'The King Is Not God, He Is Sometimes Wrong': Six Years Late, the Arab Spring Rattles Morocco

Authorities thought they could contain the protests that erupted in October 2016, but now they're threatening to spill over

'The king is not God, he is sometimes wrong': Arab Spring rattles Morocco. King Mohammed VI, center, brother Prince Moulay Rachid, right, and Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, July 29, 2017
'The king is not God, he is sometimes wrong': Arab Spring rattles Morocco. King Mohammed VI, center, brother Prince Moulay Rachid, right, and Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, July 29, 2017 /AP

The story of what happened in Morocco in October 2016 should make anyone who piled the Arab Spring on the ash heap of history shiver. A fishmonger named Mouhcine Fikri, 31, from the city of Al Hoceima on the Mediterranean Sea, had fresh swordfish on display at his stand. Swordfish weren’t in season at the time, and out-of-season sales are banned by law.

Inspectors passing by confiscated the fish, estimated to be worth around $11,000, and threw them into a garbage truck. Fikri rushed to save his goods and climbed into the truck, but then the compactor began to operate and Fikri was trapped inside and crushed to death.

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The residents of Al Hoceima, a city of some 100,000 people that suffered two earthquakes in recent decades in which hundreds were killed, accused the inspectors – in other words the authorities – of not letting the small businessman make a living at a time when the entire region was suffering from atrocious poverty and severe discrimination in government funding.

Similar to Tunisia and Egypt, where the spark of revolution exploded because of the deaths of two young people, Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia and Khaled Mohamed Saeed in Egypt, Morocco, which avoided a revolution, is now seething. Since October, when parliamentary elections were held, Morocco has not been quiet.

At first, the authorities thought that the curfews, repression of protests, and the police and military presence would be enough to calm things down. But then city residents, and later those of neighboring regions, made it clear that the  government had misjudged the anger that has built up over the years.

Social networks, as usual, were the first to get the political struggle going. Demonstrations spread to other cities, and in this usually calm country the military arrested hundreds of protesters. Meanwhile, journalists were prohibited from covering the events, and any reporters who attended the protests were arrested and sometimes beaten. Last month, as the protests grew stronger, someone was seriously injured during a protest and died this week.

Such a development was the last thing King Mohammed VI, who marked 18 years on the throne in July, needed. In a speech celebrating the anniversary, the king could no longer avoid mentioning the incidents, but he sufficed with a reprimand of those “responsible” – the officials who didn’t carry out his development plans for the Rif region near the Strait of Gibraltar.

Troubled region

Demonstrators in Al Hoceima, Morocco, July 2017.
Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

The residents of the Rif, most of whom are Berbers, have seen major improvements in their cultural rights during the king’s rule, but they’re still discriminated against economically, and the king’s speech was a disappointment for them. Not only were the inspectors responsible for Fikri’s death sentenced to prison terms of only a few months, the development promises were left empty. The government allotted 650 million euros to the region, but after the king ordered a look into why the funds had not been used, the people realized that the severe bureaucratic corruption they knew so well was still plaguing them.

A demonstrator in Al Hoceima, Morocco, July 2017.
Therese Di Campo / AP

“Freedom, dignity and social justice,” the slogan on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, is now heard in Al Hoceima and other cities, with the government wondering whether more money is enough to calm the informal leadership of the Popular Movement (Al-Hirak al-Shaabi), as the protesters call themselves, as well as the movement’s leader, Nasser Zefzafi, who is under arrest. Zefzafi, who is 39, unemployed and a great speaker, has promised to persevere until the protesters’ demands are met.

The residents of the region, who are proud of their success in fighting Spanish forces at the beginning of the 20th century, seek not only dignity and justice. The disconnect from the regime and the region’s heavy military presence, which has made it a kind of security zone, have created a feeling that the government sees the Rif as a region in revolt that has to be suppressed.

Drug trafficking is common in the region, and many young men from the Rif joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – as an alternative to unemployment. So the authorities see this as a good reason for the military presence, but it also creates a confrontation with civilians.

In any case, the government is now divided into two factions: one that supports a suppression of the uprising, the other in favor of dialogue with the demonstrators, who have increased their demands and want to negotiate directly with the king, not with the new prime minister, Saadeddine Othmani.

The king controls all branches of the government and has the military’s support. He usually does not intervene in public disputes, a task he leaves to the government. The demand to hold direct negotiations with the king is an exception to the rules of the game, one that Mohammed has rejected.

‘The king is not God’

Yet it’s possible he’ll have little choice but to try to contain the protests. This is what he did in April when he fired his veteran prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, who for six months was unable to form a government. Benikirane, the leader of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party that’s affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was forced to make way for his deputy in the party, Othmani. The latter formed a governing coalition of four parties, but the parties have tied his hands and dictate policy.

Benkirane then kept quiet and waited for the chance to remind the country of his existence – and that came with the protests in the Rif region. He didn’t suffice with advice on how to run things for his successor, he came out clearly against the king. At a convention of the Justice and Development Party’s youth wing in Fez last week, Benkirane declared “the king is not God. He is a man, and as a man he sometimes is right and sometimes is wrong. We can criticize him with respect because he is the chief of state and a symbol of national unity .... My duty is not to please the king, my duty is to please Allah and my mother.”

This is a radical change. During the reign of King Hassan II, Mohammed’s father, such statements would draw harsh punishment. Today the king is tied down by political restraints that don’t let him directly challenge his critics in the political establishment as he fights the unorganized rebellion.

A protest rally in Rabat, Morocco, June 2017.
Mosa'ab Elshamy / AP

The shock waves hitting Morocco worry not only the king, but also other Middle Eastern countries – and especially those that have skirted the Arab Spring like the Gulf states. Six years ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar all financed Mohammed in a bid to prevent the revolutions from spreading to Morocco. The king then instituted constitutional reforms including a reduction of his powers; he also lifted his authority to dissolve parliament and gave more power to the government.

The king is still the supreme commander of the military and controls foreign policy. In any case, all the reforms, along with the aid from the Gulf states, were only a short-term fix that never led to true institutions of democratic decision-making. Mohammed followed the lead of the Gulf state rulers in paying large sums for political calm, but he became dependent on his benefactors, too. Now Mohammed is forced to choose between toeing the Saudi line in the crisis with Qatar or backing Qatar, which spent huge sums in Morocco.

The real threat of the protests, which are only expanding, is that they may be joined by political movements that hitch a ride on the Popular Movement and try to advance their own radical religious or socialist agendas, of the type we’ve seen in Venezuela. It’s still too early to know where the protest is heading, but Morocco’s history is filled with violent civil rebellion. At the same time, Morocco is known as a country where the king’s popularity is a protector of stability.

One thing is clear, though. After the Arab Spring, public opinion in Morocco no longer is the tamed animal that obediently followed the government. Even for such a minor country in the Arab world and farther afield, rebellion and protest could break out into a plague.