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Laila Lalami | The Nation

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Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami

Frankfurt Shootings: The Making of a Terrorist?

It seems to be a ritual we go through, every few months, when a lone gunman commits an act of terror: talking heads ask why he did it and then immediately provide a simple answer. The shooting of two American servicemen in Frankfurt yesterday by Arif Uka, a 21-year-old Kosovar, is already being called an act of terrorism, with various pundits stressing that the suspect is Muslim.

Robert Spencer, for instance, called the shooting a “jihad attack” and said that Al Qaeda has been active in Kosovo “for over a decade.” The Washington Post helpfully identified him as “devout Muslim” who had shouted “Allahu Akbar” before firing at a bus full of American soldiers.

If these details feel familiar, it’s because they form part of a story we’ve been given frequently over the last few years. Neo-conservative thinkers have consistently argued that it is an inherent hatred of “our freedoms” that causes young men to kill people who have done them no harm. This hatred stems solely and directly from the Islamic faith, a faith, the public is reminded at every opportunity, whose holy book promotes violence against non-believers. These men, the argument goes, are merely taking what Richard Dawkins once called the “logical path” between religion and violence.

This theory was used to explain why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who came from a wealthy Nigerian family, went to a private school in Togo, and received a degree in mechanical engineering from University College London, disguised a syringe and explosive powder in his underwear and then attempted to detonate them as his airplane approached Detroit Airport on Christmas Day in 2009. But the trail of posts to social networking sites he left behind did not suggest he was angry with “our freedoms,” and still less with modern technology. His grievances appeared to be nebulously political, though powerful enough to get him to seek out terrorist training.

Meanwhile, some on the left have argued that it is Western involvement in Muslim countries—including, but not limited to, the propping up of dictators and monarchs throughout the Middle East; the unconditional support for Israel; the military bases; the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and now Yemen; the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay—that motivates young men to become suicide bombers. In this view, the bombers are soldiers in a war not just against Western governments but also against the leadership of many Muslim countries.

Such an explanation was put forth when Shehzad Tanweer, Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay and Mohammad Sidique Khan blew up a double-decker bus and three underground trains in London on July 7, 2005. In a video he left behind, Tanweer stated that he wanted British troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and that attacking fellow Britons was justified so long as the government “continues to oppress our mothers, children, brothers and sisters in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya.”

An even smaller contingent ties this type of terrorism to a range of social issues. The terrorists tend to be from poor, disenfranchised segments of Muslim societies. They may or may not be educated, but the plutocracies that rule their countries offer them no prospects of jobs and no possibility of living a life of dignity and self-respect. This despair leads them straight into the hands of radical groups, which convince them to take action against a mythical victimizer.

This, at least, was how some Moroccan commentators accounted for the dozen bombers who, in May 2003, staged coordinated attacks against hotels and nightclubs in the city of Casablanca. The bombers were extremely poor. They all lived in the sprawling slum of Sidi Moumen. Of the three bombers who survived the attacks, one, Rachid Jalil, was a welder, and another, Yassine Lahnech, was a street peddler. In these conditions, several Moroccan columnists wrote, young disenfranchised men turn to violence.

The debate over what makes a suicide bomber is likely to continue for quite sometime, because none of these explanations feels entirely satisfactory. We should not merely ask what makes a terrorist but what makes a specific terrorist act, against a specific target, at a specific time. A bomber may believe he is fighting foreign occupation of his homeland, or retaliating against occupation of another country, or exacting revenge for the loss of a loved one, or participating in what he sees as a religious war between Muslims and non-Muslims, or fighting back against the ruling class, or trying to regain a lost honor, or any number of other things.

There are plenty of Kosovar Albanians who live in Germany, but they don’t shoot at buses full of American soldiers. There are plenty of Nigerian men who study abroad, but they don’t join terrorist networks and attempt to blow up an airplane. There are plenty of British Muslims who disagree with their government, but they don’t carry bombs into trains. There are plenty of Moroccan men who have small jobs or no jobs at all, but they don’t blow themselves up at nightclubs and hotels.

