RABAT (Reuters) - Grainy video images and the screams of a young fishmonger who was crushed to death in a garbage truck while trying to stop police destroying his stock have shocked Moroccans and brought thousands on to the streets to protest.
Five years after pro-democracy protests shook Morocco, this week’s unrest is a reminder of pent-up frustrations the monarchy has managed to tame in the past with limited constitutional reforms, heavy welfare spending and tough security.
With a rallying cry against the Makhzen - a term used to describe the royal establishment - protesters have vowed to stage more demonstrations over Mouhcine Fikri’s death in the northern city of Al-Hoceima, which was captured on video by witnesses and widely shared on social media.
They say he is a symbol of abuses against Moroccans and has revived the spirit of the February 20 movement which led the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the country.
The political and social stability of Morocco is closely watched by Western governments as it is the only country in North Africa where jihadist groups have failed to gain a foothold, and is an important partner against Islamist militancy in terms of intelligence-sharing.
The public anger over the death has echoes of how Tunisia’s own 2011 uprising began, when a young street vendor set himself on fire after police confiscated his fruit and vegetables. That uprising swept Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from power and triggered “Arab Spring” revolts across the region.
But there are fundamental differences with Morocco, where now and even five years ago calls for greater freedoms and reform have not been directed at toppling the king. Morocco has a deeply rooted monarchy - the Muslim world’s longest-serving dynasty - while Tunisia’s autocracy was based around Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987, and his family.
The political protests - rare in Morocco - will nevertheless test the nerves of a kingdom that presents itself as a model for economic stability and gradual change and a haven for foreign investment in a region torn by violence and political upheaval.
The monarchy wants to prevent the unrest escalating to the level of the 2011 protests, which lasted about a year and forced King Mohamed to cede some of his absolute powers to the elected government.
Protest organizers say the anger at Fikri’s death, which shocked even staunch royalists, has rekindled the broader resentment at the establishment over joblessness and the big gap between rich and poor that drove those pro-democracy protests.
“People learned from February 20 movement to not let themselves to be fooled, so we will fight with all our strength for the dignity that Fikri died for,” said Nasser Zafzafi, one of the organizers.
“We do not want scapegoats, but for the truly responsible to be punished, including high officials.”
Most of the kingdom’s 34 million people follow a moderate form of Islam and the country has long acted as a bridge for Westerners to Islamic and African culture. The king holds executive powers but also claims religious legitimacy as the commander of the faithful.
In an attempt to calm tensions, King Mohamed, currently touring Africa, ordered the interior minister to visit the victim’s family and present royal condolences - a rare gesture of conciliation by the monarchy at a time of public protests.
The minister said Fikri did not deserve what happened to him and promised the investigation would punish those responsible.
Just like other governments in North Africa, Moroccan authorities often heavily police protests, nervous over popular unrest since 2011. Tunisia has seen rioting twice this year in its south over jobs and unions are warning over austerity plans.
But the security forces appear to have taken a more low-key, hands-off approach this week, waiting in side streets and staying away from where demonstrations rallied.
The authorities’ more conciliatory approach this week, compared with in 2011 and during other more minor unrest since, could be partly down to the timing, according to political analysts.
The protests erupted at a sensitive moment as the kingdom prepares to host the 2016 United Nations climate change conference in November (COP22) and the prime minister begins to form a coalition government after elections last month.
“The Moroccan regime knows how to buy peace, especially now that the country is hosting COP22,” said Mohammed Larbi Ben Othmane, a political scientist in Rabat university.
“They know how to adapt, you would even see members of the royal cabinet protesting with people if they need to do so, but they will never show weakness.”
Fikri’s death last week prompted thousands of people to take to the streets for four days of protests in Al-Hoceima and major cities across the country including the capital Rabat and Marrakesh, among the biggest rallies Morocco has seen since 2011.
Moroccan authorities have charged 11 people, jailing eight of them, over the death of Fikri who was crushed in a trash truck while trying to stop police from destroying 500 kilograms of swordfish they say he purchased illegally.
The general prosecutor said on Tuesday those charged on involuntary manslaughter were two interior ministry officials, two local fisheries officials and a veterinary chief.
Activists accused police officers at the scene of ordering garbage men to “grind” Fikri but the police denied those accusations.
The involvement of local officials has fueled anger at the establishment and a frenzy of postings on social media blaming the Makhzen, reminding many of the February 20 movement calls to curb the monarchy’s absolute powers.
When protests erupted in 2011, the king called a referendum which backed constitutional reforms that saw him cede some of his powers to the government and guarantee more rights, including freedom of speech. He remains the ultimate authority in Morocco, however.
Many February 20 activists were disappointed by the reforms, which they believe did not go far enough to bring democracy, and any suggestion of a resurgence of the movement is sensitive for a monarchic political system that critics describe as a medieval and archaic.
“What happened shows that all the people who thought the February 20 movement was dead were wrong,” said Ben Othmane. “Moroccans did not lose that capacity to resist.”
Editing by Patrick Markey and Pravin Char