The Arab World Has Its Own Models

Could Morocco serve as a political model for Iraq in the country’s attempt to come to terms with its dictatorial past? Dr Sonja Hegasy of the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Germany, thinks it could

Upon hearing devastating news from the Arab world, observers ask themselves how these deeply traumatised societies deal with home-grown violence. In answering this question, there is still a certain amount of reluctance to use psychological theories to explain what is going on in the Arab world. In the humanities and social sciences in Germany, such an approach would appear to be reserved for introspection. Are there no forms of collective remembrance in the Arab world?

From Morocco to Lebanon, citizens have launched a whole range of exemplary initiatives in an attempt to unify their deeply divided societies and make it possible for victims and perpetrators to live side by side. Morocco in particular is spearheading progress in this area. Literature penned by former political prisoners has been booming here for the past two years: they tell the story of their imprisonment in autobiographies, comics, poems, novels and films.

Power handover paved the way for reappraisal of state violence

Two of the most famous of these authors are Abraham Serfaty (imprisonment: 1974-91) and Fatna el-Bouih (imprisonment: 1977-82). Their testimonies are an important part of the Moroccan remembrance process. For the first time in the history of the country, the handover of power from Hassan II to Mohammed VI paved the way for the systematic reappraisal of state violence and opened the door for a process of reconciliation. Fatna el-Bouih views the changeover of power in 1999 as a positive development. In an interview with Susan Slyomovics in spring 2001 (Middle East Report 218), she said:

“As a former political prisoner, I feel this enormous psychological relief and unburdening since the death of King Hassan II and note the changes in me and in Morocco. It is only during this ‘new era’ ('ahd jadid) that I became really active. Before I just wrote, now I feel useful. For example, my husband and I are among the founding members of the Moroccan Observatory of Prisons (OMP) officially organized November 13, 1999. I experienced prison, I wanted to help other prisoners, and I found a way to do so through the NGO movement.”

Prison authorities receptive to reforms

“We write reports, visit prisons, and last Ramadan”, Slyomovics goes on to say. “We organized festivities first in the women's and then in the men's sections of Oukacha Penitentiary. We are working to establish programs to help prisoners reintegrate into society by paying attention to their individual familial and social contexts, and we work to change laws concerning current prison sentencing practices. The prison authorities have been receptive.’

Morocco is the first – and to date the only – Arab country to establish an independent truth commission for the reappraisal of human rights violations. Here, victims of violent tyranny and former political prisoners come together in the Forum Verité et Justice. They organise sit-ins, press conferences, hearings or pilgrimages to former torture centres. The state has already reacted to these developments by establishing a royal atonement commission.

Mohammad VI: ending the dark ages of the father’s reign

Even though there was no regime change in Morocco – just a handover of power – Mohammed VI’s actions mean that human rights violations committed during the reign of his father, Hassan II, are no longer being covered up. This is not an easy step for any son to take, in the states of the Middle East or elsewhere. Only one week after the death of his father - before the 40-day period of mourning had come to an end - Mohammed VI announced a general pardon for 46,000 prisoners and released 8,000 from prison. While many hopes have certainly been disappointed since he ascended the throne, the dark ages of his father’s reign are over.It is no coincidence therefore, that a series of political murder cases from the 1960s and early 1970s (e.g. Mehdi Ben Barka, Omar Benjelloun and Mohammed Oufkir) are currently being reopened. New witnesses now feel secure enough to go public with their version of events. Today, some victims and their families even receive financial compensation while some political prisoners who were interned in the infamous Tazmamart torture centre receive a monthly pension of 5,000 dirhams (about € 500).

This process of state and civil remembrance could serve as an example to a country like Iraq because the regime of Saddam Hussein is more comparable with the reign of Hassan II than the rule of Adolf Hitler. Personal testimonies published in Arabic tell stories that must certainly appear familiar to many Iraqis. Human rights organisations estimate that there are up to one million victims of human rights violations in Iraq.

Various possibilities of dealing with perpetrators

There are three opinions on how to deal with the perpetrators. Human rights activists demand that they be brought before an international court of justice so that they can be punished for their criminal offences. Members of the Iraqi opposition, on the other hand, have recommended the establishment of a truth commission that would focus less on criminal prosecution and more on the process of social reconciliation. One of the very first acts of the Iraqi interim government was the decision on July 15 to establish a war crimes tribunal. In view of the fact that neither Iraq nor the United States recognise the International Court of Justice in the Hague, no crime cases can be heard there. It would be very courageous of the Governing Council to recognise the International Court of Justice now as it would highlight the United States’ double standards even more.

The idea of an international ad-hoc tribunal like the ones for the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda is rejected by groups of Iraqi exiles (such as the London-based Iraqi Jurists' Association). Salem Dschalabi, advisor to the American civil administration, points in particular to the denazification process in post-war Germany and the work of the South African truth and reconciliation commission as models of how to proceed.

The situation in Lebanon and Algeria

There are over 30 precedents for truth commissions worldwide. There are also less official, institutionalised forms such as the ones in Ethiopia or Northern Ireland. The establishment of truth commissions or other similar, semi-official methods of coming to terms with violence within a society is also being discussed in other Arab countries. Unlike in Morocco or Iraq, the priority in Lebanon and Algeria is coming to terms with a civil war or a civil war-like situation. In Lebanon in particular, the psychological reappraisal of the bloody fratricide of Christians and Muslims between 1975 and 1989 is well advanced.

In Algeria, however, an end to the daily violence is still not in sight. Nevertheless, there are individual NGOs that take care of traumatised children or provide psychological care for victims. In 1998, leading politicians called for a congress of national reconciliation. The list of people who signed the petition included prominent Algerians such as the former president, Ahmed Ben Bella, Abdelhamid Mehri from the former socialist unity party FLN, and Abdelkader Hachani from the FIS. Hachani was the first FIS leader living in Algeria to call for national reconciliation.

A Moroccan-Iraqi exchange would be effective

In the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, psychologists are trying to use holocaust research findings for the good of a reconciliation process. The Economic Cooperation Foundation, which is headed by Yair Hirschfeld, recently published lessons learned from the situation in South Africa for the termination of conflict between Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, this sort of remembrance is always an import from a different era into a different context.

A Moroccan-Iraqi exchange about experience in this area would certainly be much more effective than eternally pointing the Your Opinion
Do you think Arab countries should come up with their own models of coming to terms with a dictatorial past or should they rely on the experiences of the West?
Please write to us!finger at the western world or the popular comparison with post-war Germany. A group of Arab psychologists recently met in Egypt to discuss the situation in Iraq. Even if a truth commission like the one in South Africa is never set up in Iraq, there will be less-institutionalised forms of remembrance in Iraq as a form of support for the country’s traumatised society. In this case, all parties involved can learn a lot from the experience of their Arab neighbours.

Sonja Hegasy

© Sonja Hegasy 2003

Dr. Sonja Hegasy is political scientist at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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