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Politics Turn Violent on Moroccan Campuses

Moroccan universities are witnessing growing violence over students’ ideological differences, with some fearing government intervention to halt the violence might harm academic freedom while others saying officials have ignored the problem of unrest on campuses for too long.

On April 24, a 21-year-old student at the University of Dar El Mehraz in Fez, Abderrahim el-Hasnaoui, was stabbed and killed by students belonging to radical leftist groups. Hassanaoui was a member of the student organization Attajdid Attolabi (Student Renewal), linked to the conservative ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD).

That day, Abdelali Hamieddine, a prominent member of the ruling party was due to participate in a conference on democracy in Fez, which set off the violence. Hamieddine had served prison time in the 1990s for his connection to the 1993 assassination of Benaissa Aït el Jid, a leftist student who died following clashes between Islamist and leftist students. His invitation to the conference was seen as an insult to the left, says Hamieddine.

“The sole objective of the party that planned this crime was not to torpedo the conference but to undermine any attempt of dialogue between the left and the Islamists,” Hamieddine wrote in an op-ed in the newspaper Attajdid. “A wide and slanderous media campaign was orchestrated against professors that participated in the conference.”

The killing was the latest in a series of outbreaks of violence at universities in Fez, Agadir and Marrakesh prompting the government to intervene.

In early May, Interior Minister Mohammed Hassad told parliament that he and the education minister had decided on new rules which would allow law enforcement to intervene in universities’ affairs and enter campuses in cases in which it was determined that students’ lives were in danger. In the past, police had to wait for permission from university officials.

“There are violent small groups that have established their headquarters on campuses,” he said. “The goal is to establish a university campus of tolerance and one that serves a quest for knowledge.”

But some saw the government decision not as an attempt to improve security but as a way for the authorities to bring universities under their control, using the latest violent incident as an excuse.

Others say it isn’t so simple.

“If we have gotten to the point where young students settle their grievances with swords, I do not see any alternatives to government intervention,” said Soufiane Sbiti, a 21-year-old law student in Rabat. “Many say that the government is militarizing universities to better dominate the academic setting. This sentiment comes from another age.”

Abdellah Tourabi, a researcher on Islamist movements and the publisher of the weekly magazine Telquel, says clashes between different factions of students at Moroccan universities is not a new phenomena. Since the late 1970s, with the emergence of Islamist groups, control over universities has become a key issue. The Islamists wanted to recruit new supporters and followers for ideological and political reasons but also to weaken their rivals, the leftists.

“This struggle for control of universities very often became violent, fueled by the opposition of two different societal projects,” he said. “For Islamists, the leftist students including Marxist-Leninists were atheists whose beliefs were contrary to Islam. While for the latter, the Islamists were obscurantists going against the direction of progress and reason.”

“Now, what is new in recent years is the emergence of conflicts between the Amazigh and Sahrawi students on one side,” he said, referring to ethnic groups in Morocco, “against the extreme leftist students.”

That conflict has also sometimes led to murder.

“Each group takes pride in having a ‘registry of martyrs’ to give legitimacy and strengthen its militant credentials,” Tourabi added.

While some campuses remain peaceful, students say they are worried over the lack of effort by the government to improve learning conditions. Sbiti says the problem of increasing insecurity on campuses is linked to the lack of extra-curricular opportunities for students on campuses as well as a failure of oversight over the extra-curricular activities that exist.

“How could we blame the students becoming radicalized when universities do not give them the space necessary or appropriate activities to express themselves?” he said. “Students are fed up and it drives them to seek shelter in the first ideology they encounter.”

Like many, he believes that improving the quality of education and offering more leisure activities to students could be a bulwark against violence.

Politics aside, many are just hoping that students can study on campuses where they don’t feel unsafe.

“What’s happening inside our universities is really shameful,” said Hilana Rizki, a 26-year-old English teacher in Rabat. “Violence is a tool of the ignorant—we’re talking about college students here—it is sad to see such things…that they are physically fighting instead of peacefully debating then they are learning nothing.”


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