Political fault lines threaten Libya's stability
From the farcical to the dodgy to the downright destructive, Libya has seen it all over the past few weeks and it's beginning to take its toll on the country's collective wellbeing. Libya's politicians are walking a dangerous tightrope between legitimacy and anarchy as militias bay for their blood and much of the population watch with varying degrees of anger, despair and alienation as Libya's elected authorities try to throw one another to the wolves below.
To set the scene, since the start of the summer Libya's government has been locked in a battle of wills with protestors who have blockaded oil terminals in the east demanding better wages, employment opportunities and greater regional autonomy. Recently protests spread to the west as well and Libya's oil output dropped to just 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) out of a potential capacity of 1.6 million bpd; this led to serious concerns about the state of Libya's economy which is heavily reliant on hydrocarbons. Although the government was able to resolve strikes in the west through negotiation, the situation in the east has not improved. The latest incident in the saga there involved the strike-leader Ibrahim Jathran accusing a member of the General National Congress (GNC) of attempting to bribe him to end the blockades with $2.5 million-worth of cheques. The GNC member in question is currently being investigated by the Public Prosecutor.
Another ongoing power struggle is that between the Zintani armed groups who are currently holding Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi's son and onetime heir-apparent, and the central authorities who have started pre-trial proceedings against him and other former regime figures. Zintan have so far refused to hand him over to Tripoli claiming that Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's government is weak, corrupt and full of Gaddafi loyalists who therefore cannot be trusted to try him. To add to the tension, the International Criminal Court (ICC) are still demanding that Saif be submitted to the Court until the outcome of Libya's appeal to try him domestically is decided. However in more positive news the Court ruled on October 11 that Libya is 'willing and able' to try Gaddafi's former spy chief Abdullah Senussi for crimes against humanity.
To add to this, targeted kidnappings, attacks and assassinations seem to have escalated across the country, especially in Benghazi and the surrounding area, and there have been a flurry of reports suggesting the presence of hard-line Islamist groups in Libya is growing. With the start of high profile trials, the judiciary has also come under increasing scrutiny. Although courts are generally functioning, security concerns are seriously hampering the ability of the judicial system to deliver justice through free and fair trials. A number of judges have been assassinated in recent weeks and members of the judiciary report they are increasingly subject to threats and intimidation from armed groups and the families of victims and defendants alike.
Against this backdrop, calls for the Prime Minister to resign have been gathering force within the Islamist blocs of the GNC who are demanding a vote of no confidence be held (although so far they have fallen short of the required votes to do so) while PM Zeidan remains resolute that he will not be intimidated out of office and maintains that he is doing his best for Libya in difficult times. The political fault lines which run through the foundations of the GNC and government have been growing ever deeper and wider as the security situation in Libya has grown more uncertain, and shockwaves from the deteriorating situation in neighbouring Egypt have forced open the rifts still further. Indeed, the extent of Libya's political polarisation was dramatically underscored after Libya's leaders faced two serious challenges to their authority, sovereignty and legitimacy last week.
On October 5, American Delta forces seized a Libyan citizen from outside his home in Tripoli, where he has apparently been living with his family for the past two years, and whisked him out of the country claiming he was a ‘legal and appropriate target'. The man in question was alleged al-Qaida leader Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220 people. The Libyan government demanded an explanation for the kidnapping claiming it had not been informed in advance, although a number of reports suggested that the Libyan authorities had in fact collaborated with the Americans. This raid on Libyan soil provoked mixed reactions among the public. Some were glad al-Liby had been removed, seeing it as a blow for Islamic extremists trying to find a foothold in Libya. Others were furious that the Americans had undermined Libya's sovereignty, feeling that the US had revealed its true colours by riding roughshod over Libya's authority and taking advantage of the chaotic situation to further their own interests. Although there is little support for al-Qaeda-type movements in Libya, al-Liby is a Libyan citizen who was kidnapped by foreign forces without due process: therefore this incident has provoked some fierce reactions within the country.
