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The Cruelty Principle

The same Moroccan friend who told me, the first time we met, that “Morocco is a cruel country” later explained what he called the “Arab mentality” in which rulers are abusive toward their people not because they deserve it, but simply to remind them of the rulers’ power—to rub their noses in the fact that there is nothing they can do about it, because they are small and the Big Man is big. It’s as if injustice had been elevated to a governing princlple. As irrational, even impossible as that may seem to those of us raised in the West, anyone who’s had to deal an Arab bureaucrat will have an inkling of what I’m talking about.

When you walk into the room, the first thing you get is a look of annoyance that says, “Wny are you here?” He tells you to wait as he chats with colleagues or reads the paper. Once he deigns to speak with you, he insults you and tells you done everything wrong. You’re missing something important in your file. You’ll have to come back tomorrow when the proper official is there. He may not be there tomorrow either; but in any case, there’s nothing to be done now. And you should have known this. Why are you wasting his time?

I’ve often wondered—if I receive this kind of treatement as a foreigner, a guest, then what do the Moroccans, Egyptians or Jordanians themselves have to deal with? My heart goes out to those young people who have all the curiosity and eager desire I had at twenty, but by accident of birth are trapped in a system whose officials display their arrogance and cruelty as a badge of honor. Every so often, I come across a story that reminds me how fragile innocence can be in such a society; how a single slip, a single thoughtless word can destroy a life forever.

About a week ago, I received an e-mail from Razan of Decentering Damascus that told such a story. Tariq Biassi, a 23-year-old Syrian from Banyas, a coastal town, “is described by his friends as shy and quiet, spending his time surfing the net and blogging.” His blog has pictures of his motorcycle, a smiling infant, and distant galaxies. Apparently, though, Tariq felt some frustration with the police in his country, so he “went online and insulted security services” by leaving a comment on an Arab discussion forum. As a result, on July 7, 2007, the police asked him to come with them to answer a few questions. He hasn’t been seen since, and even his family has been unable to get any information about where he is being held, or the nature of the charges against him.

Razan only heard about Tariq’s story this month, but she is making up for lost time by doing what she can to publicize his case, in the hopes that international pressure might help Tariq’s cause. A petition to free Tariq has been set up, as well as a website that documents Tariq’s story. Razan has written about Tariq more than once on her blog, which remains the best source of information in English. Global Voices has a summary of reaction from the blogosphere. The Human Rights Watch report about Tariq and some similar cases is here.

Zeinobia of Egyptian Chronicles also tells the story. Her version has some valuable information about Tariq’s family and the circumstances of his arrest.

    Tarek Biassi was arrested in July 2007… for the following: criticizing the security forces in a comment in the forum “I Am a Muslim,” visiting online the opposition websites, and his father Dr. Omar Biassi is currently detained too for 20 years [i.e., Dr. Biassi has been a prisoner for 20 years]….
    He was arrested by the military intelligence officers… and being held till now in the “Palestine” Branch’s detention center at Damascus, till now with no trial or charge, well he is not the first one in Syria to be in the same situation, it is a regular thing I am afraid. For those who don’t know, the Palestine Branch is the one of the most fearful notorious security branches not only in Syria but in the Arab world, it follows the people whom the regime believes they are danger on its security….
    It is sad and disgusting… he was looking after his mother whom I feel more sad about, Tarek was her only child…. I feel pessimistic whether about Tarek or his father, especially about his father, I wish they will return both safe, it is strange the father and the son being arrested, seriously I feel so angry for that lady who raised a young man all by herself then found this young man taken away in front of her eyes and she can’t do anything, God be with her.

Just as I was preparing to write about Tariq, something very similar happened in Morocco. Fouad Mourtada’s story is even more surreal and tragic. At least Tariq insulted the police, and while I don’t believe that such a thing should be considered a crime, I can understand why it got the authorities mad. But the act for which Fouad now faces up to five years in prison was setting up a Facebook profile in the name of Prince Rachid, the king’s younger brother. This frivolous gesture earned him a terrifying response from the Moroccan state, as he tells in his own words on a website set up by his family.

