Arab Uprisings: One Year Later – Oslo Freedom Forum 2012
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Arab Uprisings: One Year Later – Oslo Freedom Forum 2012

August 25, 2019

Welcome back, I’m Philippa Thomas. Last year I was here sitting on this stage, when we were talking about the dawn of a new Arab world. And now we are back to look at what’s happened, what remains to be done. It’s obviously going to be a busy session. You can participate in this hall, and for those of you who are watching us

livestreaming at In the hall we have two volunteers ready to take questions as we go through our debate. If you’re outside you can tweet us at oslofreedomfrm,
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or email us at We have a lot to get through and we have some very powerful speakers. This is supposed to be interactive and we will be listening to what you say as well. Today, we’ve been talking, we were talking last year about the dawn of a new Arab world, and today we are past the euphoria, aren’t we? Past the heady drama of the overthrowing of leaders, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and we are still witnessing the brutal beating of protestors in Bahrain, blood on the streets in Syria. So we’re looking in the cold light of day at what freedoms have been gained, what struggles remain, and what lessons we’ve learned. And with the panelists also we are going to try to look beyond the conventional wisdom and perhaps try to tell you something you didn’t know about what is happening across the Arab world. You do know there is no single Arab story. There have been elections in Morocco and Tunisia, there’s an
0:01:49.000,0:01:54.000outburst of political energy in Libya, where elections are due to take place next month. But in Bahrain the Grand Prix rolled on regardless of state violence, and the headlines in Sudan and South Sudan revolve around oil and the potential for conflict. So in some of our states there is more hope, in others, more tension, more fear. And during this panel debate I want you to hear about stories behind the headlines. We want you to hear about the distractions our speakers feel you should ignore when you are trying to work out what is really happening on the ground. We want to talk about the role of women, we want to talk about the relationship of Islam and democracy. All this, and we want to bring in your questions and reactions too. So I think it’s time to go on to our panelists, let them introduce themselves and their country. Ahmed, if you would come up first. We have voices for you from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Sudan. We are going to begin with Ahmed Benchemsi, who founded two of Morocco’s best selling weekly magazines. And for that he was sued, he was harassed, he was interrogated,
0:02:55.000,0:02:57.000he was threatened with death. His voice is as clear as ever. And currently he’s a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s program on Arab reform and democracy. We will listen first to Ahmed. Hello everybody, I am glad to be here. First we should give an update on the situation in Morocco. Last year when we were talking about Morocco the February 20th movement had just started. Hundreds of thousands of protestors had taken to the streets, demanding democracy and a constitutional change. Unlike other countries like Libya or Syria where the government brutally suppressed the protestors and shoot people in the streets. In Morocco no such thing happened. The King said what, you want a constitutional change? Sure, ok. What do you want, a constitutional monarchy, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech? You got it. And that was a very smart move, cause the protestors were destabilized. Suddenly the question was, what’s the point of going on protesting? So the number of protestors dwindled over the months and three months later the constitutional draft, written by a commission appointed by the king, was made public. And it was, in one word, a mock. A sham. Behind the beautiful wording, the monarchy was still as absolute as ever, the King was still controlling the government, the judiciary, the security apparatus, his cronies were still puppeting government agencies, ransacking the economy. All that, beyond any form of accountability. And the constitution of course, passed, and the West applauded. Hillary Clinton said Morocco’s reform was a model for other Arab countries. Obviously because we are not shooting people in the streets, it doesn’t just take not shooting people in the streets to make a perfect democracy, obviously. But still that worked, in the view of the West. So people tried to continue protesting but the numbers dwindled again. Finally, after that, a few months later, Parliamentary elections happened. Islamists won, that was a first. It was an interesting distraction because number one: it’s the first time that Islamists ever had access to government in Morocco, and then the Prime Minister, Mr. Abdelilah Benkirane, is a very media friendly figure, he says a lot of jokes, he is very funny. And by the way these are Islamists, this is scary, so the media is kept busy with that. But the real story behind this distraction is that the monarchy is as absolute as it ever was. And that’s the real story. And real democratic voices that ask for a fair and democratic distribution of powers in Morocco are stifled, marginalized, or put in prison. That’s the real story. There are tons of story to mention. One of those stories, that is very important, is the story of a 24 year old rapper who is in jail, while we speak, for the second time. Who cares? Well I think we all should. Thank you Ahmed. Lina would you come up to the stage?

Weíre going to gradually fill up our sofa before we begin debate. Lina Ben Mhenni is a Tunisian girl, the title of the blog where she told it as she saw it, risking her safety to document the protests and the crackdowns during

Tunisia’s mass protests. She is still taking risks today because she believes the revolution in Tunisia is not over. Lina, in your words. Hello everybody. First I would like to thank the Oslo Freedom Forum organizers for inviting me again.

Last year I stood here and expressed both happiness and hope, after the ousting of a dictator from my country,

but I also expressed my fears to see another dictatorship starting there. Now, I travel all around the world, to talk about the situation in my country and

0:07:12.000,0:07:19.000each time I’m shocked when I hear people say that everything is ok in Tunisia, that a new era of democracy has started in my country. It’s true we have had fair and transparent elections of a constituent assembly, but the performance of the newly elected government is weak and mediocre. Instead of dealing with the real problems that pushed Tunisians to take to the streets, to face tear gas, to face live ammunition, and to die, they are diverting our attention through useless and fake debates about identity and religion. Signs of dictatorship are everywhere in Tunisia. There are attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of press,

and there is violence against peaceful demonstrators, including the wounded of

the revolution, who were beaten many times because they were demonstrating because they did not have the appropriate healthcare. There is no transitional justice and there is an acceptance of external interference from some countries pretending to defend human rights, pretending to defend democracy and freedom.
I mention two countries: the United States and Qatar. They are highly interfering in our internal affairs. Finally I want to say I’m still hopeful for my country, because Tunisians are aware of what is going on, because our

civil society is more and more powerful, and learning to act when they have to. Finally, I want to express my support to all the countries fighting for their freedoms, especially the Arab countries, especially Syria and Bahrain, where crimes against humanity are going on. Lina thank you, Ghazi, come join us.
Ghazi Gheblawi, a Libyan author, poet, blogger, and physician, helped to gather information for the world as Libya went through

its long period of turmoil and upheaval. He tells me the business of reconstructing Libya is full of challenges. It’s difficult, but we should also know, it’s very exciting.

