July 28, 2017
Warning Update: Evolving Protests Could Destabilize Morocco
Popular protests and growing opposition to the monarchy may destabilize the Moroccan state. The appearance of anti-monarchy sentiment within the protest movement will divide and weaken the movement in the near term as mainstream protest leaders remain loyal to the King. Protests may escalate to threaten the monarchy, however, if the government fails to meet protesters’ demands or security forces overreact. The destabilization of Morocco, long seen as a bastion of security in North Africa, would set the conditions for a Salafi-jihadi insurgency and threaten the stability of neighboring states, including Algeria and Spain.
- Northern Morocco’s Rif region, once an independent territory, is historically restive and marginalized. Riffians, who are mostly ethnic Berbers, have protested and revolted against the Moroccan government several times in recent decades. The government has promised development in the region, but projects are delayed and citizens have not seen the promised improvements.
- Morocco last saw major protests during the 2011 “Arab Spring.” Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, weathered the 2011 uprising by conducting modest constitutional reforms, carefully managing protests, and funding public projects. The intervening years have seen little change in the political or social conditions that sparked to the Arab Spring protests, however.
- The current round of protests began in October 2016, when a fish vendor in the Riffian city of killed by a trash compactor as he attempted to recover fish confiscated by authorities. Fikri’s death sparked mass protests in al Hoceima and led to the formation of the “Popular Movement,” led by Nasser al Zefzafi. The Moroccan government responded quickly to the incident, and protests subsided. was
- Popular Movement protests resumed in May 2017 and escalated when the Moroccan government deployed military force to the Rif and arrested protest leader Nasser al Zefzafi. Protesters and security forces clashed in al Hoceima throughout June, exacerbated by the detention of activists and accusations of police brutality. Protests temporarily spread to Morocco’s capital, Rabat, but remain focused in in al Hoceima. Thousands of protesters defied a ban to march in al Hoceima on July 20, leading to clashes with police.
The appearance of anti-regime sentiment and increased violence within the Moroccan protest movement are indicators that the state may lose control of protests, despite its long history of allowing managed dissent as an outlet for popular frustration. The faction of anti-monarchy protesters remains small, but their threat to march on Throne Day is a direct challenge to the King. Efforts to limit reporting on the unrest signal the state’s growing concern with the strength of the popular movement.
- July 20: Protesters clashed with security forces during demonstrations in al Hoceima, northern Morocco. Authorities arrested journalists and allegedly slowed the Internet connection during the protests.
- July 22: The “Voice of Hirak (Movement)” Facebook page called for a protest on Throne Day on July 30, 2017.Detained activists denounced the march, indicating a divide between anti-monarchy protesters and those loyal to the King.
- July 24: The “Voice of Hirak” revised its call for Throne Day protests in response to backlash from other protesters. The group called for protests if the King’s Throne Day address fails to meet its demands: the release of detainees, the implementation of human rights, and the demilitarization of the north.
- July 25: A man allegedly yelling “God is great” and “al Hoceima, freedom” attacked police officers at a border crossing between Morocco and Melilla, a Spanish territory.
- July 25: Moroccan authorities expelled two Spanish journalists from Tetouan in northern Morocco for “filming without permission.” The journalists had interviewed Nasser Zefzafi and reported heavily on unrest in the Rif.
Assessment and Implications:
The Moroccan state remains strong, but the potential growth of anti-monarchy sentiment, as well as a turn toward violence against the state, opens the door to several dangerous courses of action that could push the country toward instability. The de-escalation of protests hinges on the state’s ability to adequately address grievances that are rooted in intractable social and economic problems.
- The popular movement may turn against the King. The anti-monarchy current, currently at the fringe of the protest movement, may gain strength if the movement’s mainstream leadership fails to secure significant concessions from the palace. The continued stability of the state rests primarily on the King’s legitimacy. An overreaction by security forces, which have already attacked protesters, would exacerbate this trend. Indicators for this trendline include mobilization on Throne Day or other public demonstrations against the King himself, as well as the sustained spread of protests outside of the Rif region.
- Salafi-jihadi groups may attempt to co-opt a violent uprising. Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda have networks in Morocco, though they are notably weaker than in neighboring states. Salafi-jihadi militants will attempt to gain support within discontented populations, especially if peaceful efforts fail to secure change. Indicators for this trendline include an uptick in Salafi-jihadi media focused on Morocco and the formation of religiously-based groups within the popular protest movement, which has thus far focused on Riffian identity.
- A secessionist movement may develop in the Rif. Continued unrest, and especially a turn toward violence, may renew Riffian efforts to break away from the Moroccan state. A secessionist movement would require a Moroccan military deployment to quell the uprising, setting the stage for more violence and straining security resources already dedicated to countering the Salafi-jihadi threat. Indicators for this trendline include the continuation of protests despite concessions from the state. Parallel mobilization in the Western Sahara territory would also exacerbate this trend.
The collapse of the Moroccan state would have severe implications for regional security. It would drastically increase pressure on Algeria, which already faces security threats on its borders with Libya, Tunisia, Mali, and Mauritania. Instability in Morocco could also trigger a proxy war with Algeria, which would seize the opportunity to challenge its rival’s hold on the Western Sahara. A Moroccan collapse has similarly dangerous consequences for Spain, which would face a flood of refugees for which it is ill-prepared. An unstable Morocco could also mean the growth of a Salafi-jihadi safe haven, separated by only a narrow strait from Spain’s shores.
Morocco has been an island of stability in a volatile region, but we cannot ignore the possibility that current trends lead down the most dangerous path.