Morocco: In the Middle of a Riot

Watching a riot begin from the hotel window in Tetouan, Morocco. photos by Nick Wharton.
Watching a riot begin from the hotel window in Tetouan, Morocco. photos by Nick Wharton.

Experiencing a Revolution in progress in Morocco

By Nick Wharton

As we crossed the sea border into Morocco from Spain, we had no idea what to expect. We were looking forward to the medieval medinas, delicious food and unique culture and we were anxious to explore Morocco. This was in 2011 and the North African Revolution was in full swing.

It had started in Tunisia and moved its way to Egypt and into the Middle East, but we didn't think that there would be any issues in little western Morocco. In all honesty, we're not ones to shy away from political unrest and the news did not deter us from flying to Egypt two weeks later.

But we thought Morocco was in peace.

We didn't see any signs of the revolution until we arrived in the tiny, quaint town of Tétouan. This was by far our favorite village in Morocco. The people here seemed more welcoming, the medina was smaller and more manageable and the old town gently climbed a hill, disappearing in the distance in front of our hotel room.

Our room was right on the main square with a perfect view of the town and all of the daily goings on of the people down below. Up until around 2 o'clock in the afternoon, everything was completely normal. The market was alive with local venders singing praises for their fresh fruits and veggies. Taxis, cars, delivery trucks and motorbikes hummed back and forth, racing to and from their destinations and children laughed and skipped home from school.

But soon, everything would change.

Thanks to the popularity of social media, a meeting had been organized and planned at the square at about 2:30. Hundreds, and then thousands of people descended on the roundabout that sat in the center of town.

A protester is taken to a police van.
A protester is taken to a police van.

Numerous groups swarmed in circles around one or two men, who screamed loudly into megaphones in Arabic, a language we could not understand. Chants, songs and speeches were hollered out, their bellowing cries amplified through the loud-speakers and ricocheted off of the old city walls. Dariece and I watched from the window or our third story hotel room, concerned because of what we had recently seen on the news from Egypt, but still intrigued by their passionate cheers.

There were still children in the streets so we felt as though we had nothing to fear. Suddenly another group of people appeared and they seemed to be supporting an opposing party. They wore mostly white tee-shirts and their chants seemed louder and more aggressive than their predecessors.

At this point the women and children started to disappear from the streets and we knew that something was going on. Not long after that, the cheering crowd took on the persona of a mob and started to smash windows.

We had seen enough broadcasts of the escalating demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia to know that this was not going to end well. We put on our backpacks and headed for the door, reluctantly paying the owner for our 4 hour stay at her hotel. We then ran down to the street where the mob had broken into our favorite coffee shop and was throwing glasses and breaking more windows. We quickly rushed past them, down one of the narrow back roads and on to the main street that led to the bus station.

Loudspeakers on the streets of Tetouan Morocco.
Loudspeakers on the streets of Tetouan Morocco.

Just as we thought we were on our way out of town, we spotted another group of people coming towards us. This was no happy crowd and many came brandishing some sort of stick in their hands. We doubled back on ourselves and ran back into the quiet alley, just as the gang rushed by the entranceway where we had just been standing.

They hollered and screamed in a language that we couldn't comprehend, but we could recognise the despair in their voices. We ran back to our hotel and up on the third floor where we asked the hotel lady to again let us check in.
She seemed happy to see us back, not because she could charge us again (which she didn't), but I think she was generally concerned for the foreigners who had fled the scene.

Back in our room, her son joined us and explained some of the chants that were being hollered down below. They cried out against their corrupt government and pleaded for economic fairness. They demanded to be considered equals and described royal riches contrasted by their own personal poverty.

This was the revolution in Morocco, and it seemed to be long overdue.

The crowd became more agitated and eventually started smashing windows around the square. They were even throwing stones up to the second and third floors, breaking glass in the bank and department store across from us. We could hardly believe that this was the same peaceful square that we had so enjoyed just a couple of hours prior.

The scenic village of Tetouan, where the protest took place.
The scenic village of Tetouan, where the protest took place.

