Rabat, Morocco – While Syria burns and Egypt rises to a boil, the musical temperature in Morocco is rising, with the country in the middle of its annual “festival season”. To make sure everyone has a good time, the Moroccan government arrested, tried and convicted one of the Arab world’s best young rappers, Mouad Balghouat, aka El Haked – or, as he spells his name using Moroccan Arabic text-chat letters, L7A9D – to a year in prison.
Balghouat was convicted of insulting the police, “showing contempt” towards public servants and “undermining their honour”.
El Haked, which roughly translates as “the enraged one”, is Morocco’s answer to El General, the young Tunisian rapper whose arrest in December 2010 helped spark the revolution in that country. The Moroccan’s imprisonment is the second time in a year he has been jailed for his highly politicised music. The first time, the police baited him into a fight with a young arch-royalist, whose supposed injuries led to Balghouat’s arrest and to four months spent in pre-trial detention, before he was convicted and sentenced to time served. That arrest came after the release of a song which attacked the legitimacy of the monarchy.
This time it was a video of his song Klab ed-Dawla (“Dogs of the State”) that got him in trouble. Its lyrics depict a policeman with the head of a donkey while calling police corrupt – and even, as the title puts it, dogs of the state. Although he denied having anything to do with the video and the prosecutor could not prove otherwise, Balghouat was still convicted. Since then, a well-known poet, blogger, and caricaturist have all been arrested.
Art-washing a repressive system
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“If you want to know where power lies in this country, see who pays the musicians,” explained a prominent Moroccan filmmaker to me as the annual Mawazine festival, which brings some of the biggest international pop and world music stars to Morocco, came to a close.
King Mohammed has skillfully used the country’s rich musical culture, which has enticed Western pop stars and writers since the 1950s, to obscure its longstanding and systematic human rights violations, corruption, and authoritarianism. The violations reported include continued detentions and trials that violate the principles of the new constitution, ongoing censorship, routine police violence, torture, and other forms of repression.
While most people imagine Morocco as among the more progressive, moderate and developed countries in the Arab world, it in fact ranks below Egypt – a country with which it has long been favourably compared – in its levels of human development, equality, and levels of political freedom. Yet despite Morocco’s low levels of development and high levels of repression and state-sponsored corruption, the elite’s confidence in the strategy of “art-washing” seems to have paid off, judging by the A-list pop stars who agree to sing – but not speak up – at its various government-sponsored festivals.
The king and the ruling elite surrounding him spend millions of dollars every year to bring in a who’s-who of musical artists, including Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Jimmy Cliff, the Scorpions, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, to play at festivals such as Mawazine. The World Festival of Sacred Music in Fes and the Essaouira festival of Gnawa and World Music are also favourites on the international festival circuit, bringing the likes of Joan Baez and Bjork this year to join with local talent in slightly more intimate settings.
But it’s “Mawazine: Rhythms of the world” that is most prominently declared to be “under the high patronage of his majesty King Mohammed VI”. It has become the country’s primary showcase for what organisers describe as Morocco’s “celebration of cultural diversity, tolerance and openness to the other”.
This year, neither Mariah Carey nor Lenny Kravitz, nor any of the other big stars at the festival, were willing to utter a word of solidarity for their fellow artist, Mouad Balghouat, or any other political detainees (even Joan Baez refused to say his name at her concert in Fes, making only an oblique reference to freedom of expression). They took their money, said nice things about Morocco – precisely the point of bringing them there – and moved on to the next gig.
Had they appeared before, say, Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, as did actress Hilary Swank, or played for the Gaddafi clan, as did Nelly Furtado and Beyonce, they would have certainly have been publicly condemned (in fact, Mariah Carey also played for the Gaddafis, apparently without learning anything useful from the experience).
In Morocco you can be an openly gay English singer and perform – indeed, Mawazine officials publicly defended Sir Elton’s invitation against Islamist claims that young Moroccans needed to be “shielded” from his “debauchery”. But you cannot be an openly political Moroccan rapper and expect to be tolerated by the government.
This situation led the Copenhagen-based NGO Freemuse, which advocates freedom of expression for music creators, to issue a call for artists to make a point of mentioning El Haked’s plight when they play in Morocco. Moroccan activists are circulating the call to international musicians coming to play the country’s other summer festivals, but so far without success.
Quintessential state power
One reason for the slack given to the Moroccan government no doubt concerns the approval of what, on paper, appeared to be significant changes to the country’s constitution in July 2011, which guaranteed “freedom of thought, opinion and expression in all its forms … to create, publish, and display literary and artistic materials” (as Article 25 describes it). The Western media, and even human rights organisations, lauded the changes, much to the chagrin of the local activist community – which well understand how in Morocco, as in so many authoritarian societies – and increasingly, Western countries as well – even the boldest constitutional declarations count for little against the continued realities of political repression.
