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Reconsidering the Rif Revolt (1958-59)

[Image of a Moroccan Liberation Army march in Nador around 1955. Image from] [Image of a Moroccan Liberation Army march in Nador around 1955. Image from]

“The people of the North have previously known the violence of the crown prince; it will be best for them not to know that of the king’s.” It is in this way that Hassan II (1961-1999) addressed himself to the inhabitants of northwest Morocco—and to the rest of the population—in reaction to the riots of 1984. Adopting a scornful and serious tone, the monarch reminded his subjects that he is capable of anything for the sake of conserving power. To refresh their memory, he did not hesitate to make a brief and symbolic allusion to the ferocious repression he carried out against the same regions twenty-five years beforehand. The sovereign's rhetorical choice to refer to the Rif Revolt (1958-59)—one of the most important and least known periods of Moroccan contemporary history--was not anodyne, reflexive, conscious, or unconscious. This revolt crystallized all the tensions, contradictions, and sociopolitical struggles that characterized Moroccan social space following independence. Uncovering this conflict allows for not only better understanding this blurry part of Moroccan history, but also casts new light on the genesis of Hassan II’s system.

The High Stakes of Power

Following independence, Morocco experienced what we can describe as a “revolutionary situation.” This is to say that a number of political factions expressed their irreconcilable ambitions to monopolize the state or to become the state. After the “withdrawal” of France, which was the actual sovereign of a majority of the country for nearly half a century, a number of actors engaged in a bitter power dispute. If the two main actors are indisputably the monarchy and the Istiqlal Party (PI), it is important not to dismiss the rural notables, the officers of the French army, the different resistant groups (Moroccan Liberation Army[MLA], fida’yyun, etc.), and the small parties such as al-Shura wa al-Istqlal (PDI). All measures of cooptation, marginalization, and even eliminating rivals were fair (propaganda, corruption, imprisonment, assassination, etc.). Nevertheless, the two major players were aware that the monopolization of power meant the imperative control over the state apparatus inherited from France, primarily the armed forces and the bureaucracy. For both subjective and objective reasons that are too long to list here, the first fell to the monarchy and the second to the PI: a long power struggle would begin between the two parties.

Pushed by a sort of Darwinian instinct and inspired by the high esteem of its position, the monarchy quickly decided to engage in an offensive, even if it was not favorable in the regional context—the dynasties of Egypt, Tunisia, and Iraq were all overthrown during the 1950s. On the one hand, it exploited all the weakness of the PI (internal struggles, ideological divisions, its leaders’ inexperience, personal ambitions, its quasi-absence in the rural areas, etc.). On the other hand, it stirred the fears of those who worried about the hegemonic pretensions of the PI, especially France, rural notables, the military, and the small parties. In doing so, the monarchy posed itself as the only guarantor of the state’s progression and the interests of all groups. Thus, the monarchy succeeded in organizing a large coalition with the blessing of the old tutelary power.

The Magical Formula

Throughout 1956, the coalition led by the monarchy tried to use all material and symbolic resources at its disposal to weaken the PI. But in order to oust its members from the administration, it was necessary to contrive a tenacious plan. Thanks to the advice of Moroccan and French friends and servants, Prince Moulay Hassan found a magical formula: trigger a rebellion in a rural area to make way for the declaration of martial law and military intervention. This allowed not only for the restoration of order but also for the replacement of PI officials with officers loyal to the crown. A number of reasons explain this choice: the PI had few militants in these zones where a majority of Moroccans lived, the party was widely unpopular due to schemes of certain agents who were perceived as new “colons,” and the local notables feared the loss of their privileges and did not support a political initiative that came from the city.

This plan most likely had the stamp of approval from both Mohammed V (1927-1961) and the French military authorities still in place. It had been in executed in the Tafilalet region in January 1957. The operation, dubbed the “rebellion” of caïd Addi Ou Bihi, was an outright success. The monarchy demonstrated that it was the sole vector of unity, stability, and efficiency and it was prepared to reproduce the same scenario elsewhere.

The Fellah, Defender of the Throne

During 1957, Morocco entered a sort of latent crisis due to economic and social problems that arose as a result of independence and the political instability only added to this situation. Everyone looked for a scapegoat: the PI was designed to play this role. The monarchy counted on profiting from this situation to seal the fate of the PI. Beyond the usual destabilizing tactics, it decided to create a major political party represented by those disenchanted by the PI, namely the rural notables. The mission entrusted Abdelkrim Khatib and Mahjoubi Aherdan, two loyal servants of the throne. While the latter could easily mobilize the notables of the countryside, the former could seduce members of various resistance groups. The Popular Movement (PM) came to be on 28 September 1957. Even though the government dominated by the Istiqlal Party dissolved less than a month later, the "party of Sidna" (informal title of king) continued to act freely and even managed to mobilize many people. Its partisans focused their efforts on four main regions: the Middle Atlas, Beni Snassen, Zemmour, and the Rif.

