July 22, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Annual, in which Moroccan tribesmen defeated an army of 20,000 Spanish troops.
On the occasion of the commemoration day of the Battle of Annual on July 22, Moroccans ought to celebrate the memory of Abd El Krim El Khattabi, the heroic leader who fought against colonial expansion. The history of resistance and resilience in the face of colonialism is an essential facet of our history and should be remembered and celebrated.
Since the signing of the treaty of Fez in 1912, which established Morocco as a French protectorate. As per the protectorate, Morocco was under the control of both France and Spain. However, Spanish presence was more felt in the northern region of the Riff, where Spain sought to broaden its influence.
Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956. But the still unresolved question of Western Sahara and Spain’s continued presence in Ceuta and Melilla have created political rifts between Morocco and one of its former colonizers.
The battle of Annual: a struggle against colonial oppression
The Battle of Annual was a military confrontation between Riffian tribesmen (The Rif refers to the northern region of Morocco) and Spanish military forces. Spain suffered a humiliating defeat: around 14,000 Spanish soldiers died, including their general Sylvestre.
The battle took place in Annual, a region in northeastern Morocco, on July 22, 1921. It was the first of many subsequent confrontations between inhabitants of Northern Morocco and Spanish colonial forces in what is referred to as the Riff War, which lasted from 1912 to 1926.
This was a massive disaster for the Spanish military, who lost many of their human resources against unorganized tribesmen who didn't have access to advanced military equipment and the specialized training the occupier benefited from.
Spain faced a humiliating defeat following the battle of Annual, which prompted the country to seek France's help in countering the fierce resistance of indigenous Riffian populations of Northern Morocco.
Profoundly shaken by the defeat, Primo de Rivera, Spain's prime minister at the time, pledged that he would "wash in blood" the humiliating defeat of the Riff.
Abdelkrim El Khattabi: A hallmark of fortitude and symbol of resistance
Abd El Krim El Khattabi, symbolic figure of the Northern Moroccan resistance and leader of the Ait Ouriaguel tribe, led 3,000 men to confront an army of more than 20,000 Spanish troops.
Using the tactics of guerillas and their unmatched bravery, they were able to push back against colonialism.
Abd El Krim's aim for leading the resistance was not merely to achieve independence but also to fight against colonial encroachment and oppression of the local populations.
Abd El Krim Al-Khattabi, a household name in 20th century Moroccan history, is a prominent revolutionary warrior of the anti-colonialist movements in the Rif region of Morocco. Known for having led the assault in Annual's battle, his heroic efforts are still praised 100 years later.
Abd El Krim was born in 1882 in the northern village of Ajdir. He owes his wisdom to the excellent education he received while growing up. He was instructed in the zawias of Tetouan, then pursued his studies in Islamic law at the prestigious Qarawiyyin University of Fez and Spanish law at Salamanca.
At the age of 24, he moved to the Spanish enclave of Melilla. He became a journalist for the Telegram del Rif, a cadi ("jurist"), and worked for the Spanish administration for several years. After having manifested anti-colonial sentiments, he was put behind bars for what Spanish authorities considered a crime of conscience.
Back in his native Ajdir in 1919, defying colonial rule, he decided to free the Rif.
This northern Moroccan region bordered by the Mediterranean was then under Spanish control, the rest of the country being placed under the French protectorate.
What stood out about Abd El Krim is his ability to lead and unite tribes that were previously fragmented, ensuring their success in Annual against better-equipped and better trained forces.
A well-spoken, astute strategist, and charismatic leader, he successfully managed to bring together the various Amazigh tribes to keep the lid on the region under the threat of invasion. His involvement in an independentist movement in the face of Spain’s desire to establish its dominion over Morocco grew in magnitude after his forces stunned the Spanish army in Annual.
According to research by Mevliyar Er, Abd-El-Krim guerilla tactics have influenced some of the most revolutionary figures in world history, including Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.
Mevliyar notably argues that there is robust historical evidence that Che Guevara employed some of the guerilla tactics of the Moroccan resistance to Spain during the Cuban revolution.
The war that opposed the Abd El Krim-led insurrection and Spanish colonial forces was asymmetrical in all aspects, making the success of the Annual Battle all the more admirable.
Northern Morrocan’s knowledge of the region and their use of guerilla tactics, as well as their unmatchable bravery, enabled them to push back against the colonizers.
Following his triumph in the Annual Battle, Abd El Krim proclaimed the confederated republic of the Rif tribes in 1923. A devout believer in reformist Islam and admirer of Turkey’s Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, Abdelkrim endowed the new state with democratic modern state institutions.
Utilizing the popular uprising, the Rif republic ("Al Jumhuriya Al Rifiya") saw the light of day and was contested for apparent reasons by France and Spain. In an Interview with the Egyptian al-Manar, Abd El Krim vowed: “[We wish to] guarantee our complete freedom to determine our development and the independent direction of our affairs, the right to make treaties and to form alliances that we considered to be suitable.”
The French feared that this initiative would inspire some of their colonies to follow suit. As a result, General Petain was sent on-site with 200 000 soldiers to “restore order” in Morocco’s Rif region. The French offensive, which lasted from 1925 to 1926, was relentless and ruthless.
In the face of the massacre of his soldiers and the 150,000 civilians killed by mustard gas, Abdelkrim surrendered to the French army in May 1926.
He lived in exile on the French overseas island of la Reunion between 1926 and 1947. It is believed to be the most prolonged exile imposed by France.
Abd El Krim entered his second exile in Cairo in 1947. His victory capitulated him into international fame. During his stay in Egypt, he participated, at the political level, in the liberation of North Africa from colonial entanglements. He also received visits from illustrious figures such as Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh-who.