King’s concessions to Rif protesters will preserve Morocco’s stability but jihadists could exploit social discontent to attract recruits
King Mohammed VI dismissed the Education, Planning and Health Ministers, and the Secretary of State for Vocational Training on 24 October, over delays to development projects in the north-eastern Rif region, and particularly the coastal city of al-Hoceima. The decision came just four days before the first anniversary of the death of a fishmonger in al-Hoceima, who was killed while trying to retrieve a stock of swordfish that police had confiscated from him. The incident became a focal point for popular frustration over official corruption and abuse of power, and prompted the creation of al-Hirak al-Chaab (meaning the Popular Movement), which has led sustained protests over the past year.
Police have arrested hundreds of demonstrators since launching a crackdown on al-Hirak al-Chaab in May (see our 23 June Report), including several of the movement’s leaders who are currently on trial in Casablanca. This shows that the authorities have little tolerance for social unrest or dissent, and this has intensified anger in al-Hoceima. However, the King is eager to avoid being associated with the growing popular frustration at the Government, and so has taken periodic steps to ease tensions and maintain his own popularity. Indeed, his move to dismiss high-ranking officials followed an official investigation into the status of development projects in the North-East, which found that several sectors of government had not fulfilled their responsibilities. The King also pardoned some detained political activists in July, while the Government agreed to hire more civil servants from the Rif region.
These concessions will limit the demonstrators’ ability to threaten the Government’s stability, even though activists will feel that the moves do not sufficiently address their grievances. The absence of credible measures to address official corruption and perceived police brutality, as well as ongoing economic underdevelopment in the Rif, mean that al-Hirak al-Chaab will continue to agitate for more meaningful actions. Moreover, the authorities’ harsh crackdown on the protesters, including allegations of torture, risk hardening opposition to the Government in the longer term, particularly among activists who receive jail time.
Indeed, the authorities are working to disrupt and dismantle jihadist cells across the country. Eleven members of a group allegedly linked to Islamic State (IS) and planning attacks in several cities, including Fez and Casablanca, were detained on 14 October, with some further arrests over the past two weeks. Large numbers of Moroccans travelled to fight with IS in the Middle East, and following the group’s defeat in Raqqa last month, some are likely to return home. IS may therefore increasingly look to exploit local issues, such as social discontent in the Rif, to radicalise and recruit supporters. There is consequently a longer-term risk that a failure to address economic disadvantage, as well as the jailing of political activists, possibly exposing them to more hardline views, could boost support for jihadist ideology, and gradually increase the threat of attacks in Morocco over the coming years.