This essay is part of a series that examines the genesis, evolution, mobilization tools and processes, impacts and limitations of informal civil society in political transitions, that is, loose groupings of like-minded individuals—those that are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated—in the MENA and Southeast Asia. Read more ...

Since the 2011 Arab Spring suprisings, research on informal civic activism, and civil society more broadly, has often focused on the role of the Internet. Specifically, Facebook and other social media facilitated both the organization and the spread of the Arab Spring protests, which initially led to widespread enthusiasm about their alleged role for the mobilization of democratic resistance in current times.[1] Newer research, however, has increasingly pointed to ways in which such overly positive assessments about the role of the Internet in the mobilization of popular protests must be further differentiated and diversified. For instance, studies by both the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) and the Pew Research Center have indicated that social media might have played a bigger role in communicating the Arab Spring protests to the outside world than in causing these uprisings in the first place.[2] Similarly, Cavatorta has noted that while online activism indeed played a crucial role in the Arab Spring protests, the latter were “not ‘Twitter revolutions’ insofar as street mobilization and face-to-face social networks were crucial” in their mobilization.[3]

When investigating the relative role that social media and other factors can play in the mobilization of popular demonstrations, the recent Rif protests, which some have perceived as having the potential to spark a “second Arab Spring” in Morocco,[4] are interesting to look at. These protests suggest that large-scale popular demonstrations might often result from a combination of both online mobilization and much more traditional mobilization strategies employed by charismatic movement leaders. In this sense, the Rif protests also contradict assumptions about the presumed role of “diffuse leadership,” which emerged in the context of the Arab Spring.[5]

The Growth of the “Hirak” Movement and the Role of Social Media

The mountainous Rif region of Morocco, disproportionately poor compared to the rest of the country and inhabited mainly by Amazigh (the Berber ethnic group), has a history of unrest and rebellion. Abd El Krim Al-Khattabi, whom many consider as a local hero, led a short-lived Rif Republic in the 1920s, and immediately after Morocco’s independence, a rebellion in the Rif was brutally suppressed by the state.[6] The most recent mass protests were catalyzed by popular outrage over the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri from Al-Hoceima who was crushed in a garbage truck on October 28, 2016 when he was trying to save his confiscated merchandise. Large sections of the local population saw this as yet another example of arbitrary violence on the part of the government. The protests were soon spearheaded by what has come to be known as the “Hirak” movement, led by Nasser Zefzafi, a 39 year-old unemployed man, whose straightforward, and often rough, appearance and rhetoric found broad appeal among the masses.[7]

Large-scale, peaceful, protests took place in Al-Hoceima in the days following Fikri’s death, on the 40th day after his death, and on the 45th anniversary of Al Khattabi’s death on February 5, 2017.[8] Protests continued throughout the spring, and then seemed to be dying down, until the Hirak movement’s charismatic leader Nasser Zefzafi interrupted a sermon in a mosque, asking if the mosque was to serve God or those in power.[9] This crossed a red line for the government, and Zefzafi was arrested on May 29.[10] His arrest reinvigorated the protests, and a large-scale solidarity protest occurred in Rabat on June 11.[11]

Online activism has played an important role in Moroccan society in recent years, leading for example to the arrests of traffic police officers taking bribes in 2008 and an amendment in January 2013 to Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, which had previously allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they agreed to marry their victims.[12] From the beginning, the Internet also played a crucial role in the mobilization of the “Hirak” movement. On October 30, 2016, BBC Monitoring reported that the Arabic hashtag #crush_the_hell_out_of_him had spawned more than 11,800 tweets, while the Arabic hashtag #We_are_all_Mohsen_Fikri had generated 12,800 tweets in 24 hours, respectively.[13] By February 2017, Zefzafi reportedly had approximately 59,000 followers on Facebook, and often used the platform to spread his ideas and call for protests.[14] As another example, a letter reportedly written by Zefzafi from prison to “the people of the Rif and the homeland” was widely spread via social media, as was leaked prison footage, which allegedly showed that Zefzafi had been tortured.[15]

The Role of Traditional Mobilization Strategies in the Formation of the “Hirak” Movement

