The Role of Social Networks in Shaping the Identity of Economic Boycott Movements in Morocco

Sarah Hassnaoui takes a look at the ambivalence that the Kingdom of Morocco demonstrates towards freedom of expression in Morocco.

"בגדי מלך העניים!", בצירוף תמונת מלך מרוקו לצד תמונת נער הישן ברחובות, מתוך טוויטר
"Clothing of 'the King of the Poor!'" depicting a picture of the King of Morocco accompanied by one of a teenager sleeping in the street, from Twitter.

Freedom of expression is an especially important issue in Morocco because of the kingdom’s desire to take steps that will move it closer to Europe, leading to improved economic cooperation with the continent, and possibly future incorporation into the European Economic Community. This policy began during the reign of the previous monarch, King Hassan II and now continues under his son, King Mohammed VI. For good reason, free speech is one of the central ideas in the new constitution adopted in 2011 as a response to the Arab Spring, out of a desire to stop its vicissitudes at the gate of the kingdom. Socioeconomic protest movements currently operating on social networks in Morocco skillfully take advantage of the freedom of expression allowed on these platforms to promote their interests, but they must simultaneously deal with the limitations imposed by the government, thus highlighting the gap between policy and reality.

The chief discourse on social networks in Morocco currently deals with three visible protest movements focused on socioeconomic issues. The first and most prominent is the Hirak Movement, led by the Amazigh people (Arabic for “people of freedom”), an ethnic group of 15-20 million people in the Middle East and North Africa, who are also known as “Berbers.” The Amazigh community in northern Morocco numbers between 15,000 and 20,000 people, and is considered the largest and most important of the Amazigh groups, inter alia, because of its historical opposition to King Hassan II. The roots of this opposition reach back to the Rif War in the 1920s, when Spain fought against Berber separatist forces who were struggling for independence in North Morocco. The Rif War marked the Amazigh population in the northern part of the country as a combative opposition, and dictated the attitude of the Moroccan monarchy towards them ever after. North Morocco suffers from ongoing neglect, and the Rif region lacks infrastructure. Solutions to these problems are central demands of the Hirak movement.

The perceived feeling of marginalization and alienation on the part of Rif region residents is made evident, for example, by the response of one member of the Amazigh community to a post claiming that residents of the region do not consider themselves Moroccans: “The Rif was flooded with blood, marginalized, pursued, and pushed aside by King Hassan II. People who demonstrated for their rights were beaten and sent to jail; it is no wonder that they feel different.”[1] Comments like these show that the online space plays an important role in developing the Amazigh identity that the Hirak movement strives to inculcate, among other goals. The movement uses many Twitter accounts, of which some are apparently fictitious accounts supposedly created in the name of private individuals. Hirak uses these accounts to disseminate information and pictures regarding the movement’s activists who have been jailed because of their opposition to the regime, and denounce the authorities for allegedly abusing them.

The online comportment of the other two movements promoting discourse on socioeconomic protest in Morocco is more moderate; they use social network to distribute and share information about the socioeconomic situation in the kingdom, but are careful not to attack the king directly. One of these movements lacks an official name but some users call it the “Boycott Movement in Morocco.” It was launched on Facebook as a protest against the high cost of living and the country’s large socioeconomic gaps. This movement focuses on boycotting three leading, expensive brands of food, which have become symbols of the economic gaps in Morocco: Sidi Ali mineral water, Afriquia oil, and Danone yogurt. The campaign against Danone alone was retweeted 37,000 times in four months,[2] and some supporters use the brand’s name to identify with the movement they call “Boycott Danone.” Recently commentators have broached the possibility that it is actually a political movement organized for the purpose of attacking local politicians, although they did not bring any evidence to support this claim.[3] The third movement, Hrig, emerged against the background of frustration with the economic situation in the kingdom. It promotes a campaign that encourages people to emigrate from Morocco to Spain, which for the Moroccan public represents Europe in general. Encouraging emigration is perceived as an alternate way to express criticism of the authorities.

