Original article published on Pacific Standard on Nov. 2, 2016
Five years ago, the untimely death of a North African merchant drove his countrymen to the streets in protest. A similar event happened again this past weekend, only this time it was in Morocco, not Tunisia.
In both cases, the merchants’ stock had been confiscated by local authorities. In both cases, popular anger arose from the lowest echelons of a country with a small, wealthy ruling class, where some people can’t hope to eke out a living, much less be upwardly mobile. And, in both cases, this anger manifested itself on the streets in massive protests across the country heard around the world.
American media seemed eager in this latest case to ask whether the death would provoke a second wave of protests across the Arab world and other countries struggling with democracy. That happened to the dismay and ridicule of many Moroccans.
But as protests began to dwindle across the North African kingdom Tuesday, it became clear that this was not 2011. Voices on social and news media who’d gone silent since the so-called Arab Spring were reborn, and yes, there was some excitement among North Africans; it takes a lot for North Africa to make its way into American media: A man being crushed to death; a Clinton Foundation scandal involving King Mohammed VI; a think piece on how Rabat is indispensable to Washington’s global counterterrorism efforts.
This time, however, it seems the poetry and youthful exuberance of 2011 are gone, despite however many people might rally on the streets. Call it mass-movement fatigue after a series of large protests in the region led to great suffering and uncertainty. Or call it a political coming of age — an understanding that there is no miraculous, easy-bake shift to good governance.
On Saturday, news broke that Mohcine Fikri, a 31-year-old fish vendor from the northern city of Hosseima, was crushed to death in a garbage compactor in unclear circumstances. The scandal of the story followed later that day, as did the viral video footage of his death: Fikri was selling swordfish, banned at this time of the year. He was retrieving his stock from the garbage compacter when it was turned on and crushed him.
In 2011, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi succumbed to wounds from self-immolation after police confiscated fruit stock he had not been licensed to sell. Some asked why he didn’t just abide by regulations and get a license. But that question was beyond the point. Under the 23-year kleptocracy of then-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who reserved a lion’s share of entrepreneurship and social mobility for his constituents, even a fruit vendor found it impossible to survive. It wasn’t even months into the post-revolutionary atmosphere before some began to invoke Mohammed Bouazizi sarcastically as the latest face to replace Che Guevara on lefty T-shirts that had upset the fraught but calm status quo under Ben Ali.
And yet speaking with a friend from Fez on Saturday about Fikri’s death, the first question he raised was why Fikri hadn’t abided by regulations. This friend had waxed patriotic for Morocco’s February 20th democracy movement in 2011 that responded to similar calls for change in Tunisia and Egypt at the time. Mutual friends told us he’d since gone through an inner conflict of sorts. But he was adamant about a political change of heart — look at the chaos just a few mass-demonstrations had wrought across the region. Morocco is not impervious to a Syria scenario.
The fact is, he’s right. Whether that’s political bad faith isn’t for me to decide. I’d be in Los Angeles while my family’s homeland, a civilization built over millennia, goes to hell.
And it wasn’t just this friend: Others have expressed anger at the suggestion that Fikri would inspire a regional push for change, like Bouazizi had.
“It’s 2016, and so-called lefties obsessed with the Bouazizi myth are scrounging from the bottom of the barrel, seeing victims as but a revolutionary spark,” wrote one Twitter user, whose name and handle I’ve omitted — together with other voices for this article, following news that Fikri’s friends were arrested for speaking to the press.
One has only to look to Syria, where 2011 protests quickly devolved into wholesale bloodshed and terror; and Egypt, where the military’s seizure of the government has for some transformed the unbridled enthusiasm of five years ago into a cautionary tale against youthful ignorance. In the years following Morocco’s own democracy movement, King Mohammed VI oversaw a redrafting of the nation’s constitution, which activists have called a hollow soft power nod to Rabat’s Western allies. High-profile activists have also endured what they characterize as a politic of revenge, even long after protests had dwindled: Watchdog journalists like Ali Anouzla and Mouad Belghouat, who rapped anthems of the public’s seething anger over socioeconomic injustice, went to prison over what activists called trumped up charges designed to put a chill effect on any potential protestors.
