Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP

Rapper’s arrest highlights Morocco ‘politics of revenge,’ activists say

El-Haqed faces criminal charges that supporters say were fabricated to punish him for his political beliefs

CASABLANCA, Morocco — It’s been more than three years since hip-hop artist Mouad Belghouat, also known as El-Haqed or The Enraged, released the rap ballad that became the anthem of Morocco’s “Arab Spring” uprising. His dissidence hasn’t been forgotten. On Thursday, the 25-year-old rapper turned revolutionary stood trial for unrelated charges his supporters say are punishment for inspiring a political awakening among Morocco’s youth.

In 2011, Belghouat’s hit ”Baraka Min Elskate” or “Stop the Silence” roused compatriots to take to the streets in defiance of what he rapped was the state’s monopoly on major industries — from phosphate extraction to telecoms — and violent backlash against dissent.

Hordes of protesters demanded government transparency, the rule of law and opportunities for the nation’s youth. They swore not to leave streets and city squares until King Mohammed VI relinquished absolute authority to elected officials.

The government appeared to address protesters’ demands in July 2011, when a new constitution in response to the popular movement passed a referendum. Activists, however, say the document has done little to change the status quo.

Today, on the streets of Morocco’s biggest cities — Casablanca, Marrakech and the capital, Rabat — and in the countryside, people still talk about the lack of economic opportunities and social services, wage theft, land grabs by state-owned enterprises, and law enforcement’s inaction to protect the rights of individual citizens.

The dialogue orients itself in informal debates, street signs and sometimes even strikes. Missing, though, is the fervor of the 2011 protests.

Marrakech-based Maria Karim, 34, a visual artist who organized a campaign to exonerate Belghouat of previous charges related to another rap song on police brutality, believes that although the movement for democracy he inspired did not succeed in changing Morocco’s political scene, it was a “success” because “it created a breach within the system that started a collective consciousness of that system.”

In fact, activists say there’s a renewed sense of indignation that did not exist prior to 2011, when the memory of the previous monarch’s violent crushing of political dissent was still fresh.

But that indignation has not gone unchecked. Democracy advocates like Karim believe that the government has mounted a retribution campaign against organizers of the movement — including Belghouat for helping popularize it.

The charges he faced on Thursday included scalping tickets to a soccer match, public drunkenness and assaulting a police officer. Friends and family concede that he was present and rowdy at the time of his arrest, but they insist he did not commit any such crime. Instead, they allege, the state has capitalized on a moment of ostensible illegal activity to lock him up — a third time — for his dissidence.

“It’s the retribution of a state against a rapper, a young person, a dissident,” said a democracy activist in his early 20s who goes by the nickname Stigy. In fear of reprisals by the state, he asked that Al Jazeera not publish his real name.

Bilal Jouhari, 27, one of Belghouat’s childhood friends and an activist based in Rabat, said: “They don’t want political prisoners, so they are charging him on other crimes.”

Since releasing “Stop the Silence,” Belghouat has been arrested twice before — once for assault and public drunkenness and another time for insulting a police officer and national security forces.

The latter charge garnered him a one-year prison sentence. Among the evidence prosecutors presented to the court was a music video for his song “Kleb Al-Dawla,” or “Dogs of the State,” which featured a cartoon image of a donkey-headed police officer that state attorneys charged was an assault on the character of the nation’s police, who are often accused of corruption and brutality. Belghouat and his entourage maintain, as they did throughout his trial and detention, that he had no part in creating the YouTube video for the song.

Morocco’s Justice Ministry did not respond to an interview request from Al Jazeera at time of publication.

Belghouat’s trial on Thursday was adjourned until June 5. Similar politically charged cases in recent months have been adjourned as many as six times — extending the accused’s detention each time.

One such defendant is Ali Anouzla, Morocco’s most renowned investigative journalist, who in September 2013 was arrested for reporting on an anti-government video released by an armed group. Activists believe that Anouzla’s case is another example of the state taking revenge against those who oppose it.

Authorities charged Anouzla with aiding an armed group months after he published information regarding the king’s controversial pardon of a Spanish national, Daniel Galvan, who was convicted of filming himself sexually abusing Moroccan children.

The pardon came immediately after Spain’s King Juan Carlos I requested the release of Spanish prisoners in Morocco. Anouzla’s report drove angry Moroccans to the streets and eventually forced the king to apologize to the public and rearrest Galvan.

According to Stigy, the state’s backtracking in Galvan’s case “was the fruit of the democracy movement,” proof that it wasn’t all in vain. Anouzla said his arrest — as well as Belghouat’s — was part of the kingdom’s “politics of revenge” that was targeting political activists.

Some 500 protestors marched in Rabat last Sunday to decry the prison sentencing the week before of nine Moroccan youth who had participated in a government-sanctioned march on April 6 that was organized by three of the country’s top unions. The youths reportedly shouted pro-democracy messages during the rally and were convicted of unlawful assembly.

“The system said they were making an illegal march inside a legal march,” explained Bilal Jouhari, one of the protestors. “It’s the system’s way of saying to the young people, ‘if you do this, this is what’s going to happen to you.’”

Democratic ‘grains’ vs. gains

Despite the government’s alleged campaign to punish organizers of the 2011 protests, many concede that their lives are finally getting back to normal. However, they assert, that doesn’t mean they are ready to give up their fight for democracy.

Karim, a former campaigner for Belghouat’s release, has in recent months restarted her career as a painter, and Stigy has gone back to his studies, which he put on pause for one year so that he could focus on his activism. Many activists left their jobs and even got divorced, they say, because the movement represented a major fracture in their everyday lives.

But it wasn’t all for nothing, they say.

“Nothing was accomplished except for a grain was planted in people’s minds, and I’m convinced that grain will flourish,” Karim said.

Dounia Benqassem, a Casablanca-based leader in the Moroccan art scene and democracy activist, published an encyclopedia of Moroccan artists in 2010 that she has only just begun to promote, she says, because the movement demanded too much of her time.

At 67 years old, Benqassem — who was once put on trial for her dissidence against the current king’s father, Hassan II — said she’s hopeful for what the 2011 movement started, and that it represented a formidable change in Moroccans’ struggle for democracy.

“When I came out with these young people,” she said, “when they were saying, ‘Long live the people,’ I thought, ‘Wow, I have a country … I am Moroccan.’

“The movement as we knew it is over, but I haven’t lost my hope,” she said. “The people tried — there’s still the hope. It’s growing and it will someday yield something.”

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