Morocco’s troubled socio-economic profile is well known. It is ranked 129th on the latest UN Human Development Index, lower than all other North African states except for Mauritania. Fellow petroleum-poor monarchy Jordan ranks 77th. Among the especially problematic indicators that shape Morocco’s ranking are adult illiteracy—25 percent for males and about 40 percent for females, with the rate among rural adult women close to 90 percent; maternal mortality (70th in world rankings) and infant mortality (74th); and GDP per capita (156th). In the category of health expenditures as a percentage of GDP, as calculated in 2009, Morocco ranks 109th. One-fifth of Morocco’s population (6.3 million) live either in poverty or just above the poverty line. The differences between Morocco’s urban and peripheral rural regions are especially stark.
To be sure, the Moroccan state’s penetration into the country’s rural regions is considerably greater than it was in the past. This penetration includes expanded electrification of villages (96.5 percent in 2009 compared to just 18 percent in 1996), the building of schools and roads, and increased access to potable water (from 20 percent in 1990 to 87 percent in 2009, and presumably well over 90 percent today). In addition, migrant workers from rural areas, who spend part of the year in big cities or live for extended periods in Europe, provide crucial injections of cash into village economies.
Nonetheless, the deprivation in remote Atlas Mountain villages and valleys, which are populated primarily by Amazigh communities, remains high. The conditions there were highlighted anew in late November 2014 by devastating floods, which overwhelmed the poor infrastructure that is still the rule in much of the country’s interior. However, notwithstanding the periphery’s dire straits, it is difficult if not impossible to conceive of a Moroccan version of Tunisia’s Muhammad Bouazizi. No despairing young vendor’s self-immolation in protest against the heavy-handedness of local authorities, staged in some dusty provincial town far from the center of the country’s political and economic life, could ignite a nationwide movement, let alone result in the toppling of Morocco’s entrenched regime. Indeed, there hasn’t even been a significant rural rebellion since 1958–59, when northern Amazigh Riffian tribes rose up against the newly independent government dominated by Morocco’s urban Arab elites.
Of course at that time there was no Amazigh movement per se, nor was there any official reference to the Amazigh component of Moroccan national identity. This was despite the fact that Tamazight, in its three main Moroccan forms, was the native language of a majority of the country’s 12 million people, most of whom lived in the rural periphery. Some 55 years later, the percentage is considerably lower: Tamazight is now a minority language in Morocco, although the exact percentage of native speakers of its three main Moroccan dialects is hard to determine and understandably controversial. On the other hand, the Moroccan state has taken a number of significant symbolic steps in recent years to recognize Amazigh language and culture as a core component of Moroccan national identity, enshrining it in the new constitution drawn up and ratified in July 2011, as part of the king’s response to the protests of the grassroots February 20th movement earlier in the year.
Amazigh youth participated in these protests, articulating both particular ethno-cultural demands and broader Moroccan national ones. The new constitution’s recognition of Tamazight as an official language, along with Arabic, was an historic achievement by any measure for the Amazigh identity movement. And it points to a paradox: The movement, and its agenda of re-centering North African and Moroccan history and identity, is very much a part of the increasingly contested fabric of public life, in which the traditional khuf min al-makhzen (“fear of the authorities”) has weakened. Yet it is extremely difficult to speak of the Amazigh movement in Morocco as a mass movement, at least if one measures the number of persons who can be mobilized for public demonstrations, let alone sustained ones. By way of comparison, the Moroccan Amazigh current has never generated anything approaching the two now-iconic episodes of sustained mass protest and large-scale organizational capacity displayed by the Kabylian Amazigh in Algeria—the 1980 “Berber Spring”, and the 2001 “Black Spring.”
Given the neglected state of the largely Amazigh peripheral regions in Morocco, one would expect them to be a natural and fertile base for political recruitment and mobilization. However, the Moroccan makhzen has pursued a sophisticated and generally successful strategy combining co-option and repression that makes it difficult for would-be challengers to build a sustained base of support. Indeed, one of the country’s oldest and most durable political parties has been the staunchly pro-monarchy Mouvement Populaire, whose ties to the Palace enable it to dispense patronage services among its Amazigh electoral base, primarily in the Middle Atlas region.
In addition, there has always been a certain disconnect between the socio-cultural demands emphasized by of the urban-based Amazigh associations, spearheaded by intellectuals and educated professionals, and the health, economic, infrastructural and environmental problems of the villages and towns of the mountains and valleys in the hinterland. This disparity acts as a brake on the movement’s mobilization capacities. This is not to say that the urban associations are unaware of or indifferent to these rural problems, only that the difficulties in mobilizing supporters in far-flung regions struggling for basic survival have been daunting. Nor can one rule out another impediment: the continued prevalence of local communal identities that come at the expense of a broader Amazigh identification.
