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From Tragedy to Accountability: Reflecting on Libya and Morocco's Catastrophes

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

The severe damage caused by twin disasters in North Africa and their limited respective national response has thrown a harsh light on government corruption.


On September 8th, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck several cities in Morocco, with its epicentre located near the village of Ighil, near Marrakech. The earthquake's impact was experienced over a radius of more than 400 kilometres.


Nasser Jabour, the head of the National Institute of Geophysics, noted that it had been a century since Morocco experienced such a seismic event. Following the primary earthquake, there were numerous aftershocks, with some as high as 6 on the Richter scale.


The timing and placement of the earthquake contributed to the severity of its impact. It struck shortly after 11:00 PM local time. Given that the region is not accustomed to earthquakes, residents lacked experience in dealing with the incident. Furthermore, the rural mountainous terrain of the area contributed to the vulnerability of its buildings, which were not designed to withstand earthquakes.


Several other Moroccan cities were also affected by the earthquake, including Rabat, Casablanca, Meknes, Fez, Agadir, and Taroudant.


In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, citizens in various regions of the country fled to the streets, parks, open spaces, and sports fields in a state of panic and fear. Some sought refuge in their cars, viewing them as their only means of escape from potential aftershocks.


Thousands of Moroccan families found themselves homeless in the earthquake-affected areas, especially in Marrakech, where many homes were partially or entirely destroyed.


Marrakech, renowned for its tourist attractions, including the Koutoubia Mosque and its bustling square at the city's heart, became a sanctuary for those seeking safety after the earthquake. However, those venturing into the surrounding villages discovered a starkly different and devastating reality. These villages bore the brunt of the earthquake, with extensive damage to homes, as well as numerous deaths and injuries.


At the time of writing, the death toll stood at 2,681, with 2,501 individuals injured.


This earthquake revives painful memories. On the night of February 24, 2004, an earthquake struck the Al Hoceima region in the northeast, resulting in approximately 630 immediate casualties, most of whom were residents of rural areas.


The regions affected by the earthquake primarily depend on agriculture and tourism for their livelihoods, particularly in Al Haouz, Ouarzazate, Marrakech, and Azilal. The earthquake has inflicted significant losses and casualties in the Marrakech-Safi and Souss-Massa regions, which together contribute 7.9% and 6.2%, respectively, to the national gross domestic product (GDP). While Morocco's per capita GDP stood at $3,500, it was only $2,000 in the Marrakech-Safi region. This region accounts for 11.4% of household final consumption expenditure, compared to 25.3% in the Casablanca-Settat region.


As the poverty rate in Morocco reached 4.8%, according to the National Household Consumption and Expenditure Survey, it increased to 5.4% in the Marrakech-Safi region and 5.1% in the Souss-Massa region.


The World Bank estimated that the cost of natural and climate-related disasters annually exceeded $575 million in Morocco, posing a significant threat to people and their livelihoods. These hazards encompass floods, heatwaves, droughts, and sea-level rise, alongside geological risks like earthquakes.


Marrakech, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is renowned for its mosques, palaces, and religious institutions dating back to the Middle Ages, adorned with vibrant mosaic tiles amid a maze of rose-coloured alleys. These were not entirely spared by the earthquake. Local media reported damage to parts of Marrakech's historic walls, a defensive structure dating back to the 12th century during the Almoravid dynasty.


The historic city experienced varying degrees of damage, including the collapse of the historic minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque near Jemaa el-Fna Square and several old houses. Images also depicted the collapse of parts of the minaret of the Old Mosque in the city of Amzmiz, located 56 kilometres south of the city.


The destructive earthquake also caused extensive damage to the Great Mosque in the historic town of Tinmel, situated 100 kilometres southeast of Marrakech, in one of the valleys of the High Atlas Mountains. Images were circulated on social media showing substantial debris from its walls and a partially collapsed minaret.


The construction of this historical landmark dates back to the twelfth century, a period during which the Almohads made it their first capital before relocating to Marrakech. UNESCO reported receiving information about severe damage resulting from the earthquake and is awaiting the dispatch of a damage assessment team.


Many villages in the High Atlas Mountains witnessed the collapse of numerous houses constructed from stone, brick, and mud.


Moroccan artists and cultural figures, both inside and outside the country, have contributed to donation campaigns. All artistic and cultural events scheduled during this period were cancelled in solidarity with the victims.

Moroccan youth also volunteered extensively to support victims through initiatives that garnered international praise. Moroccans filled large stores with food and clothing, organized caravans loaded with essential supplies, and even provided special food for cats and dogs. They headed to the affected areas to support the efforts of the Moroccan authorities in saving what could be saved.


Barely had we emerged from the Moroccan earthquake tragedy when Hurricane Daniel struck, causing the loss of nearly ten thousand people within hours, in addition to tens of thousands of injured and affected, leaving another country in mourning.


Libya, already torn apart by the storms of foolish politics and internal fratricidal conflicts, has been drained of both human lives and national resources. Up to this moment, this catastrophe has claimed the lives of nearly six thousand people and wiped out entire areas in the city of Derna. Additionally, thousands are missing, and tens of thousands have been displaced, leaving a pervasive sense of mourning that encompasses all Arab nations.


These disasters pose a fundamental existential question: must it take a terrifying catastrophe of this magnitude for people to remember that they are squandering their humanity in conflicts and disputes imposed upon them by those more wretched and oppressive than Hurricane Daniel and the earthquake?


Libya continues to face challenging days due to Hurricane Daniel, which struck the northeastern part of the country last Sunday, resulting in thousands of casualties and missing individuals. A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry of the government appointed by the Libyan Parliament, Tarek Al-Khraz, announced that the death toll from Hurricane Daniel had reached 5,200 in the city of Derna alone, and he warned that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies expects the flood death toll to rise significantly, with around 10,000 people missing.


