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The unchanging politics of North Africa.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Never has this cliche been more appropriate than when applied to the politics of contemporary North Africa. Despite the use of democratic discourse and select application of pluralistic practices, the reality of power and politics in the Maghreb remains as it has been since independence: domination by state authority at the expense of individual fights and civil liberties. Civil society remains on the defensive, challenged by an ever-manipulative centralized apparatus using its multiple sources of economic, bureaucratic and coercive powers to maintain its hegemony, notwithstanding the transformative character of the post-Cold War era.

While differences in governing styles distinguish each of the four Maghrebi states, the fundamentals of power and the mechanisms of control remain unchanged. The rule of law is virtually nonexistent, separation of powers is a chimera, pluralistic politics is a sham, competitive elections are severely constrained, and individual liberties are continuously under threat of usurpation, compromise or elimination. As much as the United States promotes a uniformly positive image of these states as "moderate" if not "democratic," the reality is that American support, whether through security arrangements, military assistance and/or foreign aid, serves to further ensconce these elite-dominated authoritarian orders at the expense of civil society, a condition that angers an already deeply alienated mass public whose daily frustrations are often directed at the "far enemy" (the United States) as much as the "near enemy" (local authorities).


Probably no state has swung so from one political extreme to another as Algeria. Emerging from its nearly eight-year-long war of national liberation against France (1954), Algeria experienced political uncertainty and governmental chaos under the rudderless leadership of Ahmed Ben Bella (1963-65) during its immediate post-independence period. The military coup d'etat of June 19, 1965, headed by Col. Houari Boumedienne, launched the country into a decade of austere authoritarianism under the single-party rule of the National Liberation Front (FLN). By the time Chadli Benjedid replaced his deceased predecessor in 1979, the country was characterized by extreme corruption, bureaucratic mismanagement and political repression. The 1980s witnessed an effort at a perestroika-like economic liberalization associated with only a mild version of political glasnost.

Following a virtual political-economic meltdown in the middle 1980s, Algeria underwent a radical political transformation. From late 1988 until early 1992, the country exhibited the most authentic and robust form of democracy ever experienced in the Arab world. Indeed that democratic "moment" exposed a populist bent towards pluralistism within Algerian civil society, including its most animated sectors: students, women, human-rights activists, Islamists, labor unions. What makes the current condition of persistent authoritarianism so perplexing is that it flies directly in the face of a highly participatory and politically conscious mass public operating within a vibrant and contentious civil society. The state-society divide in Algeria today, as in the other three Maghrebi states, is wide, deep and contentious across the generations and classes. In short, while Maghrebi societies have never been so prepared and committed to a genuinely democratic order, their ruling elites continue to impose and sustain nondemocratic governing structures and processes through a carrot-and-stick strategy. (1)

The Bouteflika Presidency

Algeria has stabilized significantly under the presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, first elected in 1999 and reelected in 2004, although the civil war that started in the aftermath of the military coup d'etat of January 11, 1992, and left over 200,000 civilians, soldiers, and insurgents dead has not completely subsided (around 75 victims of the struggle continue to die every month). The major armed Islamic groups like the Armee Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Army, or AIS) and the Groupe Islamique Armee (Armed Islamic Group, or GIA) have either voluntarily surrendered their arms or been reduced to military insignificance. (2) Only the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC), formed in the late 1990s after a number of militants broke away from the now virtually defunct GIA, remains militarily active. Now reconstituted as "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," reflecting its transregional aspirations, the GSPC continues to operate in the mountains of eastern Algeria and deep in the Sahara while financing most of its activity from protection rackets in the villages of the Kabyle and from smuggling cigarettes and other goods through the Sahel-Sahara corridor. Its most recent attack was the suicide bombing that took place in April 2007 in Algiers, leaving 33 dead and scores wounded followed several months later, on July 11, by a bomb attack in Lakhdaria, southeast of Algiers, in which ten military personnel were killed. Finally, on September 6, 2007, a suicide bomber's failed attempt to assassinate President Bouteflika in Batna left a dozen or so people dead and another seventy wounded.

On the government side, there are far fewer reports of police and security forces committing arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings, although the 7,000 or so cases of those who disappeared while under police custody in the 1990s remain unresolved. In partial response to this latter issue and in a gesture towards institutionalizing his rule, Bouteflika vigorously promoted his Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which won overwhelming public approval in the September 29, 2005, referendum. Additionally, the Berber "rebellion" in the Kabyle that was particularly violent in 2001 has been tamed for the moment, although the leading Kabyle parties continue to boycott national politics in protest against the absence of economic, cultural and social opportunities in this ethnically distinct region of eastern Algeria.

The civilianization of his rule was further expanded when Bouteflika forced the resignation of General Mohamed Lamari as chief of staff of the armed forces in August 2004. Lamari was one of the leaders of the military group that ordered the cancellation of the 1991-92 parliamentary elections, in which the Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front or FIS) was about to win a majority of seats, and directed the armed campaign against the Islamist insurgency that erupted following those cancelled elections. Lamari had been resolutely opposed to allowing Islamist groups to participate in Algerian politics.

A year later, in August 2005, General Larbi Belkheir, a retired general and once a stalwart of the army-dominated regime, was relieved of his post as director of Bouteflika's presidential office and given the position of "extraordinary and plenipotentiary" ambassador to Morocco. Now 67, General Belkheir, alternatively referred to in Algeria as the "godfather," the "grand chamberlain" and the "cardinal of Frenda" (the name of his natal village near Tiaret in the west of the country), was among the hardliners who pushed for President Chadli Benjedid's resignation and the cancellation of the 1991-92 parliamentary elections.