The operation gained steam starting in the spring of 1958 following the internal crisis that shook the PI. PM partisans, supported by Prince Moulay Hassan, doubled down on their efforts to level their wounded enemy: attacks, acts of sabotage, kidnappings, assassinations, demonstrations, and petitions multiplied (it is important to note here that the PI also engaged in similar methods). The tone of journals in opposition to Istiqlal was more than critical, and debates centered especially on the public liberties decree that the PI wanted to bury.

The monarchy-led coalition did not just stop there. It was the moment to use the magic formula: trigger rebellions in a number of rural regions. A series of meetings were necessary between August and September of 1958 in order to devise the plan, the most important of which took place at the Sable d’or beach near Rabat and Fes.

An Almost Perfect Scenario

The chosen ploy was ingenious: exhume the body of a number of resistance fighters who fell in combat or were assassinated, the most notable of whom as Abbas Messaadi, the coordinator of the Moroccan Liberation Army (MLA) in Nador, in order to organize pompous funeral services in Ajdir, a city in the Rif. This ceremony took place on 2 October 1958. The details were anything but banal. The date chosen corresponded with the third anniversary of the creation of the MLA. Appropriating the bodies of martyrs became an appropriation of their history and legitimacy. This was especially true for Messaadi who, in addition, was reportedly assassinated by the PI. Moreover, the Rif was not just one of the most significant sites of resistance, but was also one of the regions where Istiqlal was the least present and most unpopular.

Everything happened as planned. The funeral services evolved into a political demonstration against the PI, which was comprised of between eight thousand and ten thousand participants. In addition to the partisans of the MP, members of different factions from the MLA and the PDI were present, as well was local notables and ordinary citizens disenchanted with the situation. The heavy-handed intervention and clumsiness of the authorities provoked confrontations and arrests. Tension mounted. A blood bath was avoided thanks to an army battalion’s intervention, but the harm was done.

Khatib and Aherdan left Ajdir and were arrested the following day at the request of the PI. But they had the time to prepare everything under the watch of the crown prince and tacit consent of the king. Three “rebellions” broke out during the days that followed, all led by allies of MP leaders. Colonel Belmiloudi, Aherdan’s aide-de-camp, went underground in the Oulmès region. Mohand Ou Haddou took refuge in the Tahala region in the Middle Atlas, whereas Massoud Akjouj withdrew to the “triangle of death” (Aknoul, Boured, Tizi Ousli), not far from Taza. The two latter figures were former caïds the PI deposed. Each of them had a few hundred men at their disposal and a small amount of modern weapons. Additionally, several other minor trouble spots began emerging, including in Khémisset and Beni Snassen.

Initially, the palace pretended to respect local tradition by sending a number of emissaries to negotiate the surrender of the “rebels” faced with their imminent fates. But matters quickly escalated to something direr. The Rabat and Taza provinces were declared as military zones, 19 October and 3 November 1958 respectively. This allowed for the replacements of PI officials with those from the military. The magic formula appeared to be working once again. But an event thwarted the monarchical party’s plans: a real uprising broke out in the heart of the Rif.

A Case of the Biter Bit

Since 1957, a certain malaise began appearing in the formerly Spanish controlled zones, namely in the Rif. If independence was expected, its fruits were slow to ripen. In sum, elites and the local populations were disappointed with the ongoing integration processes: people with origins in the formerly French controlled zones monopolized high positions; people accustomed to autonomy resented the government’s Jacobin politics; inflation due to reunification was unbearable, especially since many people were deprived of income due to the colonial army’s dissolution, the closure of the borders with Algeria, and many years of drought. Without dismissing the weight of these local factors, it is important to also recognize the window of opportunity that opened in light of the struggles between the monarchy and the PI. In other words, it was the transposition of a national conflict to the local level that favored the outbreak of the Rif Revolt.

It was in the confusion that followed the funeral services of the MLA martyrs that political contestation began in a number of regions in the Rif countryside, namely in Gueznaya and Beni Ouriaghel. A number of PI headquarters were set on fire, officials were chased out, communication was sabotaged, acts of violence were committed, and general strikes were organized in a number of cities. The populations, however, chose to react out of a traditional repertoire. They boycotted the markets, withdrew from the villages to the mountains, and refused to work the lands and pay taxes. All these actions amounted to the symbolic rejection of ties with the central government.

It did not appear that Rabat was taking the developments seriously. While the PI was engulfed in crisis, the monarchy was trying to secure its power in Oulmès and Taza. It was not until the end of the month that the monarchy became aware of the situation’s severity. On 27 October, Ahmed Lyazidi, Minister of Defense, invested in the military and civil powers in the region. He attempted, without success, to restore order and was quickly marginalized. It was at this moment that Mohammed V entered the scene. From 11 November, he received a number of Riffian delegations and promised to consider their grievances. To this effect, he established a commission of inquiry and sent in state figures with origins from the Rif in order to pacify the situation, most notably General Meziane and Commander Medbouh.

