On December 22, two brothers, Houcine, 23, and Jedouane Dioui, 30, died in a flooded coal mine shaft in Jerada, a former mining town in the northeast of Morocco. After their deaths, protests erupted, with the inhabitants asking for an economic alternative to develop the region, which is witnessing a high unemployment rate among the youth and where job opportunities are scarce. Prior to the accident, residents had been demonstrating to voice their anger at high electricity and water rates.
Since then, they have gathered regularly in the town’s central square. But on March 10, two of the movement’s leaders, Amine Mkallech and Mustapha Dainane, were arrested, and on March 13, the ministry of the interior suddenly forbid “unauthorized protests.” The following day, police forces violently dispersed protesters for the first time. About 60 people have been arrested since, according to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH).
The local news website Lakome2 reported that 228 people had been injured that day. Moroccan authorities claimed 312 police officers and 32 protesters were injured.
Youssef Raissouni, head of the central bureau of AMDH said 24 people will be presented to court in the coming days. The accusations include harming and assaulting public officers, he said. Two activists, the movement’s leaders, are officially held in connection with a car accident that happened in early March.
In spite of the repression, thousands of people marched on March 16 with a new demand: Release the movement’s leaders and other jailed protesters.
The mobilization in Jerada, a town of 43,000 inhabitants, has raised fears that another hotspot was emerging after more than a year of tensions in the Rif, in the north of Morocco. The Hirak, a social movement born in El Hoceima in October 2016, started after a fishmonger was crushed in a garbage truck in an attempt to get back the merchandise authorities had confiscated from him.
No major protest has taken place in El Hoceima, the core of the Hirak, since July 20, when police forces cracked down on protesters. Nevertheless, occasional gatherings have taken place since, mainly in neighboring towns such as Imzouren. Their demands—better infrastructures, health and education facilities, and an end to corruption—are, according to local activists, still very much alive.
Following a wave of arrests initiated in May, at least 400 protesters are currently jailed in connection with the Hirak in the Rif, according to AMDH. This ongoing repression is “unprecedented” in Morocco’s recent history, said Abdellah Lefnatsa, in charge of economic and social rights at AMDH. Never have so many been arrested in similar conditions and in such a short amount of time, he said.
Since the protests in Jerada started, another miner died on February 1, fueling discontent among protesters. While the coal mines representing the main economic activity were officially shut in 1998, because they were not profitable, hundreds of people continue to work in clandestine shafts due to the lack of jobs, putting their lives at risk.
Reports have been published in the local press, denouncing the informal trade that several local dignitaries, including elected officials, benefit from, using exploitation permits that are issued by authorities but are nonetheless considered illicit. Local activists are asking for an investigation over what they say is an illegal exploitation of the mine that has lasted for years.
On February 10, the head of Morocco’s government, Saadeddine El Othmani, said the illicit permits to exploit the mine would be withdrawn. He met with members of the civil society as well as local elected officials and business representatives in Oujda, the biggest city in the region, and promised a series of reforms designed to tackle unemployment. He also announced the launch of a study on the region’s natural resources (copper and lead) and said 3,000 hectares would be set aside for agricultural projects. Furthermore, former miners who suffer from health problems due to their work will receive treatments as well as financial aid for housing.
Like last year, when the streets of the Rif were shaken by the Hirak, Morocco’s government announced concrete measures, in an effort to calm things down. In El Hoceima, it launched a project involving the building of infrastructures such as health and education facilities, roads and sports centers, which had been delayed, officially because of poor management. But despite the authorities’ announcements, protesters in Jerada and El Hoceima continued to denounce their living conditions, widespread corruption and the lack of accountability on the part of Morocco’s officials.
Over the years, other social movements, uncoordinated and without structural links, but with similar demands and slogans, have risen throughout the kingdom. Demonstrations have taken place recently in several towns like Outat El Haj, in the region of Fes-Boulmane, or Zagora, in the south. Last week, the inhabitants of Errachidia, in the east of the country, took to the streets. However, the movement in Jerada is the only one that is “continuous,” Raissouni said.
“We cannot neither follow all these movements, nor count them,” said Lefnatsa. “They don’t have political demands but social ones, profound ones, as they touch the real problem in Morocco: The distribution of wealth.”
In Zagora, people have been denouncing water shortages for 15 years. After a new series of sit-ins initiated last September, 31 people have been charged in connection with the protests, with 15 sentenced to two to three months in jail. One is still held in jail and was sentenced to two years of prison for arson, according to Brahim Rizkou of the AMDH bureau in Zagora. They wanted to draw attention to the absence of drinking water as well as the lack of health facilities, Rizkou said. The local medical centers don’t provide adequate health services, he explained, forcing people to travel to Ouarzazate for basic medical care such as childbirth.
Since last November, the situation in Zagora has cooled down, mainly because of the weather conditions. This winter, tap water has come back to people’s homes, although it is still not safe to drink. Local activists suggest the repression has broken the movement and the arrests have deterred people from continuing to express discontent over the lack of health infrastructure.
Each time a movement rises, authorities bet on the loss of momentum by both partially accepting the demands and cracking down on dissent.
“This repressive approach doesn’t contribute to any appeasement,” said February 20 activist and member of the Unified Socialist Party Abdullah Abaakil. “This is the epidermal reaction of a regime out of solutions. The fact that it swings between repression and vague short-term promises is an indication of the inability of the regime to mobilize society around a credible social and political program.”