‘Our demand as teachers is to go back to our jobs’: the trainee teachers’ fight in Morocco (interview)

The following interview is with an activist from the ‘National Coordination of Trainee Teachers’ (NCTT), who have been fighting since autumn 2015 against the state’s efforts to dramatically worsen their conditions in training, and to end the guarantee of work after it.

The state has used straightforward violence against the NCTT, perhaps most brutally on January 7th 2016 (‘medical records provided by activists indicate that several protesters suffered trauma, including spinal injuries, fractures, and injuries to the face and head’, as Human Rights Watch reported). However, it was forced to sign an agreement with the NCTT that spring.

However, after not fully honouring the agreement in the latter half of 2016, the state took ‘revenge’ against NCTT activists, including my interlocutor, in January this year.

How did your co-ordination start?

Our coordination started in in October 2015, when the Ministry of National Education (MoNE) announced two decrees. Two decrees: one that said that the scholarship, or grant, that is given to trainee teachers will be reduced by more than half.  Teacher trainees used to get about 2,450 dirhams per month [€245, approximately]

You could live on that, with friends?

Yes, with friends. But, the decree said that it would be reduced to 1,400 dirhams [€140] ! How is it possible to live with this and cover the needs of the training? It’s not possible for a trainee teacher.

The second decree was even more difficult. It had a greater, a worse impact on us. It separated training and recruitment. Trainee teachers used to, after their training and their accreditation, get a job directly. If you want this accreditation, you have to pass many tests.  And of almost 120,000 people apply to be a trainee teacher each year, but only 10,000 are accepted this year.

The lowering of payment and the need to sit an employment exam were introduced after we began: neither was mentioned to us until after we began our training. It is a violation by the state (see here for an Arabic article making the case that the decrees were contrary to 2011 constitution).

In two ways, they changed the deal. Why? Are there more teachers and teaching jobs in Morocco?

Actually, Morocco needs more teachers. We needed more than 20,0000 teachers last year, and we were only 10,000. It’s a bad policy; we still need teachers. You can find classrooms with three students per table. Some classrooms have 60 or 70 students in.

Is this part of a broader problem in Morocco, and indeed beyond? That the provision of ‘public’ education is increasingly more a means to make money than to educate people.

Absolutely. That’s what I see; that’s the main goal, privatizing the sector.

There are private schools, too. Training is different; you do the training, and then only perhaps you are accepted. What is important in the private sector is experience. But, salaries are very low. In primary education, you can find teachers working for 2000 dirhams per month, or less.

There was a major dispute between junior doctors and the Conservative government last year in the UK. I was told that medical students in Morocco are also organizing against recent, negative to changes to their contract.

Yes, actually, but they started before us. Their problem is that – and I don’t know a great deal about this – their problem is that they [the government] changed the system of training. They wanted to implement compulsory service. The new policy is that they have to work for two years in a rural area – hard work, hard living, et cetera – but this isn’t the problem. The problem is that they won’t be paid for that training.

What the first steps of organizing? How did you develop?

It started at the Regional Centers for Education and Training, the centres. There are 42 in the country. I still remember, in Marrakech, it started spontaneously. Two, three, four people agreed ‘this is not fair, we need to stop this policy’.

There were elected representatives from each centre. Two per centre, usually, and they came to Rabat, and brought with them the ideas and suggestions of the other teachers. They came here, and discussed the ideas from the centre. They stayed together, and discussed, and planned actions. They then went back to their centers.

We organised different events in different places. All of it was peaceful, all of them were peaceful, all the protests [but the police … ?] Of course! We suffered a lot. We suffered a lot from the violence of the police. We still have some people, some trainee teachers are still suffering the consequences. Some broken arms, some broken … yes. It’s usual.

We organised many marches in Rabat last year. On November 12th and December 17th in 2015; on January 24th and March 20th in 2016; and the last one was after the dismissal of 150 teachers on January 29th, 2017.

There are around 10,000 trainee teachers, as I’ve said, but a much larger number of people participated in these marches; they were party people. About 40,000 or 50,000 people were involved in some marches. It was well publicized.

Trade unions, have they helped at all?

Yes, but they’re not primarily responsible for it. We make our decisions. Other groups – unions, some parties – have helped. There are six main unions, and they showed some support. They showed solidarity.

This emerged because of the decrees. We weren’t that organised in the beginning; we’re not recognised [by the state]. We’re not a union. It’s a coordination which emerged under pressure, under these conditions.

Which parties were involved? The AWI* [extra-parliamentary group], or radical left groups?

Not all parties since, of course, some of them are in government.

