How a fish vendor's death is sparking rare protests in Morocco

The death of a fish vendor who was attempting to retrieve fish confiscated by police has sparked large protests in several cities, a rarity in a country whose king holds nearly absolute power. 

Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP
With graphic posters and signs, some thousands of Moroccans protest against the death of Mouhcine Fikri last Friday, in the northern city of Hoceima in Rabat, Morocco, Sunday.

Protests have erupted in several parts of Morocco after a fish vendor was crushed to death Friday in a garbage truck, while trying to retrieve swordfish confiscated by police.

The incident, which took place in the northern town of Al-Hoceima, is being compared by some to the spark that ignited the Arab Spring in 2011, when a fruit and vegetable vendor in Tunisia set himself alight in desperation after police confiscated his merchandise.

Other analysts say the protesters have no political motivation, but simply seek justice for the victim and a change in the way Moroccans are policed. Morocco’s monarchy survived the Arab Spring by implementing reforms, and authorities’ reaction to the latest protests seem to lean toward appeasement rather than repression.

"While we have had a constitution since 2011, and the country is moving slowly but surely towards democracy, a large segment of Morocco's security apparatus is still dealing with the Moroccan people with the same mentality as in 1980s and 1990s," Samir Bennis, editor-in-chief of Morocco World News, told Al Jazeera.

"So with these protests, Moroccans are trying to communicate to the government that they have had enough of this impunity and of this abuse of power."

The victim, Mouhcine Fikri, had about $11,000 worth of swordfish – a protected species in Morocco – taken by police and thrown into the garbage truck. He and several friends dived after it, but when the vehicle’s compactor ground into action, Mr. Fikri was unable to escape.

Some media reports have suggested that police ordered the truck’s operator to crush Fikri, but other accounts say their intent was to scare away Fikri and his friends. Others make no mention of the police making such a request.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI, currently on a tour of Africa, ordered his interior minister to visit Fikri’s family and offer his condolences, while also ordering a "careful and thorough investigation," according to the state news agency, Maghreb Arabe Presse.

Protests in the North African nation have been rare since the Arab Spring five years ago, but they exploded over the weekend not only in the restive region of Rif, where Al-Hoceima is located, but also in the major cities of Casablanca and Rabat.

Observers say that police brutality remains rife in Morocco, and that this is what lies at the heart of the protests. Social media in Morocco has conveyed people’s outrage against “Hogra,” a term encapsulating official abuse and injustice.

Yet the idea that protesters are seeking deeper political change is given little credence by many observers, including Riccardo Fabiani, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group.

"This is not the beginning of a new Arab Spring simply because the authorities in Morocco are using a different approach," Mr. Fabiani told Al Jazeera. "They are not repressing, they are not confronting the protesters, they are trying to appease them."

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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