A discussion with activists, bloggers, and journalists from across the Arab world who spoke at the 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum. Panelists will offer analyses of the events of the past year as well as predictions about the future of the region.
Moderator: Philippa Thomas
Ahmed Benchemsi – Morocco
Lina Ben Mhenni – Tunisia
Ghazi Gheblawi – Libya
Maryam al-Khawaja – Bahrain
Amir Ahmad Nasr – Sudan
We’re here one year later, looking in the cold light of day at which freedoms have been gained and which stories remain. There is no single Arab story: there have been elections in Morocco, and an outpouring of political energy in Libya, but the Grand Prix rolled on in Bahrain, and blood on the streets in Syria.
We want to talk about the relationship between Islam and democracy, the role of women. We want this to be interactive.
We’re going to begin with Ahmed Benchemsi, who founded two of Morocco’s most popular magazines, and for this he was persecuted. Now he’s a visiting fellow at Stanford.
Ahmed: Unlike other Arab countries like Libya or Syria, where the government shot people in the street, in Morocco, the king said, you want a constitutional monarchy? You got it! And that was a smart move, as protesters dwindled over the months. And three months later, a draft of the new constitution was made public, and it was–in a word–a sham. The king’s cronies were still ransacking the economy, he was still in charge of institutions. And of course, the constitution passed a vote, and the international community applauded, since we weren’t shooting people in the streets–as though all you need to be a democracy is to not shoot people in the streets. A few months later, parliamentary elections happened. Islamists won, which was a first. And the PM is a media friendly figure, so the media is kept quite busy. But the real story is that the monarchy remains as absolute as it ever was, and real democratic voices are stifled, marginalized, and put in prison. For example, a 24 year old rapper, is now in jail for the second time.
Lina Ben Mhenni is the author of “A Tunisian Girl”, a blog where she documented the revolution, and continues to do so today.
Lina: Last year I expressed both happiness and hope, but also fear that another dictatorship would start there. Now, I travel all around the world, and I’m shocked when I hear people say that a new era of democracy has started in my country. It’s true we have had fair and transparent elections, but the performance of the new government is weak and mediocre. Instead of dealing with the real problems, they are diverting our attention through useless debates about identity and religion. Signs of dictatorship are everywhere, there are attacks on freedom of speech and press, and there is violence against demonstrators, including the wounded of the revolution, who were beaten for demonstrating because they did not have healthcare. There is international interference from countries such as Qatar and the United States. I’m still hopeful for my country, because Tunisians are aware of what is going on, and civil society is more and more powerful, and learning to act when they have to. Finally, I want to express my support for all the Arab countries, especially Syria and Bahrain.
Ghazi Gheblawi, a Libyan poet and physician, helped share information with the world when Libya was going through its struggles.
Ghazi: A year ago, Libya was under many threats. We were having a debate about the ethics of intervention as people were being killed on the streets on a daily basis, and it wasn’t clear where the revolution was going. Since then, we’re in a new position in many ways. I say in an optimistic way that we’re progressing steadily, and we’re in a new position than we were one year ago: we have a new government and elections on the way. There are political debates, and a flourishing civil society, and a gush of new media (which may not be independent or free, but certainly much better), and elections, which is the first for two generations of Libyans to express their popular will. But we are facing many challenges, the first of which is constructing a new country. When the dictatorship fell, there was no state. We are facing some insecurity, and we are trying to establish a strong government: the current one is so weak that people are exploiting it and people are using violence to extract things from it. I think the main challenge is to build a society not only on the outcomes of elections, but one that is free and independent, as well as to build a free and independent media that can challenge and resist any sort of dictatorship that could come through the ballot box.
Amir Ahmad Nasr is “The Sudanese Thinker”, one of the more amusing and thoughtful blogs on the Arab Spring.
Amir: I’d like to speak first as a Sudanese. It’s frustrating to see the media repeatedly portray what is happening in Sudan as a conflict between Africans and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, North and South. Six or seven months ago, protests were really picking up in Sudan, and they were completely underreported. They were not huge, but they were diverse, occurring in diverse locations. And the narrative of division is false: the real narrative is Sudanese people against a dictatorship. Omar al-Bashir doesn’t care if you’re African or Christian or Muslim–he cares only if you’re against him. And if you are, you’ll be stepped on, with a shoe. But I am genuinely concerned about the possibility of war between the North and the South. And speaking as a North African, I’m frustrated with the narrative of the Islamists winning. Psychologically, we went through 40 years of stagnation and victimhood, and the revolution was this new mentality of self-entitlement, self-empowerment. And this is strong, and continuing. Will it manifest in strong institutions? It’s a big question. Biology-wise, there’s a simple fact: the dinosaurs currently ruling the Arab world–where will they be in 10 years? Bye-bye. And young people will start taking leadership roles, young people who are more international, more open-minded. They may be religiously conservative, they may not, but they recognize that the old systems, and old leadership, are authoritarian and not relevant.
