The Moroccan government's handling of protests calling for reform is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Younes Benkhdim, a political detainee and poet, will today enter his third week on hunger strike in an attempt to levy rights for imprisoned political activists in Morocco. Nicknamed the "Poet of the People", Benkhdim was handed a two-year sentence and a 5,000 dirham ($1400) fine earlier this year for his political dissent as part of the February 20 Movement (Feb20), the Moroccan pro-reform group.
Dignity or death
From his cell in Oukacha, Casablanca, Benkhdim issued a clear set of demands. He first requested "the release of all prisoners of conscience, first and foremost those activists from the Mouvement du 20 Février" - a number estimated to be around 70 by Moroccan human rights groups. Next Benkhdim demanded "the opening of a judicial inquiry into the torture to which these activists were subjected and the implementation of legal actions against their torturers".
His requests reflect the indignation felt by many over the government's increased suppression of free speech and peaceful protest during the last twelve months. Indeed, state surveillance coupled with disproportionate punishment for political and anti-monarchy dissent is manifestly on the rise in Morocco.
In May, the rapper Mouad Belghouate, known as El Haqed ("The Indignant One"), was sentenced to a year's imprisonment and given a 1,000 dirham ($300) fine for "insulting a police officer in the exercise of his duties", after a video of him was uploaded to YouTube and deemed inflammatory by authorities. Occupying a neighboring cell to Benkhdim in Oukacha, in July Belghouate also attempted a hunger strike (subsequently aborted) to protest the conditions of his detention.
More sobering still is the account offered by five activists arrested at the July 22 demonstration in Casablanca. In an open letter, the five members of the Feb 20 Movement detailed the abuse they were subjected to in police custody - signed confessions were obtained through torture, they had objects inserted into their anus, and fingernails and eyelashes were ripped out.
Such instances are what have led Younes Benkhdim to his hunger strike, his set of demands for judicial inquiry and the memorable epigram to his communiqué from prison, "dignity or death". This, say fellow activists, is a polemic statement necessary for gathering international attention, especially given the Moroccan media's inability to cover news concerning police brutality and coercion. Zineb Belmkaddem, a member of the February 20 Movement in Rabat, told Think Africa Press:
"This imprisonment and torture of Feb20 activists went unnoticed on national television as per all state-controlled media countries. It did sporadically make the news on some independent radio channels and some newspapers, but not enough to spark a wave of general rage. Instead, people are simply realising that things aren't changing even after the new constitution and last year's elections."
Economic disparity at the root
Morocco's primary problem is an economic one. A recent survey by the World Bank revealed that almost a quarter of Moroccan's live in severe poverty, and that 49% of Moroccan youth are neither in school, nor working. This is particularly galling for young Moroccans given that King Mohammed VI has principal control over the country's resources - particularly the increasingly lucrative phosphate mines - and whose personal assets were recently valued at $2.5billon.
The king is seen to be consolidating his wealth even after constitutional changes and the victory of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) last November. In part this was due to his appointment of 11 personal advisors shortly after the elections, resulting in the formation of a shadow government to keep the PJD's proposed economic reforms in check.
In response many Moroccan groups - not just the February 20 Movement - have called for change. Samia Errazzouki, Maghreb editor of Jadaliyaa, an academic forum debating current Arab world affairs, told Think Africa Press "there needs to be a serious discussion about numerous things, including increasing transparency in business deals the state is involved in... and evaluating the role of the king in the private sector as the most heavily invested businessman".
But it is the Feb20 group - a group of young activists who facilitate protest primarily through social media platforms - that have been the most vociferous in criticising the regime, persevering in protest despite the government's cosmetic efforts at reform. These involved pacifying intellectuals such as teachers and professors by selectively raising their salaries in order to stem the tide of criticism earlier this year. But the majority of those in Morocco's lower social echelons - such as the ailing youth - have not been appeased. "Such a measure" writes Moroccan teacher and political columnist, Jamal Elabiad, "was not to serve teachers' interests, but to serve the regime's ones, including survival".
Return to the Years of Lead?
But while the Feb20 movement continues to speak up, officials have begun to retaliate more openly and readily.
"There is definitely an increased systematic marginalisation of the movement's voices. It's heightened with every case" says Samia Errazzouki. "The issue is that the Moroccan regime is entirely inconsistent when it comes to dealing with the [Feb20] movement. At times, protests are left unbothered, at other times, they are violently dispersed and activists are taken by the dozens to police custody. If the Moroccan regime violently dispersed every single protest that occurred, it would no longer have its status as a 'liberalising' and 'reforming' regime that has made it a convenient ally for the West."
The major fear is that the recent surge in police brutality signals a return to an authoritarian regime similar to that conducted by the current king's father, Hassan II, who responded to the slightest form of public dissent ruthlessly. The current government appears to be inciting fear as a tool of deterrence - particularly the older generation, whose memories of harsh rule remain fresh - by making an example of Feb20 activists.
More austere punitive measures were partly brought about by the winding down of the Arab Spring - a decrease in regional volatility allowed the regime more freedom domestically - but it was also enacted as a response to large-scale protests (beyond the usual youth movement) that occurred on March 9, following a speech by the king. That public address, which promised change and new constitutional reform, was met with greater public hostility and demonstrations than the government was willing to tolerate.
"[In response] Major human rights abuses were committed, beatings, random arrests during gatherings, humiliation, intimidation and many more appalling practices," says Zineb Belmkaddem. She suggests that this government intervention "prevented moderates from taking to the streets out of fear for a resurgence of this king's father's infamous torture practices in what are now known as the 'Years of Lead', when people were buried alive for decades in secret detention underground holes."
Others, however, believe this latest surge in police brutality will galvanise the larger populace into action. Jamal Elabaid believes that "the state violence will never stop Moroccans from taking to the streets to call for their rights. The Moroccan regime should know that oppression has no effect. Otherwise, it would have worked for Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi, the ousted Arab autocrats...the security approach will only put more fuel on the fire of protests in Morocco."
Joseph Charlton is a freelance journalist. He read English Literature and Language at Oxford University and has since written for The Independent, The Economist, The TLS and The Financial Times. Follow him on Twitter @JosephCharlton4