At the heart of Morocco’s authoritarian system is the Makhzen, as Moroccans have long referred to the king and his immediate coterie, as well as the political and economic elite surrounding them. The term is extremely difficult to define – no one I know does so in quite the same way, and that’s precisely how those who belong to it like it. Once referring to the storehouse where tribute and taxes to the sultan were stored, over the centuries the Makhzen has come to signify not just the power holders in Morocco, but the manner in which power has been exercised and flowed through society.
The term “Makhzen” has also long possessed geographical connotations. In the pre-colonial era, the blad al-makhzen referred to the areas of the realm under the relative control of the sultan. These were contrasted to the blad as-siba, or “lands of dissidence”, which included the tribal and nomadic regions normally beyond the direct reach of state power.
This dichotomy never captured the complex continuum of relations between the sultan and his subjects in outlying regions. But it became an ideological cornerstone of French colonial rule, which modernised its “coercive and extractive capacity”. This suited well its function of securing and strengthening the power of the king and the emerging national elite after independence. The post-independence system functioned in good measure through a top-down, pervasive regime of corruption that had to operate “without leaving a trace” in order to manage the balance of social power in the king and Makhzen’s favour.
Today the Makhzen functions as both a quintessentially “deep state” and the mechanism by which the king and the surrounding elite are able to control vast sectors of the Moroccan economy, from banking to agriculture. A young Moroccan filmmaker, Nadir Bouhmouch, describes it best in his powerful short film “My Makhzen and Me“ when he explains that the Makhzen is expert at “throwing carrots, but it’s beaten us with sticks for centuries”.
Playing with power
For every rapper such as El Haked willing to be imprisoned for their art, there are dozens of artists and organisations who are trying to retain their independence and address social and political issues from the other side of the red line that he so willingly crossed. Indeed, for my filmmaker acquaintance, Balghouat was “stupid” for confronting the king in such a brazen manner that could only lead to jail. A generation removed from the majority of the core activists of the February 20 movement, he has spent years negotiating the ever-shifting lines between acceptable criticism and punishable dissent, and sees artists such as Mahmoud Darwish and Marcel Khalife as the best models – because they offered powerful critiques that were indirect enough to avoid censorship.
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Given the balance of forces in the kingdom today, such a strategy appears to him to be the best model for Moroccan artists and activists to follow, especially if they need government funding or advertising (dominated by Makhzen-aligned companies) to survive. This is a balance grass-roots arts organisations have to consider, as their ability to receive government funding and to a certain extent, remain operational – and thus encourage a new generation of independent artists who could challenge the system – depends on staying within the red lines that mark the boundaries of acceptable criticism or activism.
The problem with this approach is that indirectly criticising state power no longer seems to have much effect in a country such as Morocco, just as it stopped working in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Rather, acceptable criticism is either ignored or its toleration is used to demonstrate the supposedly moderate and even democratic credentials of the system. Such is the efficacy of the makhzenisation of dissent.
The Arab uprisings of the past 20 months have offered an example of the power of direct confrontation, of what can happen when a critical mass of people loses fear and are willing to sacrifice themselves to speak truth directly to power and demand that the system either change or fall. Yet out of more than a dozen countries which experienced some form of mass protests, only one, Tunisia, has seen its uprising actually produce both the “fall of the system”, as a favourite revolution chant puts it, and the establishment of a markedly fairer and more democratic one in its place.
Does the reality in Morocco today – that the balance of power seems firmly in favour of the king and Makhzen – mean that activists should return to building civil society institutions and networks, keeping indirect pressure on the system until a more opportune moment arises for more direct and large-scale protests?
Moroccan activists certainly couldn’t be blamed for reaching such a conclusion. Yet the post-Tunisia era can also support the opposite argument. The more artists saturate the culture with clear and powerful j’accuses against the core dynamics and personalities behind authoritarian systems, the harder it will be for leaders to keep the kind of balance between tolerance and punishment that has allowed the Makhzen to imprison Mouad Balghouat while welcoming Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, or even rappers LMFAO and Pitbull to Mawazin without fearing they would stand up for their musical comrade from the festival’s stage.
Indeed, as more than one activist reminded me, mawazin is the same Arabic word used to describe the “balance” of social forces in the king’s favour, whose maintenance is one of the main functions of the Makhzen.
The February 20 movement momentarily upset the Makhzen’s balance, but it is not yet deeply rooted enough in and across society to offer a long-term challenge to, never mind overturn, the system. In my next column, I will explore how one group of Moroccan musicians has created a very different sense of balance through their music, which offers important lessons for activists and artists to consider as they struggle to develop new strategies at a time when, in Morocco and across the Arab world, governments have re-established the upper hand against even the most creative opposition movements.
Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of Heavy Metal Islam and the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming