New York – Moroccan public opinion was shaken by the news of the tragic death of Mouhcine Fikri, a 31-year-old fishmonger on Friday in Al Houceima, in northern Morocco. The shocking circumstances under which he was killed were captured in photographs and video that went viral on social media in a matter of minutes and stirred a huge public uproar.
Within hours, millions of Moroccans called for spontaneous protests. On Sunday, demonstrations were staged in more than 20 locations, including large cities such as Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech, Fez, and Tangier, as well as in Al Hoceima where the tragic incident occurred. The demonstrations have been peaceful with no clashes or violence.
The main demand of the demonstrators is to put an end to the culture of what people Morocco call “hogra,” or abuse of power at the hands of law enforcement officials. People are demanding that the government put an end to the perceived impunity of the police and security forces and hold them accountable for their actions.
The demonstrations have united Moroccan public sentiment in a collective consciousness and solidarity, and the fact that people took to the streets in such numbers is a clear message that they believe that their actions and peaceful, but vocal, pressure on the government can lead to change. Since the enactment of the new Constitution of 2011, demonstrations in Morocco have become a common occurrence. Not a week or a month passes by without hearing about massive demonstrations somewhere. Although these demonstrations may have more profound significance, they should be understood in the context of the democratic principles Morocco has embraced.
King Mohammed VI steps in to defuse tension
As Moroccans waited for their elected officials to speak out to condemn what happened and give the public guarantees that the law will take its course, they abdicated their responsibility by being silent.
Meanwhile, Morocco’s King was quick to send the Minister of Interior to present his condolences to the victim’s family and ensure them that the law would be followed and the culprits brought to justice. Because of the seriousness of the incident, the king was forceful in guaranteeing to the victim’s family that punishment would be imposed on the culprits and that would serve as a warning to any official who failed to fulfill his tasks and duties in service of the public.
Two principal reasons explain why the Moroccan monarch stepped in quickly to defuse tension. First, in the absence of a reaction from the government and the political elite, the King sought to reassure Moroccans that he is the ultimate guarantor of their rights and fundamental freedoms. Second, the King was acutely aware of the incident of Tunisia’s Bouazizi setting himself on fire and precipitating the so-called Arab Spring, a scenario still at the forefront of people’s minds, and that a similar incident such as this might be exploited by individuals in Morocco to achieve their own political agendas. Therefore, he intervened to calm the anger of demonstrators and defuse the likelihood that demonstrations would escalate and lead to violent protests.
Following the King’s intervention, the victim’s brother said Sunday that the family is not worried about the course of justice to address the tragic death of his brother. He said the family had received personal guarantees from the Minister of Interior that the matter would be investigated. In addition, during an interview with Moroccan news website Hespress on Monday, Mouhcine’s father said he was reassured by the King’s guarantees that justice will be served and warned people against using his son’s death to cause upheavals in Morocco.
Given the publicity that this incident has garnered with national and global media coverage, the chances are greater than ever before that justice will take its course and the investigation will have an outcome that will satisfy the demands of the Moroccan people.
Moroccans are understandably angry. While Morocco adopted its new constitution in 2011 and the country is progressing steadily, albeit slowly, towards democracy, a significant segment of Morocco’s security officers still deal with Moroccans with the same mentality of the 1970s and 1990s, Moroccans are telling their officials that they have had enough of impunity and abuse of power and that the security apparatus needs to rid itself of this backward mentality.
The incident should be understood in its own local and social context
Yet, the incident is couched in its own local and social context, and should not be interpreted to have a larger political dimension. Abuse of power from police can happen in young democracies as it can happen in established democracies like the United States.
An article published by Think Progress in July showed that American police killed 939 people in the first semester of 2016 alone. Many of the victims were unarmed, mentally ill, and/or people of color. And just as recently as two weeks ago, American police in the city of Revere, Massachusetts, stormed a building hosting six Moroccan Americans while they were sleeping and used tear gas to force them out of their apartments. A SWAT team arrested them violently and questioned them as if they were known terrorists. The unlawful arrests were made based on a hoax 911 call.
Analysis of what happened should be based on the facts. There are two conflicting versions of what happened. The first version, which has caused protest on a national dimension is that one of the police officers involved ordered the garbage truck driver to turn on the trash compactor while the fish vendor was inside. A hashtag was created based on these claims, which escalated public anger.
An eyewitness, however, said that the start button that allowed the machine to be turned on is in the back of the truck and there was no way for the truck driver who was in the front to have pushed it. The eyewitness also said that no police officer told the truck driver to turn on the machine while the victim was inside. The same eyewitness said that someone must have pressed the button by mistake while the fishmonger was inside the truck compactor.
Both observers and of course media should not jump to conclusions based on claims posted on social media. What is clear is that the Moroccan public is calling for social justice and for accountability of security officers. There are not wholesale calls to overthrow the monarchy. Quite the contrary, King Mohamed VI is widely respected and loved by Moroccans.
While the current protests have been peaceful with no clashes, some foreign websites have shared pictures and videos that date back to 2011 as if they had happened today, in an apparent effort to use this tragic event to propagate rumors and ignite violence against the Moroccan state. Contrary to what some analysts and news outlets have suggested, there is no parallel here between what happened to Bouazizi in Tunisia five years ago and what happened on Friday in Houceima.
The evidence shows that the demonstrations this weekend were organized in a spontaneous and peaceful way, and there have been no political demands from the protestors. Protestors have not chanted any slogans against the King or the monarchy. They are simply calling for accountability for the law enforcement officials and public servants implicated in the incident. Protesters are simply calling for justice: end the impunity of those who undermine law and order and take concrete actions to stop their abuse of power.
The way protestors have voiced their anger and conducted themselves in response to this tragic death is testament to the strength of Morocco’s democracy and teaches a lesson to the world that scenarios like Libya or Syria will not be replicated in Morocco. Moroccans are standing up for their democracy, their institutions, and their monarchy.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis