Protests over death of fish seller remind Moroccans of Arab Spring

Demonstrators have blamed police for death of Mouhcine Fikri, killed by garbage truck grinder

Morocco’s king Mohammed VI is desperate to prevent a recent wave of protests, sparked by the grisly death of a fish seller, from escalating into the kind of instability the country’s neighbours saw during the 2011 Arab Spring.

The death of Mouhcine Fikri (31) last Friday unleashed demonstrations across the northern Rif region, leading to speculation that North Africa's most stable nation could be facing major unrest.

Fikri and some friends had bought 500 kilos of swordfish to sell in Al-Hoceima, a town on the Mediterranean coast. But police seized the fish, which is not allowed to be caught in Morocco, and it was thrown into a garbage truck. The fish sellers climbed up on to the vehicle to try and recover their wares, but the truck's garbage grinder was then switched on, crushing Fikri to death after his friends jumped down.

Amid the angry scenes that followed, some locals claimed a policeman had given the order for the grinder to be activated. However, other observers said they heard no such command and a harrowing video clip of the incident does not seem to clarify what happened.



The notion that this was an act of state brutality led to protests in Al-Houceima and other towns in the Rif region over the weekend, spreading to cities such as Casablanca and Rabat. On Sunday, there was a large turnout on the streets as Fikri’s remains were transported from Al-Houceima to his hometown of Imzouren.

The king, appearing to acknowledge the potential seriousness of the unrest, deployed interior minister Mohamed Hassad to offer his condolences directly to the dead man’s parents. A probe has also been mounted and in a statement, the minister said the king “doesn’t want such incidents to recur in our country”. He added: “The investigation will make sure people are held accountable.”

Fikri’s father also struck a conciliatory tone when he told a local news outlet that he did not want his son to be “the cause of sedition in Morocco”. He added: “Moroccan people want stability…they want reform and stability.”

On Tuesday, the attorney general reported that 11 people had been arrested in relation to Fikri’s death, including several garbage workers and other civil servants. However, the investigation seems to be treating this as an accident, with manslaughter, rather than murder, among the charges against some of those being held.

But despite the authorities' efforts, comparisons have been made with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010, sparking the Arab Spring uprisings.

Although Morocco saw unrest in 2011, it was more muted than in other North African nations. King Mohammed, who wields substantial powers, drew the sting out of protests by pledging constitutional reforms, which he later introduced.

Nonetheless, in the five years since, many of Morocco’s underlying problems have not been resolved.

Extreme injustice

Mohamed Daadaoui, a political scientist at Oklahoma City University, says many ordinary Moroccans resent the extreme injustice that they feel victims of.

"Moroccans sharply juxtapose the lives of the oligarchs with their systematic subjugation and impoverished existence," he told The Irish Times. Some of the slogans shouted by protesters last weekend, he said, "crystallised that profound sense of deprivation."

There were further echoes of Bouazizi’s death this week when local media reported that two men had set fire to themselves in the Moroccan city of Laayoune in Western Sahara, in separate incidents. Both were apparently protesting their economic situation and they are being treated for their burns in hospital.

The recent protests come at a bad time for Morocco, which will host an international climate change conference in Marrakech later this month.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain