Arrest of protest movement leader divides Moroccans on social media

Sunday 04/06/2017
Dialogue to come. Protesters take part in a demonstration in Al Hoceima, on May 30. (AFP)

Casablanca- The arrest of the leader of a protest movement that has gripped Morocco’s northern Rif region for seven months has divided Moroccans.
A prosecutor ordered the arrest of Nasser Zefzafi after he allegedly “obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals,” a preach­er’s sermon at the Mohammed VI mosque during Friday prayers.
Zefzafi, the leader of the emerg­ing al-Hirak al-Shaabi — Popular Movement — and four of his friends were arrested on May 29 in Al Ho­ceima and sent to Casablanca for questioning.
Officials said 40 people had been arrested as of late May in connec­tion with disturbances in Al Hocei­ma, Imzouren and Beni Bouayach. The prosecutor said in a statement that those arrested would be inves­tigated for allegedly “undermining the security of the state and other criminal acts.”
“Have we entered into new years of lead, a new reign version?” Mo­roccan writer Jaouad Mdidech wrote on Facebook. “Anger against injustice is not treated by repres­sion, torture and political imprison­ment. The past has shown it. This anger must be treated by listening and dialogue, by deep reforms.”
However, others on Facebook accused protest leaders of seeking independence for the region after some protesters were seen hold­ing up the flag of the Rif republic, which existed from 1921-26.
“Zefzafi is a great racist. If he wants to defend Moroccans’ rights, he only has to raise the Moroccan flag. Why is he satisfied with the Rif flag?” wrote Naima Berrada. “He seeks to separate us. He seeks to destroy Morocco and wants to turn it into the situation of Syria or Iraq.”
Prior to his arrest, Zefzafi insisted that “they’re not separatists.”
“Our demands are social and economic. It has never been about creating an independent state,” he said.
Authorities accused the protest leaders of receiving money and other support from abroad “to car­ry out propaganda activities.”

The restive Rif region has been a scene of regular protests since the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri, who was crushed in a rubbish truck last October in Al Hoceima as he apparently tried to protest the seizure and destruction of hun­dreds of kilogrammes of swordfish, which are not allowed to be caught in autumn.
Fikri’s death sparked a grass-roots movement demanding social justice, jobs and health care.

A large government delegation, headed by Moroccan Interior Minis­ter Abdelouafi Laftit, visited Al Ho­ceima province in late May to quell the protests.
The delegation’s mission was to evaluate projects in the province and consult with local officials. It sought to renew the dialogue and accelerate the development pro­jects, one of the main demands of the popular movement.
Agriculture and Fisheries Minis­ter Aziz Akhannouch said during the visit that “there are solutions to all the problems,” reaffirming the government’s support for local fish­ermen.
First Vice-President of the Brus­sels Parliament Fouad Ahidar, who is originally from the Rif region, called for dialogue between the government and protest move­ment.
Ahidar, who was one of the last people to meet with Zefzafi be­fore his arrest, told Medias24 that “Zefzafi insisted that people were not going to listen to the govern­ment’s proposals because these same people have designated him as responsible for al-Hirak al-Shaa­bi.”
“If today we want to find concrete solutions to this problem, we will sooner or later sit down with these people and discuss with them,” said Ahidar.
Thirteen intellectuals and activ­ists released a statement in sup­port for “satisfying the legitimate demands of the inhabitants of the Rif,” citing the need to find “radical solutions” to the issues raised by the demonstrators.
The signatories listed seven conditions for the success of this dialogue, including the recogni­tion of the legitimacy of the social, economic and cultural demands of the Rif and breaking with all the ac­cusations of treason directed at the protest movement.