Sammy Zeyad Badran, Killing Contention: Demobilization in Morocco during the Arab Spring (Syracuse University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sammy Zeyad Badran (SZB): I initially became interested in exploring protest dynamics in Morocco after conducting an interrupted time series analysis to test the effect that reform and repression had on protest levels in two monarchies that fared well during the Arab Spring: Morocco and Jordan. I found it interesting that both regimes tended to initially respond to protests with concessionary measures; however, I found that although protest levels quickly abated in Jordan after reforms were announced, in Morocco they tended to increase. This led me to decide to take a qualitative turn and investigate protest dynamics in Morocco on the ground by interviewing activists from an array of different political organizations and ideological backgrounds. A Fulbright fellowship allowed me to conducted interviews throughout Morocco from May 2016 to June 2017. I conducted forty-six semi-structured elite interviews with civil society activists from the February 20 Movement (F20), political party leaders, MPs, and independent activists throughout Morocco. I found that the Moroccan case presents the unique argument that regime coordination of repression and concessions can trigger social reactions which lead to relatively peaceful movement demobilization.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SZB: The book’s main theme is concerning why and how social movements demobilize. In other words, when do organizations and individuals decide to no longer participate in contentious politics on the streets? The main literature the book addresses is social movement literature, especially concerning demobilization, along with literature concerning authoritarian resilience and upgrading. My in-depth research and interviews in Morocco with the main organizer of protests within the country, the F20, reveal that the Moroccan regime did use reforms and concessions, but still resorted to violence and repression as a dual response to protests. This book demonstrates how this dual response demobilized protests and led to the internal fracture of the F20. This mixed policy of reforms and limited repression also broke public support for the movement that was initially reformist in nature. In essence, the movement fractured internally and was portrayed by the regime as intensely revolutionary and radical. The book shows how the regime pushed this narrative alongside unprecedented reforms to effectively convince the public that the social movement was dangerous and no longer needed.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

SZB: The book directly connects to previous papers published in the Journal of North African Studies and the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies and parts of some chapters from the book were based on the findings in these papers. My previous work also concerned social movements and contentious politics, one of which investigated the roots of contentious politics leading up to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. This book, however, departs from my previous work since it specifically addresses the underreached question of “why social movements die” or demobilize. Killing Contention adds nuance to previous literature both specific to Morocco and, more broadly, social movement theory by analyzing the stories and opinions of those who participated in the F20.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

SZB: I hope the book will be read by anyone interested in gaining intimate insights into contentious “street politics” in Morocco and the larger MENA region. This book is also intended for students and academic audiences. It will be useful for students of MENA politics and social movements since it addresses three primary topics that will prove valuable in courses on social movements, democratic development politics in the MENA region, contemporary MENA politics, and qualitative methodology. The narratives of this book are grounded in the lived experiences of activists throughout Morocco and from diverse perspectives and offer a comprehensive account of contentious Moroccan politics. Academics focusing on social movements will find the book useful since it engages with and challenges various theories of contentious politics and social movement studies. Finally, feminist research methodologies are important to the book, and I provide research notes throughout that will offer future feminist researchers guidance on doing fieldwork in the Maghreb region.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SZB: I am working on multiple projects at the moment. One project is looking into the role of humor during the Algerian “Revolution of Smiles.” The project is attempting to reveal what role, if any, humorous framing has on social movement mobilization. Another project is looking at the role of framing in relation to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on various Palestinian social movements. This project will show how movements that may share little in common can transcend borders and affect framing techniques. Another project I am working on concerns how North African regimes have used the Covid-19 pandemic to consolidate and upgrade authoritarian control. A recently published paper in the Journal of Human Rights is based on a content analysis of emergency legislation in both Egypt and Morocco to better understand how the pandemic served as means to consolidate power for some authoritarian regimes.

J: Chapter One of the book offers readers “lessons from the field.” Can you tell us about what fieldwork was like in Morocco?

SZB: The first chapter of the book engages feminist methodology to better understand the role of a researcher’s identity, and how it can lead to both open and closed doors in the field. In Morocco, I quickly found that interviewees tended to almost immediately ask about my ethnic background and highlight my Palestinian identity. Some interviewees allowed me access to otherwise closed networks because of my identity, while on other occasions responding the wrong way to questions about the sensitive political issue led to closed doors. I offer lessons from the field in this chapter and suggest that clarifying how to present one’s identity is very important for future researchers wishing to conduct fieldwork in Morocco.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 6, pp. 143-146)

Shortly after the death of Mouchine Fikri on October 28, 2016, the F20 slogan of “Freedom, Dignity, and Social Justice” was chanted on the streets throughout the Rif region and eventually throughout the country. The Hirak-al-Rif movement, again, led to solidarity protests by Islamists, leftists, and the Amazigh cultural movement (Oumlil 2017). Prime Minister Benkirane urged members of the PJD and the Moroccan public not to protest. Even Fikri’s father appealed to protesters to go home and stated that Moroccans want “reform and stability” and that his son’s death should not “be the cause of sedition in Morocco.”