    I was arrested on Tuesday morning by two individuals who took me away in a vehicle and covered my eyes with a black band. After about fifteen minutes they made me change vehicles, then brought me into a building to undergo interrogation. There I was persecuted, battered with punches, slapped, spat upon and insulted. I was also beaten for hours with a device on the head and legs. This martyrdom lasted so long that I lost consciousness more than once, and I also lost my sense of time. When I was moved again to a new location, I was totally surprised to learn that it was Wednesday.

Like Tariq Biassi, Fouad is described by those who know him as “a reserved and timid type of person [who] had created friendships on the Internet and was accustomed to participating in forums.” He is 26, from Goulmima in southeastern Morocco, a town at the edge of the Atlas Mountains that is known for its date plantations. Through hard work and quiet ambition, he lived up to the Moroccan image of a model son, earning a degree as an IT engineer and then a job in that field. So what possessed him to risk it all by creating a Facebook profile “impersonating” Prince Rachid? As he says himself, it was “a joke, a jest,” an innocent gesture that he never imagined would be taken seriously. The page has since been taken down, but apparently there was no mockery in it, or intent to defraud. There are rumors on the internet that Fouad used the Prince’s identity to meet girls, but he denies this, and there is nothing in the public record to support such a claim.

When I first heard about Fouad, I didn’t think I would have anything to say about it, because as sad as it is for him and his family, it’s also foolish. As a free speech issue, it isn’t on the level of the jokes published by Nichane a year ago, or the $350,000 fine against Aboubakr Jamaï that forced him to leave Morocco to save his magazine, or the editorial by Ahmed Reda Benchemsi in which he talked back to the king after a speech to the nation. Yet as I thought about it, my anger grew. Is free speech just for journalists? Doesn’t it belong to us all? Shouldn’t young people be able to say what they like on the internet, even if it is foolish? Isn’t that what youth is about? If I were Prince Rachid, I would feel ashamed to hear that Fouad had been abducted by the police, slapped around for 24 hours, prevented from contacting his family for a week, then brought to trial on trumped-up charges, all to protect my good name. The men who slapped and beat him wouldn’t be working for me any more. Yet Prince Rachid hasn’t stepped in. Is it possible that he believes in this kind of justice? If so, then shame on him. It’s an example of the “Arab mentality” my friend talked about, cruelty as a governing principle.

Happily, Fouad has found support in the Moroccan blogosphere. Larbi alone has written four posts on the subject. In the first, he argues that what Fouad did is not a crime unless he sought to profit from it. He calls the arrest a “world first.” In the second, he defends Fouad’s right to a fair trial, and laments the media witch hunt, in which Fouad is accused of “villainous practices” without any evidence. He points out that on Facebook “you can find numerous false profiles of heads of state, as well as celebrities from the world of art, culture and sport” yet none of these people has ever gone to court over it. In his third post, he calls the case “a surreal trial” of “an offense that wasn’t committed” and argues that the case should be thrown out. “In a State that respects itself, Fouad’s trial shouldn’t even happen.” Yet he is pessimistic. “Do we need to remind ourselves of the courts’ excess of zeal when it’s a question of the king or his entourage?” His fourth post informs us that Fouad will be held without bail until his trial on February 22. He includes a comminqué from Fouad’s family which points out that as an IT engineer, Fouad would have known how to cover his tracks if he thought he was doing anything wrong, yet he made no effort to do so.

The popular website MoTIC has a whole series of posts about Fouad (12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78) with links to practially everything written on the subject in the blogosphere or in the mainstream press. In his most recent post, MoTIC’s author informs us that despite managing to become one of Morocco’s most prominent blogs in just over a year, he is throwing in the towel because of the Facebook case.

    When I see the very dangerous and serious turn that the Fouad Mourtada affair is taking and the ridiculous reasons for which he was arrested, lynched, tortured, held without possibility of release on bail, that isn’t a good sign. I’ve said in the past that there have been reforms in this country in the areas of individual liberty and freedom of expression, but I’ve noted certain steps backward….
    I think that if the creation of a false Facebook proflie is worth this treatment, then the next one could be a blogger. Given current conditions, it’s becoming more difficult and risky to present a critical point of view on diverse subjects. So it’s with regret that I’ve decided to end the MoTIC experiment.

