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Play it Again, King Mohammed

Oldest Arab monarchy uses classical tactics to stifle latest protests.
June 22, 2011

In a region where trust is parcelled out with exquisite care, usually only among family and friends, I’m getting used to ‘jokes’ that I’m a British spy. To establish some trust quickly with only limited French and barely any Arabic, I’m deploying an unusual weapon: Monty Python clips on my iPhone. There are enough clips from The Life of Brian sub-titled in French on YouTube to connect these 1960s British cultural revolutionaries to the 21st century ones in North Africa. In a world where there are suddenly dozens of post-revolutionary parties in the mix, the People’s Front of Judea splitters is popular with all, while activists relish this example of revolutionary planning. Graffiti artists - and victims of religious rote learning - also relate to this lesson. Meanwhile hardcore anonymous hacktivists understood how not to be seen; while Egyptian bloggers facing disproportionate responses - including military trials and jailing - from the Supreme Council for Armed Forces dictatorship that’s replaced Mubarak identify with these self-defense strategies.

The Romans are comic oppressors in the Life of Brian, but a less amusing classical technique - divide and rule - derived from the Romans and used by Napoleon, is alive and well. I saw it on Sunday in Rabat, where a major protest by the February 20th movement, one of dozens throughout the country (and a couple worldwide), was stifled with brutal efficiency. The February 20th protesters had what seemed an intelligent idea as I travelled there: meet in poorer areas so that you can widen political awareness among the less educated and those who don’t have access to the Internet. Big mistake.

Early reports were that riot police had massed, and a stage for pro-Government protesters had been set up exactly where the February 20th group were planning to gather. This time, as we near, I know tear gas is unlikely– policing of the multiple protests here has been relatively benign – but some protesters report being beaten and intimidated. The protest is due to start at 6pm, but I’m running half an hour late, finishing up an interview with a cyber-activist who has to go and help his dad run his business. (It is a sobering thought that most of these revolutionaries are trying, and sometimes succeeding, to change these regimes in their spare time).

Pro-Government supporter: Che Guevara would turn in his grave. Credit: John Pollock.
More pro-government protesters at the pro-democracy protests on Sunday. Credit: John Pollock.

I plan to meet up with one of the leaders of the February 20th movement, a young man bearing a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp called Nizar Bennamate, renowned for getting regularly beaten and attacked as he approaches protests. As I arrive, the scene is quickly readable: this ground has been thoroughly prepared by the Government. Ambulances are parked up – ready and waiting. Coaches are present, indicating ‘bussed in’ pro-Government supporters. Riot police maneuver their vehicles, other police block off entrance streets (unless you’re a vocal Government supporter) and secret police with walkie-talkies wander around. A more trained eye than mine points out the “baltagiya”. This word dates back to medieval lawless “road thieves” who would swagger around doing as they like. Thugs, basically. They were deployed in Tahrir Square by Mubarak’s regime and can be found roaming in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere. And now they’re here. A local can spot them effortlessly. Here’s a report on the crucial half hour I missed at the Rabat protest, from Zineb Belmkaddem – articulate, savvy, likable, kind (she’s working on a project for autistic children in Morocco) and utterly decent, which makes it an even sadder scenario:

Yesterday was very strange: it looked like an ugly stage of bad artists and bad performers… We were attacked by thugs and my friend was surrounded in a house , egged and these monarchy loyalists, who also harassed and threw stones at pro democracy activists. These loyalists are usually paid to accompany most royal activities (well known because they arrive in huge buses, they are given big flags and there are many traditional musicians among them, they are part of all the king’s activities as they cheer).
Videos [this one from a simultaneous protest in Casablanca captures the same atmosphere I can attest to seeing in Rabat] show that they are mainly violent thugs recruited to hurt pro democracy activists as they broke the buses they came in, they cheered things like: “we want drugs and pills”, and they were very violent and broke the law and safety measures - the way they went through the streets and stood on top of vehicles while on the move and with open doors of most vehicles.
So this is mainly what happened yesterday after the king’s speech: people recruited (most are illiterate and don’t know what the constitution even means), saying yes to the king’s constitution - and beating us up.

