We are sharing below the conclusion of a very pertinent (evidence-based) study that deals with a topic rarely addressed in mainstream academic journals and even less, think tank publications,   
The study is titled “Who frames the debate on the Arab uprisings? Analysis of Arabic, English, and French academic scholarship”. It was published in the International Sociology Journal (July 2015, Volume: 30 issue: 4), and authored by Nada AlMaghlouth (American University of Beirut, Lebanon), Rigas Arvanitis (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, France), Jean-Philippe Cointet (National Research Institute, France) , Sari Hanafi (American University of Beirut). For the whole paper go to: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0268580915580157

“The network analysis we conducted demonstrates clearly that there is an evident hierar- chy between three levels of knowledge production, indicating the different levels of influence of those who will frame the debate about the Arab uprisings. At the first level, knowledge producers who have the highest level of legitimacy (and the highest citation factor) are often from US foreign policy Ivy Leaguers, who create the theoretical, informational, or/and analytical center. These authors are cited by all levels of knowledge producers and publish often in high impact factor journals. Their legitimacy comes from their status as ‘experts’ on authoritarianism in the ME, democratization, and political reform. ‘Expert’ in this context has little to do with local knowledge, since few of these producers reference local authors when studying the region. Instead, some of their expertise is confined to understanding the costs and benefits of US foreign policies in the ME, while some is critical of the longstanding US administration’s support for Arab authoritarian regimes. Titles like ‘Common interests, closer allies, how democracy in Arab states can benefit the West,’ and ‘Authoritarian learning and authoritarian resilience: Regime responses to the “Arab awakening” ’ are pertinent examples of the ways in which these producers perceive the problems they are studying. In addition, their status as both academics and researchers at prominent US think tanks is particularly problematic when it comes to scientific ethos, where their research imperatives are necessarily inclined toward US private interests. The Brookings Institution, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Wilson Center, and other US think tanks are funders of political/ social scientific research in the ME, a factor that has undoubtedly affected the production of knowledge. Their legitimacy is further solidified through their public appearances on international news networks like CNN, and regular publications in journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Unfortunately this article cannot further examine the differing influence of publication outlets.

At the second level we find scholars who do not have a pronounced level of intel- lectual authority. Here we are not talking about the local scholars who are sometimes used as ‘informants’ to first level knowledge producers. Mona Abaza (2011) complains strongly that local academics have often been reduced to ‘service providers for Western “experts” who jet in and jet out.’ Rather, we are referring to scholars who are less cited in spite of the significance of their work. The best example is El-Ghobashy, who has followed the Egyptian revolutions very closely on the ground. However, what we noticed is that her writings were subsequently used as a reference to factual events that occurred during the time and not as a theoretical reference. Other authors in this category might include Arab authors writing from within the AW in English or French. We also find many French-speaking authors that belong to this level, clearly identified in the network analysis and disconnected from the American networks. As we showed in the clusters, those who bridge between different clusters, they often provide alternative voices to the mainstream analysis.

Third level producers are peripheral knowledge producers and include Arabs writing from within the region, in Arabic. As the names within the cluster showed, these voices are seldom heard on the international level, and are only referenced by second level knowledge producers. These voices privilege social justice over geopolitics (very debated by American and French scholarships). What is particularly problematic is the one-way relationship between first and third level producers, which creates the hierar- chal structure of legitimacy; while third level producers cite first level producers (thus legitimizing them), first level producers do not cite third level producers, thereby delegitimizing their positions as knowledge producers at the international level. The collective nature of knowledge production is broken, and a hierarchical structure based on the legitimacy of hegemonic western-institutionalized standards of political and ideological normativity is set in place.

This hierarchy of legitimacy in knowledge is due in part to where the articles are pro- duced. The majority of articles are indeed produced outside the AW and in English. This is primarily due to the hegemony of the English language (Hanafi and Arvanitis, 2014; Mosbah-Natanson and Gingras, 2014) in social science research, facilitated by the dominance of western academic institutions, think tanks, as well as the standards of publication in international journals, which expend little to no effort in accommodating foreign languages. Furthermore, what little knowledge is being produced within the AW is produced in Arabic and not being translated. In fact, scarcely any authors who write in English or French reference in Arabic. To a large extent, authors who write in a particular language, cite in that particular language. Houssay-Holzschuch and Milhaud (2013) find that French authors tend to quote mostly French references and this is confirmed by our work. The issue of language compartmentalization becomes significantly poignant here. Some authors see translation an opportunity for increased reflexivity (Hanafi, 2011), which might lead to new ways of conceptualizing and articulating concepts. New ways of thinking can indeed be found in translation, as long as translation is understood and practiced as a process that is never-ending, dialogical, and fraught with heuristic tensions (Houssay-Holzschuch and Milhaud, 2013).

The hegemony of political science is significantly problematic as well, in addition to the weakness of peripheral authors (both geographical and theoretical), which greatly impoverishes the international debate. Karim Makdisi in Reflections on the State of IR in the Arab Region provides an overview of influential IR journals and demonstrates that voices and research from the Arab region are notably absent, and moreover that those IR ‘conversations’ dealing with the Arab region routinely eschew Arabic sources, let alone oppositional Arab voices.

Given Arab scholars’ lack of resources, language barriers, and poor publication record in mainstream journals, it is clear that many Arab scholars working in Arabic and within national institutions are virtually invisible internationally. The challenge today is the disengagement of social science research from its local context, which is amplified by the hegemony of neoliberal interests and concurrent narratives for change, as well as the marginalization of local knowledge by many Arab scholars who suffer from both local and global constraints on knowledge production.”

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0268580915580157

 By Francis Ghilès (Maghreb Center Associate)

Three months after parliamentary and presidential elections, Tunisia still has no government. The prime minister-designate, Hedi Jomri failed to win the confidence of parliament when he presented his list of ministers on 10th January. He would have been the first prime minister since the country’s independence not to hold a baccalauréat. Nominally “independent”, he is, in fact, a member of the Islamist Ennahda party which polled the greatest number of votes in last October’s general elections, followed by a lay party, Qalb Tunes. Mr. Jomri is no more than a puppet of Ennahda’s supreme leader Rachid Ghannouchi. Qalb Tunes’ leader, Nabil Karoui withdrew his support for Mr. Jomri because he felt that, rather than a coalition government, Rachid Ghannouchi was intent on controlling most key departments not least by the device of appointing people of little stature and no political experience. The leader of the Parti Socialiste Destourien Libre, Abir Moussa made a scathing attack on those who had run Tunisia since the fall of Ben Ali. Many Tunisians openly regret the former president today.

The fractured nature of politics is reminiscent of the French Fourth Republic (1945-1958) which ended when General de Gaulle came to power in a soft coup d’état. The economy meanwhile continues to drift. Foreign indebtedness rises inexorably, so does corruption. When he was appointed prime minister four years ago, Youssef Chahed gave the impression he was a reformist. But he soon gave up, notably where reforming the justice system and fighting corruption are concerned. Individually some ministers and judges have tried to clean up the Augean stables but to no avail. The transparency organization I Watch has actively sought to promote public investigation into alleged cases of corruption but it is funded from abroad which makes the task of understanding why some of the corruption cases it brings to the courts go forward and others are held back remains clouded in mystery. Like the alleged financing of political parties by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia or Turkey, the interference of foreign organizations or governments in Tunisian politics raises important questions about the soundness of Tunisian democracy and “free” elections. What is the real influence of such interventions? Who is really in charge? Conspiracy theories flourish in the murky atmosphere which passes as political life in North Africa’s smallest nation.

To present Tunisia today, nine years after the fall of Ben Ali on 14th January 2011, as a model of political democracy is as laughable as to have presented the country as an economic model in the Arab world prior to 2011. A chorus of Western donors was only too happy to indulge in this game before 2011, but today some of Tunisia’s foreign partners are more cautious. Last summer the European Union ambassador, Patrice Bergamini, put his finger on the problem by publicly criticizing “certain family groups that have no interest in young Tunisian operators breaking through”. He was criticized by Tunisian politicians but reminding North Africa’s smallest country, which is increasingly dependent on financial flows from western and international donors was salutary. Rarely able to speak Tunisian Arabic, Western experts often struggle to understand what the average Tunisian thinks of his rulers or to make sense of confused and often misleading statistics, especially those related to the budget. To quote just one recent example, according to data from the Ministry of Finance’s Supplementary Finance Law, the budget deficit reached 4.8% of GDP and is expected to fall to 3.5% of GDP in 2019. This decrease was obtained by making the very optimistic assumption that Tunisian GDP would grow, in current dinars, by more than 10% (10.4%) this year, a rate of growth Tunisia has not seen for more than a decade.

Conservative estimates suggest that more than one-third of GDP is informal, which explains why arrangements between individuals, industrialists, and governments largely escape the cold light of truth. Local media have neither the means nor when they belong to wealthy individuals, the desire to speak the truth and engage in serious debate. Describing economic and social reality is no easy task as real economic power is discreet. To quote but one example, the name of the private group (SFBT) chaired by Hamadi Bousbia, which manufactures and distributes beer and mineral water, and yields considerable influence is hardly ever mentioned in the media. Other large private groups benefit from the links forged over the decades with a plethora of administration officials whose claim to fame is to have created an undergrowth of rules that stifle wealth creation. None of these networks or habits changed after 2011. New actors such as senior members of Ennahda simply joined the system and milk it in traditional fashion. So do the members of a plethora of new political parties whose members move with infinite ease from one to another. In such circumstances, it is nothing short of a miracle that Tunisia has been able to maintain a dense network of SMEs. Those who set them up have none of the connections of their elders yet, as true foot soldiers of an amazingly resilient Tunisian middle class, they continue fighting – and producing. If Tunisia survives it can thank these men and women who work hard, enjoy no privileges, whose names are unknown outside their immediate surroundings.

