Street protests in the northern Moroccan city of Al Hoceima had already been ongoing for seven months when the self-styled leader of the protests, Nasser Zefzafi, was arrested for disturbing Friday prayers in a local mosque and insulting the imam and the content of his sermon. His release, and the release of 40 others arrested at the same time, have now been added to the demand for jobs, a fully equipped cancer hospital, a university and the fulfilment of around €600 million-worth of local investments. These were promised in 2015, but have yet to materialize.
At a time when North Africa is beset by concerns over the spread of jihadist extremism and official clamp-downs on popular movements, the Al Hoceima protests are unusual for being just what they appear to be: genuine grassroots demonstrations to hold local and national authorities to account. The twist, however, is that the political institutions and local officials needed to respond are neither fully in place nor functioning properly enough to answer the legitimate concerns of the protestors. Unsurprisingly, the protestors have appealed to the King of Morocco to intervene; more often than not the existing system requires the top-down intervention of the palace for the political establishment to move.
This time the problem is structural. Morocco has a long-standing ‘advanced regionalization’ project, re-emphasised in the revised constitution of 2011, to devolve political power to regional and local authorities. But not only are the relevant laws and decrees needed for the full transfer of competences to the local level lacking, but as many suspect, the central authorities are dragging their heels over transferring real political decision-making powers to the regions. Without this, there is no way to ensure that locally elected officials represent genuine local interests, rather than, as now, the interests of the national political groupings to which locally elected officials belong.
The first laws relating to regional, provincial, municipal and prefectural elections were adopted ahead of September 2015 when Moroccan voters directly elected representatives to regional and local councils for the first time. The transfer to these councils of local competences, budgets, resources and, above all, a share of public tax receipts still needs resolving in ways that leave citizens in no doubt that local officials are accountable for the delivery of local investment plans and services. There is also a challenge to find the right kind of skills needed for local service delivery by officials, elected or otherwise, with no experience of assuming direct responsibility for their actions. The elected president of the regional council responsible for Al Hoceima, Ilyas Omari, for example, has veered from maintaining complete silence over the past seven months to launching an international media campaign to blame the former prime minister and central government for blocking the transfer of powers and resources to the region.
What is urgently required from Morocco’s central authorities is clarity and transparency about how and when the process of ‘advanced regionalization’ will take effect, and some tangible progress in addressing the core demands of the protestors. It is notable that King Mohammed VI has not ceded to pressure to intervene directly, nor to put an end to the protests by the authorisation of force. Morocco’s policing of Al Hoceima’s lengthy protests has been commendably restrained thus far, even if a larger security contingent is now containing the spread of activists and protestors to within the city centre.
However, dangers lurk: many fear that the situation will eventually succumb to manipulation and violence unless some visible improvements accrue. Some of the mafia-like networks that control the local economy may also seek to pervert what has thus far been a new dynamic of civic activism. The upcoming trials of Zefzafi and his co-detainees must be seen to abide by due process. And the rest of Morocco, which is observing Al Hoceima as a test case for long-promised government reforms, must be convinced that what Al Hoceima achieves is something that a wider range of Moroccan communities will benefit from in their own localities.
Dr Claire Spencer, Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative.