King Mohammed VI of Morocco pardoned 1,178 people detained during protests in the troubled northern Rif region.
The King issued the pardons as part of an announcement celebrating 18 years on the throne. The mass prisoner release was issued along with a speech promising more development in the Rif.
The Justice Ministry said pardons were issued to those “who have not committed crimes and who are not implicated in serious acts…bearing in mind their family and humanitarian condition.”
The movement’s leader, Nasser Zefzafi, is believed to still be in custody.
Protests have rocked the Berber majority northern Rif region since October 2016, when protests erupted after a fishmonger was crushed to death by a garbage truck.
Demonstrations snowballed into what is now the Hirak movement calling for action against corruption, the slow progress of economic development and police brutality.
In the king’s speech for Throne Day he lashed out at elected officials whom he blamed for the lack of economic progress in the Rif region.
“I fail to understand how officials who do not fulfill their duties can leave home, drive their cars, stop at traffic lights and brazenly and shamelessly look people in the face, knowing that they are aware of their unscrupulous conduct,” he said.
“When an official obstructs or delays the implementation of a development project or a social program, this is not simply a case of dereliction of duty; it amounts to treason because that official is harming the interests of citizens and preventing them from enjoying their legitimate rights.”
However, protesters are wary of the monarch’s proposals to hold elected officials accountable.
In a Facebook post on the International Campaign of Solidarity with Hirak Rif, activist Nadir Bouchmouch set out three objections to the royal plan.
“For people observing what’s happening in Morocco from abroad. The King’s speech yesterday was dangerous and here’s why, in my opinion:
- It explicitly discredits the public sector as a whole and glorifies the private sector. This is a clear sign that the state will wage an unprecedented assault of privatization against the public sector.
- It explicitly discredits elected officials and positions the King as being a force of “opposition” against the elected government (which in fact is powerless). This opens the door to more authoritarian rule.
- It explicitly glorifies the police and applauds their (violent, unlawful, corrupt) approach in stifling dissent in Al-Hoceima. This is a sign that the state is getting ready to escalate violence and state repression.”
Such a scenario of increased authoritarianism would be worrying as it would be likely to increase the legitimacy of the Hirak Rif movement and the likelihood of violent confrontations against the government.
A descent into increased chaos would also put a strain on the country’s political parties, which are seen as under the thumb of the palace. The current prime minister is a former leader of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which was formerly a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. As things stand the (PJD) renounced its loyalty to the international Muslim Brotherhood and is a staunch supporter of the Moroccan monarchy.
However, a chaotic environment could pave the way for more radical elements to insert themselves into the political scene.
In April, the prestigious think tank the Brookings Institute warned royal meddling in politics could increase support for the Islamist movement Al-Adl Wal Ihsane, which boycotted the 2016 elections. There is already suspicion that the king is keeping too tight of a rein on power since he fired Abdelilah Benkiranein as prime minister in April, ostensibly for failure to form a coalition, and replaced him with Saadeddine El Othmani, who formed a coalition government alongside allies of the King.
Al-Adl Wal Ihsane, in contrast to the royalist PJD, rejects the legitimacy of the king and seeks to create an Islamist state.
There are many legitimate grievances in Morocco which need to be solved. For the state to tackle them gradually and organically without the chaos that comes with mass civil unrest will in all likelihood be a much better scenario both for the citizens of Morocco and for the region as a whole.