Ahmed Benchemsi would probably have held on to his job as editor of Morocco’s top newsmagazine, TelQuel, had he known a wave of democratic uprisings was about to engulf the Middle East and North Africa. Last October, he had been forced to shutter TelQuel’s Arabic-language sister publication, Nichane, after the Moroccan regime mounted an advertising boycott that drove down revenues by almost 80 percent.
Nichane and TelQuel had shattered numerous taboos by covering topics like the king’s salary, drug use among Moroccans, and popular jokes about the king and the Islamic religion. (The country’s Islamist preachers compared Nichane with the Danish publications that ran cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.) But then Benchemsi crossed the ultimate red line: he ran a poll asking Moroccans to rate their satisfaction with the monarchy. More than 90 percent had expressed approval, but the palace found the very idea of such a poll intolerable. Thousands of copies of the “poll issue,” as it came to be known, were confiscated and burned by internal security forces.
But rather than torture or kill Benchemsi like their brutish counterparts in places like Iran and Syria, the image-conscious and PR-savvy palace leveraged the monarchy’s influence on the Moroccan command economy to silence Benchemsi and his team of young journalists. Palace-linked businesses were told not to advertise on Nichane’s pages. They complied, and Nichane went broke. Thanks to its relationships with multinational advertisers, however, the French-language TelQuel was somewhat more immune to such pressures. Nevertheless, Benchemsi felt the noose tightening. The bad blood with the palace, he realized, had gotten personal. So he quit his job at TelQuel just a few weeks after Nichane’s closing and left Morocco to pursue a fellowship at Stanford, where he is now based.
Having profiled Benchemsi for the Guardian, I was eager to catch up with him at the Oslo Freedom Forum and get his take on last winter’s Arab revolts. We met for lunch along with two other American journalists. The Arab spring, Benchemsi thinks, is a necessary and ultimately positive process. He rejects the view that Arab democrats should take a gradualist approach and be content with the relative openness of societies like Morocco. “We have been told that gradual change is coming for 50 years,” he said. “But the fundamental structure of power has not changed one bit during these years.”
The promises of change made by those autocrats that are still standing, Benchemsi argued, are false. At the height of the Arab uprisings, for example, Muhammad VI took to the airwaves to pay lip service to constitutional reform without actually conceding an inch of his powers to opposition forces. In response, Benchemsi took to the pages of Le Monde with a combative op-ed. The king’s promise to “empower the prime minister,” Benchemsi wrote, was a sham: it was as if the king was stepping on the prime minister’s feet and, “instead of stepping aside, promised him new shoes.”
Still, as a staunch classical liberal, Benchemsi has no illusions about the challenges ahead, above all the risk of an Islamist takeover. He describes the Arab revolution as a two-phase movement. Phase one is currently uniting the genuine democrats and the Islamists against dictatorships. Once “the autocratic referees are gone,” phase two will begin, pitting the secular democrats against the Islamists. Many Arab secularists - including some who addressed the Forum - express grave concerns about the outcome of this contest
As to Morocco’s future, Benchemsi is not one to make predictions. “Will the king open fire on his people if and when the critical moment comes?” I asked him. Benchemsi doubts it. “If the decision was solely up to Muhammad VI, he would certainly not open fire on his people,” Benchemsi said. “But who knows what the people around him can do.”
Another Arab autocracy has already shown little compunction about mowing down protestors: the ruling regime in the tiny island nation of Bahrain, which has been facing persistent, widespread protests since early February.
Ever since learning that he would be attending the Oslo Freedom Forum, I had been hoping to meet Ali Abdulemam, a Bahraini journalist and founder of BahrainOnline, the country’s premier pro-democracy and human rights platform. Last September, I wrote about Abdulemam’s plight after the Bahraini government arrested him – on the charge of “spreading false information” – and shut down BahrainOnline. Having been released from prison in February, Abdulemam was due to address the Forum on the “Dawn of a New Arab World.”
Abdulemam, however, was a no-show. In fact, the cyber-activist and father of three has been missing since March 18, when he posted a cryptic message on his Twitter feed: “I get tired from my phone so I switched it of[f] no need for rumors plz [please].”
Maryam al-Khawaja, another Bahraini dissident who did make it to the Forum, had little information about Abdulemam’s status. Her own father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a former regional director for Front Line Defenders, is currently facing trial on national security charges with sentences ranging from life in prison to execution. On May 8, Khawaja, along with 20 other political detainees, was presented to the court in Manama. (Khawaja’s lawyers were informed that his trial was about to begin just 11 hours after his first court date.) According to Front Line Defenders, Khawaja showed visible signs of abuse, including a fractured jaw.
Maryam al-Khawaja, who was educated in Denmark and spent the 2009-2010 academic year teaching at Brown on a Fulbright, returned to Bahrain in early February to document the regime crackdown against protestors. She escaped just a few weeks ago, apparently just in time. “If I had stayed a little later, I would probably in prison right now,” she told me. “Since then, I haven’t been able to go back.”
As an Iranian-American, I’m often suspicious of the nature of the Bahraini opposition – even as I sympathize with Bahrainis’ struggle to secure their fundamental rights from a brutal police state increasingly unable to maintain the façade of a “moderate” Arab regime. The Shi’a-majority Bahraini dissidents, I fear, may be unwittingly helping the mullahs in Iran, who would like nothing better than to subvert a U.S.-allied regional rival and gain a foothold in the Persian Gulf as they have in the Levant. I shared these concerns with Maryam.
“Most of the Shi’as in Bahrain are of Arab descent, not Persian descent,” Khawaja said. “They actually have stronger ties to Iraq than to Iran.” She also recalled that it was al-Wefaq – Bahrain’s strongest opposition party – which first denounced Iranian meddling in Bahraini affairs, before the Bahraini government ever did. “It was the protestors who first denounced any kind of foreign intervention,” she explained. “Whether it’s Iranian, Saudi, or Qatari, we don’t want it.”
Khawaja told me that the Bahraini opposition has no interest in wilayet al-faqih, Iran’s theocratic governance model that vests ultimate authority in a supreme leader. “The youth are more and more secular, and they’re definitely more reformist in their way of thinking of what the government should look like,” she said. “Most people talk about democracy, not an Islamic republic. Most people don’t want an Islamic government.”
Ever since launching a mass protest movement targeting the legitimacy of the clerical regime, the Iranian people have shown that they, too, have no interest in theocratic misrule. Yet the Iranian pro-democracy agenda is largely absent from this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum. This is understandable: the Arab uprisings have largely eclipsed the Green Movement and, unlike their Arab counterparts, Iranians have been unable to make any tangible gains in their struggle for free elections and popular dignity.
The Forum was, however, headlined by Iranian jurist Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi, who mostly spoke about turmoil in the Arab lands, delivered her address at Oslo’s city hall – where, in 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She identified Syria as the most important battleground in the quest for a free Middle East. I briefly chatted with her afterward. I often find myself in disagreement with Ebadi, who devotes far too much of her time and energy to criticizing the democratic West and particularly the United States. Even so, I was curious to find out how she explains the success of Arabs in challenging dictatorship – and Iranians’ corresponding failure to do so.
“The key difference,” she said, “is the fact that in places like Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces were unwilling to fire on the people.” The United States, she pointed out, was able to leverage its relationships with the Egyptian military and urge restraint. Maybe the U.S. isn’t so bad after all, I was tempted to say.
Sohrab Ahmari has previously written for the Boston Globe and Commentary, among other publications.