Also, the AWI aren’t a party within the government for sure. They say we should not be a political party, because in Morocco, parties do nothing. PJD are a different story. The AWI and the PJD have an Islamic background, but when it comes to politics they have different views.

The PJD says we should work within the institutional arrangements of the country. But, the AWI says change needs to happen differently. The AWI asks, ‘should I be involved with a piece of theatre’?

Our coordination and movement involved different people, having different ideologies. This is not a problem.

And the AWI is relatively popular?

Yes, even in Europe, they are popular among people, because of the clarity of what they say. Everything is there, in their books. And they say ‘no’ to violence, they never use violence, et cetera. That’s the reason, I think.

But, such things didn’t matter for us. Decisions are made from the centres; politicking is not a problem. What’s important is the centres. If you belong to a party, OK, but you should leave that out. Teachers show respect to each other, even if we belong to different parties. What’s important are the objectives behind the movement.

You said your efforts were well publicized. Which newspapers, websites, journalists, and so on, have been supportive? Le Desk [leftwing news website]? Lakome [a radical left analysis website]? And the bigger newspapers? Al-Sabah [a regime-friendly daily]?

Yes, a lot. Local and international press were supportive, as our demands were legitimate. Do you know al-Shahid, the AWI’s web-based television program? They helped. ‘Shahid’ means ‘witness’. Lakome, al-‘umq,  Badil, and so many others too. Internationally: France24, and some other TV channels and websites.

Oh, al-Sabah! It was against, of course. Who else? Al-Ahdath al-Maghribiyya. It was against. Well, maybe from time-to-time, they wrote something in order to ‘grasp’ the population but, yes, against. Despite this the public supported us. The government did not.

As the months went by, the government were forced to listen, to negotiate. Could you explain the ‘April 13th Agreement’ of 2016?

At first, they neglected us. As teachers, we believed in our issue, we struggled, we didn’t submit. In April 2016, the government produced – not because it wanted to, but because of pressure – what’s become known as ‘April 13thagreement’. The main point of the agreement was that all of our group would be accepted, would be employed in the public sector, directly after training.

The agreement was written and signed by the current Minister of Interior, trainee teachers’ representatives, representatives of the six main trade unions, and some representatives of a civil initiative, which worked as a mediator.

Part of the ‘April 13th Agreement’ was that a ‘tracking committee’, involving people from those groups, would follow the implementation of the Agreement, and hold a meeting when something was not going right. Unfortunately, nothing happened. The government neglected all calls from the trainee teachers and trade unions.  Of course, we had to stop our protest and resume our training as a condition of the government. We did.

We abided by the Agreement, but unfortunately the government broke its word. Neither did the tracking committee hold its meetings, nor was the Agreement implemented.

Is that why things were fairly quiet in the second half of 2016?

Yes. Since the agreement was with the government, which should normally be responsible, we were expecting that it would implement and abide by the agreement.

I thought the government would not break its word. We thought, this time … This was not expected by anyone. The government took revenge on those who used to be activists within the coordination by telling us that ‘your names are not among the successful teachers’, last January.

Many inspectors and juries in charge of examining the trainees admitted that those of us who were dismissed– it’s about 150 – are well-qualified, that we all showed professionalism, and so on. Among these 150 were coordinators, representatives. Four of them were part of the team that negotiated with the government.

When baccalaureate students, for example, ask to get their grades, they’re given a report. It’s a normal procedure. That is why we say to the ministry ‘if we did not pass, show us our marks, show us the report. It’s normal’. But, the government did not, because they know we’re qualified, and they are taking revenge.

You know the state: it did not want any repetition of the activism. It wants to muzzle any criticism and subdue anyone who says ‘I do not want to submit’. It was a counter-measure, it took revenge.

What was your response to this victimization?


A hunger strike is the most serious of tactics. It began on May 23rd this year.

We did it for eight days. I was in charge of organisation, of taking people to hospital. There were twenty-two people on hunger strike. After eight days, there was an initiative organised by some figures in Morocco, about sixty well-known people and organisations, and they raised a call for us to stop this step, because it is dangerous for our health, and so on.

They tried to solve this problem. They sent letters to the government. They addressed the MoNE, and other parts of the state. But, again, no answer. This initiative is still on-going.

Finally, how does your group relate with The Popular Movement, al-Hirak al-Sh’abi, do you think?

Al-Hirak is about peoples’ daily needs; reducing costs, having good conditions of life, and asking for good services, in education and health. Since the demands of al-Hirak in al-Hoceima, in the northeast, come from the needs and demands of daily life – people are in need of the same things as people in al-Hoceima – it will spread.

They have legitimate demands. We do. Our demand as teachers is to go back to our jobs. To give us a back our rights, to be appointed as teachers.