The challenge facing the next government, as the veteran economist Hashemi Alaya has noted, is to speak the naked and uncomfortable economic truth to the people. The state has been unable to free up resources for investment. Combating the marginalization of the eastern and southern hinterland, poverty and corruption, and the increasing dilapidation of certain public services such as hospitals, requires public investment. However, government investment has been halved since 2010, from 13.5% of GDP to 5.9% this year. Contrary to promises made to the IMF and foreign investors, government spending betrays rising wages in the civil service and a plethora of government enterprises where staffing is inflated out of all proportion. Those civil servants who earn more than 1500 dinars ($500) a month benefit from many advantages, including official vehicles that are increasingly used for personal ends. Corruption, once limited to a tight circle around the presidency, has spread like cancer to affect the whole country. This goes hand in hand with a tax hike that has certainly improved tax revenues in 2019 but, together with some of the highest corporate taxes in Africa, makes the country unattractive to investors other than offshore. 

The figures of the Investment Promotion Agency attest to the steady decline in productive investments. Industrial sites close every month, some industrialists pack their bags and head directly to Morocco. Tunisia lost 94 production units last year, including 62 sites that are industrial. The industrial sector contributed 30% of GDP before 2011, a percentage that fell to less than 25% for the first six months of 2019. It is not surprising that the creation of new jobs continues to fall.

Contrary to appearances, the much-vaunted tourism sector may well be contributing negatively to GDP. The huge number of non-performing bank loans to this sector negatively impacts bank balance sheets. It prevents them from lending to young entrepreneurs – but the subject is taboo in Tunis. Most banks privilege their traditional, often indebted clients and ignore a younger generation of entrepreneurs. Preferring to lend to the rich and for consumption, they are complicit with a political class which is sacrificing the younger generation, especially ambitious young entrepreneurs wishing to start small or medium size projects.

Representative democracy has run out of steam

Ennahda, presented as the relative winner of the October 6, 2019, legislative elections – with 52 seats (109 are required to achieve a majority) – represents less than 5% of the real electorate and has lost nearly two-thirds of its electorate since the first free elections in October 2011. Its former competitor Nidaa Tunes has collapsed and the left is in pieces. The Assembly of People’s Representatives is more fragmented than ever. The second round of the presidential elections then gave victory to Kais Saied, a 62-year-old retired constitutional law assistant who had so far held no political office. Without a party or a member of parliament, but with the promise of integrity, he succeeded in gathering the votes of more than 90% of the young people and 72% of the voters who put a ballot in the box. His opponent, Nabil Karoui, who suffered from spending most of the campaign in prison, following allegations of money laundering, has a party in Parliament, Qalb Tunes, which trails behind Ennahda with 38 seats.

Parliamentary elections are by single list and on a single round. The seats in the constituencies (often between 5 and 10) are distributed in proportion to the votes among the high scores, then the remainder of the seats (often more than half) are allocated to the low scores, the exact opposite of a majority vote. The constitution drafted in 2014 was undoubtedly doomed to failure and the mere fact that many of Kais Saied’s voters deserted the second round of the legislative elections suggests a first misunderstanding, that the president can change everything from the Carthage Palace. However, apart from diplomacy and defense, the Head of State has no responsibility or power in economic and political matters.

Any government which is the result of an agreement between Rachid Ghannouchi, and the Nabil Karoui Qalb would suggest we are into the same kind of lame, not to say sordid compromises that characterized the marriage of reason between Nidaa Tunes and Ennahda during the four and a half year presidency of the late Beji Caid Essebsi, who died six months ago. The support given by Qalb Tunes deputies to the election of Mr. Ghannouchi as speaker of the lower house last autumn contradicts Mr. Karoui’s often repeated commitment not to cooperate with his sworn enemy. Mr. Ghannouchi quickly put forward the name of Mr. Habib Jomri, but the prime minister-designate looked a little like a rabbit being pulled out of a hat, “colorless, odorless and politically unflavoured” character, according to a seasoned observer of the Tunisian political scene.

Ennahda leaders have long sought to present a “reasonable” public face and act through proxies by appointing people who have little experience and are unknown to a broader public. Attempting to control the machinery of government while handing out stipends to its own supporters in order to silence dissidents seems to have reached its limits. The puppet master Ghannouchi finds himself with ‘karakuz’ (Ottoman puppets) whose strings are broken. The system is fast accelerating the degrading of public services, where morale is already at rock bottom. Nidaa Tounes abused this type of demagogy under the aegis of the late president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who is on the run in France, too scared that he will find himself in the nets of justice.

Parties, large and small, share an economic cake that has grown very slowly since 2011, and have been unable to present an economic recovery plan, which explains the joke of Hachemi Alaya who entitled a recent Ecoweek bulletin “Tunisia has still not finished with the policy of the dead dog on the run”. The risk however, is that the dog will drown. Many Tunisians are seeing their standard of living fall: 40% survive on a monthly income of 500 dinars, 35% on 500-1000 dinars, 10% on 1000-1500 dinars, 5% on 1500-2500 dinars and 3% on more than 2500 dinars. However, living in Tunisia today on 15 or 25 dinars ($5-8) a day as a majority of the population is obliged to do is simply impossible. These figures come from the World Bank, but it is important to note that Gilbert Achcar has provided evidence that the World Bank has underestimated the poverty rate in Arab countries for decades.

Whatever government eventually emerges, whether technocratic or political, it will face very strong economic, financial, social and regional headwinds. Neither religious pronouncements, nor spectacular promises which ordinary Tunisians have long since stopped believing, nor distributing pasta to the poor, as Qalb Tunes loves to do, nor a growing debt that guarantees wage increases for civil servants, but is never channeled toward collapsing public investment, nor conferences to promote the benefits for foreigners to invest in Tunisia, nor a cat-and-mouse game with the IMF, nor even a president who formulates a form of utopian direct democracy can hide a harsh reality: financially, the emperor has no clothes.

Tunisian people grant Kais Saied the benefit of the doubt, which is understandable but he is inexperienced and, if he has been able to make his voters dream, he will soon have to concede that formulating economic and social policy is not part of his constitutional remit. Who will he now put forward as the next prime minister in waiting? Will he call for new elections? If Ennahda succeeds in making itself indispensable to the proper functioning of a system that works to its advantage, the “system” may be able to gain time, but for not for much longer. The limits to redistribution when there is little additional wealth to redistribute are fast approaching.

The poor hinterland is an equation of many unknowns

Back in 2014, the former director of the state phosphate and fertilizer company, Kais Daly, noted that a new deal between the coastal and inland regions, where the great revolts of 1984, 2008 and 2010-11 started, is the only long term policy capable of reducing the divide between the two Tunisias. According to Daly, “the policy of extreme extraction of natural resources, which has become politically unsustainable, must be abandoned and processing activities gradually integrated into resource production areas”. He estimated transfers from these eleven governorates, representing 70% of the country and a third of its population, at 5 billion Tunisian dinars per year, or 20% of GNP – providing the coastal regions with more than 5% of their water resources, 50% of oil and gas, 70% of durum wheat, 50% of fruit, vegetables and olives – and all the phosphate that is processed into fertilizer on the coast before being exported. Income is one-third of the national average, there is no capital accumulation. Capital and elites flee to Tunis, the poor sell their labor on the coast.

Daly illustrates this situation by the history of the El Borma oil field, which for the two decades of the 1970s and 1980s financed almost a quarter of the national budget and thus contributed significantly to the development of infrastructure and the economy on the coast. The governorate of Tataouine, where El Borma is located, has not seen any investment and today smuggling has become a survival strategy. Chaos in Libya has only strengthened this underground economy in the south since its inhabitants had depended on work provided by the rich neighbor for their livelihood, and not on government largesse from Tunis. The failed modernization of the phosphate and fertilizer sector is another example from which the consequences must be drawn.

To this is added the barely disguised contempt of many Tunisian elites for country folk, the country bumpkins or aroubis from the interior. These elites are more at ease at dinners at the French Embassy in La Marsa than in Le Kef or Gafsa, cities where they have often never set foot. Their children often hold French passports and frequently work abroad.

Whether by creating a regional development fund or by encouraging resource processing activities, solutions are not lacking: the transfer of semolina and couscous factories to durum wheat production regions, phosphate processing industries to the mining regions and geographical rebalancing of electricity production centers toward energy source regions are all possible remedies but none have been attempted. Encouraging the development of agriculture, where state investment is chronic for half a century, would help rural areas. The production and export of quality olive oil and dates are increasing and provides valuable foreign exchange. These sectors contribute infinitely more to the country’s development than tourists who stay at discounted prices.

For three decades, Moroccan leaders have been able to expand Morocco’s working regions beyond the Casablanca-Kenitra axis to include Tangiers, Fez, Marrakesh, and Agadir, but Moroccan SMEs have a poor record compared to their Tunisian counterparts. An investment policy granting undue privileges to large international companies does not help to build a properly domestic industrial base and does not create a national value-added chain. Algeria has been able to distribute the oil windfall throughout the country, but the curse of black gold and military power that wastes revenue on excessive arms purchases are holding back the development of the private sector. It is striking to note in this regard that Morocco’s per capita GDP exceeds that of Tunisia for the first time though income differences in Morocco remain greater than in Tunisia. Daly insists on the fact that it is essential to reintegrate poor Tunisian regions into the national economic system “which is being torn apart, at the risk of eventually leading to political upheaval”.

Civil disobedience in Gafsa and Tataouine has “held hostage” the central system through natural resources essential to the coastal economy. It effectively creates “economic association zones with the neighboring countries of Algeria and Libya, which are in competition with the Tunisia-European Union association zone.” It is creating the Maghreb of tomorrow and as such, it is perhaps, ironically, a promising future. The cost of the Non-Maghreb includes, among other things, the marginalization of the populations of northern and western Morocco; the western uplands and deep south of Tunisia.

The road to democracy is long and arduous: whether the Tunisian political elites have the wit, the ambition, the sheer vision to move ahead boldly is far from clear. If the muddling through with growing corruption and unsustainable levels of foreign debt continues unchecked, the risk of a much bloodier rising than nine years ago looms.

(This article was first published on 01/2020, in CIDOB Publications)

 

Tunisia, a little-known country within US academic and foreign policy circles until the 2010-2012 Arab uprisings, has attracted shortly after that a lot of attention and the intervention of a collection of Washington DC-based democracy promoters, instructors, observers, supervisors, and other transitologists and consolidologists.
To these should be added a bundle of self-proclaimed “experts “on Islam, political Islam, the Middle East, and its “democratization”, with a soft spot for liberal neo-conservatism, some of them holding influential positions in Washington DC think tanks and other entities part of the so-called democracy-promotion industry. Some among these experts used to consider the Arabs and Muslims unfit for democracy, but with an excellent sense of timing repackaged themselves as democracy promoters and instructors for that very Arab-Muslim world [1],  including Tunisia. 
Right after the Arab Spring, as the country was embarking on democratic transition, they descended en masse upon little Tunisia to give unsolicited advice and instructions, on how to proceed in order to build a democracy that would get their seal of approval — which sounded to the locals as “the approval of the United States”. A mix of direct and indirect pressure on the part of our democratizers to have the Tunisians opt for a political sysyem that prevents the concentration of power in executive hands; a noble concern by itself, but combined with the Ennahda Islamist party Machiavellian manipulations, deceit, and political maneuvering, resulted in the adoption by the then Tunisian constitutional assembly of a hybrid political system that incorporates elements of parliamentary and presidential systems of government, and that favor parliamentary fragmentation to the extreme. This makes it impossible for a government to operate without having to forge governing coalitions, and therefore incorporating the Islamists  –a stable, disciplined, and cohesive minority in the parliament–, and to adopt a mode of governance based on “consensus”, to make sure no decision is made without their consent, and, for their democracy promotion industry sponsors, that nothing really changes. 
On the other hand, in the US, our “democratizers” endeavored (and succeeded) in framing the narrative and the debate about democratic transition in Tunisia in terms largely favorable to the Islamists, thus contributing to their legitimazation both in the US and internationally, in addition to US government continued support.
This blog post is an opinion article, but it also presents a few observations and reflections about what we call the “democratizers” in Tunisia that may be useful to some.    
A love affair with the Islamists 

While promoting the integration of political formations into the political process of foreign nations is in principle part of the democracy promotion project of the United States, when it came to post-Arab Spring Tunisia, although the (minority) reactionary Islamist Ennahda party [1B] was accepted by the political class and fully integrated into the post-Arab Spring political life of that country, and therefore didn’t need any special treatment, our “democratizers” decided otherwise. They choose to focus almost exclusively on the Islamists, promoting and supporting them[1C]

Our “democratizers” purposely ignored all the other players in Tunisian politics, particularly the progressives, but also the social democrats, and even to a certain extent the secular democrats as well, although together they represent the majority of the Tunisian electorate; and, unlike the Islamists, do share America’s core values of liberty, equality, and democracy. 

Thus, parading behind a veneer of academic “expertise” and objectivity, they worked hard at the Tunisian Islamists legitimization  in Washington, providing them with various platforms   to promote themselves, and profess their unshakeable democratic convictions. This occured after our democratizers paved their way with numerous articles about the Arab Spring, political Islam, democratic transition in Tunisia, and so on, in newspapers (Op-eds), and reports in mainstream think tank publications;  swearing up and down that these Islamists are  “moderate”, representative, true believers in democracy, staunchly pro-market, and won’t constitute a threat to the interests of the US, its allies and clients in the region, if they came to power –to the contrary… The grip of our pro-Islamist “democratizers” over mainstream foreign policy circles, including government agencies at the highest level, is quite amazing, with most of them lining up behind our democratizers and their Islamist protégés. 

As indicated above, although Tunisian secular democrats, social democrats, and progressives share most of America’s core values, and largely outnumber the Islamists in Tunisia, practically none of them has been invited since the start of the Arab uprisings of 2010-2012 by mainstream think tanks, foreign policy circles and other entities part of the democracy promotion industry, including in academia, to come to Washington, participate in the numerous panels about the “Arab Spring”, democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, democratic transition in Tunisia (“the only Arab Spring success story”, etc.), or/and to meet with US officials. Only Islamist officials and sympathizers have had that honor time and again, with very few secular exceptions, usually other (non-religious) conservatives comfortable with the neo-liberal policy orientations of the previous regime and today allied with the Islamists in government, eager to reproduce the pre-Arab Spring economic system with a few cosmetic changes. As to the Islamists themselves, they don’t question these neo-liberal policies, don’t even talk about reforming or adapting them to post-Arab Spring Tunisia, except to stress the need to combat corruption by proposing simplistic measures with populist appeal

In fact (and unfortunately), every effort has been made in Washington to avoid any in-depth discussion that would have allowed different perspectives and points of view to be expressed, Even addressing the historic, social, economic, including the effects of economic globalization and the role of international structures of power, to explain the “Arab Spring” uprisings, has been avoided. Rather, the conversation remained superficial, excessively culturalist (to allow our democratisers to focus on Islam and Islamism), without any real discussion or critical debate on the impacts of the neoliberal economic model that prevailed in Tunisia and other Arab countries. It is worth mentioning here that (fact-based) analyses by authoritative (and neutral) UN agencies have shown that decades of these kinds of policies have led to the social uprisings of the Arab Spring. When mention was made of the economic model that prevailed in Tunisia by our democratizers, it was only to point out that it could have worked, if governance reforms along the lines of accountability, transparency, legal reform, and the litany of reforms at the heart of the neoliberal agenda, had been implemented; and by issuing quasi-official calls to implement them. Botton line: no discussions were allowed that might eventually call into question the validity of the said model, not even to examine ways to possibly alter it somehow, to “channel the power of the market to serve society“, to quote a famous contemporary economist known for his calls for reform, and certainly not for revolution. And the debate was redirected towards, and confined to issues of culture and religion, of Islamism Vs secularism, moderns Vs traditionalists / conservatives, as well as meaningless made-up issues such as “liberal Vs illiberal Islam”, and so on.

The opportunity to discuss pertinent issues and make proposals for a more equitable global economic order, and a development  model that prioritizes social well-being in developing countries to prevent other social uprisings like those of the Arab Spring, has been completely wasted. This would certainly have allowed the US to improve its image in Tunisia, the Arab world, and the developing world in general, by showing that it cares about the well-being of the people; and, as important, to put its foreign policy in line with the aspiration of an increasing number of Americans favorable to a US foreign policy that promotes peace rather than continuous confrontation, and a fair and equitable global order. Unfortunately, the opportunity has been ignored because of ideological conformity, and, one could also say,  neoliberal ideological dogmatism and rigidity!

Without entering into a detailed analysis, which would be beyond the scope of this modest blog post, one could suggest a few possible explanations to this love affair between US democratizers and the Islamists of Tunisia.

Decoding the democratizers behavior: 

Our democratizers perception of America’s interests reveals a predilection for short-termism, based on shallow analyses fed by prejudice and a superficial neo-orientalist understanding of Islam, and essentialist stereotypes about Arab societies[2]. This is reflected in the disparaging assumption by several pundits, at least in the beginning of the Arab Spring, that religious grievances were the main explanatory factors of the uprisings, and consequently the response should be religiously-inspired. The overwhelming levels of unemployment, particularly among youths, high poverty and inflation rates, widespread corruption, human rights abuses, the dismantlement of education, health, and welfare services, the worsening of social inequalities between urban and rural, between coastal and inland regions neglected for decades and remaining largely under-developed, were barely relevant to our democratizers. Incidentally, this situation is worsening by the day under the Islamist party Ennahda-led governments that have been ruling Tunisia practically since 2011, with the blessing of many among the so-called democracy promotion industry in Washington. 

One can’t help but surmise that our democratizers, trapped as they are in their own prejudices, believe, in reality, that maintaining the Tunisian and other Middle Eastern and North African peoples under (non-violent) Islamist influence and control, is good for the US and its allies. Not only will it keep them quiet and under control, according to the dictum that “religion is the opium of the people”, but also aligned with the existing neoliberal world order[3], under US stewardship. An order that (again) the Islamists never question or want to reform, or even adapt to their country’s specific conditions. It should be noted here in passing that the control of populations through the control of religion (Islam) is an old trick. It was one of the cornerstones of France’s colonial policies in Algeria for example, but as we know, it … failed.

To be mentioned also is the simple-minded, foolish belief that building formal, disincarnated, generic democratic institutions without working immediately and hard to address the socio-economic grievances, inequalities, and precariousness, intensified by the general crisis of globalization, would be enough for democracy to take hold. 

Some others among our democratizers, apparently overtaken by events, thought that the US was still fighting the cold war, when the Islamists were considered the strongest bulwarks against the spread of communist influence in the Muslim world, and should be supported for that reason[4].  Today the communists are gone, but apparently, they have been replaced in the mind of our democratizers by those local secular democrats and progressives who dare, even if they are not necessarily anti-American[2], to claim some kind of relative political and economic sovereignty for their countries. In other words, most of those who know first-hand how devastating the effects of  neoliberal globalization policies on developing countries like theirs can be, and who maintain that they need more than constitutional adjustments and “liberalizing” reforms along Washington Consensus. 

One should also mention the middle-of-the-road American liberals fascination with exotic, “dangerous”, “threatening”, political Islam/Islamism, which fortunately can be “tamed” by democracy –or so they believe. (A touching unshakeable faith in liberal democracy under any circumstances!)

Academic opportunism did also play a role, particularly on the part of some newcomers to the field of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, eager to make a name for themselves, through the expedient use of mainstream think tank publications and newspapers’ op-eds.

Finally, there is definitively the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood backers from the Gulf with deep pockets, over U.S. universities, and think tanks, which have benefited from their largesse.