These three protest movements represent the same goals, which include striving for change and reform in the political and economic realms, while criticizing the economic weakness and significant social gaps between the upper and lower classes in Morocco. The ability of these movements to present their messages is evident in the fact that these issues are currently at the heart of public discourse online. A supporter of the Hirak movement who tweets as “Karima Experience” wrote cynically: “So modest are the clothes of the so-called ‘King of the Poor’! All members of @RoiMohammedVI enjoy this extremely expensive and lavish lifestyle at the expense of taxpayer… That’s why the Moroccan people are suffering from poverty!”[4] This comment was accompanied by a picture of the King of Morocco and another of a teenager sleeping in the streets (see picture). Another response, written in French, read: “Moroccans boycott products exported by wealthy Morocco,”[5] as a way to concretize the class differences in the kingdom.

International human rights organizations also support these three protest movements, as do Moroccans living abroad. The latter commonly use hashtags like “#boycott” to disseminate information regarding gatherings and events outside of Morocco on social networks, as well as publishing ‘selfies’ that express their solidarity with the struggle.[6] The broad engagement of the Moroccan diaspora in Europe and Canada can be explained by the close connection that the expatriates maintain with their country, particularly since they and their children are still considered Moroccan citizens.

The Moroccan authorities have taken several steps to increase their supervision and control of network spaces,[7] including the economic boycott movement. One example is the conviction of journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui in late June for “not denying an attempt to harm the security of the state.” Mahdaoui was charged after a telephone conversation about the Hirak movement with a Moroccan living in Holland. In that conversation the expatriate declared his interest in hiding weapons in his car and smuggling them into Morocco. The journalist was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail. This incident demonstrates the Moroccan authorities’ desire to prove that their control can reach beyond the country’s borders,[8] and to limit the activity of Moroccan citizens who criticize the government. [9] These steps also represent defiance directed at Holland in particular because it has accused the Moroccan authorities of violating human rights in the Rif region, and has refused to cooperate with Morocco on issues related to Moroccans with dual citizenship living there. The trial was part of a larger framework of investigative and legal activities that the government is taking in order to limit the online activity of Hirak.[10]

In a country where citizens have avoided openly discussing sensitive subjects since the reign of King Hassan II, online spaces are useful forums for discussing public issues in a way that exposes the public to the political and socioeconomic weaknesses of Morocco, and to criticism of the regime. Many Moroccan users at home and abroad have been recruited for the socioeconomic protest movement. Although the struggle against luxury food brands has borne fruit,[11] it is too early to judge the success of the Hirak and Hrig movements. For their part, the Moroccan authorities are monitoring and supervising online activities, as well as enacting laws intended to halt Internet trends such as the economic boycott movement.


[1] @un_rifain, 21 October 2018. Last accessed 24 November 2018.

[2]  Soufiane Chahid, "A French study tries to find out the origins of the Boycott," TelQuel, 7 October 2018.  Last accessed 8 October 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] @KarimaExperien1,, 10 August 2018.  Last accessed 28 November 2018.

[5] @rahjosk,, 25 July 2018.  Last accessed 28 November 2018.

[6] @SolidarityHirak, Last accessed 28 November 2018.

[7] Rica Ancari, "The Interior ministry wants to end the diffusion of videos showing the crossing in patera" TelQuel, 19 September 2018. Last accessed 12 October 2018.

[8] Via La Redaction, "The Journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui condemned to three years of prison" TelQuel, 29 June 2018.  Last accessed 24 August 2018.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  See Rica Ancari, "The Interior ministry wants to end the diffusion of videos showing the crossing in patera".  Rida Ancari, « L'Intérieur veut mettre fin à la diffusion de vidéos montrant des traversées en pateras », Telquel, 19 September 2018, last accessed 8 October 2018.

[11] See Soufiane Chahid, "A French study tries to find out the origins of the Boycott".