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Nasser Zefzafi, Morocco’s Charismatic Protest Leader

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Moroccan activist Nasser Zefzafi. Photo AP

For almost ten months, thousands of Moroccans have protested in the northern Rif region of the country, and it is all because of one man: Nasser Zefzafi.

A native of the port city of al-Hoceima, Zefzafi (39) is the founder of the grassroots al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or the Popular Movement. He was also a member of the February 20 Movement that spearheaded anti-government protests across Morocco in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Moderately educated and currently unemployed, he is acclaimed as a charismatic orator.

Al-Hirak emerged following the well-publicized death on 28 October 2016 of Mohcine Fikri, a fishmonger who was crushed in a rubbish truck as he tried to recover illegally caught swordfish seized by the police.

The death sparked public outrage. Two days later, thousands of protestors took to the streets. Led by Zefzafi, the protestors called for greater government investment in social and economic programmes and more jobs.

Zefzafi was arrested 29 May 2017 for “undermining interior state security”, according to the public prosecutor, and for allegedly interrupting a preacher in a mosque during Friday prayers to call for further demonstrations.

Despite his incarceration – he is still awaiting trial – he seems to have got his wish. Since his arrest, demonstrations have been held on a nightly basis in al-Hoceima.

Reactions to Zefzafi have been various but can be classified into two main categories: those who support him and those who do not. Those who support him stress the fact that he comes from a family of anti-government protestors that traces its origins to the historic figure of Abdelkrim al-Khattabi, a Riffian political and military leader who led a revolt against French and Spanish colonization. Zefzafi’s parents’ home village, Izefzafen, is inhabited by the Aït Ouriaghel tribe, to which Abdelkrim al-Khattabi belonged. His grandfather is also said to have held the post of interior minister in the short-lived Republic of the Rif, and his uncle, murdered in 1978 near Larache, is said to have worked as al-Khattabi’s chief of staff.

Zefzafi’s own father was an activist in the National Union of Popular Forces Party and then in the Socialist Union of Popular Forces Party, but he resigned when the party took part in the government in 1998.

Some see Zefzafi as leading a new Moroccan Arab Spring. Others consider the Moroccan government’s decision to arrest him in an attempt to stop al-Hirak as a big mistake that has only raised his profile.

Those who do not support Zefzafi regard him as focusing too much on the Rif, foregrounding the Amazigh (Berber) identity, brandishing the Amazigh flag and the Republic of the Rif’s flag, instead of the Moroccan flag, which is absent from his protests. They also see this populism as attracting unnecessary international attention that may degenerate into uncontrollable violence.

Further, the fact that the uprisings have taken a political turn since April 2017 has led many to think that the unrest was instigated from abroad by Moroccan diaspora dissidents. This view was corroborated, some believe, after it emerged that the Catalonian separatist movement in Spain was supporting al-Hirak because it thought that it too was separatist.

For some observers, he is a champion of al-Hirak, but for others he is a fake hero, an extremist or even a collaborator with the enemies of the Moroccan nation, particularly the Algerian secret service.

Despite these divided opinions, Zefzafi has become an icon for the youth of al-Hoceima. This is forcing the government to rethink its attitude towards the Rif, and it has already begun implementing a number of investment programmes.

Generally, Moroccans take the view that a direct royal intervention, combined with Zefzafi’s release, would solve the problem. However, some believe this would only serve to underline the failure of the justice system to punish a citizen accused of undermining state security.

For the Moroccan journalist and political analyst Sadek Hajji, Zefzafi’s movement “can only upset the established institutions without tipping the regime. Morocco has gone through centuries without major upheaval, mainly because of its monarchical system. Today, Moroccans do not want another Arab Spring because they see the devastating consequences in Syria, Libya and Tunisia. However, it is clear that most Moroccans long for further reforms, more social justice, development, freedom, democracy and accountability.”