Morocco: Mass protests follow the assassination of a fishmonger

A feeling of “déjà vu”.
On the evening of Friday, 28 October, a poor fish vendor, Mohsen Fikri, was murdered in the town of Al Hoceima (in the Rif region) after being searched by police. The appalling images of his death circulated online caused a huge stir, his body having been crushed by a dumpster. This was the trigger for the country to be swept by some of the largest protests since 2011 and the so-called “20 February Movement” that challenged the monarchy at the time.

On the evening of Friday, 28 October, a poor fish vendor, Mohsen Fikri, was murdered in the town of Al Hoceima (in the Rif region) after being searched by police. The appalling images of his death circulated online caused a huge stir, his body having been crushed by a dumpster. This was the trigger for the country to be swept by some of the largest protests since 2011 and the so-called “20 February Movement” that challenged the monarchy at the time.

Mouhcine Fikri was 31 years-old. While he was selling fish to try to make ends meet, he was stopped by the judicial police and the National Office of Fishery. On their order, his swordfish was confiscated and thrown into a garbage truck. The poor seller, whose goods were his only way to support his family, attempted to get them back by going inside the truck. The police then ordered the driver to activate the mechanism on the truck, crushing and killing him on the spot.

His funeral took place on Sunday 30 October in Imzouren, his hometown, in the presence of several thousand angry people. The port workers of Al Hoceima went on strike that day to denounce this assassination, symptomatic of the attitude of the authorities towards the people. Among the slogans shouted were: “crush us or respect us!” and “Stop the ‘Hogra’!” (a term that means contempt but which also refers to arbitrary official decisions and the abuse of authority).

Smaller demonstrations were also held in the town of Al-Hoceima, but also in other cities including the capital Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Oujda (east) or Settat (in the centre of the country), as well as in small villages. In Rabat, over a thousand people marched shouting “We are all Mouhcine!”. On one picture, a sign said: “Welcome to the COP22, here we grind people” – since Marrakesh is currently hosting a UN Conference on climate change (COP22). Many slogans were aimed directly at the monarchy, which is quite unusual. These mobilizations have continued to varying degrees until today.

A feeling of “déjà vu”

This tragic event immediately reminds us of the violent death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian vendor whose death at the end of 2010 initiated the process of revolution and counter-revolution in the Middle East and North Africa. At the time, the extraordinary repression of the regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt did not manage to save the reign of the dictators.

The regime of the “makhzen” (a term used to describe the ruling clique around the King), however, is taking a slightly more subtle approach, conscious that repression alone will not succeed in breaking the protests. King Mohamed VI has openly ordered the interior minister to make a visit to the family of the victim “to offer the condolences and compassion of the sovereign”, while claiming to have given instructions “for a careful and thorough investigation to be carried out and for charges to be brought against anyone whose responsibility is established in this incident”, according to the ministry’s statement.

In 2011 already, when the February 20 Movement had involved tens of thousands of people, the regime promised a new constitution and the holding of early elections. Despite the new Constitution and many other promises, nothing has fundamentally changed since then in Morocco, whether in relation to the rights of expression or individual and cultural freedoms, or in relation to trade union and social rights. It is not in the interests of the regime to put them into practice, nor of the Western powers whose businesses want to enjoy a cheap and docile Moroccan workforce.

Human rights groups say that more than 300 people have been imprisoned for political reasons under false charges since 2011. Social movements are still criminalized. The Amazigh culture and language remain marginalised and discriminated against, despite their legal recognition in the Constitution in 2011. A large regression in the education sector is taking place, as the organic laws to incorporate this language into active life have still not been voted on.

An increasingly difficult economic situation

If there is one thing that has changed since 2011, it is the economic situation. Already hardly bright for the masses in the first place, it is even worse now and 2016 is likely to be the worst year in twenty years. According to international studies, 200,000 to 250,000 new job seekers are entering the labour market every year, and to simply absorb this flow, Morocco needs annual growth of at least 7%. But economic growth in 2016 is expected to be only around 1%. On the other hand, the tax evasion scandals of the Panama Papers or Swiss Leaks have highlighted the possession of offshore accounts by the king and his entourage.

The 2011 early elections were marked by a high abstention rate – for many people it was nothing but a fool’s game- and by the victory of the right-wing Islamist ‘Justice and Development Party’. The new Prime Minister, Benkirane, had notably campaigned on the promise of a level of growth of at least 6%. In the last election, less than a month ago, the official rate of participation was even lower, at 43% … The desperation of the masses is deep, as shown yet again by the self-immolation of a job applicant on November 2 in front of the Prefecture of El Aaiun (the biggest city in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara).

Providing a perspective of collective resistance

This past year has not been without important social movements. The struggles have reached a new stage, with two general strikes, in February and May, among other things. Public sector workers in particular are on the offensive, but they have the potential to draw behind them the whole of society, deeply disgusted by the luxury in which the regime swims, while millions of Moroccans live in slums.

At the moment, the protests are more vivid in the city of Al-Hoceima, which was the heart of the revolt against the Spanish colonisers in the 1920’s and also witnessed a popular uprising in 1958. Long neglected under the reign of Hassan II (father of the current king, Mohamed VI), the Rif region has a legacy and reputation of rebellion against the central government. It was also one of the main centres of protest during the 20 February Movement.

It is important today to prevent a regional isolation of the struggle and to seek bases of support among the masses throughout the country. The demonstrations that have taken place in the urban centres such as Rabat and Casablanca demonstrate that the potential for this is present, and clearly illustrate that the issues involved go far beyond cultural and ethnic lines, which the regime has always sought to exploit according to the old principle of  “divide and rule”.

The call to organize a general strike could unify the anger in a fighting movement to demand:

– An independent investigation into this incident with the participation of representatives of workers and human rights’ associations (as opposed to the inquiries into the deaths of 2011 for example, which were completely controlled by the regime and led to nothing)

– The release of all political prisoners

– The full return of public subsidies on basic commodities (gas, fuel, flour, sugar,…)

– The imposition of a decent minimum wage

– Massive public investments to meet social shortages

– Free education and healthcare, accessible to all

Local struggle committees in the workplaces and neighbourhoods would be an ideal place to discuss collectively the demands of the movement. They would also serve to develop its organization and strategy towards the overthrow of the despotic regime of Mohammed VI, and to eventually convene a revolutionary constituent assembly bringing together democratically elected representatives of these various committees. The movement that swept across the region in 2011 has already shown how such a process has the capacity to influence the international arena. It was also during that period that the reactionary Islamist organizations found themselves temporarily “asphyxiated” by the united activity of the masses.

However, we must of course learn from these past struggles that came to a deadlock which benefited the imperialist forces, local despots or reactionary Islamists. The movement cannot simply stop when a leading figure is overthrown: it is the capitalist system that must be overthrown. Only the democratic nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy would allow for the establishment of an economy planned according to the needs of the entire population, in contrast to the plans like “Emergence”, “Emergence II” or “industrial acceleration” of the Makhzen regime which have had the effect of enriching only the social base of the regime. On this basis it will also finally be possible to find a harmonious solution to the national question and to the oppression of the Amazigh people, based on the self-determination of all peoples and on workers’ solidarity.

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November 2016