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Why Is a Moroccan History Professor Being Charged with "Endangering State Security?"

[Image of Moroccan historian Maati Monjib getting carried out police headquarters while he was on hunger strike. Image from Yassine Toumi/TelQuel] [Image of Moroccan historian Maati Monjib getting carried out police headquarters while he was on hunger strike. Image from Yassine Toumi/TelQuel]

In August 2015, Maati Monjib was returning home to Morocco from his summer vacation. But before he could clear customs and leave the airport to return to his home in Rabat, Moroccan police apprehended and detained him, notifying him that he faced the charge of “endangering state security.” Until legal matters were resolved, they told him, he was subject to a travel ban and forbidden to leave the country.

The travel ban came as somewhat of a surprise, Monjib says. In the months and years prior, the history professor’s outlook on Moroccan politics was cautiously optimistic. In 2011, taking cue from activists in neighboring states demanding political change, Monjib was one of many participants in Morocco’s February 20 Movement. The movement enjoyed relative success, eventually helping to bring about constitutional reform later that year. It further inscribed gender equality into law, guaranteed the independence of the judicial branch, and gave the people the right to elect the Prime Minister for the first time. For Monjib, who often moonlights as a journalist when not working as a professor at the University of Mohammed V, the reformed constitution was a culmination of years of civil society work he undertook for decades prior.

But Morocco’s baby-steps toward democratization did not deter Monjib from continuing to advocate for democratic reform and the expansion of human rights in the Kingdom. Monjib continued to act as he always had before. He facilitated reconciliatory meetings between Morocco’s Islamists and leftists. He spearheaded mobilizing efforts for free speech and human rights. He helped a Dutch NGO, FreePressUnlimited, distribute Storymaker, a mobile platform built to assist citizen and professional journalists in documenting and sharing their stories. He appeared as a political commentator in the international press, published pieces in the Moroccan press, and provided analysis for think tanks like Brookings and Carnegie. In each and every endeavor, Monjib refused to bow to inevitable fears that come along with criticizing the Morocco’s establishment. 

In 2014, aiming to formalize efforts to defend freedom of the press and protect Moroccan journalists, he and several of his colleagues founded the association “Freedom Now.” But in Morocco, associations must apply for legal status, and when “Freedom Now” got their papers in order and submitted, they were quickly rejected.

Monjib’s advocacy and criticism routinely, he says, led to warnings from members of the police force, but 2015’s travel ban and charges still took him by surprise. In the following days, he embarked on a hunger strike that lasted twenty-one days and ended in his collapse. The strike garnered attention from Human Rights Watch as well as Le Monde, The Washington Post, and The New York Times; the American papers’ editorial boards wrote op-eds in his support. Morocco, hoping to avoid any more fallout than had already occurred, lifted Monjib’s travel ban.

Despite the fact that—particularly in the lead-up to this week’s COP22 conference—evading negative publicity continues to be a central Moroccan priority, Monjib’s legal charges have been much harder to shake. The regime accuses Monjib and his six co-defendants of corruption: receiving foreign funds to be used to undermine Moroccan institutions. According to Reuters, the punishment could be up to five years imprisonment if the seven are found guilty. But they have had four hearings scheduled and each time, the tribunal responsible has postponed the hearing. Repeated delays have placed Monjib in a purgatory of sorts; it is difficult for the professor, his wife, and daughter to plan their lives while under surveillance with his charges looming above.

“Our trial isn’t massive but intelligence services try to behave like surgeons,” he says, “They want to be efficient in their repression so they target people and organizations when they see them creating dynamism in society.”

According to Monjib, the tribunal is reluctant to give its verdict because the regime wants to cool down the case. But because of the media attention that Monjib has received, he believes that the Moroccan establishment opposing him is "bothered and doesn’t know what to do.” They cannot, he thinks, just say "’Okay, it was a mistake. These citizens are innocent; they were harassed and prosecuted unjustly.’” And due to the severity of the charge they cannot dole out short sentences either.

Monjib’s most recent hearing took place on Wednesday, 26 October, and resulted in another postponement, this time until 25 January. In the courtroom were friends and fellow activists as well as several journalists, observers from the European Union, and Dutch Embassy personnel. Days before, I sat down with Monjib over coffee and afterward accompanied him as he picked up his daughter from school and participated in a meeting with the human rights organization he leads. The following is an abridged and edited transcript of the conversation.

Sam Metz (SM): Your trial hearing is next week and you have a press conference and a sit-in planned. Why hold a press conference and conduct a sit-in before the hearing?

Maati Monjib (MM): The purpose of our press conference and sit-in is mainly to inform Moroccans as well as people interested outside Morocco that the nature of this trial is political. Our trial is not massive so the sit-in will be symbolic, but it will represent the violations of human rights and our rights as citizens.

