On 9 September 2011, Mouad Belghouat, a 24 year old Moroccan rap musician, was passing out fliers to advertize for a demonstration in his impoverished neighborhood of Oukacha, outside the cosmopolitan city of Casablanca. On the evening he and his friends were handing out fliers for the upcoming march, Belghouat was approached by another young man, Mohamed Dali, later reported to be a member of the “Alliance of Young Royalists,” who verbally targeted Belghouat, calling him a traitor. Belghouat himself is a member of the February 20th movement, a coalition of activists that has been organizing demonstrations for over a year in Morocco, calling for greater democratic processes and limits to the king’s power. As Belghouat’s story goes, the men exchanged words only. However, according to Dali, Belghouat physically attacked him from behind, causing him to sustain a head injury. The same evening, Belghouat received a call from the police stating that Dali was pressing charges against him.
What is provocative about the story is not this discrepancy in the two young men’s versions, but it is the timing of the incident. Exactly six months earlier, King Mohammed VI had suggested the possibility of a “peaceful revolution” in Morocco and that steps towards democratization in the country could be made by constitutional reform rather than revolutions like those in neighboring Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In his speech on 9 March, the king announced that one of the pillars of the new reforms would be to elevate the judiciary to an independent power, and he reinforced the supremacy of law in the country and the equality of all before it. Belghouat, alias El Haqed, was extremely critical of these reforms, believing that they did not go far enough to promote democracy and protect civil rights. In his song “No More Silence,” he raps: “Those who suffered in silence and were dragged through the streets are fed up with going around in circles while our brother [the king] convenes his team to amend the constitution. There’s something to go crazy over!” Interestingly enough, Belghouat’s own imprisonments and subsequent conviction have provided an opportunity to scrutinize this reform.
While Belghouat was formally arrested on charges of assault, he claims that he was interrogated not on his fight with Dali, but on the subversive nature of his rap. After his initial interrogation, he has stated that the police let him go but admonished him to avoid the subject of the king in his songs. After multiple delays in his trial, Belghouat was ultimately found guilty of the charges of assault and battery despite the fact that there was virtually no material evidence against him. Although Dali had claimed to have gone to the hospital after the attack, the doctor allegedly refused to produce medical records. Ultimately, the trial came down to Belghouat’s word against Dali’s.
One predominant translation of Belghouat’s alias “El Haqed” is “l’enragé,” or “the spiteful.” This language conjures feelings of hate and rage; emotional reactions not motivated by reason. That he would engage in an unprovoked attack – from behind no less – supports this view that Belghouat is prone to dangerous and underhanded behavior. His attack on Dali could then be interpreted as another example of a member of an “angry mob” threatening the peace and security of an otherwise calm and contented society. Because of his involvement with the February 20th demonstrations, the entire movement becomes emblematic of spite and violence and their protests and demands become their own problem. Where Belghouat has come to symbolize the February 20th movement, Dali theoretically stands to represent the rest of the Moroccan population satisfied with a peaceful alternative to revolution and lends legitimacy to the Palace and the recent set of reforms. Although they have made practically no mention of Belghouat’s case specifically, the mainstream media in Morocco has given much credence to the new set of reforms as well supported by the population. In June, a few months after the reforms were proposed, L’Economiste, a French language daily, published a survey of Moroccan “youth” and concluded that while the results of the February 20th movement were “contested,” most youth believed change would come from the constitutional reform.
This enthusiastic support for the new reforms is also characteristic of the position of the United States and Europe, where most reports have hailed the Moroccan “Arab Spring” model as a shining example for the rest of the region. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton welcomed the new reforms and congratulated the Moroccan people on these steps towards building democracy. The European Union welcomed the reforms as well, a position that has been typical of the attitude towards Morocco in the past; the nation had been elevated to the status of “advanced” in relations with the EU in October 2008, giving it a preferred position in trade negotiations and allowing the Moroccan dirham to be linked to the Euro. This outright support is not surprising, given the political interests of the Western nations. Morocco has supplied reserves of cheap immigrant labor and mineral resources – primarily phosphates – and is linked to US political interests through a very public and forthright position as an ally in the war on terror.
In contrast to the Belghouat “the spiteful,” an alternate understanding of his persona is Belghouat “The Indignant.” Belghouat as “indignant” implies an externality; one can’t be indignant with nothing about which to be indignant. Indignation as well suggests certain righteousness in anger, that rather than irrational emotion, the source of rage is deeply rooted in a justified response to evils. One of the more memorable images to emerge during his imprisonment is that of supporters gathered outside of the prison holding a sign that declares, “We are all indignant.” This indignation stems from a stagnation of real movement towards a more democratic and egalitarian Morocco and the most recent set of constitutional reforms still leave much to be desired in this arena.