Following this, in the early hours of October 10, PM Ali Zeidan was taken from his hotel room in the capital by armed men from the government's Crime Combating Unit and the Revolutionaries' Operations Room, claiming to have a warrant for his arrest based on allegations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds ( an action which later turned out to be illegal). Zeidan was released a few hours later, but this incident sent waves of disbelief and frustration across the country; underlining the fragility of the state and the growing security vacuum within Libya. Many believe that Zeidan's kidnapping was directly linked to claims that the Libyan government assisted the US in their seizure of al-Liby and was a move by Zeidan's opponents to remove him from power. Whether this is the case or not, Zeidan has certainly tried to turn the kidnapping to his advantage. He claimed that his 'arrest' was not an attempted kidnapping but an attempted coup and has tried to shift the blame towards his Islamist rivals in the GNC, although they have denied involvement.
So far the reaction from the Libyan population has been fairly muted and there have been few large demonstrations of either support or anger on the streets of Libya's cities. However the events of the last couple of weeks are likely to mark a turning point. There is no denying that the situation in Libya at present is far from ideal but that does not mean it is a lost cause. There are a huge number of challenges which would be tough to deal with under the best of circumstances, the most pressing being the growing power and influence of Libya's myriad armed groups. However the process has been made so much more difficult by the corrosive effect of political polarisation and infighting which has left the state weak and unable to make or implement decisions. The extent of these rifts has been laid bare and if Libya's leaders continue to grapple with one another instead of facing up to the country's real challenges then these fault lines could swallow the country whole. However, if recent events are viewed as the kick-start needed to put these rivalries aside and rebuild the country on the basis of inclusive, consensus-based politics then Libya may yet be able to bridge some of the divides and prevent a downward spiral into chaos and destruction.
Egypt: the Islamist military?
Some have argued plausibly enough that recent events in Egypt could be described as a conflict between secular and Islamist forces. The military has been portrayed as a defender of secularism, while the Muslim Brotherhood is depicted as the vanguard of Islamist movements. This argumentation, in spite of holding an element of truth, is a-historical and offers a narrow view of the events in Egypt. It also falls into the trap of unconsciously confirming the rhetoric of the military, as the defender of the secular state, ignoring the history of the military’s use of a certain brand of Islamism to consolidate its grip on power. If one looks at the evolution of Islamism in Egyptian society, one can convincingly argue that this process started as a top down process rather than the other way around, and that a certain brand of Islamism has been prompted by the military to stifle dissent and to create an aura of legitimacy for the regime.
A brief historical overview is in order. The top-down process of Islamization of society started with President Sadat, when the defeat in 1967 inflicted a fatal blow to the ideological base of the regime, namely Arab nationalism and socialism. For the military to remain in power, this ideological vacuum had to be filled with a political ideology that would ensure the continuation of the current regime, while crowding out opposition from the Nasserist and the Egyptian left. The selected ideology needed a carrier that would be able to infiltrate all aspects of civil society, with active government support, maintaining ideological domination over the masses. The chosen carrier in this case was the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group that craved the role of an illiberal opposition: a role that happened to be essential for the survival of the regime during the turbulent 1970s. This was the essence of the bargain between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood that persisted in one form or another until the military coup in 2013.
Sadat attempted to create an image for himself as the “Pious President”, an image he tried to preserve until his death. This is best exemplified in the writing of the 1971 constitution where the principals of Sharia were introduced as the main source of legislation. Most importantly, this was followed with the opening up of civil society to Islamist forces, while clamping down on the then powerful Egyptian left. A drastic reduction of the welfare functions of the state ensued, to be slowly replaced by Islamist organizations. The process of replacement allowed the state to re-trench, while absorbing possible dissent by providing welfare services through charity networks,thereby giving the regime room to maneuver and move away from its populist Nasserist legacy. Constructing the ideological base of domination which was the Islamization of society was a process initiated by the military itself.
At the same time, the regime incited a dangerous sectarianism, turning a blind eye to crimes committed against the Coptic population of Egypt. This is a policy that was aimed at coopting the Coptic minority into supporting the regime. The regime posed as their protector with the goal of scaring the secular middle class into supporting them, by playing on their fear of the supposed “Islamist threat”.
