A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Vanished States: The Rifian Republic, 1921-1926

In 2012 I began a (very) occasional series of posts labeled "Vanished States,"  about nascent states that had only brief lives. History is full  of such states, so I limited my scope to the 20th century. I did posts on the Republic of Hatay (1938-39), the Syrian Arab Kingdom under Faisal (four months in 1920), and the Hashemite Kingdom of the Hejaz (1916-1925). Then I for some reason didn't return to the theme, though there were many other candidates. Today, one that would provide a model for many anti-colonial guerrillas, but also a model for modern technological means of colonial powers' suppressing suppressing "native" resistance: the five year life of the Rifian Republic and the brutal Rif War, in which Spain, and eventually France as well, would dismantle it. It was arguably the only Tamazight-speaking "state" to enjoy brief independence in the past century.

Morocco had been the last of the North African states to come under European colonial rule, with Spain, which had long held an enclave at Ceuta, declaring a protectorate along the northern coast, while France, often opposed by Germany, sought to create a protectorate in the rest of Morocco proper. (Spain also expanded into the future Western Sahara.) By 1912 France and Spain held their own protectorate zones in Morocco, and in 1923 Tangier became an international city.

While the Sultan of Morocco had little choice but to acquiesce, his nominal subjects were not so willing. As they had already done in Algeria, the French spent much time in warfare with rebellious tribes: think of just about every Foreign Legion movie ever made.(except for The Last Remake of Beau Geste) (1977). Often the fiercest resistance came from Amazigh ("Berber") tribes, from the desert Touareg to the mountain tribes of the Atlas in French Morocco and the Rif Mountains in Spanish Morocco. (Although al-Rif in standard Arabic means "the countryside" and, because the l of the article elides as ar-Rif, one may assume this is the origin of the name, but it seems to be an indigenous Tamazight name, Arif, which just happens to sound the same (and in Arabic is spelled al-Rif). It takes Berber derivatives (the language is Tarifit) and some have suggested it relates to the Canarian name Tenerife. In Morocco it refers not to any countryside but specifically to the mountain range along the country's northern coast, which is not geologically part of the Atlas, but linked with the Spanish chain across the Strait of Gibraltar, including Gibraltar itself.

Flag of the Rifian Republic
It's the Rif we're interested in here, for here, where for five years, the Tagduda n Arif  as it was known in the Tarifit form of Tamazight, or the Confederal Republic of the Tribes of the Rif, had its life.

This was no evanescent fantasy. For five years the Rifian Republic held the Spanish Army at bay, only succumbing after a brutal war in which France joined with Spain and which saw mustard gas dropped from aircraft despite the post World War I Geneva Protocol against the use of poison gas. The Rifian Republic had its own flag, its own currency, and a national anthem you can hear later in this post. It had a charismatic leader who had both political and military talents. His name would eventually be ranked among the greatest anticolonial resistance leaders: ‘Abdel Krim.

‘Abdel Krim
Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, to give him his formal Arabic name, or Muḥend n Ɛabd Krim Lxeṭṭabi in one transliteration of his Tarifit name, was born in Ajdir, the future capital of his Rifian Republic, in 1882 or 1883. He and his brother were given traditional Islamic educations in Ajdir, Tetouan, and Fez, and also Spanish educations, becoming translators. He became Chief Qadi in Melilla (the Spanish enclave, not part of the Protectorate) and published a newspaper in Spanish.

Alarmed at Spanish efforts to occupy unoccupied areas of the Rif, ostensibly to combat the warlord/brigand Ahmad al-Raisuni (he of Teddy Roosevelt's "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead" [Raisuni is the proper spelling] ultimatum; another post for another day), ‘Abdel Krim returned to Ajdir and raised his revolt.

Spanish Morocco; Rifian Republic's Claimed Borders in Red
Colonial powers often began these sorts of wars with a fundamental assumption of their own superiority. When the Spanish general moving into the claimed territory received an ultimatum from ‘Abdel Krim, he reportedly laughed it off. In July of 1921, after a fierce battle at Annual, some 8000 Spanish troops had died out of a force of 20,000. Annual remains a major resistance victory against a colonial army, a sort of proto-Dien Bien Phu.. The Spanish Army soon discovered that it was a poor match for highly motivated mountaineers defending their own territory. At its worst point, it found itself holding little more than Melilla and the area around Tangier.

