Soccer, ultras and civic duty in Morocco

MoroccoTeamCASABLANCA, Morocco - On that glorious night, they stood on their seats for almost the entire game, arms aloft, shouting, cheering, booing and, most of all, singing. Lyrical chants filled the air that chilly November evening. There was a sea of green - their team’s color - on their shirts and on the flags they waved. Artistic graffiti decorated the stadium.

The fans shared an immense love for and loyalty to the Raja Athletic Club of Casablanca (RCA). They sang and sang until the final whistle, savoring every word of songs that expressed the passion in their hearts. Raja was facing AS Vita Club of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the first leg of the CAF Confederation Cup final, one of Africa’s major soccer tournaments.

It was hard to focus on the action on the field because the supporters captured most of our attention in the stadium. The most engaged ones filled Curva Sud, an area in the bleachers where the hardcore fans known as “ultras” traditionally watch the games. The seats are cheaper, the view isn’t great, but it’s where every diehard fan wants to be. Even the Moroccan players, as they warmed up before kick-off, filmed the crowd with their smartphones, seemingly in awe of the enthusiasm.

One man in a green cap had driven from Marrakech, a journey of 150 miles. Another took the one-hour bus ride from a neighboring city. Some kids walked to the stadium. Two women who haven’t missed a single game this year brought their young cousin along. Families filled the stadium hours before the game started. A space that was once almost the sole property of men is seeing more women. Recently, there has been an online campaign against sexual harassment—in which the Raja ultras themselves participated, vowing to make the stadiums safe for women.

During the second half of the game, the tension mounted. Raja finally scored. The air smelled of smoke bombs set off in celebration. Then a revolutionary chant exploded in the stadium. In unison, they sang in Moroccan Arabic “Fbladi Dalmouni,” or “In my country, I suffered from injustice.” The lyrics are astonishingly controversial for a country where jails are filled with hundreds of prisoners of conscience. This defiance spoke of economic hardship, a lack of freedom, and an ardent desire for change.

I spoke to Zakaria Kamal, a PhD student in sociology, who had traveled from Mohammedia, a city nearby - a trip he has made countless times since he was a boy. He said that the resentment heard in the singing is born out of frustration with life under a restrictive government. “These days, the national anthem feels like a way to force patriotism onto us, so our reaction has been to boo,” he explained.

“In this country, we live in a dark cloud. We only ask for social peace,” the crowd chanted uproariously. “They left us as orphans, waiting for the punishment of the judgement day. Talents have been destroyed, destroyed by the drugs you provide them. How do you want them to shine? You stole the wealth of our country and shared it with strangers.”

In Casablanca, there was a time when people locked themselves in on nights of soccer games for fear of the city descending into chaos as fans swirled through the streets, destroying everything in their path. But in recent years in Morocco, a country of 35 million people, soccer fans have developed a sense of civic duty, a political consciousness.

In September, when the Moroccan Royal Navy killed a young college student, Hayat Belkacem, as she tried to cross illegally into Spain, soccer fans in Tetuan in northern Morocco marched from the city center to the stadium dressed in black T-shirts and chanting, “We will avenge Hayat,” and “The town wants to know who killed Hayat.” They went on to boo the national anthem in the stadium, a game that was playing live on national TV. Some were arrested and jailed, including the man who called for the protest.

And this sort of political activism in soccer stadiums across the country hasn’t wound down in the weeks since then. The song “Fbladi Dalmouni” has become a cultural phenomenon since its release in 2017, and by this past summer it had evolved into a rallying cry of an entire generation of Moroccans fed up with the lack of opportunities in their country. One video of fans singing it has had more than 3.5 million views on YouTube.

Soccer protest is not a new phenomenon in Morocco. As far back as the 1920s, when the country was under the rule of the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956, soccer stadiums offered a place to display resistance to the colonial power—and this tradition has persisted since independence, according to Abderrahim Bourkia, a Moroccan sociologist who has written at length on the soccer ultras. “The ultras have always ‘overlapped’ between football, social and political demands and have often shown their ability to mobilize and politicize in a summary and limited way the stands of stadiums,” he said. And the state has never figured out, in his view, how to handle such open displays of dissent.

Today, the North African kingdom is in the midst of a seismic but uncertain shift. Social tensions are growing—and so is the crackdown.

In 2011, when dictators were ousted from other countries in the region, such as Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, Moroccans also demonstrated in the streets and won some reforms. King Mohammed VI responded to the protests at the time with dialogue and pushed for constitutional reforms and new elections. But he largely ignored demands for real democratic change, including fighting corruption and a more equitable society. Today, the discontent hasn’t quietened down. If anything, it has morphed into unrest.

The last two years have seen a rise of protest movements that have been met with harsh repression, as Human Rights Watch recently denounced in a report on the trials of protesters in the Rif region that the group deemed unjust. In the north of the country, months-long protests started in late 2016, following the death of a fishmonger at the hands of the police.

Protests have erupted in other parts of the country, such as Jerada, a mining region that has been plagued with unemployment since a large coal mine closed nearly two decades ago. Desperate people in the area have been extracting coal illegally under very dangerous conditions. The death of several miners sparked protests in 2017. In response, the government jailed demonstrators.

Across the country, the protesters’ demands are essentially economic. They want better services and economic opportunities. Instead, hoping to boost the economy, the state favored major infrastructure projects along the Tangier-Marrakech corridor, including modern highways, a new port, and a free trade zone near the city of Tangier. But these measures have done little to curb unemployment.

