Morocco, and in particular the serially repressed and neglected Rif region, has been rocked since late last year by a series of enormous, and almost entirely non-violent, protests. rs21 offers its unqualified support to the adherents of the Hirak (Popular Movement), and has done since the protests broke out. We also endorse the efforts of the MENA Solidarity Network in this regard. Some of our previous coverage can be found here. What follows is a report by rs21 member Joe Hayns.
10pm, Thursday 20 July, and scores of people are stood along Rue Hassan II, clapping as car after car – taxis, seven-seaters rented in Holland or Spain, the pickups that come in and out of al-Hoceima each day – moves past, slowly, people leaning out, banging on the roof. Fifteen minutes later, 10 riots vans’ worth of police have cleared the pavement, forcing the people away, off across the town. Smaller crowds continue against the police until perhaps 2am.
The Popular Movement’s (or Hirak’s) months-planned protest was perhaps too expected to be ‘decisive’. Hirak began as a mass reaction against the alleged state murder of Mohasin Fikri last October, and after developed into a working-class, pan-Rif social movement, demanding enormous changes to how health care, education, and even banking, are organised in the region. October to late May was phase one of the Movement, with protests relatively lightly policed, the base growing, and the leadership free; the end of May saw a massive increase of police repression, with the leadership layer arrested, and the protests – now against political detention, too – through June and early July much more heavily repressed. The 20th was a city-wide declaration of what is – that everyone there is Hirak – rather than an unexpected shift from what was. But, two ironies of Thursday show the weaknesses of each side in this conflict.
The first is that whilst it seemed, anyway, that everybody in al-Hoceima is the Movement, the town remained the police’s. Thursday was a stupendous showing of both political agreement and political opposition: the Movement ‘won’ against the police and the Makhzan (the ‘deep state’). But, it would lose more and more with every repetition, with the banal truth being that is that it is less exhausting to fire a smoke grenade than it is to throw one back, however much support that shirt-masked teenager has from the balconies above (from their friends, family, strangers). How a leader-less, all but unanimously popular social movement works beyond this brute fact remains to be seen.
The second is that the Makhzan, in its very attempt to not hospitalise quite so many children this time, has only made itself more infamous. Both the local prefecture’s banning of the march three days before and the police’s blocking the roads into al-Hoceima appear to been (desperate) attempts to minimise the size of the protest; and more tear gas, fewer baton charges, appear to have been an effort to minimise hospitalisations (and photos of injuries). Again, the Makhzan has showed that it is unable to substantially concede anything to Hirak; that the police ‘won’ through less lethal violence is a demonstration of how feeble it is.
20 July brings back the Rifian army’s first major victory against the Spanish colonial forces at Anwal, near al-Hoceima, in 1921; prior to Hirak, the date was recognised across the Rif, if only celebrated by a few hundred). July, too, is the month when the Rifian diaspora – across Belgium, Holland, Spain – tends to return to the Rif or, as it may be, visit the region. The day wasn’t only about resurrection and returns, but also novelty; this was the last protest that the de facto leader of Hirak, Nasser al-Zafzafi called for prior his arrest, lending the day still greater significance. Even in mid-June, everyone in al-Hoceima and Rabat and Casablanca agreed that 20 July would be huge.
‘The balconies saved the streets’
Police vans ringed Place Mohamed VI, the central square, with its view over the bay; in the water below, people were chanting: ‘The People Want the Detainees’ Freedom’ (‘al-sha’b yurid, sarah al-mu’taqal’). A few would-be protestors were dragged into unmarked police vans in the streets around the square. That was 3pm, after a morning of quiet, hundreds and hundreds of people out, waiting.
Roadblocks across the Rif had been stopping cars for at least 24 hours. Rifians were taken from the ‘big taxis’ that drive between towns and questioned; some were turned back, some were detained (one group was forced to drive back to Nador, in the east, only to arrive near al-Hoceima by boat later). Others climbed the mountains surrounding the town. The overnight coaches from the bigger cities outside the Rif were stopped and inspected, some three or four times.
Activists report protests starting around 3pm in Sidi Abed, the sh’abi (‘popular’; ‘working-class’) district to the west of the centre. An hour later, in the centre, crowds were coming together, the quiet near over. The police were by then blocking the arterial and vascular roads into the main square; uniformed officers were commanding bussed-in, half-drunk-seeming men to go amongst the protestors; plain-clothes police were putting on bullet-proof vests.
A crowd of thirty took the steps of Ghinia Mosque, with the same number of riot police in the street below them. Hundreds more were watching; soon the police were nearly surrounded. More vans arrived, tear gas grenades were fired. Hundreds ran, with two or three knocked-out protestors dragged off. Around the corner, the gassed were being sick; people held sliced onions to their mouths, splashed Coca-Cola across their eyes.
Commerce in the town is still largely a small-capital affair, and shop after shop – by the afternoon, even the cafes – was closed; everyone except for taxi drivers was on strike (the police harassed them, punishing them for their willingness to transport protestors across al-Hoceima). People had either bought the anti-tear gas stuff the day before, or – and this shows, more than anything, how ‘total’ Hirak is – simply caught what was thrown to them from the balconies above. Looking up, sometimes every balcony on every floor on both sides of the street was filled with people. Fit or not, a deeper breath of tear gas is enough to buckle you; everyone needs to be dragged away, with nothing – not lungs, eyes, legs – working; onions somehow allow people to breathe again, and Coca-Cola will, somehow, mean you can open your eyes. The balconies saved the streets, all afternoon.