* I have settled on the acronym AWI for العدل والإحسان. The ‘AWL’ acronym that I’ve heard – not read, I should say – from English-speakers is less incorrect than aggravatingly weird. The ‘L’ refers to is the second letter of the definite article before ‘إحسان’; it’s as if we were to use the ‘T’ of ‘The’ in acronyms, and arbitrarily, too. A-W-I are the most natural English equivalents of the ‘ع’, ‘و’, and ‘إ’, I believe.



An interview with Hirak activist Yassmin B

Wrists crossed above her head, a Hirak activist signs 'silmiyya' ('pacifism').


The following interview is with a twenty-something woman, Yassmin B., who has been actively involved in The Popular Movement (al-Hirak) since October, in al-Hoceima and elsewhere.

Al-Hirak involves women at the leadership and base levels, who have organised with and, on occasions, ‘besides’ their male comrades. There was a substantial Hirak demonstration on International Women’s Day (March 8th), and a women-led protest on June 4th. As al-Jazeera reported:

“Police encircled hundreds of female protesters in a public park late on Saturday, impeding others from joining, as the women chanted ‘freedom, dignity and social justice’”

And, on June 19th, three girls were temporarily detained in al-Hoceima for having shared a video calling for another women’s protest: as with religion, the state must appear as the font of ‘proper’ feminism and so, as with religious dissent, must block – repress, neglect, or co-opt – any feminist effort independent of it.

A group of Casablanca-based activists, Moroccan Women Against Political Arrests, are working to build international, women-led solidarity with al-Hirak throughout July. You can read about them here (in French) and contact them here (in Arabic, French, and English).

How did you become involved in the Movement?

Our generation inherited a long history of pain, of damaged dignity, and pride. The massacre of 1958 and 1959, for example, which we cannot forget, even today.* Of course, they do not teach us these things in school, but we know it through our grandparents, who were victims and witnesses.

This common history in the Rif made us much closer to each other when it comes to facing the system, with all its injustices and oppressions. The killing of our brother Mohasin Fikri was not only ‘a tragedy’. The authority’s saying ‘grind his mother’ summarised the situation.

Nasser al-Zafzafi and his comrades took action that night. When I protested the following night, I immediately knew from peoples’ faces that it would be a long protest, and that it was my duty to be present at every protest march afterwards. It is all people talk about in schools, at work, at the dining table, in the streets, on Facebook, and so on.

There has been a lot of national and international media interest in al-Hirak since late March, when al-Zafzafi and many others were arrested. But, the first months of the al-Hirak are barely mentioned. Could you give your sense of them?

After Mohasin Fikri was martyred, we started the protests in al-Hoceima and Imzouren. For the first six weeks we did weekly marches. We mainly called for justice for the death of Mohasin Fikri, not only from those directly responsible, but from those who are responsible for this corrupted system.

We continued our peaceful protests. The authorities kept watching us, and began trying to close public squares. So, we invented something called ‘chen-ten’; it’s Rifain Tamazight slang word for ‘sudden speed’. Al-Zafzafi used the term to describe gathering people quickly – in about half hour – through his live videos.

Chen-ten: I consider it as a contemporary development on the guerrilla tactics that our grandfathers excelled at against Spanish colonisation between 1921 to 1926. The method of surprise suits people in this region.

Al-Zafzafi succeeded. Everyone left whatever they were doing for the streets, to start the protest march: Men and women, including housewives and old people; the young; rich or poor; educated and illiterate, practicing Muslims and non-practicing Muslims, and people of different ideologies. It is a people’s voice, al-hirak, the Movement, or Anhezzi, as it’s called in our language.

Al-Zafzafi is widely understood as the most important of the leadership level of al-Hirak. Have there been any disagreements with him?

After al-Zafzafi appeared as a leader of al-Hirak, some of his comrades did not accept it. But, they were very few. To be honest Nasser’s rhetoric attracted and convinced ordinary people from different backgrounds. He is bold: he names things by their real names.

He can speak to people that didn’t go to university, like him, and even people that didn’t go to high-school, and people that are illiterate. He speaks with them in their native language, and helps them understand. The people chose him for his charisma, and call his name, and wait for his live videos. The continuation of the movement became directly related to Nasser al-Zafzafi.

Several leftwing Moroccan friends, all men, have told me that the Rif is one of the most conservative regions in Morocco in regards women’s roles and women’s rights. I don’t know if this is true.