The question is, why did the military cooperate with the Brotherhood? Why this particular brand of Islamism? The Brotherhood has had a long history of cooperation with the state in Egypt, against successive hostile nationalist movements. One of the most famous examples is their cooperation with the King against the Wafd party, which articulated the aspirations of the Egyptian nationalist movement during the 1930s. When Nasser came to power, the Brotherhood believed that they had sufficient political clout to directly confront and eliminate him; however the outcome was disastrous. Direct confrontation, they discovered, was too costly. The Brotherhood became non-confrontational by nature, a conservative mass movement willing to work within the confines of the present political system. They were also willing to come to terms with the military in exchange for gains in civil society.
The Brotherhood now attempted to come to power through an iterative gradual process; eliminating rivals from the left during the process. In essence, they can be described as anti-revolutionary, as is the brand of Islamism they promote. This conmtrats,for example, with the explosive brand of Islamism promoted by Khomeini. The Brotherhood embraces a brand of conservative Islamism which prohibits revolutionary activity and praises obedience to the ruler and stability. All of the above made the Brotherhood the objective ally of the military and their natural arm in civil society.
Based on the above, is what we are currently looking at a confrontation between a secular military and the Islamist Brotherhood? Look closer and you will notice that this military has been using Islamist language to attack the Brotherhood, deploying Al-Azhar to legitimize their actions and positioning themselves carefully as a bastion of moderation, against the supposed extremism of the Brotherhood. More importantly, the military has been using Islamist language to boost their legitimacy and build a halo of religious piety around its actions, e.g. the military has been using a hadith attributed to the prophet where he is claimed to have said that the “The Egyptians are the best soldiers on Earth”, to claim legitimacy. El Sisi gave an interview to Al Masry Al Youm where he says that his role model is the Prophet. Taken together, there is a clear attempt to build the image of the “Pious leader”, (whether he will be president or not, the next few months will tell).
So it is the case that the current confrontation is not along secularist/Islamist faultlines. Rather, it is a confrontation between the deep state and an old ally who has served their purpose. The Brotherhood, unwittingly, allowed the overt return of the Egyptian military to the political scene, and has given the military the chance to rebrand itself, after the losses in credibility that it suffered during the first transitional period. Both political forces have used religion whenever convenient to create a halo of legitimacy for themselves and to counter the weight of nationalist forces. The Egyptian military is not a force for secularism in Egyptian politics, on the contrary, it was the first to re-introduce religion into politics after the collapse of Arab nationalism. It will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. In the end, both factions are different shades of Islamist.
Death and remembrance
This week in Israel began with the death of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. He was the spiritual leader of the Shas political party. Shas is an ultra-orthodox party, which makes its electoral appeal to Israeli Sepharadi and Mizrahi Jews whose roots are in the Muslim world. The other ultra-orthodox parties are Ashkenazi with historical and cultural roots in Eastern Europe. Sepharadi Jews do not have a long tradition of ultra-orthodoxy and at Rabbi Yosef's funeral the multitudes in attendance were dressed in the black coats and hats traditional with European Jewry. When Rabbi Yosef was alive, unlike his followers, he was famous for appearing in a black and gold Mizrahi outfit with a turban and sunglasses.
After Rabbi Yosef's death Israeli television was filled with coverage of the funeral itself, attended by a half-million or more Israelis. I followed the coverage on my car radio while traveling the 100 km round trip to my job. Most of the commentators who spoke about Rabbi Yosef, chose to deal mainly with his religious rulings, rather than his politics, though both the rulings and the politics influenced each other. Rabbi Yosef's rulings usually took the form of several pages of well-reasoned arguments based on principles and rulings of Safaradi rabbinical sages rather than Ashkenazi rabbis. Often his rulings differed from mainstream ultra-orthodox thinking. One of his most politically significant rulings took place when Menahem Begin brought the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement before the Israeli parliament. Many rabbis on the religious right argued against the treaty because it involved surrendering territory conquered in the 1967 war. Rabbi Yosef issued a ruling that allowed the political leadership to decide if such a withdrawal would save lives and if so it was religiously permitted. The ruling gave Menahem Begin enough wiggle room to get the peace treaty ratified by the Knesset despite opposition from his own right-wing political allies.
