Friday, January 20, 2012

Moroccans burn selves in unemployment protest - Africa - Al Jazeera English

While having breakfast this morning, I turned on the news and was surprised to find mention of Rabat on al-Jazeera's news ticker. In 2010, Morocco expelled al-Jazeera from the country on account of its allegedly inaccurate and damaging representation of the Moroccan government, especially regarding their politics in the Western Sahara. To my knowledge, this was the most recent update in the al-Jazeera/Morocco saga. Any news coverage from Morocco must be second-hand information. Regardless, this morning on my television screen, Rabat was front-page news on al-Jazeera's World News program.

Though I was pleased that Morocco had finally made headlines after months of silence while the rest of the MENA region had their violent uprisings, fall-outs, and military regimes, my heart sank to find out what made Morocco deserve such a privilege. Earlier this week, after a 12-day sit-in at the administrative building of the ministry of higher education five unemployed Moroccan men set themselves on fire in the capital when security forces prevented supporters from delivering food and water to the protesters. When the five men left the building to get the provisions outside, they threatened to set themselves on fire if the security officials wouldn't let them pass.

According to al-Jazeera and a video recording of the incident posted online, a crowd of supporters are shown tossing loaves of bread over the heads of policemen guarding the building. At that very moment, 5 men jump down from the building and as they run to collect the tossed bread they douse themselves in an unknown liquid and proceed to ignite in flames. While none of the five men died, gruesome photos published online show large patches of their skin scorched. The Arabic-language online newspaper Goud noted that two of the five suffered second-degree burns and were rushed to the Casablanca burn unit.

Watching the footage online, I was astonished. How could I have not known about this? The locations were so familiar that even without any contextualization I knew exactly where it was filmed by piecing together a shot of curb and the corner of a building. It is about a ten minute walk from my apartment. I thought back to earlier this week. Did I notice any increase in political tension? Of course, I ran past daily protests out in front of Parliament every morning, but that wasn't any different than usual. As I was racking my brain for missed clues, I realized that the underlying reason I didn't know that this was going on. It wasn't because I'm not fluent in Arabic, or that because as a Westerner I'm out of touch with local society. It was because nobody wanted the public to know about it.

I thought back to the censorship of al-Jazeera and did a little more research. Apparently al-Jazeera is one of many international news broadcasters that got the boot from Morocco due to their unsavory representation of Moroccan politics. Many reporters have had their accreditations revoked after their controversial coverage of the Western Sahara conflict or the alleged socio-political progress being made in the country. As cited in an article on on Morocco revoking al-Jazeera's accreditation, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, shared the following insight:

 "At a time when King Mohammed VI has pledged sweeping reforms, including stronger human rights protections, Morocco should not place itself among the Arab governments that ban Al Jazeera television...Morocco is home to many correspondents who report for foreign news media," Whitson said. "But the true measure of press freedom in this case is less in the number of reporters it grants accreditation than in the tolerance it shows to those whose reporting displeases it."

I couldn't agree more with this sentiment. The unofficial employment rate for the country is currently at 9.1 percent, though it is ironically around 16 percent for degree-holders and 31.4 percent for those under 34 years old. The Moroccan government boasts a 4 or 5 percent steady employment growth rate for the last few years but this hasn't translated into enough jobs to satisfy the yearly batches of fresh graduates entering the workforce. Yesterday, Parliament announced its new economic plan while the building was picketed by at least a thousand unemployed graduates protesting for job creation. It seems that while Prime Minister Benkirane called on the help of training programs and government programs to absorb some of the unemployed graduates, the government is depending primarily on the private sector to create more job opportunities. With the one-year anniversary of the February 20th movement exactly a month away, I wonder what is in store for Morocco in the coming months. Are we witnessing the final push, or rather the seas of political unrest just beginning to churn before the onset of a storm?

Click here for the full story: Moroccans burn selves in unemployment protest - Africa - Al Jazeera English