Rifian One Riffan Note
On September 18, 1921, the Rifian Republic's independence was formally declared. It adopted its own currency, the Riffan, The images I've found are in Arabic and English, not Spanish or French. (There was no accepted version of writing Tarifit at the time.)

The Rifian Republic, though unrecognized internationally, would become a model for many later anticolonial struggles. ‘Abdel Krim's guerrilla tactics (he never had more than a few thousand truly professional fighters, the rest being tribal militia's defending their home turf) would become a model for later guerrilla fighters such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and the FLN in Algeria, though the latter also had the model of the great resistance fighter ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza'iri.

In keeping with acquiring all the trappings of sovereignty, the Rifian Republic also had a rather martial National Anthem:

 Chastened by their losses, the Spanish began relying on their own version of the French Foreign Legion to wage the Moroccan fight. The second in command was a colonel named Francisco Franco. You may have heard of him.

Through 1921 and 1922 the war was fierce, and the Spanish performance uneven despite numerical and technological superiority. The performance of the Spanish Army in the Rif helped propel events in Spain as well, and the 1923 coup by General Miguel Primo de Rivera was in part a reaction. That would set the stage for the whole Spanish tragedy of the 1930s, the Revolution, Civil War, and proxy rehearsal for the Second World War.

By 1924, the Spanish were resorting to dropping mustard gas from aircraft, violating the new Geneva prohibitions but also learning aerial bombing tactics. Britain and France were also learning bombing strategies from fighting colonial resistance, that would see fruition in 1939-45. Germany had no colonies after 1918, so it practiced in Spain.

Back in the Rif, France had moved forces into areas disputed with the Rifian Republic and Rifian forces attacked them. The French had already had discussions with Spain about intervention, and the French were far more experienced with North African warfare than the Spanish. (Not to mention the well-established reputation of the French Foreign Legion, technically known in military terms as "pretty badass.")

French intervention and a massive Spanish landing of troops, combined with aerial bombardment and the use of mustard gas, eventually turned the tide. But the Rif War was as fierce as it got at the time. Wikipedia isn't always a great source, but their casualty figures are:  Spain: 23,000 casualties of whom 18,000 dead; France: 10,000 dead and 8,500 wounded; Rifians, 30,000 casualties including 10,000 dead.

For contemporary Americans, Time magazine is a fading shadow of its former self, but when it was founded in 1923 it was radically new: a weekly summary of the news of America and the worlf. From the beginning each issue had a portrait on the cover. Down into at least the 1970s, being on the cover of Time was a sign you had made it. As near as I can make out, the first Middle Easterner to appear on Time's cover was Atatürk on March 24, 1923; then Fuad I of Egypt on April 28 of the same year; in 1924 nobody unless you include Greece (Venizelos).

Then, in 1925, only the third Middle Eastern figure to appear on a Time cover, is, on August 17, 1925, was none other than ‘Abdel Krim. Sure, he's sinister looking, but it reminds us the world took him seriously.

On May 26,1926, at Targuist, ‘Abdel Krim surrendered. Given his experience with Spain, it is probably no surprise that he surrendered to the French.

Like other French captive nationalist leaders, he was sent to Réunion in the Indian Ocean (just as the British favored the Seychelles or Mauritius), where he lived in comfortable exile from 1926-1947. In the latter year he was allowed to move to France, but managed to gain asylum in Egypt.

After Moroccan independence, King Muhammad V reportedly invited him to return to Morocco, and he is said to have said he would not return until all French forces were out of North Africa. He lived to witness the independence of Morocco and Tunisia and the expulsion of the French base at Bizerte, and finally, he lived to witness the end of French rule in Algeria in July of 1962.
‘Abdel Krim going into exile

Almost exactly seven months after the last colonial forces left the Maghreb, ‘Abdel Krim died in Cairo on February 6, 1963.

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