These two high-level resignations symbolize the relative decline in the influence of the once all-powerful high military officers, often referred to as le pouvoir, who have long dominated Algerian politics. Having retained the position of defense minister for himself, the Algerian president has proceeded to replace most of the regional commanders of the armed forces and to promote a new generation of younger officers. The one issue which has recently emerged that sheds doubt on Bouteflika's political ascendancy is the status of the president's health (he turned 69 in 2006). He underwent surgery for a "bleeding ulcer" in late November 2005 and took nearly five weeks to recuperate in a Paris hospital. He only returned to Algiers on December 31, 2005, with rumors circulating that he was actually under treatment for "stomach cancer." On April 20, 2006, the Algerian leader went back to France for a "post-operative" examination at a military hospital in Val-de-Grace. Official reports claimed that, by summer 2006, Bouteflika was in full recovery. Yet, given the opaque nature of Algerian politics, the president's uncertain health raised serious concerns about the succession process and the role the army high command would have in it. (3)

Transition Processes and Prospects

Algeria stands at a crucial crossroads in its evolution towards a more stable, regularized and democratic polity. The Islamist insurgency is now reduced to the Salifiyya's jihadist wing, which has little or no representation within either mainstream or oppositional groupings. Insurgency-related deaths are sporadic and relatively few compared to only a few years ago. Despite the controversies surrounding Bouteflika's amnesty and reconciliation projects, these efforts have received overwhelming public approval in two back-to-back referenda. Although participation rates were at historically low levels, both the parliamentary elections of 2007 and the presidential elections of 2004 were conducted in a relatively corruption-free environment with few instances of irregularities or electoral manipulation.

The economy is experiencing a surge in growth as hydrocarbon prices have remained at record highs, offsetting the continued inefficiencies, mismanagement and corruption in the public and private sectors of the non-oil economy. While Berber discontent continues to fester, the Kabyle region is relatively peaceful although, as mentioned earlier, ethnically defined forces persist in their boycott of national-level politics. Most important, the army high command within le pouvoir, especially the core group of hardliners who led the 1992 coup d'etat and pursued an eradicationist policy against the Islamist insurgency, have receded from the overt political scene although their backdoor influence remains indeterminate. The country's constitutional structures have evolved into recognizable attributes of an institutionalized political order although the concept of the separation of powers remains more an abstraction than a reality. Civil society remains vibrant and dynamic, however much the state seeks to contain if not control its autonomy. The once soaring birth rates are now being reversed although Algerian cities remain overpopulated with large numbers of unemployed youth. However, as powers have slowly but certainly been concentrated in the office of the president, new concerns have arisen about the sincerity and determination of Algeria's decision makers, both civilian and military, to pursue a full transition to democracy. Although doubts have been raised recently about his health, it appears that Bouteflika is following in the footsteps of Russian President Vladimir Putin: constitutional structures are being adjusted to serve the interests of an increasingly authoritarian political leadership.

One disturbing indicator of this trend is the very real possibility that Bouteflika will push through constitutional amendments that would extend the president's term from five to seven years, as well as allow him to run for a third consecutive term, thus emulating the authoritarian pattern already entrenched in neighboring Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. While Belkheir stands opposed to this possibility, his assignment to Rabat has served to limit his influence in the current debates. More telling has been the sacking on May 26, 2006, of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, head of the RND, which represents the second-largest party in the parliament, to be replaced by Abdelaziz Belkhadem, secretary-general of the FLN. Belkhadem (age 62) is a strong ally of Bouteflika and a supporter of the latter's efforts to amend the constitution.

Abdelaziz Belkhadem's selection as premier represents a significant step in the "Putinization" of the Algerian executive. A professor of Arabic linguistics and literature, the new premier has been a longstanding member of the FLN, having first been elected to the APN in 1977 and later rising to the presidency of the Assembly in 1990. He supported the reformist prime minister, Mouloud Hamrouche, during this period but went into political "exile" following the military coup of 1992 that overthrew the Hamrouche government. Sympathetic to but not a member of FIS, Belkhadem associated himself with the "conciliators" against the "eradicators" in the civil war that followed the 1992 coup. He reemerged on the political scene after the contested presidential election of Bouteflika in 1999, serving as foreign minister from 2000 until he replaced Ali Benflis as head of the FLN in January 2005. Additionally, he was made a personal counselor to the president with ministerial ranking in May 2005. This "bearded FLN" is a conservative Islamist who, as APN president, introduced Quranic readings at the start of all parliamentary sessions. He was also instrumental in pushing through the highly conservative family code of 1984, still in effect today despite presidential promises of a major overhaul, notwithstanding a slight overhaul of some its features regarding marriage, divorce and polygamy in 2005.

Belkhadem was brought in as premier to lead the campaign for major constitutional reforms strongly opposed by Ouyahia, whose own selection as head of government was intended to combat the former head of the FLN, Ali Benflis, who ran against Bouteflika in the 2004 presidential election (but fared very poorly with under 10 percent of the vote). It is assumed that, as of now, Belkhadem is Bouteflika's designated successor to the presidency.

Belkhadem's principal task in the run-up to a proposed referendum in late 2007 is to push through four major, yet highly controversial, constitutional changes that are intended to reinforce the powers of the presidency: (1) extend the presidential term from five to seven years; (2) abolish the two-term limit for the presidency; (3) create a vice-presidency chosen by the president; and (4) abolish parliamentary censure of the government, thus exempting the president and any of his cohorts, family members, high-level officials, etc., from prosecution for misdemeanors and other crimes while in or out of office.

In the economic realm as well, policy shifts have been undertaken to reinforce Bouteflika's strengthened political position. In early July 2006, for example, the government of Abdelaziz Belkhadem announced two significant changes to its economic policy: (1) a $1.4 billion package of wage increases that will benefit some 1.5 million public-sector workers--a measure that had been opposed by Ahmed Ouyahia, the previous prime minister, on the grounds of its potential inflationary impact; and (2) important revisions to the 2005 hydrocarbons bill. That law has now been altered to ensure that the national oil and gas company, SONATRACH, will continue to enjoy an automatic right to hold a controlling interest in oil and gas production-sharing agreements. The original law had trimmed SONATRACH's privileges and transformed it into an entity competing with foreign oil firms on more or less equal terms in order to make Algeria's hydrocarbon sector more attractive to foreign investors.

