It could be said that these desperate young people have fallen victim to the region's third blight – a surfeit of time. Time is a commodity that the younger generation in the Rif, particularly in the cities, has in abundance, much more so than in other parts of Morocco. Unfortunately it is a commodity that can be put to very little use.

Hanging around

In the city of Al-Hoceima, for example, which lies on the Mediterranean coast, almost exactly half way between Ceuta and Melilla, there is simply nothing to do – no leisure activities, no culture, and no work. Groups of young men hang around, smoking in the squares and on street corners by day and in cafes in the evenings. There is nothing to do but wile away the long hours and drink tea. It is the male population that is visible here; women are not welcome in the cafes and expected to stay at home. The young unemployed of the coastal town are ubiquitous, as almost everywhere else in North Africa, where the average age is around 25.

Many eke out a meagre living doing odd jobs for seven to ten euros a day, such as helping out in a tailor's shop or washing dishes. Such jobs last for three or four months in the year; the rest of the time is spent looking for work.

Refugees in the Moroccan province of Nador gaze down on the Spanish exclave of Melilla (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
So near and yet so far from Europe: Many young Moroccans are leaving their country because of high levels of youth unemployment and a sheer lack of prospects. They often regard fleeing to Europe as the only chance of improving their lives

The dream of escape

There is no doubt about what the main topic of conversation on the street corners and cafes is? Emigration is the talk of the town. Everyone here dreams of escaping their lot. The destination – Spain, Belgium or Germany; it doesn't really matter, as long as it's Europe, where everything is better. Even the children and young people want to leave Al-Hoceima. The dreams they have of a brighter future somewhere else in the world are all they have.

At least that's the way it was until the end of last year. Then something happened that brought new hope. Suddenly people began to talk about the possibility that together they just might be able to do something to change things.

For some months now this hope has been sustaining a growing popular agitation. The young people of the Rif have had enough of their present lives and bleak prospects. It was in November of 2016 when one of their number, who actually had a job, died under circumstances that have never been fully explained. Mohsin Fikri was a fish-seller who got into trouble with the police when they confiscated his illegal swordfish catch and threw it into a refuse truck. He jumped in to try to retrieve it and was crushed to death by the waste compacter. Why and by who it was turned on remains a matter of speculation and anger.

The intensity of the storm of protest caused by the death surprised the authorities, as did the resoluteness of the protesters. Even now, the authorities in Rabat seem incapable of understanding why it is that so many young people in Al-Hoceima apparently have nothing better to do than organise regular mass protests and vent their frustration on the streets. Perhaps the young demonstrators were also surprised by their own actions at first. But what else could they do?

And this is precisely the problem. The protests will not stop for this reason. And if they do, they will certainly flare up once more, sooner or later, perhaps in a different part of Morocco … or in Tunisia, Algeria or Libya. The three afflictions that blight the Rif are familiar throughout North Africa.

Susanne Kaiser

© 2017

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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