Many journalists and activists have paid a price for speaking up. The Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has repeatedly criticized the harassment and unfair trials of Moroccan journalists in recent years. In the face of the arrests of protesters, Moroccans have found innovative ways to voice their anger without taking so many risks. For example, a popular boycott of major suppliers of milk, bottled water, and petrol forced the companies to lower their prices. At the same time, severe criticism of the system—and the king himself, a previously extremely sensitive subject - has emerged on social media. Soccer protests have also become one of the less risky outlets to voice discontent.

Rather than making efforts to placate citizens, though, the state shows no sign of backing down. Morocco just decided to reinstate compulsory military service (rescinded in 2006), a costly venture in what seems to be a clumsy attempt to solve youth unemployment and, possibly, quiet critics. But the official response has only fueled popular anger. On July 29, Mohammed VI used his throne day speech to issue a stern warning to critics of the state. Just minutes earlier, that same evening, soccer fans were chanting “Fbladi Dalmouni” along the coast in the Casablanca stadium.

Some weeks ago, I received an email from my friend the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, one of the few politically outspoken intellectuals here, drawing my attention to the way that song had gone viral. A measure of how far the song has traveled, literally, was a recent video posted by Moroccans who sang “Fbladi Dalmouni” as they made an illegal crossing to Spain.

“This song has moved me in inexpressible ways,” Taïa wrote. “It is powerful because of its simple and direct words, by its political audacity, and by the revolution it intends to initiate and reactivate in Morocco.” He saw in it irrefutable proof that the Arab Spring was not dead, but more alive than ever. “Its incandescent fire is still there, in their hearts and consciences,” he told me. “This political and postcolonial song gives me a huge amount of hope.” His feeling has been echoed in a message that members of the group Gruppo Aquile, which wrote the song, sent me via Twitter. They didn’t want to meet in person, fearing for their safety.

The band, themselves Raja ultras, said that the team is their main muse, but they also find inspiration in their daily lives - and that is how their lyrics end up being political, because they inevitably address whatever is hurting Moroccan youth: the feeling that they’re insignificant, that it hardly matters whether they’re alive or dead.

“Behind the title ‘Fbladi Delmouni’ hides the difficulty of living, the feeling of being a foreigner in your own country,” they wrote me. “Before being a supporter of a football team, we are Moroccan citizens. We live in a dying society, and the youth is asphyxiated.” The song, they said, was written at a time where there were mounting confrontations with the authorities, which were restricting fans’ activities in the stadium: giant banners called tifos were banned, and other flags and displays were forbidden. They don’t feel that they represent the entire supporter base of their club, but they still find pride in the thousands of people their song has touched.

Casablanca’s Raja Athletic Club’s fans were banned from stadiums in 2016, after two fans were killed during crowd clashes at a game against Chabab Rif Al Hoceima. That ban was finally lifted only a few weeks ago.

Maha Nabil never misses a game. She was raised by a single mother in a family that has supported the RCA for decades. A native of Casablanca, she has been on a sabbatical from working in sales management for a few months, using her free time to help unaccompanied minors who fled their homes to settle on the beaches of Tangier in the hope of making the crossing to Europe. And when she’s not visiting them, she’s supporting her team.

I accompanied her to the November final in Casablanca. Earlier that day, she took me, along with another RCA supporter, Karim, around Derb Sultan, one of the oldest working-class neighborhoods of Casablanca, where people share the love for the two local teams (the other being Raja’s historic rival, the Wydad Athletic Club), a love that colors the walls with stunning graffiti.

The excitement of the game was already palpable that morning. Stall-holders had set up tables to sell flags, jerseys, and all sorts of accessories. Young men already dressed in green were gathering to start the three-mile hike to the stadium. Nabil hadn’t eaten all day; she was too anxious. Before the game, we stopped at her apartment so she could pray. “I can never go to a game without praying first,” she told me. But she was also worried about the ultras. A large number of riot police were deployed at the stadium, ready to intervene.

“They are against the system, and dozens of policemen are standing in their faces,” she said. “They’re trying to provoke them.”

Some observers see similarities to the part played by soccer fans in the uprising of Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution in Egypt. But according to James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a specialist in soccer and politics in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco is different from Egypt, where there have been a series of deadly clashes between ultras and the police. In Morocco, the ultras have largely been tolerated, aside from occasional arrests.

“Nothing rivals the intensity of emotions of religion but soccer,” Dorsey said. “You can’t close down the mosque and you can’t close down the soccer pitch.”

Besides, the ultras have been resistant to cooptation and infiltration by the state - unlike many labor unions and other citizen associations across the country. For now, the authorities let the fans sing. They can’t arrest so many thousands of people.

As for the young people who fill the stadium, it’s not clear whether they’ll ever be willing to participate in some more concrete form of opposition. At times, their song almost seems to celebrate lost hope. “You have destroyed an entire generation,” goes the refrain. “You want to kill us, but we are already dead.”

Photo: Nov. 11, 2017 - Mohammedia, Morocco - Screenshot of a video recording Moroccan football fans celebrating Morocco's qualification in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia in the port city of Mohammedia, Morocco.
Credit: Courtesy of Moon Productions Youtube Channel. (11/11/2017)

Story/photo publish date: 12/20/2018

A version of this story was published in the New York Review of Books.
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