The Arab left loses three of its leading lights
Three important figures of the Arab opposition were lost in 2020 and 2021: Gilbert Naccache in Tunisia, Michel Kilo in Syria, and Abdellah Zaazaa in Morocco. All three had hoped to participate in the political lives of their countries in a new era, one in which they could be free to think and act according to their convictions.
Their demise prompts fresh consideration of the ways in which the men and women of the left in Tunisia, Syria, and Morocco have fought against the state authoritarianism that emerged after those countries gained independence in the 1960s and 1970s.
While their paths differ, these three important political actors have much in common.
Part of the same generation, they were all determined to pursue a difficult struggle for freedom and democracy. All were secular, and grounded in communist ideas and structures as a means of transcending ethnic, social, cultural, and religious identity. This desire to resist categorisation is perhaps less surprising in the Jewish Gilbert Naccache (1939 - 2020) and the Christian Michel Kilo (1940 - 2021), but it was also the case for Abdellah Zaazaa (1945-2021). When Zaazaa joined the extreme left movement Ilal Amam, he noted that no one referred to Jewish activists like Sion Assidon or Abraham Serfaty as Jewish: they were simply activists.
The three dissidents also shared the experience of witnessing the failure of the independence movements in their countries to bring the democratic and social change they'd hoped for. They saw new leaders reneging on promises and turning towards authoritarianism, prioritising holding on to power over all else, including the disenchantment of their populations.
"They saw new leaders reneging on promises and turning towards authoritarianism"
It's no accident that, from 1965 onwards, first among students, then in professional and trade union environments, a socialist opposition began to assert itself against the heads of these newly independent states and their increasing attempts to quash even the smallest movements in favour of freedom or democracy. The sons of independence had turned against the fathers.
Different tactics were required to oppose different leaders; the Tunisian Habib Bourguiba, known as the "supreme combatant", author of a social revolution that sought to retain both its socialist credentials and its western allies, the Syrian clan of Al-Assad, and the Moroccan king, Hassan II, who would stop at nothing to destroy anyone he saw as representing a challenge to his throne.
Naccache and the rejection of Bourguiban authoritarianism
In Tunisia, Gilbert Naccache was the leading light of Perspectives, an opposition group active during the 1960s and 1970s. Naccache's activism came from an older tradition than that of his comrades. A former Trotskyite, he joined the Tunisian Communist Party before leaving for Paris in 1956 to study at the École Nationale Supérieure d'Agronomie. He was often seen around the university campus and in cafes debating Marxism, Leninism, the Vietnam War, and US imperialism.
Naccache and a group of his compatriots began to take note of the hardening stance of the political regime led by Habib Bourguiba, which was allowing less and less space for people like themselves to share in the construction of the new Tunisia.
This small gathering of disappointed people started the Group for Study and Social Action in Tunisia (GEAST in its French acronym), and, in 1963, began to publish a journal called Perspectives. Their aim was to create a space for analysis and dissent, which they considered necessary elements of democracy. Their demands for freedom, democracy, and political reflection were direct challenges to the stranglehold of Bourguiba's Socialist Destourian Party (PSD), the authoritarianism of the head of state, and the country's support of US engagement in Vietnam.
From 1968, Gilbert Naccache was arrested three times, along with other members of the group. He was sentenced by the State Security Court to 16 years in prison for plotting against state security. He spent 11 years behind bars before being awarded conditional liberty in 1979, only regaining full freedom after the 2011 revolution.
"The rift between Naccache and Bourguiba was all the greater because Bourguiba could conceive of opposition only as a desire to seize power"
His struggle as part of the Perspectives group had its ambiguities: he supported Habib Bourguiba's modernising reforms, but rejected his "authoritarian regime that refuses to tolerate the smallest dissent and accords only the liberty to applaud", as well as "the personality cult he's created that transforms any critique into a personal attack on him".