Accounts of the recent reforms as well supported by the population were seemingly legitimized by numbers in the polls: the reforms were put to national referendum in June where they passed with a 98% approval, with voter turnout at a remarkably high 73%. Upon closer inspection however, this endorsement is questionable at best. In a country where only 54% of the adult population is literate, it is reasonable to assume that a good number of those who voted probably had little idea what they were approving. Additionally, the vote was scheduled only three weeks after the new version of the constitution was published, allowing enough time for a state sponsored advertising campaign to solicit a “yes” vote, but little time for opposition to organize. The February 20th movement did call for a boycott, vocally denouncing the reforms as being too weak in limiting the powers of the king, an act which, according to reports by Human Rights Watch, prompted routine police harassment.
Belghouat’s own father has said, “My son was set up. The police and the ambulance turned up five minutes after the incident. That never happens here.” Omar Benjelloun, one of the fifteen lawyers representing Belghouat pro bono, claims that in 95% of assault cases the defendants were granted bail and that the law was with his client. In an interview with daily newspaper “Le Soir,” Benjelloun said, “the judge tried to manage the unmanageable. He tried to prove that justice is coherent…he himself believed in the innocence of Belghouat, but he retained the charge of assault and battery to save appearances.” These statements reveal the different pressures put upon the law in Morocco with the ultimate power still resting in the hands of the king. While Article 6 of the constitution echoes the king’s promises in his March speech and declares an independent judiciary, articles 56, 57, and 58 declare that the king presides as head of the Ministry of the Judiciary, nominates the Minister of Justice, and can issue royal pardons. In Belghouat’s case, the judge had to choose between a not guilty verdict that would prove the independence of the judiciary but implicitly condone challenges to the king’s authority, or one that would send a message to activists that dissent would still not be tolerated under the new constitution. By continuing to delay the trial and avoid sentencing Belghouat to further time in prison, he was also able to effectively deflect continued pressure from the international human rights community over Belghouat’s status as a prisoner of conscience.
In addition to being the head of the Ministry of the Judiciary, the most recent version of the constitutional also reaffirms the king’s role presiding over the Council of Ulammas (religious council issuing fatwas,) parliament, judiciary council, his power to appoint half of the constitutional court, his position as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and his all-purpose role of “the Supreme Representative of the State, Symbol of the unity of the nation, Guarantor of state continuity and sustainability, and Supreme Arbiter of institutions.” This combination of both political supremacy and the institutionalization of religious authority ultimately fuses the king’s role as both traditional and supreme leader, reinforcing the notion of a completely centralized power, and allowing virtually no space for opposition in the formal political sphere. Of course, this is completely antithetical to the democratic practices that were a focal point of the state’s discourse surrounding the new constitution, and is the primary focus of resistance for the February 20th movement.
The February 20th movement is often described as a “youth movement,” demonstrations have actually brought together a coalition of human rights groups, activists and Islamists. For the past year, this group has been staging demonstrations around Morocco and most recently hundreds of thousands of protestors staged a march to commemorate the year anniversary of the movement. The group lists demands on theirFacebook page, calling for a separation of powers in government, further recognition of the indigenous Amazigh language and culture, liberation of all political prisoners and trial for those who have been involved in unjust arrest and practices of torture, integration of unemployed graduates into the economy, and improved social services for the poor. They state: “These are the necessary conditions for the Moroccan people to gain true democracy and so that the citizenry can finally become the masters of their own destiny.”
The Islamist faction of the group, Al Adl Wal’ihsane, has been outlawed for its anti-monarchist stance and activists from this group are regularly imprisoned and tortured. The group’s figurehead Sheikh Abd Al-Salam Yassine criticized the monarchy for its failure to provide basic social benefits and economic opportunity, and in fact, the group has declared its insistence in operating outside the formal political sphere on the grounds of maintaining this oppositional position. During a recent round of discussion on the reform of family law, the group was responsible for organizing a “million man march” to protest what it viewed as a westernization of the law; the group privileges an anti-imperialist rights rhetoric, claiming that Islamic values have been trampled by Western hegemony and that rights must be achieved for all Muslims before there is any hope of achieving rights for women.
Secular activists have been likewise targeted as enemies of the state. Human Rights Watch recently released a report detailing police harassment of protesters who promoted a boycott of the referendum on the recent constitution, urging respect for civil rights in the public sphere and for a halt to trials for those protesters, contradicting reports from Morocco that no such trials are taking place. Belghouat, who was declared a prisoner of conscience by Moroccan rights group l’Association marocaine des droits humains (AMDH), is but one of many activists regularly imprisoned in Morocco. Rachid Niny, a popular columnist, had written very critically of the king’s advisory appointment and has been arrested on charges of “undermining a judicial decision;” he has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
The violent repression of resistance has also been typical of the monarchy in the past. The “years of lead” during the rule of King Hassan II were characterized by routine attacks on both secular and Islamist activists, extended periods of detention, and torture. While the new constitution was meant to bolster the current regime’s commitment to the respect of human rights, and did in fact formally outlaw torture, Belghouat has claimed that in Oukacha prison he saw obvious signs of torture, and he believes the prison is not intended for rehabilitation. Despite the dangers activists have faced, protests continue. Prior to December, both secular and Islamist factions marched together in protests calling for greater democratic practices, often drawing thousands of supporters. However, the factions have since split because of apparently irreconcilable differences, opening up debate on the strength of solidarity in the broad February 20thmovement and potential of the future of resistance in the country.
Hope for the future?
Until the monarch’s power is diminished and authority is given to an independent judiciary, political dissent in Morocco remains a risky undertaking. This is clear from the story of El Haqed and the dozens of other “prisoners of conscience” being held in Moroccan prisons. Despite having served his initial sentence for assault, Belghouat was arrested again on March 30th and charged with insulting public authorities. In this instance, Belghouat was arrested for “showing contempt” towards public servants or institutions, once again highlighting the serious dangers of political dissent in Morocco. Belghouat remains in prison after a most recent second postponement of his trial and faces a sentence of up to two years imprisonment.
Which actors are most likely to resist the current power structure and demand greater democracy in governance? A top down approach is difficult to imagine. Ceding power to a truly independent judiciary would challenge the king’s role as arbiter of justice and severely undermine Mohammed VI’s claim to power.
The international community has been effective in pressuring him to change specific sentences in cases where there have been human rights violations. Because the Moroccan economy is dependent on Europe’s import market and in providing jobs that allow for a vast amount of remittance capital, as well as it relies on substantial aid packages from western Europe and the United States the international community has a significant amount of leverage to pressure the monarch for greater respect of human rights. One such example is that of the “fake prince.” In February 2008 Fouad Mourtada was sentenced to three years in prison for creating a fake Facebook page claiming to be the king’s brother, Moulay Rachid, but after intense pressure from human rights groups he was issued a royal pardon. However, even in these instances, it has been the King himself who has ultimately commuted sentences, keeping his power intact. And given the international community’s hearty stamp of approval on the new reforms, it is unlikely that demand for further change will come from this arena.
Ironically, the newly appointed Minister of Justice, Mustapha Ramid, is an outspoken proponent of limiting the king’s powers, having stated that he believes the king should only intervene in politics in times of crisis or when laws passed by Parliament were unconstitutional. However, his appointment is characteristic of the king’s history of co-option, casting a shadow on his ability to institute effective change. The original Moroccan constitution was implemented to allow for a multiparty system in parliament; however this system has been most often exploited to encourage fragmentation among opposition parties. Historically, during periods of “alternance” the king would choose a Prime Minister from opposition parties in efforts to control the discourse of the opposition. This tolerance and support for figures like Mustapha Ramid and Abdelilah Benkirane, the Prime Minister and head of the opposition Islamist Party of Justice and Development, is thus characteristic of years of dynastic preservation, and will more likely reinforce the king’s power rather than offer a legitimate challenge to it.
Civil society and activist groups in Morocco thus offer the greatest hope for progress towards democratization and protection of civil liberties in the country. Belghouat’s renewed imprisonment, while it has highlighted once again the limits of the most recent set of reforms in achieving these results has also offered an opportunity for renewed challenge to these reforms. The words to No More Silence resonate now more than ever: “This is for all Moroccans. To the free and those who refuse to be humiliated. To those living in misery and injustice. Wake up! Look at the Egyptian people, and the people of Tunisia. They’re lying to you those who say ‘Morocco you’re an exception.’ If the people want life, then they’ll stand up to defend their rights. No more silence!”
 Also interesting to note, this same survey of youth also concluded that rap and pop music were absent from the Moroccan music scene, and instead the popular stars were the traditional singers of the 70’s and 80’s.
This article originally appeared on Jadaliyya