The protest had been quashed.

But it’s not a question of that famous line in Humphrey Bogart’s classic movie Casablanca (1942): “Round up the usual suspects”. The usual suspects, from a policeman’s point of view, have yet to be rounded up. (But they are being rounded on in the media: accused of Islamist sympathies, of subversion, of being a traitor or of being LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender) - a red line in traditional Muslim societies (pleasingly evaded by a great MidEastYouth project, inspired by TED Fellow Esra’a Al Shafei in Bahrain, called Ahwaa, which uses the energy of technology startups to simply work around an issue that no Arab government in our lifetime would dare address).

The real “usual suspects”, as far as the February 20 movement and other activists see it, are the Makhzen: yet another regime, this time comprising an ageing, secretive, enriched and corrupt elite clustered around King Mohammed VI’s court, who are unwilling or unable to let go of its privileges, power and access to the pot of money. Nizar Bennamate sees “the street” as being in a kind of dialogue with the King. “The street speaks, the King responds. The street speaks again…” This time the King – or least the Makhzen – responded by, if not exactly taking the gloves off, then at least tugging them to show what lies underneath.

Last Friday the King gave his second major speech in response to the crisis: proposals for various constitutional reforms, including a slightly greater separation of powers, inclusion of human rights and official acknowledgement of the Berber language. Not enough, said the protesters, pointing to a long-standing pattern of words not being matched by action. But it was vital to try to prevent mass protests against the speech. They succeeded in Rabat, but not in Casablanca, Meknes (where this injured protester was videoed), Tangier and throughout the country. You won’t have seen it on the mainstream media in the country, of course - instead there were carefully orchestrated expressions of vocal support for the King and the proposed constitutional changes. This video by citizen journalist “Nadir” (not his real name) shows that kind of content being garnered.

Rather stupidly, the somewhat arrogant chief of the local government service in Taqadoum, the area of the protests, proudly announces how “we” organised – presumably with government funds – to keep peaceful pro-democracy protesters out of the area. I later witnessed him – the guy in the blue and white shirt talking at the end – with a policeman in tow, forcing another citizen journalist to delete photographs from his camera. Further, he apparently threatened to “sue” if this video appeared on Facebook – claiming he was “a computer engineer” who had “hacked into February 20”. This may be self-aggrandisement or, more sinisterly, a report of what someone, somewhere, is already up to. I certainly now have contacts convinced their phones are tapped. At least one activist I know was followed to their car, the numberplate taken and they then received a follow-up visit from the police. Meanwhile I sat in a cafe earlier as a plainclothes policeman very obviously took up residence a few tables away with his walky-talky - and laptop. It’s easy to acquire the whiff of what living in an undemocratic regime feels like: you just try to connect to its opposite, and wait for them to arrive.

Where this hitherto courtly but increasingly unpleasant conversation with the street will end is unclear at this stage. I’m a reluctant revolutionary, for all of the 37.5% Irish blood my occasionally errant father bestowed, and I really would rather avoid being detained on leaving (or returning) to this frequently wonderful country for Lèse majesté. So I’ll add this, in the hope it might reach courtly ears. Mohammed VI did some remarkable early reforms on taking power, including a new focus on women’s rights and a “truth and reconciliation” commission. So he has the chops, as it were. But things are going backwards at this critical juncture. He needs to stake out distance from the conservative elements of the Makhzen and concentrate on how he can tackle a disgraceful illiteracy rate of over 40% (some reckon it’s nearer 60%) and capitalise on the demographic dividend his country could achieve. This means root and branch reform of corruption and ineffective legal structures (which in turn diminish trust and economic transparency). He has the potential to become a hero of the Arab world, but it’s going to take energy and hard work.

Meanwhile I wouldn’t bet against hearing another of Claude Rains great lines as Captain Renault in ‘Casablanca’: “Realizing the importance of the case, my men are rounding up twice the usual number of suspects.” I’m just hoping I’m not one of them.

Further content, including remarks from Nizar Bennamate, for interested readers via the highly regarded Mamfakinch site:

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