The obvious role of the Internet as a mobilization tool notwithstanding, an analysis of available press reports dealing with the mobilization strategies employed in the “Hirak” movement reveals a complex mixture of online mobilization and much more traditional organizational tactics, such as the use of pre-existing personal networks and face-to-face mobilization. As early as November 24, 2016, the online media outlet Lakome, launched by well-known regime-critical journalists, reported the formation of a committee that was charged with a large variety of functions, including the organization of protests, the consultation of local communities, the compilation of a list of demands, and the building of communication bridges linking the movement’s rural and urban constituencies.[16] Similarly, protestors reportedly toured several villages in December 2016 and held meetings with locals, trying to organize further protests.[17] According to an article published by Hespress, Morocco’s biggest independent news website, movement leader Zefzafi also tried to mobilize inhabitants of Al-Hoceima in “open meetings” in April 2017, calling for a “march of a million.”[18]

In addition, articles published in the local and the international press also indicate that pre-existing activist networks, civil society organizations, and even family ties also played a role in the mobilization of the Hirak movement. An article published in Al-Monitor in November 2016 quoted a journalist-activist as saying that “most field leaders [of the current protests] are from the February 20 Movement [which challenged the regime during the Arab Spring], and they have been in constant activism throughout Morocco calling for justice and dignity.”[19] As one example, Mohammed Jaloul, a leading activist of the Hirak movement, had been a prominent February 20 Movement leader and served five years in prison in connection to this.[20] Similarly, Amazigh youth, who played an important role in the Hirak movement, had also constituted a crucial pillar of the alliance of Amazigh activists, Islamists, and trade union militants, which had been an important driving force of the Moroccan Arab Spring.[21] Before, during, and after the February 20 Movement, the Amazigh movement had established recruitment networks, where youth were informed by “friends, neighbours and teachers, or [in] spaces such as the Maisons de la Jeunesse or cultural complexes [...] about Amazigh associations or the type of activities they organize.”[22] Amazigh youth thus came into both the February 20 Movement and the Rif protests with activist know-how and organizational skills.[23]

Traditional civil society groups and formal political actors have also joined in the Hirak-led protests. Notably, Lefèvre has alleged that, “the nationwide protests of late 2016 may well have witnessed the joint participation of leftists from the Association Marocaine des Droits de l’Homme and Islamists from ʿAdl wa’l-Ihsan, a popular Sufi opposition movement.”[24] Both of these organizations called for protests in the wake of Fikri’s death.[25] Similarly, in late April 2017, leftist political activists and trade union leaders in Rabat reportedly founded a group called the National Committee for the Support of Hirak al-Rif and Its Just Demands. [26]  A Facebook group with the same name has more than 3,000 members and actively calls for participation in street protests.[27]

Al-ʿAdl wal-Ihsan, a banned but, for the most part, tolerated Islamist group, which some consider the only opposition group capable of mobilizing large masses across Morocco,[28] played a crucial role in organizing the solidarity protests against Zefzafi’s arrest in Rabat on June 11. The protests constituted the largest demonstrations in the capital since 2011 and drew thousands of people,[29] including members of Amazigh groups and leftist parties as well as activists of the February 20 Movement.[30] Alongside Al-ʿAdl wal-Ihsan, the protests had also been called for by human rights groups.[31] According to the Middle East Monitor, the demonstrations ended with a joint statement issued by a large variety of groups, including ‘trade unions, human rights organizations, youth groups and women’s movements.’[32] On June 19, 2017, the Moroccan Human Rights Association again attempted to mobilize for protests in Rabat in solidarity with the Hirak movement, but the demonstrations were violently dispersed.[33]

Last but not least, family ties also appear to have played a role in the mobilization of both the Hirak movement and the solidarity protests organized in its support. Notably, Zefzafi’s parents participated in the Rabat protests on June 11, 2017,[34] and his mother had previously led a woman’s protest in Al-Hoceima.[35] This recourse to the use of family relationships as a means of mobilization might have been helped by the fact that Zefzafi reportedly comes from a local political family.[36]

At the same time, it is noteworthy that the mixture of modern and traditional — as well as of informal and formal — mobilization tactics appears to have created tensions within the broader protest movement. In November 2016, for instance, Al Jazeera quoted a member of the Hirak movement’s Provisional People’s Committee as saying that the original movement had no relationship to any political or civil organization.[37] This points to a desire of several Hirak activists to maintain their independence from established civil society groups, such as Al-ʿAdl wal-Ihsan, that jumped on the bandwagon of the Hirak movement and publicly supported its cause. In this regard, it is also noteworthy that the Amazigh movement has a long history of skepticism towards Islamist movements and civil society groups.[38] In addition, leaders of the Hirak movement have reportedly accused both leftist activists from the Democratic Way Party and members of the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which is often seen as close to the palace, of trying to penetrate the movement and exploit the death of Mouhcine Fikri.[39]

