Protests in northern Morocco enter sixth day

Protests in the Rif region have increased since the killing of a fishmonger last October.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Thousands of protesters crowd the streets of the northern Moroccan city of Al-Hoceima, during a demonstration demanding the release of Nasser Zefzafi, head of the grassroots Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or "Popular Movement" on May 31, 2017.

Updated Jun 2, 2017

A general strike on Thursday gripped the northern Morocco city of Al-Hoceima, rocked by nearly a week of protests demanding the release of the leader of a popular movement.

The strike that saw nearly all of the shops in the city centre shuttered came after thousands of people demonstrated in Al-Hoceima for sixth straight night since Friday.

Al-Hoceima is in the neglected Rif region, which has been shaken by social unrest since the death in October of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri.

The 31-year-old was crushed in a rubbish truck while trying to save his fish confiscated by police.

Since then protests have snowballed in the port of Al-Hoceima, sparking a wider movement demanding more development and railing against corruption, repression and unemployment.

Nasser Zefzafi, seen here speaking at a protest on May 18, was arrested on Monday. Picture: Reuters

Nasser Zefzafi, who emerged as the head of the grassroots Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or "Popular Movement", was arrested on Monday after three days on the run.

Late Wednesday, between 2,000 and 3,000 protesters once again took to the streets of Al-Hoceima, shouting slogans such as "We are all Nasser Zefzafi" and "Corrupt state".

Arrest us

"Arrest us, we are all activists," read one banner.

Although fewer demonstrators turned out than the previous night, the protest appeared better organised, with volunteers in fluorescent jackets including women marshalling the crowd.

The mainly ethnically Berber Rif region has long had a tense relationship with Morocco's central authorities, and was at the heart of Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011.

Protestors wave Amazigh flags and flags of the Confederal Republic of the Tribes of the Rif which existed between 1921 and 1926. Picture: AFP

Cilia Hirani, a member of the Popular Movement, said that everyone in the Rif "believes in freedom, in humanity and in social justice".

"If you imprison our leaders, we will resist and we will resist until our demands, which are rights in democratic countries, are granted," she said.

Najib Ahamjik, often referred to as the movement's number two, remains at large but continues to use social media to call for "mobilisation".

Nawal Benaissa, one of the public faces of the Popular Movement, was among three young women on Wednesday who urged protesters to demand "freedom for prisoners".

On Thursday morning, she said she was called in to the police station in Al-Hoceima and questioned for calling on Wednesday on citizens to observe a general strike.

The 36-year-old mother of four was seen leaving the building again a short time later.

By mid-afternoon most of the shops in the city centre were shuttered, apparently in response to Benaissa's call for a strike.

Policemen were deployed on the main square and police vans were stationed in side streets, empty of pedestrians save for small groups of youths.

"Anyone who threatens shopkeepers who are still open will be arrested," a local official warned.

Anti-riot police were present at Wednesday's protest, following clashes between demonstrators and security forces over the weekend, but the crowd dispersed at around midnight without incident.

Zefzafi was detained along with others on Monday for "attacking internal security", after a warrant for his arrest issued Friday sparked turmoil in Al-Hoceima, a city of 56,000 inhabitants.

A new video of Zefzafi has been posted on social networks, apparently recorded shortly before his arrest, in which he says: "My brothers, the moment is very sensitive... Stay peaceful, above all."

State media and politicians have remained largely silent about the events, but the local branches of three parties including the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) issued a joint statement warning of a "serious situation" and criticising the response of the authorities.

Out of around 40 people reported arrested on Friday, including core members of Al-Hirak, 25 have been referred to the prosecution.

Their trial began Tuesday but was pushed back to June 6 at the request of their lawyers, who have complained their clients were ill-treated during their detention.

Seven suspects were released on bail and another seven were freed without charge.

TRTWorld and agencies