In conclusion:

Yet, remarkably enough, the Tunisian people have proven fully committed, in spite of huge obstacles engendered by a catastrophic economic situation[5] endured by their small peripheral developing country’s economy, caught up in the whirlpool of neoliberal globalization and foreign interferences, to building democratic institutions that are truly indigenous, not imported, not transplanted. Institutions that include socio-economic rights as well, whether our neoliberal democracy instructors, usually anti-welfare state, anti-union, free-market aficionados, like it or not!

Moreover, it seems that Tunisians are led on the chaotic path of building their own version of democracy by a relatively cohesive social elite (We are not talking about the political class here), singularly knowledgeable and educated; with an organic link to its  people, and this should entice our democratisation advisers and instructors to tone down their arrogant interferences. Only Tunisians would know how to built a  democracy that is rooted in their country’s history, reflecting their people’s social and cultural specificities. “Cultural” in a broad sense, not only religious, as our democratizers with their neo-conservative culturalist fixation on Islam believe!  Thus, Tunisians don’t seem to need foreign interferences, and  foreign coaching by “bidons” experts, and by preachy, condescending, and unsolicited advice-givers, as they continue to forge their own path towards democracy and social justice!

One can’t help it but wonder, wouldn’t there be enough for our democratizers to do in the US these days, with all these anti-democratic forces rising? Shouldn’t our democratizers focus on their own country after all, instead of wasting tax-payers’ money trying to “democratize” a complex world that their lack of modesty and intellectual rigor prevents from understanding and respect, in all its diversity?  Moreover, they don’t seem to understand that their relevance today, given the large number of Americans who oppose US global interventionism particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and accordingly the current administration nationalist inclination and disinterest in universalizing American values, at least as our democratizers understand them, is over!

[1A] See:  http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000109.htm  (Not to be missed, this real gem by one of our “experts”: “the autocracy of the Arab world exists not despite, but because of, a certain measure of freedom” [ Sic ] )                                               
 [1 B]: Ennahda  has currently 52 out of 217 seats in the Tunisian parliament.                                   
[1 C] One of the democratizers’ arguments for supporting the Islamist Ennahda party and not the secular liberals is that it is a well-organized and cohesive political party, while the seculars of various tendencies are divided and lack discipline. But who can match the cult-like organization, discipline, and cohesiveness of a religious sect ?
[2]  Often providing approximations and general platitudes, divorced from their historic, social, economic contexts. The contention might be that a decontextualized, one-size-fits-all approach to Muslim and Arab countries is good enough for them, no matter the historical, social, political, economic and geopolitical specificities of each country, notably Tunisia. Most likely also: a blatant ignorance of these specificities.   
[3] In Tunisia, and in Morocco, Islamist parties are committed to the same pre-Arab Spring neo-liberal policies. See: Cimini, G. (2017). The Economic Agendas of Islamic Parties in Tunisia and Morocco: Between Discourses and Practices. Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies11(3), 48-64.
[4] Moreover, Ennahda has facilitated the sending of thousands of Tunisian Jihadists to join the ranks of the various radical Islamist groups, including ISIS, to fight the Syrian regime of  El Assad, and in Iraq. This also means that having Ennahda in power, or part of the power structure in Tunisia, can be useful in case of a need by some influential key players in the Middle East and North Africa confrontations, to use additional manpower from Tunisia, or/and  Tunisian territory to set up logistics bases that could be needed for military interventions in the region, as Turkey has recently requested in the case of its intervention in neighboring Libya.
[5] Thanks in large part to Ennahda and its allies’ mismanagement of the affairs of the country.
__________________________________
Nejib Ayachi 
(The views expressed in this blog post are strictly mine, and only mine. They do not represent in any way those of other members and associates of the Maghreb Center)

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Some interesting stuff on the topic:
The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, a talk by Prof. John J Mearsheimer at SOAS, the University of London (Jan. 21, 2019): https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=ni9rncx8ceA&feature=emb_title 
Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent, Capitalism, Democracy and the Organisation of Consent, Edited by Rebecca Fisher (See Edmund Berger contributions): https://corporatewatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/MDMD-Master-PDF1.pdf
 

 

The first round of the presidential election in Tunisia takes place this Sunday, September 15th. Today, the country is turning a new page in its history, with the second democratic presidential election since the collapse of the autocratic regime of Zine Ben Ali in 2011. Seven million citizens are expected to get to the polls and cast a ballot, while the socio-economic crisis is deepening, and the political landscape is increasingly fragmented.

Tunisians now enjoy the rights to free expression, free association, along with free and competitive elections, but the socioeconomic conditions of most of them, including the middle class, have continued to deteriorate. The unemployment rate has increased, at about 15% of the working-age population, with young people particularly affected, and twice as much in the neglected and deprived regions of the interior of the country where the uprisings of the so-called “Arab Spring” started. In addition to unemployment, the housing crisis, access to decent and affordable health care services, and the increasing cost of living with an inflation rate of about 7 % are fundamental concerns for millions of Tunisians. On the other hand, the parallel economy is growing, now representing 40% of all economic activities in the country, fostering corruption that has become widespread and endemic.

All of this is happening while the current ruling coalition comprised of the Ennahda Islamist party allied with center-right factions of the secular family have succeeded in derailing the debate over the economy and development issues in general, by focusing on identity and religion. Although many progressives in academia, the media, among civil society organizations and some political parties have called for a revision of Tunisia’s economic development model and the type of integration into the global economy that it entails, whose effects were basically the triggers of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ revolts, the same model still prevails.

Illustrating the fragmentation of Tunisia’s political scene is the huge number of candidates (twenty-six!) running for this presidential election. This is happening while many Tunisian have expressed their disinterest in politics, politicians, and elections. As of this writing, the participation rate in today’s election at the closing of polling stations, is only 45%, according to the local media.

In the 2014 elections, voters had to choose between the Islamists and their secular center-right opponents organized in the ‘Nidaa Tounes’ party founded by the old regime statesman Beji Caid Essebsi, who got elected as president in 2014, and who on July 25, a few weeks before the end of his term, passed away at the age of 95. Since the previous election in 2014, several other disparate political forces without clear ideological or programmatic contours have emerged. As to the party of the late president Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes, it broke out in various factions built more on the basis of personal rivalries and thcraving for power, than on ideological or programmatic differences.

The popular protest movement for dignity, justice, economic rights, and democracy, which ended the Ben Ali regime in 2011, was from its initiation supported, and, in some regions of the country, even led, by various progressive social and political forces including the powerful UGTT union organization; before being highjacked by the Islamists, although they have not been part of it –at least as such, that is as Islamists.

However, these secular progressive forces are fragmented, embroiled in personal feuds, and, above all, unable to question and revise their dogmatic and narrowly ideological political vision. As a result, they have contributed to Ennahda’s strengthening its grip on large segments of the working people, the poor and deprived populations, and enabled the rise of the populist right, represented in this election by Abir Moussi, the candidate of a renewed RCD party (formerly of Ben Ali), who seems to be a candidate to contend with.

Another populist candidate who, according to the latest polls, may even win this election, is the newcomer in politics and media tycoon, Nabil Karoui. He became known and popular through his charity work in poor neighborhoods and neglected regions of the country.  He is currently in jail for alleged tax fraud.

The other favorite candidates are Youssef Chahed, the current prime minister, and Abdelkrim Zbidi, the minister of defense, an independent close to the late president Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party and considered a man of great integrity, and quite popular for that reason in these times of high levels of corruption. Both belong to the center-right tendency in Tunisian politics and do not question the neoliberal orientations of the country, or have presented a credible program to tackle Tunisia’s overwhelming socio-economic problems. The other main contender is Abdelfattah Mourou, the 71-year-old co-founder of the Islamist Ennahdha party, and its first candidate for the presidency. He is expected to do relatively well, but not enough to stand in the second round of the election.

Unless a candidate obtains the absolute majority in the first round, the candidates, and especially their parties, will face a major challenge: that of preparing parallel legislative elections scheduled for October 6, and immediately after that, the second round of the presidential election, which should be held on October 23.

Preliminary results will be announced on Tuesday by the election authority, but, as reported by Reuters news agency this Monday (Sept.16, 2019) morning, “partial election results showed two political outsiders leading the race to become Tunisian president after exit polls showed them advancing to a second-round runoff next month.” Adding that “the independent election commission said conservative law professor Kais Saied and detained media magnate Nabil Karoui were leading.” “If their lead holds, it would represent an earthquake in Tunisian politics and a strong rejection of successive governments …”

(Nejib Ayachi)

The Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE) was formed in 2017 at the request of the President of the Republic, to make recommendations for legal reforms, in matters of individual rights and freedoms, and equality, including gender equality (inheritance rights). The Committee is made up of lawmakers, human rights advocates and academics. In its recently issued report, the Committee recommends the decriminalization of homosexuality, abolishing the death penalty, giving women more rights and dismantling patrilineal citizenship and inheritance laws.

As expected, the Report’s recommendations have been criticized, sometimes violently, by Islamists and other conservatives in Tunisia.

” The change that would include freedoms and rights may affect the beliefs of the majority of people, but it will not affect the beliefs of the individual who exercises a certain act. Everyone is free in their practices. If some freedoms and rights contradict your beliefs then don’t practice them. However, you do not have the right to deprive others of practicing them.”   (Salim Al-Lughmani, The Legal Agenda)

However, several associations, such as the Tunisian Association for the Defense of University Values, are supporting the Committee and its recommendations. Below is the English Translation of a Statement in French issued by The Tunisian Association for the Defense of University Values, about the Report, stressing the fact that these recommendations are in line with Tunisia’s tradition of reformism and modernization, initiated in the 19th century:

” The Tunisian Association for the Defense of University Values  fully appreciates the content of the report drafted by the Committee on Personal Freedoms and Equality at the request of the President following his speech on 13 August 2017 on the occasion of Women’s Day. This report is a historical document in line with the Tunisian reformist and modernist movement (started in the 19th century) that also takes into account religious prescriptions. It proceeds from a rational reflection on heritage. This document has the value and importance of the historic decree that abolished slavery (23 January 1846), the Basic Pact (Ahd El Amen), and the Personal Status Code (August 13, 1956).

