Over the past week, protesters in Morocco have returned to the ‘unfinished business’ of the 20 February Movement – the Moroccan iteration of the popular-democratic protests across the Middle East and north Africa. In doing so, they are showing that fundamental change in the country is not a question of if, but how.
These demonstrations are not, as NPR’s Merrit Kennedy called them, “a rare show of dissent for the north African monarchy” — compared with most European countries, protests are frequent in Morocco, if small and very heavily repressed.
But the last week has seen the largest, most sustained and politically-demanding actions since 2011: to some activists, it even feels as if the revolution in Morocco has started. Why?
On 28 October police attempted to force a bribe from Mouhcine Fikri, a fisherman living in al-Hoceima, a city in the north-east region Rif, for his catch of swordfish. He refused, and his catch was put in a rubbish truck. After he and friends climbed in to get them, someone – it is still unclear who – began the truck’s crushing mechanism, killing Fikri, 31.
Protests began immediately after, and were reported in the Moroccan press the morning after; they grew on the Saturday night, with organisation coming partly from 20 February activists. Middle East Eye reported that on the Sunday:
Thousands of people in Hoceima left their houses and marched in the streets together to protest the incident (…) They marched from their city to a village called Imzouren which was 22km away, to attend Fikri’s funeral, and to show his family support. Every store in Hoceima closed. Taxis offered to carry people to the funeral for free in solidarity.
There is a regional aspect to this wave of protests. The anti-colonial fight against the Spanish in the northeast was possibly more ‘Rifian’ than ‘Moroccan’. Barely into the post-independence period, Rifians fought against the Moroccan state during the revolts of 1958–9 and again in 1984.
In 2011, 20 February activists in Rif were early and important parts of the wider movement – anger at five martyrs’ uninvestigated deaths is part the current dynamic – and specifically Rifian defiance became stronger in 2011 and 2012, leading to political scientist Abdeslam Maghraoui’s claim that “the quest for some political autonomy has a lot to do with” recent protests.
But, regionalism cannot explain everything, not least since the protests following Fikri’s murder went national, and very quickly. By Sunday 31 October, people in cities across the country – including Rabat and Casablanca – had taken to the streets. In the words of one protester: “The reason he died is seen as a symbol of everything that is wrong with the state.”
Even the US State Department acknowledged “widespread disregard for the rule of law by security forces” in a 2015 report. But working-class Moroccans don’t need the US to repeat the obvious — that the police’s appalling injunction to “crush him” as Fikri tried to retrieve his fish isn’t extraordinary, but rather exemplary of police violence in the country.
These protests are against central antipathies within a restive region: everyday police violence across the country; a blatantly corrupt official politics; and deeper, a socio-economy evermore open to a global market (as forced by free trade deals with imperial core states, and especially the EU) that is unable to provide most working-class Moroccans with a just – or even bearable — material life. Ultimately, protesters in Morocco, north Africa and the wider Global South demanding ‘liberty, dignity and social justice’ are arguing against a global system which the northern few are enormously benefiting from.
A working-class man has died following harassment by corrupt police in north Africa. Of course, press commentators have noted the similarities between Fikri’s killing and Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-sacrifice. What has been the official response so the protests so far?
The Moroccan state acted quickly and, as of yet, assuredly: several officials were arrested, protests have been relatively lightly policed and — a sign of how seriously it is taking the protests – the state’s official news agency reports of “High Royal Instructions for conducting a careful and thorough investigation.” And, given the great and growing importance of European tourism to the country, there’s been a view to anxieties north of the Mediterranean, with the more tame press reposting year-old articles about the dangers of Algeria and Egypt since the protests began.
Solidarity with the protesters in al-Hoceima came immediately from across Morocco, and nearly as quickly from leftists in Tunisia and Palestine — but since it is indeed as tourists that Europeans tend to know north Africa, the response from the European left has been near nil (an honourable exception being the Belgian anticapitalist organisation LCR/SAP).
The phrase ‘Arab Spring’ quickly became a cliché and — as a descriptor first used about European history applied to the Middle East and north Africa in the present — possibly hid more than it revealed.
But, the phrase ‘Arab Winter’ is worse still — its repetition nearly always expressing the idea that popular-democratic protests in the Middle East and north Africa are bound to failure. The counter-revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria (in particular) have gone from wrenching to nearly unspeakable. But these are reasons for, rather than against, political co-organising (or at least conversation) across the Mediterranean.
As of yet the British left has entirely near-fully failed the post-2011 movement. There is still time though, not least since the organised pain and anger that is bringing tens of thousands onto the streets in Morocco are expressions of social contradictions in the region – first loud enough for Europe to hear in 2011 — that are in no sense resolved.