Beyond the Rif Protests: Mixed Mobilization Tactics in the MENA region and Southeast Asia

A cursory comparison with other recent examples of social protests strongly suggests that the pattern of a complex mixture of online and more traditional tactics has also been employed in many other large-scale social mobilizations both in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and beyond. One prominent example from North Africa, which shares several characteristics with the Rif protests, is constituted by the protests against shale gas exploration in the town of In Salah in southern Algeria. Like the Rif protests, the anti-shale gas demonstrations started in a town in a marginalized region, were fueled by deep-seated frustrations about long-standing regional inequalities and later spread to nearby areas, finally creating a political impact at the national level as well.[40] Twitter and Facebook played an important role in communicating the protests to the national and even the international level, thereby contributing to the formation of larger solidarity networks.[41] At the same time, however, environmental groups,[42] opposition civil society groups and print media as well as established human rights organizations also played an important role in organizing and supporting the demonstrations. For instance, the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (LADDH), Algeria’s most well-known human rights association, which also played a leading role in the Coordination Nationale pour le Changement et la Démocratie (CNCD) that organized anti-regime protests during the Arab Spring,[43] has issued statements in support of the protestors.[44] Moreover, according to its own accounts, the LADDH also had a collective of human rights defenders to help the anti-shale gas activists in the South.[45] Professors from the University of Sétif reportedly organized a conference on the issue,[46] while El Watan, one of the country’s most important independent newspapers, criticized government repression of the protests.[47]

Complex mixtures of online communication and traditional organizational tactics have played a role in the mobilization of social protests in other regions of the world as well. Notably, this also includes protests that differ from both the Rif and the Algerian anti-shale gas demonstrations in terms of their breadth, main leadership and ideological underpinnings. The Burmese “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, which was mainly led by the country’s Buddhist monks in the former capital Yangon and constituted the biggest popular uprising against the Burmese military regime since the 1988 student protests, is a case in point. Photo and video footage of both the monks’ demonstrations and the government’s ensuing crackdown that was taken inside Burma (often with mobile phone cameras) and disseminated through the Internet contributed to creating international awareness about the Saffron Revolution and connected activists on the ground to the Burmese pro-democracy movement in exile.[48] Inside the county, however, traditional mobilization tactics, pre-existing organization structures and long-term personal relationships often played a much bigger role in the mobilization of the protests. Notably, the demonstrations of the monks were preceded by rather small-scale protests against the government’s increase in the price of fuel and natural gas, which were mainly organized by the 88 Generation Students, a group of former political prisoners who had been at the forefront of the 1988 uprising.[49] When the monks’ demonstrations took off in Yangon, they looked very well organized, being constituted of several blocks of protesters. According to an expert on Buddhism in Burma who interviewed several monks who participated in the Saffron Revolution, this was primarily the case, because monks who came from the same school normally marched side by side in one block. Conversely, the different schools involved in the protests could often coordinate their moves, because several young monks belonging to different schools came from the same home villages and called each other before the demonstrations.[50]

Other combinations of online and traditional mobilization tactics are bound to be found in other cases of social protests in Southeast Asia, the MENA region, and beyond — phenomena that future research should seek to explore.


[1] See, for example, Maike Transfeld and Isabelle Werenfels, “The Role of Twitter in the MENA Region,” in Maike Transfeld and Isabelle Werefels, eds., #HashtagSolidarities: Twitter Debates and Networks in the MENA Region, SWP Research Paper 5: Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (March 2016): 5, 9.

[2] Heather Brown, Emily Guskin and Amy Mitchell, The Role of Social Media in the Arab Uprisings, PEW Research Center, November 28, 2012, accessed July 17, 2017,

[3] Francesco Cavatorta, Arab Spring: The Awakening of Civil Society. A General Overview (Barcelona: European Institute of the Mediterranean [IEMed], 2012) 9, accessed July 17, 2017,

[4] Sarah Yerkes, Why Morocco’s protests won’t usher in another Arab Spring, Brookings Institution, November 2, 2016, accessed July 18, 2017,….

[5] Francesco Cavatorta, Arab Spring: The Awakening of Civil Society, 79.

[6] See Said Faiq, “The Status of Berber: A Permanent Challenge to Language Policy in Morocco,” Suleiman, ed., Language and Society in the Middle East and North Africa (Richmond: Curzon, 2013); Paul Silverstein, “A New Morocco? Amazigh Activism, Political Pluralism and Anti-Anti-Semitism,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 18, 2 (2012); Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “A turning point? The Arab Spring and the Amazigh movement,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38, 14 (2015) 2499ff.

