In the Arab world’s deepest state, the revolution continues

Morocco is at the forefront of the “admittedly slow and often tortuous evolution towards substantive democracy”.

Morocco King Mohammed VI arrives 30 July
Few states can" match the skill" with which the contemporary Moroccan state has managed to "continue to arrogate the country's wealth to the King and his coterie" while maintaining the hegemony across the society [AFP]

Ten years ago, in what was the first – and until early 2011 the only – successful youth-led rebellions in the Arab world, Moroccan metalheads launched an unprecedented series of protests against the arrests and prosecution of 14 of musicians and fans on charges of Satanism. The charges were ludicrous, ranging from killing cats to having ash trays shaped like pentagrams (never mind that the pentagram is on the Moroccan flag); but the precedent of similar Satanic metal affairs in Egypt and other Muslim countries gave them a fair degree of valence in a society that, despite its international reputation as a haven for tolerance, remained a conservative society.

Yet where their Egyptian counterparts were driven largely underground in the wake of its 1997 “affair”, Morocco proved a very different case. In one of the earliest adoptions of the kind of grassroots social media organising, supporters of the jailed young people combined email and internet campaigns with savvy publicity (including performances in front of the court house where activists were on trial) that attracted enough international media attention not only to force the government to overturn the convictions, but also helped to reshape the contours of acceptable identities within Moroccan society.

By 2005, Morocco’s main grassroots festival, “L’Boulevard“, was not only attracting tens of thousands of fans for nights devoted to metal, hip-hop and trance music, but also featured significant amounts of open social and political activism on issues such as homelessness, AIDS and Amazigh (Berber) rights. Indeed, art was openly being used as a vehicle to corral young people into spaces where they could be educated and motivated to become far more socially and political active than most Arab governments would then tolerate. Local branches of hardcore international activist movements like ATTAC were even organising film festivals to accompany the festival.

One could even witness cops and metalheads – goths even! – laughing it up at together while hijab-wearing teens rocked out to British hardcore bands and local rock, rap and metal groups whose music verged on the unabashedly political and a time when underground music scenes in other countries of the region still kept their true sentiments close to the vest.

Add to the mix a young King who’d taken the unprecedented step of apologising for his father’s oppressive rule and establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as sponsoring reforms of the traditional family law, and an opposition movement – the Justice and Charity movement (al-Adl wal-Ihsane) that was committed to directly taking on the monarchy and to non-violence and dialogue with other sectors of society – and it seemed Morocco was poised to be the first Arab state to make a substantial transition to democracy.

Indeed, as the first decade of the 21st (Christian) century drew to a close, it still seemed to many people who regularly travelled across the Middle East and North Africa that Morocco was at the forefront of the admittedly slow and often tortuous evolution towards substantive democracy.

It was all, it’s now clear, if not quite a lie, then far closer to a mirage than to a real development of democratic foundations in Morocco.

Arab world’s deepest state

As with most attempts to understand the inner workings of contemporary Arab authoritarianism, one need go no further than the archive of WikiLeaks to obtain a good idea of why Morocco has so far avoided a successful push for significant change to its governing politics and economic system. Put succinctly (as US diplomats are surprisingly apt at doing in cables to their superiors), the “appalling greed” of the King – whose wealth more than quintupled during his first decade in power – and the ruling establishment, or Makhzen, while poverty remains “at the core of civilisation” in major cities such as Marakkesh and even more so in the countryside, much of which is still without electricity and/or running water. 

 Morrocan activists stage mock trial against
‘oppressive law’

With all that’s happened the last few years, it’s easy to forget just how honest a glimpse into the workings of the United States’ most important Arab/Muslim allies WikiLeaks provided when they came out almost four years ago. As one cable explains, corruption in Morocco

“during the reign of King Mohammed VI is becoming more, not less, pervasive… While corrupt practices existed during the reign of King Hassan II… they have become much more institutionalised with King Mohammed VI… XXXXXXXXXXXX’s experience demonstrates a reality, of which most Moroccans dare only whisper – the influence and commercial interest of the King and some of his advisors in virtually every major real estate project here. A former US Ambassador to the Morocco, who remains closely connected to the Palace, separately lamented to us what he termed the appalling greed of those close to King Mohammed VI. This phenomenon seriously undermines the good governance that the Moroccan government is working hard to promote.”

Another cable explained that corruption and the lack of transparency by the King and the ruling elite created an “‘explosive situation‘ at a time when Moroccans face rising prices for goods whose production and distribution is often assured by the king’s own companies. These issues too have long sparked hushed debate in Moroccan business circles…”

At the heart of this corruption for hundreds of years lies the institution of the Makhzen, which includes the King and his immediate advisers and the political and economic elite surrounding them. As I explained in a previous Al Jazeera column, 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. Having developed over several dynasties stretching back over half a millennium, the Makhzen system constitutes one of the most stable political orders in history. In the pre-colonial era, the rule of the Sultan was always tenuous outside of the main towns; during this period, the mediating role of the Makhzen and its ability to help direct flows of wealth and power to the centre was crucial to maintaining whatever degree of political coherence existed in a particular period.

Under French rule, from 1912-1957, the Makhzen was revamped and significantly strengthened, bequeathing a state to the newly independent Kingdom that had historically unprecedented control over the territory included in the new country. But the networks and flows of power sponsored and contained within and by the Makhzen supported “traditional” power brokers and practices rather than encouraging democratic institutions. At the same time, however, centuries of experience surviving against internal and external opposition have provided the Makhzen, and the monarchy and state, with an incredible institutional memory and savoir-fairewith which to manage dissent.