Rabbi Yosef's most significant contribution to Israeli politics was the Shas party. Since its founding in 1984, it has held between 4 and 17 seats in the Knesset. It has been coalition partners with Labor, Likud and Kadima parties and now sits in opposition to the Natanyahu led government. The Shas party ideology has a social welfare component, Mizrahi ethnic pride and like all of the other ultra-Orthodox parties would prefer the State of Israel to be a theocracy. However, unlike the others which are ideologically anti-Zionist, Shas officially joined the World Zionist Organization in 2010. Shas has established various educational institutions and has used its position in the governing coalitions to get substantial government funding for them. Shas has also pressed for compulsive Sabbath observance. This has led to the odd situation of Muslim, Christian and Druze Israeli government inspectors handing out citations to Jewish businessmen, whose establishments were open on the Sabbath. The Shas voters are about one-third ultra-orthodox and about two-thirds religious moderates. In one election Shas garnered enough support from Israeli Arabs to elect one additional representative.
At the other end of the week, on Saturday night there was a large gathering in Tel Aviv, estimated at 40,000 people, to commemorate the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 18 years ago. Unlike in previous years, the organizations sponsoring the event came from all parts of the Israeli political spectrum. In the past such an event would have been dominated by the Israeli left and the message would have been a partisan one condemning the Israeli right. This year the messages were a combination of desire for peace with the Palestinians and the need to defend Israeli democracy from extremism of the sort that led to the murder of Rabin. When Rabin was assassinated there was an immediate massive recognition by the Israeli citizenry that something had gone very seriously wrong. Over the years Rabin's murder had become a partisan symbol used to rally the Israeli Left and thereby reducing its significance to the public at large. Perhaps the wide sponsorship of Saturday night's commemoration is an indication that with the passage of time there is a growing realization of the broader significance of that terrible event eighteen years ago.
Egypt’s January 25 revolutionary youth: where have they gone?
February 11, 2011 is a day that can never be forgotten. The people of Egypt believed in the power of 'the January 25 youth' and expected them to lead the Egyptian revolution forwards. However, from that day on, they seem to have stopped in their tracks and have now gone to ground, leaving us with one question: “Where have they gone?’’
When such a question is being asked by an ordinary Egyptian citizen, there is usually no reference to a specific group or individuals, but a search for a quasi-Superman concept; a search for those youth who would organize protests chanting revolutionary slogans refusing military rule; who would break the curfew; who would save women from widespread police harassment; and who would stand against human rights violations regardless of whomsoever the victim was.
A vicious circle
In fact, the problem is not the classical revolutionary problem of leaders running out of steam. If anything, the exact opposite has happened: they had too much steam that has kept them running around in circles. That they were deeply shocked to see the extent of the democracy failure emerging in the years after Mubarak’s removal is no news: it is universally recognised and accepted. Their mistrust of all sorts of authority, whether they be politicians, media magnates, scholarly experts, or even older people, convinced them that they had to hang onto their premises of Utopian rebellion, and not listen to the siren voices of ugly wisdom. But these youthful leaders were astounded on the several occasions when they found themselves representing a losing majority in the face of an organized minority. Kenneth Arrow has asserted the “impossibility” of any majority winning a totally free public choice; and Joseph Stiglitz has also averred that “organized minorities rule a disorganized majority”. Yet, our revolutionary youth leaders were far from understanding this.
Through January 25, what they learned was that everything we read in papers (books, news, etc.) is simply over-pessimistic compared to what we know we can do in reality. Two important agencies were completely missing from these hopeful calculations: the Islamists and the military. Both were supporters of the overthrow of Mubarak, but not at all the supporters of the January 25 revolution. In other words, “yes” the first step was very easy, much easier than we were informed in any books or by our elders and betters. But this result was not only due to youthful heroism as some of us fondly imagined.
