June 15, 2017 / 12:45 PM / in a month

Protests in northern Morocco swell with calls for royal intervention

Zoulkha Zefzafi, holds a portait of her son, activist and leader of the protest movement Nasser Zefzafi, in her house in the town of Al-Hoceima, Morocco June 3, 2017.Youssef Boudlal EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.

AL-HOCEIMA, Morocco (Reuters) - Under the banner of the People's Movement, Moroccans have just staged the country's biggest political protest since the "Arab Spring" and some now say that only intervention by their king can defuse a deepening crisis.

For months, demonstrators have taken to the streets in Rif region around the northern city of Al-Hoceima to vent their frustrations over the economic, social and political problems of a kingdom that presents itself as a beacon of stability in a turbulent region.

Authorities have responded by arresting as many as 100 leaders and members of the movement, called Hirak al Chaabi in Arabic, since the end of May.

Undaunted, tens of thousands marched through Rabat on Sunday, the greatest number to join a demonstration since a wave of rallies in 2011 forced King Mohamed VI to allow some democratic reforms.

In a country where political protests are rare and the royal palace remains the ultimate power, the demonstrators have directed their anger at the government and the king's entourage rather than the monarch himself. Some, however, believe he must act rapidly.

"I have nothing to say to the government. I address my grievances to the highest authority," said Ahmed Zefzafi, whose son Nasser led the Hirak movement until his recent arrest.

"With one phone call, all of this can be resolved," Zefzafi told Reuters at his family home, just days after a police raid broke down their front door.

So far, the palace has remained silent despite activists' calls for a royal intervention.

The government spokesman declined comment on the issue, saying only: "All the steps and initiatives taken by the government with regards to Al-Hoceima were under direct instruction from King Mohammed VI."

Following a meeting with the king on Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters in Rabat that Mohammed VI is eager to "calm the situation in the Rif region by responding to the demands of this movement".

Deprivation of Dignity

The Hirak movement was born after the gruesome death in October of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in Al-Hoceima, which lies on the Mediterranean coast. Local police confiscated fish they said he had bought illegally and dumped it in a garbage truck. Desperate to recover his stock, Fikri jumped inside and was killed by the vehicle's rubbish crusher.

"We've never seen anyone die that way," Silya Ziani, one of the Hirak leaders, told Reuters shortly before she was arrested herself. "Even Hollywood doesn't think to depict death in that manner."

Ziani, too, believes the king is the only authority able to ease the tension, with economic development vital for creating jobs and easing poverty. "We hear about the king investing in major projects abroad. What about us?" she asked.

Ahmed Zefzafi, father of activist and leader of the protest movement Nasser Zefzafi, is pictured in his house in the town of Al-Hoceima, Morocco June 3, 2017.Youssef Boudlal

Fikri's death has become a symbol of "hogra" - a colloquial Arabic term for the deprivation of a person's dignity due to the abuse of power, corruption and injustice.

The protests - including Sunday's march in the capital which was largely led by the banned Islamist Adl Wal Ihsan (Justice and Spirituality) Movement - echo Morocco's "Feb. 20th" movement of 2011.

Inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt that year, it staged protests over unemployment, judicial reforms and other freedoms, with thousands joining demonstrations nationwide led by activists, leftists and Islamists.

King Mohamed eventually ceded some powers to parliament, and managed the protests with a combination of limited constitutional reforms, heavy policing and hefty public spending.

As in 2011, no-one now openly calls for overthrowing the king, who heads the Muslim world's longest-serving dynasty. Many Moroccans are wary of the kind of instability rocking Libya and other parts of the region. The almost daily protests have been mostly peaceful, with only occasional clashes.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI (R) welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and his wife Brigitte Macron before attending an Iftar meal, the evening meal when Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset, at the King Palace in Rabat, Morocco, June 14, 2017. Picture taken June 14, 2017.Abdeljalil Bounhar/Pool

The demonstrators are demanding the release of the dozens detained on charges including "threatening national security" and "receiving foreign funding". However, "hogra" is the main motivation, with Fikri's death still angering many.

Royal Intervention

Moroccan authorities have arrested 11 people over Fikri's death and promised development projects for Al-Hoceima and the wider Rif region, long a hotbed of anti-government dissent and unrest among the indigenous Berber community.

But while protests persist, government officials trade blame over responsibility for the unrest and for delayed projects. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development leads the government, but the pro-palace Party of Authenticity and Modernity holds most seats for Morocco's northern region.

The unrest comes at a sensitive time as the country prepares more economic reforms, including floating its currency. Many Moroccans depend on money sent by relatives abroad, and the kingdom is also trying to attract investors by presenting itself as a safe haven in a region rocked by strife.

"We have an economic model of development that relies significantly on tourism, remittances and foreign direct investment," said economist Najib Akesbi. "If there isn't a detente through the release of prisoners and real, credible initiatives that address grievances, then the situation is likely to deteriorate."

Rights groups including Amnesty International have criticized the arrests in the Rif region, citing claims of torture, beatings and lack of immediate access to legal counsel. Officials say those arrested are charged in due process.

Even the current holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are fasting, has not slowed the protests in Rif, which once briefly declared itself a republic to contest former Spanish colonial rule in the 1920s.

Zefzafi, who himself was involved in politics in his youth, evoked an Arabic proverb to express his feelings of helplessness over his son's arrest.

"What can a corpse do in front of the corpse washer?" he asked. "Nasser didn't kill anyone, he didn't hurt anyone. I don't have any expectations about how things will continue to unfold."

Editing by Patrick Markey and David Stamp

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