Facing the music: Morocco’s tenuous balancing act

Corruption remains a primary mechanism of political power and ever present in the lives of Moroccans, writes LeVine.

Morocco King Mohamed
Morocco's King Mohammed VI has opened some political space while carrying out neo-liberal reforms [Reuters]

A decade ago Morocco seemed poised to be the first Arab country to undergo a meaningful transition to democracy.

It had a young and dynamic new king, a new Association Agreement with the European Union – one of a “new generation” of European-Mediterranean agreements that were designed to support “human rights, democratic principles and economic freedom” – and the political system was perceived to be opening up.

King Mohammed VI even established a commission to investigate the worst excesses under his father’s rule and pay compensation to the victims.

Mohammed’s father, Hassan II, was a Cold War stalwart who never shied from using systematic violence during his 38-year rule to preserve the “balance” of social, economic and political forces that maintained his power. The first two thirds of his reign are knows as the “years of lead” to describe the violence suffered by untold thousands of Moroccans who were viewed as a threat to the state.

In 1965 speech to members of Parliament he declared: “Let me tell you that there is no danger more serious for the state as that of a self-proclaimed intellectual. It would have been better if you were all illiterate.” 

As political scientist James Sater notes in his excellent summary of Moroccan history Morocco: Challenges to Tradition and Modernity, Hassan made these remarks days after executing 14 alleged rebels as part of a criticism of “futile parliamentary debates” and encouragement of protests by some members of Parliament.

A smarter balance

It is impossible to imagine the present King making such statements or engaging in such unmitigated violence against his subjects. But as I explained in my last column, this is not because Morocco has meaningfully democratised or experienced a period of significant economic development under his rule. Rather, Mohammed VI and the Moroccan elite have learned from both the successes and failures of his father’s rule. They increased the space for political democracy, even bringing one time regime opponents into the political arena. But they did so in a tightly controlled and diffused manner that severely constrained their ability to pass legislation and execute policies that might challenge the King’s power or that of the Makhzen (governing elite) surrounding him.

Activists challenge ‘rape marriage’ law

In today’s globalised “knowledge” economy it is no longer advisable to wish continued ignorance on one’s people. Indeed, by the 1980s, and especially during the 1990s, Morocco moved towards a neoliberal system. The monarchy attempted to transform the dynamics of rule from one of more open patrimonial, patron-client relations towards technocratic governance. This move seemingly removed political considerations from policymaking in favour of a more rational and well-planned process of economic development. The effect was to allow the elite to deflect blame for the failings of these policies, although not altogether successfully, as ongoing labour unrest – there was approximately one strike every day in Morocco last year -political repression, censorship and periodic terrorist attacks reveal.

This process is a hallmark of the transformation to neoliberalism globally, in which Morocco has been an early and avid Arab participant. And as in most other countries, it has readjusted the balance mechanisms in a way that strongly favours those at the centre of political power while giving appearance of greater choice and possibility to the rest of society. 

A central component of neoliberal ideology globally is that as the state retreats, so does its responsibility for addressing the failure of the economy to provide for all its citizens. In reality, even as the Moroccan state has “retreated” somewhat from direct management of or participation in the economy, the participation of the monarchy and the Makhzen outside of the boundaries of the state, through ownership and/or control of many of the most important companies and sectors, has grown. Corruption remains a primary mechanism of political power and ever present in the lives of Moroccans, albeit subsumed rhetorically under buzzwords like “competition” and “efficiency”. 

From the bottom up

The case of jailed rapper El Haked – who since I wrote about him last week began a hunger strike to protest the conditions of his imprisonment – exemplifies how hard it is for even the most thoughtful and committed activists to take on such an entrenched and powerful ruling system. Certainly, the activists of the February 20 movement are taking note of the difficulties faced by their counterparts in Egypt and even worse off countries like Yemen and Syria. Many F20 activists are also involved in building civil society organisations, such as social entrepreneurship networks, youth football leagues and organisations dealing with women’s rights.

Such activities follow the trends seen in countries like Egypt, where similar organisations laid the foundation for the activist networks that enabled the 2011 protests. In Morocco, the monarchy and Makhzen have encouraged a controlled development of civil society for several decades, but they haven’t always succeeded in keeping it under check. Indeed, in 2003, in one of the first successful youth-led, internet-driven protests against an Arab regime, members of the Moroccan heavy metal community responded to the arrest of 14 fans and musicians on charges of Satanism by starting local and international campaigns to free their fellow metal heads, staging protests at the court house where they were tried and ultimately forcing the government to overturn their convictions.

Reflecting the growing power of urban, youth activism and culture, the Boulevard des jeunes musiciens festival, the country’s only major grassroots music festival, saw a surge in the attendance of tens of thousands of people after the victory against the government in the Satanic metal affair.

