On Sunday morning, November 19, at least 15 women died and 10 others were wounded in a stampede during the distribution of food aid in the region of Essaouira in southwest Morocco. The tragedy sparked immediate critique condemning the absence of social welfare and basic rights for Morocco's poorest citizens.
The stampede occurred in the rural town of Sidi Boulalaam, about 60 kilometers from Essaouira, when the victims were crushed and suffocated as the crowd gathered to collect basic food items at a local market. Approximately 600 people were present when the scramble began to unfold, though the specific circumstances leading to the unrest remain unclear.
The Ministry of Interior announced that it had opened an investigation after reporting the incident Sunday afternoon. Later, it issued a statement claiming that the distribution went forward without proper permission from authorities, according to the Moroccan online Arabic news site Lakoum.
However, the online paper Al-Yaoum quoted the organizer Abdelkabir al Hadidi, a jurist in Casablanca, who disputed the remark, claiming that the charity event was legal and carried out under the supervision of local authorities. Al Hadidi added that food distributions organized in previous years saw similar crowd sizes and were handled without any serious incidents.
But according to one witness interviewed by Lakoum, officials in charge of the event had pushed women in the crowd together until an iron barrier collapsed on them. The same witness described how the crowd had been confined to a closed space and when cries for help began to erupt, the screams were ignored and even laughed at by at least one official.
Asma Chaabi, a member of Parliament from Essaouira belonging to the Progress and Socialism Party, posted a Facebook response on Sunday night that her party will follow the appropriate procedures to review the incident in parliament:
كما يعلن الحزب أنه حريص على متابعة هذه القضية باهتمام بالغ، وأنه سيمارس اختصاصاته وصلاحياته وفق ما يمنحه له الدستور والقوانين الجاري بها العمل، وعبر مختلف المؤسسات بما فيها التشريعية عبر فريقيه البرلمانيين بالمطالبة بتخصيص الجلستين الأسبوعيتين للأسئلة الشفوية لهذه الفاجعة
The party also announces that it is keen to pursue this issue with great interest and that it will exercise its powers in accordance with the constitution and the laws and through the various institutions, including the legislative, through its parliamentary teams, and demands the allocation of two weekly sessions of questioning on this tragedy.
Moroccan social media users were swift to respond to the tragedy with critique and condemnation:
On Twitter, a cartoon depicting a bleeding flour sack circulated:
— Hassan Boulham (@HassaneBoulham) November 20, 2017
Twitter user Hafida Bachir emphasized that the female victims were killed in collecting food for their families:
— Hafida Bachir (@HafidaBachir) November 19, 2017
To die for food, a shame!
Lamia Bazier, founder of Empowering Women in the Atlas, suggested that government spending projects are not addressing the nation's inequality levels:
Combien de drames encore pour nous rappeler qu'au delà des beaux forums, des autoroutes et des malls – la réalité marocaine c'est aussi et surtout ça? #Morocco #Essaouira #فاجعة_الصويرة #essaouira #dahaya_thin pic.twitter.com/m6UJXc1Oos
— Lamia Bazir (@LamiaBazir) November 19, 2017
How many dramas still remind us that beyond the beautiful forums, highways and malls – this is the Moroccan reality above all that.
The former director of the banned Demain Magazine (Ali Lmrabet) similarly focused on Morocco's socioeconomic conditions with a critique of the Kingdom's elite:
Estampida mortal en #Marruecos. 1er balance : 15 muertos.
Esta pobre gente, hambrienta, buscaba comida durante una repartición de alimentos en Sidi Boualem.
Cuando nuestros ricos dirigentes tienen cuentas en #Suiza y sociedades offshore en #Panama.😐
— Ali Lmrabet (@Alilmrabet) November 19, 2017
Deadly stampede at. 1st count: 15 dead. These poor, starving people sought food during a food distribution in Sidi Boualem. When our leaders’ rich have accounts and offshore companies in Panama 😐.
While recent studies suggest that poverty rates in Morocco are declining, many Moroccans, especially those in rural areas, continue to live below the poverty line. An estimated 19% of the rural population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Rural areas like Sidi Boulalaam that depend largely on the agricultural sector have also suffered from conditions of drought. According to a Reuters report, between 2015-2016, as many as 70,000 Moroccans lost work in agriculture as a result of severe drought.
Climate conditions are expected to worsen across the Middle East and North Africa in the coming decade that could greatly impact food security in the region. Morocco experienced protests earlier this autumn in the southern city of Zagora over a water shortage crisis that highlighted the country’s struggle with managing natural resources and its potential consequences.
In the winter of 2015, residents of Tangier protested increasing energy prices for consecutive weekends that drew national attention to Morocco’s dependency on foreign energy. The country depends on imports for nearly 97% of its energy.
The state is hoping to abet these challenges with heavy investment in renewable energy projects and also agricultural reforms designed to assist rural communities by promoting sustainable development, but face significant criticism from activist groups from within Morocco and throughout North Africa.
Meanwhile, Moroccan King Mohammed VI called for local authorities to take all necessary measures to offer support for the families of the stampede victims. The King also pledged to pay the burial expenses for the dead and the hospitalization for those injured, according to a press release from the Ministry of Interior.