Few states can match the skill with which the contemporary Moroccan state has managed to continue to arrogate more of the country’s wealth to the King and his coterie while maintaining the system’s hegemony across the majority of Moroccan society. To be sure, there have been moments of significant stress on the system caused by the rampant inequality and the oppression necessary ultimately to preserve the status quo. Mohammed’s father Hassan II survived two assassination attempts in the 1970s. And on February 20, 2011, a group of youth activists organised the Moroccan answer to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolution, launching a wave of unprecedented protests, the likes of which had not been seen since the country’s independence from France.

From barbarism to revolution

But the King and his deep state have well managed the challenge, co-opting the reform banner of the opposition, bringing in a major share of the Islamist forces, while variously dividing and delegitimising the pro-democracy forces. A New Constitution was approved by an incredibly wide margin based on the belief that it did offer at least some substantive reform of the King’s and Makhzen’s power, but in fact it has left his executive power unchecked. And has not meaningfully addressed the policies of wealth concentration and political oppression that have, unbenounced to most of the outside world, continued.

The Justice and Development Party, the official “Islamist” party, has like its Egyptian equivalent completely embraced the system it once protested, becoming little more than a “puppet” for the Makhzen. As one activist explained to me, “Now that the Islamists have their Prime Minister, everything that goes wrong can be blamed on him rather than focusing blame on the King and Makhzen, which are the main source of our problems.” 

 Inside Story – The king and the constitution

Indeed, Morocco stands as almost the polar opposite to Bahrain, on the other extreme of the Arab world. Where the Bahraini monarchy could not survive without the support of powerful neighbours and patrons (particularly the Saudis and other gulf monarchies and the US and UK), the Moroccan monarchy remains, for the time being, the unquestioned source, broker and mediator of power in Morocco. Its deep roots across Moroccan society allows it to attenuate the application of violence and restrictions on the media and political freedoms with discourses of royal beneficence, piety and charity that have thus far inoculated the King from serious calls for him to relinquish political power or for the end of the monarchy.

On the other hand, despite the imbalance of power between them and the ongoing international support for the Moroccan government, activists continue to search for new ways to pressure the state and the King to open up the country’s political and economic system, more substantively democratise, and address the rampant institutionalised corruption that will inevitably doom any reform, never mind revolutionary process. For many, Tahrir remains [Arabic] a powerful model as young activists share their stories and experiences [Arabic] even though directly taking on the establishment can earn one a significant prison sentence, not to mention a severe beating and worse.

Social media remains an important battleground, from Facebook [Arabic] (the number of whose Moroccan users increased by over half a million since 2011) to more innovative tools, all of which aim to challenge the widespread propaganda of the King/Makhzen and its foreign supporters and commentators that a “Moroccan Exception” (istithna’ maghrebi) will enable the system to continue in its present form and (im)balance of power into the foreseeable future.

As Moroccan blogger and activist Zineb Belmkaddem argues in her assessment of the last two years, more and more “Moroccans know” the reality of the system in which they live. The problem today is that this knowledge is not accompanied by a belief in a way forward, or a sense that things are so bad there is no longer much left to lose. Indeed, one of the main problems facing those pushing for what could be termed “revolutionary reform” is the ongoing belief by most Moroccans (especially the most disenfranchised and politically abused that “the country’s progress is completely dependent upon [the King’s] generosity”.

Against intense propaganda (it’s impossible to watch the state TV or read a paper without seeing images of the King opening a new hospital or institute, or providing charity for the poor), the majority of the people still imagine that the best hope for survival is to work through or around the corruption and political opportunism that define the country’s political life.

But this dynamic cannot continue indefinitely. It is striking to me how many Moroccans are talking today the way my Egyptian friends were talking in the latter part of 2010: “This can’t go on…”, “If the government doesn’t alleviate people’s suffering there will be an explosion…”, “If things don’t change soon the opposition that replaces us will make the government wish for the good old days…”, and so on.

Then as now, the one thing no one could anticipate was what would spark a revolutionary wave of protests that would shake even the deepest state to its core. And while the octogenarian Mubarak and his wildly unpopular son could be jettisoned to protect the larger system, King Mohammed is still in the prime of his rule. It’s hard to imagine how the system could survive his downfall if the explosion, increasing numbers of people believe could occur in the near future happens.

Like the thumping music of Moroccan metal pioneers Reborn (whose members were arrested during the 2003 Satanic affair), or the words of poet Abdellatif Laabi, Morocco’s artists and activists remain unremitting in their attacks on the “rule of barbarism” represented by the existing system and the “monstrosities” and “automatons” it has produced. As the jailed rapper, El Haqed, sings in his (in)famous song “Dogs of the State” [Arabic], “They exploit our wealth and leave us only crumbs while so many freedom fighters have died for us.”

Fans of Arab hip-hop and revolutionary music more broadly will not be surprised at the striking similarities in Haqed’s words and those of artists like Tunisia’s El General or Egypt’s Ramy Essam and Arabian Knightz. If and when the next round of mass protests erupts in Morocco, King Mohammed, like his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, won’t be able to see he wasn’t warned. What remains to be seen is whether the Makhzen, for centuries so adept at variously negotiating and fighting its way out of any and all internal challenges to its power, will finally lose its footing, and let power slip through its hands, and if its hold begins to slip away, how far it will go to preserve its centuries-long hold over Morocco and an increasingly angry populace will go to pull it away once they realise doing so is no longer a dream but might actually be possible. 

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming