In the late 1990s, while teaching a course on North African politics at Al Akhawayan University in Morocco, Dr Michael Willis was required to find a core text to assign his students. He couldn’t find one. He decided to write it himself. Willis’ subsequent book, Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring, will be published next month. He spoke at LSE on 9 May, examining the politics of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco since their achievement of independence from European colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s and discussing how the Arab uprisings may shift Levant and Gulf-centric perceptions of the Middle East. The following is an excerpt from a transcript of his lecture. A full transcript will be available and posted here shortly.
By Michael Willis
While fundamental political change remains on a distinct possibility in Algeria and Morocco, it remains in my view a strong probability in Tunisia. Developments since the departure of Ben Ali on the 14th of January last year most closely resemble a genuine and successful revolution as the country negotiates what’s seems like a remarkably smooth and successful transition away from the Ben Ali regime. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Tunisia quite regularly since the revolution and I’ve been very encouraged by what is seen and heard since the transformation from when I used to visit in the Ben Ali period. A major milestone in this process was the election of a national constituent assembly in October of last year whose main task is to draw up a new constitution for the country, one that will, in my view, produce a recognizably democratic political system given the near universal consensus among the political parties of the assembly for a new system based on regularly free and elected governments, separation of powers and individual rights. If you look at political parties of all political persuasions, they all share these things and I think it’s sometimes been rather obscured by the debate on religion and identity that has come to dominate some for the discussions in Tunisia. The fundamentals amongst political parties – the main political parties – are quite striking.
The assembly in Tunisia also appointed the interim government, an administration to run the country whilst a new constitution was being drawn up and debated. But so many senior figures in this interim administration, drawn from the free parties that have put together a governing coalition in the wake of the election are hugely symbolic former opponents of Ben Ali – Mustafa Ben Jaafar, the Head of the Assembly, the Prime Minister, Mr Jabali, and Moussaf Marzouki, the President of the Republic, all people who had stood up to Ben Ali and suffered for it. They are now the three most powerful men in the country which gives an indication of how much has changed. There really has been a turnover and a change in Tunisia.
Now it is possible that the structures of power established by Habib Bourguiba and maintained in many ways in a much more repressive way by Zine Abedine Ben Ali may at times reassert themselves in Tunisia. And that the dramatic events of January 2011 will come to be seen like the changement that Ben Ali held when he replaced Bourguiba in November 1987, as a temporary and aberrant interruption of a broader and more profound political pattern of control and centralisation of power.
It is possible that that may happen, but the balance of probability however, in my view, is that substantial political change will come about as an enduring product of the January 2011 election. A return to the political configurations of the country’s two post-independence presidents is, in my view, highly improbable. The truly popular nature of the revolution has given a sense of ownership and involvement to the ordinary population and has pushed it to avoid being politically marginalized in the political life as it was in the previous 50 years. It is this popular mobilization, particularly of the youth, that could be the most important legacy of the Tunisian revolution and its continued engagement will be the test of the long-term success of the revolution. I think that’s the one thing that Tunisia does need to make sure – that the younger people, particularly those involved in the revolution, continue to feel involved in what occurs. And indeed, this will impact on the longevity of the post-revolutionary political system that is put into place.
So my conclusions of December 2010 was that nothing had changed. We now have a state in the region, Tunisia, where there is looking to be substantial political change that has occurred in a very short space of time and this, of course, has an effect. What effect does it have on the wider region? So I want to look at both the other neighbours and see why I think the Tunisian revolution has and might conceivably affect political developments. Now in Morocco, there was a clear effect through the launching of the 20th of February protest movement which led to a fall of the constitution by the king, early elections and the appointment of a new government, dominated by the main opposition party, the party of Justice and development, an Islamist party.
Now opinion in Morocco – I was there just last month – is divide as to whether the Royal Palace in Rabat sees this period of change with the new constitution, elections and the new government as the closing of the effect of the Arab Spring, that a whole chapter, whole episode in Moroccan politics is now closed and that the party of Justice and Development will suffer exactly the same fate as the socialist party in the late 1990s which was brought into government, is unable to do anything and is rapidly sapped of credibility and energy, drops out of the political system and leaves for the reassertion of control by the palace. Or whether it actually marks a new chapter, that actually this is seen as an on-going process of political reform that had been stalled in the late 2000s. Now some officials in Morocco are quite aware and anxious that the kingdom has seeded its mantel as the most liberal and progressive state in the region to Tunisia and the consequences it might have for its hitherto favoured-position in the eyes of Europe and the United States. Morocco, with good justification, was generally regarded by the European Union and North America for many years as the most liberal, progressive state and I think Morocco feels that it has begun to slip from its particular position.
