Curfews, roadblocks, checkpoints on highways leading to Al Hoceima in northeastern Morocco; neighborhoods encircled by military trucks; police attacking protesters; mass arrests; activists abducted off the streets. Since May 26, the first day of Ramadan, the city of Al Hoceima has seen continuous tumult, culminating with a day of bloody clashes on June 26, in what is now being called the Black Eid of 2017. Tensions had been running high in the Rif region, with ongoing protests since October, when a young fish vendor died at the hands of the police, crushed to death in a trash compactor as he tried to retrieve his confiscated merchandise. A truce of sorts had been negotiated in mid-May, when a ministerial delegation arrived in the city of Al Hoceima promising various development projects.
But May 26—the day that Abdelkrim Al Khattabi, the founder of the Rif Republic, surrendered to the French in 1926—fell on a Friday this year. By early morning, thousands of youths were gathered in towns across northeastern Morocco waving flags of the republic and banners with Abdelkrim’s visage. Anticipating trouble, on the eve of Ramadan, the government in Rabat had issued to imams across the Rif the same preemptive, quietist Friday sermon. When Nasser Zafzafi, the fiery, eloquent leader of the protesters, walked into the main mosque of Al Hoceima, the imam was midway through a sermon called “Security Is a Blessing,” warning young Moroccans against responding to the calls for protest posted on the Internet and denouncing protesters as causing fitna (strife). When the imam paused, Zafzafi took the floor, denouncing him as a regime-sponsored charlatan. “What does fitna mean when our young people have little to eat?” “Whom do mosques belong to? God or the government?”
The imam never completed his khutba. Zafzafi gave his own sermon to a crowd gathered outside the mosque. Street battles broke out between protesters and security forces, as the latter tried to arrest Zafzafi and his entourage for “hindering…freedom of worship.” Protests and sit-ins soon spread across the north and to major cities in central Morocco. Thousands marched across the country, chanting, “Rest in peace Abdelkrim, we will continue your struggle!” On the following Monday morning, the interior ministry announced that Zafzafi and dozens of activists, artists, and journalists had been arrested and taken south.
Just a decade ago, this turn of events—thousands marching nationwide waving pan-Berber flags and chanting, “Long live the Rif!”—would have been hard to imagine. Since the advent of Islam and the first wave of Arab migration in the eighth century, Morocco has been a melting pot between Berbers and Arabs, with Arab tribes adopting Berber languages and Berbers becoming Arabized. While official census data are unavailable, scholars estimate that today 45–50 percent of the Moroccan population speaks a variation of Berber either as a first or second language. Berber-speaking communities are concentrated in the northeast Rif, Central Atlas, and southern Sous regions, speaking Tarifit, Tamazight, and Soussi. But because of the Rif’s geostrategic location and distinctive colonial past, since Morocco gained independence in 1956 the north has had a more antagonistic relationship with the Moroccan government than any other Amazigh (Berber) region.