Bourguiba, for his part, saw the independence of spirit and action of Naccache and his group as ingratitude, an act of rupture on the part of a generation that Bourguiba felt he had spoiled, its members, as students, having been beneficiaries of his voluntarist policies.
Convinced he had "saved" his people, first from colonisation, then from ignorance, Bourguiba could not accept criticism. The rift between Naccache and Bourguiba was all the greater because Bourguiba could conceive of opposition only as a desire to seize power. These differences between Bourguiba and the "Perspectivists" perhaps explain the disproportionate repression meted out to these young people, with their dreams of democracy and liberty.
Naccache and his comrades were never recognised as political prisoners. They were sent to Borj Er-Roumi, where the French protectorate confined nationalist leaders alongside common-law prisoners and those condemned to death.
Bourguiba was not completely opposed to their liberation and possible rehabilitation but demanded they send a written plea for pardon to his palace at Carthage. As has been seen in other examples of dissidence in the Arab world, the invitation to plead for presidential pardon created deep divisions in the group. Naccache was one of those most recalcitrant on the matter.
Michel Kilo's struggle for democracy in Syria
For several decades, the former communist Michel Kilo fought an even tougher struggle, against the Assad clan, for liberty and pluralism in Syria.
The Assad regime was structured around a single party, the Baath Party, which exercised tight control over every aspect of Syrian political life through a vast police and intelligence apparatus, the Mukhabarat. The price of disobedience was even higher than in Bourguiba's Tunisia, and the regime's repressive apparatus and torture techniques far more sophisticated.
Kilo's engagement began during the first wave of protests against the system in the 1970s. He was involved in the struggle for the liberation of political prisoners and for the repeal of the death penalty for members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Kilo was helped to draft the 'Damascus Declaration', a plea for democratisation of the political system"
In 2005, while preparations were being made for the 10th Baath Party conference, Kilo was helping to draft the "Damascus Declaration", a plea for the democratisation of the political system. The declaration sought unity between the country's various political factions, religious and secular, Arab and Kurdish, and the introduction of "peaceful and gradual" reforms, based on mutual recognition and dialogue. Bashar al-Assad refused to adopt any of the proposed reforms and lashed out against the signatories to the declaration. Michel Kilo was imprisoned for three years.
Goodbye, Michel Kilo https://t.co/c0mQ73FRQt— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 30, 2021
Zaazaa and Ilal Aman
Abdallah Zaazaa was part of the Marxist-Leninist group Ilal Amam ("Forward"), formed in the summer of 1970 by activists linked to the Moroccan Communist Party and the journal Souffles. Its aim was the overthrow of King Hassan II.
From 1972 onwards, Hassan II reacted, like Assad, with repressive measures that were completely disproportionate to the danger posed by a few dozen intellectuals (many of them civil servants) and a few hundred students with extremely limited financial and material means. The two military coups against Hassan II in 1971 and 1972 had intensified his hard-line attitude against any opposition.
Abraham Serfaty and Abdallah Zaazaa were quickly arrested. Ilal Amam was discredited when Serfaty pledged his public support to the Polisario Front, which demanded independence for Western Sahara. The king was, at the time, developing his plans to make Western Sahara a national cause, which would culminate in the "Green March" of 350,000 people on 6 November, 1975 to demand the territory for Morocco.
Through this political act, Hassan II re-invented his regime, manufactured a political consensus, took the political establishment in hand, occupied the army, and defined his enemies. Political union around the throne relied on recognition of the spiritual pre-eminence of the king as the commander of faithful (Amir Al Muminin), a pact of allegiance to the king by the Moroccan people, and a promise to work together to defend the country's "territorial integrity". The refusal of Ilal Amam to be part of this pact broke the consensus, and Hassan II viewed it as a direct affront. The punishment for those who deserted the community was akin to annihilation.
