Watch the Throne: The Moroccan Monarchy’s Mic Check

miccheckThis July Morocco celebrated Throne Day, in celebration of King Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne thirteen years ago. He seems to have much to celebrate; time and again, the crown asserts itself as secure against threats large and small. What has been the Moroccan monarchy’s secret to maintaining power in a post-Bouazizi world, when other Arab rulers find themselves bewildered and deposed?

So far, the will of Morocco’s people. Though dissent is very real, it often seems that a majority of Moroccans view a majority of the king’s actions, even the most brutal, as valid. They respect the king’s right to reign. Even during the peak of Morocco’s Years of Lead, characterized by the last king’s violent suppression of dissent, the monarchy has enjoyed—and has certainly enforced by all means necessary—a fairly genuine, fairly unwavering popular support. The current king’s grandfather restored self-rule to Morocco by claiming his throne against the French colonial will. The king is not only an enduring symbol of anticolonialsm, but also of a healthy relationship with Western powers, a relationship of equals in the neocolonial era.

So it is that the king owns a palace in every city in Morocco, a monopoly on the communications industry and transportation system, and the right to detain dissenters without a fair trial. Morocco’s own February 20 Movement began a year ago as Egypt’s revolutionary fervor spread to Morocco, in the form of a populist movement for reform of the monarchical system.  Rapper El-Haqqed, an artist affiliated with the movement, pointed out many of the existing injustices in his songs. In his rhymes, he subverts the language of patriotism and loyalty to the king, transferring power back to the people—so that the nationalist slogan “God, Country, King” (Allah, Al-Watan, Al-Malik) becomes “God, Country, Freedom” (Allah, Al-Watan, Al-Houria), or even “God, Country, People” (Allah, Al-Watan, A-Shaab). For this he went to jail for three months last year, then back again this spring to serve a year’s time.

What did Haqqed do wrong? It’s not unusual for a Moroccan rapper to get explicitly political. Mainstream Moroccan rap is full of fierce nationalism. When rappers support a complacent brand of nationalism, or advance the monarchy’s own agendas—such as its claim that the Western Sahara is its own, often upheld in mainstream hip hop—there are no negative consequences. You can be as political as you want in Moroccan hip hop. It just depends on what your politics are.

You can even sing about hashish, whose sale is technically illegal.

Just don’t be critical of the way things are run.

Is freedom of speech incompatible with the rule of a monarch? Let’s hope not. But the wave of government crackdowns on dissent, marked not only by arrests made at a recent protest in El Jadida but by the arrest of a Casablanca cartoonist, is troubling. In a time when popular conceptions of power and rule are in tumultuous transition across the Arab world, it is hoped that the king of Morocco can learn to adapt in ways that will continue to allow him the support of his people. The world may need as many models of democracy as it can get in this moment.

Only by the practice of forms of government that provide viable, popularly legitimate alternatives to what works for the US and Europe can we avoid the mistakes of the past—the proliferation of third-world governments who enjoy the favor of the first world by practicing superficial imitations of Western democracy, only to mask the autocratic horrors of absolute rule.

Chantal James and Reda Alami live in Atlanta together. They move within and between languages and cultures, sometimes translating as a team.