The report was build on the provisions of the Constitution of 27 January 2014 while respecting the international conventions guaranteeing individual freedoms and human rights, agreed upon by Tunisia. Its content is a successful attempt to balance Tunisian culture with universal values, rights and freedoms within the Tunisian socio-cultural context marked by tolerance and the desire to be in tune with the times. The report represents the culmination of the feminist movement efforts in favor of gender equality, and to realize the objectives of the 2011 Tunisian Revolution for Dignity and Liberty.

That is why our Association supports this report as part of a ‘civilizational project’, and calls on the President of the Republic to translate it into bills of law for approval by the Assembly of People’s Representatives (the Parliament) as soon as possible. The association also calls on the different components of civil society and the political class to adopt, in response to the proposed report, an approach of constructive dialogue and mutual respect. It urges everyone to avoid launching accusations of heresy, distorting the reality, stigmatizing divergent opinions and all practices unrelated to the defense of ideas and without moral or religious foundation, such as the defamation, stigmatization and attempts at damaging the reputation of the report authors, and recently suffered by some of our colleagues at the university, which dishonor and ultimately harm only their authors.

While thanking the members of the commission for their efforts in the drafting of the report, our Association expresses its support and informs them of our total availability to participate in the intellectual dialogue around the societal topics covered in the document, and denounces the behavior of some leaders in this country who carry out campaigns of falsification and disfigurement of reality, based on lies and misinformation, in order to mount public opinion against the members of the commission and its president, and against the partisans of the progressive ideas expressed in the report. (Habib Mellakh, President of the Tunisian Association for the Defense of University Values).

N. A.

On May 6, 2018, 8.5 million Tunisians were called to elect 7,280 councilors in 350 municipalities, in free and fair elections for the first time in the history of their country. After the legislative and presidential elections of 2014, the municipal elections, postponed four times since 2015, are the last stage of the electoral process of post-revolution Tunisia. With these elections, democratic transition is finally getting anchored at the local level.

The new Code on Local Authorities adopted on Apr 27, 2018, provides a certain degree of administrative and financial independence for municipalities, and envisages participatory democracy mechanisms that allow citizens to be involved in municipal government. A meaningful first step towards decentralization and local populations empowerment, in a country historically characterized by a high level of administrative centralization. Although the elected City Councils taxation prerogatives and the degree of their financial and decision-making independence vis-à-vis central and local government authorities are still unclear, municipalities will in principle be allowed to build, manage, and maintain, health, cultural and sports facilities, as well as educational institutions.

The Tunisian Elections Authority (ISIE) reported that the poll was fair and transparent, and “without major incident “; while the European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) considered the results “credible”.

As to said results, it should first be pointed out the record level of non-participation, and second that the real winners are the independent candidates.

Indeed, the dominant two parties in Tunisian politics, Nida Tounes, a network of secularists and old regime elites, and its ally in government the reformed Islamist party Ennahda (which has recently decided to separate, at least formally, political activities and religion), have lost their hegemony, exercised over Tunisia’s political scene since 2014.

Nidaa Tounes, the dominant party in the coalition government, obtains only 22.7% of the votes –that is 1595 seats nationwide, according to ISIE. It seems that the recent adoption of a highly disputed law giving amnesty to thousands of people linked to corruption under the former Ben Ali regime, relentlessly promoted by the founder of Nidaa Tounes, President Caid Essebsi; as well as his efforts to institute equal inheritance laws for women, didn’t pay off electorally as he and his party expected. Nidaa Tounes performed poorly, losing some 1,430,816 votes (two-thirds of its voters) in comparison to the 2014 elections.

Ennahda, on the other hand did better. Yet, in spite of its militant machine, its numerous clientelistic networks, the outreach work performed by the NGOs it controls, as well as its efforts to extend its appeal beyond the usual Islamist electorate, and be perceived as just a conservative party standing for traditional and family values, won 29.68% of the seats; that is 2135 seats. In relation to the 2011 elections, Ennahda lost 1,129,725 votes .

The results for the other contenders, a few smaller parties on the left and center of the Tunisian political spectrum, include the following in terms of percentage of municipal councils’ seats: the Popular Front, 3.6%; the Democratic Movement, 2.85%; Machrou Tounes, 1.72%; Al Chaab Movement, 1.39%; and Afek Tounes, 1.29%.

Although some of them may be sponsored by Ennahda or/and Nida Tounes, we can state that, together, the independents are the winners of the May 2018 municipal elections. According to ISIE, they won 32.9% of the municipal councils’ seats (compared to Ennahdha, 29.68% of the seats, and Nidaa Tounes, 22.57%).

Political disaffection: While the participation rate for the 2014 parliamentary elections was 68.36%, it was only 33.7% for the May 2018 municipal elections. Only 1,797,154 Tunisians voted this time, out of more than 5.3 million registered voters, in a country of 11.4 million inhabitants. We should note here that according to ISIE figures, voter turnout was lower in poor neighborhoods of large cities, where living conditions have deteriorated even further since the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring, and in the deprived regions of the interior and the south, where they started. Equally concerning is the low rate of youth participation, as less than 25% of young people aged 18 to 21 have registered to vote, according to estimates by the EU mission.

These low rates of participation are not only indicative of voters disaffection with regard to politics, but also with political elites, principally those belonging to secular Nida and Islamist Ennahda, tangled in an unholy governing alliance that seems to serve primarily the interests of the latter. These elites are considered responsible for the rise of corruption, continuous and worsening high unemployment rates, the decline in purchasing power, and the degradation of public services; not to mention the erosion of the value of the Tunisian dinar, and the substantial increase in national debt. For many Tunisians, political parties are trapped in partisan quarrels, personal rivalries, and political maneuvering, and are incapable of translating institutional changes into tangible improvements for the majority of Tunisians.

Moreover, issues of power and power relationships at the local level, are not clear to the voters. The same is true with the prerogatives of the municipalities, including in terms of their fiscal ressources and the budget that will be allocated to them according the new Code on Local Authorities, which was adopted less than one month before the elections.

With the proportional voting system adopted by Tunisia, practically no list of candidates was able to achieve a majority of the electoral vote. This situation will thus require negotiations, which promise to be long and most likely complicated, in order to constitute functional majorities and elect the mayors, although Ennahda is expected to lead a majority of Tunisian municipalities.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that in spite of some enduring patriarchal traditions, particularly in areas of the interior of the country, and thanks to Tunisia’s Constitution, which includes provisions for gender parity in practically all elected assemblies, 48% of the candidates were women in the municipal elections, while they already represented 47% of the candidates in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The main innovation however is that 30 % of electoral lists were headed by women in the recent municipal elections, against 13 % in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

In conclusion, it seems that the conservative alliance between secular Nida Tounes and Islamist Ennahda has lost its appeal, if it ever had one, as such, among the majority of Tunisian citizens, and beyond some Western diplomatic and academic circles, and Washington think tanks, anxious to ensure the “stability” of the country around a reactionary, conservative hub. The alliance has proven incapable of delivering on practically any of the crucial social and economic issues that triggered the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring, not to mention implementing some of the economic and governance reforms demanded by Tunisians (including those designed to effectively fight corruption) and by Tunisia’s international creditors, lenders, and economic partners.

To the contrary, the living conditions of most citizens have worsened since 2011. At the same time, the nation’s budget deficit has dramatically increased, with a public sector wage bill that has more than doubled since 2011, after Ennahda (then leading a governing coalition (2011-2014)) decided the recruitment of some 90, 000 unemployed sympathizers as civil servants ; while the judiciary, security and public sectors reforms are still in need to be implemented –among others.

In addition, and as important, creeping “Islamicisation” (spread of basic, simplistic forms of a sort of neo fundamentalism, heavily tainted with dogmatism and superstition) under the influence  of Ennahda and its Islamist populism, with its trail of excessive religiosity, backwardness, sloppiness, carelessness and neglect, fatalism and passivity, now affects large segments of Tunisian society; and certainly runs counter to the type of social mobilization that would be needed to deal effectively with pressing economic and social development challenges.

However, although the political disaffection manifested in the municipal elections may cast a shadow on the prospects of democratic transition, it remains that the rise of independents could eventually lead to a renewal of the political class and elites in Tunisia, more in tune with the needs and demands of the citizens, and  dedicated to achieving the socio-economic objectives of the 2011 revolution.

Nejib Ayachi

 By Karim Amellal*, Science-Po Paris

When it comes to the future of Algeria, gloom and doom scenarios are not lacking, fueled as they are by the chronic opacity surrounding the power circles in the North African country, and they have reached a peak these days with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika illness and the upcoming Presidential election of 2019. In some European countries, like France, these apocalyptic scenarios proliferate, particularly on the right and the far right of the political spectrum, with some expressing their pleasure with the “bankruptcy” of the system, and at the same time the fear of a possible “explosion” that would cause an “invasion” of Algerian migrants… But, is it possible to develop a more nuanced and less ideologized vision of what is happening in this big country, despite this dystopian vision of the future marked by old resentments mixed with real anxieties? 

“Algeria is doing badly, very badly, from bad to worse. It could be on the verge of explosion.” “The Algerian bomb,” titled recently the French right-wing weekly magazine Valeurs actuelles, adding: “Massive immigration, explosion of the suburbs … What France should fear if Algeria rocks.”  And one can read between the lines a nostalgia for French Algeria. The myths and fears surrounding Algeria today tumble in a vision of apocalypse: “when will Algeria explode?” Because it will explode! What will happen then? One can guess the answer: hordes of refugees will rush to the barricaded gates of Europe, on their makeshift boats, landing, like resurrected Moors, on the innocent beaches of most Christian France… Political vacuum, a sick president, economic crisis, endemic corruption, the specter of the Arab revolutions…Valeurs actuelles ​​is not the only media that sees Algeria on the brink of catastrophe, several English-language media – and conservatives too – have also sounded the alarm and described Algeria, sometimes the entire Maghreb, as a time bomb, a stronghold of potential terrorists, a region where despair and affliction prevail.

