Tag Archives: Catherine Cartier

We are all Mouhcine: The Death of a Fish Vendor Sparks Protests Across Morocco

By Catherine Cartier

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.

Featured image from The Associated Press

Morocco’s Elections: The Palace, the Parliament, and the People

By Catherine Cartier

Catherine Cartier’20 is a guest writer and undeclared double major in Arabic and Political Science

This October 7, the Moroccan government will hold parliamentary elections—the second ballot since the country’s constitutional reforms in 2011. In 2011, a wave of antigovernment movements known as the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and swept across the Arab world. In Morocco, these protests inspired the “20 February” movement, which demanded constitutional reforms and a change in government. While the movement and its demands threatened the Moroccan monarch’s regime, King Mohammed VI managed to maintain his supremacy as the country’s leader by adopting limited reforms aimed at broadening the power of the elected government. The constitutional reforms introduced new formal limits on the King’s power: he must now name a prime minister from the party that receives the most votes and no longer presides over cabinet meetings. The new constitution allows parliament to make laws in most areas, and protects the independent judiciary. These revisions were praised by the US and European countries, allies of Morocco, who view the King as a reformer.

Yet Mohammed VI continues to control Moroccan politics through a circle of political and economic elite, known as the Makhzen. (Nadir Bouhmouch, a young Moroccan filmmaker, explores the omnipresence of the Makhzen in his short film “My Makhzen and Me”). While the King and the Makhzen retain their grip over political and economic power, the Parti de la Justice and du Developpement (PJD, the first Islamist party to take power in Morocco’s history) won the 2011 parliamentary elections. Since 2011, the PJD, headed by Prime Minister Abdel Benikrane, has led the government.

As the election approaches, tensions intensify between the palace and the PJD. On September 18, protests took place in the city of Casablanca, demonstrating against “the Islamicization of society” and the rise of the Islamist PJD leadership; however, confused citizens were reportedly asked by local authorities (controlled by the Ministry of the Interior) to travel to Casablanca to demonstrate. Protesters that were interviewed lacked an understanding of the event’s purpose—some received money for attending, and others were told they were protesting an entirely different issue. The organizers provided the citizens with banners against the PJD, in an attempt to dismantle PJD’s support.

In response, the PJD argued that the protests were supported by organizations which should be neutral in politics, a masked complaint directed at the Ministry of the Interior. Relations between the PJD and the Ministry of the Interior have been tense for some months. While the PJD Justice Minister and the Minister of the Interior typically collaborate in election decisions, the current PJD Justice Minister, Mustapha Ramid, argues that the Minister of the Interior is disrupting this history of power sharing by taking control of decisions regarding the election.

Since its 2011 election, the PJD has remained popular in Morocco by lowering the budget deficit, but still faces criticism for its failure to address weak economic growth and deliver on its promise to fight corruption as it had promised. Internally, the PJD leadership is in crisis: Omar Benhammad and Fatima Nejjar, two top leaders of the religious branch of the PJD, the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR), are currently on trial for attempted corruption and adultery. The PJD have since released a statement denouncing Nejjar and Benhammad’s actions, yet the damage remains; social media users have drawn attention to what they perceive as the hypocrisy of the leaders.

The Special Commission for the Accreditation of Observers of Elections has approved 38 organizations, 32 national and 6 international, to observe the upcoming elections. Contrary to the worldwide trend towards the establishment of independent election management bodies, the Ministry of the Interior maintains authority over elections. In the 2011 elections, voter turnout reached only 28.65% of the population, with only a slight increase over the 2007 (pre-constitutional reform) elections. Despite an attempt to register voters, a lack of voter education and confusion over the registration process challenge democratization in Morocco.

The US views Morocco as an important ally in the MENA region and an example of democratization and modernization. Morocco entered into a free trade agreement with the United States in 2002 as the first Arab nation to do so, and has collaborated with US efforts to address regional security. In 2014, Morocco hosted the International Forum for Human Rights, an event with over 5,000 attendees from 94 countries, which Morocco’s ambassador to the UN described as representative of the country’s human rights achievements. Yet Moroccan human rights organizations, as well as Amnesty International, boycotted the forum, citing increasing restrictions on their activities and meetings. Privacy International’s report, “Their Eyes on Me,” highlighted stories of increasing government surveillance and bans on events organized by NGOs.

While the PJD and the PAM vie for parliamentary power in the upcoming elections, the struggle for meaningful political participation will continue long after the votes are counted. As Bouhmouch comments “the struggle is just beginning, and the Makhzen continues to resist.”

Featured image from the Council on Foreign Relations