By Vish Sakthivel*
(FPRI) — News articles covering public, mobilized anger at the death of fish vendor Mohcine Fikri have repeatedly, and understandably, drawn parallels between Morocco today and Tunisia (and to an extent Egypt, Syria, and Libya) in 2011. Indeed, the circumstances are eerily similar: Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi was a fruit vendor who took his life by self-immolation after his wares were confiscated by authorities, and Morocco’s Fikri was a fish seller crushed by a garbage truck while he was attempting to recover thousands of dollars’ worth of fish seized and disposed of by authorities.
In both countries, the protests were more concerned with dignity and the economic and political circumstances that led to their deaths—economic desperation and threatened livelihoods. And in both countries, their deaths served as symbols of widespread hogra: a Maghreb concept which roughly translates as elite contempt for the common man, which may, in turn, serve to render invisible or humiliate the subject. Morocco is now seeing some of its largest protests since 2011.
But Morocco is probably insulated from a mass anti-regime uprising.
In the aftermath of Tunisia’s spring, many Tunisians argued that the international media overemphasized the importance of Bouazizi’s death itself as a catalyst for protests and for President Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali’s subsequent ouster. That is, the protests and regime change that followed were attributable more to pent up desperation and long-held animosity toward the perceptibly kleptocratic Ben Ali family, whose legitimacy was widely questioned but retained power through an iron fist. This is a sharp contrast to the widespread support, even adoration, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI still enjoys, and through a much softer fist. As is arguably the case with monarchs across the region, King Mohammed VI operates as a symbol of Moroccan nationhood—to an extent, to be a Moroccan, is to be a royal subject. (In this regard, it is worth pointing out that monarchies almost always do better in times like these than republics.) This dynamic has taken years of post-colonial state consolidation to achieve and would take a great deal of time to undo, where the king also occupies the important spiritual relationship to the citizenry as “Commander of the Faithful.” And Fikri’s tragic death will not transcend this—unlike in 2011 Tunisia, no one is calling for the King’s removal. As I argued recently, Morocco’s “policy successes are attributed to royal vision and failures to a laggard parliament.” Instead of blaming the king or the monarchic system, people are blaming the parliament, ministers, political parties, and the amorphous ‘nidam’ (system).
To this end, the Moroccan regime has had the benefit of retrospection and years of experimentation with limited openness. It has learned to hedge against unrest by cosmetically addressing grievances while expanding clout through shrewd and selective employment of democratic institutions (such as nominally strengthening parliament and coopting opposition). The regime also has responded quickly to the tragedy by charging 11 individuals involved (jailing eight, including two interior ministry officials and two fisheries officials) and by launching a publicized inquiry into the incident. With parliament, institutions, and members of his coterie as scapegoats often willing to take the bullet, publicized inquiries, firings, and perhaps some superficial and aesthetically pleasing reforms may well be the biggest drama to emerge from this incident.
Moreover, the threat of terror (real or perceived) benefits the 2016 ruler in a way it didn’t in 2011. Many Moroccans attribute their perceived inoculation against terror to their organization under the king, who promises gradual reform, which they believe has been a safer, less terror-prone bet than regime overhaul.
Moroccan opposition and protest movements are also fragmented and don’t have a specific, cohesive set of demands, unlike the 2011 Tunisian protests which uncompromisingly called for Ben Ali’s ouster. Many Moroccans see Fikri’s death as an accident, or a one-off occurrence not necessarily linked to broader phenomena of unemployment, alienation, or hogra. Those who do not share this view are calling for a hazy thing called “change.” Where some aren’t able to define the term, others don’t agree on what “change” should encompass.
As an aside, the “regional” nature of some of the protests is noteworthy. Al Hoceima, Fikri’s hometown where the tragedy occurred, is located in the Rif, the home of one of the most impoverished and marginalized communities in the country, illicit trade in various contraband (most notably Cannabis), and a complicated (violent) history with the state both during the colonial period and today. People from the Rif are majority Amazigh (Berber), speaking Tarifit. In many cases, protestors wave the Amazigh flag, lamenting the economic situation in the region and seeing Fikri’s hogra as a microcosm of Rifi and broader Amazigh suffering.
There is a reason the nationwide protests have made the authorities so nervous, and why the King has felt compelled to respond sensitively and carefully. It is a wakeup call that the status quo may be sustainable—until it simply isn’t. The public is increasingly aware of the concentration of the nation’s wealth in elite (and royal) hands. Widespread despair and anger run deep and will at some point have to be managed with more meaningful change. Nonetheless, the elements that set 2016 and 2011 apart, and that set Morocco and Tunisia apart suggest the small kingdom will not be seeing a mass uprising any time soon.
About the author:
*Vish Sakthivel is a Robert A. Fox fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, focusing on North Africa. She is also a doctoral candidate in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University, where she is writing her dissertation on Islamist politics in Algeria and Morocco. Her research is based primarily on ethnographies and is supplemented by archival consultation.
This article was published at FPRI.