OCTOBER 1988 REDUX?

Recently, another dark scenario has been haunting some doomsayers: the occurrence of a new “October 88” in Algeria, the first episode of the “Arab spring” that brought about the collapse of the single party system in that country, followed by an ephemeral phase of democratic transition, which led to the tragic “black decade” of the 1990s, bloodstained by the terrorism of the GIA, and other armed Islamist groups. However, such a scenario is not totally unfounded. As in 1988, Algeria is facing an economic crisis with tangible consequences for the population: a contraction of the welfare state and an increased tension on the prices of everyday consumer goods; and we know how much they played an essential role in the abrupt amplification of discontent resulting in the revolutionary process of the 1990s.

As in 1988, the political game revolves around the formal, official structures of power, the legal facade of the regime; while the real power operates in the shadows, a combination of influential groups that includes the military, intelligence services, and powerful financial interests, more or less occult … At the same time, as in 1988, the opposition is discredited and, indeed, nonexistent. The only truly national opposition party, the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), is beset by contradictions and struggling to generate any kind of leadership. The Islamist parties, on the other hand, have never really succeeded in gaining political benefit from the powerful moral conservatism that has developed among all strata of society.

As in 1988, it feels like the end of an era, which crystallizes around President Bouteflika and the innumerable rumors about his family, or his “clan”, accused of being the real rulers of the country behind the scenes, or/and even preparing his succession. As in 1988, young Algerians, a group, it should be remembered, that represents 70% of the population, has, for the most part, lost interest in politics while denouncing as much as they can the “hogra” (“contempt”) by the authorities, as well as rampant corruption, and  sporadically expressing their anger and despair. In this context, the slightest spark is perceived by the proponents of this scenario as likely to boil over, provoke a revolt, and, by contagion, a revolution.

This scenario, however, is not credible for several reasons. The main one is that Algeria in 2018 is in no way comparable to that of 1988. In thirty years, despite years of terrorism and numerous crises, the country has changed profoundly; it has transformed. Using the same reading template, the same set of causes which characterized the end of the 1980s is at best anachronistic, and at worst amounts to a falsification of reality.

WHERE IS ALGERIA TODAY?

In 1988, before the riots of the month of October, Algeria was governed by a single-party system headed by the National Liberation Front (FLN), with, as in the Soviet Union, the real power being exercised by a complex aggregate of actors, dominated by senior army officers – “the generals” – and the military intelligence service. Freedom of the press did not exist, like any of the fundamental freedoms. The FLN being the only authorized party, the elections consisted of endorsing the “proposed” candidate.

Algeria of 2018 is a system in transition, certainly not a democracy yet, but not a dictatorship either. The achievements of the democratic “parenthesis” of 1988-1991 remain. Multi-partyism is effective, as is freedom of expression and of the press, even though these freedoms have been under attack since, roughly speaking, President Bouteflika stroke in 2013. Elections that take place at regular intervals, in accordance with the official electoral calendar, are now less characterized by fraud than by a growing and massive abstention, which for example has reached more than 60% in the legislative elections of 2017.

Despite its chronic opacity, its weak legitimacy, and its lack of renewal – among other stigmas – the existing political power in Algeria has also nothing to do with the one of three decades ago. If the military hierarchy and the military intelligence services still occupy prominent positions in the system, if only because of history and their roots in the country, as well as the fact that they are the guarantors of strategic interests, especially vis-à-vis foreign countries, they are no longer the only bosses aboard ship Algeria. Under Bouteflika, and thanks to him, the power in place (“le pouvoir”) in Algeria became “civilized”. Major-General Mohamed Mediene, alias Toufik, who ruled over the powerful DRS, the military intelligence services for 25 years, was indeed sacked by Bouteflika in 2015, and his services were restructured and put for the most part under the control of the Presidency.

If they still remain important and influential figures, the Algerian generals have returned to their barracks or, for the older ones, converted to business; and their political weight is out of proportion to what it was during the Black Decade, “when they actually ran the country. Since 2016, calls by some intellectuals and opposition politicians for the military to intervene and remove Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office have all been rejected. Kept very busy by the fight against terrorism, which it won, and by border surveillance – 6,343 kilometers (3941.357 miles) with seven countries-, the National People’s Army (NPA) is no longer the recourse it was some thirty years ago. If the NPA will still play a role in the succession of President Bouteflika, it’s a safe bet to state that it is not the military, and only the military, that will impose their own candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

ACHIEVEMENTS IN MATTERS OF DEVELOPMENT

Ranked 83rd in the world in 2016 in terms of development, Algeria is in the top five of African countries and remains the country with the highest Human Development Index (HDI) in the Maghreb.

 It is mostly on the economic, social and demographic fronts that Algeria has profoundly transformed itself in the past thirty years. GDP increased from $ 59 billion in 1988 to $ 156 billion in 2016 (after reaching $ 213 billion in 2014). By way of comparison, that of Morocco was 101 billion and that of Tunisia 42 billion. Since independence, GDP growth has been determined by hydrocarbon prices, but this opportunity offered by higher prices has not been used to guarantee its sustainability, for example by diversifying the economy, investing in innovation, and in particular, education, but rather to try to catch up with the development gap accumulated during the “Black decade”, while buying social peace.

A large part of the oil and gas rent has been used to fund major infrastructure projects in transport and public works (railroads, airports, dams, etc.), most of them implemented by foreign companies. Chinese especially, but also Turkish and French. At the end of January 2018, the government indicated that the equivalent of 70 billion euros had been spent on these infrastructures. Two major programs illustrate this policy. In 15 years, Algeria has spent about $ 60 billion to build more than two million houses to cope with population growth and rural exodus to urban areas. If this huge endeavor has experienced many failures – illustrated by the urban disaster of the “new city” of Sidi Abdellah – and while its continuation depends on oil revenues, it has nevertheless provided decent housing to many Algerians of modest condition, and allowed to get rid of many shanty towns and precarious settlements that proliferated in the 1990s.

The other program that made it possible to redistribute part of the rent is, of course, Ansej, created in 1996 but actually launched in the early 2000s. It is a special fund designed to support the creation of businesses by young people. Although largely insufficient, this program has been an effective tool for redistributing wealth –to a certain extend, and a means to pacify young people lacking job opportunities and prospects.

One trend that illustrates the transformation of Algerian society over the past two decades is the increase in the birth rate, after a sharp collapse during the 1990s. According to figures from the Algerian National Office of Statistics (ONS), the number of births has increased since the mid-2000s, with 3.1 children per woman. A sign that the country has entered its demographic transition, a process characterized by a balance between birthrates and death rates. An increase in fertility is both good and bad news. Bad news because it supports the idea of ​​a possible demographic shock to come, but a good one because it is a symptom of the good health of a population.

According to ONS figures, this increase in fertility rates may be due to a surge in the number of marriages, but also to the economic and social development of the country. After the trauma of the “Black Decade”, which did not really encourage getting married or having children (the number of births and the number of marriages collapsed during the 1990s), the influx of revenue from hydrocarbons allowed the government to launch its ambitious social housing program, which has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in fertility, in a country where housing shortages left little room for families. The decline in unemployment, especially for women and young people – although still at a high level – has also boosted fertility. The unemployment rate was divided by three, for men and women, between 2000 and 2011. As Zahia Ouadah-Bedidi notes: “if improvements in the economic conditions of households allowed a vigorous recovery of the birth rate, it is that the ground was propitious and the mentalities open to the idea of ​​larger families.”

The substantial expansion of the middle class in Algeria is another important phenomenon, resulting from the continuous increase of households purchasing power in the 2000s, thanks to wage increases and  massive subsidization policies aimed at many basic products, such as bread, cereals, water, milk, gasoline, etc. The World Bank estimated in 2012 that these subsidies cost $ 16 billion a year to the government of Algeria. These administered prices serve as an important social buffer, especially when when inflation occurs, but they are, as we know, the source of many economic disruptions, by impeding the proper functioning of the market, or by discouraging production. In this regard, the recent controversy around the price of the bread baguette is exemplary: in December 2017, several bakers in the country protested against the fixed price of the baguette (between 8 and 10 Algerian dinars) on the grounds that it did not allow them to cover their costs. Consequently, they decided to double the price unilaterally, but the government intervened immediately after to restore the original fixed price, and prosecuted the violators!

At the same time, inequalities in income and wealth have increased. As noted by the economist Yacine Miliani, “from 2001 to 2014, previous strong economic growth has unfortunately been accompanied by an unprecedented rise in precariousness”, with the rise of unemployment contributing to the widening of inequalities (in the distribution of income and wealth), in spite of the anti-poverty measures adopted by the Government. However, income inequality remains relatively moderate in Algeria, even if it is increasing, particularly since the recent economic slowdown driven by falling oil prices. In 2011, the Gini index, which measures inequality, was 35 (100 expressing maximum inequality), compared with 40 for Morocco, for example.

Finally, the Human Development Index (HDI) issued each year by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which provides a global picture of a country’s level of development, ranked Algeria 83 in the world in 2016. Algeria is in the top five African countries, and remains the country where the HDI is the highest in the Maghreb. This composite index, which takes into account various elements, such as life expectancy, average length of schooling, inequality and net income per capita, has increased throughout the 2000s and is by far higher than that of Tunisia (98th in the world) or Morocco (130th).

PERVASIVE STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS

The extreme dependency of the economy on the oil rent has never been really put into question, for the sake of convenience, or because of a political calculation; and is a serious problem for the economic future of the country. Thus, 96% of exports and 60% of budget revenues continue to depend on oil and gas, of which Algeria is one of the world’s largest producers (ranked 18th for oil, and 6th for gas). Fluctuations in hydrocarbon prices lead policymakers to constantly revise their policies, sometimes opening the floodgates when revenue increases, and some other times closing them suddenly when prices collapse. This is what has happened since 2014, the date of the reversal of the oil situation.

