Several thousand people protested in a provincial northern Moroccan town to demand the authorities release an activist arrested for leading months of demonstrations against official abuses and corruption.
The protest took place late on Friday in the town of Al-Hoceima where tensions have run high since activist Nasser Zefzafi was detained at the start of the week and charged with threatening national security, among other offences.
Political unrest is rare in the North African kingdom but protests around Al-Hoceima have been simmering since October after a fishmonger was crushed inside a garbage truck while trying to salvage his fish that had been confiscated by police.
Chanting “the people demand prisoners be freed” and “we are all Zefzafi” several thousand people gathered in Al-Hoceima’s Sidi Abed square late on Friday night. Some protesters put tape on their mouths and tied their hands to symbolise arrests.
“Nasser defended his rights, he defended our rights, he’s our hero. He did nothing to deserve arrest,” said Zahya Al-Hassani, a mother of four.
Many carried flags representing the Rif region, which has a history of dissent and once declared brief independence under a local Berber leader in the 1920s during war with colonial Spanish forces.
Authorities placed a heavy police presence around the town and the square, where protesters said they had prevented a larger crowd from forming. Hours early in nearby Imzouren, police fired water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters who clashed with security forces, tossing rocks and rubble.
Fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri’s death has become a symbol for frustrations about official abuses and revived the spirit of the February 20 movement that led pro-democracy rallies in 2011 and prompted King Mohammed VI to cede some of his powers.
“We never imagined Fikri’s death would reach this point. The people are angry,” said Suleiman Ben Kadder, who said he knew the fishmonger at the port where he worked.
While some anger in the Al-Hoceima protests has been directed at “Makhzen”, the royal governing establishment, the unrest in northern Morocco, as in 2011, has not been aimed at the king. Morocco has a deeply rooted monarchy, the Muslim world’s longest-serving dynasty.
But the unrest around Al-Hoceima and the Rif region is testing nerves in a kingdom that presents itself as a model for stability and steady reform, as well as a safe haven for foreign investment in a region widely torn by militant violence.