Maryam al-Khawaja is a Bahraini activist, and the acting director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, since its director has been detained.
Maryam: [A poem on her thoughts about the region, her father's hunger strike].
Ahmed, would you not say there has been some progress? The new Prime Minister is no longer chosen by the king, for example.
Ahmed: If you look at the election engineering in Morocco, no one can win more than a quarter of the seats. This means, to reach 51% to form a governing coalition, you must form with other parties, which are all puppets of the king. So yes, the winning party is governing, but with a gun against their head. For example, look at the new constitution, this thing that was hailed as a beacon and landmark of democracy. But come on, it passed with 98.5% approval. Even if you asked people if they’re for peace and love, you’d still get more than 1.5% of contrarians saying they’re for war!
Lina, what’s your experience been about the realities in Tunisia under the new [Islamist] government, compared with their official language [of tolerance and pluralism]?
Lina: It’s true we had fair elections, for a constitutional assembly which is supposed to draft a new constitution for Tunisia. But now, after 6 months, they haven’t even drafted one line of the constitution.
Do you think the world thinks Tunisia has ticked a box?
Lina: The foreign press have moved on, the world thinks Tunisia is okay. They’ve forgotten Tunisia. And the elected government, these people, they have always the same excuse: give us time and let us work. But the wounded of the revolution cannot wait. We’ve already lost two people who didn’t get appropriate health care. This week, two young men set themselves on fire. And the government is ignoring these people. The people who took to the street didn’t ask for an Islamist state, they asked for employment, the punishment of the people who killed our martyrs. And those people are still free, they’ve even had promotions.
Ghazi, you said that government shouldn’t be based on elections, but institutions. One might say Libya is in a better position, you have only a transitional government, and you have the opportunity to build a state from scratch.
Ghazi: When you look at it microscopically, there are plenty of problems. The day to day, of course, there are always issues. But when you look at it from a wider perspective, it does look like we’re progressing. But the government is in a special situation, and it can be exploited for privileges by certain elements, for things like money. And Libya has plenty of money, that distinguishes us from other countries, but most of it is being spent in really inefficient ways, and not being invested into building the country. And now people are competing for that power, and the current transitional government is trying to postpone conversations about this to the next government: they’re no elected, they have no popular legitimacy, so they have no political will.
Amir, in Sudan, do people look to Libya, and say, there’s a cautionary tale?
Amir: Yes, people do bring this up. There’s never going to be a ‘Tahrir moment’ in Sudan. Best case scenario, it will be like Yemen, with protests and sniper and a negotiated settlement. Worst case scenario, it will be like Libya. The leader of the opposition is calling for dialogue, but how do you dialogue with a regime that is this brutal? As a younger generation, we’re the ones with the most to lose and the most to gain.
Maryam, what is the strategy of the government of Bahrain, right now?
Maryam: Test and run. The monarchy will do whatever they think is necessary, then wait and see what the international response is. And if there isn’t too much of an international response, they’ll continue. So, tear-gassing people in their homes every night, shooting people in the street. The three most prominent human rights activists in Bahrain are all in prison: where else in the world is this happening? Unless we see concrete actions and consequences, nothing is going to change.
When we talk about outside powers, Saudia Arabia and Iran are often raised. What other distractions are used to keep people from talking about the issues at home?
Amir: For way too long, dictators have been using the issue of Palestine and Israel as what I like to call a ‘weapon of mass distraction.‘ For example, in Syria, we saw Assad send people to the border to divert attention from the protests. Some were even killed. But it’s not working anymore.
Ghazi: They’re still using these distractions, even in Syria. They’re saying that people don’t really want change, that these interventions are coming from the outside world interference. And they are using Libya as an example: ‘stop talking about intervention if you want to prevent chaos.’ But at the same time they accept other interventions, from other countries they perceive to be benign.
Maryam: From the Bahraini government, they do the same. They label us as foreign agents or whatever, to detract from our protests. First we were all communists, then we were all Iranian agents, and now we’re all terrorists.
Ahmed: Everyone in Morocco is talking about the Islamist government as though this is what matters–what policies they might implement, for example. But this is a distraction. The government is still run by the monarchy, and the Islamists will continue to bend to their will. So we don’t need external distractions, we create our own! The monarchy is very experienced at this.
