For the Moroccan protesters to have taken to the streets in recent days, Mouhcine Fikri could have been any one of them.
Mouhcine was the fishmonger whose awful death in the back of a garbage collection truck was caught in mobile phone footage that subsequently spread across social media to ignite large demonstrations in Morocco. The protests were the largest to take place there since the 2011 Arab Spring, as thousands of mainly young people demanded an end to what they identify as a culture of official abuses and corruption that further increases the challenge of living in the country with the region’s lowest per-capita income.
On Oct. 28, Fikri became involved in an argument with police when they confiscated around 500kgs of fish after, according to some reports, Fikri refused to pay them a bribe. With two colleagues, he jumped onto the garbage truck to retrieve the stock, only to become trapped when the compactor was turned on. While his two colleagues jumped clear, Fikri was pulled into the compactor, screaming in terror, with the whole incident recorded in telephone footage. Following suggestions that a police officer told the truck’s driver to turn on the compactor, eleven people have been arrested over the death.
For Moroccan authorities, the protests could not have come at a more inopportune time, with global attention focused on the United Nations’ climate change conference (COP 22) in Marrakech, which runs from November 7-18. Aware of this, protestors have sought to capitalize on the presence of international media to pressure the government into addressing key demands. The protests over Fikri’s death have also catalyzed other movements to mobilize over disparate but interconnected issues.
Fikri’s death has drawn parallels with that of 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation following an altercation with authorities catalyzed the Arab Spring. The political fervor which enveloped North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 would have far-reaching repercussions around the world. By and large, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI avoided serious upheaval by swiftly engaging with protesters and adopting a series of reforms which aimed to placate any revolutionary sentiment. In addition, unlike the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt which were deposed in the Arab Spring, Morocco had long operated a ‘pressure valve’ policy towards social dissent, in which protest was tolerated to a certain degree, thereby relieving some of the combustibility which manifested so forcefully elsewhere.
Yet as COP 22 opens in the picturesque ancient city of Marrakech, the new wave of protests presents a national picture the authorities would doubtless wish remains unseen. The climate change conference follows on from last year’s Paris summit, in which 196 nations plus the European Union pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions by 50 percent by 2050 and 100 percent by 2100. The unprecedented agreement formally came into effect on the eve of COP 22, and is particularly prescient for countries like Morocco, where up to 40 percent of the population works in agriculture or other land-based activities and where climate change has had a devastating impact. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, some crops are down 70 percent this year compared to 2015.
While this emphasizes the urgency of reducing fossil fuel use, COP 22 has come under fire for inviting multinational extraction corporations to participate in the summit. Among those attending are BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron, each of which have worked tirelessly to prevent climate change legislation being enacted. Critics have compared the influence of extraction multinationals to that of the big tobacco companies which held back smoking reform for decades, indirectly causing untold numbers of deaths in the process. Others argue that as fossil fuel industry cooperation is vital to reducing emission, the presence at COP 22 of these companies is necessary.
Speaking to Democracy Now! on Nov. 1, the Moroccan anthropologist and activist Miriyam Aouragh outlined the government’s political motives for staging COP 22.
"The invitation of big organizations and NGOs to Morocco to organize their conferences is one of the ways that the Moroccan state is trying to sort of improve its stature internationally," she said.
As COP 22 gets underway in Marrakech, barely a mile away several dozen graduate teachers are bedding down for an extended protest in the city’s famous Djeema El Fna square. Amid the bustle of snake charmers, traditional musicians, street hawkers and tourists, they have pitched up a makeshift camp outside the central post office. Most of these young women and men have come to Marrakech to highlight the instability of their profession and demand the government fulfil what they say are unfulfilled obligations regarding jobs. Now fully qualified, all of those here remain unemployed. The staging of COP 22 presented an opportunity to highlight their struggle that they couldn’t miss.
As with other public services, they say, education is chronically underfunded in Morocco. ‘The government promised us jobs after our training,” says one of the teachers, Mohammed. “But we have found ourselves without jobs, as the government broke its promises to us.” The protests have been coordinated by the Nakaba Taakimia teachers’ union, which all those present belong to. In total, around 5,000 teachers across Morocco have been protesting for seven months.
Education cuts don’t only affect those employed in the sector: Mohammed describes a case in Casablanca where over 100 students were crammed into one class. “How can students learn or how can we educate in a class of 100? It’s impossible for them and for us.” He believes education is critical to fighting climate change. “With education, people learn how to protect their climate. Without education, students cannot learn this. There is nothing for students.”
The tragic case of Mouhcine Fikri is one these qualified professionals identify with. “Mouhcine was a vender, he was poor,” says Amo, a 24-year-old Spanish teacher. “Like other Moroccan people, he wanted to live with dignity.”
According to another young man, the conditions which have provoked the teachers’ protest are the same as those that killed Fikri. “The death of Mouhcine Fikri came because the police imposed payment of money on him. The government imposes insufficient conditions on the Moroccan people. We have organised to demand equality and good social conditions.”
It is not only the teachers who have mobilized under the spotlight of COP 22. The arrest of two teenage girls filmed kissing on a roof in Marrakech has been criticized by LGBT and human rights activists. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights has called on the government to abolish discriminatory laws and to cancel the girls’ trial for homosexuality, scheduled for the same week as COP 22. If convicted, the two teenagers, aged 16 and 17, could be imprisoned for up to three years. In reference to the case, the Moroccan novelist Leila Slimani said that “the humiliation of citizens, the way they are kept down, encourages a political system based on disdain, humiliation and the abuse of power.”
While the COP 22 summit represents the latest “final” attempt to rein in our energy consumption before it’s too late, it has also provided a platform for diverse social actors in Morocco to intensify their political messages. As with the smaller nations most affected by climate change trying to advance their cause in the face of conflicting interests among elite powers and multinationals at COP 22, these groups will be hoping to make their voices permanently heard this time.
Nick MacWilliam is an independent journalist and co-editor of Alborada magazine. Follow him on @NickMacWilliam