The King and I: freedom and incarceration in Morocco

RAPPER FOR REFORM: El Haked and his translator Maria Karim at their studio in Casablanca. El Haked became one of the faces of anti-Monarchy protests in Morocco after he was imprisoned for criticising King Mohammed VI. Photo: Aman Sethi   | Photo Credit: mail pic

The Spiteful One sits on a floor mattress eating cheese and scrambled eggs straight from a frying pan on a table on the first floor of an abandoned slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Casablanca. Between bites, he takes deep drags from a cigarette balanced on an ashtray; between drags he speaks in slow, deliberate sentences about the sacred one, the glue that holds the country together, the leader of the faith, the supreme commander of the armed forces, the monarch of Morocco, King Mohammed VI.


“The King is the source of evil,” he said, speaking through a translator, “[Morocco] is not a country any more, it is like a company now. It is the King's company and the people are the consumers.” It is for airing views such as these, set to staccato beats and rhythmic hooks, that Mouad Belrhouate, who raps as El Haked (variously translatable as The Spiteful, The Malicious or The Indignant) was arrested on September 9 last year and imprisoned for four months. The case against him was been dismissed, but he was re-arrested yesterday, April 1, for criticising the Moroccan establishment. The rapper, who will stand trial on April 4, was interviewed last month at the slaughterhouse that he and a friend are converting into a studio.

Moroccan authorities told the New York Times that El Haked was arrested for physically assaulting someone in a crowd, but the rapper insists he was incarcerated for dispelling the aura of silence that surrounds the monarch. El Haked had become one of the public faces of a series of pro-democracy protests that swept through Morocco in the course of the Arab Spring in February last year.

As the crowds filled public squares across the country chanting, “The solution of all solutions is the fall of this government,” El Haked sang phrases like: “Give me my rights or kill me,” and “while I am alive, his son will not inherit.” The Moroccan establishment moved quickly to deflate the unrest: King Mohammed announced a series of constitutional reforms to grant greater powers to the country's elected, yet largely ineffectual, parliament; a referendum was held to ratify the changes and an election conducted to reinforce the impression of that the Moroccan establishment was flexible and adaptive.

Yet protesters such as El Haked feel that the reforms fell far short of the demands of the February 20 Movement, a national coalition of protesters, trade unions and political parties. A year on, demonstrations continue across the country, particularly in the restive northern region known as the Rif where clashes between security forces and protesters have led to several arrests, violence and more protests.

“[Our primary demands are] a democratic constitution voted by a constituent assembly democratically elected … dissolution of parliament and creation of new transitional government charged of initiating these demands … Separation of powers and independent justice,” wrote Montasser Drissi, 20, in an email. Mr. Drissi, who is one of February 20's spokespersons, noted that the King himself had appointed the panel tasked with redrafting Morocco's constitution and curtailing his many powers.

“The constitution was fantastic, bright new clothes for an old rule. No balance of powers, all the powers are in the same place: in one hand,” said Sion Assidon, 64, an activist and one of the founders of Transparency International's Morocco chapter.

Mr. Assidon said the February 20 Movement began as young people sought to articulate political demands outside of an established system of largely pliant political parties. That the political parties have largely embraced the new constitution despite widespread disaffection, he said, symptomises the gulf between the people and those who represent them.

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In a 1984 New Yorker profile titled “The King and his Children,” King Hassan II, the current King's father, made a comment illustrating the ruling Alaouite dynasty's reading of democracy. Referring to his “great dream” about the future of Morocco, King Hassan said, “I'm going to indulge in a kind of subversion — to subvert by democratic means people's natural instincts toward anarchy.” Democracy, or its simulacrum, was understood as an instrument to consolidate the monarchy's control over the state.

“Hassan II had three ways of dealing with people — corrupting them, killing them, or jailing them,” said Mr. Assidon. In his case, it was the latter. “I was imprisoned for 12 years, six months and one day,” said Mr. Assidon over coffee in Casablanca, “In the 1970s, students influenced by the struggles in Palestine and Vietnam formed a group called the ‘New Left'.” In February that year, Mr. Assidon was arrested from his home in Casablanca in the course of a crackdown on those opposed to the regime, and summarily sentenced to 15 years.