Lina, is it harder to get people to look at Tunisia, considering all the other things, like the Eurozone crisis and other global news?
Lina: Yes, of course. But it’s like the case of Morocco. Instead of dealing with economic and social issues, which are so urgent, the government is distracting us with religion and identity questions. And of course, they’re using the media as propoganda, to present Tunisia as a new democracy, as though things are working. And some cyber activists are trying to talk about the real situation, but the government is the one with the money and the power.
Some needs are so urgent though, like jobs and food. So is it up to you to continue setting these priorities?
Amir: The biggest threat to the revolutions is the economic situation. That’s absolutely the biggest threat to the revolution. I went to Tunisia for the first time, I was excited to be there and drink in the revolution, and I asked my cab driver what he thought. He said, ‘I’m very proud of my country, of course, but it was hard enough beforehand, and now I can’t put food on the table, there is no business, there are no tourists,’ and of course, people don’t care–really–about the constitution. They care about feeding their families.
The republics have fallen, but the monarchies still stand. Why is this?
Maryam: It’s a geopolitical strategic importance issue. Look around–the governments of the US and the UK are very publicly criticizing the Russians for selling arms to Syria, but the US and the UK is doing the exact same thing with Bahrain.
Ahmed: All these political tricks can be used to fool the media and stifle the activists, but at the end of the day, these critical economic issues remain across the region, in all countries. So even though in Morocco the constitution was a bit of brilliant political trickery, we’re seeing protests across the country. And people now feel empowered, they’ve already gone out to protest, and now they feel as though they’ve bent the monarchy to their will [with the new constitution]. So there’s an opportunity, but the problem is that there are no organizing structures to take advantage of this popular energy.
Whither women? Now, is it easier or harder?
Lina: Of course, Tunisia is different when it comes to women’s rights. Tunisian women are well educated, they are conscious when it comes to their rights. So even if we’ve heard some of these new leaders talking about polygamy, or about making amendments to the Code of Personal Status [which guarantees women equal status in Tunisia], women go to the streets whenever these issues emerge. Women are always at the forefronts of the demonstrations, whether on women’s rights or on universal rights, like freedom of expression.
What about those in the shadows, like the story of the young woman in Morocco who killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist?
Ahmed: I don’t see this incident as part of the regional ripple effect, but you could link the resulting protests it to people feeling empowered. So this time, when this happened, people just stood up, and they said, this is unacceptable. And to protest it–that is our right.
Amir: It goes back to what I opened with. There is real psychological shift from fear to self-empowerment. Yes, there are no democratic institutions yet, and yes, it’s going to be a loooong hard journey. So it might not be in the news anymore, but the feeling and the sentiment are there, and they are only going to grow. Look only as far back as the 1950s in America: it used to be that the father’s word was family law. And now, that’s certainly no longer the case. The Arab world is going through this right now. I look at even my little cousins, and they talk back, and I’m like, damn, I wouldn’t do that when I was that age! [laughs] My mother is like, ‘Kids these days…’
There is, perhaps, a bit of naivete in this statement, borne out of your idealism.
Ahmed: There is a phasing of this process of change. Phase one: unite around taking down a dictator. Bring together all social forces against one aim. It succeeded in some places, not in others. Phase two: Elections. Islamists are the only organized force in the Arab world, so of course they’re going to win. But democracy is about having a conversation about what society is supposed to be, what sort of society do we want? And now we can’t avoid this discussion, we’re in the middle of it. So, do we want a religious society, based off varying degrees of shari’a and precepts of Islam, or do we want a secular society, which is what, in some places, sort of what we already are, with freedom of thought.
This is the debate happening in Libya right now.
Ghazi: Yes, there is a very robust debate. There’s a whole conversation now about the women’s quota for the elections, and how some didn’t want it to be there. They wanted it to be earned, through their participation, the hard way, not through something that is just ‘given’. But in the end, they’ve learned from Tunisia, for example, to make it about proportion of party participation. In the Arab world, there are all these laws around protecting women, but none of them are enforced, none of them are in action.
And of course, sexual violence is still being used as a tool.
Maryam: In Bahrain, there are three women protesters who are in jail right now for this. My personal heros are the women and young girls, who go out every day and try to care for those who are being beaten and hurt with basic first aid, who go and try to protect and retrieve the young boys, 14 or 15 years old, who are being held by the riot police.
Lina: It’s harder now. In the past there was one enemy, and it was clear. Now it is different. Human rights defenders, cyber activists and the like: they’re receiving threats, sometimes it trends towards physical violence. In April, those protesting in remembrance of the martyrs were savagely beaten. We called those doing the beating the ‘Ennahda army’ [the ruling party], because we saw them coordinating with the police. Journalists were targeted too, and I can’t understand or tolerate this.
