Souss-Massa-Draa region, Morocco
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Souss-Massa-Draa region, Morocco
Last updated: January 2, 2015

Political guide to the Maghreb in 2015

Banner Icon A long-time expert on North African politics, Professor Mohamed Chtatou takes us through the many uncertainties facing the region in the year ahead.

It's not difficult to find conflict in today's North Africa. As a result of ethnic nationalism and religious activism, the people here are already at odds with the basics: how to name their geographical area. The Amazigh people of Morocco and Algeria want heir governments to refer to the region as The Great Maghreb instead of The Arab Maghreb, which is offensive to their cultural aspirations. Pan-Arabists, on the other hand, want to keep the Maghreb under the Arab banner and view the Amazigh demand as a form of neo-colonial drive. As for the Islamists, they argue that the Maghreb is Islamic and should be named accordingly. This quibbling puts forward the whole unresolved issue of identity in the region, and as a result more strife between the different groups is very likely in 2015.

Maghreb: persistent headaches

The Maghreb is still torn by many persistent ailments to which it has not been able to find remedies and solutions. Democracy is the dream number one for the Maghrebis; while it seems to be at hand for Tunisians, it remains a chimera for the rest of the people of the region because of the tugs of tradition and the past. Tribalism is stronger than ever in Libya, which is de facto broken into several tribal statelets along religious and secular lines. Patriarchy and paternalism are very strong in Algeria and Morocco where the individual is still considered a subject and not a citizen.

2015 is probably going to be more troubled than the year before, bearing in mind that the petro-countries like Algeria and Libya will definitely face more strife as the oil returns are dwindling due to the oil price downfall. These countries, to maintain the subsidies and rentier privileges, will have either to make use of their sovereign funds or face popular uprisings.

Tunisia: democracy is at hand

As of now, Tunisia is the only Arab Spring-country success story. It has aptly achieved democracy with the final act of the election of Caid Essebsi as president. However, the question is: will Tunisia safeguard its fragile democracy or will its strong and violent salafist movement highjack the dream of the nation? However, the undemocratic Islamists are not the only menace lurking in the dark. The secular movement Nidaa Tounes, in power now, is a potential enemy of itself because it is a patchwork of many movements or groups of politicians, some from the time of the autocratic Bourguiba and others from the old party of the dictator Ben Ali, and some from small parties eager to achieve personal gains. Will these different groups put national interest first or will they fall into the trap of selfish interest and tribal feuding?

Unlike Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party, which is highly regimented along religious beliefs, Nidaa Tounes lacks party discipline and this could bring its internal problems to the surface. Undoubtedly the big win of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution is its vibrant and vociferous civil society that will have to be taken into consideration in the future politics of the country.

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Morocco: stability marred by corruption and mismanagement

Like what happened to the socialist party USFP from 1996 to 2006, power corrupted the Islamist PJD beyond belief. The head of the government, Abdelilah Benkirane, whose electoral platform was constructed around the ideals of fighting endemic corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and embezzlement of funds, has done nothing of the sort, instead, he is cutting food subsidies and irking the poor, who are the natural pool of his sympathisers. It seems to date that Benkirane is a prisoner of his political coalition made of myriad parties that have nothing in common with his own and his ideals. The Mouvement Populaire (MP), a Makhzen party, par excellence, has the largest number of corrupt ministers ever, but the poor Benkirane is unable to get rid of any of them fearing it might lead to the crumbling of his political majority, and possibly early legislative elections.

Besides a weak government unable to fulfil the wishes of the populace, the civil society is the only consolation of the population because of its efficiency and proximity. But, alas, though the Moroccan civil society is very strong and omnipresent, it is lacking funds and means, and in many cases it finds itself at loggerheads with the establishment as a result of its independence.

The media is also very strong and very verbal but it is constantly whipped by the establishment, for its independence, and duly gagged for its denunciation of the Makhzen and its undemocratic pursuit of political absolutism.

The winner of this situation is undoubtedly the monarchy, which, because it is a symbol of stability, is rolling back on the promises of devolution of power made during the Arab Spring era.

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Algeria: less petro-dollars and more pains and troubles ahead

Algeria is a strong and big country in Africa, for sure, but at the same time very weak and fragile. President Bouteflika is in a wheelchair unable to talk or move and totally incapacitated by illness. In a democracy, he should have resigned a long time ago and be replaced by an able statesman. But Algeria is not democratic, it is a kind of «military monarchy» ruled by generals grouped in an intelligence body called DRS, that sees that their interests are safeguarded in the first place, even if violence (referred to as legitimate violence in their internal literature) is to be used, as happened when the army annulled the victory of the Islamist FIS party in 1992 and declared war on the group.

In Algeria, the military have always ruled through a civilian frontman for fear of facing the people's wrath. They prefer a collegial rule behind the scene, this way nobody is, by name, responsible for the wreckage of the ship that is «Algeria.» This collegial leadership, also, allows them to profit from oil revenues anonymously and the president's job is to do the mopping up, when necessary.

But now, as the oil revenues are drying up the military are faced with two hard choices:

* Stop the subsidies and face up to a popular uprising: the Algerian Spring, which could mean the end of military rule and the beginning of new era fraught with problems especially if the Amazigh decide on a unilateral declaration of autonomy or statehood which could lead to the fragmentation of Algeria, similar to what is happening in Libya;

* Keep the subsidies to preserve social peace, and make use of the sovereign fund and, thus, squander the development chances of this country in the short and, probably, even in the long run.

The chances are the military will opt out for the second choice to stifle any nascent democratic sentiment in this country.

Libya: the failed state par excellence

Libya is well into its second year of the Somalisation process, which is definitely getting worse and worse, as the country will, soon, be running out of cash. In the west, the Fajr (dawn) Libya movement, made of a myriad of Islamist groups modelled along the Islamic State type of government, stand together in business but it does not mean that they are united. Far from that, they are fragmented along religious schools of thought or dogmas. Their wars, when they flare up (because they will), will be deadly and terrible because each group believes, hard like a nail, that it holds the only religious truth.

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The Karama (dignity) movement based in the east is led by the retired general Haftar, believed to be on the payroll of the Americans and under the allegiance of Saudi Arabia and UAE. Militarily speaking, he lacks the biting edge necessary to crush the Islamists. So, the feud between west and east will rage for quite sometime, with no possible winner. And the more this situation lasts, the more Libya will sink in the quicksand of failure. Probably, the only magic potion that could resuscitate the country is the duly return of the Senussi conservative monarchy, but will all the sides accept this painful solution? The answer for the time being is NO.

A final word

In spite of the promising democracy of Tunisia and the proverbial stability of Morocco (known locally as the Moroccan exception), the Maghreb is entering in 2015 an era of uncertainty because if things go bad in Algeria and worsen in Libya, the other two countries will feel the tremors and might, as a result, loose their equilibrium and, ultimately, their shaky stability. However, these are extrapolations and only time can tell.

Any views expressed are the author's own.

Mohamed Chtatou
Dr. Chtatou is a Professor at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Saudi and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East and Islam. Chtatou has lectured in education at Mohammed V University since 1984, and has conducted over 200 trainings in education, literacy, empowerment, culture and development in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. He has published several books on language and culture.
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