Moroccan protesters have taken to the streets in recent days, taking advantage of the global spotlight provided by the November 7-18 United Nations COP22 climate talks in Marrakech. Mouhcine Fikri could have been any one of them.
Fikri was the fishmonger whose awful death in the back of a garbage collection truck was caught on 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. Thousands of mainly young people demanded an end to what call a culture of official abuses and corruption that makes it even harder to live in a country with the region’s lowest per-capita income.
On October 28, Fikri argued with police when they confiscated about 500kgs of fish after, according to some reports, Fikri refused to pay a bribe. He jumped onto the garbage truck to retrieve the stock, only to become trapped when the compactor was turned on. With Fikri screaming in terror, the whole incident was filmed.
After suggestions a police officer told the truck’s driver to turn on the compactor, 11 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 COP22. Protestors have sought to capitalise on the presence of international media to pressure the government into addressing key demands. The protests over Fikri’s death have also catalysed other movements to mobilise 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 sparked the Arab Spring. The political fervour that enveloped North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 had 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 anger. Also, 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, tolerating protests to a certain degree.
Yet the new wave of protests during COP22 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 cut greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2050 and 100% by 2100.
The agreement formally came into effect on the eve of COP 22. But while it emphasises the urgency of cutting 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, which have worked tirelessly to prevent climate change legislation being enacted.
Critics have compared the influence of such multinationals to that of the big tobacco companies, which held back smoking reform for decades.
Speaking to Democracy Now! on November 1, Moroccan anthropologist and activist Miriyam Aouragh outlined the government’s political motives for staging COP 22: “The invitation of big organisations and NGOs to Morocco to organise their conferences is one of the ways that the Moroccan state is trying to sort of improve its stature internationally.”
As COP 22 began in Marrakech, barely a mile away several dozen graduate teachers launched 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 pitched 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 a chance to highlight their struggle that they could not miss.
As with other public services, they say, education is chronically underfunded in Morocco. “The government promised us jobs after our training,” said 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. About 5000 teachers across Morocco have also been protesting for seven months.
Education cuts do not only affect teachers. Mohammed described 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 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 protester, the conditions which have provoked the teachers’ protest are the same as those that killed Fikri, noting: “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 mobilised under the spotlight of COP 22. The arrest of two teenage girls filmed kissing on a roof in Marrakech has been criticised by LGBTI and human rights activists.
If convicted, the two teenagers, aged 16 and 17, could be imprisoned for up to three years. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights has called on the government to abolish discriminatory laws and to cancel the girls’ trial for homosexuality.
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”.
The COP 22 summit has 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 are seeking to make their voices permanently heard.