At the same time, Morocco’s peripheral regions are becoming better linked, however haltingly and unevenly, into the wider environs. This is primarily thanks to state penetration and, more recently, access to social media. As a result, the possibilities for increased collective action by social movements, including the Amazigh, are increasing. Indeed, we know that political upheavals set in motion by marginal and deprived groups often occur after a certain level of progress has been achieved. It would be rash to say that the foundations are being laid for a large-scale mobilization to address their socio-economic grievances. Nonetheless, the situation is increasingly fluid.
With this general background in mind we can now examine how human insecurity issues in the mostly Amazigh periphery of Morocco are being addressed in specific cases. One of these cases concerns ongoing protests around the silver mine at Imider, in southeastern Morocco, to which we will return anon. Imider is not the only such case, and one cannot categorically rule out that various local protests will in time link up to change the texture of the Amazigh movement within Morocco.
Most of these cases touch on longstanding grievances related to land and resources, which in turn are linked to the Amazigh culture movement’s efforts to recover and remember rural and tribal history. For example, the Moroccan authorities’ confiscation of the lands belonging to the Zaiane tribes in the Khenifra region has evoked comparisons to similar actions taken by the French Protectorate regime, in which the confiscation of communal lands, and the granting of preference to particular local leaders at the expense of others, had important negative effects on economic, social, and cultural life. Since the Moroccan government does not recognize customary law and views tribal lands as belonging to the state, it uses Royal dahirs—edicts signed by the King that have the force of law—to expropriate the territories in question. Student activists from the region emphasize the rights of local populations to benefit from the natural resources of the area in which they live, through mining, the use of water and forests, and so forth. They are challenging the Moroccan state to make good on its official promotion of administrative decentralization and regionalization, demanding the inclusion of locals in decision-making processes that affect them. Their militant discourse also includes insistence on proper compensation for the remaining elderly combatants of battles against the French conquerors, and demands for the rehabilitation and restoration of local kasbahs and palaces, concrete symbols of Amazigh culture and history, most of which are in an advanced state of decay.
One particularly shocking episode occurred in the winter of 2007, when approximately thirty infants died within just a few days from an illness exacerbated by severe temperatures and the absence of basic medical services in the village of Anfgou in the Eastern High Atlas Mountains. The Moroccan national media sought to downplay the event, but Berber-speaking journalists and activists got the story out. The event went viral on social media, highlighting the village’s isolation and extreme poverty. The nearest hospital was seventy miles away, one could reach the village only via a rocky path alongside a riverbed that often flooded in the winter, and the village itself had no electricity, telephone network, or potable water. The shock reached the Royal Palace, generating a series of actions to ameliorate the situation, beginning with two visits by the King himself, and resulting in infrastructure projects that have substantially improved the life of the 1,700 villagers, although they remain deeply impoverished and dependent on others for their existence. For Amazigh militants such as Mouha Moukhlis, Anfgou and surrounding villages remain a symbol of what they view as the willful neglect of the periphery by the Arab-Islamic oriented authorities, including members of parliament who “read the Fatiha after the death of Saddam Husayn, but failed to do so after the Anfgou tragedies.” They cite as well as the neglect of the “city-dwelling” Amazigh who prefer to sit home and watch al-Jazeera and Arte TV.
But let us now go to Imider as promised, the site of the most sustained grassroots protest against the authorities. The protest centers around an extremely valuable and profitable silver mine in the vicinity of Imider, which is a collection of seven small villages, total population 7,000, in southeast Morocco about 130 km northeast of Ouarzazate. The mine is owned by a subsidiary of Managem, the mining branch of the Société Nationale d’Investissement (SNI), a massive holding company whose largest shareholder is the Moroccan royal family. Established in 1969, the mine produces 240 tons of silver annually, and had a turnover in 2010 of €74 million, making it one of the most important silver mines in Africa. For villagers, the mine is a symbol of how the state authorities and allied elites extract enormous wealth from their traditional lands, literally the ground beneath their feet, while leaving them struggling to eke out an impoverished existence. Moreover, the mine’s operations require an enormous amount of water. And in the summer of 2011, it became clear that pumping ground water into the mine for silver extraction depleted the supply upon which local inhabitants depended.
Earlier that summer, university students returning home following the end of the academic year found that their traditional seasonal jobs working at the mine were no longer available, which only added to the general sense of embitterment and discrimination. Then, as Ramadan approached, the faucets bringing drinking water to the village began to run dry, and the water that did occasionally emerge had an increasingly foul smell.