Around 5pm, a cameraman from the regime-controlled broadcaster 2M was being screamed at by a dozen protestors, with two of three protecting him (he ran off, shrieking); neither the Internet, nor SMS, nor regular calls were working at all; groups of hundreds of protestors across the centre were being forced into residential areas. A group of perhaps three hundred teenagers circled from the centre, through the hotel district, arriving back from where they’d run from the gas. It was impossible to know what was happening even around the next corner; by then, around 6pm, it felt as if half the town was outside, in groups, running, the rest watching, shouting, from above.
First it seemed as if all those crowds would not coalesce; then a march of thousands began down Hassan II, around 7pm. Rapidly, more vans, more police, and more gas. The march of thousands back towards the centre was forced into several smaller groups, each reeling off through the neighbourhoods.
Another coming-together, still thousands, but smaller than before, began in Sidi Abed. Again, after twenty minutes, more smoke grenades, more batons. One older man, barely knowing where he was, was sitting down; a gas canister missed him, smashing a glass bottle at his feet; he couldn’t help but fall, and a protestor – the crowd already gone – couldn’t help but run forward; thrown, and canister was at feet of the police, only fifty steps off. The older man’s withered left arm was fixed to his side, his right hand uselessly holding his t-shirt to his mouth. Crying, he couldn’t hold an onion to his mouth, or even cup his hand for water.
Efforts at leadership were spontaneous and discontinuous, with ‘silmiyya’ (‘pacifism’), ‘forward’, and ‘run’ the only commands that people either gave or followed. A lone riot van was kicked by three or four children, before a half-dozen protestors surrounded it, hands held, their backs to the police; protestors implored each other to clear the road of breeze brocks, so that traffic could pass; one older man implored people to not step, even, on a felled traffic sign; and so on.
In terms of movement and position on Thursday, Hirak was disorganised. This wasn’t necessarily a negative, with those spread-out groups bringing both heat and light to the town into the night. The police didn’t lose, in the sense that they held the space, but they were clearly outplayed by Hirak’s very disorganisation, whilst protestors were able to play, unexhausted.
Was the day’s basic pattern – meet, march to the centre, be gassed, retreat to neighbourhoods, meet again – inevitable? The lack of Internet didn’t help; communications stopped at a shout’s distance which, after even thirty minutes, meant groups had no idea if they were last left, or two streets away from thousands of others. But the deeper issue is of leadership. That Hirak is not a vanguard effort, and is better for that, is clear; but that it is currently without operational directing of any kind is the state’s work, rather than something chosen freely by the huge, growing, working-class base.
The loss of the leadership to the arrests of late May entailed many more ‘spontaneous’ and ‘sharper’ protests across the residential areas of al-Hoceima and Imzouren, with high hundreds of people out nightly through Ramadan. Especially after the first sentences in mid-June – there was barely a pretence of judicial independence, with even some bystanders being sentenced – the protestors’ defensive aggression intensified.
The claim that the police partially withdrew from al-Hoceima in early July was a half-lie. Uniformed police were indeed withdrawn but, Hirak activists agree, the number of plainclothes officers increased. Some dress like civilians – it might be a longer beard, or even a ‘dasser’ (‘hoodlum’) haircut – but many of them are obviously police, the effort seeming to be less about intelligence-gathering than transmitting a message: ‘We’re watching, maybe’. There were many, maybe hundreds, out on the morning of 20 July, this being one reason why the quiet – people staring, looking down – was so awful.
Why did the state even attempt a half-truth? After late May, Hirak and the broader opposition movement – radical left, extra-parliamentary Islamist, non-co-opted human rights organisations – dragged popular opinion left, and the Makhzani ‘centre’ was pulled with it, at least rhetorically. The manifest rules of liberalism are still the roughly agreed on parameters of political speech; dawn raids and smashed doors and ludic prison sentences and tortured detainees and beaten children still demand censure from even generally pro-regime personalities. At the concrete, latent level, police don’t care if protestors sign ‘silmiyya’, their wrists crossed over their head; but, non-reactionary politicians have to pretend that Hirak’s pacifism matters.
The Makhzan appears unable to give Hirak breathing space – it has to predominate – but needs to avoid more bad press, especially with so many non-nationals, and so foreign correspondents, now visiting the Rif. Assuming the Makhzan is indeed capable of strategic or at least tactical thinking, it appears to have attempted to minimise the scale of the July 20 march whilst decreasing the severity of repression. Banning the protest was a cack-handed attempt at minimisation, ditto the roadblocks.
The clearly pre-ordained, unprecedently wanton use of tear gas was an attempt to not repeat the violence of ‘Black Eid’; the communications blackout also gave the state short-term control over how the day was represented.
There is no contradiction between those two aims, but there is a tension, one which the state has been unable to manage; the banning of the march was taken as a provocation, and tear gassing crowds, of course, meant injuries, anger, and so, beatings. Exactly how many were hospitalised and how many were detained is unclear; it appears that at least one protestor was terribly hurt by the police (rumours have come arisen which say many more have been).
It’s perhaps too easy to write that the state ‘doesn’t want protests’; this protest was sure to happen, and appeared the perfect opportunity for the state to de-escalate the crisis, as a first step towards its favoured anti-opposition strategy, co-option. Maybe even that tactic wouldn’t work against Hirak, with its triune of features making it, so far, implacable: in the Rif, the working-class are the Movement; they are demanding a functioning welfare state in a neo-colony; and their leadership has, so far, been impossible to corrupt.
Hirak’s day-long political win – how ‘total’ Hirak is in al-Hoceima and the Rif – has resolved nothing; things are as they were, roughly, with an acephalous movement only appearing weak under an occupation they cannot end, and the police only appearing strong in their control over a town that they are not, yet, powerful enough to retreat from.
This is not a time in the Rif of ‘development, whose only moving force seems to the calendar’. But, neither Hirak nor the Makhzan have an obvious positive move; probably the phase three will come from one side’s reaction to the other’s unforced error.