What I was struck by having visited Morocco last month was in terms of the fact that it’s been brought on Morocco is a change of atmosphere in the country where there appears to be a new appetite and perhaps more significantly a reluctance on behalf of ordinary people to accept the failings of the state and I actually believe this will be the biggest and most important and more profound change that the Arab Spring as a general phenomenon will bring in the region. That whereas it may not necessarily change institutionally or overthrow any more leaders or create more changes, it has led to a decline in the fear and passivity that it really marked the attitude of the population or apathy in many places of the population towards political change. There is a sense that people feel that they can actually change things and make a difference. I certainly felt that in Morocco and you see that around, the people, that they won’t accept things that they accepted for many year before.
So this brings us finally to Algeria and again the society for Algerian studies. Now sharing a border with Tunisia doesn’t necessarily mean that Algeria will be affected by events to the east. Indeed one observation that I made at several points in my book was that while frequently sharing much in common, the way in which issues could affect the three states is in quite different ways. I look, for example, at the role of the military in the three states and how it could be central to the role of politics in the state in one country. Algeria. It could be completely absent and side lined in the case of another – Tunisia. And in Morocco, it could have had periodic influence. And we can see with a lot of other themes like Islamism etcetera where we see this sort of difference. Could it, therefore, be the case that having seen the Arab Spring leads to the overthrow of the regime in one country – Tunisia – and reform process in another – Morocco – and could leave Algeria relatively untouched?
I think it is extremely difficult and, in all probability, rather too early to say. Moreover, I have to say that out of the three countries, events in Algeria are perhaps most difficult to see or predict. Events in the past 18 months in Morocco and especially Tunisia took most people by surprise, but for those of us who have watched the region more closely over the years what has occurred was perhaps slightly less unexpected. Morocco’s readiness to reform itself in the face of popular protests fits with a pattern that established itself, albeit fitfully, over the last couple of decades. There was a willingness to reform and to see where things were heading with Morocco, whether the state would react and form and change. Even in Tunisia, the vast majority of Tunisians themselves predicted the timing of the popular uprising there. Those of us who followed and regularly visited the country with a view that the level of political control over such a relatively well-educated population was unsustainable in the longer run and that when change came, it would never come quite quickly as indeed it would. Indeed, in articles and in early drafts of my book, I had made this point that the absence of any change had led me to remove this argument in the autumn of 2010 and then I was able to cut and paste and reassert it into the final edition. But finally, after much later than I had anticipated, these things actually happened in the wake of the events of early 2011.
Algeria, by contrast, is far more difficult to second guess politically, predict politically. I must confess that despite having written a PhD on the country and having taken several trips there over 20 years, I frequently feel that I have only the most superficial comprehension of it in terms of understanding how its politics works. Part of this is due to the significant opacity of its political structures and power dynamics, perhaps a legacy of the liberation struggle when the revolutionary FLN was forced to hide everything from the view of the French. It is also due to the much more collective form of leadership which I refer to earlier which has operated in the country since independence which makes it much more difficult to work out not only who is making key decisions at any point and what those decisions might actually be. If you know who is making the decisions, you can have a better idea. If you actually don’t know who is making the decisions, it’s very difficult to even guess what those decisions might be.
Now, I am partially reassured by the fact that many Algerians themselves feel similarly unclear about the mechanics by which their country is ruled and uncertain about where their country may be heading. There is widespread unease that the opacity and the exercise of power in Algeria, which seems to have only increased over the recent years, hides not the careful development of a coherent political and economic strategy by the country’s rulers, but rather the reverse: an obscuring of profound political stasis and sclerosis in a political system where tacticians abound, but where strategists are notable for their absence. We therefore find ourselves in a year that has seen significant change, both elections in Tunisia and Egypt and even Morocco. To be today on the very eve, literally, of legislative elections in Algeria tomorrow, where there is no expectation of any noticeable change being brought through the results of tomorrow’s voting, it remains to be seen whether this fact, notably the contrast with the surrounding region, moves to break with the status from either the country’s elite or the ordinary population whose disillusionment with the formal mechanisms of power is as high as ever and certainly all the indications are that there will be a mass abstention in the elections in Algeria tomorrow.
Whatever happens, we would be wise to bear in mind Algeria’s capacity to surprise, whether it’s through the remarkable and allegedly successful struggle against French colonial rule, the popular uprising of October 1988, the multi-party opening of 1989 or even its survival from the riots and the shadow of the 1990s. For, as Algeria and the wider Maghreb enter the second decade of the 21st century, it confronts more changes to the remarkable continuity of this politics than any other time since the end of European colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s. It is therefore hoped that my book will provide a useful and accurate portrayal and analysis of the first 50 years of the political life of post-colonial Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco and its even my more fervent hope that any future account of the next 50 years of political life in the region will show an economically prosperous and more politically pluralistic one than my study has been able to show.
Dr Michael Willis is university research lecturer and King Mohamed VI Fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. His research interests focus on the politics, modern history and international relations of the Maghreb. He is author of the forthcoming Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring as well as The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History.