Thank you. A year ago, while we were here gathering in Oslo,

Libya was under many threats. One of them is that we had a very big political debate all over

the world about the ethics of intervention in conflicts in the world. And the second one was people were being killed on the streets

on a daily basis in urban centers in Libya, and it wasn’t clear where the revolution was going. Since then, now we’re in a different position in Libya in many ways. We have established a new government that is in transition. Many things have improved.
And I say in an optimistic way that we’re progressing steadily towards a better situation than we had before a year ago. A year ago we were debating lot of things, especially in terms

of preventing the killings and also trying to have a solution for transition. And now we’re talking about in Libya all the debates are political, there is a flourishing civil society, and a gush of new media. We cannot say it is independent or free, but, compared to a year ago, it is much better, and also there is the prospect

of an election coming up next month, which is the first one for two generations of Libyans to express thoughts or their will through election. And that’s, in many ways, progress. But we are facing many challenges, the main challenge is reconstructing a new country. The dictatorship we were under for decades tried to make the country as much as possible under its wing. When the dictatorship went, there was no state. So we are building a new state with all the problems
that we have with the new state. We are facing some insecurity and conflicts in some parts that have been breeding there because of the old regime and we are trying to establish a strong government. The government that is in power is so weak that people are exploiting it, new centers of power are developing and people are using violence
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to get what they want from the government, and also positions. And I think that is one of the main challenges. I think the main challenge is to build a society based not only on the outcomes of elections, but it is based on democratic values where civil society is free

and independent, as well as to build a free and independent media that will protect the rights of the people to express their thoughts freely and also the right to challenge and the right to resist any kind of dictatorship that comes through the ballot box. Thank you. Amir Ahmad Nasr is “The Sudanese Thinker,” he’s one of the most thoughtful

and funny writers on the Arab uprisings and their implications. He tells me to look beyond political maneuvering to the psychology of the region and the people. And that’s a thought to which we will return. But I’d like Amir to tell us how he sees it from Sudan and how the dynamics of the Arab Spring have affected life at home. Good to be back after one year. To begin, first I’d like to speak as a Sudanese. As a Sudanese, it’s frustrating to see the media repeatedly portray what is

happening in Sudan as a conflict between Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians, North and South. In some ways that is true, but there is a lot more complexity as we all know, it’s always more complex than how it’s portrayed. About six or seven months ago, protests were really picking up throughout Sudan, very underreported. You had protests in Eastern Sudan, which is Afro-Arab and Arab,

and you had protests within (NAME) and (NAME) . The protests were not huge, they were not massive; but what they show, what they really indicate is that the narrative of Arabs vs.

Africans vs. Muslims vs. Christians is false. It’s Sudanese people versus a dictatorship. It’s as simple as that. Because the government in Khartoum,

Omar al-Bashir, he doesn’t care whether you’re an Arab or an African or a Christian or a Muslim- he cares only if you’re against him. And if you are, you’ll be stepped on, with a shoe. It’s as simple as that. So that needs to be recognized. And it’s frustrating to see that the coverage has been oversimplified. Right now I am still optimistic but I must admit I’m low on optimism given what’s happening between the North and the South because there is a real risk of war breaking out. Hopefully that won’t happen. And we will talk more as we proceed during the panel. The second thing I want to express is my frustration not just as a Sudanese but as a North African Arab, or an Afro-Arab. The frustration has been also with the media narrative that, oh, the Islamists are taking over, they are winning, doom and gloom, and we are (bleep). Insert your favorite word in there. Again, they are winning through the ballot box. And if we see things through the lens or perspective of politics, it doesn’t look very nice and pretty right now. But if we see things through the lens of psychology, and from the perspective of biology, the situation is very different. Psychologically, we went from 40 years of stagnation, victimhood, apathy boo hoo, I’m the victim, we’re oppressed, it’s hopeless, to self-entitlement, self-empowerment, and people demanding their rights on the streets. That’s a huge psychological shift. And it’s still there, and it’s still strong, and it’s still continuing. Will it manifest in strong institutions and healthy functioning governments? Big question mark. Biology: why is that important? Because this is an indisputable fact: the old dinosaurs currently ruling the Arab world, from Saudi Arabia all the way to Morocco, those dinosaurs in the next ten years, they are going to be bye-bye. And guess who’s going to come gradually and take over? The younger generation: more open-minded, more globalized, internet-savvy, and even within the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood youth, they are very frustrated with their leadership. They may be religiously conservative, which is fine, which is all good. It’s a Muslim country, we have to expect Muslim countries to be religious; it’s in their nature. But the youth in the Muslim Brotherhood is very frustrated with

