“Look at the Tunisian people, look at the Egyptian people. Those who say Morocco is different are liars!” These are lines by Moroccan rapper “El-Haqed”, who was imprisoned in April for the second time in months. His fate is symptomatic for the situation of those who dare to criticize the Moroccan regime too bluntly.
The official reason for his condemnation is a video on YouTube, which shows pictures disparaging the Moroccan police, government and king. The pictures accompany El-Haqed’s song “Kilab ad-Dawla” (Dogs of the State), which brusquely denounces police violence and corruption. His lawyers stressed that the originator of the video was never identified. However, the rapper was convicted of insulting the police, “showing contempt” towards public servants and “undermining their honour” by a court in his home town Casablanca. His lawyers as well as political activists condemn the process as a staged trial to punish the rapper for criticizing the prevailing situation in Morocco too overtly and to deter others from political activism.
The rapper is one of the most outspoken voices of the Moroccan protest movement “20 February”, which emerged after the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt. It has since become the most important extra-parliamentary force in Morocco. The movement articulates basic demands for change – especially the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and an end to the constant misuse of authority.
The Moroccan regime has often been referred to as a role model for dealing with protests and lauded for its supposedly continuous democratic transition. However, the conviction of El-Haqed, whose real name is Mouad Belghouat, is only one example for the ongoing repression in the North African kingdom. Those who dare to question the basic logics of the Moroccan system have to live in constant fear of repression. Human rights associations estimate that up to 200 prisoners are under arrest for political reasons, many of them in hunger strike to protest against the conditions of their detention. Among them are bloggers, poets and musicians, which seem to be considered as particularly dangerous to the system – just as Mouad Belghouat.
The regime seems very cautious to maintain its positive image. This is why its reactions to protests differ widely depending on where they take place. In cities like Rabat or Casablanca the protest movements manage to mount the scene most visibly to foreign observers, so there the regime fears the potential of rapid mobilization. In the more rural areas brute force is regularly used to put down any sort of protest, even though the people do not demand drastic change of the political system but mere participation in the economic development of the country. Whilst the government is planning a high-speed train track connecting the economic centres of Tangiers and Casablanca, rural areas are significantly less developed than the urban centres, a fact that regularly has taken people to the streets during the past months.
Last December a wave of protests shook the northern Rif mountain region. The regime’s responses to the unrest are exemplary for its handling of people’s demands offside the international public’s focus. After people had protested against the augmented costs of living and the bad shape of the public infrastructure, the regime deployed massive riot police forces to put down the protests violently. In a sort of collective punishment, police forces threatened the residents of the villages where the protests took place, entered houses and destroyed private property to deter people from standing up against public mismanagement. Khadija Riyadi, the president of the Moroccan human rights organization AMDH (Association Marocaine des Droit de l’Homme), explains that it was difficult to estimate the number of people injured during the clashes with the police because the police captured those who turned to the hospitals.
The case of Ezzedine Errioussi is another example of the regime’s ruthlessness. A member of the Moroccan national students’ union, Errioussi was detained after having taken part in the organisation of protests against bad conditions at the local university. According to a letter he sent from prison, he was constantly mistreated and even tortured by prison personal. When he left prison, he had spent 134 days on hunger strike to protest against his detention. Throughout this period, human rights organizations and medical observers where denied access.
Cases like these are not exceptions. Although the new constitution of 2011 formally endorses the separation of powers and the state of law, torture and arbitrary kidnapping are still used against oppositional forces, mainly because of personal continuities in the state apparatus(ses) since the years under the previous king, Hassan II.
Riyadi states that the violations of human rights in Morocco are an integral part of the state’s strategy to maintain the status quo, where the country’s elite surrounding the king (commonly referred to as the makhzen) controls most of the economy via a network of personal loyalties. As this network includes the executive forces as well as the jurisdiction, political trials, like the one of El-Haqed or Ezzedine as well as brutal police violence without prosecution, occur regularly.
However, Riyadi sees reason for optimism. Although the revolutionary momentum of the 20 February movement is fading, its successes in the light of the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt encouraged people to take political action. The 20 February movement, Riyadi says, diminished the peoples fear to formulate their demands, to take them to the streets and to confront the authorities with them.
Anja Hoffman is a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Johann Lieb is student of Political Science, who is currently in Morocco. Views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.