Its blend of hardcore music and activism (the stadium field where the festival was held in Casablanca was surrounded by various booths featuring information on all sorts of issues, from homelessness to AIDS to Berber rights) epitomised the gradual opening of space for alternative culture and politics that put Morocco at the forefront of liberalising Arab countries.

By the late 2000s, you could find grandmothers in abayas with their grandchildren standing next to Goth kids in full make-up and kilts and joking around with police that would never have let them walk on the streets only a few years earlier.

Musical changes

Of course, the festival was allowed to operate because it didn’t cross the red lines of challenging the legitimacy of the monarchy or directly tackling issues like corruption or ongoing political repression of more militant pro-democracy activities. Moreover, one of the main goals of the Boulevard’s organisers was to create a space where young Moroccan musicians could gather, rehearse, record and even broadcast their own music.

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This dream was finally realised in 2010 with the creation of the Boultek Centre in Casablanca’s Technopark. Such an institutionalisation of the country’s alternative youth music scene could only occur with the blessing of the government, which means that even as some of the core members of the movement remain highly political, organisationally they have to be careful to stay within the sometimes ambiguous redlines of acceptable political discourse.

The February 20 movement has added a new layer to activism in Morocco’s vibrant youth culture, which has caused some divisions between those activists willing to risk the state’s ire to press more forcefully and directly for systemic changes and those who are too dependent on the system to join such direct challenges. Potentially bridging this gap are the spread of grassroots media networks like Mamafinch, a grassroots blogging collective modelled on the Tunisian blogging collective Nawaat, which played a pivotal role in disseminating the truth about Ben Ali’s rule before and during the revolution. For the members of Mamfakinch, which just won the Google/Global Voices “Breaking Borders” award, independent information networks provide the indispensable foundation for any serious challenge to authoritarian systems, especially in an increasingly (inter)connected society like Morocco’s.

But as the experience of the metal scene a decade ago demonstrated, even the most robust virtual public spheres are no substitute for the physical bringing together of people to share experiences that can create solidarity and point them in new directions. The combination of Facebook and Al Jazeera might have proved toxic for authoritarian Arab regimes in late 2010 and early 2011, but governments have adapted, and today more than ever activists need to cement a physical presence in their societies that can serve as the physical hub for a constant reimagining of alternatives to the status quo.

Take a look at the Facebook page for one group, Ana Amrat wa lastu Awara, “I am a woman and I’m not naked” (the word “awara” also has the meaning of weak, vulnerable and defective”. The group includes both F20 activists and those who, for various reasons, are not directly political. Whatever the group’s intentions, its logo, a photo of an unveiled woman with her mouth sewn shut, is anything but apolitical, especially in the context of the ongoing controversy surrounding the Moroccan rape law that allows rapists of minor girls to avoid prosecution if they marry their victims. The Facebook page has several postings about this issue, which led to the infamous suicide of one victim, Amina Filali, earlier this year, and the attempted suicide of another girl, Safae, after the birth of her daughter by the man who raped, and then with the encouragement of the local judge, married her.   

Awara started on Facebook and received hundreds of likes in its first few weeks from around the world. Now it’s organising a concert where members will perform an original song about sexual harassment, after which it hopes to become an officially registered organisation. The group declares that it has no direct political intentions, and there is no hint of them on its Facebook page.

Yet I met the founders in one of the most political spaces in Rabat, if not Morocco: the offices of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (MAHR). For more than three decades, the MAHR has been at the forefront of protests against the Makhzen and its abuses. Besides human rights work, the organisation routinely offers meeting space to other groups, from the ostensibly apolitical Awara to the unabashedly political members of the F20 movement, who – similar to the counterparts in Egypt during the first round of their uprising – used their offices as an organising hub during the main protests.

The Boultek/Boulevard has space for young musicians who can regularly rehearse, perform, take classes, and expand their musical and potentially activist networks. With its recording studio and internet radio station, and its sponsorship of an annual music competition and festival, the infrastructure is in place for the creation and sharing of new artistic and social paradigms. Such an environment can expose Moroccans to alternative information, ideologies and ultimately strategies with which to challenge official narratives and governmental power. When the public will be ready and able to act on them, however, remains an open question.

A move towards harmony

El Haked has famously dared the Makhzen to “give me my rights or kill me”, but many young musicians have far more modest goals, like a decent rehearsal or performance space where they can hone their craft and build musical communities (rappers can rehearse pretty much anywhere; death metal bands can’t really exist without a decently-equipped rehearsal space). Yet if these perspectives offer two very different motivations for young Moroccans, the view is different still from the village of Zahjouka (commonly, but incorrectly transliterated from the local dialect as “Joujouka”), at the southern end of the Rif mountains. Here, far fewer people have heard of El Haqed or the Satanic Metal affair, and have neither the means nor much interest in using the kinds of protest strategies carried out by the February 20 movement.