We are not conservatives in in terms of letting women study or work; actually, we are encouraged to finish our university studies, a lot. But, the Rif is a conservative region for things like smoking publicly; for local women it’s not normal. Nobody would say something to her, but it’s not normal. The same for the mini skirts, et cetera, but it’s changing now

[Trigger warning for sexual harassment]

Al-Zafzafi is in prison, like most of the ‘October generation’ of leaders, including Silya Ziani, one of the most prominent women leaders.

Could you speak a little about the importance of women at the ‘base’ of al-Hirak? What different roles have women played? Is there are a ‘women’s movement within al-Hirak’, do you think?

Generally speaking, the women of the Rif are known in Morocco as conservatives, playing a secondary, supportive role for their men. Even my generation – we are educated and graduated from universities – still are overly protected by our families,

With the beginning of the Movement, we witnessed the descent of women to the street, just like men, and we called for the same popular demands. The singer and the activist Silya Ziani is only the most-known arrested woman from Hirak, But, there are other women who went through hours of questioning and investigations. Some of them are still being subjected to provocations and indeed prosecutions. Some of them are still minors!

On Eid, we heard about a girl who was sexually harassed by a policeman. But, she couldn’t complain, because she was afraid to lose her good reputation. Maybe this incident was intended by the police to spread fear among girls.

My sister was detained for an hour. They tried to convince her that Rifain girls should be gentle, shy and obedient, and that we must stay at home like our mothers used to, and that the demonstration does not suit them. Their aim was to weaken the presence of women in the protests.

Women are good for Hirak because they bring their brothers, men, and kids; we are encouraging men. And, Hirak is good for women, because it made them be present in the street, just like the men, rather than playing a secondary role: it is a revolutionary change in our society.

* See Miriyiam Auoragh’s recent essay in Historical Materialism for a greater sense of the 1958/9 insurrection.

Moving How? An interview with an al-Hirak activist (Part Two)

This is the second half of an interview with a leftwing 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 its social composition. Here, we talk about separatism, about religion and political parties, and the Moroccan state.

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 plainclothed 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 May 22nd, 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.

Photo by JC

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 decentralization.

The Movement has its internal differences. What about its relations with other groups? The Reuter’s headline for their story on the 11th 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 AWL and the largest parliamentary group, the PJD [as developed by the Makhzan in the 1990s as a counterweight to the AWL. 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 leftwing and Islamists wanted gone. But the Islamists and their leadership hijacked the revolution. Now, the Iranians are stuck with a theocracy.

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 AWL. 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 AWL 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.

_MG_2718 as Smart Object-1
Photo by JC

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

I think the demonstration scheduled for the 20th of 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.

Moving How? An interview with an al-Hirak activist (Part One)

With 32 activists given ‘shameful’ sentences in al-Hoceima last Tuesday, with only more arrested and more tried since, the nightly riots in al-Hoceima – from 10pm to 12pm, after the final adhan, before the police’s curfew – have gotten more intense, with rock-marked riots vans moving together, fast, through the working-class districts of Sidi Abed and Marmoucha.

Visiting the country on Wednesday, Emmanuel Macron assured the Moroccan people that King Moahmed VI appreciates their constitutional right to protest; but, anger at the prison sentences – and that the King appears to speaks to le president first, before the Rif – has brought protestors in al-Hoceima saying, for the first time, silmiyya, c’est fini’ – ‘peacefulness, it’s over’.

I was somewhere near al-Hoceima, the urban hub of the northeastly Rif region, when I spoke with a left-wing activist from the region about The Popular Movement and the King, the Rif and Morocco, and the possible trajectories of political change here. This is part one of two, with the second out next Sunday.

Could you explain how The Popular Movement developed?

The Movement began in October last year, with the killing of Mohasin Fikri. He was a fish merchant, with a relatively large amount of off-season fish.

There are two versions of his killing. The first and more-repeated by the press is that the police asked him for a bribe that he refused, and so they put his fish in a rubbish truck. He tried to get in, and one police officer said ‘tahan mu’ (‘crush his mother’).

The other version, which I think is more credible, is that Fikri went into the refuse truck before the fish, as if to say ‘I need this to live, this is my livelihood, you must go through me’. He was resisting.

Tahan mu’ enraged people; it’s like people of authority don’t care at all about citizens. They can crush us at will, kill anyone they like. In addition, it was said in a foreign language, in Arabic; people are particularly sensitive to abuses of power by Moroccan officials.

Mohasin Fikri was called on Friday evening, and there were protests in al-Hoceima immediately after. The funeral procession was on the Saturday. On the Sunday, there were protests in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech. It seemed to me – maybe I’m mistaken – that protests stopped soon after though. 