As night fall came, the crowd grew to the point that the entire roundabout was full of screaming Moroccan protesters and young, over-excited hooligans. The last thing we wanted to do was to head out into the crowd, but we were both starving as we hadn't eaten since lunch. Maybe I didn't have to go, but something told me that I would be safe and I was somehow excited to see the action on the ground floor.

I left Dariece in the care of the hotel owner and her son and went down onto the streets. The moment I was spotted, one of the young protesters rushed over to me and grabbed my arm. I was instantly worried that I had made a terrible mistake.

Luckily this boy was there to help.

The riot police arrive on the scene.
The riot police arrive on the scene.

"Why are you out here?!" he cried over the deafening chants of the crowd. "I'm hungry, I want some food" I replied in a forcefully calm voice. "Come" he said.

The young man held my arm the entire time (a common practice for close male friends in Morocco) and walked me to a small cafe further away from the hordes of people.

I picked up some snacks and a couple of waters and then we both started heading back to the hotel. He seemed ready to shield me from the debris and angry protestors if need be.

He explained to me the horrible situation that Morocco was in and he expressed his honest hope for change. When we got back to the hotel door he bid me farewell and I rushed back up the stairs to be with Dariece, as he rushed back with his comrades.

The protesting carried on into the wee hours of the night, with riots, vandalism and looting. The Moroccan equivalent of the SWAT team showed up wearing riot gear. They pushed into the crowd with their shields and batted a couple of aggressive protestors with their batons.

We also witnessed civilians chanting with the crowd, and then suddenly turning on their fellow protestors and grabbing someone close by.

There were clearly secret police in plain clothing at the riot helping with the arrests. We saw dozens of young men forcefully dragged into unmarked vans and taken away to who knows where.

Some were beaten, some were simply dragged against their will. Luckily the scene didn't escalate much further than this. No tear gas was fired into the square and by early morning the police had managed to get the crowd under control.

Some windows were destroyed and many shop owners would have to pay the price for this political production, but in the end I don't think that too many people were hurt. This was just the beginning of a series of riots and protests that would rally throughout the country for over a year.

A big crowd was on hand to riot.
A big crowd was on hand for the riot.

Other Cities Too

Street protesters photo by Magharebia.
Street protesters photo by Magharebia.

We soon found out that on that same night, other cities in Morocco like Chefchaouen, Fez, Marrakesh and Casablanca also had massive demonstrations.

All were following the lead of their North African neighbors and all were pleading for the same reforms. The Moroccan uprising was named after the night that we had witnessed the riots and will forever be remembered as the 20 February Movement.

On March 9th 2011, King Mohammed VI finally responded to the ongoing upheaval in his country and announced his decision to undertake a comprehensive constitutional reform.

Despite the Monarch's new commission to work on constitutional revisions, the protest movement leaders were unconvinced. One thing was for sure, the people rallied and the government leaders who they cried out against had no choice but to respond.

Whether their response was honest and just is another story, but there is no doubt that the people worked together to get the attention of their leaders, and that was inspiring to us as travellers and citizens of the world. Even though we mostly cowered in our third floor hotel room that night, we couldn't help but to feel like we were part of something big.

We witnessed the fear and anger in their eyes and watched as they desperately called out rhyming slogans to get the attention of their rulers. We were scared and excited and intrigued all at the same time, but we were also shown a great amount of respect throughout the whole ordeal. That young man, who escorted me to the cafe, had no intention of harming me or any other tourist.

This was a battle with his country and he just wanted to make sure that I got around safely. That is the memory I will keep from that alarming evening in Morocco. The kind and concerned nature of someone fighting a cause that was beyond my understanding.

We'll never forget that incredible night in the tiny village of Tétouan, and we hope that they have found peace and stability since our departure from Morocco.

goats on the road

Check out Goats on The Road for more of their experiences backpacking Morocco.

Nick Wharton is half of the couple behind Goats On The Road, a website designed to inspire others to live a financially sustainable, location independent lifestyle. Masters at making money abroad and turning their travels into a way of life, they've been on the road since 2008 and have explored some of the least visited places on earth, finding adventure wherever they go. They're also full time contributors at Travel Pulse and Credit Walk where they share their stories and expertise of long-term travel. 
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