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Violence in Moroccan universities: a problem worth addressing

Violence between Morocco’s young political activists is the product of a deeply divided political society that has failed to engage with its youngest members.

Abderrahim Badri. Picture taken from social media. Higher education institutions the world over are places for young people to explore diverse ideas and develop important life skills. However, in Morocco, university students are confronted by extreme violence.

On 19 May 2018, in the University of Ibn Zohr in Agadir, violent confrontations between pro-independence Sahrawi and Amazigh Cultural Movement students led to the murder of Abderrahim Badri, a 24-year-old undergraduate law student. Another 30 students were arrested in the following days, as young people across the country struggled to come to terms with yet another unnecessary death in Moroccan universities.

Structural & direct violence in the university

Violence between students’ groups in Moroccan universities is significant, widespread and inherently linked with structural conditions in the country. Structural violence denies secure and dignified living conditions and prevents the realisation of individual and collective goals and, in Morocco, structural violence goes hand in hand with direct force. The current situation in the country is deeply-affected by a socio-political phenomenon that goes unnoticed by outside observers, despite the immediate effects it has on a large and critical constituency for the future of the country: university students.

Morocco’s university groups are characterised by their ideologies, identities and their links with political parties and movements at the national level. There are numerous tensions both within and between ideological and identity groups. Student factions dominate certain faculties or campuses around the country and claim control over them. They trumpet their differences by decorating the physical spaces of the universities with their own pictures, quotes and events. Narratives of victimhood and the logic of revenge feature strongly in these groups, as seen in the portraits of Amazigh, Islamist, Leftist or Sahrawi martyrs that line university corridors and cafeterias; depending on which party controls the space. Too often, the outcome of these divisions is wanton violence against other students.

Islamist university groups

Tadjdid Tolabi (Students’ Renewal), is one of the largest and most organised, and the youth wing of the largest Islamist political party, Al Adala Wal Tanmia (Justice and Development Party). It has an oscillating relationship with another religiously-inspired students’ group, linked to Al Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Beneficence), an influential Islamist opposition movement that was the main force behind the 20 February 2011 uprisings across Morocco.

Leftist factions

Ad-Dimoqrateen At-Taqadumeen (Progressive Democrats) is a Leftist faction with links to the Unified Socialist Party; just as At-Tali’ia Ad-Dimoqratia (the Democratic Vanguard) is affiliated with the radical Leftist opposition party, the Democratic Path. These political parties participate in organised opposition politics in Morocco, so some hard-line Marxist groups disparage them as sell-outs. Al Barnamaj Al Marhali (The Conjunctural Program) and Al Qa’ideen (The Base Program), are two radical Marxist factions that operate in different university campuses without any affiliation to mainstream political parties.

Many of Morocco’s Leftist students’ groups and political parties originate in Ilal Amam (Forward), a powerful Communist movement which was founded in 1976 but subsequently destroyed by King Hassan II in the context of the Cold War and his repression of all opposition (including the National Union of Moroccan Students (UNEM), which was a centre of Leftist political organisation). Today, most Moroccan Leftist parties have been recognised as legitimate and have adopted a contemporary political struggle from within the organs of the modern state.

However, some radical student groups, including the Conjunctural Program and students affiliated with the Base Program, constitute an isolated fringe movement within Moroccan political society. The Conjunctural Program espouses the use of force as an integral part of its ideology – perhaps as a response to the years of oppression suffered by this group. From the perspective of students on the Left and among religious student factions, the Conjunctural Program is the group behind violence in universities. From their side, some radical Leftist students attack the perceived chauvinism of the pro-Independence Sahrawis and Amazigh Cultural Movement as the most dangerous factor in university campuses across the country.

Ethnic & nationalist student groups

Sahrawi pro-Independence groups are perceived to be loosely affiliated with the Polisario Front and its government-in-exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), because of their political position on self-determination. The Amazigh Cultural Movement is affiliated with the broader national movement for the recognition of Amazigh language, culture and history.

Around the country, radical student supporters and members of these groups have tense relations with almost all other groups – they consider Sahrawi students as pan-Arabists, negating Amazigh identity; they oppose all forms of religious groups, leading to tension with Islamist students; and they advocate for identity-based forms of organisation, contrary to the internationalist Marxist students. Outside observers say the two main lines of tension in Moroccan universities are 1) between Sahrawis and Amazigh and 2) between Islamists and Leftists/Secularists.

Divides and territorial realities

Political aims, ideologies and identities undoubtedly contribute to heightening the tensions that can lead to violence between Moroccan university factions, and the devastating case of Abderrahim Badri is not exceptional. Since the end of 2017, local press reported that the university of Moulay Ismail in Meknes was the scene of two attempted homicides between students of the Amazigh Cultural Movement and the Conjunctural Program. In the same month, students affiliated with the same factions clashed again in a university in Fez, demonstrating how violent incidents can spread and multiply through the logic of exacting revenge.

Fez, home of the world’s first university, has been the setting of several violent acts between university students, dating back to the early 1990s when Leftist student Benaïssa Aït El Jid was allegedly murdered by members of Tajdid Tolabi. More recently, 21-year-old Abderrahim El Hasnaoui, of Tadjid Tolabi, was killed in April 2014 by a group of Leftist students armed with knives. The most recent clashes between Moroccan students’ factions took place on 7 March 2018, when a confrontation between Al Adl Wal Ihsane students and the Conjunctural Program left tens of wounded young people and widespread destruction to university property and adjacent residential areas. Local reports stated that students used stones, bicycle chains and iron tools to do the greatest damage possible to each other. These clashes were so devastating that the centre of Fez, and the main road to its international airport, were closed until police re-established control.

