Maâti Monjib researches at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat as he awaits trial for “undermining state security” and “receiving foreign funds.” (Photo courtesy of Maâti Monjib’s Facebook page)
by Elaina Zachos
RABAT, Morocco – Maâti Monjib sits in a café in Rabat’s Agdal neighborhood. He absentmindedly drums his fingers on the table in front of him and looks over his professorial glasses at a TV on the wall. A few men chat at tables by the tall windows. Outside, people walk down the sidewalk and cross the street in the late afternoon traffic.
Newscasters’ voices sound from the TV. But Monjib is also making news, as a human rights defender currently prosecuted by the Moroccan regime.
“I am a critic to the regime,” he says. “I have some credibility as a historian, as human rights defender, as a normal, honest person, if you want.”
Monjib, 54, is a historian at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat. He has published books on politics and African studies, including “The Moroccan Monarchy and the Struggle for Power.” He has lectured at the University of Meknes, Gaston Berger University in Senegal and the University of Florida in the U.S., and was a Patkin Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Recently, Monjib’s controversial academic work has made him a target of the Moroccan government. In September and October of last year, police prevented Monjib from traveling to academic events in Spain and Norway as part of an investigation looking into the activities of the Ibn Rochd Center for Studies and Communication, of which Monjib is the founder. Now, Monjib is on trial alongside six other activists for “undermining state security” and “receiving foreign funds.” Authorities say Monjib’s involvement in a foreign-funded smartphone app designed to teach people citizen journalism invoked the charges. He says this move is part of a “defamation campaign” against him that started in July 2013 after he gave an interview to Al Jazeera criticizing the palace’s unwillingness to democratize.
The next trial date is March 23, and the defendants could get up to five years in prison if convicted.
Until then, Monjib lives in Rabat and awaits his trial, in limbo between freedom and the threat of incarceration.
“The objective is not to sentence me,” Monjib says analytically, “just to harm my credibility.”
Moroccan authorities have been cracking down on freedom of the press since opposition to the monarchy emerged after the 2011 Arab Spring. They have arrested journalists and activists alike for menial activities. Conflating both activism and journalism, Monjib is a prime target for such crackdowns. He is one of the original voices behind the February 20 Movement, where activists rallied around social, economic and political issues in Morocco. He is also president of Freedom Now, an organization devoted to press freedom in Morocco.
As a dedicated activist, Monjib sought ways to protest the government’s ongoing harassment. So he went on hunger strike to highlight how to him, the travel ban violated his fundamental rights. His protest ended up putting him in the hospital twice after he collapsed from low blood pressure
“There was no other methods,” Monjib says. “It was a responsibility for me to do something.”
Abdelaziz Nouaydi, Monjib’s lawyer, says Monjib decided to protest because he considered the ban to be arbitrary. He also considered the hunger strike necessary for his work and life as an academic and activist for freedom.
As a historian, Monjib also has a history. He was born into a peasant family in 1962 in the countryside about 20 kilometers south of rural Benslimane, Morocco. He went to primary and secondary school there before starting high school in neighboring Benslimane when he was 14.
“I had to walk [to school] without shoes, because when it rains you have . mud, [which] will destroy the shoes,” Monjib says.
Sometimes, Monjib’s father gave him a young donkey to ride to school. A donkey with a keen sense of time.
“If the teacher doesn’t free us to go to our homes, he cries . because he is waiting for me,” Monjib says. “Yes, the donkey was very clever.”
Monjib says he was a “good pupil” who liked learning in all his classes. His highest grades were in the sciences, but he opted out of being an engineer or medical doctor in favor of the social sciences and humanities.
“I thought it was good to know about history and political sociology in order to understand society and the political regime,” Monjib says. “I wanted to know about society in order to change it.”
Today, Monjib continues his research in African studies at the University of Mohammed V. His studies focus on human rights and the history of political transitions in Africa, particularly Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Monjib divides his time between his family and his work. He is a husband and a father, and goes back to his rural roots by tending to his mother’s small farm 80 kilometers south of Rabat. He has been managing the farm for the past 10 years.
“I don’t want [the] police to see where it is precisely. If not, they will [steal] my cattle,” he laughs.
Monjib says the regime has tried to defame him and market him as a criminal, which his family isn’t happy with.
“But myself, I am ready for that [opposition],” Monjib says.
Samia Errazzouki, a reporter for the Associated Press, has talked to Monjib for articles in the past. She met him twice – once before his protest and once while he was in the hospital.
Errazzouki says when she first met Monjib, she respected and looked up to him, picking up on his engaging personality and openness.
“[He’s] a very critical person and he’s basically paying the consequences for that,” she says. “[But] he is an academic, first and foremost.”
As a target of the Moroccan government’s harassment herself, Errazzouki says Monjib could easily seek political asylum in a foreign country. But he chooses to stay in Morocco.
“The people who are outspoken, the regime [prefers] them to be outside,” Monjib says. “According to my analysis, they won’t kill me. And this is enough for me.”
Monjib’s strong will and critical edge spur from his father’s taste for justice.
“He was resistant to the French colonialism and he liked justice. He was illiterate but he liked justice,” Monjib says. “During the night, for example, when a small farm was attacked by thieves, my father took a stick, a big stick and went to defend his neighbors, even if he is in conflict with them.”
After polishing off a café crème in the Agdal café, Monjib looks outside. Rain pours down, streaming off the café’s awning and collecting in puddles on the sidewalk.
“It is raining, so it is good for my farm,” Monjib says.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Monjib as the director of the Ibn Rochd Center. In addition, this version specified that Moroccan police prevented Monjib from traveling to look into the finances of the Ibn Rochd Center rather than the general activities. This story has been updated to reflect these changes.