What this means that even if Fouad is cleared of all wrongdoing, the very fact of his arrest is having a chilling effect on others. Novelist Laila Lalami agrees. “The Moroccan government has so far—and wisely—left bloggers alone, but if someone can get put in jail for something as silly as a fake Facebook profile, then bloggers should be worried.” Other reactions to the case include Ibn Kafka, who combs through the Moroccan penal code, without much success, to determine if there is a crime. AbMoul comments, “Visibly, the Moroccan authorities, who are showing alarming signs of nervousness, want to make themselves look ridiculous once again.” Laurent Bervas, a Casablanca entrepreneur, has the most optimistic take. He argues that Fouad’s virtual support network may offer the chance to prove that the internet is coming of age in Morocco, and is able to counterbalance the enormous influence of Prince Rachid.

Perhaps the most touching tribute to Fouad comes from Mounir Bensalah, who wrote a post called “Fouad Mourtada: A Fantasy on Trial!” For me, it speaks to a lot more than the case at hand. It’s really a portrait of a whole class of young Moroccan. He’s reimagined Fouad as the product of social forces that are leading him nowhere. Fouad knows that, and doesn’t know that. His only defense is his dream.

    My name is Fouad, I was born 26 years ago in the most beautiful country on earth!
    Like every citizen of the world, I opened my eyes to grownups who told me fairy tales. … One of those fabulous stories had a special fascination for me: Cinderella.
    As a boy, I knew what it meant to go to school. I was taught that to be somebody, I had to study. Coming from a family that belongs to the Arab and Muslim tradition, I was taught that temptation is strictly forbidden. … Yet I had a normal adolescence: like all humans, I fantasized! Transgressing all limits, I dreamed of Cinderella, that charming, frustrated girl, who in reality was like me. Nature and fate weren’t kind to me: I wasn’t a beauty, nature was my ferocious adversary; I wasn’t the one all the world’s Cinderellas were dreaming of. And then, I heard my mother say: when a man becomes important, everyone wants to get close to him. … I forced myself to be brilliant in my studies so I could realise my dream, my fantasy.
    I managed to become what my mother had hoped for, an engineer. I believed that with my salary, my social status, I could manage to realize my dream, the dream of seducing Cinderella. But the elevator I thought I was taking only got me one floor higher than the others. I refused to fall under the sway of the conservatve zeitgeist that wants us to renounce temptation and fantasy; but for all that, I’ve never claimed to be one of those who tries to bring progress, or get rid of received ideas. I’m an ordinary guy.
    I start my first job as a state engineer, and its salary comes to at least four times the minimum wage. I’m frustrated. My elevator doesn’t get me past my structural handicap: my education, my invisibility, my complex. People without worth, without culture, without effort are glamorizing my Cinderellas. But I never give in to despair; I reinvent myself as the one Cinderella would love to meet. I do it in my fantasy. I invent myself as a prince!
    Then I discover a channel for expressing my fantasy: the internet. It gives us permission to dream, lets us fantasize. I make myself into a prince so as to please Cinderella. One day, some heavyset guys come to my place: they don’t want me to dream any more, they don’t want Cinderella to fall in love with me, a simple man without hope, a common man; they want me to stop dreaming!
    May the prince, the real one, forgive me for envying his position, but I have every right to dream!
    Let them put me in irons, let them take away my freedom, they can never stop me from dreaming!

Ironically, in the same week that talk of Tariq and Fouad was percolating through the blogosphere, information ministers from all over the Arab world were meeting in Cairo to establish a set of rules for satellite broadcasts that will “entrench state control over broadcasts” according to Reuters, and “shackle freedom of expression” according to Al Jazeera. The language of the new charter, which was approved by all the Arab nations except Qatar and Lebanon, enshrine all the insipid arguments I’m used to hearing from the Moroccan authorities, who trot them out whenever there is a controversy over free speech.