These changes are consistent with Algeria's long-term strategic objectives to control and exploit to its advantage the country's principal source of revenue, upon which rests the governing elites' power, patronage and privileges. More immediately, there is little doubt that the real instigator of these essentially populist measures was President Bouteflika himself. He wanted to bolster his chances of securing overwhelming support in the forthcoming referendum, which will essentially tailor the constitution to his personal aspirations of remaining in power as long as possible.

Probably the greatest challenge to Algeria's democratic transition, now that le pouvoir has been politically neutralized, is the uncertain status of the rule of law and the guarantee of civil liberties, as the state of emergency first put into place after the 1992 coup is still in effect in 2007. Despite a significant decrease in the violence associated with the civil war, human-rights abuses continue to be committed by both insurgents and incumbents. Armed opposition groups and criminal gangs continue to operate in parts of the country, and bombings, banditry, assassinations of police officers, and massacres of civilians still take place. State-armed militias continue to carry out, with little to no supervision by the authorities, counterinsurgency operations and law-enforcement activities. International human-rights organizations monitoring the Algerian situation continue to report instances where high-ranking military, police and security officials condone systematic torture and extrajudicial killings. Although the state has not executed anyone since 1994 and promises soon to abolish capital punishment altogether, the reality of the situation on the ground is one in which "enemies of the state" are made to "disappear" after being brought to the local police station for "routine" questioning. Since 1992, there have been 6,000-7,000 Algerians who have "disappeared" while under police custody, with their status still unresolved by early 2007.

Algeria does not practice a separation of powers nor operate under a system of constitutional checks and balances. The country's judiciary, for example, is not independent from the executive branch. The lack of impartiality and independence of judicial authorities, a key foundation of any democratically constituted political order, is widely criticized both within and outside Algeria. The judiciary's serious deficiencies, including its blatant politicization, weaken the rule of law. Public perception of corruption and bribery in the judicial system is widespread. Since the country's legislative bodies are themselves politically subordinated to the executive, there are no effective legislative or judicial checks on presidential authority.

This reality explains the massive indifference of the Algerian electorate most recently exhibited in the 30 percent voter turnout for the May 17, 2007, legislative elections. Simply put, until the current regime resolves fundamental constitutional questions--the armed forces' political role, presidential prerogatives, judicial independence and the problem of establishing law-bound government--its claim that Algeria's democratic transition is moving forward on a step-by-step basis will remain hollow. The only possible outside actor that can nudge the process forward in a potentially decisive way is the United States, since France has too complex and controversial a relationship with its former colony to act in a democratically meaningful way. Yet, for a range of geostrategic and energy-related reasons, Washington has remained relatively silent regarding Algeria's inchoate democratic status. (4)


The most distinctive characteristic of Tunisian politics today is the reinforcement of a "robust authoritarianism" through the further consolidation of presidential power, privilege and patronage. Couched in terms of "reinforcing liberty and human rights" while "laying the foundations of a sophisticated political system," the government put to referendum a series of constitutional reforms that where overwhelmingly approved by 99.52 percent of voters on May 26, 2002. Yet critics at home and abroad dismissed the result as a "masquerade" aimed at prolonging the rule of President Ben Ali.

The reforms abolished the clause that limited presidents to three five-year terms of office, allowing Ben Ali to stand for a fourth term in October 2004 in an election that he won with 94.49 percent of the popular vote despite the presence of three so-called opposition candidates. The approved reforms also raised the maximum age of presidential candidates from 70 to 75, permitting the incumbent president, who is 68, to stand for a fifth term in 2009 if he so wishes. To many critics of the regime, these changes are intended to establish a "life presidency" for Ben Ali similar to that achieved by his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, but which the incumbent had abolished in one of his first acts after seizing power in 1987. One of Ben Ali's other reforms also gave presidents permanent immunity from prosecution for all acts carried out in office.

The reformed constitution also provided for an upper house of parliament, the Chamber of Advisers, and extended the powers of the Constitutional Council, whose members are appointed by the president. Other changes were ostensibly aimed at increasing the accountability of parliament and improving human rights. However, these apparently positive steps have limited significance. Parliament serves as little more than a rubber stamp for the president's policies, given the weakness of the opposition, and laws pertaining to human rights are often ignored if not seriously violated in practice.

If the constitutional reform efforts had been serious and undertaken in good faith, they would have restrained the president's powers, increased his accountability, and institutionalized the separation of powers. Instead, the changes have further entrenched Ben Ali in power for the next decade or so and delayed meaningful political progress. Despite the apparent docility of Tunisian civil society, there is a great danger that these authoritarian measures will radicalize the opposition and provoke a violent reaction. At a minimum, they will be viewed by critics at home and abroad as an attempt to maintain a Mediterranean "crony capitalism" for Ben Ali's family and his followers. In believing that he alone can effectively govern the country, Ben Ali bears the most responsibility for preventing potential successors from emerging and for delaying the creation of a more pluralistic, if not democratic, process in Tunisia. (5)

The State-Society Nexus

Similar to the situations existing elsewhere in the Maghreb, state-society relations in Tunisia are riddled with tensions and discontinuities. The hopeful expectations of the immediate post-Bourguiba period have been replaced by a sense of political gloom and doom in an otherwise promising socioeconomic environment. What happened to create this severe disjuncture?

The actual transfer of power in November 1987 seemed relatively smooth despite the fact that the so-called "constitutional coup" was little more than a legal cover for a straightforward military takeover by a nonelected former army officer. A team of doctors testified that Bourguiba, then in his mid-80s, was senile and therefore unable to continue serving as president. He was then moved to his native city of Monastir, where he remained, effectively under house arrest until his death on April 6, 2000, at the age of 96. The relatively peaceful transition of leadership was greeted by many at home and abroad with a sense of relief, if not satisfaction, as the last years of Bourguiba's rule had become increasingly erratic and politically destabilizing.