their leadership because they recognize the leadership is very authoritarian and abusive. So what is happening, the shift from victimhood and apathy, a psychological shift, and also people are less and less tolerant of authoritarianism. Again, we will talk more as we proceed, but biology and psychology, they show a different perspective, and it’s an optimistic perspective. Amir thank you. Maryam al-Khawaja is a strong fierce voice for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. As of this week she’s its acting president, since its president has been detained. And in her state today, her father is on his 90th day of hunger strike. Her sister is also in detention. She sees an escalation of repression, which she will speak to us about. But first she wants to deliver words to you that she has never delivered in public before. Thank you Philippa. It’s of course a pleasure to be back here this year and I would like to thank the Oslo Freedom Forum organizers. I wrote this poem about two weeks ago when my father went missing from his hospital room in the military hospital. And today he’s gone missing again, we haven’t heard from him since last Friday. The poem is called “Live interview.” How does it feel? I’m ok. But he’s your father. But how does it feel? You look at me, searching for tears. I look you in the eyes, and I respond. I cannot answer your question. Your camera will malfunction. You mike will lose sound.How does it feel? I feel cheated. Cheated of a dream of freedom. Cheated. Former chief of secret service running for president in Egypt. Cheated. Protestors beaten on the streets after a new government in Tunisia. Cheated. One man’s election, former man’s government in Yemen. Cheated. Friends making empty promises of savior in Syria. Cheated. Petrol more valuable than blood in Bahrain. Drown out their screams with the roar of an engine. We’re trying to help you, we’ll send 30 people as intervention. Silence. Babies crying, mothers weeping. Sirens blaring. Wives in mourning. Silence. Was that the sound of pellets entering a Bahraini’s heart? Or a sniper’s bullet, aimed at a Syrian’s head? Silence. Are those the children of Gaza, looking at the sky, waiting for the bombs? I hear nothing but silence, alone in a room, thousands of miles away. I missed you by a minute, Dad. I called, but the officer had cut the line. It could have been the first time I’d talked to you in months. It might have been the last time I hear your voice.
You want to know how I feel? I feel angry. Angry at governments that preach freedom and democracy,

Then support authoritarian regimes to feed their greed. Angry at governments who say they condemn the violations, But refuse to do anything to stop them from happening. And no, you will not see me cry for my father. A man who fears not death, because in death, he finds freedom. A man who fears not tyranny, because they can break his body, but not his soul. I cry not for my father, because he puts a smile on my face. The tears you see in my eyes are for you. Sorry ma’am, we lost the connection. Maryam thank you, thank you all. A reminder that you can join our conversation by tweeting to @oslofreedomfrm and using the hashtag OFF12. We’re also taking emails, and even when we leave the stage we know the conversation will continue. But we’re going to begin our general talk with more of the reality check the panelists began by giving you. I want to look first at what looks like the good news story, in Morocco and Tunisia: we’ve had elections. Now Ahmed, you spoke about a mind game, it’s not all it seems. It could be said that you’re being idealistic. You’re getting there, you’ve had a start. What, elections? We’ve already had elections in Morocco, that’s not news. Elections have been free in Morocco. But now the prime minister is not decided by the king, the prime minister is decided by who comes out with the most seats in the elections. Would you not say there has been some progress, even if it falls short? Ok, let me tell you about that. The new constitution, you’re right, provides the prime minister. The king still has to pick him, or her for that matter, among the political party that arrives first in parliamentary election. But what does it mean to arrive first?

If you look at the election engineering in Morocco, no one can win more than a quarter of the Parliament, tops. Like the PGD, the legal Islamist party, it won 21% and it was hailed as a historic victory. This means, to reach 51%, which is the score that you need to form a
0:22:59.000,0:23:02.000governing coalition that will not fall at ay time, you must coalesce with other parties. Guess what? All of them are puppets of the monarchy. So yes, the winning party is governing, but with a gun against their head.
0:23:10.000,0:23:13.000In Morocco you always have to go beyond appearances. For example, let me tell you about this new constitution,
0:23:15.000,0:23:20.000this thing that was saluted as a major democratic breakthrough. The first thing you have to have in mind is that it was passed with 98.5% approval. Which is hilarious, if you think about it. No question on earth would have such a margin of approval. Even if you asked people if they’re for peace and love, you’d still get more than 1.5% who would say actually I’m for war and hate. So this is obviously a sham. There is a constitutional article that I love, it’s article 36, and it illustrates very well how tricky the Moroccan monarchy is and the constitution is. It says: the traffic and influence and privileges (it deals with the economy), the abuse of domination and monopoly, and all other practices contrary to the principles of free competition and fair dealing in economic relations, are punished by the law. Which sounds great, until you find out that there is no law, really, punishing that. And that the king of Morocco is the first businessman in the country, and that he’s the first banker, and the first farmer, the first landowner, he holds the first chain of supermarkets in the country, the first sugar producer, steel producer, milk producer, yogurt producer, you name it. And this is despite this wonderful article in the constitution. It’s filled with tricks like that. Lina, let’s bring in your experience, because also Tunisia, where the Arab uprisings began, where you had elections, where the Islamists say we’re part of multi-party democracy, what’s your experience been, as you’ve been going around, reporting, filming on the streets? As I said, it’s true that we had free and transparent elections,
and these were elections for a constitutional assembly which is supposed to draft a new constitution for Tunisia. But now, after 6 months, these people haven’t even drafted one line of the constitution. And this is a shame. As I said, almost nothing changed in Tunisia. And do you think the outside world is watching this, that Tunisia has ticked the box in a lot of minds? I don’t see that the world is keeping up and following Tunisia. As I said, I see that all the people think everything is ok in Tunisia, even the foreign press. They’ve moved to other cases, other problems around the world. They’ve forgotten Tunisia. To go back to the first question, this elected government,
these people who are going to write our constitution,
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 after January who didn’t get appropriate health care. Yesterday a young man died because he set his body on fire. Four days ago, another young man set his body on fire.
And the government is ignoring these people. The people who took to the street didn’t ask for an Islamist state or whatever, they asked for employment, they asked for the punishment of the people who killed our martyrs, but even those killers are still free. They even had promotions. Lina, let’s move on. Given what you said, Ghazi, was struck when you addressed the audience a few minutes ago. You said that building a new society shouldn’t depend on the outcome of elections, don’t look at that. It’s about the values behind it. One could say you’re in the better position of having no permanent government, you have a transitional government. You’re rebuilding a state. What issues is that throwing up that maybe we in the outside world are not seeing? Sometimes people who go into Libya see it on a microscopic level, it’s the same thing when you look at other countries. When you look at it microscopically, there are plenty of problems. The problems might stem from daily problems with people, while they are dealing with their lives, and how the government deals with this. But microscopically, when you look at it from a bigger perspective, it looks like we are progressing toward better results. But the truth is that the government in Libya is in a very unique situation in that it can be exploited easily by elements of the revolution, to get for example, privileges and money, because we have plenty of money. And this is the difference between Libya and other countries, we are different because we have that money and we are privileged to have lots of money that can be spent, but the government is inefficient and not competent to do its job to get that money into projects for rebuilding and reconstructing the country. Most of it is being spent in a very inefficient and incompetent way towards giving money to people without giving any incentives. So lots at stake, lots of money out there, and oil in the picture. It’s pretty combustible. Yes it is, and already that is happening because lots of people who are now competing for that money are also in positions of power. And the government is trying to postpone the problems until there is another government, because they do not have the authority, they are not legitimate in many ways. They are not elected; they are self-appointed. So they are not active, they do not have any kind of political will to do anything that is tangible on the ground. Amir, as you look at what has happened and the uprisings that have been, you said you felt that Sudan turned away from this. Is Libya held up as an example?

Do people in the government say “beware chaos,” look at what has happened elsewhere. Is there an appeal to stability? Definitely. Many analysts have looked at the situation in Sudan, I’ve looked at it. There is a real concern. I mean, here’s the thing, if an uprising does take place in Sudan it’s definitely not going to like Tunisia or Egypt.

There’s never going to be a “Tahrir moment.” Best case scenario, it will be something like Yemen, snipers, some killings, factions, government breaking up, lots of tensions. Worst case scenario, it will be like Libya. And people do bring that up. And in fact the opposition leader, he always says, listen, we need to try dialogue, we need to try some different mechanisms, because is too fragile right now for us to have an uprising. You know, he does have a point, but at the same time, can you really negotiate and have a dialogue with a government that’s this violent and appalling and reprehensible? You know, so you’re stuck in a very difficult situation. Long story short: no Libya is not really held up as an example. People are worried that the situation could get that bad, and it could. And for the older generation, as I said last year, Sudan has had two uprisings in the past, in í69 and in í85, and the older generation looks back and says, what has changed? So they’re very reluctant. But the younger generation, we’re the ones with the most to gain, and also the most to lose, so it’s very different for us. Yeah, but that’s really it. We’ll come to Maryam, I also want to say that if any of you feel that you want to reflect on other countries and kind of resonances, differences, and want to point out that other factors do come in. Maryam, what do you think is the strategy of the government of Bahrain, right now? To a large part they like to do the test and run system. Which is basically they’ll do whatever they need to do, and then wait to see what the international response to it is. And if there isn’t too much of an international response, they’ll keep doing it. And so, when they saw that using violence on the street, shooting pellets at people, tear-gassing people in their homes every single night, for more than a year now. They saw that there wasn’t too much of an international response to that, so they still do it. It’s happening on a daily basis in Bahrain. For example, the three most prominent human rights activists in Bahrain, who are known internationally, are all in prison in Bahrain today. And the question is: why does the Bahraini government think they can get away with that? Putting human rights activists in prison, and it’s because when

they arrested them, there wasn’t too much of a reaction. And the fact of the matter is that unless we see concrete actions as consequences when it comes to Bahrain, nothing is going to change. If anything, it is going to get much, much worse. We are seeing international reaction in Syria, but not on the scale we saw in Libya; clearly, every state is different. Well in Bahrain it’s quite the opposite of Libya. In Libya, you got an intervention to help the people against the government. In Bahrain you had GCC forces, Gulf Cooperation Campaign forces, go into Bahrain, and help the government against the people. And they are still in Bahrain today. And one of the scariest thoughts for any person in Bahrain is the fact that

