Government denies ‘silence’ over deadly campus clashes

The Moroccan government, accused by student groups of sponsoring violence, has denied it has been ‘silent’ over the recent deaths of students in university-based clashes as concern mounts over tensions between students with differing political and ideological affiliations.

The most recent violent incident erupted between the so-called Saharawi students group and Amazigh students cultural movement at the faculty of arts and humanities at Ibn Zuhr University, leading to several student injuries and the death of Saharawi student Abdel Rahim Badri who was buried on 19 May.

Photos of the student clashes went viral on social media. In response to the clashes, the Saharawi student group called for a protest on 28 May.

Four student deaths

Badri’s death is the fourth student death resulting from violence at universities after the killing of Amazigh activist Omar Khaleq at the University of Marrakech Cadi Ayyad by Pro-Polisario students in Marrakech, as well as Mohammed al-Fayzazi and Abdul Rahim Hasnawi at the university in Fez, according to a 23 May statement issued by the National Union of Moroccan Students.

The introduction of university reform laws, which allowed student representation in faculties and university presidential councils, led to the establishment of the Saharawi and Amazigh student organisations, according to a February 2018 report by the Arab Reform Initiative entitled Human Rights Action and Social Movements in Morocco.

Saharawi students are supporters of the Polisario Front, the Western Sahara's national liberation movement, fighting for Western Sahara independence.

On 21 May the Federal Office of the National Federation of Amazigh Associations in Morocco (FNAA) issued a statement in which it condemned the violence and “all forms of intimidation” practised by what it termed “the militias of the remnants of the Baathist and Wahhabi ideology in Morocco against the Amazigh and the Amazigh cultural movement in all their locations in Moroccan universities”.

"What happens at some university sites is a criminal act and aims at eliminating the modernist Amazigh enlightenment thought," FNAA stated.

"The silence of the state and, in particular, its administrative bodies concerned with ensuring the personal security and physical integrity of students is considered to be condemned and totally rejected," FNNA stated.

'A destructive policy'

The National Union of Moroccan Students placed the blame for the violence on the state. In a 23 May Facebook statement, the union said: "This student violence put the Moroccan state in direct charge in sponsoring the violence among students and even planning to serve its destructive policy on public universities.

"We have charged the state and its agencies with responsibility for the deterioration of the situation in the Moroccan universities, and its responsibility in fuelling student conflicts in the service of certain agendas," the National Union of Moroccan Students’ statement said.

The violence has drawn reaction from students in the North African region. In a statement on 26 May, the General Union of Tunisian Students (GUTS) condemned the student assassination, announced solidarity with the Saharawi student movement and called for greater Arab student unity.

"The refusal of Moroccan authorities to investigate and arrest the perpetrators despite the availability of video tapes documenting the incident and exposing the perpetrators is evidence of their direct involvement in the process," GUTS said.

Greater student solidarity

GUTS renewed its call “for greater student solidarity, especially at the Arab level, in the face of the systematic targeting of universities”.

Moroccan Secretary of State to the Minister of National Education, Vocational Training, Higher Education and Scientific Research, Khalid Al Samadi, told the Moroccan parliament the violence in universities was “shameful, and has its reasons”.

"People who do not belong to universities or live in university districts practise violence in the vicinity of the university," he is reported to have said.

Al Samadi said the cause of violence was "the resort of a class to liquidate political and ideological calculations that are unrelated to the management of difference in the university".

He announced that his ministry was “continuing to implement the joint memorandum with the Ministry of Interior to contain university violence", stressing the need to “remove the union and political cover for all those who practise violence in Moroccan universities".

Regarding the recent incident that led to the death of a student, Al Samadi said "there was quick interaction between the rector and the local authorities and the matter was generally contained".

He denied there was “silence” over the student deaths. “There is a clear strategy for the ministry for dealing with it," he said, adding that the goal was to "remove the causes of congestion in universities, facilitate access to social services, and support communication with students and digitise registration".

Universities as battlegrounds

Concerns have been raised that universities could become “battlegrounds” for student political conflict.

Hilmi Salem, international higher education consultant, said: "These types of politically and ideologically motivated clashes between students at universities could lead to the destruction of university structures and public property, as well as disruption of educational processes and, above all, could gradually transform universities into battlegrounds where students wage war against one challenge or another in the fight for their political agenda."

"Universities must promote cultural and political awareness among students to create the terrain for peaceful co-existence," Salem said.