Since October 2016, Moroccan citizens have staged countless massive protests in an effort to secure more jobs, better economic development, and improved accountability of the national justice system. Morocco’s political strife originated during the Arab Spring in 2011, in which the death of Mohamed Bouazizi was a major catalyst in sparking widescale protests throughout the Middle East. Similarly, the situation in Morocco intensified in October 2016 when Moroccan authorities seized merchandise amounting to $11,000 worth of merchandise from Mouhcine Fikri, a local fish vendor. When Fikri pursued his property into a garbage truck, authorities knowingly turned on the truck’s compactor, crushing Fikri to death and further igniting tensions.
Fikri’s death occurred in the Rif, a mountainous region in Morocco that has had a history of conflict since 1921, when the region’s tribal leader Abd el-Krim declared it to be independent from Spain. A bloody war between the French and Spanish colonial powers and the indigenous Berber tribes followed soon after el-Krim’s declaration. The Berber tribes eventually surrendered to the French, followed by the return of the region to Morocco in 1956.
Widely circulated footage of Fikri’s death, along with the historically high tensions in the Rif, instigated the al-Hirak al-Shaabi movement, otherwise known as “The Popular Movement,” last October. Since then, the group has conducted waves of protests. The Popular Movement’s leader, Nasser Zefzafi, was arrested days after he criticized a cleric leading a midday prayer at a mosque in Al-Hoceima. 71 protestors have also been detained from 26 to 31 May alone, including other leaders of the grassroots movement. A number of detainees were denied access to their lawyers, and defendants claimed to have been beaten and threatened by police upon arrest. Government officials have claimed they are open to a dialogue with the movement and welcome reform.
However, recent changes in the Moroccan government make such a dialogue unlikely. In 2011, Morocco established a parliamentary constitutional monarchy and is currently being led by King Mohammed VI, who shortly after taking the throne promised Moroccan citizens an end to corruption and poverty, as well as an improvement in the country’s human rights record. Despite these declarations of positive reforms, officials quickly did away with these promises by arresting and abusing prominent members of the opposition, despite the latter being legitimately dissatisfied with the economic and political state of the country.
International law permits the use of force by police only when absolutely necessary and when all other alternative forms of policing have been exhausted. Therefore, the right to assembly and peaceful protest must be respected by authorities. Additionally, international law states that individuals should be guaranteed the right to counsel, the notification of one’s rights, and prohibits degrading and inhuman treatment (i.e. threats and physical assault) by authorities. The international community has expressed concern about the carrying out of criminal procedures in Morocco, with reports from Al Jazeera and Amnesty International indicating that Morocco is violating international law with its actions.
Since the arrests, the Popular Movement has protested under the slogan “One nation, one people against deprivation and humiliations, united for freedom, dignity and social justice.” The message has somewhat shifted to a denouncement of the violent crackdown by authorities on the peaceful protestors and continues to call for more mobilization.