What the debate over terrorists seems to miss is the personal dimension, personal failures, personal grievances, personal desires to lash out violently at others. As Joseph Conrad put it in The Secret Agent, “The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared for by personal impulses disguised into creeds.” Discussing all the bombers as if they all fit a simple profile—that of the Islamic terrorist—is a conveniently simplistic way of looking at a complex problem; it fits into the “Islam versus the West” narrative that has already led the United States into wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

And, most tellingly, when the terrorist is not Muslim—when his name is Jared Lee Loughner or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold—the personal dimension of his crime, his mental health, say, is finally a matter of interest.

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Arab Uprisings and American Intervention

The news and images from Cairo three days ago were so strange I nearly did a double-take: John McCain, the indefatigable supporter of US military intervention for regime change in Iraq, had suddenly discovered in himself a strong fervor for the homegrown uprising against tyranny in Egypt. There he was, with his good friend Joe Lieberman, mingling with Egyptian youths in Tahrir Square. “This revolution,” he said, “is a repudiation of Al Qaeda. This revolution has shown the people of the world, not just in the Arab world, that peaceful change can come about and violence and extremism is not required in order to achieve democracy and freedom.”

But less than a month ago, when protesters were fighting for their lives in Tahrir Square, McCain told Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren that “this virus is spreading throughout the Middle East.... This, I would argue, is probably the most dangerous period of history in—of our entire involvement in the Middle East, at least in modern times. Israel is in danger of being surrounded by countries that are against the very existence of Israel, are governed by radical organizations.”

McCain isn’t the only politician suddenly afflicted with amnesia. From Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, our elected officials changed their positions to suit the events unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. But I doubt if anyone in the region is fooled by this. The Arab publics can see exactly how much the current US administration cares for freedom and democracy when it backs the Bahreini royal family, in spite of the horrific violence the ruling clan unleashed on protesters in Pearl Square, or when it praises the Moroccan king for allowing the February 20 protests, even though demonstrators were beaten some days later in Rabat.

And now that Libya is in open revolt against Muammar el-Qaddafi, John McCain finds nothing better to do than to suggest that “we've got to get tough” and that the administration should arm the Libyan rebels. (The rebels do not want direct US intervention.)

Many in our political class, it seems, have completely missed the message that the Arab uprisings have sent them: American intervention is neither required nor needed. The young people protesting in Arab capitals right now want a meaningful break with the status quo and, in many ways, that means a break from American support.

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Fadoua Laroui: The Moroccan Mohamed Bouazizi

On December 17, when he set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Mohamed Bouazizi could not have guessed that his act would prompt a series of copycat self-immolations or that it would launch the revolutions we are currently witnessing in the Arab world. It is two months later now, and yet the connection between deep personal despair and meaningful political change is being made evident once again, this time in Morocco.

Last week, Fadoua Laroui, a 25-year old woman, doused herself with gasoline in front of the town hall in Souq Sebt, and lit a match. According to newspaper reports, the local government destroyed the shack in which she lived with her children and later denied her access to replacement social housing because she was a single mother. She died in a Casablanca hospital two days later.

A graphic video purportedly showing Fadoua Laroui’s self-immolation has been widely distributed on social media websites. On it, a young woman can be heard yelling against injustice and asking what will happen to her children, before setting herself on fire. A police officer watches the scene, but he makes no attempt to come to her rescue. Instead, a young man tries to put out the fire by alternately pouring water over the victim and covering her with his jacket.

Like Mohamed Bouazizi, Fadoua Laroui was not known to be part of any political party; she was not asking for political reforms. She was simply crying out against injustice, in a country where her status as a single mother made her a second-class citizen. But, unlike Mohamed Bouazizi, the plight of Fadoua Laroui has attracted little press coverage. Indeed, aside from a couple of reports in Attajdid and Akhbar Al-Youm, and a short news brief from Reuters, her death has gone largely unnoticed and unreported. Even in pain, it seems, there are hierarchies. Some deaths are noted and remembered, some aren’t.