Anis Balafrej, 64, was arrested the same year and was imprisoned for six years. “Hassan II took power in 1961, and refused all the promises made by his father [King Mohammed V] at the time of independence [1956] and imposed despotic powers … I was active in a pro-Palestine movement. They say I use Palestine to make conspiracy against the regime,” he said in an interview in Rabat. At Mr. Balafrej's sentencing, “The judge took from his pocket the sentence and read it. That is why we are struggling for separation of powers [between organs of the state].”

The ‘Makzhen'

Hassan II died in 1999 and was succeeded by his son, King Mohammed VI, but little changed according to Mr. Balafrej. “Maybe the system of how to manage power [changed]. He is more soft, his father was very hard, but the system was the same,” he said, “When you discuss a country you don't discuss personalities, you discuss systems.”

That system is called the Makzhen. Derived from the Arabic word for “warehouse” or “store,” “The Makzhen is the system that takes control of the institutions of state. It includes the King at the centre, his friends, high ranking officers in the army,” said Abdullah Abaakil, 42, a management consultant and an active member of February 20's Casablanca chapter, “In the last 20-30 years the word has come to mean a select chosen elite, their families and patronage networks.”

The Makzhen, Mr. Abaakil believes, not only controls political life in Morocco, but also holds key positions in private and state-owned companies that control the national economy. The opacity of Moroccan businesses makes it difficult to establish Mr. Abaakil's claims, yet a number of pro-democracy protestors appear convinced that a small cabal, of the King and his friends, decides the fate of the national economy. Footage of last year's protests shows massive crowds specifically mentioning “the Makzhen” in their chants.

There are multiple variables driving the demonstrations in Morocco's diverse provinces, yet numbers suggests that at least some of the anger directed at the Makhzen is a function of its apparent inability to create employment and opportunity.

Government figures show that 18 per cent of urban Moroccans with advanced degrees and 8.1 per cent of those with no diplomas were unemployed in 2010; as were 31 per cent of urban youth aged between 15 and 24 years. Services and General Administration, in which the government and public sector play a significant role, account for 36 per cent of all urban jobs. The statistics suggest that the economy has room for unskilled labour employed in low-wage positions, but the private sector is unable to create new jobs for those with an education and aspirations.

In the early 1990s, Morocco embarked on a massive privatisation drive in which the distribution of essential services like electricity and water were handed over to private operators and tariffs rose significantly. This combination of unemployment and escalating costs is common to both urban and rural areas.

El Haked, the rapper, didn't go to college. He is one of eight children raised in a single income family; his father works in a textile factory. After school, he joined his father at the factory, working nine hour shifts for 2,500 dirhams [approximately Rs.15,000] a month, until he was fired last year after his arrest. “It takes two hours to travel from my house in Oukacha to the factory. I would leave the house at 6.30 in the morning, work through the day and travel two hours coming back,” he said.

His lyrics are inspired by his life in his working class locality: hashish, unemployment, kids on the streets, the police. One of his first songs was called “We are from Oukacha and not from Harlem.” “We had never heard the music, but everybody [in Morocco] was talking about Harlem and all the rappers were trying to sound like Americans,” he said with a smile.

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In October 1979, seven years into his sentence and hospitalised with a stomach infection, Sion Assidon, the activist, tied hospital blankets into a 30-metre rope and clambered out of the seventh storey window one rainy night. The break began as a tragedy when a fellow escapee slipped and fell to his death, and ended in disaster when they were recaptured after four days of evasion.

Checkpoints were set up across the country and rumour had it that the King had decreed that not a single policeman in Morocco could go home or sleep until the fugitives were found. “But [during the escape] I was amazed how words work,” Mr. Assidon said, describing how they were stopped by the police and asked for IDs, but convinced the officers that they were businessmen who had just been robbed off all their identity papers.

“You aren't using arms, you aren't using force. If you know how their minds work and you know the words, it works,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. It is a lesson that El Haked, the rapper, seems to have learnt by heart.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 2:41:08 PM |

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