"When Zaazaa refused to reveal the names of his comrades, he was jailed for life"
Tougher than his comrades, Abdallah Zaazaa had a different character from the intellectuals of the group. Working in the offices of the national electricity company, his initiation into political life had come through trade unionism. He was involved in strike action to demand increased salaries and denounce the arrest of Mehdi Ben Barka. However, he was also repelled by the rigidity of the trade unionists, who were wary of him for being a communist.
Zaazaa experienced personal and political turmoil when he was sent for training in Paris and witnessed the protests of May 1968. When he returned to Morocco, he wanted to be an activist.
He joined Ilal Amam, saying, "I would've joined any political movement that was trying to improve things, to change things, any structure in which people spoke about the big issues of the time, like the Vietnam War."
A hard worker, disciplined and determined, Zaazaa was welcomed by his new comrades, who facilitated his quick ascent of the ladder. They also pressed him to take time to reflect, which came less readily to him. The intelligence services soon picked him up, and in 1975 he was arrested and tortured. When he refused to reveal the names of his comrades, he was jailed for life.
"While Abdallah Zaazaa disagreed with the others on this issue of Western Sahara, he was a republican, believing that real political change could not take place in a monarchy"
During his 14 years in prison, Zaazaa questioned himself on why, in the end, he had fought for Ilal Amam when some of its organisational and ideological aspects did not speak to him. He didn't share the commitment of his comrades to self-determination for the Sahrawi people. To those in power, however, all the group's activists were identical in that all rejected the status quo. While Abdallah Zaazaa disagreed with the others on this issue of Western Sahara, he was a republican, believing that real political change could not take place in a monarchy.
These nuances ceased to matter when no one asked him to explain what he was fighting for. His release from prison became an impossibility when he categorically refused to seek pardon from Hassan II. His only hope was international pressure and the support movements in France and Belgium that were drawing attention to Moroccan human rights abuses.
However, Hassan II knew how to play the international diplomacy game, liberating the occasional elderly prisoner whenever he needed to defuse tensions or emphasise his clemency. A civil servant told Zaazaa's mother that the regime "didn't want any false notes", and was ready to accept Zaazaa's apologies. This showed little knowledge of the man, who dreamed of liberty but would never swear allegiance.
In 1986, Zaazaa and his comrades in misfortune hatched a plan to build a tunnel to escape from prison and leave the country. The tunnel took them two years, but the challenge of obtaining false papers to leave Morocco remained. In November 1988, however, Hassan II gave a press conference during which he said he bore no ill-feeling towards the prisoners (of conscience), and announced that only those who didn't recognise Morocco's claim on Western Sahara would remain in jail.
Zaazaa therefore found himself freed by royal pardon; not the way he had wanted to leave prison. In an autobiographical book published in 2019, he explains that when he learned of the pardon he was filled with rage. He had always refused to ask for it, and during his trial, the question of Western Saharan independence had never been raised.
"Zaazaa found himself freed by royal pardon; not the way he had wanted to leave prison"
He sent an open letter to the king, also published in Politis, in which he reminded Hassan II that hundreds of political detainees remained in Moroccan prisons, some of them members of political parties represented in parliament.
He also approached the question of Western Sahara, explicitly stating his own position on the question, and saying, "In our group of detainees in the prison of Kenitra, some of my comrades spoke strongly in favour of the Moroccan claim on Western Sahara, both as part of our movement and during their trials. Today they still proclaim it loudly at every opportunity."
However, he went on to add, pointedly, "In fact, Your Majesty, if Morocco were a constitutional state, and if this constitution legitimised the repression of those who believe in self-determination, the first to be tried would be the Moroccan state, which agreed before international authorities, the OAU and the UN, to permit an independence referendum in Western Sahara, and to respect the consequences of it, including independence if that was the Sahrawi people's wish."
"Naccache wrote a book on the insides of cigarette packets while incarcerated"
The impossibility of rehabilitation
Following their years behind bars, all three dissidents continued their engagement with civil society and the defence of human rights. They also all sought refuge in writing. In 1991, Abdallah Zaazaa founded the newspaper Al-Mouatten, all issues of which were seized. He lived off small jobs, mainly carpentry, before joining with young people in working-class areas of Casablanca to found a network of neighbourhood associations called Resaq. As the coordinator of the network, Zaazaa launched himself into community education. He was elected a municipal councillor for his neighbourhood, and worked on participative democracy for residents at a local level.