    The Cairo document stipulates that satellite channels “should not damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values.” It says that programming should also “conform with the religious and ethical values of Arab society and take account of its family structure.”

The charter was written at the invitation of Egypt, and they got what they wanted. They want to protect their citizens from their own thoughts. It only applies to satellite broadcasts, so it won’t directly affect the internet or print media. But it shows that things are moving in the wrong direction in the Arab world. It’s one more sign of the complacency of the Arab elites, who claim to be defending “social harmony” and “ethical values” as they close off the future for their youth.


Comment from Ibn Kafka
Time: February 17, 2008, 07:58

Really excellent, I surprised myself nodding in accord when I read the passage on Fouad and aghast when reading about Tariq Biassi. Let’s hope for the best, but I’m not really optimistic…

Comment from leblase
Time: February 18, 2008, 04:51

This whole affair should be scrutinized, its various components analyzed independently.

First, the theft of identity CAN be a crime, and the prince was in his right to stop that: how could he know the limits of the young Facebooker’s intentions?
So the source of the whole stuff lays on a righteous principle: nobody would like to hear some unknown chap is going around pretending he is you.
Second, the harsh treatments: I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Ministry of interior is pleased to let known the insane, arbitrary, illegal way the young man was treated.
It provides an obvious red line and the fact that Motic gives up is the main proof that the Royal court and the ministry of Interior win the first round: there no better censorship than self-censorship.

It is a clear sign to my numerous Moroccan blogger friends that a crackdown might be under way, but like Laurent Bervas I wonder if it is not, at the same time, the perfect occasion to confront the king’s public relation policy with the idea of freedom of expression.
The moroccan blogosphere is very lively, very diverse. It is one of the few domains in Morocco where so much of the people’s authentic quality, culture, intelligence and great sens of humor can appear to the world.
The fact that so much of it is expressed in French is also important, as it deprives the Moroccan authority who would try to get the West’s sympathy of the argument of the fight against religious integrism

So let us spread the world about what appear to me to be the main facts:
1/police can still go around like they do in every fascist country in complete impunity
2/Moroccan people deserve a place in their own country if Morocco is to become a partner of Europe: they are ready and can prove it with this whole mess.
but I suggest they do not insist on “it was no crime to substitute an identity”, because as you know eatbees, identity theft is fast becoming the easy way to rob common people of their belongings.

Comment from Ibn Kafka
Time: February 19, 2008, 06:46

leblase: well, theft of identity, “usurpation d’identité”, is a crime under Moroccan law only if you take someone else’s identity in a public or certified document, which patently isn’t the case here. Fouad didn’t even impersonate Moulay Rachid, as he didn’t put his own photograph under the profile he created. And no sane person has even alleged that Fouad Mourtada tried to use the profile to rob Moulay Rachid of his belongings… The case rests on thin air, and were Moroccan judges independent, competent and professionnal, this case would be thrown out of court on the spot.

Comment from alle
Time: February 19, 2008, 08:31

Great post, really great, and good that it’s getting some coverage on English-language blogs too.

Comment from leblase
Time: February 19, 2008, 10:19

Ibn Kafka: You’re right to point out that Fouad didn’t seem to have tried to rob Moulay Rachid of his belongings.
But I’m afraid he did take someone else’s identity in a public (though uncertified) document: today an information published in a social networks like Facebook, as new affairs coming out now in the States tend to assert, is to be considered a public document.
I guess (and hope;-) that it is not yet as such in Moroccan law.
The real trouble, as I tried to say, is in the nature of the reaction: taking this man on a ride and roughing him up with the usual impunity-minded manners police like to impose on people, letting it be known so that all Moroccan Web-users get the message is VERY political.
A sign that someone has decided to put an end to some more liberties.
One should now hope and work for the backfire created by the internet fast-spreading information to do the exact opposite: let the power know that they are the ones on surveliance

Comment from Reb
Time: February 19, 2008, 13:30

I agree with Ibn Kafka and Eatbees that Fouad did not break any laws and the whole sordid mess has more to do with theaching everyone a lesson. Hopefully the voice of the people will not fall on deaf ears and Fouad will be able to go home on Friday.

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