Now that those two major former allies are joined in battle over who is to rule the country, the revolutionary youth of yesteryear have fallen into inaction and silence. Cairo 2013 is therefore very comparable to Paris 1848; in both cases, the masses believed that democracy had failed to achieve their goals and thus “revolted” against “the revolution". Staunch democrats made a paradoxical appeal to the military to put an end to their democratic choice once they realised the mistake they had made. Later, democrats in France (as in all likelihood the Tamarod of Egypt do today) came to bitterly regret this action after they realized what they had done. They have simply punished the new rulers for disobedience to their revolutionary demands by bringing the old rulers whom they first revolted against - “an enemy that we at least know well” as George Ishak once put it – back into power. And this vicious circle of choosing the worse over the worst simply goes on and on.
The choices before a political actor
On the other hand, it has to be said that society chooses certain kinds of revolutionaries to glorify and support. Have you ever noticed that all the martyrs on our t-shirts, pictures, and media are AB-class citizens? Did you also notice that all popular “speakers” in the name of the revolution are English speakers - and probably graduates out of various international schools? There are various sectors missing from the frame of 'the January 25 youth' that we are to blame ourselves for excluding. You could say that these 'armchair revolutionaries' took all the credit for the revolution when other sectors only took the blame. These 'back office' revolutionaries may be bloggers, photographers, social media activists, and other forms of amateurs who did play a role in fuelling the revolution, but without really 'getting their hands dirty' – a version of revolution favoured at the time by nearly all the actors on the political scene. The state welcomed them in its media and raised the flag for “peaceful revolution” (or even “Facebook revolution,’’) as this caused little disruption to the state while at the same time bestowing some legitimacy on those acting repressively against “extremists” (or “savages”) on the streets. Political parties, Islamists and seculars alike, were happy to leave the revolutionary youth out of the street battle, through portraying this as a simple and sensible division of labour - “we take the streets, you the social media.”
The old regime also preferred to make its moves against amateurs who knew little either about street politics, the games that regimes play, the key individuals, or Egypt’s political map – rather than pit its strength against revolutionaries on the ground. The international media, trying to make western sense (and money) out of the Arab spring, found it appealing to portray “westernised Egyptians” as the protagonists of a revolution constructed via western social media, thereby giving the west the old-fashioned credit for enlightening the east. It is also cheaper to capture tweets, contributions and interviews with English-speaking activists than to conduct an investigative in-depth study into the revolution in reality – a study that would be costly in terms of travel, widescale and in-depth interviews, translation, and research. France 24’s documentary “GiGi’s Revolution”, found it easier to name the revolution after Gigi Ibrahim, an American University in Cairo (AUC) student who spent most of her life in the US, and interview her and her family, to contain its insights into the whole revolution within this cosy family environment. Marketably enough, Gigi stated that she had never thought of becoming an activist until she attended a class in the American University in Cairo that inspired her to make revolution.
Those who once organized us in the streets and the squares, and who are able to re-organize the power of Egypt’s youth to achieve its revolutionary goals are the ones we need most today. Although they were a threat to the whole gamut of political actors, the counterrevolution has not yet had to confront them directly. For the old regime, this was the traditional enemy that overthrew them. For traditional political powers, Islamist and secular alike, they were the rivals who are replacing them on the political stage. For the state, they were the main threat to its stability. For the international community, some scattered groups that were very hard to comprehend or understand, not to mention negotiate with. And for the elite revolutionaries of Facebook and Twitter, they are “savage” people who threaten their political/media hegemony with their very different perspectives. Real revolutionaries thus faced all kinds of censorship, oppression, and defamation. The state accused them of getting their funds from Israel; political parties supported the states' accusations; twitter activists tweeted the same news, and the international community just copied. Only one political actor was absent at the time, the ordinary citizen. This ordinary citizen is the one who is asking today, “where have they gone?” I hope he or she knows by now.
The birth pangs of Qatar’s art scene
One month after social media users, led by a Qatari journalist, accused the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) of corruption, mismanagement and nepotism, a series of exhibitions and artwork were unveiled around Doha this October. This stoked more controversy.
Coup de tête, a colossal bronze depiction of the moment Zinedine Zidane headbutted the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed, was installed on Doha’s corniche earlier this month.
This was followed by the unveiling of Damien Hirst’s ‘The Miraculous Journey’. The work, which is estimated to have cost $20m, consisting of 14 bronze sculptures, captures the development of a foetus from conception to birth.