The Ben Ali presidency began optimistically as he launched a series of forward-looking, corrective measures that seemed to point to greater democracy, not less. Among the more prominent initiatives intended to overcome some of his predecessor's excesses were the abolition of the life presidency, the release of thousands of political detainees, and the ratification of the UN Convention against Torture, a first for an Arab country. Intending to overcome the deep political divide, Ben Ali opened a process of "national reconciliation" that encouraged many political exiles to return home. He pushed through legislation in 1988 that created a multiparty system, although movements, organizations and parties based on race, religion or region were banned. Numerous "secular" parties were formed and many harsh press laws were overturned or relaxed. A "National Pact" (November 1988) was drafted, intended to create a framework for democracy by bringing together a wide diversity of Tunisian civil society, including opposition political parties, human-rights groups, women's movements, businessmen, trade unions, and Islamist figures including the controversial Rachid Ghannouchi. The Tunisian leader undertook a major reform of the ruling party by bringing in younger blood and changing its name to the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD).

Whether by design or default, the authoritarian impulse seemed to have quickly overcome the democratic imperative as Ben Ali and his ruling RCD seemed intent on maintaining the primacy of the single party at all costs. The initial political consensus eroded rapidly as a consequence. The political divide widened further as the regime was determined to weaken and, ultimately, destroy the Islamist Hizb al-Nahdah (Renaissance party), which it saw potentially paralleling the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in neighboring Algeria.

What began as a determined effort by the regime to destroy all vestiges of al-Nahdah soon turned into a greater intolerance for all kinds of dissent, whether sectarian or secular. By the early 1990s, security was tightened and the media strictly controlled as repression extended far beyond the so-called Islamic radicals and left-wing extremists to reach members of the legal opposition and, in particular, human-rights groups and their families. This massive suppression of dissent continues today, unhindered by the widespread criticism such policies have engendered by foreign governments, human-rights groups and other pro-democracy forces. (6)

For its part, the regime continues to espouse the language of "reform" and "democracy," highlighting the Kafkaesque gap between rhetoric and reality. The Tunisian Constitution, for example, guarantees citizens the "right of security, dignity and justice, and freedom of opinion, expression and association." Ben Ali himself repeatedly states his unshakeable commitment to human rights. There exists a Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, and the president presents a human-rights prize annually on Tunisia's Human Rights Day.

The reality is much more sobering as scores of individuals and groups who dare criticize the regime or Ben Ali himself are thrown into jail, their passports confiscated, and their families routinely harassed. Human-rights activists are particular targets of government repression, but so are members of banned Islamist or militant left-wing parties, many of whom have been jailed for long periods of time. Publishers and journalists are regularly detained and pursued in the courts, while publications that criticize the regime, including foreign newspapers, are seized. The Tunisian justice system is subject to heavy-handed political pressure.

The Centralized Polity

The regime has consolidated its power through numerous institutional structures, none more important than the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). As the direct descendant of the PSD, the RCD has been revitalized into the country's dominant political organization. It is the only party with a national reach, claiming two million members (out of a population of 10 million) and nearly 8,000 branches nationwide. Its architecturally ultra-modern and oversized party headquarters in Tunis serves as symbolic testimony to the RCD's national dominance. The party holds 152 of the 189 seats in parliament and 4,098 of 4,366 seats on local councils. Its ideological orientation is ostensibly left of center, and it has made concrete efforts to overcome the economic hardships experienced by poorer members of society, although it has also embraced many of the principles of free-market economics.

There are seven legal opposition political parties, but all are ineffectual as they lack a popular base and are riddled with factionalism and internal dissent. Moreover, the ideological and programmatic differences between these parties and the RCD have become blurred. Their occasional efforts to form a "united front" at election time have proven fruitless or have had little effect.

The largest of these opposition parties is the MDS (Movement of Social Democrats), a left-of-center party that was formed during the Bourguiba era but that has undergone splits over the issue of whether to oppose or support Ben Ali. The officially recognized wing is headed by Ismail Boulahya, who gave his party's support to Ben Ali in the 1999 and 2004 presidential elections. The MDS, two pan-Arab, center-left parties--the PUP (Party of Popular Unity) and the UDU (Union of Democratic Unionists)--and the left-wing PSDL (Liberal Social Democratic Party) constitute the so-called "loyal" opposition and generally support government policy.

The "dissident" opposition consists of three left-wing parties: the Harakat Ettajdid (Renewal Movement, formerly known as the Tunisian Communist party); PDP (Progressive Democratic party, or PDP); and the FDTL (Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedoms), established in 2002 and the first new party to gain legal status in over a decade. The group formed a loose alliance, the Democratic Alliance for Citizenship, to fight the 2005 local elections but failed to gain a single seat.

The Islamist Hizb al-Nahdah has never been legalized although its candidates, running as independents, managed to get 13 percent of the vote in the 1989 parliamentary election. Constitutional amendments proscribing the formation of parties based on race or religion have effectively prevented al-Nahdah or any such party from being recognized. Since the early 1990s, virtually all of the party's leaders have been killed, imprisoned or forced to live in self-imposed exile, as is the case with Ghannouchi, who resides in London. While difficult to determine with accuracy, it is generally believed that the party still has significant popular support both inside and outside Tunisia. Although there was speculation in 2005 that an accommodation between the government and al-Nahdah was in the offing, Ben Ali forcefully rejected any compromise with people he still considers "terrorists." Besides al-Nahdah, the only other banned party of any significance is the POCT (Tunisian Communist Workers party), which finds support among some university students.

Given the anemic character of oppositional politics, and by way of demonstrating its democratic credentials, the regime has modified the electoral laws to permit representation of opposition parties in the Chamber of Deputies by assigning seats for opposition parties to contest--19 in 1994, rising to 32 in 1999 and 37 in 2004--on the basis of proportional representation. This has produced a facade of pluralism without threatening the dominance of the RCD. The same dominance applies to the newly created (2005) upper house (Chamber of Advisers), whose appointees are largely controlled by the RCD. The situation is even more distorted at the local level, where only 248 of the 4,366 contested municipal seats in the May 2005 election went to four loyalist opposition parties, and all the rest went to the RCD.