Tarek Ramadan, an official in the organization, stated, "We do not have final figures for the number of casualties at the moment," while emphasising that "the death toll is massive and could reach into the thousands." He also confirmed that "the number of missing persons has reached approximately 10,000 individuals."


At the same time, Ramadan mentioned that "humanitarian needs far exceed the capabilities of the Libyan Red Crescent and the government."

The two main dams on the Wadi Derna River collapsed during the night from Sunday to Monday, resulting in massive mudslides that destroyed bridges and swept away numerous buildings with their inhabitants.


The Health Minister of the Tripoli-based Libyan government, Osman Abdeljalil, stated on Monday evening, "The situation in Derna is becoming increasingly tragic. Many neighbourhoods remain inaccessible, and I expect the death toll to rise to 10,000." He added, "We appeal to friendly countries for assistance in rescuing what remains in the city of Derna and the mountainous areas." Roads have been blocked and floods have prevented aid from reaching residents.


On the other hand, the Eastern Libyan government reported that approximately a quarter of the city of Derna had "disappeared" after the dams collapsed. Hisham Abu Shkiwat, the Minister of Civil Aviation and a member of the Emergency Committee in the Eastern Libyan government, explained, "I returned from there (Derna). The situation is extremely catastrophic. Bodies are scattered everywhere, in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings." He continued, "I don't have a total number of casualties, but it is very, very large. The number of bodies recovered in Derna has exceeded a thousand. I am not exaggerating when I say that 25 per cent of the city has disappeared. Many buildings have collapsed."


Video clips showed a raging torrent making its way through the centre of Derna after the dam's collapse, with collapsed buildings lining the sides of the road. The head of the Libyan Government of National Unity, Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah, announced on X, formerly Twitter, that a plane carrying 14 tons of supplies, medicines, and body bags, along with 87 medical and rescue personnel, had been dispatched to the city of Benghazi.


Over nearly a decade, Libya has witnessed a brutal civil war. This bloody conflict, fueled by regional and international actors with money and weapons, resulted in a catastrophic depreciation of the local currency, the dinar, against the dollar, a significant drain on the country's resources and wealth, and the deterioration of critical infrastructure, including roads, water, electricity, sanitation, gas, telecommunications, bridges, and tunnels. It also led to the neglect of the industrial base and agricultural sector, and the dismal failure to recover looted funds abroad, which exceeded a value of 200 billion USD.


In addition to these challenges, there has been severe internal division within state institutions, including the military establishment, the central bank, the oil corporation, and regulatory bodies. Poverty, unemployment, informal settlements, and corruption have proliferated within government institutions, leading to the squandering of public funds, with two separate budgets being prepared in the country for separate governments.


This failure has also been accompanied by a decline in the living conditions of the Libyan citizens, despite the country's abundant reserves of oil and gas, which generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually for a relatively small population. As successive governments remained divided and engaged in infighting, citizens have faced unprecedented inflation, the disappearance of essential goods, a decline in available job opportunities, a collapse in domestic production, an increased reliance on foreign markets for essential commodities, and a halt to urban planning.


Libya is reaping the consequences, not just of 10 years of military infighting and political discord, but of over half a century of policies of impoverishment, looting of the state's wealth abroad, squandering of public funds, and spending billions of dollars on projects that have yielded no benefit to the country, its economy, or its citizens.


Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for over 42 years, and despite the massive influx of hundreds of billions of dollars into the country annually during that period, the citizens reaped nothing but poverty, inflation, humiliation, and unemployment. Public services deteriorated, and vital sectors such as healthcare, education, industry, and defence collapsed.


As Syrians, we understand the extent of frustration, disappointment, and sorrow that both the Moroccan and Libyan peoples are going through. We have not yet recovered from the shock of the earthquake that struck northern Syria. Syrians have shown great solidarity with these disasters. The White Helmets have expressed their readiness to send teams to help with rescue efforts.


With each disaster that befalls the Arab world, rulers and ruled alike have blamed "fate" or even claimed that they are the result of society's "sins". In response, authorities call on people to adopt an attitude of "patience" in the face of adversity.


Despite the regularity of such disasters and their propensity to trigger anti-government sentiment, authorities remain amnesiac regarding their corruption.


The continued prioritization of weapons purchases and state security over national infrastructure and climate resilience means such disasters are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.


While other states are investing in sophisticated disaster modelling and warning systems to save lives and reduce economic damage, money is instead spent on surveillance and policing equipment.


These are essential concerns for anyone with a conscience before the concept of fate, patience, trials and sins can be entertained.


Our countries are governed by corruption and oppression, and our rulers are only concerned with maintaining their power. They do not have a state; instead, they have palaces and security apparatuses, and this is what they are "conscientious" about. Look at any past disaster in our countries and ask yourself: “Where did the destruction occur?” Have you seen any of the palaces or security headquarters destroyed? Have you seen a significant security presence when people protest?


This is the minimum standard for assessing matters. Hold your ruler accountable before you are held accountable by God and destiny. Ask your ruler about buildings, dams, infrastructure, and disaster detection technology, before accepting the words of a religious figure about fate.


Not a single official has resigned or taken responsibility in any way, as if the souls of the departed, who have moved on to God, do not matter. Well, someone might say: "Don't generalize because there might be someone with a conscience who has resigned or taken responsibility." Alright, my friend, I won't generalize. I'll celebrate every resignation and every person who takes responsibility. But I would like to ask you: when will this rare act become a common occurrence, instead of being a cause for celebration?


Mercy to the victims of both disasters and a swift recovery for all the wounded.


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