While the QMA’s chairwoman and sister to the current Emir, Sheikha Mayassa al-Thani was quick to state that the sculptures are “not against our culture or our religion”, some Qataris active on social media have lamented the mushrooming of these “idols” around Doha, calling on the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs to intervene. (Some ultra-conservative Muslim scholars and believers equate erecting, displaying and owning sculptures with idolatry - a cardinal sin in Islam. Although, there have been a few infamous and dismissed fatwas or religious edicts considering Egyptian ruins and statues as idolatrous, the century-old fatwa issued by Mufti Mohammad Abdu and which argued that sculptures that are not worshipped are not un-Islamic, remains in force.)
Meanwhile, others jokingly insist that the baby boy be dressed or at least diapered. Oddly enough, the statues were covered up again a few days after the unveiling; allegedly to protect them from the dust emanating from construction sites in the vicinity. Coincidentally, perhaps, Hirst’s ‘Golden Calf’ and ‘False Idol’, were not part of the artist’s ‘Relics’ exhibition which opened a few days later.
A stone’s throw away from Hirst’s sculptures in the Mathaf - the Arab Museum for Modern Art - an exhibition by Abdessemed, the artist responsible for the Coup de tête, also managed to “ruffle feathers”, particularly with one film Printemps, which is alleged to depict chickens being burnt alive.
Despite Abdessemed’s view that “art is a fire that cannot be put out...”, reports circulating on social media sites claim that Shaikha Mayassa has intervened and put out that fire. Officials, however, claim that there were technical issues preventing them from showing the film.
Meanwhile, the Hirst exhibition curator’s claim that the fig leaf covering Saint Bartholomew’s nudity was attached for a Chinese exhibition and could have been removed in Doha, seems far-fetched in light of the Greek statue kerfuffle earlier this year, when two nude statues were withdrawn from the exhibition Olympics –past and present, after the Greek Minister of Culture objected to having their nudity covered.
Art-induced controversy in the Gulf States is not new. In the nearby emirate of Abu Dhabi, despite delays, the Guggenheim and the Louvre are shortly expected to open branches. A petition by artists and critics demanding that the rights of the migrant workers who are erecting these edifices are upheld, has been joined by more murmurings from those who have expressed concerns about inevitable exclusions from these museums. In recent years, art works have also been withdrawn from the contemporary art exhibition Art Dubai, and the Sharjah Art Foundation’s director Biennial was sacked.
“Qatar’s culture queen” has on several occasions spoken of the power of art in triggering debate; but some of these debates have circled around criticism at how public money is used, where the often unannounced acquisitions end up, as well as their relevance to Qatar.
The QMA, however, has consciously cultivated and recognized local and regional culture, sensibilities and talents by establishing the Museum of Islamic Art and the Museum of Arab Modern Art. Seasonal exhibitions such as the February 2014 exhibition of Levantine artist Mona Hatoum as well as the Hajj, Journey Through Art exhibition launch last week are clear nods in that direction. Still, more could be done to support local and Arab artists and to convince the public of the QMA’s new mandate as a “private entity for public good.”
At the same time, however, the claim by Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey that “subsidy is not to be given for what the people want! It is for what the people don't want but ought to have!”, resonates in Qatar.
Jailing of journalist exposes shortcomings of reforms in Morocco
The Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) recent video calling for jihad in Morocco is incendiary, violent and offensive. It is Al Qaeda propaganda, and as such its diffusion and reproduction is unwise and dangerous. Yet, a decision by the Moroccan website Lakome.com to post a link to this AQIM video does not amount to a crime but rather to a lapse in judgment that calls for a warning and/or fine but not the jailing of the site’s editor.
The Moroccan government's resolution to arrest Mr. Ali Anouzla, the editor of the Arabic version of Lakome.com, and its threats to prosecute the Spanish daily El Pais for posting a link to the video, are rash decisions that have given AQIM more air-time and exposure than the 44 minutes registration in question could ever have achieved.