[7] Ursula Lindsey, “Morocco’s Rebellious Mountains Rise Up Again,” New York Times, June 28, 2017, accessed June 30, 2017,; Merouan Mekouar, “Morocco’s protesters show no sign of letting up. Will their movement spread?” Washington Post,  June 5, 2017, accessed June 10, 2017,….

[8] “Activists call for protest to mark fish vendor’s death in Morocco’s Hoceima,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, December 10, 2016; “Moroccan official responds to protest dispersal in country’s north,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, February 8, 2017.

[9] Kenza Oumlil, “Making sense of recent protests in Morocco,” Al Jazeera, June 4, 2017, accessed June 5, 2017,….

[10] “Morocco parties decry crackdown on Rif protests,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, May 30, 2017.

[11] ‘’Largest’ protest since 2011 in Moroccan capital,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, June 12, 2017. 

[12] Zaid Bouziane, “Internet and democracy in Morocco: A force for change and an instrument for repression,” Global Media and Communication 12, 1 (2016) 58.

[13] “Moroccans outraged by fish seller’s death after fight with police,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, October 30, 2016.

[14] ‘Morocco Al Hocema protest leader calls on Facebook for new rally on 12 February’, BBC Monitoring Middle East, 7 February 2017.

[15] For example, by at 21:53 CET, July 5 2017, on Facebook – a post which was shared hundreds of times. The letter can also be found here:  ‘Al-Zafzāfī yuwajihu risāla khaṭiyya min al-sijin ila abna’ al-rīf’,, July 5, 2017, accessed July 13, 2017,عاجل-الزفزافي-يوجه-رسالة-خطية-من-السجن/. See also: “Uproar over leaked prison footage of Moroccan protest leader,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, July 11, 2017.

[16] “Daʿuwwāt lil nuzūl ila al-shāriʿ bil-Husayma li takhliīd al-dhikrā al-arbʿīniyya li wifāt Muḥsin Fikrī,” Lakome, November 24, 2016, accessed June 20, 2017,

[17] “Masīra bil-Husayma bil-Maghrab tandīdan bi muqatil baʾiʿa al-samak,” Al Jazeera, accessed June 20, 2017,مسيرة-بالحسيمة-بالمغرب-…

[18] Ṭāriq Banhadā, “Nashiṭāʾ ‘Ḥirāk Al-Rīf’ yuḥashidūna li ‘masīra milyūniyya bil-Husayma,” Hespress, April 27, 2017, accessed June 27, 2017,  

[19] Habibulah Mohamed Lamin, “What you need to know about Morocco’s recent protests,” Al-Monitor, November 6, 2016, accessed June 20, 2017,…. Similarly, BBC Monitoring also reported the participation of activists of the February 20 Movement in the Rabat protests on June 20, 2017, see: ‘’Largest protest since 2011 in Moroccan capital,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, June 12, 2017.

[20] Ṭāriq al-ʿAṭifī (2012), “Al-ARDH: Muḥākama Muhammad Jalūl kānat ‘ghayr ʿādila’ wa ‘ghayr munṣifa,” Hespress, May 3, 2012, accessed July 9, 2017,; “Muhammad Jalūl yuʿāniqu al-ḥuriyya,” Alalam, April 12, 2017, accessed July 9, 2017,محمد-جلول-يعانق-الحرية/ ; ʿAbd Al-Majīd Amyyay, “Bʿada shahar wa niṣf min al-ḥuriyya…Ḥirāk al-Rīf yuʿīdu Jalūl ila al-Zinzāna,”, accessed July 9, 2017,

[21] Paul Silverstein, “A New Morocco? Amazigh Activism, Political Pluralism and Anti-Anti-Semitism.”

[22] Angela Suárez Collado, “The Amazigh Movement in Morocco: New Generations, New References of Mobilization and New Forms of Opposition,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 6 (2013): 62.

[23]  Ibid., 67; and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “A turning point? The Arab Spring and the Amazigh movement,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38, 14 (2015) 2499ff.

[24] Raphael Lefevre, “‘No to hoghra!’: Morocco’s protest movement and its prospects,” 4.

[25] “Iḍrāb bimīnāʾ Al-Husayma ḥadādan ʿala maqtal ‘shahīd al-ḥikra,’” Lakome, October 30, 2016, accessed June 20, 2017,

[26] Ṭāriq Banhadā, “Nashiṭāʾ ‘Ḥirāk Al-Rīf’ yuḥashidūna li ‘masīra milyūniyya bil-Husayma,” Hespress, April 27, 2017.

