RABAT — Grainy video images and the screams of a young fishmonger who was crushed to death in a garbage truck while trying to stop police destroying his stock have shocked Moroccans and brought thousands on to the streets to protest.
Five years after pro-democracy protests shook Morocco, this week’s unrest is a reminder of pent-up frustrations the monarchy has managed to tame in the past with limited constitutional reforms, heavy welfare spending and tough security.
With a rallying cry against the Makhzen – a term used to describe the royal establishment – protesters have vowed to stage more demonstrations over Mouhcine Fikri’s death in the northern city of Al-Hoceima, which was captured on video by witnesses and widely shared on social media.
They say he is a symbol of abuses against Moroccans and has revived the spirit of the February 20 movement which led the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the country.
The political and social stability of Morocco is closely watched by Western governments as it is the only country in North Africa where extremist groups have failed to gain a foothold, and is an important partner against militancy in terms of intelligence-sharing.
The public anger over the death has echoes of how Tunisia’s own 2011 uprising began, when a young street vendor set himself on fire after police confiscated his fruit and vegetables. That uprising swept Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from power and triggered “Arab Spring” revolts across the region.
But there are fundamental differences with Morocco, where now and even five years ago calls for greater freedoms and reform have not been directed at toppling the king. Morocco has a deeply rooted monarchy – the Muslim world’s longest-serving dynasty – while Tunisia’s autocracy was based around Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987, and his family.
The political protests – rare in Morocco – will nevertheless test the nerves of a kingdom that presents itself as a model for economic stability and gradual change and a haven for foreign investment in a region torn by violence and political upheaval.
Protest organizers say the anger at Fikri’s death, which shocked even staunch loyalists, has rekindled the broader resentment at the establishment over joblessness and the big gap between rich and poor that drove those pro-democracy protests.