July 29, 2017, marked the 18th anniversary of Moroccan King Mohammed VI ascending the throne after his father, Hassan II, passed away. The day is known as “Throne Day” (عيد العرش) and is always accompanied with a speech.
This year, however, the speech came during a time of tumult. For the past several months, the northern region of Rif has seen protests following the death of Mohcine Fikri, a fisherman who was crushed in a truck after his swordfish was seized by the police. The subsequent movement gained momentum and came to be known simply as the “Hirak”, Arabic for “movement”.
In addition to those in the country, all over the world members of the Moroccan diaspora have protested against police and state repression in the Rif, calling for the release of political prisoners.
Therefore, Moroccan activists and journalists were curious about how the king would react to the protests in his Throne Day speech. Just weeks before the speech, over 100 demonstrators demanding jobs and an end to corruption were arrested by the police, including prominent protest figure Nasser Zefzafi.
During the speech, the king offered a royal pardon to a few political prisoners with ties to the Hirak. While this was widely reported in Moroccan media, one Riffean activist following the events closely, Btissam Akarkach, told Global Voices that it is important to remember “that only 11 people from Al Hoceima [major city in the Rif region] were released, one from Casablanca [Morocco's largest city] and five from Nador [another major city in the Rif region].”
While Moroccan media outlets reported that “HM the Kind Pardons 1,178 Convicts on Throne Day”, a sentence that came out of the government's own website, the actual number, as Reuters pointed out, is far smaller.
‘The monarch denies his role as…the main political actor’
In his speech, the king asked, “What is the meaning of responsibility if the official concerned loses sight of one of the most basic requirements of that responsibility, which is to listen to citizens’ concerns?”
The speech was viewed as unimpressive by many.
The king is, after all, the most powerful man in Morocco. He is the head of state and the head of the army. All police, ministers and mayors work for him, and the royal family owns important businesses across several industries in Morocco. Many therefore feel that he could do more to tackle corruption in the country.
Amina A, a student in international relations in Casablanca, told Global Voices that this is no coincidence:
This is the official discourse. The monarch denies his role as the chief of the states and the main political actor. We can understand that the state is saying clearly that we have lost the game, we have no solutions, and you are stuck in it.
Many Moroccan activists commented on social media that this was a smart move by the king to distance himself from the country's problems, and Amina agrees:
He is basically saying ‘I'm not responsible of the issues that are happening for decades in Morocco. I am, like you, overwhelmed by the speed that it takes. By your side I watch and condemn it, corruption is all over around us.
Speaking to Global Voices on condition of anonymity, one journalist argues that this is part of the king's tightly controlled media image:
The King is very much concerned about his image. Nothing is left to coincidence, everything is calculated. The pictures on the streets are to show people that he is a cool King, not a cold dictator like other rulers, on TV he wants the Moroccans to believe his informal title as King of the poor.
After taking over his highly controversial father, King Mohammed VI reportedly wished to be a very different monarch. Every once in a while, selfies with people on the streets would make the rounds in the media and on state TV he would mostly appear in traditional Moroccan clothing doing charity.
When the 2011 Arab Spring reached most of the Arab World, King Mohammed VI, in response to the the country's February 20th Movement, announced that there would be a (king-appointed) committee in charge of changing the constitution. While seen by many as largely cosmetic, it served to separate himself from more brutal Arab dictators such as Egypt's Mubarak, Libya's Gaddhafi and Syria's Assad.
And yet, shortly after being released, popular protester Salima Ziani, known simply as “Silya”, who had spent nearly two months in Casablanca's Oukacha prison, was hospitalized due to malnutrition and high psychological stress endured during her time.
This is the reality of protesters in today's Morocco, as Btissam Akarkach emphasized. “From these royal pardons, only 11 have been released so far. People think that hundreds have been freed but none of that is true.”
This argument found added meaning when, on July 20, thousands took to the streets in Al Hoceima and, following a brutal police crackdown, one 25 year-old protester, Imad Attabi, was seriously injured and eventually died of his wounds two weeks later, shortly after the king's speech.