The people who remember her most today appear to be the activists of the February 20 movement in Morocco. But what does meaningful constitutional reform—the central demand of the February 20 movement—have to do with the case of Fadoua Laroui? Nothing, some people might say. And yet: in a state in which all citizens are equal under the law, Fadoua Laroui would have been able to appeal her case and receive justice.

“Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born,” James Baldwin famously said. But without meaningful political change in Morocco, Fadoua Laroui’s personal plight will merely be compounded to that of that of thousands of others. And there is no telling what could happen when they finally decide to demand change.

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Who's Responsible for the Arab Uprisings? A Non-Exhaustive List

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time keeping track of who is responsible for the Arab uprisings.

Back in January, when the self-immolation of a desperate fruit vendor sent thousands of protesters into the streets of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali blamed “hooded gangs who have attacked public institutions during the night and even assaulted citizens at home, in a terrorist act that cannot be tolerated.” That didn’t quite foot the bill for him, because later on in that televised speech, he went on to fault “a small group of hostile elements who are offended by the success of Tunisia, and are filled with resentment and grievance, because of the progress and development achieved by the country”; “ill-intentioned elements who have used the issue of unemployment, and exploited an isolated act of desperation”; and, last but certainly not least, “those who are deliberately harming the interests of the country.”

As for Hosni Mubarak, he seemed to think all the ruckus in Tahrir Square on January 25 was due to “some infiltrators who tried to force slogans,” “those who entice chaos and looting public and private property,” those who “knock down what we have been building” and those who instigate “further plots that shake the foundation and stability of the country.” In his interview with Christiane Amanpour a few days later, Mubarak blamed “the Muslim Brotherhood”—I suppose it’s important to offer just the right scapegoat for the right audience. Mubarak also repeatedly warned Egyptians that they should be cautious of the example of other countries, which have sunk into “chaos.” On that point, at least, Mubarak seemed to agree with much of the American pundit class: Egypt is not Tunisia.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

Then there is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Muammar, graduate of the London School of Economics, and apparently the intellectual of the Gaddafi clan. In his speech to the Libyan people earlier this week, he blamed the popular uprising in Benghazi, Zawiyah and elsewhere on “opposition figures living abroad,” on people who “try to use Facebook for a revolution to copy Egypt,” on those who “want to storm the police stations,” on protesters who were “drunk” and “on hallucinogens or drugs” and on those who “want to establish an Islamic emirate.”

Still following? There’s more. Saif al-Islam also felt that “the Arabic media is manipulating these events” and warned that he wouldn’t let “Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the BBC trick us.” Then he finished it off by saying that “Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt.” It’s almost as if all these Arab autocrats are reading from the same script.

Perhaps fearing that his son’s speech hadn’t served up enough boogeymen, the elder Gaddafi went for the big O yesterday. “It is bin Laden,” he said.

Which raises the question: whom will the next Arab dictator blame?

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Morocco’s Day of Dignity: An Update

Two days ago, thousands of young people held simultaneous street protests throughout Morocco to demand constitutional reforms and a transition to a parliamentary monarchy.  Reports from the ground are now trickling in, giving us an idea about the turnout and its impact. In the Wall Street Journal, Marc Champion writes:

 The protests attracted 37,000 people around the country Sunday and were generally peaceful, Interior Minister M. Taieb Cherqaoui said at a press conference. He said looters had damaged more than 100 buildings, including a bank in the port town of Al Hoceima, where five people died in a fire. He also said 128 people were wounded, mostly police. It wasn't possible to verify those figures independently Monday.

