The Plight of the Rif: Morocco’s Restive Northern Periphery

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The Plight of the Rif: Morocco’s Restive Northern Periphery

The Moroccan journalist, Hamid Naimi, has received a number of ominous and mysterious death threats in the last few weeks. Based out of the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the northern Moroccan coast, Naimi’s blistering reports on the corruption of the Moroccan central government and its treatment of the Berber periphery have become a thorn in the side of the administration.

Naimi, originally from Morocco’s northern region, the Rif, has been in exile since 2005, when his newspaper Kawaliss Rif (“Stories from the Rif”) was shut down by the government.

The travails of Naimi expose the challenge of Morocco in dealing effectively with its Berber periphery, particularly the Rifian Berbers in the north. The Arab Spring protests across the country have led to new constitutional reforms for the nation, yet more must be done to account for and alleviate the problems of the Rif and its Berber tribes who have felt neglected by the central government for decades.

Over the past year, protests in the Rif pointed to the issues which plague the region – high rates of poverty, unemployment, a media blockade and brutal tactics employed by the police to crush any unrest. To understand the current relationship between Morocco and its northern periphery, we must look into the history of the Rif with its Berber tribes and its interactions with the centre.

Resisting encroachment

The largely unknown mountainous region of the Rif, meaning “the edge of cultivated land”, in northern Morocco has struggled with central authority for the past century. The Rifian Berbers, ensconced in their mountains, have lived according to a code of honour, hospitality and revenge within their system of clans and kinship networks, allowing them to regulate justice and social order without the presence of state institutions for centuries. The Rifian Berbers, distinct from the Atlas Berbers in central Morocco, have their own Berber dialect, Tarifit.

Sean Connery depicted the importance of dignity and honour among the Rifians with empathy in the 1975 film The Wind and the Lion. Connery, himself a Scotsman, played the Rifian tribal chief Mulai Ahmed el Raisuli with flair. The film recounts the historic events surrounding el Rasiuli’s kidnapping of an American expatriate, Ion Perdicaris (portrayed in the film as a woman played by a glamorous Candice Bergen), and his son for a ransom and control of two government districts from the Moroccan Sultan.

Connery’s acting accurately displays el Raisuli’s reputation of treating his hostages with respect and hospitality, even going so far as protecting them from harm. Perdicaris would later write of el Raisuli, “He is not a bandit, not a murderer, but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny”.

The Rifians with their sense of honour and fierce independence resisted the encroachment of central authority. Beginning in the late 19th century, Spain made a number of military incursions into the Rif region, clashing with the Berber tribes. With the establishment of the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco in 1912 over the north of the country, the Spanish military attempted to bring the mountainous area under central rule.

By 1921, Abd-el-Krim, a Rifian tribal leader, declared independence from Spain. Abd-el-Krim caught the attention of international media, appearing on the cover of TIME Magazine in August 1925. To defeat Abd-el-Krim and his allied tribes, Spain relied on overwhelming military force and the extensive use of early forms of air power and chemical weapons to subjugate the rebellious tribes.

King Alfonso XIII of Spain captured the mood of the country when he stated that the aerial gas campaign was for “the extermination, like that of malicious beasts, of the Beni Urriaguels [Abd-el-Krim’s tribe] and the tribes who are closest to Abdel Karim”. The resulting war which ended in 1926 proved devastating for both: the Spanish lost as many as 50,000 men and the Rifians had roughly 30,000 casualties.

With the Rif’s inclusion into independent Morocco in 1956, the Rifians felt sidelined with Arabs, who represented the dominant culture, and others from Francophone Morocco favoured for administrative posts within the newly centralised government.

Violence erupted in the Rif in October 1958 when tribesmen attacked markets and local offices of the nationalist Istiqlal Party and, then, escaped into the mountains. Despite these attacks against the state, the Rifians were quick to express their traditional loyalty to King Mohammed V due to his holy lineage, separating his religious authority from his political authority.

This has been how Berbers have viewed central authority throughout history. During lulls in battles between government forces and Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains in the late 19th century, for example, Berber women would kiss the Sultan’s cannons and ask them for benediction in order to defeat the Sultan’s forces, as the cannons carried the Baraka, or blessing of the Sultan and thus the Prophet.

‘Cruel punishment’

In January 1958, the government responded to the Rifians’ overtures of violence with 20,000 troops of the newly formed Forces Armees Royales (FAR), over two-thirds of the entire army, led by Crown Prince Hassan, to carry out what the King called a “cruel punishment”.

When the Crown Prince’s plane was landing in the Rif Mountains, he was greeted by gunfire from Rifian sharpshooters hiding in the brush at the edge of the landing strip. The FAR responded by indiscriminately bombing entire villages and raping Rifian women. The uprising came to an end in the following month with casualties for the tribesmen exceeding 10,000.

After King Hassan ascended the throne in 1961, the Rif remained largely neglected by the central government and as a result, suffered from some of the highest levels of poverty in the country. In the Rif in the 1960s, for example, the infant mortality rate within one week of birth was over 50 per cent.

With very little development from the centre and lacking economic opportunities, its people were forced to resort to widespread hash cultivation and smuggling merely to survive. Many Rifians chose to settle in slums surrounding Casablanca and other major Moroccan cities or travelled to Europe as migrant labourers with the majority of Moroccan immigrants in Europe from the Rif.

The bread riots in the Rif in the 1980s, sparked by rising food prices, were quickly suppressed by the government with King Hassan describing the Rifians in a nationally televised speech as “savages and thieves”.

The unrest in the Rif is based in their tumultuous history as a battered people on Morocco’s northern periphery. Understanding their history, the people of the Rif need to be treated with compassion and sympathy. This presents not only a dilemma for dealing with the Rif, but also an opportunity.

For the Moroccan centre, King Mohammed VI is almost unique in the Muslim world as a ruler with a holy lineage. The King, with the compassion and Baraka of the Prophet, should act to help these beleaguered people while respecting their culture and understanding their history.

The Rifians only want the rights and opportunities of full citizens of a modern and inclusive Morocco. Only then can peace and stability be brought to the troubled northern periphery of an important Muslim nation.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Harrison Akins is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, to be published by Brookings Press in January 2013.

This article was published by Al Jazeera on September 28, 2012. Read it here. 

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