0:33:45.000,0:33:48.000there is a rumor going around now that next week they are going to announce a union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. And I don’t think it gets scarier than that, as to what consequences that will have. So as we talk about outside powers, Saudi Arabia is one of the key ones. Iran is raised in debate as well. And when we were talking before about what we were going to put to the audience, you also said to me, let’s get some of the distractions up there, the things that are used to make people stop worrying about our plight. And I wonder if any of you want to speak to that, the distractions. I said last year that for way too long, dictators in the Arab world have been using the Palestine and Israel conflict as a ‘weapon of mass distraction,’ to distract people away from the local issues and to focus on Israel and Palestine. Now I think people more and more are focusing on Palestine for the sake of Palestine. The distraction of Israel is not working anymore, we saw al-Assad sending people to the Golan Heights to stir up tension with Israel, and some reportedly got shot and killed. And even that didn’t work. The uprising still continued. The propaganda didn’t work: oh it’s always the Zionists, it’s always the Jews. Same thing with Iran: oh it’s the Iranians here and there. The whole distraction of Iran is not working. Even al-Qaeda, we saw, Ghaddafi, you can speak about that. Al-Qaeda, they’re still using these distractions, even in Syria. They’re trying as much as possible to portray that these conflicts didn’t happen because people wanted to have a new change, that the intervention from the beginning from the outside world. And I think with Libya most of the outside revolutions have continued. After the intervention in Libya they used the same notion: if you want to prevent the chaos in Libya then you need to stop talking about intervention in the countries. But at the same time they accept intervention from other countries, in the case of Libya and also in Tunisia, accepting the backstage intervention by other countries that seemed to be benign. If I could just add to that really quickly. One of the things that we’ve seen specifically in Bahrain is name-calling or labeling. And the Bahraini government has done a very good job at this. You know back in the days, the first thing that they labeled the opposition with was that they were all Nasser socialists, and then it became that they were all communists, and then suddenly they were all Iranian agents, and now they call them terrorists as well Iranian agents. And so now what these Arab governments love to do is to see what is perceived as an international threat in that day, and then label all the opposition in their country with that label as a way to garner support internationally to fight them. Ahmed, do you see that narrative from Morocco? Well Morocco is quite a particular situation because distraction is inside the system: it’s the government. Everyone is focusing on the Islamist government as though this is what matters in Morocco. Oh they are Islamists, are they going to implement Islamist policies, and everyone is ooh ooh about that. Some are pro, some are against . This is a distraction because the real power still lies in the hands of the monarchy. Absolute power in the hands of a monarchy that still controls everything, and in the end the Islamist party is bending to the royal palace almost as much as its predecessors. So we don’t need external distractions in Morocco, we create our own internal ones. The Moroccan royal palace is pretty much experienced in terms of creating smoke screens here and there to give the impression of change but continuing in an absolute fashion as ever. Lina, just to pickup with Lina, I want to hear something from you about who is trying to get the message out, about what’s really happening, and is it getting more difficult because there are distractions. One of the distractions is the Euro in crisis, the global economy in crisis, you know the headlines have moved on. Is it harder to get people to look? Yes, with all that is going on around the world it is hard to keep people’s attention on what is going on in Tunisia. But there are internal distractions, as is the case in Morocco. For example, as I said earlier, instead of solving the real problems of the country which are mainly economic and social. The government is trying to divert our attention to such subjects as religion and identity, Islam of course. And of course they have their media for propaganda, to present the situation in Tunisia as a good situation, to present Tunisia as a new democracy. And some cyber activists and bloggers are trying to talk about the real situation in Tunisia, but this is not easy. They are powerful, they have money, and they are the government. They are ruling, they have power. It’s also the case that for many citizens, bread, jobs, stability, are needs that are right there. Democracy and human rights, less so. So it’s up to you to keep selling your priorities. I think the biggest risk is not this notion of oh the Islamists are taking over and the liberals need to win and that whole paradigm. It’s the economic situation, that’s the biggest threat to the Arab uprisings and it could cause more frustration. And the next wave could be ugly if the situation doesn’t get fixed. I remember I was in Tunisia before the 3rd Arab bloggers’ summit where some of us met. And I arrived at the airport and I got in the taxi and I was excited, like yes, finally I’m in Tunisia and I get to experience the country for the first time, and I asked the driver, ‘So how do you feel after what happened?’ He said, ‘As a Tunisian I’m very proud of my country, proud of what my people did, but you know before the revolution it was already difficult to put food on the table, and now after the revolution there are less tourists, and I can’t pay the bills. Life is getting more difficult.’ And I thought about it, this person doesn’t really care about the constitution, the state, is Islam the religion. They don’t bother about such things. The main focus is: I want to feed my family. Some questions are coming in. One says: only secular leaders have fallen but the monarchies still stand. Is this a coincidence? Well I think it has a lot to do with geopolitical importance and economic importance. With Bahrain specifically, even with the question of what people are fighting for, and Bahrain is very different, there are people from all different aspects of life participating in this revolution. And you have some of the richest people in the country who are now standing in opposition of the government and demanding things like human rights and dignity. The word dignity has become one of the biggest goals for people in Bahrain and it’s more about that than it is about economics at the moment. But yeah the fact that they are still standing has a to do with us. We are looking at a situation where you have countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others who are very publicly criticizing Russia for selling arms to Syria, but they are doing the exact same thing in Bahrain. And so today those countries are to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria. Double standards. Ahmed, do you want to speak? The way the question was shaped, secular leaders were overthrown while monarchies are still there. I don’t see this wording as accurate. Monarchies are not necessarily unsecular and secular leaders aren’t necessary unreligious. Let’s just remember that in the Arab world Islam is almost always the religion of the state. So this is not exactly the right categorization, but that was just a point in passing. But back to the economic point, you’re perfectly right. All these political tricks can be used to fool the media and stifle and marginalize the activists, but still the population and the everyday man and the everyday woman still have the same economic difficulties as ever. In Morocco specifically, even though all this constitutional engineering and mockup was extremely brilliant in terms of political trickery, there has been more than 30 spontaneous riots all throughout the country for various reasons: lack of proper housing, lack of jobs, economic difficulties of all sorts. And now somehow, and this is a consequence of what happened last year, in terms of global Arab Spring and its local form in Morocco, people feel empowered. Because however tricky the constitution was, what happened was the people felt like the monarchy had accepted and bent to the will of the people. And this feeling somehow empowered the people. For every grievance that used to happen before, people take to the streets, sometimes in quite a chaotic fashion. The problem is that there is no organized grassroots structure that can channel that and make it an effective democratic demand or program. That’s the problem for now. So you talk about the everyday man, and the everyday woman, and I want to ask where women have a stronger voice today as a result of the Arab uprisings. Perhaps Mona should have been up here with us. I’m sure that Mona is in the audience or she’ll be logged in. Hello. You knew that we’d get to you. Mona El-tahawy, who asked why do they hate us, and asked about the Islamist hatred of women burning brightly across the region. I’m aware we could have hours of debate on this issue alone, but I just want to come back to that thought. Lina, in Tunisia for example, women doctors, women lawyers, were out there, still are out there presumably, playing their part. But is it easier or harder? Of course, Tunisia is known as being an avant garde country when it comes to women’s rights. Tunisian women are well educated, they are conscious and aware of their rights. So even if we’ve heard some of these new leaders of our country giving discourses in which they talked about polygamy, or about making amendments to the articles of the Code of Personal Status, guaranteeing the rights of women in Tunisia. I see that women are fighting against these changes. Women are taking to the streets whenever such discourse is pronounced. When we observe the peaceful demonstrations going on in Tunisia to denounce attacks on freedoms, women’s rights, and freedom of speech, women are always on the forefront of the demonstrations and this gives me hope. I have total confidence in Tunisian women, they won’t let anyone attack or steal their freedoms and their rights. What about those that aren’t on the frontlines and are in the shadows? In Morocco, for example, we’ve had the issue of young girls who have been raped and then forced to marry. There has been outrage, there have been headlines around the world. How much has that felt as an outrage across society? I don’t exactly link that the ripple effect of the Arab Spring, but yes there is some connection. It is again that people feel empowered. And scandals that used to happen before are now more mediatized and paid attention to as it was earlier. The case that you are referring to, the case of 16 year old Amina Filali, what happened is that she was raped and she was forced, by a judge, to marry her rapist as a way to settle the situation. Because this is supposedly the very traditional mentality that by marrying your rapist you just erase the rape and have no problem anymore and society is safe, which is absolutely scandalous. And there is a law, actually, saying that in Morocco. What happened this time is that feminist activists just stood up and said, no this is not normal, we should fight against this because something is happening since last year in Arab world, we are speaking for our rights, and this is part of our rights, and it is a very symbolic right. And talking about Mona El-tahawy, and I loved her article, she mentioned Amina Filali, and she said that she is the Bouazizi of the women’s cause. I totally subscribe to this point of view. Go Mona! Again, it goes back to what I opened with. There is real psychological shift from victimhood and apathy and fear to self-empowerment and self-entitlement. Yes, there are no democratic institutions, and yes, it’s going to be a long painful journey. But the psychological empowerment is so thrilling to so many people and it’s still there. It might not be in the news, you might not have some cool heroic stories, the euphoria might not be there anymore, but that sentiment is very powerful. And believe me, it’s only going to grow. Why?
Because if you look at the example of America in the 1950s, let’s just forget politics for a while, let’s look at households and let’s look at families. Back in those days, when the father says something in a typical household, the father says something, gives an order. The wife listens, the kids listen; there is no debate within a traditional home. But that changed. Same thing here in Europe. The Arab world is experiencing that right now. Again, leave politics. Just look at the household. It’s an indisputable fact. I look at my little cousins, that were like 5 and 6 years old, when my uncle talks to them, they reply back defiantly, and I’m like, damn, I wouldn’t do that when I was that age! And even my mom, she’s like, ‘Oh my god, kids these days…What’s wrong with them?’ Arab uprising, baby, that’s what’s wrong with them. But I’m going to put it to you that there is a bit of naivete there as well, which is borne out of your idealism.  And that where we are seeing is the missed parties, doing well in elections. We are seeing the interim government lifting the restrictions on polygamy. There is a backlash. I think there is a phasing in the Arab uprising. Phase one is what started last year. It’s actually uniting all the social and political forces with one aim: taking down a dictator. It has succeeded in Tunisia, it has somewhat succeeded in Egypt, but maybe there is another dictator system behind the dictator system that fell. It succeeded in Libya, it did not succeed in Bahrain, it didn’t succeed in Morocco, and in many other countries. Anyway, that’s phase one: putting all the social forces together with one aim. But then, when this happens, take Tunisia for example. What happened is that there was immediately a huge electoral victory of the Islamists. Somehow the same thing happened in Morocco and Egypt, obviously, and I believe that this is going to happen everywhere else. Why? I don’t see this as a backlash, I just see it as a normal consequence of the fact that the Islamists are the only organized political force that has been formed and exists in the Arab world. So it’s absolutely normal that they win in elections because they have no credible opponents. So then we have phase two. And to end with phase two, what is going to happen when Islamists take over here and there, at last the real debate will be open in the Arab world. You know democracy is about having the debate defining what the society is and what it should be. This debate has been stifled under the dictatorship because it was not allowed at all, that’s what makes dictatorships. In the country where there are no dictatorships anymore and in the countries where there will be no dictatorships anymore, we will not be able to avoid the central debate, which is what society do you want in the future. Do you want a Muslim, an Islamic society, where the rule of law is derived from the shari’a broadly, there are details, but let’s put this image broadly. Do you want a secular society, with laws that actually would allow us to be what we already are, which are people who have freedom of thought and various ideas and thinking of what religious practice should be. That debate is taking place vehemently in Libya right now, with people registering for the elections that should take place next month. What kind of shape of society do you think is emerging? What place do women have? Well, there was a debate about 6 months ago when the election law was drafted and was passed by the National Transitional Council, whether we give a quota for women’s representation in the constitutional assembly. There was a mixed feeling that some women expressed that they don’t want any quota. They want to exert their strength from the work though civil society through grassroots, not from the top giving women places in Parliament just because they are women. They think that this should be earned, not given by the authority. But then they figured out, they did the same model in Tunisia where each list given by parties should have 50% women representatives and 50% to men representatives, so you have at least 20, 25% in the Parliament. But is that the issue? Is that the main thing? Because you have quite amazing colorful laws protecting women from lots of abuses, but at the same time they are not empowered, they are not enacted. This is the case in Libya and this is the case also in other countries because the society itself needs to change, needs to shift. And I think that’s the debate that is opened up because the dictatorship has fallen. While we still see sexual violence as a weapon, as Mona knows and our audience, and of course as you see in Bahrain in the tactics that are used. Today in prison we have 3 girls in prison who were protesting demanding the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Zainab al-Khawaja, Masooma al-Sayed, and (). () is under 18 years old. And now they are being held in custody 45 days just because they stood on the street holding the picture of a person who was detained. Zainab al-Khawaja of course is internationally known and she is my sister. She has 5 cases against her in court right now. Things like obstructing traffic while protesting. And of course my personal heroes in Bahrain are the girls who go out every day wearing a gas mask and carrying a first aid kit to treat the protestors who still don’t have access to hospitals and who get injured on the streets. And those for me are the real heroes. The women, the mothers who go out and try to free the little boys, the 14 and 15 year old boys, who are getting held and beaten by the riot police. And they actually try to go and pull them away from the riot police and they get beaten themselves sometimes. And I think those are the real heroes of these revolutions.

