In late October, major protests swept through Moroccan cities and towns, prompting some to call these demonstrations “the second Moroccan Spring.” Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller in al Hoceima, a city in northern Morocco, was crushed to death when he climbed into the back of a garbage truck to retrieve his fish. Fikri’s catch swordfish, estimated to be worth $11,000, was confiscated by the police due to a seasonal ban. Videos of Fikri’s death circulated the internet on Friday evening, causing Al Hoceima, Marrakesh, Rabat, and other cities to burst into protests the following day. The king—who was out of the country at the time of Fikri’s death—ordered an immediate investigation.
In the streets, Moroccans chanted slogans such as “We are all Mouhcine” and “Down with the Makhzen.” The term makhzen refers to the political elite in Morocco, who center around King Mohammed VI. Some Moroccans view Fikri’s death as a willful act of police brutality, and many have used the term hogra, which describes abuses by the authorities such as violence and bribe taking, to describe the incident. The protests also targeted broader issues in Moroccan society. An activist in Al Hoceima commented that the people want more than investigation—they demand a change to prevent similar events in the future. Another activist commented, “tomorrow it could happen to me or anyone else.”
Reports indicate that many protesters waved the flag of the Amazigh people, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. Notably, Al Hoceima, the city where Fikri lived, is in the Rif region, a mountainous region with a majority Amazigh population.
Historically, the monarchy has struggled to maintain control of the Rif—in the 1950s, the late King Hassan II (King Mohammed VI’s father) violently crushed a rebellion for Riffian independence. During his time on the throne, he marginalized the region by neglecting its economic development. For instance, investment in the region is minimal compared to neighboring areas in the north, and poverty rates are among the highest in the country. As Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political scientist at Duke University and North Africa expert, explains, “The Rif has been structurally and symbolically severed from the rest of other regions in Morocco.” The recent protests reflect the legacy of this division.
Protests, especially in major cities, are not uncommon in Morocco. However, these protests are the biggest since those seen in the 2011 February 20 movement, the Moroccan manifestation of the Arab Spring uprisings. In Morocco, the February 20 movement demanded constitutional reform and a change in government, and resulted in nominal changes to the constitutional monarchy. The protests following Fikri’s death share similarities with their Arab Spring predecessors—the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi (who sold vegetables) in Tunisia ignited local protests which spread across the region. Like Fikri, Bouazizi came from an impoverished region where he faced unemployment and a daily struggle to make a living. Tunisia experienced a change in government: Ben Ali stepped down and the first round of elections since 1956 took place in 2014. But the political climate in Morocco today is different from that of the 2011 protests. War torn places such as Syria and Iraq are a reminder to Moroccans that while the power remains concentrated in the King, the situation could be far worse. The regime benefits from the instability of these countries, and many Moroccans attribute their stability to the gradual reforms promised by the King.
In last month’s elections, the majority party, Parti du Justice et du Developpement, remained the largest party and gained additional seats. Under Morocco’s system, the winning party must form a coalition, and Prime Minister Abdellah Benikrane faces a tough task in doing so. The new government is a player in the political landscape of Morocco as it navigates the calls for change echoing from the streets.
Since the incident, eleven officials have been arrested, eight have been jailed, and a public inquiry has been launched into the incident. Fikri’s death brought Moroccans into the streets, calling for justice and change, yet there is a lack of clarity on what this change should look like. In 2011, protestors in Tunisia unanimously called for Ben Ali’s resignation. In Morocco, protestors first called for a democratic constitution, but then shifted to push for a parliamentary monarchy. A protestor in Rabat comments, “This way of killing people by the police, our grandfathers are used to it, but we should not be used to this. We cannot accept this kind of treatment any more.” While it’s unlikely that these protests will lead to a significant power shift or a “Moroccan Spring,” the king, the newly elected government, and the Moroccan people will continue to grapple with the protests and their demands in the coming months.