[27] The Facebook group, “Al-lajna al-waṭaniyya li daʿam Ḥirāk al-Rīf wa maṭalibahu al-ʿādila,” has more than 3,000 members at the time of writing. It can be accessed at

[28] Samia Errazzouki, “Led by Islamists, thousands of Moroccans rally in support of northern protests,” Reuters, June 11, 2017, accessed June 20, 2017,

[29] Figures provided by the Moroccan state news agency: 12,000-15,000 protestors; ʿAdl wa’l-Ihsan: 1 million protestors. See “‘Largest’ protest since 2011 in Moroccan capital,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, June 12, 2017. 

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ṭāriq Banhadā, “Masīra tuʾāriz Ḥirāk al-Rīf. ‘Al-Jamāʿa’ tuḥadiru wa ‘al-PJD’ yughību,” Hespress, June 8, 2017, accessed June 27, 2017; and “Morocco banned group urges participation in Rif march,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, June 7, 2017. 

[32] Ghassane Koumiya, “Protests in Morocco call for ‘One nation, one people united for freedom, dignity and social justice,’” Middle East Monitor, June 13, 2017, accessed July 18, 2017,

[33] Samia Errazzouki, “Morocco arrests more activists in northern protest – lawyers,” Reuters, June 20, 2017, accessed June 20, 2017,

[34] “‘Largest’ protest since 2011 in Moroccan capital,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, June 12, 2017. 

[35] “Protests in Morocco continue to intensify,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, June 5, 2017.

[36] “Man huwwa Naṣer Al-Zefzāfī?” Al-Jazeera, accessed June 20, 2017,من-هو-ناصر-الزفزا…

[37] “Masīra bil-Husayma bil-Maghrab tandīdan bi muqatil baʾiʿa al-samak.”

[38] Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “A turning point? The Arab Spring and the Amazigh movement.”

[39] Wisām Al-Ḥankārī, “Ḥirāk Al-Husayma…tabādul al-itihāmāt bayna al-nashiṭāʾ wa ‘al-PAM’ wa ‘Nahaj’ fī qafṣ al-itihām,” Lakome, November 18, 2016, accessed June 21, 2017,

[40] Isabelle Werenfels, “Fracking in Algeria on Twitter: Connecting the Periphery to the Center and the World, #In Salah,” in Maike Transfeld and Isabelle Werefels, eds., #HashtagSolidarities, 29-42; Carlota Gall, “Shale Gas Project Encounters Determined Foes Deep in Algerian Sahara,” New York Times, February 25, 2015,….

[41] Isabelle Werenfels, “Fracking in Algeria on Twitter.”

[42] Rachida Lamri, “Protests in Algeria intensify as shale-gas drilling continues,”, February 13, 2015, accessed July 18, 2017,….

[43] See, for example, Charity Butcher, “Can oil-reliant countries democratize? An assessment of the role of civil society in Algeria,” Democratization 21, 4 (2014): 734ff.

[44] See, for example, quote from a communiqué of the LADDH cited in: Rafik Benasseur, “Benflis à ‘plein gaz’ contre le pouvoir,” Algé, March 1, 2015, accessed on July 18, 2017,

[45] Author interview with a leading representative of the LADDH, Algiers, March 11, 2015.

[46] Carlota Gall, “Shale Gas Project Encounters Determined Foes Deep in Algerian Sahara.”

[47] Isabelle Werenfels, “Fracking in Algeria on Twitter,” 39.

[48] Mridul Chowdhury, The Role of the Internet in Burma’s Saffron Revolution, Internet and Democracy Case Study Series, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, September 2008, accessed July 18, 2017,…. According to the same source, the regime shut down the Internet on September 29, 2007 for several days after more than three weeks of protests. After this date, photo and video footage often had to be smuggled out of Burma through the country’s porous borders.

[49] Jasmin Lorch‚ “Stopgap or Change Agent? The Role of Burma’s Civil Society after the Crackdown,” International Quarterly for Asian Studies 39, 1-2 (2008): 21.

[50] Conversations with an expert on Burmese Buddhism, Yangon, September and October 2007. According to the same expert, the monks who led the 2007 protests mostly came from private monk schools, a special type of monastic education institutions that specialize in Buddhist teachings at the tertiary education level. See also: Jasmin Lorch, “The (re)-emergence of civil society in areas of state weakness: the case of education on Burma/Myanmar,” in Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson, eds., Dictatorship, Disorder and Decline in Myanmar (Canberra: The Australian National University Press, 2008): 158.


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