The Moroccan fishmonger who broke the camel’s back

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Given the instability in Libya, Tunisia and beyond, Moroccans may not want revolution, but reforms since 2011 have yet to address malaise

What are the conditions needed for a tragic accident to become a political flashpoint?

In this case, how has the death of fishmonger Mohsin Fikri in the Moroccan Rif town of Hoceima on Friday, who was crushed in a garbage truck as he tried to retrieve illegally fished swordfish the authorities had confiscated, become the flashpoint for political uprisings across the nation?

The answer lies partly in the symbolism. Many have drawn parallels with the case of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself alight after being reprimanded by a police officer.

There the livelihood of a struggling merchant crushed by the seemingly capricious hand of the dictatorial apparatus came to symbolise a much wider struggle against authoritarianism – away from political debates, it highlighted the innumerable, accumulated grievances which came to represent the day-to-day sense of impotence among many citizens.  

In Morocco on Sunday, thousands of people joined a march behind Fikri’s funeral procession, referring to him as “martyre-Mohsin”. For many, it was the seeming impunity with which the security forces could get away with a most grizzly murder which sparked their anger.

While official voices have emphasised that the incident was most likely an accident, and an investigation has been opened, many witnesses have questioned why the truck’s crushing mechanism was initiated when Fikri and two other men who managed to jump out in time, were clearly inside the truck.

Reigniting a deep sense of injustice

As is often the case, the exact details of the case take on a mythical overtone – in Morocco, the gruesome images of Fikri’s lifeless body hanging out of a garbage disposal truck represents a perception of the poorest strata of society as worthless, disposable and, ultimately, open to the kinds of abuses of power which have a long history in Morocco.

Such episodes reignite popular resentment of years of unaccountable police abuses, not least Morocco’s famous "Lead Years" in which political prisoners were tortured and disappeared.

On the same day as protests continued over Fikri’s death, Khadija Chaou, a human rights campaigner and the mother of one of Morocco’s most famous political prisoners - Houcine al Manouzi, disappeared during the 1970s -  passed away. Despite years of lobbying, she never discovered the fate of her son.

After those repressive years, the new government of Mohamed VI established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004, designed to show a new chapter in the regime’s handling of political opposition. But concerns have persisted.

A 2015 US State Department report listed “widespread disregard for the rule of law by security forces” as one of the most significant continuing human rights problems facing Moroccan citizens, alongside concerns over abuses of prisoners.

Incidents like this one reignite a deep sense of injustice, even as changes are happening. Police corruption is perceived as endemic and stories of extortion by officials are a common complaint.

Added to the mix is the geographical sensitivity of the incident, occurring as it did in a predominantly Berber region, where the Amazigh community has long struggled for recognition of its identity and rights.

Unaddressed inequality 

Historically, a rebellious part of the territory which often evaded full control by the central ruler, the Rif has a long tradition of protest against the central government.

On this occasion, demonstrators were heard chanting slogans accusing the makhzen, the royal establishment, of insulting them. “Listen Makhzen, you don’t humiliate the people of the Rif,” while others were heard saying “"Mohsin was murdered, Makhzen is to blame."

The focus of anger on the makhzen will be a worrying one for a regime which has long sought to defuse public resentment against it through a largely façade parliament which has historically taken the fall for its inabilities to enact real change, despite the fact the king continues to hold the reins.

The instability in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world has acted as almost a warning for many Moroccans of the danger of revolutionary change

But these protests differ from those sparked by Bouazizi in a marked way. The instability in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world has acted as almost a warning for many Moroccans of the danger of revolutionary change. This has only buttressed the regime’s mantra of slow, incremental change, which has allowed many of these inequalities to persist and thrive.

Maintaining status quo

Protests in Morocco, especially in the Rif, are not uncommon. But there will be some disquiet in the royal corridors. In October, the Islamic-oriented Party for Justice and Development (PJD) won another term in power, with a significant margin, despite attempts through electoral changes to further balkanise the political system, and despite one of the king’s close friend, running in what has long been perceived as a thinly veiled attempt to counter the PJD’s success.

The balkanisation of the political system has been used to avoid any single party gaining the sort of majority which might allow it to enact its programme, but attempts to diffuse parliamentary power should be read as another strategy to maintain the status quo in a country crying out for change. The low vote turnout suggests many are tiring of the charade.

The protests over Fikri’s death are symptomatic of a deeper malaise – lingering structural problems, deep inequality, concentration of power, corruption and a lack of accountability which were left unaddressed by the 2011 constitutional reform initiated by the king in response to the February 20th movement, Morocco’s version of the Arab uprising movements.

The arrest of 11 people in connection with Fikri’s death is already shining light on a trail of corruption allegations, including forged documents by a local committee. Moroccans may not want a revolution – but historically successful strategies to diffuse public discontent are proving less and less successful.

And while events outside of Morocco have certainly curbed calls for radical change, without a royal commitment to a fundamental change in the kingdom’s operation, the monarch may unwittingly be making it the only option remaining. 

- Myriam Francois is a Franco-British journalist, broadcaster and writer with a focus on current affairs, France and the Middle East. You can follow her on Twitter @MyriamFrancoisC

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: A protester holds the flag of the Rif Republic as protesters shout slogans in the northern city of Al Hoceima on 30 October 2016 following the death of fishmonger Mohsin Fikri, who was crushed to death on 28 October in a rubbish truck in Al Hoceima, as he reportedly tried to protest against a municipal worker seizing and destroying his wares (AFP)