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Morocco soccer fans in the streets of Brussels, Belgium, after the team defeated Spain
Clashes between Belgian police and Moroccan soccer fans have become a pattern during this World CupImage: Valeria Mongelli/AP/picture alliance
SocietyBelgium

What’s behind Morocco fan violence in Belgium?

Aya Ibrahim
December 9, 2022

It has become somewhat of a pattern that violence breaks out between fans and police in Belgium following Morocco World Cup matches. But what’s fueling the clashes?

https://p.dw.com/p/4KkwC

Following Morocco's World Cup win over Belgium, some Morocco supporters turned violent on the streets of Belgian cities.

In Brussels, a car was set ablaze and at least one person was injured. Parts of the capital were sealed off. Police say they had to deploy water cannon to calm the crowds.

Similar scenes unfolded a little over a week later, when Morocco knocked Spain out of the tournament. 

Some say these confrontations are a manifestation of pent-up tensions between parts of Belgium's Moroccan population — the largest non-European ethnic community in the country — and law enforcement.

"It is [a result of] frustration" says Mohamed El Marcouchi, a Belgian boxing champion of Moroccan descent. The 33-year-old was born and raised in Molenbeek, a Brussels municipality known historically for its North African migrant population.

Moroccan men, some draped in and displaying national flags, stand next to a burning heap of e-scooters in Brussels, Belgium
Observers say tensions between Belgium's Moroccan youth and police come to a head at times like theseImage: Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA/dpa/picture alliance

What is causing tensions between police and Moroccans in Belgium?

Following the 2016 Brussels and Paris terror attacks, which killed 162 people, Molenbeek was dubbed "a hotspot for international terrorism" by some media outlets. The Islamist perpetrators planned their attacks from the district.

But long before that, El Marcouch says his childhood and that of so many others like him was fraught by tensions with authorities. "When I was young, it was like a cat and mouse game with the police," he told me at the gym where he trains outside Molenbeek.

"There was always discrimination against Moroccan people. If something happens, it is the Moroccans. They [police] have an image that we are bad people." He added, "Since I was in school, the image has always been that if something bad happened, we did it."

That tension with police comes to a head during World Cup celebrations, he says. It is an occasion when some young members of Belgium's Moroccan community can feel empowered, making the situation a tinderbox of sorts.

Nadia Fadil from the University of Leuven, sees things similarly. 

Fadil, an associate professor of anthropology with a focus on migration, told DW, "You have to understand the history of the complicated relationship between the youngsters and the police … it predates the World Cup."

Why is there such a large Moroccan community in Belgium?

In 1964, Morocco and Belgium signed an agreement that, over the ensuing decades, made the North African nation a major supplier of workers to the small western European country. 

By 2012, almost 500,000 Moroccan migrants had made it to Belgium, almost half of them acquired citizenship in their new-found home. Belgians of Moroccan descent now account for roughly 13% of the capital's population. 

That population is by no means homogeneous, according to Fadil. She points out, however, that a large portion of the community remains working class. They typically still live in neighborhoods like Molenbeek, with high degrees of poverty, crime and youth unemployment. Fadil says that their experience of being policed is radically different from that of other groups, or even Moroccans or Moroccan-Belgians living in less precarious neighborhoods. 

Fadil says one has to ask: "Do you see the police protecting you, or do you see the police as raising insecurity? That's particularly the case for people who live in neighborhoods with a track record of police violence, or where they are getting checked for their IDs and regularly taken in to the police station for questioning."

A group of Brussels police stop two young Morocco fans on the street as another youth walks past
Moroccans in Belgium say authorities only make the situation worse with their strict policing tacticsImage: Jonas Roosens/BELGA/dpa/picture alliance

Are Belgian police provoking the violent outbreaks of Moroccan supporters?

In addition to that history, Fadil also attributes the escalation between Morocco fans and the police during World Cup games to the way law enforcement organizes itself. 

Fadil says the overt police presence on the streets whenever Morocco plays, blocking fans from accessing central parts of the city — whether justified or not — inevitably adds to the pent-up tensions. 

"When Morocco plays, it is always understood as a risk game. There is a preconception, an understanding that there needs to be more police presence."

Fadil was out on the streets during the Morocco-Canada game and observed this first hand. "There were helicopters in the sky, there were water cannons ready … it is actually quite impressive when you walk downtown and see that kind of mobilization," she says.

Both El Marcouch and Fadil insist that they do not want to make excuses for the violence perpetrated by some Morocco supporters. Still, they want these clashes to be put into a context that takes the lived experiences of Belgium's Moroccan community into account.

Young Morocco soccer fans celebrating in Brussels, Belgium
Locals say that Moroccan youths have grown frustrated with regularly being harassed by policeImage: James Arthur Gekiere/BELGA/dpa/picture alliance

At risk youth need trust building with police but also community support 

In a phone interview, a Brussels police spokeswoman, Ilse Van de Keere told DW that police only intervene against fans to ensure public safety, and to stop traffic when crowds start pouring in front of passing vehicles. 

"There are some countries that you will never have a problem with. With other countries we know it's their culture to come on the street and to be happy. Moroccan people are like that," she said. 

For the majority of the Morocco supporters, she said, there are no problems. Instead she says it is in fact particular individuals, sometimes as young as 12, who start provoking the police and thus sparking violent clashes. 

"The Moroccan community doesn't want to be associated with those who really don't come to celebrate, but to do other things. They are fed up with it. They simply don't want Belgian society to see anything linking them to riots. They don't want to have it in Moroccan culture." she told DW. 

When I asked Van de Keere whether there is any underlying tension between the police and Belgium's Moroccan community, she said, "I can't answer that question, I don't really know."

El Marcouch believes that in addition to building trust with law enforcement, support from his community is needed to help individuals prone to violence. To him that support came in the form of his father, who helped find a student job; and his cousin, who took him to the boxing ring when he was on the verge of becoming a criminal himself.

"I was young, too, I was in this community, too. I recognize myself in these young people. These young people do not know what they are doing. They are not thinking about the consequences." 

A man with a child on his shoulders celebrates with a crowd of Morocco soccer fans in Brussels, Belgium
Many in the Moroccan community want nothing to do with troublemakers, they just want to celebrate their teamImage: James Arthur Gekiere/BELGA/dpa/picture alliance

Edited by: Jon Shelton

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