The Zahjouka region is home to the eponymous Master Musicians of Joujouka, who were first brought to Western ears through the likes of Hunter S Thompson and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. The product of a Sufi order that first arrived in the region 500 years ago after the Spanish Reconquista, the music famously trance-inducing, featuring songs played by a combination of local flute (ghaita in the local dialect) and various drums that can easily last over an hour.

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The Rif Mountains were once the blad as-siba, or land of dissidence, but they’ve played an important role in the Moroccan economy for centuries, particularly through the widespread cultivation of cannabis, which has made Morocco the primary source for hashish in Europe. A European-requested eradication and substitution programme negatively impacted the local economy, leading many young people to leave (most recently for potential jobs at a new Renault plant in Tangier) – a phenomenon the village has also experienced even though the majority of its inhabitants make their living from music. At the same time, however, the government finally brought a road, electricity and mobile phone service to the village.

The Master Musicians exist in a precarious space between poverty and underdevelopment, the preservation of traditions upon which their music and livelihoods depend and the desire for their children to be afforded the kinds of opportunities that only exist in cities such as Rabat or Tangier, where more and more head as soon as they reach adulthood.

At a recent mini-festival held in their village for a few dozen lucky aficionados, one of the leaders of the group was asked what the Arab Spring has meant for them. He laughed and shook his head. “We don’t want change. We want to preserve what we have.”

Of course, the musicians want change. While we were talking, a mobile phone belonging to one of the flute players rang in the adjacent music room while he was in the middle of playing an intense melody over a groove laid down by other members of the group. Everyone laughed – including him – at the seeming incongruity of a Sufi musician in a house with no running water being shaken out of his trance by his cellphone. But the dichotomy was funny precisely because it was so patently false.

Few musicians expressed problems with the government and most everyone agrees that life in the village has markedly improved in the last decade, and will get even better when water and in-house plumbing arrive in the near future. The government’s recent easing up on cannabis eradication – part of the Makhzen’s constant balancing of interests and power – has also improved the economic situation of the area.

With a much more tenuous relationship to central authority than urban-based activists and artists, the musicians of Zahjouka exhibit little desire to confront the Makhzen; they want running water and more government services and political patronage for their village, while preserving local autonomy and heritage, and spreading their music as widely as possible.

And yet, despite their unique orientation, the music of Zahjouka can be heard as a microcosm of Moroccan society; its seeming repetitiveness and predictability is belied by constant motion and change (even if to some degree – lamentably so to most activists – the changes seem more circular than progressive).

If you’re lucky enough to experience the Master Musicians unmediated, from five feet away (the way they were always meant to be heard) instead of flattened out on a CD or even festival stage, the seemingly effortless blending of melodic dissonance and rhythmic diversity into overall harmony becomes even more impressive. A subtle tone change or slightly harder single beat on the drum can lead the rest of the troupe to an instantaneous change of melody, rhythm or even song, catching the untrained audience by surprise. Musicians also use their own slang that is incomprehensible to anyone outside the group to communicate during performances.

Musicians come from all over the world to try to learn how they interact and adapt to each other so rapidly, taking the audience on such long journeys without anyone clearly leading the way – even though there is – which are precisely the strategies and skills that activists across the region need in their ongoing struggles against authoritarian regimes.

Achieving new balance

The Master Musicians have been working together for decades to develop the kind of intricate communication that is their hallmark. In contrast, today’s activist movements in Morocco and across the Arab world are still in their infancy, and will need years to develop the level of internal rapport and ability to synergise different messages into a unified theme capable of mobilising a large swath of their societies. But however unintentional, the Musicians offer important lessons on how to develop activist countercultures that can ultimately contend with political power on their own terms. And unlike the new generation of musicians in Zahjouka, activists don’t have an older generation who’s done it all before to guide them for years until they’re ready to strike out on their own. They have to make up the tunes as they go along.

Cracks can appear even in the veneer of the Makhzen, which can lose its famed balance and make costly miscalculations at critical junctures. One of Morocco’s leading rock musicians and activists put it best as we discussed why it has intensified its crackdown on artists and bloggers. “The Makhzen might have finally badly miscalculated,” he declared. “It may consider the February 20 protesters a threat for directly criticising the King and the system, but with the economy continuing to stall and inequality increasing, an explosion is inevitable in the near future. And the next generation of protesters will have no hope, nothing to lose, and will be ungrounded by any kind of progressive political ideology or commitment to non-violence.

“The Makhzen might soon rue the day it stamped down the February 20 movement,” he concluded. What no one knows yet is whether the movement will have dug deep enough roots into society to lead the a renewed challenge to the system when that day comes, or whether, tragically, Morocco could descend into an era of violence and societal conflict that will upset all existing balances and drown out even the most well played revolutionary tune.

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.

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