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Oslo Journal: ‘The Referees Are Gone’

4:38 PM, May 10, 2011 • By SOHRAB AHMARI
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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.

Ahmed Benchemsi

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.

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