Under the constitution, candidates for the presidency must have the backing of at least 30 members of parliament, yet no legal opposition has had anything near this number. In 1999 and 2004, this rule was temporarily suspended to allow more than one candidate to stand for the presidency. However, the presence of two opposition candidates in 1999 and three in 2004 were purely symbolic as Ben Ali won over 90 percent of the vote in both cases. Given the newly amended constitutional provisions allowing the president unlimited terms until the age of 75, all effective powers of the state are now concentrated in the executive branch of government with the RCD serving as a direct appendage of the state. The president's powers are all-encompassing: he appoints the prime minister, all cabinet members, the members of three key advisory councils, the 23 regional and local governors, the heads of the armed forces and the police, and all senior judges and civil servants. Additionally, he selects one-third of the members of the Chamber of Advisers and has the constitutional authority to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies.

Civil Society Rising?

For all intents and purposes, Tunisia is a one-party state governed by an unaccountable autocrat. Yet for many if not most ordinary Tunisians, the absence of genuine democracy seems acceptable as long as political stability is maintained and socioeconomic development sustained. The absence of significant challenge to the Ben Ali regime can be attributed in great measure to its pursuit of progressive social policies, including the priority given to education and health, to measures to alleviate unemployment, poverty and regional inequalities, and to legislation that has successfully promoted women's rights. The regime continues to subsidize staple foods, despite IMF recommendations to the contrary, and has ensured regular increases in the minimum wage. Health care and education are free, and welfare payments have been provided to low-income families. By providing such vital social services to the poor, the government has succeeded in minimizing the role of Islamist groups, whose influence in other Muslim countries, including neighboring Morocco, has increased by their provision of the kinds of welfare benefits that incumbent regimes are either unable or unwilling to provide.

Despite the surface appearance of political tranquility, there has long been a stratum of Tunisian counter-elites representing the liberal professions, including human-rights activists, lawyers, scholars and journalists, who have challenged the regime's autocratic excesses. They are now being joined by a growing number of Tunisia's traditionally passive middle class in questioning the theory that security and prosperity can only be had at the expense of political freedom. The business community is also beginning to complain that the system's political rigidity, with its constraint on freedom of expression, including the use of the Internet, is stifling innovation and creativity. Also troubling are the growing accusations, coming from a wide range of entrepreneurs, that the domination of business by those with close links to the ruling elite is inhibiting economic opportunity, restricting enterprise and dissuading commercial risk-taking. (7)

The reality of contemporary Tunisia is that an increasingly well-educated population with access to foreign travel, satellite television, the Internet and other modes of telecommunication is becoming restless with its authoritarian leadership and, in the near future, will begin to demand Western standards of democracy. For their part, the authorities continue to impose harsh restrictions on free speech, assembly and public contestation, making it almost impossible for Tunisians to express dissent. When such dissent has occurred, it has often been inspired, manipulated, or co-opted by the regime itself, as the case of the massive anti-U.S. and pro-Iraq protests at the time of the 1991 Gulf War demonstrates. Other similar instances of partially autonomous anti-government demonstrations that were either fully contained or reconfigured to the benefit of the regime include the February 2000 unrest in the underdeveloped southeast and the series of large-scale pro-Palestinian demonstrations, not all authorized by the government, in April 2002. The government imposed a severe security blanket on the demonstrations that were organized throughout the country in the run-up to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003. Similar measures were put into place during the biggest and most prestigious international event ever staged in Tunisia, the second and final phase of the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Tunis on November 16-18, 2005. Local and international human-rights and press-freedom groups failed to persuade the United Nations not to hold the WSIS in Tunis, saying that its censorship of the press and repression of dissident journalists made it an inappropriate venue for a conference whose goals were to promote the free flow of information.

While the regime has demonstrated a keen ability to sustain its authoritarian stranglehold on Tunisia these many years, an increasingly restless and reanimated civil society is beginning to emerge. Paradoxically, the regime's own efforts in advancing the economy and promoting universal education, progressive social policies, and gender equality have aroused the political consciousness of a cross-generation of Tunisians who are now at the doorstep of democratic opportunity and insisting on being allowed in. Whether that entrance will be peaceful or violent rests in the hands of the incumbent leadership. Though many of its members are extremely enlightened, their ability to influence an otherwise autocratic president remains highly problematic.


No country in North Africa is viewed more favorably by the West than Morocco. Long considered politically moderate with the best potential in the Arab world for becoming truly democratic and the most open to foreign investments and interests, the country has strived in recent years to extend this favorable image by instituting a range of top-down social and political reforms intended to buttress and extend its self-declared status as a "democratic monarchy." For some independent analysts, Morocco's gradual transformation from sultanic authoritarianism to benign autocracy to illiberal democracy testifies to the country's serious commitment to pluralistic politics, however incomplete or inchoate. For more critical observers from within and outside the country, however, Morocco remains, in its essence, autocratic, corrupt and effectively closed off to any fundamental political changes that could alter the existing state structure. A relatively small elite monopolizes the key sources of political, economic and military power at the expense of a deeply disaffected and alienated mass public. These two contrasting interpretations do not divide equally, as the latter judgment more accurately describes the reality of contemporary political life in Morocco. (8)

Political Institutions and Processes

The Moroccan polity operates at competing formal and informal levels involving the existence of a fully articulated institutional structure, including a constitution (revised in 1996 for the fourth time since independence in 1956), a bicameral legislature, a judiciary, and a complex multiparty system in which elections at the national and local levels take place on a regular basis. The only institution that really matters, however, is that of the monarchy, whose all-encompassing powers are ensconced within the constitution and through the invocation of historical tradition and religious legitimacy. King Mohamed VI, who came to power in July 1999 at the death of his father, Hassan II, enjoys virtually absolute powers. He is both head of state and "commander of the faithful." Among the expansive constitutionally designated prerogatives available to the king are his right to appoint the prime minister and the ministers of interior, foreign affairs, justice and religious affairs--all key portfolios that are more often than not assigned from outside the existing political party structure to ensure total monarchical control. At any time, the king has the authority to dismiss the government, dissolve parliament and rule by decree. The king also presides over the judiciary, appoints ambassadors, ratifies treaties, and is the supreme commander of the armed forces. With his authority to appoint all 16 regional walis (governors), the king has full influence over the country's patronage system. Yet, despite the existence of this constitutionally legitimated system of power and control, the king makes use of a parallel structure of power involving a mixture of ex-politicians, businessmen and senior army officers who constitute the apex of the Moroccan establishment, also known as the makhzen. Given this massive centralization of formal and informal powers within the monarchy, the concept of a separation of powers in which legislative and judicial authority can be invoked as a check on executive excess is a meaningless one.