There was solidarity from other parts of the Morocco. But soon, except in the Rif, all cities ceased their demonstrations. And there were small protests in the Rif but, after them, it was more of a mobilisation. Nasser al-Zafzafi and his friends, other activists, went across the small towns, talking to people, discussing their problems. For the first time, people found someone they can talk to; someone they feel with whom there is two-way commuinication, someone that can understand them. That it was the al-Makhzan fears, and what it can’t do; it can’t attract people to it. Al-Zafzafi did. You know, every town to which al-Zafzafi went is now staging protests every day, asking for his release.

Demands were developed: how?

There was a long debate in towns, on the internet, so everyone could contribute, so they can discuss in their own town a solution to their own problem. There were ‘brainstorming’ sessions. There was a release of preliminary demands in Novemebr, and anyone who had any additions, or modifications, were able to contact organizers.

The list was to be adopted at a public demonstration on February 5th, but it was very heavily repressed. The demands were released a month later, on March 5th. February 5th was a symbolic date, the date that ‘abd al-Karim al-Kitabi passed away in Cairo.  There was a lot of symbolism. Everything the state does, they respond with something from the past, from history.

Ministers were ignored when they visited al-Hoceima on May 22nd. It was only a week after they accused The Movement of seperatism – a statement produced by the al-Makhzan. When they issued the 14th of May statement, actvists responded with a question from al-Kitabi who, in response to the mass executions and arrests in 1958, asked ‘are you a government or a mafia?’

In October the protests were against al-Hugra (‘official abuse’). But, after a period of discussion, protest, and repression, it’s no longer just ‘official abuse’ people are against; people are demanding what we tend to call ‘social services’ in the UK; health care, schooling, and so on.

Yes. People are keeping away from political demands, they are asking for hospitals and schools. Some of those demands, the government say, are already being delivered by a project called ‘Hoceima, Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’. That projectwas started in 2015, but we haven’t seen anything from it.

But the Rifian separatists’ claim – they call themselves republicans, and I share some of their ideas  – is that there is something rotten in the Moroccan state that you cannot change with a budget; it has to change politically. The Movement is not making political demands. I hope it will evolve in time to demand something like home-rule, or federalism; money can’t change the Moroccan state.

Al-Hirak hasn’t made explicitly constitutional or territorial demands. They are demanding very serious changes to how people live, though. What struck me about their social claims was that they both spoke to the Rif, but also to people across the whole country. They were both specific and general. This seemed sound, strategically.

They are, as you say, thinking strategically. They say: ‘what we are asking for are basics, basics for any democratic country’. If they started with political demands like home-rule, or federalism, or some form power-sharing, that would have frightened the government. The crackdown would have begun immediately, the same day Mohasin was killed. It was a strategy to make time for mobilisations.

There are places in Morocco worse than the Rif; some places are living as if in the Stone Age, with no aspect of modern life. They need those services even more than us. This is what al-Zafzafi’s idea was.

I think the most important step that The Movement has taken is to allow every political group and union onto demonstrations, whilst preventing them from influencing the leadership. At demos, you see Islamists, far-left, from every political group, but they are there as individuals.

How does The Movement formally relate to other political groups? I heard there no are formal relations with other groups, not even democratic forces?

After Mohasin’s death, al-Zafzafi said we should not work with other parties. He called them ‘dakakin siasia’ (‘political shops’); he wanted this movement to be completely independent from anything to do with the state.

You see, this obsession with organisational independence is because the Rif was cheated, was deceived, many times through history. People have pretended to defend the interests’ of the population, but they were just seeking their own interests.

After the 2004 earthquake, local notables formed a committee to oversee reconstruction. The committee presented itself as an independent body, motivated only by the common good. They had the approval of the government. But the reconstruction process was plagued with irregularities and embezzlements. Later, an association was formed to hold the committee accountable. The association was presided over by a radical, a communist, who had the support of the population, but he eventually sold out. These and other similar disappointments made the Rifian population skeptical of individuals or groups pretending to serve the common good.

The Movement has called for similar grassroots organisations to appear in every part of the country. They can formulate their own demands, depending on what they need. For example, in the Rif, we need cancer hospitals, and also a seismology institute, because this area is prone to earthquakes. It was that idea; that Morocco would see many al-Hirak-like movements in all of Moroco, with localised demands.

Women and demands for women’s rights have been vital to the growth of al-Hirak. Could you explain a little?

Rifian society is a little conservative: women don’t usually take part in politics. It has been a message, a very strong message, that women have demanded the same rights as men. Some of the strongest and most influential in the leaderdership are women. Nawal Ben Aissa, for example, who before the movement was helping women with cancer, especially women from rural areas. She was an activist, even before the movement.