At the press conference, there will be international observers as well as international and Moroccan journalists. Our press release will be read in French and Arabic by the Committee and there will be presentations for international observers followed by a Q&A with Moroccan and international journalists about the case.

SM: How are you feeling in the days leading up to the hearing? I know that, in the past, each hearing has resulted in postponement. Does anything feels different this time around?

MM: For my family, all of the postponements are a very bad thing. In the lead up of to each of the hearings, they are anxious about what will happen. This is our fifth hearing and they have not even begun the trial. This is bad for me because it is lost time that cannot be recovered. We cannot rewind the clock and restart our work in civil society, defending freedoms.

SM: What do you think the reason is behind each of the four postponements?

MM: I believe they are postponing because our court files are really empty. How can one be accused of "endangering state security" for disseminating [the application] Storymaker? Our lawyers know this and public opinion is in our favor. [The case] is laughable, perhaps even to the judge. [The six of us on trial] are trying to behave in a normal way and not pay attention to the pressure. The regime’s objective is to divert attention away from our work and defame us.

SM: Why have you chosen to stay in Morocco?

MM: I spent twenty years outside Morocco in exile. I like living in Morocco and participating in the democratization process. Everybody likes to live in their home country, especially those forced to live outside against their will.

Also, I am a public figure I have a university post and I am somewhat well known in the political class and civil society. If I leave Morocco—people may think I am fleeing the trial. I want to stay here to show that I am innocent against all the accusations that are hedged against me by the regime. But after, if the trial ends and I am acquitted and declared innocent, I may leave Morocco because it is too much living under this pressure. But now, I cannot leave because of the trial and it might be interpreted as me recognizing the legitimacy of the charges.

SM: When were you made aware that you were being charged with "endangering state security" and what were you doing in the months prior?

MM: I learned that I was being charged on 31 August 2015 upon my return from vacation in France. When I arrived in Morocco, a policeman wrote on my customs card that I was being prosecuted for “endangering state security,” alerting me that I was officially under prosecution. I was detained for fifteen to twenty minutes and then freed with notice that I was banned from travelling outside the country.

From time to time, I criticized the intelligence as an organization that intervenes in the political orientation of Morocco. And this counts as a real crime. You can criticize the regime but you cannot criticize the activities of Moroccan intelligence and its role in the country’s politics.

I had also been trying for about nine years to organize and participate in a rapprochement between Islamists and Leftists in Morocco and as I was beginning to have some success, I became seen as politically dangerous. On 6 April 2014, I helped organize a public meeting between members of the non-parliamentary left and non-violent Islamists. After that, they began to harass me and warn me about activities and about my writings. It bothers some within the government that I use English and French in my writings and activism. It makes them see me as more of a political bother for the regime. I am a moderate and the regime does not like moderate people because they are the ones who have the potential to be liked by the population. They traditionally are not for war. They are not for violence. This worries them.

SM: Why would the state not want rapprochement between leftists and Islamists opponents?

MM: Because it could change the balance of power in favor of the people. The Islamists are very popular and leftists have experience and expertise in organizing people. The Left is very present in culture and education in Morocco and is supported by public opinion in the West. If there is a pro-democracy pull, it could be really bad for the regime because it could develop into a really popular force asking for democracy. The only alliances formed in Morocco must be formed under the auspices of the regime.

SM: Americans often think of Morocco as an island of stability in a region known for chaos and upheaval. Morocco is known for its moderation? What do you think of this?

MM: Yes, it is true that Morocco is more moderate and stable than its neighbors and less authoritarian than regimes in places like Syria or Saudi Arabia. But still, [our elected] institutions are not the governing institutions.

SM: If you are convicted, what do you think it reflect on the state of journalism in Morocco?

MM: In Morocco, self-censorship is already a problem due to our prosecution as well as that of journalist Ali Anouzla.  Journalists are too afraid to criticize the taboo trinity—the King, the Intelligence Agency, and the Army. Those who steer clear of this are safe.  Journalists here are free to criticize ministers and other second-rank political personnel like ministers, so the press concentrates its criticism there even though it is not where power lies.

This is an ontological problem for journalists. They do not criticize the King, because it is dangerous. Instead they criticize [Prime Minister Abdelilah] Benkirane because he does not repress them for doing so. Journalists do not place political actors under equal scrutiny. They avoid covering corruption in Morocco’s high spheres of power but often single out the corruption of individual employees or policemen. This is not ideal for journalism—attacking the weak and committing editorial allegiance to the powerful. It is morally unacceptable. 

[The views and information presented do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.]

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