Could you give a sense of why the state (in the broad sense, including the government, the army, the church, the media, etc.) at least appears to be so unified?

The political landscape in Morocco is carefully constructed and monitored from the top. The King and his men intervene in all aspect of politics. To create a political party, you must accept ‘al-thawabit al-wataniyya’  (‘national pillars’): monarchy, Islam, and territorial integrity. A legal party can never support the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination; never question the monarchy, or religion. Once a party has given those up, it has given up on genuine reform and becomes another tool for the Makhzan to reproduce itself.

The King relies a lot on his title as amir al-Mu’aminin (‘Command of the Believers / Faithful’). As such he is the alpha and omega of religion and he decides what is right or wrong. This monopolistic use of religion was being challenged by the AWI and to a lesser extent by the PJD. But al-Zafzafi’s interruption of the Friday sermon – like all of them, a script written by the state propaganda machine – was unexpected and sent the regime into a frenzy. The next Friday, people boycotted mosques and prayed in the streets . This meant only one thing, that this propaganda machine was collapsing. The Rifians are turning off the television.

It’s hard to do business in Morocco without taking part in some form of corruption. Regime supporters are rewarded with leniency and more opportunities to grow their business, while dissidents are scrutinized. For example Aziz Akhannouch, the Minister of Agriculture, comes from a family with a long history of serving the Makhzan. His father was close to Hassan II and he was rewarded with an exclusive contract to import and distribute oil and gas products in Morocco. The son, Aziz, played an essential role in weakening the PJD after the 2016 elections.

Regime stability is due partly to French and American support. These two powers shield it from exterior shocks. Take the MINURSO, for example [the UN mission to the Western Sahara]. The mission is 26 years old, and the ‘R’ in its acronym stands for ‘referendum’.  Thanks to French support, the regime obstructed the implementation of the referendum for 26 years. The connections between the regime and France are so strong that Morocco looks hardly independent. In fact, the document that ended the French ‘protectorate’ mentions ‘interdependence’, which makes the King more of a viceroy than a sovereign.

The army is the only apparatus that is loyal to the King and still effective. The high-ranking officers are loyal to the regime and they enjoy a lavish lifestyle thanks to the generous gifts and permits (‘lagrima’) from the King. As you said, we cannot expect a Moroccan Rachid Ammar [most senior officer to join the Tunisian revolution] to save the day.

What do you expect in the short-term, over the coming summer?

I think the demonstration scheduled for 20 July will be the biggest in the Rif. It was called before the arrests in late May. Now that the leaders are arrested, it’s the only way to fight against the injustice of their arrests.

Like everything al-Hirak does, the date has symbolic meaning . It’s the date of the first victory of Abdelkrim’s anti-colonial war against the Spanish. It happened in Anwal, near Temsaman. That date used to be celebrated, on a small scale; people used to go there, but only in the hundreds. This time it will be big. There is also a high probability it will be repressed.

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