I didn’t expect women to participate in this strong way. It was really surprising.  I mean, women do take part in smaller aspects of politics, but not like this, in such a strong way. It’s like there’s a change in society.

(At this point, I show my friend a photo of a group of women imploring young men to stop throwing stones at police, taken that Wednesday.)

Yes, of course. They know it’s them that police will hurt first.

Al-Hirak’s leadership layer are all working-class. Al-Zafzafi was a taxi driver, and so on. Al-Sh’abab (‘The Youth’), those protestsing every night, are poor working-class, almost all young, underemployed or unemployed men. Al-Makhzani patrimonialism inevitably excludes or hampers some capital. Are there any Rifian capitalist who support the movement?

You’re wrong. There is no substantial part of the capialist class that isn’t loyal to the regime. During the 20th February Movement, one multi-millionaire, Karim Tazi, was helping the movement, with money for printing and so on. So they came to him with a fiscal audit, and he was found to owe millions to the state. Everyone with any business in Morocco is breaking some law; if you’re with The Movement, the state will come for you.

Photo by Theres di Campo

In Part Two, we discuss the relationship between ‘Islamist’ and the Amazigh rights movements in Morocco, ‘Moroccan exceptionalism’, and the political uses of democracy.


How Rifian are the Rifian Protests?

‘Are they Moroccans, or what?’

Analysts have used different metaphors to explain the relationship between the alleged murder of Mohasin Fikri – allegedly killed by police last October in al-Hoceima, in the Rif region, after refusing to pay a bribe – and The Popular Movement (‘al-Hirak al-Sh’abi’; al-Hirak), the grouping that is now doing what the Moroccan state fears above all: spreading beyond al-Hoceima, beyond the Rif, and across Morocco.

From the most used images, ‘spark’ is better than ‘trigger’, the second too suggesting a series of things already finished (a gun, bullet, a hand); for sure, the Popular Movement has its base, cadres, and leadership, arguing together now for a series of crystalline and enormous social demands. But in its relationship to other groups, especially, al-Hirak is still fledgling, a moving movement amongst others.

There were protests in October across the country, then, apparently, quiet. Only apparently: al-Hirak was growing, and in the last three weeks, after a huge demonstration in the al-Hoceima on the 23rd of March, things have shifted rapidly. There have been nightly protests in the town and its hinterland since then – three weeks and people still out each night – and most of the bigger cities and several smaller towns across the country have seen repeated solidarity protests. Last Sunday’s pan-opposition demonstration, easily the biggest in Morocco since the 2011 protests, marched from the Rabat Old Town to the parliament, people there from across the county: is al-Hirak no longer ‘Rifian’?

At a pro-al-Hirak protest in Rabat the previous Sunday (4th June), organised by the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), one passer-by asked with disgust, ‘wach huma magharaba, ula ashnu?’ (‘are they Moroccans, or what?’).

To give a chauvinist more than their due, the relationship between the Rif and Morocco, and between Rifian-ness and Moroccan-ness, is exactly what is being decided now. His question needs reversing, though: will Moroccans become huma, ‘them’, part of the Popular Movement, or not? The 150,000 people in Rabat last Sunday made it seem possible. Who are ‘them’?

A Republic, a King, and the IMF

After beating a Spanish colonial army in 1920, the movement around Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Karim proclaimed The Rifian Republic, which then fought for six years until defeat by the French and Moroccan state armies, 15 miles from Fez. In 1958, two years after formal independence from France, four-fifths of the Moroccan army was deployed against Rifian separatists. Led by Crown Prince Hassan, later King Hassan II, the uprising ‘ended in a sea of blood’, as historian Susan Gilson Miller wrote last November.

Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Karim

Anti-imperialist nationalism morphed into anti-central state politics in the Rif, with the antipathy fully returned. The entire region was then and still is militarised, though the demands of the IMF and the World Bank from the mid-1970s onwards – privatize services, open boarders to capital, and later, close them to working-class Moroccans – meant almost-inevitable protests, in 1981, 1984, and 1991: ‘the people of the North have previously known the violence of the crown prince; it will be best for them not to know that of the king’s’, Hassan II said in 1984.

There have been pictures of ‘Abd el-Karim at al-Hirak demonstrations, the print-outs of his face blurring ‘then’ and ‘now’; even The Popular Movement’s demands for better healthcare bring a Rifian past and a Rifian present together (the Spanish state’s use of chemical weapons leaving the place itself carcinogenic, and the oncology unit barely functioning). And, that demand, like all the others, are made in Rifian-accented Arabic and indeed in Rifia, one of three Amazigh or ‘Berber’ languages spoken in Morocco (‘Berber’ is the more recognised word, but considered insulting).

