Cyber-activists and physical spaces: Pursuing a museum beyond walls
Updated: Mar 2
Across the Arab world, online social networks play a key role in citizenship and mass mobilization, often accompanying and revealing remarkable upheaval and sociopolitical change. It is a socialization, based primarily on shared socioeconomic status but also on a culture of protest and demands for reform, hostile to an established regime, that gener- ates international recognition and support.
An example of this is a recent popular protest movement known as “Hirak Rif” (Arabic for “movement”) which was triggered following the tragic death of MohsinFikri in Al Hoceima, a coastal city tucked into the Rif Mountains and marginalized for over 40 years under the reign of King Hassan II (1956–1999)(1). Fikri, a young fishmonger, was crushed by a garbage truck on October 28, 2016 while trying to retrieve his fish that police had confiscated. Live footage of the incident was shared across social media and caused outrage throughout the region, igniting an increasing number of protests and sit-ins. Cyber-activists descended live on the scene and information from rallies spread quickly, reaching many social classes. Al Hoceima’s main square and the paths leading to it were besieged by thousands of protesters of all ages and genders, called to rally by the engaged online community. The region’s towns and ancient villages such as Ajdir, Imzouren, Targuist, and Kétama also became sites of protests and sit-ins. With daily dem- onstrations condemning the widespread administrative, economic and political corrup- tion in the country, cyber-activists were making socioeconomic demands, but they embedded this claim within the historical memory of the Rif region. The movement relied and built on the common memory of an entire region, contesting the political, socio- economic, and identity marginalization imposed by the Moroccan regime during the post- colonial era. The cyber-activists were able to successfully build a digital movement because their online activism was rooted in and reflected a physical place, its people, and its history. Eventually, their digital work was able to reshape the physical space it was connected too.(2) At the heart of the work of citizenship and democracy in both digital and physical spaces is the creation of “Agoras” or forums, where citizens can carry out the crucial tasks of learning about and from each other while simultaneously practicing the forms of democracy through their exchange. Traditionally, “Agora” has referred to physical spaces but it can also refer to the kind of forum found on the Internet. Whether physical or virtual, the key idea behind an Agora is the massive participation of citizens.(3) The central area of Al Hoceima has become an Agora and has been renamed the “place of the resistance.” It is the epicenter of discourse and advocacy on human rights, democracy, and of the challenge to corruption. It has been transformed into a place where memory and local history interact with daily life, despite the efforts of security and police forces. The young cyber-activists of the Rif movement played an important role in creating this physical Agora by first creating a digital one. Using a panoply of social networks, they built virtual open spaces enabling the younger generations to freely communicate, plan, and then take action. They first built awareness, knowledge, and connections amongst them- selves through free discourse and collective exploration of history. Through their inter- action, they were better able to know and analyze the physical space they lived in, the people who lived there, and the collective memory that they share. Once they had built their virtual Agora, they were able to blend it with the physical world. During the events in Al Hoceima, information and ideas were communicated very quickly through different layers of society. Museums can play the role of Agoras in their communities and encourage students to participate in them. The process of democratic transition in Morocco needs museums to serve this role, particularly in support of transitional justice, the aim of which is the non- repetition of serious violations of human rights. This is why the report, “Instance Equity and Reconciliation 2004 and 2005” recommended the creation of sites to preserve the memory of past violence, known as the “Years of Lead,” in Morocco.(4),(5),(6) Additional programs were launched in 2009 by the “Advisory Council for Human Rights” and funded by the European Union, with the aim of transforming former secret detention sites into museums of memory that examine the violations that occurred at those sites. However, the idea and the concept of turning these places of detention into museums were and are controversial. The regime wants centers in the broad sense of the term. Victims and most of the elites of civil society want museums housing content and a form that signals the memory of human rights violations and value the expression of freedom and anti-colonial resistance. As a result, the only official project begun, the “Museum of the Rif,” has been left unfinished, despite initial efforts including a symposium, partner- ship agreement, museum studies, etc.(7) Faced with this critical situation, another idea developed amongst the local population. It is a museum without walls, across the main square of Al-Hoceima, the epicenter of the popular movement of the Rif. This new “museum” is an informal space where banners, placards, flags, iconic signs, and pictures are hung. It is where music is played and sung. It welcomes inspiring memorials in artistic, theatrical, or narrative forms. Copies of iconic art, like Pablo Picasso’s famous “Guernica” were put up to provide imagery and a sense of collective memory from people who inspired freedom, dignity, and democ- racy as well as to denounce human rights violations. Broad parts of society are surfacing and contributing to the square. As such, the “Museum Without Walls” on the square Al- Haceima saw and displayed key moments of the historical memory and sociocultural and artistic experience of the new popular movement of protest. The physical presence of people together in a physical space allow for lively speech and dialogue from all members of society, from protesters to authorities, who want to participate. It is an exer- cise in democracy and respect for human rights. It is the Agora made physical, where people can learn the needed information to be citizens and practice the forms of exchange that are crucial to citizenship. The two key tools of the active citizens’ work are social experience and the use of local memory. The social experience is about coming to know others, learning from them, and coming to know and trust what it means to live with others in a democratic society. Local memory is critical to the work of building forward action rooted in the past. Helping young people create an Agora means involving them in maintaining these two strands simultaneously, the social experience and memory. Each is only truly effective when paired with the other, as memory grounds the social experiences, but social experiences give memory its life and power. As French philosopher Edgar Morin teaches us, we are trying to teach students to break down traditional barriers to knowing and, through the help of others, trying to grasp the objects of history around us in their full context.(8) For teachers seeking to encourage young activists, remember these five points:
Encourage young people to come forward, take a stand and exchange ideas and objects, iconic or archival, both physically and virtually.
Keepthe“Agora”mechanismsinmindthroughouttheentireprocess.Forexample,in a project, the definition of the objectives can itself be an exercise in democracy and respect for human rights as students engage with each other.
Question the problems given in a particular context.
Question policies implemented by state or security institutions.
Andfinally,adoptmethodologythatyieldstheoutcomesthatyoudesire.Ifthegoalis to help students build an Agora, chose methodologies that engage them in an Agora the whole time. Being an active citizen means participating in Agoras. Agoras are crucial to democracy because they give citizens the information and history they need along with the social experiences and practice of exchange necessary for democracy. Museums are ideal places to form Agoras for the population at large and for students in particular. Museums have much of the historical content needed to enrich the conversations, and they also have the physical and digital spaces that can allow students to begin to express themselves, take a stand, and exchange ideas and objects. This exchange itself, which lives at the heart of democracy, becomes an exercise in the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice, as well as learning to “live together” and “know how to be” in participatory citizenship.
(1) Goytisolo, “Abdelkrim and the Epic of the Rif.”
(2) Rollinde, The Moroccan Movement of Human Rights.
(3) Sirinelli, “Political History at the Time of the Transnational Turn,” 391–408.
(4) National Commission for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation, “Summary of the Final Report.”
(5) Cling, “Abdelkrim and the Rif War.”
(6) Daoud, Morocco, The Years of Lead, 1958-1988.
(7) Amnesty International, “Broken Promises.”
(8) Morin, Les sept savoirs nécessaires à l’ éducation du future, 29.