Ahmed Benchemsi is a Moroccan journalist. He is the founder and was the publisher and editor of TelQuel magazine. Benchemsi’s editorials often generated controversy in Morocco. He was also repeatedly criticized for running “sensationalist” cover stories. “The Salary of The King”, “Moroccans, How Do You Make Love?”, “The Jewish in Us”, “What if Cannabis Was Legalized” and “Enough is Enough!” are some of the most controversial.
A defender of Darija—the Moroccan vernacular language, a mix of Arabic, Tamazight (Berber) and European languages—, he relentlessly advocated its recognition as Morocco’s national language.
During the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum, I was able to interview Benchemsi about the political and human rights situation in Morocco. Excerpts below given is an insight into the interesting talk that followed:
With Regards to Morocco, how is the current Human Rights situation there?
“It is pretty bad. Amnesty International released a report just a couple of days ago where they reported 173 cases of torture in the last few years. They listed Morocco among the five countries that need to be followed closely in regards to its torture record.
Then of course the media there is in very bad shape. Independent media has pretty much vanished. During the 2000s, there was a lot of independent media. I was one of them. I used to publish two successful newspapers at that time, but was driven out of the country. So were many of my colleagues and the media remained heavily censored. Every time when someone tries the new media platform that is more independent and attempts to tackle topics, which are the monarchy and sensitive subjects like that, then they are either shut down or arrested. In that regard the situation is pretty bad.”
What was it what triggered this degradation?
“Well it is complicated, and there are a lot of analyses and interpretations to this. My interpretation is that the new king, when he arrived on the throne 16 years ago, and in the beginning, he was a new king and he was not confident in himself. He was not sure that he had enough assets to build his reign upon, he was kind of open and he let the doors open to free press and free media, not out of genuine belief in democracy or freedom of speech, but just because he was not confident in himself and in his power structure to suppress independent journalism.
And then his confidence grew as the years passed by. He named his own people to strategic posts, he also took over the military and the police and the judiciary and more people who were direct clients of his were appointed to key positions. So with time passing by and his hold on the power structure getting firmer and firmer, he started to crack down on media and on descent basically, so this degradation came in parallel with the king reinforcing himself. This is my interpretation.
This is interesting because the King of Jordan, when the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, was seen loosening some control to allow people to express themselves. This was in stark contrast to other regional heads of state that chose to clamp down on any form of protest or descent, much like President Assad has done in Syria, and we all see how that has gone. Now Morocco, from what I understand, had been very open compared to countries like Syria. So one would think it better to open up and liberalize things like they did in Jordan to prevent violence in the uprising. So did it not occur to the King of Morocco to liberalize the media and facilitate more of a democratic process overall?
Well 2011 was like a step, like a stage, what I was telling you about was during the decade from 1999 and continued until today. However, there was a parenthesis and that was the Arab Spring. In Morocco it was like a movement where protestors took to the streets, and the movement was called the February 20 movement because it all started on February 20, 2011. Here they worked for more civil liberties and they did not think about overthrowing the King like they did in Egypt and Tunisia where there were demands to overthrow the President. In Morocco they did not do that because of the Monarchy’s long rooted legitimacy. But the result was that they were claiming very vague things like ‘down with absolutism’ and ‘down with corruption’. When you say down with Mubarak, you can protest and stay on the street and on the square until you get what you want. But when you say down with corruption and down with absolutism, when do you get off the street, what does that mean exactly? So there were people on the street and there was pressure against the monarchy but there was no focus.
So what the King did, and it was a pretty smart move, he pre-empted the protests by staging a constitutional reform. The protests began on February 20, 2011 and on March 9 he took to the airwaves and surprisingly said, ‘People I have heard you. What do you want? Do you want reforms? Do you want democracy? I give it to you. We are going to reform the constitution and whatever you are asking for will be in this new constitution’. That was a clever pre-emptive move because on one side you had protestors who were protesting for no identified claim and on the other hand you had the monarchy, which was saying something very clear and was talking about reforming the constitution, which meant the people were getting what they wanted and could go back home. He did this at the same moment Syria was happening and Libya was happening and the Arab Springs was turning pretty bloody. So the Moroccan people saw that on one hand it was turning really ugly in other parts of the region but that their king was promising something. It then became a wait and see. This allowed him to buy some time, so what you are talking about was easing the situation a little bit. It happened during those three months between March 19 and July 01 2011.
