A young woman embodied Morocco’s future. Instead she was shot while trying to emigrate

A guard tower overlooking the border fence encircling Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta, which lies on the Strait of Gibraltar, surrounded by Morocco. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
A guard tower overlooking the border fence encircling Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta, which lies on the Strait of Gibraltar, surrounded by Morocco. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

Her name was Hayat Belkacem. A native of Tetouan, in the north of Morocco, she was going to begin her second year in law school. Like millions of other Moroccans, however, she had no hope of a bright future in her country and reportedly made the difficult choice to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe.

On Sept. 25, while she was on a boat heading to Spain with some two dozen others, the Royal Moroccan Navy opened fire, injuring several of the would-be migrants and killing Belkacem. According to an official statement, the navy justified its use of violence by claiming the Spanish captain’s refusal to stop. The circumstances of her death at the hands of the Moroccan military, an event with no precedent, have sparked widespread indignation.

But the motives behind Belkacem’s ill-fated attempt to leave her country are anything but new. My parents were among a generation of Moroccans who lived through an era now known as the “Years of Lead” — a period in the 1970s and ’80s when police violence was rampant, job opportunities were scarce and the price of living was mounting. These political, social and economic factors triggered a massive wave of emigration that has only grown over the years. Current estimates place the percentage of Morocco’s population residing abroad at 15 percent.

My parents were part of that wave of emigration. After living in a city where access to water was limited to several hours a day, they left Morocco in the early 1980s and settled in Southeast Washington, D.C. Their demanding schedules as busboys in the old Knickerbocker Grill in Capitol Hill meant that I spent most of my time with my grandmother, who joined my parents a few years after they arrived. It was through spending time with her that I began to learn how difficult it was for my family and many other ordinary Moroccans.

Three years ago, I moved to Morocco. It was a decision made against the wishes of my parents, who could not fathom the thought of my returning to the very place they had left in order to secure a better life for me. For much of that time I lived in the same working-class neighborhood where my father spent his childhood. Working as a journalist, I had ample opportunities to travel around the country, encountering Moroccans of all backgrounds, hearing about their struggles and witnessing the very circumstances that forced my parents and millions of others to flee. After a few years, I ended up returning to the United States – for reasons very similar to those that motivated the departure of my parents. Unlike Belkacem, though, I had the privilege of dual citizenship, so I had little to fear.

Today, under the leadership of King Mohammed VI, all indicators disturbingly point to a continuation of the Years of Lead. Protesters regularly face police violence, unfair trials and prison sentences. Critical journalists are imprisoned or deported. The use of torture endures. More than 30 percent of college graduates are unable to find jobs.

These problems are further compounded by prevalent sexual violence and harassment, a reality reflected most recently in the case of Khadija Okkarou, a young girl who was reportedly kidnapped, gang-raped and tortured. Outrage and anger at the victim’s treatment led to fresh demands for reform and condemnation of sexual violence through the #Masaktach hashtag, which translates to “I won’t be silenced.”

Dissent and disenchantment are mounting in Morocco, pushing many people to risk the journey to Europe. The government’s recent decision to reinstate mandatory military service for all Moroccans between the ages of 19 and 25 is exacerbating the issue. This year alone, Moroccan officials claim to have prevented around 54,000 attempts to cross into Europe, 13 percent of which were by Moroccans.

Videos have circulated on social media showing groups of Moroccans fleeing the country by boat, headed to Spain, often chanting protest slogans made popular during the Hirak movement, which began in November 2016. In another case, thousands residing in slums in Casablanca have announced they will march to the Spanish enclave in Ceuta and demand political asylum after authorities demolished their homes. Another video shows locals in Tetouan marching while waving the Spanish flag and chanting, “The people want to drop their citizenship,” a play on the popular Arab Spring slogan “The people want the fall of the regime.”

Despite the growing troubles in his country, King Mohammed VI has been largely absent. He travels abroad frequently, a habit that has earned him nicknames like “Virtual King” and the “King in Absentia.” Since the 2011 Arab Spring protests shook Morocco, the leadership has missed ample opportunities to address the population’s serious grievances. As the situation continues to deteriorate, Morocco is not only creating a new diaspora but also storing up the fuel for a domestic explosion.

Samia Errazzouki is a former journalist and current PhD student at the University of California at Davis.

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