A territorial dispute between these factions, who control different campuses of the same university, was sparked by each aiming to prevent the other from carrying out political activities in their respective spaces. This censorship reflects the contrasting ideologies of these Islamist and Secularist students, separated by radically different positions on key social, political and cultural issues. Fez universities see some of the highest levels of violence between Islamist and Leftist/Secular groups, dating back to the mid-2000s and making it one of the worst areas of student violence in the country.

Collective victimhood & the cycle of violence

Moroccan university groups have come to define themselves by their collective experiences of direct violence, particularly the attacks on student activists spanning 50 years. Omar Ben Jelloun of the Union of Socialist Forces was assassinated in 1975. El Moati, a student of the University of Oujda was kidnapped in 1991. Violence between Islamist and Leftist students in Fez led to the murder of Abderrahman El Hasnaoui, in 2007. Omar Khaleq, from the Amazigh Cultural Movement, was killed by Sahrawi students at the university of Qadi Ayyad in Marrakesh, in 2016. At the University of Meknes, in May 2016, a young girl, Chaima, had her head forcibly shaved and was beaten in front of a group of student onlookers in a kangaroo court. In December 2017 in Oujda and January 2018 in Fez, students were kidnapped and tortured with batons and threatened with amputation or beheading by members of the Amazigh Cultural Movement, the local press reported.

Each of these attacks has been immortalised by the victimised groups, for example in the anthems that student groups recite at their meetings, where the memories of these injustices fuel mistrust of the ‘others’ and justify retaliatory attacks.

The death of Abderrahim Badri fits into this cycle of violence. Some see his murder as connected to that of Omar Khaleq in 2016. The reciprocal, multiplying and disturbing acts of violence between Morocco’s young political activists is no accident. It is the product of a deeply divided political society that has failed to engage with its youngest members, to include them in the national political space and to develop policies based on the needs of the majority.

Abderrahim’s death should also be understood as part of a wider national and regional political context. After all, he was the casualty of a broader struggle over the identity of the Moroccan state, where both Sahrawi and Amazigh cultural and political groups have travelled a long road in demanding recognition. Abderrahim was described in one Algerian report as a Sahrawi pro-independence activist, in a nation where the official policy negates the existence of a Sahrawi state, in an infamous stalled conflict between Morocco, Algeria and the SADR, that began in the 1970s.

So, a conflict in the university becomes a matter of national security and foreign affairs; threatening a possible expansion of violence. Where Sahrawi activists demand independence from Morocco, Amazigh activists demand their inclusion in Morocco; where Sahrawis have called for the creation of an Arab republic, Amazigh define themselves as an indigenous constituency in a transnational North African community.

whose reponsibility?

Violence between university students reflects the poverty of Moroccan university education, which leaves its graduates ill-equipped to manage their differences in a marketplace of ideas. Some young people worry that this phenomenon heralds a generation of victims and perpetrators, scarred by their experiences of violence and punishment alike.

The widely-held perception of Moroccans is that the state and its successive governments have ignored and remained passive on the issue; a stance which has undoubtedly contributed to the proliferation of these incidents. A report launched by the National Council for Human Rights in 2014 named the state as a determining actor in the violence in campuses because of the excessive violence of police officers, the pauperisation of the student population and the politically-motivated favouritism of certain students over others.

Aside from the state, there is also a need for political parties and movements to engage with and include student leaders, rather than using them just to shore up political influence in universities. These young men and women have the right to express their political vision for the future of the country and to fight for their interests within the society. This kind of leadership role for university activists can also be encouraged by civil society actors and organisations, particularly for students’ groups with no political affiliation. Civil society’s political independence can be a positive factor for facilitating communication between factions who are not able to open channels of communication or who reject engagement with other political groups.

A first step to overcoming the mistrust between student factions would be the facilitation of safe spaces for their representatives to meet, to dialogue, and to discuss the root causes, shape and potential future of fraught student relations in Moroccan universities. These meetings could include diverse representatives of students’ groups (across regional, cultural and ideological divides), or focus on intra-group relations – particularly in the case of disparate Leftist groups who have struggled to develop a unified contemporary discourse. These dialogues could be about issues that concern all student activists, for example the divisive legacy of the UNEM, which is controlled by students affiliated with Al Adl Wal Ihsane today.

Many Moroccan students have advocated for creating a code of ethics enshrining the values developed and agreed by students. However, this document would have to be the result of a comprehensive process of dialogue on the main issues underlying student violence, to have any impact.

One cross-ideological student initiative could be to lobby university administrations to install a kind of Early Warning, Early Response system to identify potential student conflicts and to defuse them in a fair and transparent way. Some student-led mediation initiatives have already been attempted in Moroccan universities, but more support is needed for these dialogues to facilitate change on the ground.

For the time being, the highest echelons of Moroccan society do not see the benefits of engaging with their youth but if this violence continues to escalate in the long term, they will not have a choice. An inclusive, balanced and participative political space can be the only solution to extremist violence – be it inspired by religion, identity or ideology.


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