While the video is an incitement to terrorism and hatred, Mr. Anouzla who wrote several editorials calling for “secular” changes in Morocco, is hardly an AQIM apologetic. For Moroccan and international observers, the arrest and confinement of Ali Anouzla on the charges of “providing material support to terror groups” is politically motivated.
A quick scan of the jailed editor columns reveals the anti-establishment nature of his writings and his penchant for pushing the boundaries of freedom of press in Morocco. As Amnesty International says,"[Anouzla] is a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally.” Since his arrest, Lakome.com has been re-publishing his articles to expose the political nature of the case.
Moroccan officials have not learned from their past mistakes. Time and time again the government attempts to muzzle outspoken critics using the judiciary, a measure which usually backfires, leaving the regime open to international criticism and further punishing the image of the Kingdom. The arrest of Anouzla is the latest chapter in a series of harassment cases against uncompromising journalists. Such instances reinforce the impression that media freedom is under attack in the country.
Rabat should revisit the cases of past outspoken writers who were either chased out of the country or silenced by the judicial system. Moroccan officials should consider the long term implications of such incidents on the reputation of the country as hostile to the freedom of speech. Might it not be the case that Anouzla too might eventually join the group of journalists who initially started as local celebrities conducting investigative reporting into corruption and political nepotism in Morocco, then turned into die-hard opponents of the regime?
The Moroccan authorities’ harassment and provocation of dissident voices have politically hardened several journalists who are currently in “self-imposed exile”. Today, writings by this group are the most vocal and widely read accounts of the Moroccan political scene, making the decision to force critics to move overseas or go "underground” thouroughly counterproductive.
If the goal of Moroccan officials is to silence Anouzla, their attempts have been fruitless thus far, as more and more activists and international organizations adopt his case and propagate the same articles Moroccans are trying to suppress. In fact, Anouzla moved from a local bold journalist unknown outside Morocco to an international cause célèbre thanks to Rabat's ill-advised decision to arrest him.
Popular outrage went beyond the condemnation of the ‘security apparatus'. Moroccan human rights activists harshly criticize the Islamist government of Prime Minster Benkirane (PJD) and its handling of the case. The public was especially furious with the Minister of Communications Mr. Mustapha El Khalfi - who not long ago was himself writing for a web-based news outlet like Lakome.com - for using vague and incoherent justifications to excuse the arrest of Anouzla and for defending restrictions on freedom of expression. During a recent conference at a Moroccan university, El Khalfi was booed by the crowd chanting for the release of the jailed journalist, forcing the Minister to leave the event.
If Anouzla's case has generated sympathy worldwide, some Moroccan observers have espoused the official argument denouncing Anouzla's decision to publicize an “AQIM dispatch”. Several Moroccan citizens took to popular websites, decrying the video in which the narrator blasts the King's pro-western policies and deplores the living conditions of the Moroccan people while calling young Muslims to join the fight against non-believers.
Despite the domestic and international support he enjoyed, the Lakome.com editor remains a controversial figure in his country. Moroccan nationalists have accused him in the past of sympathizing with the Algeria-based Polisario Front. Anouzla, son to a Sahrawi family, was criticized for visiting the camps run by the Saharan separatists in Tindouf, Algeria. His stand on the western Sahara conflict remains divisive.
Nonetheless the French and Arabic versions of Lakome.com have been drawing much more traffic than ever. It is safe to say that Mr. Anouzla and his website have become very well-known since his arrest. For the critics, this move is a sign that Morocco is not serious about reforms and that recent political transformation are mere lip service.
The Moroccan establishment again underestimates international criticism regarding what officials consider as local matters. The Anouzla case will continue to have serious ramifications on Morocco’s foreign policy as more and more publicity is given to the event. The only way out of this trap is to release Anouzla and to handle the incident of the AQIM video in court according to national and international media laws. Ali Anouzla is guilty of bad judgment not of terrorism.
The fact that Moroccan officials “tolerated” the writings of Anouzla and his like previously endowed Moroccco with the image of a “democratic and open” country. Conversely, the jailing of a critical voice shows the Kingdom to be unjust, overbearing and hesitant. The arrest of Mr. Ali Anouzla is a bad decision that needs to be rectified soon.
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