And, in the Guardian, Giles Tremlett reports

Sporadic outbursts of violence have continued in Morocco after Sunday's peaceful pro-democracy protests gave way to rioting, with five people killed in a fire at a bank in the northern port of Al Hoceima. Interior ministry figures showed that the protests were far more extensive than first thought, with nearly 40,000 people turning out in 57 towns and cities. Protest organisers condemned the rioting and looting that followed the demonstrations, blaming it on thugs and football hooligans returning from matches.

On Monday, a group of people gathered again in Rabat in what appears to be a follow-up protest, but they were swiftly and brutally dispersed by the police.  Khadija Ryadi, director of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, suffered some injuries and was taken to hospital.  Also on Monday, King Mohammed gave a speech—which had been scheduled some time ago—but he did not mention the February 20 movement by name or indicate if he would listen to their demands.  Instead, he stressed that he would not give in to “demagoguery and improvisation.”

 

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Rocking the Casbah: Morocco's Day of Dignity

In spite of the Moroccan government's campaign—through its official media, its ministers and its allies—to discredit the February 20 movement, peaceful protests took place today throughout the country. Thousands of protesters gathered simultaneously in Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Tetuan, Beni Mellal, Kenitra, Agadir, Marrakech, Essaouira and in other, smaller cities such as Bouarfa, Sefrou, Bejaad and Jerada.

As I explained in an earlier post, the campaign against the movement included accusations that it was led by agents of the Polisario Front; by atheists and other assorted non-Muslims; by republican revolutionaries; by Moroccans living comfortably abroad; or by people who are disorganized, unclear about their demands and leaderless. But even before the democracy protests got underway today, it was clear that the tide was turning and that the virulent government campaign had only served to bring about support from a wide cross-section of Moroccan society.

Thus, Abdellah Hammoudi, the well-known and widely respected professor of anthropology at Princeton, wrote a letter expressing his support for the peaceful march, which, he said, is “the only way we have left to demand the kind of reforms that can solve the problems of our country.” A group of independent journalists—including such household names as Aboubakr Jamai, Ali Amar, Ali Anouzla, Nadia Lamlili, Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, Driss Ksikes and Kenza Sefrioui—signed a petition in favor of the movement and calling on the government to allow local reporters to cover the events. The majority of business leaders remained studiously quiet, but Karim Tazi, now the president of the Banque Alimentaire, was among the protesters in Rabat. “We are at a historical moment,” he said, “and we must not miss it.”

Support also came from people who are associated with the monarchy. Hicham Alaoui, the rebellious crown prince of Morocco, gave an interview to France24 in which he, too, expressed his admiration and support of the movement. The historian Hassan Aourid, a former spokesperson for the palace, also declared himself in favor of a constitutional monarchy, giving the example of Great Britain as a good model.

Today, the peaceful protests that took place throughout the kingdom put the lie to all the accusations that the pro-government forces had been spreading. No one held signs demanding the ouster of the king or offering support to the Polisario Front or any other foreign entity. Instead, protesters denounced corruption and oppression, and demanded democracy and freedom: “Yes to a parliamentary democracy.” “In favor of a democratic constitution.” “Accountability for thieves / of money and dignity.” “The king reigns, but doesn’t govern.” My personal favorite was the multicolored banner that quoted the famed lines of the Algerian poet Tahar Djaout: “If you speak, you die. If you stay silent, you die. So speak, and die.” (You can view some of the signs here.)

The influence of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings could be felt in some of the slogans. “The people want / a change in the constitution,” the crowd chanted. And while socio-economic concerns were definitely on people’s minds, the demands focused on the larger issue of power for the people: “Bread, liberty, dignity, humanity.” Lastly, some of the chants indicated that people feel that a threshold may have been crossed: “Either today or tomorrow, change is coming.”

The February 20 movement was started by a group of young activists, who have used social media to organize simultaneous protests throughout the country, thus proving to the old guard that they are serious about change. Their demands may be attacked, but their presence and their seriousness cannot be denied. This new generation of Moroccans wants dignity—and that is only possible in a true democracy.