From 1999 to 2014, the Algerian state could rely on $100 oil price per barrel (or more), which allowed to launch huge equipment programs, and to save some money for the so-called Reserve Funds, but not enough to compensate for the sharp fall in oil prices in 2014-2015, when the barrel went from $109 to $54 in less than a year, compelling the government to raise taxes and interrupt some programs deemed less essential. Since 2014, Algeria has been implementing a policy of relative austerity, striving to reduce public spending without, however, cutting back on social programs, and siphoning off its accumulated reserves to plug the gaps in the budget.

The Government short-term policies, entirely dependent on oil revenue, is catastrophic in the long run. However, no decision maker has so far managed to seriously start diversifying the Algerian economy, notwithstanding innumerable declarations of intent. Sluggish, ultra-bureaucratized, the Algerian economy doesn’t leave – and it is a euphemism – room for private investments, whether domestic or, all the more so, foreign – with the exception of a handful of oligarchs who know how to take advantage of this situation.

The education system too, in spite of the very laudable efforts of the current Minister of Education, remains a juggernaut that functions, but to no real effect. Rooted in an obsolete ideology, where constricted nationalism and two-bit religiosity are intertwined, it digests every year its 9 million pupils – in primary, middle and secondary education – but fails to deliver effective and quality training programs. As to higher education, it is surely the forgotten sector of the opulent years, probably because the return on investments in education needs time –one cannot reap quick political dividends from investing in it, reforming and improving its quality. Universities in Algeria function for the largest number of people who access it massively and free of charge, but, unfortunately, they do not provide the needed qualifications, which results in an unemployment rate of 17.7% of university graduates in 2017 – compared to 7.7% for those without a university degree.

The economic difficulties, the widening of inequalities, the lack of opportunities for the youth, and the impression that the political machine runs empty, fuel discontent all over the country. This is what drives many Algerians, young and desperate for the most part, to try the adventure of illegal emigration. These “harragas”, as they are called in Algerian colloquial language, are leaving for Europe on makeshift boats defying the authorities that try to stem the tide – without much success. However, beyond these tragic departures, protest movements remain sporadic events, localized, and have never coagulated. For example, the demands of military retirees, teachers, and now resident doctors, are not coordinated, and these groups remain isolated from each other.

These are essentially social protests, which flourish amidst uncertainties related to the economic situation and the indecisions of decision-makers, rather than protests of a political nature that, in any case, no serious opposition is today able to exploit. The result is a preference for the status quo, which owes as much to the tragedy of terrorism of the 1990s present in everyone’s memory, as to the fear of what a brutal and uncontrolled change could bring. From this point of view, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions function as scarecrows: to the specter of political chaos or economic bankruptcy, many prefer a cautious wait-and-see attitude, which does not necessarily mean complete passivity. Anger rises but it remains contained, not by the Government, but primarily by the citizens.

THE VITALITY OF CIVIL SOCIETY

The intensification of social protests against a backdrop of economic austerity, demonstrates the vitality of its civil society.

If, at the social level, the former single trade union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), continues to exercise a legal monopoly in terms of labor representation, remaining the only authorized interlocutor of the government, its legitimacy and its influence have been severely damaged by the emergence of new actors: the autonomous unions. The current mobilization of resident doctors is led by one of these autonomous unions: the Camra for Autonomous Collective of Algerian Resident Doctors. The proliferation of these organizations, which are not officially recognized by the authorities, is one of many indicators of the dynamism of the Algerian society, whose modes of expression no longer use official channels or spaces, often fossilized.

The Algerian cultural scene is also changing, and this is probably what we perceive best from abroad. In cinema, literature or photography, beautiful and powerful “new waves” sweep across the country, like the movies of directors Karim Moussaoui and Hassen Ferhani, the novels of Kaouther Adimi, or Collectif 220 whose exhibition “Iqbal” has moved from the Museum of Modern Art in Algiers – the MoMA – to the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Using YouTube and radio hooks, a new generation of singers has emerged in recent years, again often using informal venues. Deprived of public support, confined to narrow spaces, suffocated by a climate of heavy puritanism, these new voices manage to escape and find an audience. Light-years away from the image of a sluggish population, of a suffocated society, they echo the hope and poetry of a youth thirsty for the future.

But  the energy and creativity of Algerian society is not expressed in culture only, we should also mention the emergence of  citizen movements, such as # Algerie Propre (Clean Algeria), whose campaigns for environmental education and pollution control have a growing audience. Similarly, despite the inadequacies of the Algerian higher education system, an increasing number of young graduates are successfully embarking on entrepreneurial trajectories by taking advantage of Ansej’s loans – the national system of support for business creation. If it is still too early to talk about real ecosystem of startups in Algeria, they are nonetheless beginning to emerge, as in Tunisia and Morocco, and are attracting a growing number of young people who have been struggling to find employment in other traditional sectors.

POLITICAL ISLAM  REVISITED

And how about political Islam? A reenactment of 1988 in Algeria is inconceivable for the reasons provided above. Moreover, Algeria at the time of President Chadli Bendjedid was a single-party regime, faced with a severe economic crisis -in comparison to which the current one is relatively minor! The price of a crude oil barrel had fallen to 8 dollars in 1986 (about 17 dollars today), seriously depriving Algeria of revenues, which dropped dramatically while its national debt increasing in proportion. Algeria was then on the brink of an abyss, and the situation was very different of that of today. Furthermore, these were the days of the Iranian revolution with its impact worldwide, particularly on Muslim countries. And then, in these days, following its policy of arabization, the Government was bringing many Egyptian “teachers”, incorporating them into the Algerian educational system, which allowed them to spread political Islam among young people. This is not the case anymore.

Throughout the country, mosques have replaced a failing state to take care of the poor. The rise of political Islam in Algeria in the 1980s takes place in this context, with the democratic opening that followed the riots of October 1988. The institution of a multiparty system that followed with the organization of the first free elections allowed  the institutionalization of political Islam, through the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won the local elections before leading the first round of the parliamentary elections in 1991, when the military stepped in and halted the electoral process in January 1992.  This as we know led the Islamists to engage in an armed insurrection. These bloody years of war between the government security forces and the he Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and the defeat of the latter, have disqualified political Islam in Algeria. Algerian authorities, on the other hand, have banned all forms of religious radicalism besides the FIS. A huge mistake today would be to see in the re-Islamization of Algerian society, a prelude to the resurgence of this kind of political Islam, and the repetition of the 1988 scenario.

The re-Islamization of Muslim societies that has been at work for roughly two decades is a complex phenomenon, not far removed from the re-christianization that we observe, for example, in the United States, as the French political scientist Olivier Roy points out. The reasons for that are many, but re-Islamization does not use, as before, the political arena, which does not mean that it is depoliticized. What Roy calls “the failure of political Islam” means the emergence of a “puritanical, predicating, populist, [and] conservative neo-fundamentalism,” which no longer wants to establish an Islamic state, but rather to proceed to a re-Islamization of society from below, by the defense, for example, of traditional mores. This is illustrated by innumerable polemics that have shaken Algerian society, such as the one surrounding the renown secular writer and novelist Rachid Boudjedra, or following the recent attempts at the destruction of the female statue of the fountain of Ain El Fouara, in Setif, and the controversy over the withdrawing of the formula Bismillah Arrahman Arrahim (“In the name of God merciful and merciful”) from the front page of some textbooks. This is also illustrated by the success of tele-preachers in Algeria – as in all of North Africa – who, far from challenging the regime or the state, develop on the contrary a discourse that is politically very loyalist, while very conservative in terms of morality.

“It is clear that although Algerian society has become fervently religious, there is no sign of the adoption of a new and radical form of political Islam.”

In another dimension, this re-Islamization, which is no longer expressed through partisan-type political structures, goes beyond politics – the State, elections – to seek a mythical, transnational community of faith, disembedded from the social fabric, borders, cultural roots, and so on. It is precisely, it seems to me, what explains the fervor of many Algerians for the Palestinian cause, perceived from now on as a challenge for Muslims

It is in this context that the “moderate” and “state-sanctioned” Islamist parties have only managed to gather a very small number of followers since the end of the “dark decade”. Integrated into the political game, they have become secularized, “demonetized”, and disqualified. Their legalistic and feebly conservative discourse no longer distinguishes them really from the other parties that participate in the “system”, while the voters do not expect anything from the Islamist parties. In the last parliamentary elections of 2017, the MSP party (which claims to be part of the Muslim Brotherhood) has obtained only 330,000 votes, or 33 seats in the National Assembly.

And how about the FIS, then? For many, the real danger would be the resurgence of a radical Islamist party heir to the Islamic Salvation Front, banned since the interruption of the electoral process in 1992. The popularity of some videos issued by one of its former leaders, the charismatic Ali Belhadj, largely disseminated on the Internet, may suggest it; as well as the relative popularity enjoyed by the party founder, Abassi Madani, who now lives in Qatar. However, this should be understood more as an expression of approval by a segment of the Algerian youth for a hard, unequivocal, principled speech about corruption and dirty money, or on foreign policy, rather than an aspiration for the establishment of an Islamic state, which is not, again, on the agenda.

For the vast majority of Algerians, the haunting memory of the “black decade” during which the FIS was one of the major players, is enough to discredit any form of radicalism that would lead, in a way or another, to reproduce this episode of Algerian history. The policy of national reconciliation, implemented as soon as Bouteflika came to power in 1999, made it possible, although not without imperfections or gray areas, to turn the page on years of terrorism. On a different but not unrelated note, we should mention the very small number of Algerians (about 200) fighting in Syria when Daesh was at its peak, from 2013 to 2016, compared to the number of Moroccans (1,500) and Tunisians (3,000 and more). Moreover, in spite of the tragic assassination of French hiker Hervé Gourdel in 2014, ISIS has never really managed to settle in Algeria, whose military are very actively fighting the last remaining terrorist groups operating in the country, but whose members often come from foreign countries (see an excellent article on this topic here).

