By Dr Mohamed Chtatou
The whole Maghreb is sitting on a volcano in activity that could blow its top at any moment and create havoc around. This region, like the rest of the “fractured Arab lands,”[i] is in great turmoil, to say the least. All the big issues of the past and the present have not being settled yet.
It is true that the hope for democracy was born in the tiny but resourceful Tunisia in 2010 and instead of bringing peace and well-being to the Arabs, it has, unfortunately, brought civil war, desolation and a condition of existence without predictability or security.
The Maghreb in question
Morocco has miraculously survived the upheavals of the Arab uprisings but the king, emboldened by his popularity, has failed to deliver incremental democracy promised implicitly in the constitution of 2011.
In Algeria, the aging leadership is widely contested verbally, for now, but this could spawn uncontrollable strife if the state impoverished by the falling oil prices dismantles the subsidies.
In Tunisia, The Islamist Ennahda party rebuked by the electorate decided to go secular to regain power anew. Concurrently, the secular Nidaa Tounes, is in power now, but it has no sound base because it is a hodgepodge of politicians publicly willing to serve the country but privately interested in power and its financial windfall. Not to forget, of course, that within its ranks there are many cadres from the time of the dictator Ben Ali bent on revenge and personal gain.
In spite of the UN painfully-brokered peace in Libya, the wounds of the country are not healing to the extent that one wonders, quite rightly, if it is truly a country or a fractured confederation of tribes, patriarchal and unruly.
Patriarchy and nepotism
Historically speaking, the North African communities evolved from tribes into caliphate-type Islamic states modeled along Felix Arabia’s pre-Islamic political institutions. The aboriginal Amazigh population had a progressive tribal system: egalitarian in spirit and democratic in practice. The tribe was ruled by an elected council called ait rab3in representing the different clans of this institution. The elected representatives were fully accountable to the council. With the arrival of Islam in the region in the 8th century AD, the Amazigh, in the name of this new religion, were emasculated and their political system ignored.
Since, patriarchy became a political system of the region and has spawned autocratic monarchies in which hereditary leaders ruled single-handedly in the name of religion. These political systems considered the population as subjects and not citizens, subject to allegiance and obligations, but had practically no rights.
After independence in the 20th century, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya became republics and Morocco remained a monarchy. But this change of heart in the former did not mean democracy, at all, just more of the patriarchal system, if not worse.
In Morocco and Tunisia, democracy was subverted by political co-optation, whereas in Algeria and Libya by generous subsidies from oil revenues.
The establishment in the North African nations, rather than opting for power-sharing through the democratic game and ballot boxes results, to stay in power, co-opted political parties, trade unions and civil society, as well.
When co-optation fails, fierce political police takes over to create a culture of fear through intimidation and, when need be, torture that maimed and, mostly, left, terrible psychological scars, for life. Morocco during the Années de Plomb (Years of Lead) (1960-1990) made extensively use of such tactics to subdue opposition.
In Tunisia, during the rule of the dictator Ben Ali, the ratio of police per inhabitant was the highest in the world with the intent to create fear and subvert opposition.
In Libya, opposition was not tolerated in anyway and, as such, it was physically removed instantly through political assassination.
In Algeria, the electoral landslide win of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS, Islamist party) in the legislative elections of 1991 were annulled by the army and the party outlawed leading to a civil war (December 26, 1991 – February 8, 2002)[ii] that claimed over 200,000 lives.
Corruption and embezzlement
In the Maghreb corruption proved to be the best weapon to subdue opposition. It literally became the unofficial currency of the North African states that all pay lip service to fighting this scourge but have never tried officials who were corrupt or have been caught embezzling public funds.
In the region, the officials think of corruption as a privilege of the office and not a felony. On the other hand, the political establishment uses its knowledge of corruption practices as a sword of Damocles over the head of politicians and officials, in case they decide to contest anything.
Some political analysts argue tongue in cheek that because governments do not want to eradicate these two scourges, for obvious reasons, ought to tax their beneficiaries.
Lack of personal, cultural and religious freedom
People in the region are “born” shackled by a number of cultural taboos that restrict greatly their freedom, creative thinking, discerning power and evaluation capacities. Over centuries these have become tradition that has morphed into a culture, and with time they have gained into sacredness, too.
No religious freedom is allowed and any expression of belief in other religion is considered as apostasy and heresy punishable by death. Religious minorities such as the Shia and the local converts to Christianity are stigmatized by the society and chastised by the police and live mainly in the closet waiting patiently for better times to come out.
The Amazigh/Berber people are still struggling in North Africa to achieve full recognition of their language, culture and civilization. Morocco and Algeria have written in gold this recognition in their laws, but in the field Arabic is still the predominant language and culture because of its link to the Koran and Islam.
Tradition and deviant interpretation of the Koran have literally emasculated the women and made them subservient to men and society, but, also, denied them empowering education and better living conditions.
In the Maghreb, some progress has been achieved in the area of gender equality, lately, to counter religious radicalism, but there is a lot of work to be undertaken in such fields as: family law, women education, equality at work and criminalization of rape.
Failed educational system
Since independence, most North African countries have invested massively in education to empower their population and allow economic development. However, to attain quality education, first, governments ought to generalize learning and ease access to knowledge by duly striving to empower people through literacy, especially in remote areas. This can be achieved by providing custom-tailored literacy courses coupled with vocational training that would, ultimately, allow the individual to subsist and survive in a very difficult environment.
Education in the Maghreb is in total crisis and needs to be revamped urgently to lead to quality, equality, equity, dignity and employability.
It is illogical that the region of North Africa in which youth is predominant in number is ruled exclusively by a gerontocracy totally disconnected from their needs and aspirations and, worse, governing them in time-old tribal and patriarchal fashion.
Needless to say, that the Arab uprisings started in Tunisia in 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi, a young street vendor immolated himself after being humiliated by local police and his products and wares confiscated. But, alas, no change in favor of the youth occurred consequently.
And, that is not all; the youth are, also, made by tradition to carry weights of social taboos.[iii] In some countries like Morocco this has led to a silent cultural revolution undertaken by the millennials.[iv]
Nowadays, many young people feel emasculated by their governments because they are unable to get a job after going through the educational system and graduating from universities.
The Arab Spring, this youth-initiated and led revolution started in the Maghreb, but it has not solved the persistent problems and cured the painful headaches, instead it brought the Islamists to power and many analysts view that as a social and political setback.
[ii] Habib Souaidia (2001). La sale guerre. Paris: folio actuel.