After founding Morocco’s best-selling magazines, I had to quit and leave my country. Free Arabs marks a fresh start—for me and for liberal journalism in the Middle East.
By Ahmed Benchemsi
Combine The Daily Beast, The Village Voice and Comedy Central. Sprinkle it with vibrant democratic and secular activism. Now transpose the whole mix to the Middle East… That’s the vision behind Free Arabs: a unique combination of investigative journalism, trendy reporting, arty activism and impertinent satire —all enshrined in the site’s slogan: “Democracy, Secularism, Fun.”
As the founding editor of this new venture, I want to welcome you to Free Arabs. The web-magazine is very much a team effort, relying on the creativity and talents of dozens of next-generation writers, activists, and artists. But it also marks a milestone in my own journey as a media professional from the Arab World.
So with your indulgence, here is my story—and thus, my perspective on how Free Arabs came to be, and what it aims to become.
Let’s call a spade a spade
My name is Ahmed Benchemsi, and I’m Moroccan. As far as I can remember, I have always been a journalist. I was the proud founder and only staff writer of my high school magazine in Casablanca. After graduating in economics and political science, becoming a journalist felt like a natural calling. So I plunged into on-the-ground reporting and relished in it. One whistle-blowing investigation, revealing the financial misdeeds of government officials, earned me “Morocco’s Best Investigative Journalist” award, at age 22.
Working for international publications and garnering recognition enabled me to attract investors and found a weekly magazine at age 26. I named it TelQuel, French for “As it is.” The message: “Enough with self-censorship, now let’s call a spade a spade.” It was an exciting time as Morocco enjoyed a refreshing breath of freedom under a new king. The future looked bright, and our team of young reporters began spreading their wings.
By engaging the Moroccan reality, warts and all, we quickly waded into hot, sometimes dangerous waters: the king’s salary and private business empire, secret prisons and human rights abuses, sexual mores in Moroccan society, contemporary slavery, drug trafficking, etc. By 2004, just 3 years after its launch, TelQuel became Morocco’s best selling French-language weekly. Time hailed our “taboo breaking” reputation, and The Guardian commended our “brave, pushy journalism.”
Buoyed by this success, we launched Nishan (“upfront” in Moroccan dialect) in 2006 as a sister publication to convey the same journalistic brand in Arabic. A little more than one year after its debut, Nishan became the best-selling Arabic-language weekly in Morocco. The Los Angeles Times wrote that it “offered a model of investigative journalism and open inquiry for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world: critical, probing, relevant and with popular appeal.” (See some of TelQuel’s and Nishan’s daring cover stories, below.)
A dozen young staffers from TelQuel and Nishan won national and international awards, and I was named “Best Investigative Journalist in the Arab World and Israel region” twice by the European Union. Eventually, TelQuel and Nishan became the flagship publications of a larger publishing group, peaking at 100 staffers and $10 million in annual revenue.
Though breaking news was the raison d’être of TelQuel and Nishan, their investigative journalism served a greater purpose: advancing liberal democracy in a part of the world too often regarded as hermetic to it. We triggered a national conversation on topics long considered at odds with Morocco’s ostensibly conservative culture: secularism (i.e., the need to separate mosque and State), freedom of belief, individual—including sexual—liberties, and so on.
Some dismissed our work as elitist and out of touch with Arab/Muslim society. But our successes at the newsstands demonstrated otherwise. Combined circulation of TelQuel, Nishan and other offshoot publications peaked at nearly half a million readers. Those numbers proved that liberal journalism meets a popular need in the Arab world. We showed that individual freedoms were not alien values to our Arab culture and developed the concept of “secularism from within” (see video below for a 15 minute demonstration).
Secularism from Within: Ahmed Benchemsi’s San Francisco Freedom Forum presentation deconstructs how life is actually lived in the Arab world and explains why liberal journalism meets a popular need.
Taking a stand, and paying the price
Our stand for a free society (and as importantly, for a democratic, accountable government) came in parallel with escalating attacks. Morocco’s authorities fiercely targeted TelQuel and Nishan because of their critical, independent journalism. Tens of thousands of copies were seized, confiscated, and destroyed. My colleagues and I were repeatedly subjected to politically motivated trials—all shamelessly biased in favor of the plaintiffs.
After years of harassment, the pressure grew unbearable. Despite its record sales, Nishan began bleeding advertisers thanks to a pervasive boycott by government-linked companies. In October 2010, with revenue slashed by 80%, Nishan had to close.
TelQuel, being a French-language publication with a base of multinational corporate advertisers, could hold out longer against a domestic boycott. Yet it was made clear that unless I left, TelQuel would follow Nishan’s path. While the magazines achieved outstanding success because of their fight for democracy and individuality, now that bold stand was destroying everything.
So at the end of 2010, I quit – severing all ties with the publishing corporation I had founded – and went into self-imposed exile to the US.
I arrived at Stanford University on a two-year fellowship in the beginning of 2011… just as the Arab Spring erupted. I watched mesmerized, as throngs of young protesters took over Tahrir Square, Ben Ali fled and Mubarak was arrested, and young Libyans and Syrians began tearing down statues of their own dictators… all from a Palo Alto hotel room. After 10 years of on-the-ground journalism and activism, my frustration was just unspeakable.
Still, from my vantage point in California, I was able to do what I wouldn’t have done had I stayed in Casablanca: take a step back, and consider the broader picture. Watching a new generation of Middle Easterners up-ending the established order was tremendously inspiring, but also profoundly sobering. How come such smart and dedicated individuals – the incredibly dynamic underground world of liberal Arab activists – were so easily outplayed by both enduring autocrats and ascendant Islamists?
Beyond flash in the pan ‘Facebook revolutions,’ I came to realize, Arab liberals need an articulate agenda and a solid civic infrastructure—one that includes a global media platform to channel their voices and spread their message. Also, if transformative journalistic change is to come to the Arab world, it will happen online.
This is where Free Arabs comes from.
Arab Spring 2.0
The goal of Free Arabs is to provide democratic- and secular-minded Arabs –the vanguard of Middle East and North Africa (with a large diaspora support base in the West) – with a global platform. The site offers a digital haven in which they can find mutual comfort, build ties, and develop a strong network. It is also a professionally edited multimedia platform from which they can speak out freely to reach global audiences.
Free Arabs aims to engage and strengthen our emerging generation of Arab liberals, who have broken through decades of repression but not yet secured basic individual rights. We do this by:
In the process, we hope to change the world’s vision of what an Arab is… and is capable of doing.
So thank you for your readership, and stay tuned: the Arab Spring 2.0 begins now.
P.s. We want to keep improving Free Arabs, so please be in touch with your feedback. I’m @AhmedBenchemsi, and the site is @FreeArabs. Send along critiques, ideas, and join our
community of Free Arabs.