Despite his fame, Gilbert Naccache had similar difficulties finding his place in professional life after the 1980s. He started his own publishing house, Salambô, which soon went bankrupt. He remained active in the defence of human rights, along with his wife, the feminist Azza Ghanmi, but principally dedicated himself to writing, producing a large body of "prison literature", though he preferred the phrase "freedom literature".
He was the author of the first novel from a member of his group about their prison experience, a book he wrote on the insides of cigarette packets while incarcerated. He gave the name of the brand he smoked, Cristal, to the novel. Published in French in 1982, and in Arabic in 2018, Cristal described prison life and included existential reflections on political engagement, freedom of conscience, dignity, and respect for human life. Naccache later called Cristal a reflection on resilience, and on the ways in which the non-incarcerated and those who did not feel rage could experience their own kind of prison. Other writings followed, including Qu'as-tu fait de ta jeunesse? ("What have you done with your youth?"), Vers la démocratie ("Towards democracy") and Comprendre m'a toujours paru essentiel ("Understanding has always seemed essential to me").
Political life after 2011
Naccache, Kilo, and Zaazaa were all happy to witness the 2011 Arab uprisings. Kilo said, "This is the first revolution in the history of Syria, even though the country is 2,000 years old… The symbols and principles of today's revolution are based on the ideal of liberty."
He was tempted to take a role in the opposition to the regime but didn't feel comfortable with either of the two large opposition structures, judging the Syrian National Coalition to be too close to the Gulf monarchies and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, despite its left leanings, too tolerant of the regime.
Instead, with Samir Aita, he founded the Syrian Democratic Forum. The Forum aimed to create a bridge between the two opposition platforms, but a battle of egos doomed it to failure. Kilo turned his attention to a manuscript he'd written 30 years earlier, Deir Joussour, a satire on the Syrian police state, which was published in 2019.
"It is safe to say that 2011 did not bring the same satisfaction to each of the three dissidents"
Gilbert Naccache made the most successful transition, becoming, to use the expression of the historian Hichem Abdessamad, an "actor of the revolution" in 2011. He was part of the network Doustourna, and an active participant in discussions to draw up a new Tunisian constitution to reimagine political and institutional life and respect public liberties.
He was also part of debates about the need for transitional justice. Naccache and his wife attended all the protest marches organised by the injured and the families of the martyrs of the revolution. This involvement earned Naccache the trust of young people, and he became a link between the Perspectives group and the young insurgents of 2011.
On 17 November, 2016, he was interviewed by the Truth and Dignity Commission, established in 2013 to bring human rights abuses from before the revolution to light. He spoke of his three prison terms and his torture, saying, "We don't have the right to keep these experiences to ourselves; to refuse to participate would be akin to desertion. After years of feeling shame for being victims, preferring silence to incomprehension, Tunisians now feel they can finally speak. The victims and families of the martyrs are not launching a vendetta, but are privileging truth over vengeance."
The process of transitional justice led by President Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunisia has still to reach its conclusion, but it is safe to say that 2011 did not bring the same satisfaction to each of the three dissidents.
Michel Kilo tried to champion the voice of the Syrian opposition but was forced to accept that his fight for fundamental liberties was impossible while Islamist groups held sway over democratic opposition, and Bashar al-Assad's regime counted on powerful allies like Russia and Iran. Abdallah Zaazaa, too, understood that he would never see the change he hoped for in Morocco in his lifetime.
Khadija Mohsen-Finan is a political scientist at the University of Paris and a researcher attached to the Sirice project studying European identities, international relations and civilisations. She is a member of the editorial team of OrientXXI.
This article was originally published by our partners at OrientXXI.
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