Still, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets across the country these past few days. Like in 2011, they were chanting “a’ash ashaab” — long live the people in Moroccan Arabic. Fikri’s death, unlike Bouazizi’s, is believed to have been unintentional, though. He wanted so much to live, it seems, that he was willing to risk his life for his livelihood. That’s a major difference. These protests were a nationwide funeral.
There’s a different, less exciting brand of indignation here, now that it’s not the Moroccan protestor’s first rodeo. One close friend in Marrakech wrote on Twitter, referring to Fikri’s gruesome demise, “We are all trash.” As opposed to “We are all Bouazizi” or “We are all Khaled Said,” Egypt’s 2011 martyr-cum-poster boy for revolution.
A very key difference: Unlike in Bouazizi’s case, there’s a figure that, in 2011, would have been read by much of the public as Fikri’s near-perfect foil.
Last week, Moroccan pop star Saad Lamjarred, whose parents are famous entertainers believed to be close to the throne, was arrested in Paris after a woman accused him of rape. Lamjarred already faces pending litigation for similar charges from an America woman. On Monday, the kingdom’s official Agence Marocaine de Presse news agency reported that the King had advised Lamjarred’s parents to hire French attorney Eric Dupont Morretti.
A nation in mourning was scandalized; at a time when petty regulations kept a poor man from making a living, the throne had interceded to help an accused rapist. But still, in 2016, not many people seem keen to capitalize on the almost cosmic coincidences that seemed to highlight life’s indignities.
Yet another difference was where to direct this anger. There were the same government shills gingerly suggesting that — at most — only local functionaries should be held responsible for Fikri’s death. Pointing out that the king had launched a royal investigation of the matter, these people seemed to fear a call to overthrow the monarchy that I had heard literally nowhere.
Very few people seemed to want names. Who ordered the fish taken? some asked; the details had been noticeably absent from early coverage of the matter.
After Bouazizi’s death, Faida Hamdi, the officer who publicly humiliated Bouazizi, soon became a symbol of police corruption — a whipping post made of a single woman who came to represent a deeply corrupt society. But in 2016, as names began to surface of the authorities figures who’d ordered Fikri’s fish confiscated, echoed on social media, quite a few others were calling not to flagrantly report names of public functionaries who could become sacrificial lambs for Rabat. The point was not to tear down the figureheads; it was to call for change in the system.
It soon became clear that some of the youthful mistakes of a people engaged in a movement for social change would not be relived.
There are images, both hand-drawn and photographed, of Fikri circulating on the Internet — of him being crushed to death, of him looking angelic and flanked by the colors of the Moroccan flag. But no cult of the personality. There’s no “We are all Mohcine Fikri” Facebook page that has become the virtual base for organizing, like in Egypt in 2011.
It’s not that people have become despondent; they are still out there. But the emotions were different in 2011, often opportunistic. In 2011, Arab Americans who were in the United States during the revolutions wrote books on what those meant. In Egypt, pop star Tamer Hosny penned a ballad for Tunisia after Bouazizi’s death that drove many to tears. But just week’s later, Hosny was in Tahrir Square in Egypt asking people to go home. What had been encouraged for Tunisia was not acceptable for Egypt; in short, his revolutionary ardor had been a joke.
Where there were slogans and victims-cum-mascots in 2011, there was also the oft-unspoken suggestions that good governance or, more specifically, democracy, happen overnight. For instance, Egyptians saw their first election as the one that would introduce government accountability to the people, not as the precursor to the military’s massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members. Absent from all those movements was a comprehensive proposal for what a 21st century Arab democracy should look like.
It’s too soon to tell what if anything these protests will mean practically for everyday Moroccans trying to live — not necessarily struggling to live with dignity like Bouazizi, but just to make a living. What’s certain is that, from many quarters, where there were people waxing poetic about the prospects of a few large demonstrations, there are now people measuring their words, ensconced in a political calculus informed by the brutality that has been the past five years in the Arab World.
And in the U.S., the media was hopefully able to learn from its coverage of the 2011 protests the shame of the quick take, at least as it regards North Africa and the Middle East.