The young people of the villages decided to act. They hiked up the 1,400-meter Mont Alban, where stood a water tower serving the mine. There they established what has become a permanent encampment and took control of one of the water pumps serving the mine. First they shut it down, and then they redirected the water to the village. Four years later they are still at it, organized under the banner of what they call “Movement on Road 96 Imider.”
More than that, the organizers have succeeded in mobilizing sufficient numbers of local inhabitants to maintain the encampment and periodically conduct marches along the roads in the area. Tents have been replaced by stone structures decorated gaily with graffiti, and bear inspirational inscriptions from people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. Among their global-oriented activities has been a special march by hundreds of women organized to mark International Women’s Day. They have also linked their struggle to global environmental concerns, pointing to the environmental degradation caused by the widespread use of poisonous substances such as mercury and cyanide in the mine’s operation. According to villagers, the damage to people’s health, crops, and livestock has been great. Ironically, perhaps, the villagers want both the jobs that the mine provides and an alteration of its basic operations so as to be protected from its harmful effects.
They have achieved a measure of attention, including a lengthy article in the New York Times in which the Amazigh flag was displayed on a hilltop. In examining the ways in which the protest is articulated, it is clear that the activists view their Amazighité as integral to their identity, and instrumental for mobilizing support.
The regime’s response has been moderate. The authorities crushed a similar, though smaller, protest back in 1996, with one fatality. The “new” Morocco uses more sophisticated methods to maintain order. The makhzen’s heavy hand is certainly present, but for the most part it is gloved. The security forces try to ensure that outsiders do not visit the site. Thirty protestors were imprisoned for a few months, and three of the activists, who had been subjected to a brutal arrest in March 2014, were convicted of disturbing public order and sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 60,000 dirhams each—sentences which were confirmed in July 2014 by a court of appeals. Their crimes included “establishment of a criminal gang”, “embezzlement”, “assembly without permit”, “disorderly conduct”, and ” premeditated aggression.” Freeing them has now become part of the movement’s agenda.
In the midst of the crackdown on activists and the strong security presence in the area, the mine’s operators conducted year-long negotiations with the elected representatives of the Imider rural commune and a number of associations, producing what the management said was an agreement to promote human development in the region. This included the opening of summer camps and academic support programs for 720 children, and the provision of 2,000 school kits to students. “For us”, said a company representative, “the page is turned.” According to a spokesman, the company spends $1 million in development projects for the region; the activists claim that nothing much has changed. The company also spent heavily in trying to burnish its image in the Moroccan and European media, and even helped served as a sponsor of the second World Human Rights Forum held in Marrakesh in late November 2014.
Studies of social movements generally focus on three elements: grievances, political opportunity, and resource mobilization. In the case of Imider, one can certainly locate the grievances that triggered and focused the protests; one can also point to the increased opportunities for political expression that have evolved during the 15-year reign of Muhammad VI, and particularly the ferment that characterized Morocco’s public sphere during the first half of 2011 when the Imider protests first began. The protests are also part of a larger pattern of increasing anger about socio-economic issues in small towns over the previous decade. Koenraad Bogaert has cogently written about this phenomenon, emphasizing the contemporary form of global capitalism, class politics, and the relations of power and exploitation that produce food insecurity, poverty, and inequality.
With regard to resource mobilization, however, the picture is more clouded, which perhaps helps us understand why the Amazigh movement has not become a mass movement in Morocco in the conventional sense. By way of comparison, it may be useful to look at the highly successful Movement of Rural Landless Workers in Brazil, which has won land for over 300,000 families since it first began organizing in 1984. One of its central pillars was the official support of the Catholic Church, which provided a crucial means of organizing movement activities throughout rural Brazil. No such comparable support from the state-controlled Moroccan religious establishment exists in the Imider case, or regarding Amazigh grievances in general. It should be noted, too, that much of the Amazigh movement’s discourse is broadly secular/modernist in character, and is often accused by its opponents of being anti-Islam.
Indeed, the authorities are keen to prevent any linkage between religion and the Imider activists. This year, they banned a local Imam from conducting a prayer service at the protesters’ mountain encampment during the Eid celebrations; the activists did manage, however, to sneak in an Imam from a remote area to do the job, in the presence of 3,000 people. The strikers have received support from an Italian NGO and Italian and Spanish labor unions, which speaks to the ways in which local activists in peripheral regions can “go global” these days. However, the ground is apparently not ripe for the Imider strike to develop into a larger action. Even the various Amazigh associations that exist in neighboring towns and villages have largely kept their distance from the Imider protests due to a combination of fear of the authorities and a still-entrenched localism that inhibits the growth of a broader-based movement.
