Crushed Spirit but Reinvigorated People: How One Man’s Death Reignited the Voice of a Nation

December 4, 2016

On October 28th, the small ocean-side city of Al-Hoceima was shaken by the death of Moroccan fish salesman Mouhcine Fikri. Although the fishing, possession, and dissemination of swordfish after autumn is illegal in Morocco, Fikri had managed to acquire 500 kg (1,000 lbs) worth, estimated to be valued at $11,000, and, following a desperate attempt to retrieve his swordfish products after they were confiscated by local police, he tragically died in the compactor of a garbage truck. Following his death, voices of protest and solidarity could be heard around the nation. Outrage over the incident was not unique to Al-Hoceima but was felt in major cities across the North African country like Marrakesh, Casablanca, and the capital city, Rabat, with protesters rallying after pictures of the vendor’s mutilated body surfaced and spread on various social media platforms.

 

King Mohammed VI, who was not in the country at the time of the incident, immediately ordered the Interior Ministry to conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding Fikri’s death. Yet, the proactive nature of the government did not seem to immediately quell the impassioned voices of protesters banding together in the various cities, who demanded not only an end to police corruption and brutality but also justice for Mouhcine Fikri’s family.

 

A fish market in Essaouira, Morocco

 

As of now, eleven people have been arrested in connection with the case. However, due to lack of evidence and conflicting eyewitness accounts, the true nature of what took place during the last moments of Fikri’s life may never be known. Some witnesses recall hearing a police officer order the power of the trash compactor be activated even though Fikri was still inside. When confronted about this claim, officials hold firmly that the tragedy was, although gruesome and unfortunate, nothing more than an accident. Other witnesses recall seeing Fikri and a group of friends dive into the back of the garbage truck, yet were unsure why his friends were able to stay out of harm's way while Fikri himself had no such luck.

 

Al-Hoceima is a part of the mountainous region of Morocco called the Rif, home to a large portion of Morocco’s Berber population. The Rif is known for its rebellious history; its inhabitants waged war against Spain in the 1920s, the colonizer of Northern Morocco, as well as initiated a violent rebellion against the monarchy in the late 1950s shortly after Morocco won independence. The implications of Fikri’s death run deeper than his source of livelihood being confiscated; the incident highlights larger issues of abusive police practices and the dire economic conditions that have produced staggering levels of poverty and desperation in such rural areas. It also sheds light on the unique struggles of Morocco’s native Berber population, whose ensured minority protections have fallen short.

 

One of the biggest developments to come from the outcry for reforms following the occurrence was speculation by Western media sources and political experts that Morocco would experience a second Arab Spring and that Mouhcine Fikri’s death could be its ignitor. The outlets often pointed to similarities between Mouhcine Fikri and Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor whose public self-immolation ignited the uprisings that eventually led to the Arab Spring. Bouazizi became a symbol of unemployment, police abuse, corruption, and the perils of an un-checked authoritarian government. Fikri and Bouazizi also share similar backgrounds, with both men coming from poor, marginalized regions of their nations and suffering mistreatment by authorities that affected their means of survival. Other hints that indicated that a second wave of monumental protests could be around the corner was the link between key demonstration organizers and their previous central involvement with the February 20th movement of the Arab Spring.

 

Rif Mountains, Northern Morocco, by Chloe-Kate Abel

 

In 2011, Morocco’s Arab Spring, encompassed by the February 20th protest movement, grew in size and scope due to the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, which protestors used to help mobilize and delineate their goals. The Moroccan government slowed the progression of the movement and was able to keep it comparatively short in duration by offering constitutional reforms that are criticized as being more cosmetic than fundamentally progressive.

 

Although initially there was talk of a second Arab Spring budding in Morocco, journalists have come to think that the unrest is likely to subside with limited lasting effects. The Moroccan government is experienced in handling widespread protests because of the Arab Spring in 2011 and is unique in the fact that, unlike some of its neighbors, it has always allowed for demonstrations without police intervention, a tradition that still holds today. However, these public rallies must be reported and registered to the government in advance. Another reason why Morocco will survive this period of protest is that the Moroccan political system is not being attacked or called into question. Protesters are calling for an end to elitism and police abuses rather than criticizing the monarchy directly.

 

Morocco is cited by historians and experts alike as one of the few success stories of the Arab Spring because its period of unrest and protest was relatively short and the state figurehead, the king, was not expunged. Although it is no longer thought that the voices of discontent that erupted around Morocco following Fikri’s death will lead to another Arab Spring, the protests should not be taken lightly because they show that concerns from 2011 are still very much unresolved. The Moroccan government was quick to address the situation and demand an investigation but have done little to explore the underlying issues of corruption, police brutality, and economic marginalization in rural areas. Although the tragic death of fish vendor Mouhcine Fikri may not have proven to be the straw that broke the camel's back and ignited another powerful revolutionary movement, it is interesting to watch how much longer Moroccan citizens will remain tolerant. Either Mouhcine Fikri can be viewed as a martyr that woke the Moroccan government up to the core issues that had been masked and brushed aside following the constitutional changes of the Arab Spring or it is only a matter of time before another event occurs with even larger repercussions and fallout.

 

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