These developments did not prevent the Riffian notables from continuing to send petitions throughout the month of November. Most of the petitions expressed socio-economic demands (lower taxes, the right to farm in the forests, and maintenance for the local elites). But other petitions carried political demands (the dissolution of the PI, removal of foreign troops, improved sociopolitical integration, autonomy of the northern provinces, the return of Khattabi, Arabization, the implementation of sharia, free elections, etc.).

The monarchy wanted to capitalize on the confusion in order to reinforce its influence and control. The king decided to move the celebrations for Throne Day from Marrakech to Tétouan. This allowed him to dispatch 13,000 men—around half of the royal army—under the guise of organizing a military parade. The Hoceima province was declared a military zone on 26 November. The following day, the long awaited public liberties decree was promulgated, a legal move that limited political freedom and legalized the elimination of political rivals.

The Last Harka

The situation deteriorated throughout the month of December. Even though the army encircled the region, a sort of siba (contestation vis-a-vis the central authority) was entrenched and spread throughout the kingdom. The PI was in the process of splintering into different factions and unable to react, while the monarchy, which enjoyed France's support, was the only actor calling the shots. The monarchy tried, in vain, to use its prestige to restore calm. At the same time, a more or less organized armed movement developed in Gueznaya and Beni Ouriaghel. Mohammed Sallam Ameziane, a young graduate from al-Karaouine, directed this movement. Ameziane embodied all the frustrations associated with independence. He came from a prestigious Riffian lineage that the new ruling class marginalized, he was a member of the MLA and the PDI, both of which the palace and the PI hoped to eliminate. He was also a victim of extortion at the hands of the authorities, having spent more than two years in prison without being formally charged. Finally, Khattabi and Nasser fascinated him; he profoundly believed in the ideas and hopes they embodied.

France, the monarchy, the PI, and even Spain were scared; they could not allow a player that could potentially break the fragile local and regional balances to flourish. They were resigned to take action for each of their own particular interests. 26 December would mark the beginning of a harka (a punitive expedition). Prince Moulay Hassan directed operations from Tétouan. On the ground, Commander Oufkir, the King’s aide-de-camp, directed the more decisive operations after Generals Meziane and Kattani’s failures. Four-fifths of the army, or around 20,000 men, were deployed in the region. To legitimize this act, Mohammed V delivered a speech on 5 January 1959 where he denounced the rebels and gave them forty-eight hours to surrender. In reality, however, the operations to suppress the rebels began on 2 January.

The monarchy also imposed a media blackout alongside the military operations. Journalists, especially foreign ones, were not permitted to stay in the region. Those who dared to venture on without permission were arrested and deported. Such was the case with several French, English, and American media correspondents. Moroccan newspapers, whatever their political background, were content to reproduce the information that the authorities passed along and publish controlled editorials that cried conspiracy. Publications that deviated from the official narrative were immediately censured.

Even though they were poorly armed and held to no foreign support, Ameziane’s two to three thousand men (most of whom were veterans of the Spanish legion, the Moroccan Liberation Army, and Khattabi’s army) succeeded in defeating the royal army in a number of instances. Nearly one thousand soldiers lost their lives. Insurgent fire even damaged the crown prince’s airplane, though Moulay Hassan survived. Combat was so harsh, especially in Beni Ouriaghel and Gueznaya, that the army resorted to French aviation, artillery, and tanks for their own advantage. It was only two weeks later that the insurgents were derailed. While the majority of the leaders were arrested, some of them managed to get away. Ameziane initially sought refuge in Spain before leaving for Egypt then Iraq. Prince Moulay Hassan and Oufkir’s men proved to be ruthless toward the innocent population with extortion, arbitrary arrests, rape, and executions. The Beni Hadifa village, for example, one of the strongholds of the revolt, was destroyed and its four hundred inhabitants were massacred. In total, the suppression of the revolt resulted in thousands of victims and serious psychological, social, political, and economic consequences.

After months of “cleaning operations,” to use military jargon, Mohammed V launched a triumphal tour in the Rif during 1959 to display his power and the end of the last harka. Within a matter of months, he succeeded in defeating the odds and emerged as the master of the country, monopolizing both the armed forces and the bureaucracy, as well as permanently weakening the opposition. This ascension to absolute power was facilitated under France’s blessing, an alliance with the rural notables, military support, and the implosion/explosion of the Istiqlal Party. The Rif was, without a doubt, one of the main victims of a grand power scheme to control the state…to become the state.

[This article was originally published in French and translated by the Maghreb Page Editors.]

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