Lina, you told me that it’s still difficult now, you told me it’s still difficult now and you are sometimes threatened sexually as well. Yes. Let me say that it’s much more hard right now. In the past there was one enemy, and it was clear. Now the situation is too different. Cyber activists, politicians, dissident politicians, human rights defenders who dare to criticize this newly elected government are all the time receiving threats,
it can go to death threats, rape threats. And it also goes to physical violence. On April 9th, we celebrated the memory of our martyrs and many people were savagely beaten by the police and by people working for the government. The communist political leader Hamma Hammami called them the ‘Ennahda militia’ and I can confirm his words, I was present and those people were coordinating with the police. We know them and they were very violent. Some bloggers have got their arms or legs broken and others were really beaten. This is really a shame after January 14th. Journalists were targeted too, and I can’t understand this. I can’t tolerate this. So we’re looking at, to put it mildly, the patchy results of the Arab Spring uprisings. And one question that has come from the audience for your collective wisdom is this: What are the prospects for a spring of any kind in countries like Qatar or Saudi Arabia, monarchies more absolute than the former regimes of Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt. Anytime soon, in my perspective–it’s just not going to happen. But again, from the lens of biology, the al-Saud family, the top heads they’re all in their 70s, 80s. So in the next 10 years, may they rest in peace. And after that they’ve got so many kids because they married so many different wives there’s real tension in the royal family about who’s going to take over. Right now it’s easy, there’ s a clear line of succession, but after that, what happens? That I think will lead to some kind of instability, it’s just unsustainable. Then the question is will the Wahabbis clergy step in, fill the vacuum. Will the modern Saudis, the ones that are more and more empowered, are they going to step in, what will that look like. There’s no way you can predict it. But again, the royal family is increasingly going to become unstable, I think that’s inevitable. I think that it’s the same question when these uprisings started back in 2010, no one predicted this was going to happen in countries where people were so oppressed, their will to change was so shattered. Like in countries like Libya, the guy thought he was invincible. Only at the last moment of his life did he think something wrong was happening and he didn’t think he would be facing reality. I think these regimes are not facing the reality and they are putting themselves inside a bubble and trying as much as possible to shift the problems that are internal to external areas. Especially in countries that have influence and the money to do it and so they try as much as possible to protect themselves in buffer zones and hijack other revolutions. I think it has two aspects to it. There’s the internal aspect and there’s the external aspect. Internally, it’s very difficult right now because you need a popular movement to get any kind of change. For example in Saudi Arabia, no one talks about the protesters who were killed in the Eastern Province, I think most people don’t even know that it happened. And then there’s also people like Mohammed Albajady , a human rights lawyer in Saudi Arabia who’s been on hunger strike since the 21st of February. And again, nobody talks about these issues. 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 anywhere in the world as long as it does not concern Qatar, the internal policies of Qatar. And then externally, when we are looking at the situation with Bahrain, there are monarchies in the Gulf. And there’s this problem that we’e had for a long time, is that the West looks at the Gulf as if only the monarchies exist; there are no populations there. And that’s how they deal with it. And so when you’re looking at a situation where the king’s son, Nasser bin Hamad, who has testimonies collected against him of torture where he has been involved directly in committing torture, going to London as the head of the Olympics Committee for Bahrain in the summer. Or when the Crown Prince can freely visit Washington D.C. as if it’s business as usual. Of course the other monarchies don’t feel threatened. When I say to you all, which power should we be taking note of, you all say Qatar. Qatar is a case study of its own. The did something really smart, the royal family. They preempted the whole process by having a very aggressive diplomacy being involved with any country that was ready to be involve with them, mainly Tunisia, probably Libya, and others. And also having a very strong instrument with Al Jazeera, which is a channel that fueled the uprisings all over the world, but of course did not say a word about Qatar or about countries where there were strategic links with Qatar, like Bahrain and the Gulf countries. Even Sudan. Generally I love Al Jazeera English, but on Sudan, they’re biased, just like on Bahrain. They don’t cover the protests enough, they don’t show the anti-government perspective, and Qatar has recently been pouring billions into Sudan to try to stabilize the economy because it’s so weak right now. Let’s throw another factor into the mix. A questions that’s come in for you all: will sanctions by foreign countries work in a situation like Bahrain or do they end up hurting the wrong people? Well I mean in Bahrain specifically that’s what we’re asking for. As human rights activists we’ve seen enough violations, it’s become obvious. First of all we need to see the bare minimum. We don’t even have consistent statements of condemnations about the violations, let alone a special session in the human rights council of the UN. And you would contrast this with Syria. Exactly. We’re at a point right now where there needs to be a serious discussion about economic sanctions against the regime in Bahrain. Because the Bahraini regime, as long as there is no real consequence for their actions, they have no incentive to change, why should they change. But then you look at, say Tunisia and Morocco, there’s a very real issue with unemployed graduates on the streets. Jobs are a huge issue. The revolution in Tunisia sparked by the vegetable seller who can’t make a living, support his family. And sanctions can hurt the people. Sanctions, what, for having unemployed people? No, we don’t need to have sanctions. We already have sanctions. Tourists are abandoning us, we already have enough sanctions. We need foreign people to help us by promoting tourism in our country, by investing in our country, we don’t need sanctions, no. You know what we need? A sharper view from the western governments. Because actually what happens is that there is always another country that serves as an alibi and a justification for condoning the abuses that happened in the first country. Morocco, that’s the perfect case of it, because whenever you say the constitution is tricky, the prodemocracy protestors are fought against and put in jail, they’ll say, ‘hey, look at Syria.’ The American ambassador in Morocco told me that. He said, well you should be happy. The UK foreign minster said the same thing about Bahrain where he said ‘Bahrain is not Syria. In Bahrain there are reforms and we support those reforms.’ The same thing the dictator said, that every country is different from another one. And every country uses another country to justify its abuses, so I think the major breakthrough would be that western diplomacy considers every country on a case-by-case basis. But is this consistent with their interests in terms of economic interests and oil and stuff like that? I’m not really sure.