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Arab Uprisings: What the February 20 Protests Tell Us About Morocco

With the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the Arab world has erupted in popular protests in favor of democracy and dignity. Morocco, long considered one of the most stable Arab countries, is not immune to this regional trend. Inspired by the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, a group of young activists are using social media to spread the word about a protest in Casablanca on February 20. A video they have made to promote the protests has already gone viral. It features thirteen young Moroccan men and women, speaking in their native Arabic or Berber. “I am Moroccan and I will take part in the protest on February 20,” they all say, and then go on to explain their reasons for marching: freedom, equality, better living standards, education, labor rights, minority rights and so on. (You can view the video, with English subtitles, here.)

The February 20 movement was started by a group calling itself Democracy and Freedom Now. Their demands include constitutional reforms, the dissolution of the present parliament, the creation of a temporary transitional government, an independent judiciary, accountability for elected officials, language rights for Berber speakers and the release of all political prisoners. Democracy and Freedom Now was soon joined by a loose coalition of cyber-activists, traditional lefties, Islamists and twenty human rights organizations, including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights and Amnesty Morocco.

The reaction to the planned protests has been as predictable as it has been depressing. Though the Moroccan government has nearly doubled its food subsidies for 2011, it has not acknowledged the need for meaningful political change. Instead, the communication minister, Khalid Naciri, insisted that Morocco “has embarked a long time ago on an irreversible process of democracy and widening of public freedoms.” On his Facebook page, the youth minister, Moncef Belkhayat, posted a long statement calling on the demonstrators to use dialogue instead. “My personal position,” he wrote “as a Moroccan citizen who lives in Casablanca, and not in Paris or Barcelona, is that this march is today manipulated by the Polisario, with the goal of creating street clashes that will weaken the position of our country in the United Nations regarding the human rights situation in the Sahara.” In other words, while one minister denies that there are any serious problems, the other blames foreign agents provocateurs.

Pro-government activists have also staged a campaign against the young people who appear in the video, uncovering supposed alcohol use, distributing a photo of one of them inside a church or of another one posing with Saharan activists. The implication is simple: the people who are organizing this march are traitors to their faith and to their country. As for the Francophone elite, they seem for now to be mostly ambivalent about the protests, pointing out that the institution of the monarchy is 1,200 years old and asking whether the marchers really want a revolution. But nothing in the February 20 platform or its promotional video suggests that anyone is asking for the toppling of the monarchy; the focus, however, has been on meaningful constitutional reform.

Throughout all this, the king has remained silent.

When King Mohammed rose to the throne in July 1999, he had relatively little to do in order to fill a huge reservoir of goodwill. His father, King Hassan, had left the nation with an appalling human rights record, which included extralegal detentions, torture and censorship; a high level of corruption in virtually all state institutions; a literacy rate that hovered below 50 percent, one of the lowest in the Arab world; a territorial conflict with the Polisario Front; and tense relations with Algeria. Upon the death of the monarch who had ruled Morocco for thirty-eight years, most commentators used some form of the expression “end of an era.”

In his first official speech as head of state, King Mohammed outlined his plans for the country: constitutional monarchy, multiparty system, economic liberalism, regionalism and decentralization, building the rule of law, safeguarding human rights and individual and collective liberties, and security and stability for all. He defined his role as one of arbiter—one who does not side with any parties—as well as architect—giving general orientations and advice. He renewed his father’s commitment to alternance, a system that had allowed leftist parties, after nearly thirty years in the opposition, to finally hold cabinet positions and influence policy. The speech gave a lot of Moroccans great hope that their country would emulate Spain, their neighbor across the Mediterranean, and transition toward a democracy.

The king made many symbolic decisions in the early months of his reign. He allowed Abraham Serfaty, the Marxist politician and longtime foe of the regime, to return home to Morocco. He freed Abdesslam Yassine, the leader of the banned Islamist group al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity). He fired Driss Basri, King Hassan’s fearsome right-hand man and one of the most despised men in the country. He established an Equity and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated cases of disappearance and torture during the infamous Years of Lead and offered reparations to survivors. A reform of family law, which feminist activists had been working on for many years, was finally adopted. He instituted quotas for women’s representation in parliament: today, ten percent of Moroccan members of parliament are women. He desegregated one of the country’s theological seminaries, thus allowing female religious leaders to work in mosques and provide community services.

