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Anger over the crushed fishmonger continues, but are officials listening?

Moroccan people stage a protest in front of Internal Ministry in Rabat, Morocco, after a fisherman Mohcine Fikri, was crushed to death in a garbage truck on 30th October 2016 [Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency]
Moroccan people stage a protest in front of Internal Ministry in Rabat, Morocco, after a fisherman Mohcine Fikri, was crushed to death in a garbage truck on 30th October 2016 [Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency]

When the late Mouhcine Fikri jumped into a garbage truck to save his fish from destruction, he was aware of the potential risks but did not expect that it would be the last thing that he’d ever do. His death in the truck set fire to the streets of Al-Huceima in the north of Morocco, triggering nationwide condemnation, and debates on international news outlets, as an example of how coercion and indifference suffocate human life. Ever since, dozens of street protests have occurred, reviving different groups’ yearning for social justice, economic development and good governance that would legitimise the country’s stability and reform approach.

Fikri bought a load of swordfish from the port to resell to retailers in Tangier, despite an official ban on catching swordfish at this time of year. He did not catch the fish himself, nor was he the only fishmonger to buy it. When the police failed to stop the catch from leaving the port, they contacted their colleagues in the city, and theorder was given for the fish to be crushed in the garbage truck, notwithstanding the necessary legal procedures. In protest, Fikri tried to save his investment, but someone switched the truck’s grinding mechanism on while Fikri and some of his friends were still in the back. His friends got out in time; he didn’t, and was crushed to death.

The official narrative restricts the event from the time that Fikri bought the swordfish to the moment that he died; it leaves out a number of key issues. For example, the question of who caught the swordfish in defiance of the official ban has been raised on social media. An investigation has been opened, with few expectations about the outcome because it may involve some influential, corrupt lobbyists. Another issue that has been called into doubt by protesters is the state’s ability to impose the rule of law on respecting marine life.

Furthermore, despite the extended regionalisation project, launched in 2015, democratic measures were lacking in the election of the Party for Authenticity and Modernity’s (PAM) secretary general to lead the north region council. Consequently, local development efforts remain wanting while social vulnerability and corruption linger. Persevering corruption and flawed local policies certainly deepen feelings of marginalisation and feed regional and cultural sensitivities, especially as the PAM got involved in supporting street marches post its electoral loss.

However, the scope of the current social mobilisation is still limited to the quest for dignity and democratisation. True, most protests that have occupied the streets of more than forty cities, as well as the non-stop protest in Al-Huceima, have been related to the disgraceful way that Fikri died. They not only denounce his crushing to death but also demand greater respect for the dignity and human rights of all Moroccan citizens. Yet, with minor exceptions, other protests have occurred denouncing diverse atrocities and challenging flawed public policies. This requires high-level official steps to comply with the maturity and sense of responsibility shown by protesters.

The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, sent condolences to Fikri’s family immediately via the Interior Minister, Mohammed Hassad. This confirmed the ministry’s importance as the state’s backbone, a fact which Moroccans are asking to be reformed; it is at the heart of the current mobilisation, in line with the king’s assault on administrative stagnation and ineffectiveness. The Interior Ministry has been questioned for its officials’ involvement not only in the Fikri incident but also in Moroccan politics generally, especially the elections.

To ease the tension, the General Directorate of National Security, as part of the Interior Ministry, insists on the legitimacy of its agents’ intervention. Meanwhile, police have disappeared from a number of streets to avoid unexpected incitement, as long as the marches remain peaceful. Nevertheless, reforming the administration transcends the rectifying of the coercive image of the police fixed in the public mind, to determining the ministry’s role in politics and readiness to fight corruption and stagnation within.

The Head of the Government, Abdelilah Benkirane, phoned Fikri’s father, who turned out to be a key ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) member in Al-Huceima. Shared affinities with Benkirane were obvious when Fikri’s father requested an in-depth investigation and downgraded calls for revolution based on his son’s death, particularly “as the government is keen on reform and Morocco is organising the [international climate change conference] COP22.”

Meanwhile, Benkirane asked his party members and supporters to refrain from participating in the nationwide protests, lest the situation develops unexpectedly. Many party youngsters did not abide by this request, given the heat of the public mobilisation and the horrific nature of Fikri’s death.

Benkirane has a record of being against public uprisings. In 2011, he refrained from backing the 20 February Movement, since he was unsure about the group leaders, their demands and the culmination of the whole uprising at a time of political uncertainty.

This time Benkirane’s motive is different. Fikri’s death came after the 7 October elections. Negotiations to form the government coalition needed a calmer public domain after a harsh electoral campaign and the PJD’s stiff resistance to administrative intervention. However, the coalition’s role is to listen to the public anger that stems from long-standing woes and flawed policies; pressure from the street could help to improve the coalition, not the opposite.

As such, the coalition is expected to start with reforming the administration, while the Justice and General Freedoms Ministry needs to bring all officials involved to account. If not, then reforms may remain superficial while anti-coercion mobilisation may swerve against the government.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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