Europe depends heavily on Morocco for cooperation on two most important concerns: Migration and counterterrorism.
Moroccan authorities stifled a women’s protest in the coastal city of Al-Hoceima, campaigning for access to jobs, health services and infrastructure in the northern Rif region.
Police encircled hundreds of female protesters in a public park late on Saturday, impeding others from joining, as the women chanted “freedom, dignity and social justice,” Reuters news agency reported.
Female police officers and riot police pushed the leader of the protest Nawal Ben Aissa – a prominent member of Hirak – away from the group.
She was accompanied at the protest by the mother of Nasser Zefzafi – the 39-year-old leader of the protest movement who was arrested last week for “undermining the security of the state” and other criminal acts.
“We go to sleep in fear and we wake up in fear,” Fatima Alghloubzari, who tried to join the protest, told Reuters.
“We never imagined our city would become like this.”
One woman fainted after police suppressed the protest.
A heavy security presence has been in place around the city’s Sidi Abed square.
According to organisers, police have been increasingly preventing people from joining protests and blocking access since Zefzafi’s arrest.
“Women in northern Morocco were usually confined to their homes. They never participated in politics even if they were educated,” Mohamed Chtatou, a political analyst told Al Jazeera.
“But now women are leading protests, which is significant.”
Out of around 40 people who were reported arrested last week, including core members of Hirak, 25 have been referred to the prosecution.
Their trial began on Tuesday but was pushed back to June 6 at the request of their lawyers, who have complained their clients were ill-treated during detention.
Seven suspects were released on bail and another seven were freed without charge.
“Initially, Moroccan authorities handled these protests peacefully, but they are becoming ferocious now. They are raiding homes and clamping down on protests – and by doing so, they are sending out a very strong message,” Chtatou said.
Political rallies are rare in Morocco and usually heavily policed. But protests in the northern Rif region have been simmering since the death in October of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri, who was crushed to death inside a garbage truck while trying to salvage fish that had been confiscated by police.
Calls for justice for Fikri evolved into a grassroots movement demanding jobs and economic development, with Zefzafi – himself unemployed – emerging as the leader of Hirak.
Since his arrest, after he interrupted a Friday prayer sermon, protests have become a daily occurrence in the town.
Last week, Moroccan government spokesperson Mustapha El-Khalfi acknowledged that the Hirak protests and demands were “legitimate” and stated that authorities were speeding up promised infrastructure and development projects for the region.