But the honeymoon period was over very quickly. Although he defined his role as architect and arbiter in his coronation speech, the king’s role has in fact been that of absolute ruler. The constitution of Morocco grants him the discretionary right to name a prime minister and cabinet, without regard for election results. He can also dismiss parliament at any moment and exercise emergency powers. Between 1999 and 2009, Morocco held two major legislative elections, but it has had three prime ministers, five interior ministers, three ministers of education and two ministers of foreign affairs, coming from various parties of different, and often divergent, political persuasions: socialists, religious conservatives, independents and technocrats. The current prime minister, Abbas el-Fassi, is best known for his role in a disastrous scheme to offer 30,000 job contracts on an Emirati cruise ship to unemployed Moroccans. Tens of thousands of people were officially registered by el-Fassi’s ministry, and asked to pay a 900-Dirham fee (about $100) for a medical exam. The jobs turned out to be a mirage. And no restitutions were ever made. That this man is now the head of the cabinet only serves to show that the cabinet is not accountable to the electorate; it is accountable to the king alone.

For the last ten years, the Moroccan government has insisted that it was “on the right track”—on the right track to where, it was never specified, but one was led to believe that this was an ongoing process of democratization. Still, there were some details in this story that didn’t quite add up. Take, for instance, the fact that the earliest crackdown on freedoms came just six months after King Mohammed’s ascension to the throne, in December 2000, when a demonstration in Rabat demanding the legalization of al-Adl wal-Ihsan was repressed. Take the fact that, after ten long years, the literacy rate hovers a little above 50 percent, as opposed to a little below it. Take the fact that 15 percent of Moroccans live on under $2 per day. Take the fact that 70 percent of Moroccans think that corruption levels have stagnated or increased. Take the fact that, in the most recent United Nations Human Development Index, a composite measure of health, literacy and standard of living, Morocco ranked 130, behind Gabon, Fiji and even the occupied Palestinian territories.

Or take the fact that, between 1999 and 2009, the Moroccan government arrested, charged, prosecuted and sentenced nearly thirty journalists, including Ali Lmrabet of Demain; Aboubakr Jamaï, Ali Amar and Fahd Iraqi of Le Journal Hebdomadaire; Ahmed Reda Benchemsi and Karim Boukhari of Tel Quel; Driss Chahtane, Mustapha Hirane and Rachid Mhamid of Al Mish’al; Driss Ksikes and Sanaa el-Aji of Nichane; Abderrahim Ariri and Mostapha Hormatallah of Al Watan al An; Rachid Nini, Said Laajal and Youssef Meskine of Al Massae; Taoufik Bouachrine and Khalid Gueddar of Akhbar al-Youm; Ali Anouzla and Bouchra Eddou of Al-jarida Al-Oula; Noureddine Miftah and Meriem Moukrim of Al Ayam.

For a long time now, there have been many signs that Moroccans do not think that things are on the right track. Sit-ins by unemployed university graduates have become regular fixtures on the main avenues of major cities, and make for a particularly memorable sight in Rabat, the capital. Two years ago, jobless protestors blocked the port of Sidi Ifni for several days, preventing goods from being loaded or unloaded. A police force of 8,000 officers entered the city and engaged in beatings, theft and even, allegedly, rape and murder. A group of university students taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Marrakech in 2008 were imprisoned and held without charge for several months. The only woman in that group, a 21-year-old by the name of Zahra Boudkour, was stripped naked, beaten and tortured in the prison of Boulmharez. She was released last year.