More recent research on social movements seeks to understand the motivations of the participants, the ways in which they are personally affected and even transformed, and the attendant social dynamics of the protest groups. Why do people join, or not join, as the case may be? Are the social ties strong enough to make protest associations stick? How is it sustained? Is there a strategy besides just waiting for grievances to be addressed?
The personal accounts of three of the male participants in the Imider protests interviewed for this study—one of whom has resumed his studies in Agadir after three years of on-site activity; another who, like the first, is in his mid-twenties, but suspended his studies for the time being, and a third, who is 31-years old and unemployed—add depth to the story and get at some of the answers to the foregoing questions. To be sure, their answers are themselves a part of their struggle to get their story out, and thus cannot be accepted uncritically; neither can they be dismissed, however.
In general, they display a high degree of commitment and determination, and describe a degree of solidarity among the local population that cuts across age, gender, and the seven villages in the district. Their families are supportive, and indeed participate in the ongoing protest actions and marches themselves. When I asked about the “fear factor”, one of them was defiant: “There’s a time to live and a time to die, and it’s better to die in a fight for truth than to live lies.” Another acknowledged awareness of the long arm of the authorities, “which never forgets”, and can reach all the way to the university in Agadir, creating a climate of fear which does inhibit behavior.
All three describe the evolution of the confrontation with the mining company going back decades, and which reached a state of desperation in 2011. One also emphasized that their initial actions were taken in the context of Morocco’s “Democracy Spring” protests, and a similar protest in recent years against the national phosphate company in Khouribja, near Khenifra. They describe a regularized weekly consultation and decision-making process—a general assembly (Agraw) in which anyone can participate and vote, and specialized committees, regular marches on the adjacent roads to call attention to their struggle, and an encampment that has been transformed into permanent structures, in which the number of inhabitants varies according to circumstances.
I asked them what they think they have achieved thus far, and they speak proudly of having raised the consciousness and determination of the population, of their self-reliance in collecting donations of funds and supplies, and of the partial improvement to the state of their water supply. Yet they remain both defiant and cynical over the bad faith of the company and the authorities, which want to end the protests but not to do justice in the process.
Most impressively, perhaps, they display an intimate knowledge of local history, while framing their grievances within the larger context of the struggle of the Ait Atta tribal confederation against French colonial conquest, and the subsequent expropriation of collective lands—a policy that was continued by the independent Moroccan state after independence in 1956. This is, of course, part of the larger Amazigh narrative. They also refer to a specific ethnic grievance: the authorities bringing in Arab workers from another regions to replace local labor.
While one of them emphasized that theirs was a social protest, and not a political movement as such, he acknowledged that, for him, the movement was inseparable from the larger themes of promoting both Amazigh identity and democracy. Outside support—mostly moral—comes from sympathetic Europeans and Amazigh associations such as Tamaynut, but the degree of interaction and coordination with other civil society groups has actually declined since 2011, they said, owing to preventative actions taken by the authorities.1 Recent actions include preventing a delegation of the French branch of Tamaynut from visiting the site, and the arrest of two activists who had left the encampment to seek medical attention in the town of Tinghir, 30 kilometers away.
In late November 2014, the heaviest storms to hit Morocco in decades resulted in sudden massive floods in the south of the country, in the foothills of the Anti Atlas Mountains. Over 50 people perished, hundreds of homes were destroyed or heavily damaged, livestock was lost and numerous roads were washed away. Although the authorities undertook rescue and relief operations, they were generally deemed insufficient and part of a larger pattern of neglect. People were particularly angered by the use of a garbage truck to remove many of the dead bodies. One month afterwards in downtown Casablanca, approximately 200 Amazigh activists from around the country, male and female together, demonstrated in solidarity with the victims of the floods and denounced the authorities’ treatment of them. Their chants included the following: “We are not Arab”, and “Men and Women are equal”; they had signs that read, “Billions go to Palestine and we seek sugar so we can eat”, and, “We are the natives to the land, we want our rights.”2 The demonstrators were met by a large number of policemen, who roughed some of them up and arrested a few more.
Overall, it appears that the Amazigh movement’s efforts to address the very real insecurity facing the Amazigh population in the Moroccan periphery, and to do so in ways that will support the movement’s overall goals, remain Sisyphean. The activists are held back by both exogenous and endogenous factors. Still, given the increasingly contested public space of today’s Morocco, the state’s partial legitimation of Amazigh identity, and the very real issues of insecurity in the mostly Amazigh periphery, it would be foolish to assume that local protests will remain limited and easily containable in the future. That, after all, is what a lot of people said about another non-Arab, fissiparous mountain folk just a few years ago: the Kurds.
1Drawn from email interviews I conducted with three participants in the protests.
2A journalist present at the protests conveyed this to me.