The gruesome death of a small-town Moroccan fish vendor sparked nationwide protests in 2016 in favor of greater government accountability. Now, those protests, which have since ebbed and flowed, have erupted into what appears to be a full-scale political crisis, one that threatens to destabilize the entire country—and perhaps the region at large, analysts say.
Morocco—one of the remaining 21st-century monarchies and a long-time participant in regional American counterterrorism campaigns—is among the few Arab states left relatively unchanged from the 2011 so-called Arab Spring protests for greater governance that swept the region. In Tunisia, those same protests led to the ouster of a long-time dictator and efforts to install a more accountable administration; in Syria, the movement has devolved into full-scale carnage. In a region full of tumult, it appeared Morocco had remained a bedrock of relative stability, propped up by robust economic and military partnerships with Europe and the United States.
But now the future of a relatively quiet Morocco is in question.
Mohcine Fikri, 31, was a fish salesman in the northern Moroccan coastal city of Hoceima. Late last year, police confiscated his swordfish, subject to a seasonal sales ban at the time, and threw it into a garbage compactor truck. Fikri went into the compactor to retrieve his stock and was crushed to death.
Fikri's demise, often likened to the death of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, which sparked the 2011 Arab World protests, came to be seen as a symbol of the public's desperation at the hands of corrupt officials and a politically powerful financial elite whom they charge do little to address rampant poverty and a lack of infrastructure, particularly in parts of Morocco like Fikri's Hoceima.
Hoceima is located in Morocco's northern Rif region, one of the country's several traditional homes of its Amazigh—more commonly referred to in the West by the pejorative term "Berber"—ethnic population. That population has long complained of political and economic marginalization.
"This is a long-simmering crisis that has troubled the northern Rif region for decades, as a result of both economic neglect and lack of social-cultural rights."
Protests, which have expanded beyond just Fikri's death to encompass larger issues of political and financial corruption, are now referred to in Arabic as Al-Hirak al-Shaabi fil Rif, the Rif Popular Movement (Hirak or movement, for short). The movement has roots in the region, and is much longer-running than the outpouring of rage over Fikri's death and its portents, analysts say.
"This is a long-simmering crisis that has troubled the northern Rif region for decades, as a result of both economic neglect and lack of social-cultural rights," says Arezki Daoud, an analyst of North African affairs and editor of the U.S.-based North Africa Journal. Daoud notes that the Rif's people have a long history of revolting against dominion by outsiders, including Morocco's Arabic-speaking and Arab-identifying administration. Furthermore, it does not help that the Rif is one of the most impoverished regions in the country, and the most populated in terms of density. Economic neglect and the current demographics are two major catalysts in the current crisis.
The protests have tackled "all sorts of abuses and social ills, from corruption and repression to unemployment," Daoud says.
The Moroccan authorities have met these protests with both an attentive ear and an iron fist.
The government pledged $1 billion in development funds in May and, in another show of the government's concern with meeting demands, national airliner Royal Air Maroc opened two new flight routes to Hoceima, in an apparent attempt to bolster tourism and welcome business opportunities to the region.
But in a separate development in May, authorities arrested the most prominent of the movement's leaders, Nasser Zafzafi, one of scores of people who have been detained in connection with the demonstrations. News of clashes between protestors and police has grown increasingly frequent.
Implicit in this crackdown is Rabat's realization that the unrest—which has brought hundreds of thousands of protestors demonstrating in solidarity with Hoceima to the nation's capital in recent months—may spread to other regions of Morocco.
"The region is obviously one of the most militarized regions in the country and more troops and policemen are sent there to insure that the crisis does not spillover to other regions," Daoud says.
On Tuesday, Hamid El Mahdaoui, editor-in-chief of news site badil.info, was sentenced to three months in prison for having incited people to participate in "illegal protests," reports say. The ruling is expected to have a chilling effect on journalistic coverage of the Hirak and also on political dissidents, who have long faced reprisals from the state.
Many activists and analysts of Moroccan affairs who had previously spoken to Pacific Standard were not immediately available to speak on the issue.
Foreign affairs watchdogs would be well advised to keep a close eye on Morocco's North, as the ongoing demonstrations threaten to boil over, Daoud suggests.
The potential for chaos abounds: If the protests necessitated a more serious reckoning for Rabat than just economic incentives to Hoceima, would that stop at Rabat, or would it inspire dissidents in neighboring Algeria—a regional economic powerhouse—to do the same?
"It's important for the U.S. and other Western countries, particularly France, Spain, and the European Union in general to keep a close eye on this evolving crisis, because Morocco has been largely spared by the Arab Spring and the West does not need a new crisis to erupt in the northwest corner of Africa, so close to Spain," he says. "The U.S. certainly has a stake in insuring peace in Morocco, considering that any major disruption opens up opportunities for the resurgence of violent militant groups that have been roaming the Sahara, Libya, Mali, etc."
Daoud says that he has yet to see the kind of policy initiatives necessary to address this crisis in any meaningful way.
Morocco's government "must be able to offer both so as to diffuse the situation, but also offer hope to the Moroccan people," Daoud says. "In doing so, Morocco could be seen as truly a forward-looking country. Absent of such strategy could lead the region to a disastrous outcome, that could put new pressures on Europe."
Across the Mediterranean, European governments are already struggling to cope with influxes of refugees from other conflicts and Moroccan Europeans and other European ethnic minorities already face heightened waves of xenophobia as a result of their association with these newcomers. What began with a simple fish vendor trying to eek out a living threatens to spark great unrest not just in tiny Hoceima, but the world.