Many of my planned interviews were canceled in the weeks that followed Fikri’s murder; however, I was able to meet with one of Morocco’s most well-known human rights activists, Reda. Reda is an outspoken critic of the regime and has faced an array of charges by the state for his activism. Reda unsuccessfully attempted to leave the country and was detained. He was eventually charged with receiving foreign money to diminish the state’s image. Two days before, Reda gave an interview and asserted that he would take to the streets to protest Fikri’s death.

In spite of the heightened threats against Reda, he agreed to meet me at a café in the wealthy neighborhood of Agdal in Rabat and insisted that he not remain anonymous in the interview. Once I arrived at the café, I called Reda and was informed “another person would meet me.” After waiting five minutes, a young university student and another middle-aged man who was sitting in the café briefly introduced themselves and told me to walk with them. We walked a few blocks away from the café, and they informed me that the police wanted to either arrest or speak with Reda. After a few more minutes of waiting, Reda arrived and introduced himself and said jokingly that “you are really doing fieldwork now”—an apparent reference to the unexpected situation I found myself in. Eventually, we walked another three blocks together to the same café. Reda mentioned that it was not the best time for an interview, but insisted I stay.

When we arrived at the café, Reda told me that he was waiting for two journalists to arrive. I thought that it was maybe to report his arrest. Reda lamented that he was, again, not allowed to leave the country and, again, on trial for various charges. I was told by the law student that these recent charges stemmed from a protest that Reda partook in two days before. I offered, repeatedly, to reschedule our meeting, but Reda insisted that I stay and ask what I could. About twenty minutes into the interview, I could tell that Reda was expecting to be arrested. He gave around two hundred euros to his older friend, along with his credit cards. At that moment, a police officer entered the café, and Reda said, “Here they are,” and pulled out his ID—apparently assuming the officer was going to arrest him. The police officer walked past us and went upstairs to another section of the café. Reda indicated that this encounter may have been a coincidence, since “they always come in pairs when they arrest someone.” Later, the police officer left the café, and the young university student and his friend kept an eye on him when he left. The fear was palpable at that moment.

When the journalists came, I was told to turn off my recorder. Reda left with the journalists, and I was left alone in the café with the young university student. The young man expressed the obvious: “everything has changed” since the protests that occurred two days earlier. I did, indeed, quickly realize that after the Hirak protests, some interviewees were harder to get in touch with and that the fear of arrest, repression, or public smearing by the state was, again, an imminent reality for many well-known F20 activists.

Hirak-al-Rif: Revolt from Periphery to Nation

The F20 changed Moroccan activism. However, the roots of the Hirak-al Rif date back to the marginalization of the Rif region since independence and arguably since the anticolonial struggle for a Riffian state. Indeed, shortly after Moroccan independence, King Hassan II (then crown prince) crushed the 1958 Riffian Revolt. Thousands were killed through indiscriminate bombings of villages, while women were raped by the Forces Armées Royales (Maddy-Weitzman 2011, 86). Rebellions have continued in the Rif since 1958. Notably, in 1984 students and the unemployed rioted throughout Morocco, but especially in the Rif.4 King Hassan reminded the Rif of the state’s reaction to Riffian dissent by threatening that “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” (Mouline 2015, 1). Repression and regional neglect were the centerpiece to King Hassan II’s stance toward the Rif. King Hassan II avoided visiting the Rif and downplayed past atrocities by the state (Maddy Weitzman 2011, 86).

King Mohammed VI assumed the thrown in 1999 and took a different approach to the Rif. Unlike his father, King Mohammed frequently visited the Rif and, after a 2004 earthquake ravaged the region, invested money into infrastructure projects (Maddy-Weitzman 2011, 156). Moreover, Maddy Weitzman notes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed by the king did not have an explicit “Berber agenda,” but indeed most victims were Amazigh (2011, 155). Even prior to Tamazight being made an official state language in 2011, Amazigh history and the Tamazight language were introduced in school textbooks. Despite the increased attention paid to the Rif, the region remains neglected, and unemployment is high among youth compared to other parts of the country (Masbah 2017).

As may be clear, the Riffian region is rooted in historical marginalization and neglect and is distinct from the central goals of the F20. Nevertheless, many activists do believe that the F20 paved the way for the Hirak-al-Rif by demonstrating that the Rif’s marginalization is not solely a regional issue but a national one. Some attribute this opinion to a growing distrust in state institutions and a recognition that state institutions beyond the palace are powerless (Diouani 2021). Others note that the Hirak-al-Rif resonated with all Moroccans through the concept of al-hogra—an Arabic term that broadly highlights contempt, degradation, and injustice (Ilahiane 2019). This contention is evidenced by the fact that protests against al-hogra continued throughout Morocco until 2018. Unlike previous waves of dissent in the Rif, the 2016 Hirak-al-Rif uprising tended to resonate with activists throughout the country, with sit-ins and demonstrations in solidarity with the Rif occurring throughout Morocco (Rachidi 2017). In essence, it is clear that the Hirak-al-Rif is historically a regional struggle; however, activists highlight an important link between the F20 and the ongoing Hirak-al-Rif. As we will see, activists namely highlight a new “culture of street politics” along with a recognition by Hirak-al-Rif activists that their movement should move away from the decentralized social movement structure adopted by the F20.