Finally, with the exception of the Ghardaia riots, which are part of a completely different story, none of the protest movements that have emerged in the last 10 years in the country have expressed extremist religious demands. Admittedly, the authorities watch over and sometimes react with a heavy hand, as when dismantling dissident religious currents, arguing that they are “sects”, as with the Ahmadis. Nevertheless, it is clear that in spite of their fervent religiosity, the Algerian people aren’t showing any sign of “tipping over” towards a new and radical form of political Islam.

As we can see, the Algeria of 2018 is in a contrasting situation, and far from being dramatic. Algerian society has undergone a profound transformation over the last twenty years, after a decade of huge trauma whose legacy remains rooted in the national fabric. Algeria is not a rich country, but not poor either, or on the verge of explosion, far from it; but a country that continues, although with serious weaknesses, to develop as best as possible in a regional environment at the least destabilizing.

This is an edited translation of the original French.

* Karim Amellal is a writer, entrepreneur, and professor at Sciences Po Paris. He is the co-founder of the SAM Network scientific video platform, and of the media on Algeria Chouf-Chouf. He has been working for more than 15 years on the issue of young people’s access to culture and education. He is the author of an essay on inequalities, as well as several novels (last published: Bleu Blanc Noir, L’Aube, 2016).   @karimamellal

 

France, which kept its colonial grip on Algeria, administered as an integral part of France with extensive colonial settlements, for more than a century (from 1830 to 1962), never recognized the appalling brutality of its conquest of the North African territory, neither its bloody repression of the Algerian independence movement, nor its inhuman and degrading treatment of the Algerian people during colonization, in spite of innumerable requests to do so by the Algerians. In fact, France never came to grips with its colonial past. Even worst, in February 2005, the French parliament voted to pass a law in which France’s colonialism would be referred to as a “positive role”, but the law was repealed a year later by former President Jacques Chirac.

France’s behavior in Algeria remains a highly charged and controversial issue. It has resurfaced recently during the campaign for the presidential election of April 23, 2017, when candidate Emmanuel Macron, called colonisation of Algeria a crime against humanity, a ‘real barbarity’, the first time a French politician refers to French occupation of Algeria in these terms.

More recently, the Algerian government “submitted a new proposals to a reluctant France, over the issue of compensation Paris has to provide to victims of  large-scale nuclear tests conducted by the colonial power in the southern Algerian region of Reggane , which resulted in “42,000 Algerians killed and thousand others irradiated in 17 nuclear tests carried out between 1960 and 1966.”

Will France compensate the victims of its nuclear tests in Algeria, and start the process of finally coming to grips with its colonial past in that country?

Nejib Ayachi for The Maghreb Center

 

Moroccan Social Scientists Support the Rif’s Hirak Protest Movement, as “a form of resistance and mobilization that has breathed a new dynamism in terms of popular mobilization”   

A large group of social scientists have declared their support to the Hirak protest movement of the Rif region in Morocco, which they say, also offers “an opportunity” for social researchers “to go beyond the usual dichotomies, such us bled al-siba (spaces of political dissidence) vs. bled al-makhzen (spaces controlled by the state), Arabs vs. Berbers, Mountains vs. Plains”, etc.  The French-language Moroccan magazine Telquel.ma, of June 11, 2017, has published an Op-Ed-article expressing their views along with a list of signatories.  An abbreviated version has been translated into English by the Maghreb Center:

Started in April 2017, the Rif Hirak protest movement in Morocco has been going on for over seven months now. It has been accused of separatism and sectarianism (some of its leaders are said to be Shiite) by the political parties in power and several academics and intellectuals, with some adding a conspiracy by foreign elements dimension to explain it. But the situation unfolding in the Rif has remained at the center of the political process in Morocco, and other voices have offered a different analysis from the one expressed through the official discourse.

Understanding the Hirak movement requires a critical eye, intellectual vigilance, different sociopolitical outlooks, and a genuine understanding of the many facets of Riffian society, all at once. Rather than further stigmatizing the Rif population and analyzing the protest movement through colonial lenses, emphasizing dichotomies such us bled al-siba (spaces of political dissidence) vs. bled al-makhzen (spaces controlled by the state), Arabs vs. Berbers, Mountains vs. Plains, among others, it is essential to delve into the intricacies of the situation, and look more closely at the political economy of the region.

Political decision-makers attempted to discredit the Hirak movement by calling it a “fitna” (sedition, civil strife), and this can only be counterproductive, as it is a factor of division which leads to widening the gap between the populations of the Rif and the rest of the country. The Hirak movement refers indeed in some ways to a dynamic that is in breach with the classical ways of doing politics. It can be defined as a new form of resistance and mobilization, a collective action movement using an alternative discourse which has fostered a new dynamism in terms of popular mobilization.

We need to  understand the vital energy of the Rif’s Hirak movement in connection with the low voter turnout at the 2016 legislative elections (28%), and go beyond the designation of scapegoats (the political elite, and the political parties). These events invite greater scrutiny of the various factors which have contributed to decreasing the importance of elections, and brought about the erosion of the role of elected officials as the voice of the people. The protest movement offers an opportunity to revive research in social and human sciences, which are necessary to understand the dynamics which lie at the foundation of this country. And this research, as much as it needs funding and resources, needs independence in the face of market and government, to produce results.

For the list of signatories, see the Tel Quel article.

 

Turmoil in the Rif: A New Chapter for the February 20th Movement?                                                  (By Camille Ford *)

On June 5, 2017, two central figures of the grassroots protest movement AlHirak which developed in Northern Morocco over the past six month, were arrested. Nabil Ahamjik and Silya Ziani, leading figures in the movement, have been detained since then in Casablanca, where about 20 other protesters were already being kept.[1] The face of the movement, Nasser Zefzazi, was arrested earlier this year, on May 29th. He is being detained on the grounds of “threatening national security,” amidst a slew of other criminal charges.[2]

Escalating protests

These arrests reflect the escalating tensions in Morocco, as protests overtake the Northern Rif region of the country, which started in October 2016 following the brutal death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller in the Rif town of Al-Hoceima who was crushed to death by a garbage truck as he attempted to retrieve confiscated goods, later identified as illegally acquired swordfish that he were about to sell. The police officers who were arresting him stood idle as he faced a violent death. The scene was caught on tape and widely shared, and sparked outrage throughout the country, with protests sprouting locally, but also as far as Rabat, the capital city, and Casablanca, the economic epicenter of the country.

The  Al-Hirak movement is by no means an isolated event, and can be considered in connection with the Arab Spring, the series of protests and uprisings which sprouted across North Africa and the Middle East, demanding democracy, and social and economic justice. In Morocco, the protests were organized by the 20 February Movement, named after the first demonstration held on that date in 2011. To prevent the spread of the movement, the monarchy quickly introduced reforms towards the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and avoided the harsh and violent responses that met the Arab Spring protests and uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. But the general situation in Morocco is still not much different than that of other countries in the region: persistence of authoritarianism (although in a more benign form), lack of social and economic justice, rising unemployment particularly among the youth, an economic system dominated by cronyism and corruption, etc.

Like the southern and central regions of Tunisia where the Arab Spring started, the Rif is a rather poor region, and neglected by the central government. However, unlike his father King Hassan II who ignored the region, King Mohammed VI has launched several economic and social programs there in an attempt to alleviate the distress of the local people. But this is far from being enough.

Thus, over the past six months, the Al-Hirak protest movement has amplified,  with participants denouncing the government hogra, a colloquial Moroccan Arabic term for “contempt” (or “utter neglect”). Although King Mohamed VI expressed his deepest condolences to the people of Al-Hoceima, and called for a thorough investigation of Fikri’s death, the protests went on.

The Rif and Morocco: A history of tension

The Al-Hirak movement brings to light not only the complex relationship between the Rif region and the rest of Morocco, but also the effectiveness of the measures taken by the King and the government in favor of democracy and economic development in Morocco.The Rif region has been inhabited by Berbers, the native people of North Africa, since prehistoric times. It is considered a Berber stronghold. The Berbers of the Rif have faced consistent marginalization and lack of proper recognition by the authorities. The region has historically sought greater autonomy, even briefly declaring itself an independent state in the 1920s during the so-called Rif War (1921-1926) between Spanish colonial forces and the peoples of the region[3]. In recent years, the Rif has felt largely abandoned by the central government, suffering from a lack of investment and development initiatives. With Nasser Zefzazi as the voice of the movement, the people of the region are demanding increased economic aid in light of the region’s high unemployment rates, and  persistent and widespread poverty. The movement, which echoes largely the message of the February 20th movement, has garnered rapid support beyond the rebellious Rif region, and comes at a time of major transformations in Morocco.

Morocco at a crossroads

As Morocco finds itself faced with tides of change, on both the economic and political fronts, the protests in the Rif region come as a major challenge, and a reminder that the political reforms, and the development initiatives implemented recently in Morocco are not enough. While the Moroccan intellectual elite has showed open support for the movement, the government’s reactions, with the wave of protesters arrests that he carried out, are a sign that the nation is divided about its future direction. As Islamist politicians have asserted themselves as a dominant force in the Moroccan parliament, and civil unrest grows, Morocco faces a sociopolitical crossroads reminiscent to that seen in 2011. Despite the increased incarcerations of the Hirak leadership, the people continue to take to the streets demanding change. The response of the ruler and the Moroccan government to these growing protests, could very well be a defining moment for the country’s future.

[1] Agence France Presse, and Le Monde. “Au Maroc, arrestation de deux meneurs du mouvement de contestation dans le Rif.” Le Monde.fr. June 05, 2017.

[2] Agence France Presse. “Maroc: Qui est le leader de la contestation populaire dans le Rif qui vient d’être arrêté?” 20minutes.fr. May 29, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2017.

[3] MEO Staff. “What’s behind Morocco’s Rif protests?” Middle East Observer. May 28, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2017.


* Camille Ford is a student in International Studies and Islamic Civilizations and Societies, at the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Boston College, and a Summer 2017 Maghreb Center intern.