And not just that. I’ve expressed my optimism. I think authoritarianism is dying a slow, gruesome death. Authoritarianism will be gone, eventually. Will it be replaced by a liberal, secular democracy, or what kind of democracy: debatable, big question mark. But I’m confident about that. The economic aspect, that is the real concern for me in the long run. I mean in Eastern Europe it has its George Soros, its billionaires, and the United States and back then the United States was in a good position to really help prop up the situation. But the Arab uprising, unfortunately, it happened at a time when the whole world is suffering economically. So we don’t have our George Soros, not that we want him, he can come, but by virtue of being Jewish we’ll have some conspiracy theories there for sure! In Libya you do have your George Soros, Ghazi you were saying in Libya there are think tanks coming in, there are advisors, and we said, Americans, Europeans. We talked about whether interventionism is neocolonialism in another form, or whether it’s welcome last year. It can be, some people argue that there are two types of intervention: there’s the hard intervention and the soft intervention. This is the soft intervention. But you’re seeing a lot of it. Plenty of foreign organizations are working freely in Libya right now. Especially American, American or British, and also from Arab countries, and it depends exactly on the agenda they are serving. 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. So far now I agree with Ahmed, what we were discussing yesterday. I mean the election outcome is not necessarily what we are looking for. What we are looking for is for the process itself to continue, for people to debate their rights on the streets, and at the same time have those rights exercised. It’s not enough to have a lovely constitution that enshrines all the rights if people don’t know those rights. And then the government imposes a law that is unconstitutional, but the people don’t know that because they don’t have any knowledge of it. At which point let me put to you a quotation in our last minutes. It says: “The regional psychological shift from victimhood and apathy to entitlement and self-empowerment is unstoppable. It’s ended over 40 years of stagnation, and it’s here to stay.” That was a quote from Amir, the Sudanese thinker. And I just want a brief thought from each of you about it. It’s long term, it’s optimistic. It’s just demography. You can’t stop it. As Amir said very eloquently, the family structure is changing. One generation ago every family had 6 or 7 siblings, or children, now you have 2, 3 maximum. It’s easier to rebel against paternal authority when you are 2 than when you 7. And it’s easier to speak out. And it’s easier in one word to see yourself as an individual. And there starts the conscience of individual rights, which, by the way, the philosophical basis of democracy. What we consider, very quickly, is democracy is just a technical mechanism. You put the ballot in the box. This is not it. Democracy is a whole set of values, including individual rights, including individual freedoms, including freedom of thought, of conscience, of speech and a whole set of values that are universal. For this set of values to be really pushed it takes a self-conscience by every citizen that I am a citizen and I am an individual and I have individual rights. This is inevitable because the demography is changing and because the family structure is changing. Dictatorships can do nothing against this, so it’s just a matter of time. It’s indisputable, it’s just biology. And again, the only big question mark is, as I’ve said many times, is how will this manifest itself? Will it be liberal, secular democracy, healthy, functioning? That of course there’s no way we can know. But it is indisputable: biology will change the face of the Arab world. It doesn’t mean immediately, of course, it’s through cycles and pressure and dissent. Of course this is the long-term perspective. And the thing is, given me, why am I the ever pragmatic optimist? Given enough time, things eventually get better. I mean, even as we’re debating it, overthrowing a dictatorship might be quick, but it also might be painful. Building a real society, I mean the society is the main important thing, building it will be hard and long and might also be painful at the same time. And that is what we need to focus on: continuing the course and continuing the resistance, whatever comes. Maryam, you’re seeing the hard and long and painful. 

