An Academic’s Hunger Strike for Freedom of Speech

RABAT—I met Maati Monjib on October 15, the tenth day of his hunger strike. Mr. Monjib, a political analyst, activist and professor of history at the University of Mohammed V-Rabat, is protesting a travel ban that he says is punishment for his outspokenness. The author of several books on contemporary Moroccan political theory and a former fellow at the Brookings Institution, Mr. Monjib is a busy public intellectual. He is the founder of a political research and consultancy center and of an NGO dedicated to freedom of expression and investigative journalism, Freedom Now. He was a leading figure of the opposition, February 20 movement, which organized protests in Morocco at the beginning of the Arab Spring. He is frequently quoted by international media and is a regular critic of the monarchy and the security services.

Mr. Monjib said the ban is an attempt to intimidate him: “They want me to stop my activism, to discredit me, and to silence others.”

Our meeting took place in the offices of a human rights NGO in Rabat—a dilapidated apartment decorated with bright traditional tiles and graffiti.  Monjib is alert and combative, despite the fact that for part of the interview he sat in a wheelchair and that two days before this he was hospitalized. He received a steady stream of phone calls, answering friends’ inquiries with: “I’m OK. I’m resisting!” A petition of support has been signed by prominent Moroccan and foreign academics. The Middle East Studies Association has written to the king and the prime minister of Morocco to request an end to the travel ban.

Monjib said he was prevented from traveling outside Morocco on September 14, when he was scheduled to attend an academic conference in Barcelona on transitions in the Arab world. During an interrogation that followed, he says he was accused of serving foreign interests, disseminating false information and undermining citizens’ loyalty to public institutions. When he was once again not allowed to leave the country on October 6, he began his hunger strike.

The Moroccan Ministry of Interior at first denied that there was a travel ban. Then it announced that Mr. Monjib is being investigated for financial irregularities at his research center, which he shut down last year.  Members of media that are close to the government and the palace have attacked him as a traitor and an attention seeker.

Mr. Monjib has called for dialogue between Islamists and leftists, to form a united front to push the Moroccan monarchy to democratize; he has also often highlighted violations of freedom of expression. For exposing the way the political system works, he says that he has been threatened and harassed for several years now. In fact, in an article he published in March, Mr. Monjib seemed to predict his current troubles. Analyzing different strategies by which the security services here allegedly smear dissidents, he noted that the charge most often brought against leftist militants is financial impropriety.

Restricting the mobility of scholars is a common tool used by Arab governments to send a message. In Egypt, where the military regime of president Abdel-Fattah El Sisi has taken a repressive approach to political dissent, the authorities announced last year that professors would need to obtain a security clearance before being allowed to attend academic conferences abroad. Foreign scholars who are critical of Arab regimes or who work on topics deemed sensitive are also sometimes banned from entry or deported. Earlier this year the United Arab Emirates banned several professors who are part of a group that lobbies for better conditions for migrant laborers in the Gulf from entering the country.

Arab academics living in the region who wade into politics and public debates often do so at their own peril. The combination of intellectual standing, access to international media and policy-makers, and political engagement seems to particularly threaten Arab regimes. Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo who was outspoken in his criticism of the Egyptian military’s ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, was convicted of espionage. (Mr. Shahin had already relocated to the United States by the time his death sentence was handed down).

Morocco hasn’t witnessed nearly the level of division or violence that has shaken many other Arab countries in recent years. But the charges and restrictions against Mr. Monjib come in the context of growing repression against journalists and human rights activists.

“I speak freely,” says Mr. Monjib. “People aren’t used to that. I tend to say what I think because otherwise I can’t analyze well.”


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