History, current conditions, ‘culture’: All of these are present together, and appear to mark out the Rif from the rest of Morocco, being the appearance that led Moroccan political scientist Abdselam Maghraoui invoked to al-Jazeera: ‘the Rif has been structurally and symbolically severed from the rest of other regions in Morocco’. With perhaps 150,000 at Sunday’s Rabat protest, ‘severed’ seems strong now.

Against more than al-Hugra

20,000 people marched from al-Hoceima to Mohasin Fikri’s hometown the day after his being killed, and there were solidarity demonstrations across the country the night after that. Then, people were against the murder as an instance of ‘­al-Hugra’ (‘official abuse’; against repression and corruption). About the protests, radicals used the word ‘revolution’.

Funeral Fikri
Mohasin Fikri’s funeral procession

With the quiet after though, this seemed premature. Mohasin Fikri and al-Hoceima stopped making press, and the solidarity protests with the big cities stopped, too. Al-Makhzan, connoting the ‘corrupt’, ‘deep’ state, had left the protests relatively unrepressed. King Mohamed VI, Hassan’s son, sent his condolences; some lower-level officers and officials were dismissed.

One Rabat-based trade unionist said:

After the martying of Mohasin Fikri, everyone was talking about it. But then the King went across Africa making investments, and the news about the African Union. No one cared about the Rif. But, now everyone knows about The Movement.

But it was then that al-Hirak began growing in al-Hoceima and the surrounding towns (‘in some ways, more radical than al-Hoceima’, a leftist activist said to me), and that Nasser al-Zafzafi – the unemployed leader and orator, now in prison, like scores of al-Hirak activists – rose to prominence, first in al-Hoceima and the Rif, then beyond. Demands were developed through ‘participatory’, ‘open’, and ‘direct’ debates in al-Hoceima; in December they were made public, as addressed to the ‘popular masses’ (see here for them in full, in Arabic).

Those that struck most: full investigations into the killing of Mohasin Fikri and the five killed during the 20th February protests, 2011; the ending of the militarisation of the province surrounding al-Hoceima, and recognition of it instead as a ‘disaster area’ (this, since the deaths and damage of earthquake there in 2004 were largely ignored); an improved school system, with especial attention to girls’ and womens’ marginalisation; improved health provision including a working cancer hospital, with urgency; a restructuring of the fishing, agricultural, tourism, craft, and banking industries; an end to the expropriation of public lands without fair compensation; price controls on imports.

There is a regional framing of the demands that shouldn’t be dismissed. But, there is something unignorably general about them. One example: demanding price controls is to ask that international agreements – not least with the EU, via the socially destructive, security-obsessed Barcelona Agreement – be not so much revised as rejected, as contrary to ‘sh’abi’ (‘populaire’; ‘working-class’) needs. The demands aren’t so much against the grain as beyond it: beyond what seemed possible, much less ‘reasonable’, even six months ago.

A serious demonstration in al-Hoceima on International Women’s Day barely surprised activists in Morocco (‘women’s organisations are relatively strong across the country since the 1980s’, one student radical said). Then, on the 18th of May, the largest demonstration in al-Hoceima yet, resulting in gear-shift for state repression.

Friday May 26th, emboldened, al-Zafzafi interrupts the imam in the Hassan II mosque, the biggest in al-Hoceima, with the line ‘These of mosques of God, not of the Makhzan’ (video here). There is much more to say on the relationship between the church and the state in Morocco; two things now.

First, al-Makhzan uses the church for politicking in the most direct sense, with the Minister for Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Taoufik, having ‘demanded of imams in the al-Hoceima province, all of whom get their salaries from the ministry, to deliver a sermon reproaching the young rebels for promoting fitna”, or division amongst Muslims’, as Le Desk reported on the 28th.

Second is that popular progressive opposition to this relationship – al-Zafzaf’s rupture – is ‘historically unprecedented’, as one leftwing activist told me; ‘they’re using religion against the government’, said another.

Especially France-based analysts have described al-Zafzafi as having a ‘a conservative discourse, punctuated with references to the Korahn’ (le express, on the 31st); there’s seemed some unease at an Aristide-like figure being a Muslim, and readers were ‘assured’ the Rif is ‘one of the least Islamist’ regions. There’s certainly unease from the Moroccan state, with the most lurid claim from the compliant media – that al-Zafzafi is a Rifian al-Baghdadi – so ridiculous as to be self-defeating, at least for the moment.

‘You are well known’

The public prosecutor issued a warrant for al-Zafzafi immediately, for obstructing others’ freedom to worship (the warrant in Arabic is here); al-Zafafi escaped arrest the Friday and Saturday – that night, at least twenty other activists were detained; water cannons and gas against crowds in al-Hoceima – but, on Sunday, al-Zafzafi was caught.