I think I’m a little more pessimistic than the rest of my friends here, and I’m glad to see that they’re optimistic. But I think it’s about time that here in the West, and I speak as an EU citizen, we realize that with democracy, that’s how we combat terrorism. With democracy, that’s how we combat extremism. And the West needs to get behind that. Right now the West is standing on the wrong side of history when it comes to Bahrain and probably Syria as well. And what I would like to see is a change in that mindset, a change in the mindset that, you know, we should support the authoritarian regimes no matter what the cost because of our economic and geopolitical interests. And I think it’s very sad that today we have a prime minister for more than 40 years in Bahrain, and nobody in the West thinks that it’s a problem. And the other thing is that we are still looking at a position where the government is striking down, beating people on the streets, and yet it’s getting no attention internationally. And I think that really needs to change. Lina, you are individually empowered, is your society getting there? Let me say that despite the gloomy picture I see now, I am hopeful. I see Tunisian society fighting for its rights and freedoms. Despite all the violence and repression we are facing, people are still fighting. We can see changes, and these changes are in the Tunisians themselves. Tunisians, and Arab citizens in general, got rid of their fears. They won’t allow dictatorships to govern them again. And this is very important, and this is what gives us all hope and drives us to fight. That’s where we are going to leave it. I want to say though, you can keep the debate going, you know where they are, they’re here. If you’re at the Oslo Freedom Forum you can keep talking to us on Twitter with the hashtag #OFF12 or go to the website. Thank you all so much for your insights.

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  1. let me think of it… FF invited the young people that demonstrated last year for democracy in some arab countries, right ? Ahmed Benchemsi… is no longer young (he looks like but he is not!) and he came to Oslo straight from the United States where he lives beside the prince hicham cousin of the king of Morocco !

  2. Sorry, but I still think that democracy fits Arabs like a saddle fits a cow.

    I see disaster in the making, as very Nazi-like parties are coming to power in Egypt and Tunisia, and though they lost in Lybia for now, they're bound to win next time.

    Allready in Egypt, stormtroopers run the streets. A young guy was killed for walking in a park with his girlfriend. Two people were killed for making sculptures or pictures. There is talk of blowing up the pyramids.

  3. Arabs are Arabs. They will ve Arabs. Mubarak and Ben Ali were too good for them. Wait a few years, and they will dream of the good old days of Mubarak.

  4. Democracy struggles to work in western countries like the UK and USA.
    What chance does it have in these Arab countries.

  5. It's a shame but I would have to agree with you.

    Egypt will, soon enough, be mired in Islamic Lysenkoism with all the same results including real famine.

  6. There is no such thing as legitimate democracy in Arab nations. The tyrannical rule of the majority is the closest they will come.

  7. The problem's that all these guys talks about the black side of their countries only., I'm a Moroccan and of course there's some bad things happening on, but people(governement and us) are trying our best to make Morocco better than what it was like, yesterday!
    Even in most democratic countries there's those who tries to make their own business growing up to the detriment of their country's upgrowth.
    So we should fight to eliminate these members of our societies but also lighting good things.

  8. So you want us to get stuck at the beginning of the 19th European century?
    And do you think you deserve more human dignity than we do as arabs? pfff racist scum..

  9. Where did i say that?

    There exists only as much human dignity as one can make for themselves. Nobody grants other people "dignity". It is something that is earned.

    Has nothing to do with "deserving" anything.

  10. Arab countries are wort than black countries period. To be exact Arabs countries don't even have future because the are arrogant and pride they abuse the power


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