But government abuse is not directed solely at political activists; it is also directed at ordinary citizens. In September 2010, for instance, Fodail Aberkane, a Moroccan construction worker, was arrested by the police in the Hay Salam district of Salé, on suspicion of being under the influence of cannabis. He was released on judge’s orders, but when he returned to the station to pick up his moped, he was detained again after an argument about paperwork. He never left his cell again. Two days later, he was turned over to Ibn Sina Hospital in Rabat, where he was pronounced dead.

Which brings me back to the February 20 movement. I love my homeland. And it is because I love it that I want it to be a place where everyone is treated equally under the law; where the legislative, judiciary and executive branches are independent of one another; where human rights are respected; and where the government is accountable to the people. This makes me a supporter of the February 20 movement and, I suppose, the kind of person the youth minister was denouncing on his Facebook page.

For now, the Moroccan government is allowing the protest to go forward, though its proxies and allies are already hard at work, calling the protestors a ragtag group of agitators with divergent and unreasonable demands. But dismissing the February 20 movement because its supporters have different personal agendas is no different from signing on to the status quo in Morocco. And for the sake of the unemployed and the illiterate, for the sake of the poor, for the sake of the victims of police abuse, for the sake of all those who have been rendered in secret prisons: the status quo cannot go on.

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The Attack on Lara Logan: War of the Words

A woman has been sexually assaulted—what should the reaction to such a heinous crime be? Blaming its victim? Disparaging the country she’s in? Looking for a scapegoat? 

Stunningly enough, all of these reactions have been voiced since yesterday, when it was revealed that Lara Logan, the chief foreign correspondent for CBS, had survived sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The network has released few details about the attack, except to say that, when Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was announced and crowds filled the square, a mob surrounded Logan and her crew. She was separated from them in the ensuing frenzy and suffered “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.” Logan flew back to the United States the following day and is now recovering in a hospital.

Not two hours after the statement was made, Debbie Schlussel, the pundit for whom every conflict can be reduced to Islam’s inherent evil, turned in this gem: “Too bad, Lara.… This never happened to her or any other mainstream media reporter when Mubarak was allowed to treat his country of savages in the only way they can be controlled.” The formulation is disgustingly racist, but a more polite form of it is already circulating—the idea being that Egypt’s new revolution is doomed and that the country needs what Lee Smith once termed a “strong horse.”

In Slate, for instance, Rachel Larimore wondered if the attack on Logan was a bad omen for Egypt. “I wish I could say I was surprised by the news,” she wrote.  “But amid the cacophony of revolution, however, quieter voices expressed concern about what life would be like for women after the revolution, drawing comparisons to the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the ouster of the Shah led to reduced freedoms for women." What Larimore doesn’t mention is that sexual assaults occurred frequently enough during Mubarak’s secular thirty-year rule that some Egyptian women openly expressed fear for their safety. In fact, what made the Egyptian revolution successful was that the women who took part in it did so at grave risk to themselves.

Meanwhile, some Egyptians who took part in the protests in Tahrir Square argued that, up until the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation, the demonstrations had been peaceful and remarkably free of sexual harassment. Activists such as Mona Seif and Nadia El-Awady camped in Tahrir Square night after night during the uprising. So the news of Lara Logan's attack was greeted with shock. “I believe it was a deliberate act,” wrote a popular blogger, who goes by the name of Zeinobia. The implication here seemed to be that the perpetrators could only have been the police or baltagiya—i.e., the “bad guys” in the new Egypt. But whether the attackers were Mubarak thugs or pro-democracy activists is completely beside the point. The attack is horrific, no matter who perpetrated it. 

In the mounting rhetoric, what is getting lost is the fact that a reporter has been sexually assaulted. As Judith Matloff explained in a Columbia Journalism Review article, female foreign correspondents are often subjected to sexual abuse, and rarely report it for fear of losing assignments. Lara Logan has broken a powerful taboo by coming forward about her assault. And the only reaction to this horrific crime, wherever it took place and whoever the perpetrators may be, ought to be disgust and condemnation.  

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