DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The death of a fish-seller in Morocco has touched off the biggest protest in that country in years. Sounds like it could be the kind of combustible mix that might catch on around a region. In 2011, a similar event touched off the so-called Arab Spring. But NPR's Jane Arraf says there's a different climate right now. It's one that is more fearful. And she joins us on the line from Cairo.
Jane, good morning.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So start by just telling me what happened in Morocco.
ARRAF: Well, on the weekend, police in the northern town of Al-Hoceima confiscated fish that was being sold by a 31-year-old man, Mouhcine Fikri. He was reported to be selling swordfish, which is protected from fishing this time of year. So according to local media reports, when police threw all of his fish into a garbage truck, he actually jumped in after it. And he basically was crushed to death in the compactor. Now, the reason people know about this is that there are photographs. And Mouhcine Fikri has become a metaphor for the little guy who was literally crushed by the system.
GREENE: Well, just remind me - I mean, wasn't that kind of individual sacrifice what sparked the Arab Spring, many believe, in Tunisia?
ARRAF: Absolutely. Those protests that started the Arab Spring five years ago had a similar spark. They were led by young people, and they were fueled by that volatile mix of repression and poverty and perceived humiliation. So as you recall in Tunisia in December 2010, a fruit-seller set himself on fire after police confiscated his cart. And those protests spread from Tunisia, where it actually led to the downfall of the government, and then went on across the region, including in Egypt, where that government also has toppled.
So many of these were authoritarian regimes that hadn't changed in decades. And all of a sudden, there was proof that people holding peaceful protests could actually make a difference. But you fast forward a few years and the problem is that as those regimes toppled, other forces stepped in to fill the vacuum or it led to lawlessness. And in some cases, people prefer the old dictators to the new chaos and uncertainty. In others, even with new leaders, there's still a lot of the same old repression, like in Egypt.
GREENE: Well, so, Jane, you mentioned Egypt - I mean, went through what's known as the Arab Spring. It's sort of gone back to the way it was before. Does that tell us anything about Morocco in this moment?
ARRAF: You know, David, Egypt is the biggest country in the Middle East in terms of population. So what happens here matters. And when you have a revolution and then you have the kind of system in place here where there's repression and people are afraid to protest or they don't see the point of protesting, that actually has repercussions as well.
So on a different scale, it's some of the same dynamic going on in Morocco. And a lot of that actually goes around to what's happening in Iraq and Syria because people look at those countries and they see those countries being ripped apart. And a lot of them are thinking OK, things aren't so great here. But it could get a whole lot worse.
GREENE: All right. That was NPR's Jane Arraf in Cairo.
Jane, thanks a lot.
ARRAF: Thank you, David.
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