Multipartyism: Rubber Stamp or Robust Challenger?

Morocco has had a long history of multiparty activism both before and after independence. A wide range of secular, Berberist, socialist and Islamist parties have vied for political dominance in the House of Representatives, but none has ever come close to serving as a true alternative to monarchical rule. Given the monarchy's centralized authority, political-party opposition can only influence policy making at the margins and only with the full consent of the king. Indeed, the presence of a multiplicity of political groupings--26 participated in the 2002 parliamentary elections with 22 parties winning seats--results in a highly fragmented party landscape working to further divide and weaken an already enfeebled legislature. Given the predictive character of past voting results, in which pro-government parties or easily cooptable "opposition parties" have dominated the parliament, making a mockery of the legislative process, a new political-party law was passed in 2005. Its most significant feature involves the transfer of authority to approve new political groupings from the Ministry of the Interior, whose head is chosen directly by the king, to the court system, which it is hoped will prove to be a more independent arbiter.

Given the fact that the justice minister is appointed directly by the king, it is hard to imagine that this new law constitutes a real devolution of executive power. Indeed, it could be argued that the overall effect will be to limit democratic choice rather than expand it. The 2005 edict limits state funding to those parties that win at least 5 percent of the vote, one result of which will be to recast the party system into fewer, larger blocs. Additionally, the law requires parties to be more transparent in policy making and in their financial affairs. Most controversially, it requires that parties no longer be organized along ethnic, religious, regional or linguistic lines, thus forcing existing Berberist and Islamist parties to recast their constitutions. In the final analysis, however, these executive-inspired party changes have had little practical effect as the results of the September 7, 2007, parliamentary elections clearly demonstrated. This latest voting saw the traditional nationalist party, Istiqlal, gain the largest number of seats (52) in the 325-member parliament with the Islamist PJD (Justice and Development party) coming in second with 47 seats. Most revealing, however, was the anemic electoral turnout, which saw only 37 percent of the voters participating, the lowest voter turnout in the country's post-independence history.

Prior to the voting, there had been a flurry of speculation and controversy among practitioners and analysts alike surrounding the increasing influence of the Islamist PJD, which performed exceedingly well in 2002 (42 seats), compared to its lackluster performance in 1997 (9 seats). It is predicted to gain the greatest number of seats in the 2007 election. Yet, in its formal discourse and legislative behavior, the PJD has acted very much in the tradition of all pliable political parties, whose very acceptance into the legislative process is testimony to its non-oppositional character. PJD spokespeople have repeatedly declared that the party "accepts the rules of the game," that it has no intention of "imposing Sharia law," and that its presence in parliament serves as "a barrier to Islamic radicalization." It is particularly insistent that, unlike the Association of Justice and Charity, headed by Abdessalam Yassine and his daughter Nadia Yassine, which remains illegal because of its complete rejection of the monarchical system of rule, the PJD represents the face of "moderate political Islam," which disavows violence and believes in peaceful change. The reality of course is more nuanced than that, given the enormous popularity of Yassine's movement, which finds most of its support in its grass-roots approach to educational and social-welfare activism. In short, however well the PJD performs in the 2007 voting, it will never be allowed to govern alone or in a way that challenges the regime's basic nondemocratic orientation.

Civil Society: Animated or Anemic?

As in the cases of Algeria and Tunisia, Moroccan civil society is vital and vibrant, demonstrating a vigorous capacity to organize along a variety of associational, functional and professional lines. Although all civic associations need to be approved by the Ministry of Interior and therefore come under the watchful eye of the authorities, Moroccan social activists have been particularly successful in asserting their autonomy, often with the assistance of foreign NGOs and other sympathetic overseas actors, agents and governments. Yet the ability of Moroccan NGOs to effect change or implement reformist agendas is tied to monarchical priorities and preferences. Indeed, as in the case of the reform of the family code (or moudawanna) in 2004, it was under the king's initiative and insistence that a fundamental change in women's rights was achieved, however much progressive women's groups had been in the forefront of pressing for the revision of the code. The new family code, for example, now mandates that the marriage age for women be 18 (it was 15), that the family come under the joint responsibility of the wife and husband, and that divorce be available by mutual consent.

A similar process of cooptation of and cooperation with selected civil-society organizations took place regarding past human-rights abuses in the country. In January 2004, for example, the king created by royal decree and with virtually no consultation with the established political-party leaderships or other formal political structures a justice and reconciliation commission known by its French acronym as IER (Instance Equite et Reconciliation). Its creation was the result of lengthy and sustained negotiations between former political prisoners, human-rights activists, and other relevant groups in civil society interested in overcoming Morocco's abysmal human-rights record during the period known as the "years of lead" (les annees de plomb) from 1961 until the end of the Cold War in 1989. (9)

In both instances, local and foreign NGOs spearheaded important reforms in state and society, but only once did the king decide that it was in the makhzen's interest to do so. It is this lack of institutional legitimacy and structural autonomy that limits the ability of civic organizations to effect enduring change and routinize social reform. Civil society thus remains constrained in its ability to serve as a socializing arena from which political society can emerge and then serve as the launching pad for institutional democracy.