What are the prospects for a ‘Spring’ of any kind in places like Qatar or Saudi Arabia?
Amir: Anytime soon, in my personal perspective–it’s just not going to happen. But, from the perspective of biology, this generation of al-Sauds–they’ve got 10 more years, max. And there’s real tension in the royal family, because there’s no clear line of succession. They all married too many women and had too many kids. So what will happen? Will the Wahabbis step in? Will the country’s more modern families stand up and lead? Whatever happens, the royal family will become increasingly unstable.
Ghazi: Back in 2010, no one thought this [the revolutions] was going to happen. People were so oppressed, their will was so shattered. I mean, look at Qaddafi, the guy was so in control that he thought he was invincible, even to the last moment of his life, where he didn’t think anything was going to happen to him. These countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, they try to protect themselves in bufferzones, and by trying to hijack the other revolutions.
Maryam: In Saudi Arabia, no one talks about the protesters who were killed in the Eastern Province, I don’t think people even knew it happened. And in Qatar, they care about human rights everywhere in the world, just as long as it is not in Qatar. They’re willing to fight for rights everywhere else. And the West looks at the Gulf as though only the monarchies exist, as though there are no populations. The Crown Prince of Bahrain can freely visit Washington DC as though there was nothing happening–of course the other monarchies don’t feel threatened.
We’re all talking about Qatar.
Ahmed: Qatar is an extremely unique case, it should be a case study.
Amir: Generally I love Al Jazeera, but on Sudan, they’re biased, just like on Bahrain. They don’t cover the issues, and meanwhile, the Qatari government is pouring millions in investments into Sudan.
Do sanctions work, or are they hurting the wrong people?
Maryam: We need to see the bare minimum of action. Honestly, we should be having a serious conversation about sanctions on Bahrain.
Lina: We have virtual sanctions in Tunisia–there are no tourists! We need foreign people to invest in our country, we need tourism.
Ahmed: We need a new view from the West, a new regional approach. Morocco is the perfect case, there’s always an alibi, the case of one country protecting the status quo of another. Look, in Morocco, everyone goes, well, it’s not Syria. It’s always ‘It could be worse, you could be them’. The major breakthrough would just be for the West to consider policies towards each country on a case-by-case basis.
Amir: I do think authoritarianism is dying a gruesome death. Will it be replaced by secular democracy? I’m skeptical. Eastern Europe for example, when it transitioned, it had its George Soros, it had the support of the United States; but we have no George Soros, and the entire world was hurting economically and couldn’t support the revolutions. Anyway, Soros is Jewish, so of course you’d get all the conspiracy theories! [laughs]
Is foreign support or intervention neocolonialism in another form? All these organizations, financial support, thinktanks coming into the region?
Ghazi: Plenty of foreign organizations are working freely in Libya right now. In the long-run, I see things as a process; it needs to be taken step-by-step and we’ll see how it goes. I agree with Ahmed, we’re not looking for an election outcome, we’re looking for a process to continue. We need people to debate their rights on the streets, in order for those rights to be recognized. It’s not enough to have a lovely constitution. If you have that, the government can still pass an unconstitutional law, and people wouldn’t even know.
Ahmed: It’s just demography. You can’t stop it. The family structure is changing. It used to be that every family had 6 or 7 children, now you only have 2. It’s easier to rebel when it’s just two of you, it’s easier to speak out, it’s easier to see yourself as an individual. Individual rights are the basis of democratic values, and democracy is not a ballot box: it’s the full spectrum of human and individual rights, it’s freedoms of speech, it’s individual agency. Democracy requires every citizen to say, I’m an individual, and I have individual rights.
Amir: It’s indisputable, again, it’s just biology. The question is just, how will it manifest itself? We can’t know. But its the long-term perspective. I’m an optimist. Given enough time, things eventually get better.
Ghazi: Overthrowing a dictatorship might be painful, but it is quick. Building a society is long and hard–and may also be painful at the same time! Building the course ahead is what matters.
Maryam: I think I’m a little more pessimistic than the rest of my friends here. But here in the West you’re standing on the wrong side of history. The West needs to know the best challenge against terrorism and extremism is though democracy, through personal freedoms.
Lina: Despite the gloomy picture I paint now, I am hopeful. I see Tunisian society fighting for its rights and freedoms. We can see changes, and these changes are the Tunisians themselves. Tunisians, and Arab citizens in general, got rid of their fears. They won’t allow these dictatorships to rule them again.
The original version is here