What happened on July first? Well the King released a draft of the new constitution, of course what he had drafted with a committee that was appointed by him, without any consultation with the protesters. The King just basically drafted the constitution himself with the help of a mock committee and the new constitution was following the same power structure as before, but by then three months later the fervor had died down and the protest movement had pleated out. So what he had done was pretty smart – he bought time until the protests pitted down and the people all went home and staged a fake constitutional referendum that was won with a ridiculous margin of 98.5 percent. This was quite North Korea-style right? But still he won, the constitution was passed and things went back to “normal”.
And things went back to where they were and the side effect to that was after that streak the Monarchy was even more reinforced, because they had been able to weather out huge protests in the street, without firing one bullet but in a very efficient way, or at least in a way that no other Arab country managed to do.
So the Monarchy’s concessions were minimal and its gains were maximum. And since it is all about self-confidence and it is all about confidence in your own strength, the King’s confidence got reinforced. So they clamped down on freedoms even worse after that. There was this short period where they faked reforms and then, as soon as they were confident enough that things would go back to the way they were before, they started clamping down freedoms again.”
So would you say that there is a general consensus among the Moroccan people that they had been hood-winked or toyed with?
“It is there with some of the people here (at the Forum). How do you measure the number of people who feel this way, you have to measure them when they take to the streets, but when people are not on the streets anymore how do you measure them? By Facebook polls? And you don’t even have free media that would do their job and relay the discontent of the people. So, yes there are many people now who are disconcerted because they have been played by the monarchy, but then there is also a fatigue among the general population. The momentum has passed and they cannot be mobilized as they had been in 2011, because what happened in 2011 was a wave of fervor that was sweeping all across the Arab world. So, there was a regional momentum for people to take to the streets. So what do you do? People are scared by what happened in other Arab countries, so basically the only other alternative is chaos to the exception of Tunisia where they are doing pretty well.
You know, you do not see positive reports on the success of Tunisia as much as you see on ISIS, the war on Syria and so on. So you have to see the general population that is simply tired. So there is this sense of confidence, or should I call it arrogance, from the Monarchy itself.”
So if the King’s “arrogance” grows, would it be safe to assume there will be a democratic counter response to this when a breaking point is reached?
“I think it will blow up at some point because the people who took to the streets in 2011 are still there and people were protesting against injustice, corruption, against the lack of participation, against the lack of public affairs, against the lack of freedom, unemployment all these factors are still there. What is needed for new protests to happen is a new trigger. The trigger came from abroad in 2011. It was the Egyptian revolution and then the Tunisian revolution. It was a wave of the Arab Spring. Now there is no trigger. So I hope if there is a trigger in the future they will learn a lesson from what happened in 2011. When that happens, I have a few recommendations:
1. Have a concrete demand. For instance, if you do not want the king to step down then ask for the second most powerful person to step down, as that will weaken the King.
2. Be organized. In 2011, many protest movements were not organized. There was this romantic idea that protestors have to be leaderless because they are wary of the idea of leadership because leadership is corrupt and blah…blah…blah. The problem is when you do not have leaders you cannot have an agenda. I attended a couple of general assemblies, and it was leaderless, without structure or organization. People at these assemblies spoke in turns, and whenever one of the protestors would have their hands up to propose a strategy, there would be ten people popping up asking who a person was and what his/her legitimacy to have their opinion was. But for anyone to have legitimacy, they would have to be elected and represent an organization.
3.Pick battles that you can win. When your battle is to get rid of corruption, this is not a battle that you can win, because we do not know what it means exactly and it is way too broad. Pick small battles that are clearly defined and winnable. Then pick another battle, win it, then pick another battle, win it and so on.”
Our next question is a question we ask all our guests, what do Human Rights mean to you?
“Okay so that is very simple. There is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was drafted by the UN in 1945, and that is what it means to me. Articles 1,2,3,4,5 you Google it and it just pops up for all people on the planet and I do not think there is such thing as a relative human rights for this country or for that country, it is human rights for everyone and it is just a universal declaration and human rights. Freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of circulation, freedom of expression, freedom to marry whoever you want to marry, freedom to vote and to vote in a democratic way etc. It is all in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
How would you define the rising of extremism and extremist groups like ISIS and how it relates to the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and the Middle East in general?
It is a very chaotic situation but it is also an outcome of the larger and wider geopolitical competition. You said there is a struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia and everyone is pushing their own pawns, groups. You have the Shias and the Sunnis and it is getting very bloody and there is a civil war between these two groups. You have proxy groups who fight for other people. For instance, Hezbullah is involved in Iran and Iran is supporting Assad against all his opponents are who are Sunnis. But they are the moderate ones and so there is a huge geopolitical mess.