The state-society divide thus remains deep and dangerous. Even the liberalized media and the relative openness of political discourse and debate in the country are vulnerable to state intervention and discontinuation when perceived as jeopardizing state interests. The precarious status of Moroccan journalists, for example, is best expressed by the media monitoring group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which currently ranks Morocco alongside Tunisia as the Arab world's "leading jailer of journalists." Nothing reflects this divide so dramatically as the yawning gap separating social classes, in which a small elite conspires with a privileged state-dependent middle class to maintain its hegemony over an impoverished mass public concentrated primarily in rural areas and within urban slums. Unemployment rates among urban youth remain excessively high, as does illiteracy, especially among women in the countryside. (10) The overall result is a society racked by social, class and economic cleavages confronting a state apparatus protective of its powers, patronage and privileges. Under such oppressive conditions, it is no surprise that thousands of Moroccans every year seek to escape to Europe or that some among them turn to radical ideologies, often jihadist in nature, to rectify what they see as an unjust, corrupt and manipulative political order.


The Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, is the longest-lasting political head of state in the Arab world, having come to power in a coup d'etat in September 1969. Only in his mid-60s, he is projected to continue ruling for another decade or two, unimpeded by institutional constraints or demands for democratic change originating from within or outside Libyan society. Having long ago lost his charismatic appeal and the "heroic" image he first projected, he rules today through a combination of tribal patronage, coercive force and economic incentives made possible by an excess of hydrocarbon revenues. He has neither built a viable Libyan national state nor established the legal institutions necessary to insure the country's survival in the post-Qadhafi era. Indeed, his decades-long political purpose has been to deinstitutionalize the state in the name of "people power" as espoused in his convoluted "third universal theory," which serves as the ideological centerpiece of his Green Book. Composed of an incoherent mixture of socialist principles and Islamic belief, the regime's ideological text is more than ever ignored by both its founder and practitioners. A form of nomadic socialism has been replaced by a "popular capitalism" intended to jump-start a stagnant economy and animate a lethargic society. Regardless of the mercurial character of the man and his policies, one thing has remained constant: Libya is thoroughly dictatorial, with virtually no semblance of democratic life within either civil society or the state. And, despite the numerous positive gestures undertaken in foreign affairs, especially the country's elimination of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program in 2003, none of these efforts has affected domestic politics in any progressive way. (11)

What Political System?

Libya represents in its most basic sense a "tribe with a flag": a society composed of diverse tribal groupings incorporated into three regionally defined provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan but never fully integrated into a Libyan nation-state in which citizens are governed by their duly elected representatives. Neither the nation-building nor state-building process was ever realized, either under the monarchy (1951-69) or under the leadership of Colonel Qadhafi (1969 to present). For the last four decades, charismatic authority has never been permitted to evolve into a rational legal system of role, nor has it fully eradicated the traditional bases of legitimacy in which tribal identity, family ties and Islam have remained powerful constants in the lives of ordinary Libyans.

The discovery of oil in 1959 and the enormous revenues it has generated over the decades have worked to further ensconce the status quo rather than serve as the economic engine for social and political change. Indeed, Libya remains the quintessential rentier state, one in which rulers have had the luxury of ruling without the consent--or the tax revenues--of those being ruled. Capping this retrograde system of state-building has been Qadhafi's unique vision of what constitutes the legal order: the Jamahiriyya, a blend of romantic tribalism that gives primacy to the values of solidarity and equality. For Qadhafi, the Jamahiriyya represents the ultimate expression of "true" democracy, in which the people govern themselves free from the constraints of the impersonal bureaucratic state. The result has been neither democracy nor bureaucracy, but rather a chaotic and unpredictable pattern of elite-directed initiatives that have little to no connection with popular aspirations or rationally determined developmental policies. Even the so-called "liberalization" of the economy undertaken at the beginning of the twenty-first century has been more rhetoric than reality and, in any case, has had no direct impact on the domestic political order, which remains thoroughly dictatorial. Even the abandonment of the WMD program in December 2003 has not completely eliminated the country's revolutionary orientation and global activism, including the goal of assassinating unfriendly foreign leaders, as was the case in the failed attempt to murder then Crown Prince, now King, Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2003.

The Depoliticized State

Consistent with the "Brother Leader's" vision of the idealized polity, there is no Libyan "government" or cabinet "ministers" but only the people expressing their democratic wishes through popular assemblies known locally as the Basic People's Congress (BPCs). Each BPC selects its own representative to the national body, the General People's Congress (GPC), serving as the functional equivalent of a "legislative" body. At the executive level, there are parallel structures known as the Basic People's Committee and the General People's Committee, the closest equivalent to a governmental cabinet. Yet even these so-called governmental institutions have low levels of legitimacy among the general public, whose participation, in any case, is extremely low. Technically, the GPC is empowered to choose the secretaries who are appointed to the General People's Committee, but in reality, those chosen for these positions are first approved by Qadhafi, with the Congress simply rubberstamping the results. Not trusting anyone except those closest to the leader has resulted in the same few individuals holding the same positions of power for consecutive decades with Qadhafi simply alternating their posts. Even these individuals, however, serve more as technocrats than politicians since ultimate decision-making authority remains with Qadhafi and his small circle of close advisers drawn from tribal affiliations, military associations and high-level business contacts. This is all by way of saying that the Libyan Jamahiriyya is more than ever a depoliticized entity run by the few for the benefit of the few, all rationalized under the ideological mantra of "people power."

Political parties, or any kind of independent political or civic association, are strictly forbidden, with life-threatening consequences for those contemplating such activity. Public accountability is virtually nonexistent, and civil liberties forever in jeopardy. If activists within civil society initiate any kind of independent political action, as the case of the 12 journalists currently on trial on charges of attempting to overthrow the political system clearly demonstrates, the penalties can be harsh, including the use of torture and long-term prison sentences.

Despite the surface appearance of total political control at home, however, there are clear signs that challenges have emerged to the authority of the man and his belief system. Indeed, it is believed that virtually all the positive gestures undertaken in the international arena--compensation for the victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing, cooperation with international authorities regarding the adjudication of the airline explosion, the abandonment of the WMD program, the turning away from terrorist practices and policies, the willingness to cooperate more openly with the West in encouraging business ventures and other opportunities for normal global exchanges, and the release of the Bulgarian and Palestinian prisoners condemned to death for having infected Libyan children with the HIV virus--are responses to serious challenges developing at home. The major domestic ones--a moribund economy despite the oil wealth, the lack of employment opportunities for a rapidly expanding youth population, the decrepit condition of the basic infrastructure, and the rise of Islamist appeals among an increasingly alienated mass public--have forced Qadhafi to rethink, but not fundamentally alter, his strategy of governance.