The high drama of al-Zalzafi’s escaping the police that Friday demanded an equal, opposite spectacle, and so his arrest – a black helicopter, a black hood, a Casablancan prison – was filmed, too (the authorities has since denied the latter video is real). Over that weekend 70 or-so were arrested, and since then the number of Popular Movement activists in prison has grown to over 100.

‘Freedom to the Grandchildren of ‘Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi’, at the Sunday 11th protest in Rabat.

Activists have explained that al-Hirak, democratically organised and able to cadre members, has produced not only a leader, but a layer of leaders able to replace those in prison. After al-Zafzafi, the most prominent of these is Nawal Ben Aissa, one of several front-rank women activists, who joined al-Harak to help women with breast cancer. She too is a forceful speaker – ‘they can arrest all the militants, youth, and women they want: we will not give up’ [‘baisser les bras’] – and, so, also now in prison.

‘You are all well known’ (‘rakum ma’arufin’) as Mohamed Hassad, then Minister of the Interior, said to protestors in October. Part threat, part unintended prophesy, the state’s aggression has produced at least martyr, and several immense-appearing personalities. It is still able to judiciously use – to choose to not use – physical violence, with the Rabat protests yesterday barely policed, barring a thin line of soldiers (of course there were ‘al-Hanash‘snakes’, or plainclothes police – in the crowd and, waiting somewhere, groups of 50 dirham bullies). At least outside the Rif, where less-lethal arms are a nightly standard, authority can still control itself.

The minute pro-regime, anti-Movement group, in Rabat last Sunday


Popular Movement activists, protecting that same pro-regime group

Whether the regime can maintain its self-control will be crucial. Two Moroccan men, hearing the news of the Catalunyan independence referendum on the radio, agreed that ‘if we had Hassan II again, there’d be no problem’ (later, ‘maybe the government will be able to saubhum[clean them up]’) They’re lucky, though, to have an eagle’s son, a fox, as a King, with Mohamed VI’s regime able brilliantly to mix repression with conciliation, neglect with attention, and the appearance of change with the reality of anti-sh’ab normalcy.

The gutsier press have criticized the regime’s more recent reactions to The Popular Movement, and even the parliamentary-Islamic, full-tilt neoliberal party, le parti de la justice et du développement (PJD), have called for dialogue. Whatever their motives, the state knows that it cannot only use ‘repression, arrests, and defamation campaigns’ against al-Hirak. The spectacle of the scaffold works, until it doesn’t, with a report that on al-Zafzafi’s entering the Casablancan prison, his new co-domiciles chanted ‘Guards Watch Out, We Are All al-Zafzafi’.

This isn’t to say that The Popular Movement is ‘Moroccan’, yet, but the tendency since the murder of Fikri and the building of al-Hirak has been towards a deepening and a widening of solidarity and, increasingly, a fuller identification with the movement far beyond the northeast.

This move towards national generalization might end, for sure, though several aspects of al-Hirak – its generating circumstances and response to them – suggest both traction and broad purchase. Traction, since there is now an organisation and a series of demands in the Rif that are fully against the social conditions of not only the Rif but the country, being conditions that are deep, ‘structural’. The demands are, in substance, against the broader forces, institutions, and relations in the country that, together, constitute what Miriyam Aouragh recently called ‘hyper-capitalism with a crown’. One of al-Hirak’s chants – al-Sh’ab yurid isqat al-Fasad!’ (‘the people demand the downfall of the corrupt!’) – only sounds reformist if ‘corruption’, defined broadly or not, is considered accidental to patrimonial neo-liberalism: it isn’t.

Purchase, since those conditions are recognizable and indeed familiar to the Moroccan working-class at large. The fact that the demands are both against police repression and for something like social democracy, in a country that appears by dint of its positioning in the world economy, and the reciprocal effect that this has on facts and politics of distribution and redistribution there, makes them both broadly attractive and almost transitional-like: it is an extraordinary document.

Rifian-ness and Amazigh-ness are clearly features of The Popular Movement, and will play a role in its political dynamics. But, to paraphrase CLR James, to make those ‘identities’ singularly important is as big a mistake as to ignore them.

‘Political dynamics’: similarity and difference, recognition and misrecognition, are not so much ‘cultural’ – which, like ‘race’ has come to mean ‘essential’ – as political phenomenon, with the ‘identity’ of The Popular Movement being, like any progressive social movement, potentially greatly more capacious than the politics of their antagonists; in Morocco, everything is being brought together and pushed apart, rapidly.