As for Sunni extremism, which I know most because I studied that and I follow it closely, my take is that the misdeeds of the Saudi regime are the roots of Sunni terrorism in the area. Originally, it has always been fuelled by Saudi money which promotes Wahabism, which is the root ideology behind Sunni extremism, and they have been bank rolling extremist groups, preachers and scholar’s for years and for decades. And these cancers have been spread all over the Arab world and we see the results now.
Like you said it is a complete mess and very and hard to make sense of, especially when the US has joined hands with Iran to fight ISIS and there is this huge confusion about who is really supporting whom.
Well, it is actually impossible to make sense of who is supporting whom. The US is trying to establish links with Iran to fight ISIS. On the other hand they are partnering with Saudi Arabia, which is fighting against Iranian interests in the region. So at some point you do not know who is allied with whom.”
So what would you presume is the purpose behind this confusion?
“There are many purposes. I am not sure if Western diplomacy is quite certain about what they are doing in the Middle East. They are trying to pick and choose but since it is so messy they find themselves in a contradictory situation. Like the US right now, they are trying to push their diplomatic interests, the Obama administration is trying to be friends with the Iranian regime and reestablish cooperation but at the same time the Americans are friends with the Saudis who are pushing them to attack the Iranians. So it does not make sense. It just does not compute. I know maybe Obama is doing his best but then it is such a difficult situation similar to sitting in a viper’s nest, so it is very difficult to have a clear diplomatic view within a viper’s nest. That is exactly what is going on. So, I think eventually whatever Western diplomacy does is not really the most relevant factor in what is going on in that region. The most relevant factor is the geo strategic battle between these two poles. And then of course it combines with lots of sub interests of the region like groups fighting one another. The Syrian regime under Assad, which is very skilled in playing people against each other and, if you just see the numbers, Assad has killed more people than ISIS. But then his stand is, if you don’t pick me, you are actually picking ISIS.
I mean, I cannot think of anything more cynical than that. But it is working. A lot of people are saying we would rather stay with the Assad regime than be overwhelmed by ISIS because the atrocities of ISIS are unbearable. But you also know that the atrocities of the Assad regime are pretty much unbearable too. So there is no easy way out of this. That is my answer as a journalist and as someone who tries to make sense of the news. But then I also have another interpretation and that is less than a journalist and more as someone who tries to watch the long-term scenario. With social science I also look at the demography and try to foresee what is going to happen in the future and there is this great French demographer called Emanuel Todd who had a very interesting theory. This theory said that there is this social change happening in the Arab world that has already happened in other parts of the world. This change is a cultural and demographic change. You have the structure of society that is changing because the demography is evolving, the fertility rate is dropping and families that smaller in number. When you combine that with education rates that are increasing, and when you pepper all this with social media, then you have a combination that will lead to a society that is more keen on individual rights and secularism. What I mean is that though it is difficult to believe, the Arab world is going towards Secularism as has happened in other parts of the world.
In the end it is like a snake. Yes, I am talking about snakes again. It is like when a snake changes its skin. This is the period between first skin and the second skin. When the snake has no skin it is in a difficult and vulnerable situation when it is not protected from the outside world. This is a very difficult period where you have eruptions of violence. In Europe and Latin America it happened a generation ago. There was leftist terrorism, the IRA in Ireland and things like that. So with ISIS and Islamic terrorism, we can see that happening in the region if we adapt Todd’s theory to the Middle East. Then it is a transitionary convulsion. It is a convulsion that is explained by a transition between one type of society to another and this all means that the current situation will pass eventually.”
In countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, there are lots of human rights activists behind bars and they are suffering. As a journalist, what message do you have for fellow journalists living under those totalitarian regimes?
“I am afraid I do not have anything original to say, so my message is keep doing what you are doing and I wish you the best. I am with you. Keep your courage and perseverance in whatever you are doing. That is my message to them. As a journalist, my message to these totalitarian states is that they are just wrong in what they are doing. Do these recommendations hold any value? Do I have added value? I do not think so, as everybody would say the same things. But in such situations I do not know of anything else to say. And sometimes you just need to persist and continue what you are doing. And also I would like to add a third message, this one to the International community and specifically the type of community that we see at this forum. Do your best to help those people by making them known because you are talking about journalists and human right activists in countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. There is not much press coverage of these countries so the plight of journalists in that region is unknown. So I think that what we, meaning the international community of campaigners, activists and journalists, can do more to help them by publishing reports and making their plights known to the world. That will provide them with some comfort, while providing dictators of this region with more pressure. This will not yield immediate results, but in the longer time it will make a difference.”