His willingness to collaborate with the United States in the so-called "war on terror," including participation in intelligence gathering and other sharing of information involving alleged al-Qaeda activities in the Sahara and the Saharan-Sahelian corridor, all speak to the pressure for change forcing itself on the "Great Leader." It is uncertain at this point whether Islamic radicalism has taken a firm foothold in the country sufficient to undermine Qadhafi's fast-waning charismatic appeal and the coercive apparatus associated with it. In any case, the absence of legitimate institutional structures intended to secure the system's longevity leaves the regime vulnerable to sudden, if not violent, overthrow. Also uncertain is the status of Qadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam, as the designated successor to his father, despite his high profile within the country, including his leadership of the Qadhafi Development Foundation, a charitable organization intended to serve as Saif's power base within civil society. Whatever economic reforms the regime undertakes, they will have little impact on the manner in which Libya is ruled as long as political power remains concentrated in the hands of the security and intelligence apparatus and the revolutionary committees, both still under the control of the Colonel.


The four countries of the Maghreb have achieved impressive advances in the last half century in the areas of economic growth, social development and institution-building. Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia are today on the cusp of achieving living standards equal to many developed countries in the Mediterranean region. Yet, despite such noteworthy accomplishments in the socioeconomic realm, political life remains uniformly stagnant, if not retrograde. Promises of real political change, if not democracy promotion, have more often than not been subverted by incumbent elites determined to maintain the political status quo, one serving the interests of the unaccountable few ruling over the unrepresented many. A dramatic, if not tragic, result has been an ever-expanding chasm between civil society and the state, one in which radical solutions to perceived injustices are being proffered by an increasingly frustrated, alienated and angry mass public. If anything, the manipulative nature of contemporary Maghrebi politics has further intensified the bitterness felt by ordinary North Africans towards their systems of rule. Most debilitating of all is the absence of a truly institutional separation of powers that could serve to check and balance the centralized authority of the state. Ironically, the poorer and much less developed Mauritania seems to be the only country in the Maghreb currently engaged in a genuinely pluralistic process, beginning with the first-ever democratic presidential election in April 2007. It is still too early to predict whether this political transformation will take hold, endure and be fully institutionalized. At a minimum, it demonstrates that neither religion (Islam) nor culture (Arab) are obstacles to democracy and that its absence in the other Maghrebi countries must be explained by other frameworks of analysis including political economy, ideology, leadership and external influences.

Ultimately, genuine democracy must come to North Africa if the four countries of the region are serious about legitimizing their rule and institutionalizing their polities. Without the rule of law and a genuine separation of powers, democracy in the Maghreb seems a distant aspiration. There is no better assessment of the dire political consequences of nonrepresentative rule than that provided by James Madison in the Federalist Papers: "The accumulation of all power, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

(1) For a detailed analysis of Algerian civil society, see John P. Entelis and Phillip C. Naylor, eds., State and Society in Algeria (Westview Press, 1992); John E Entelis, "Civil Society and the Authoritarian Temptation in Algerian Politics: Islamic Democracy vs. the Centralized State," in Augustus Richard Norton, ed., Civil Society in the Middle East, Volume 2 (E.J. Brill, 1996), pp.45-86; and John P. Entelis, Algeria: The Revolution Institutionalized (Westview Press, 1986), chapter 4.

(2) For an astute and fair-minded interpretation of Algeria's civil war, see Luis Martinez, The Algerian Civil War, 1990-1998 (Columbia University Press, 2000).

(3) For a reinterpretation of elite politics in contemporary Algeria, see Isabelle Werenfels, Managing Instability in Algeria: Elites and Political Change Since 1995 (Routledge, 2007).

(4) For a comprehensive review of Algeria's current political economy and its implication for the Maghrebi region and beyond, see Michael Bonner, Megan Rif and Mark Tessler, eds., Islam, Democracy and the State in Algeria: Lessons for the Western Mediterranean and Beyond (Routledge, 2005).

(5) For a comprehensive historical overview of modern Tunisia, see Kenneth J. Perkins A History of Modern Tunisia (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

(6) A theoretically oriented critique of Tunisia's "authoritarian syndrome" is provided in Michel Camau and Vincent Geisser, Le Syndrome Autoritaire: Politique en Tunisie de Bourguiba a Ben Ali (Paris: Presses des Sciences Po, 2003).

(7) Sophisticated political economy analyses of Tunisia's paradoxical condition of dependent capitalism are provided by Eva Bellin, Stalled Democracy: Capital, Labor, and the Paradox of State-Sponsored Development (Cornell University Press, 2002) and Melani Claire Cammett, Globalization and Business Politics in Arab North Africa [Morocco and Tunisia]: A Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

(8) For a balanced and comprehensive overview of Morocco's modem political history, see Marvine Howe, Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges (Oxford University Press, 2005).

(9) For a superb, insightful, and deeply informed analysis of the "performance of human rights" in Morocco, see Susan Slyomovics, The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

(10) The negative impact of globalization on Morocco's domestic political economy is well treated in Shana Cohen and Larabi Jaidi, Morocco: Globalization and Its Consequences (Routledge, 2006).

(11) The most authoritative analyses of Libya's political history and political economy remain those of Dirk Vandewalle. See Dirk Vandewalle, Libya Since Independence: Oil and State-Building (Cornell University Press, 1998), Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Dirk Vandewalle, ed., Libya Since 1969: Qadhafi's Revolution Revisited (Palgrave, 2007).

Dr. Entelis is professor of political science at Fordham University.
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Author:Entelis, John P.
Publication:Middle East Policy
Geographic Code:60NOR
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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