Nineteen eighty-four began in a bloody fashion in the Maghreb. Violent demonstrations erupted in the impoverished southwest and south of Tunisia at the very end of December and spread throughout the country during the first week of January. These followed the Tunisian government’s introduction of measures to remove food subsidies. Bread prices suddenly doubled.

The state’s response to the demonstrations was extremely violent. As the unrest spread, security forces opened fire on crowds in several towns, including the capital Tunis. The government declared a state of emergency and a curfew on January 3 and banned public gatherings of more than three persons. On the morning of January 6, President Habib Bourghiba appeared on television to rescind the price increases and promise the restoration of food subsidies, an announcement greeted with pleasure and relief by the crowds in the streets. Three weeks later, after a period of relative calm, the curfew was lifted.

As Tunisia’s social unrest subsided, students in Morocco initiated strikes over fee increases during the first week of January, and social turmoil increased rapidly as large numbers of unemployed workers in the towns of the south and northeast joined the students. Heavy news censorship prevented timely publication of details. The newspaper of the Istiqlal Party, l’Opinion, reported that troops from the Western Sahara and Sidi Ifni had been brought in to quell the disturbances.

The proposals for further price increases in both countries followed the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund. As in Tunisia, Moroccan demonstrators were met with massive state violence. On January 25, after relative calm had been restored, officials announced that 29 people had been killed and 114 injured during the previous weeks; press reports suggest that at least 100 were killed (as many as 400 according to some sources) and many more injured and arrested. King Hassan appeared on television in the evening of January 22 to announce that there would be no further increases in the price of basic goods after all. This, together with the repressive measures taken against the demonstrators, ensured that “law and order” were restored within a few days. By the end of the month it could be said that Morocco, like Tunisia, had returned to “normal.”

The immediate crisis for the Tunisian and Moroccan governments appeared to be over when the streets emptied of demonstrators. But the underlying economic and political conditions that had given rise both to the upsurge of mass social unrest and to the brutal state repression of January 1984 had not changed. The explanations for Morocco’s and Tunisia’s “January bread riots,” and for the state’s violent reaction, lie deeper than those factors which triggered off the violence. They lie in the distinctive economic policies and political structures of contemporary Tunisia and Morocco which have created such a potential for large-scale mass unrest and have failed to create suitable channels or mechanisms for effective, peaceful expression of opposition to those policies and structures.

”Veritable Insurrectionist Commandos”

Governments commonly identify mass demonstrations of popular anger and resentment as the work of highly organized small groups of agitators — preferably foreign-inspired and supported. To accept that large numbers of ordinary citizens may be so desperate as to act openly and violently together would be to admit that deep-seated and intractable problems exist.

In Tunisia, official explanations played down the doubling of bread prices and stressed the role of agitators with political motives. According to the governor of Kebili, foreign-inspired agitators were involved in the demonstrations there and in Douz and Souk el-Ahad — all small southern towns to the east of the great salt depression of Chott el-Djerid. In Gafsa, “capital” of the south, the governor identified Libyan and Lebanese-trained Tunisians leading the demonstrations. [1] Late on the evening of January 3, Prime Minister Mzali declared on television that “there has been manipulation. The young people have been enticed and misled into demonstrations which appear spontaneous but behind which lies a plan for destabilization and elements more or less inspired by certain influences whose declared objective is the overthrow of the regime.” [2] He evidently had Libya in mind as the “influences.” [3] In Paris, the Tunisian ambassador assured the French television audience that the price increase “has very little to do with the rioting,” [4] and blamed “uncontrolled elements.” A few days later, after President Bourghiba had publicly cancelled the food price rises, Mzali reiterated his conviction that “we found ourselves faced with veritable insurrectionist commandos, well organized and coordinated.” [5]

Moroccan official statements likewise tended to lay the blame for the trouble at the door of agitators of various kinds. King Hassan, in his television speech of January 22, referred to three distinct categories of agitators: Muslim fundamentalists; communists and “Marxist-Leninists”; and “Zionist” secret services.

Was there in fact any basis for conceiving a threat to the regime from politically motivated and organized groups in either Tunisia or Morocco? In Tunisia, the disturbances broke out in a region where political opposition has been openly manifested in the recent past. Only three years ago, Libyan-trained Tunisian dissidents attacked and held for over a week the southern town of Gafsa. Since that time, economic cooperation between the two countries has increased significantly and relations are, in general, more cordial. But the majority of the 60,000 Tunisians who work in Libya come from the south and southwest, and there was evidence of at least tacit support for the dissidents from the inhabitants of Gafsa. Furthermore, Colonel Qaddafi’s attitude towards the Tunisian regime under Bourghiba is equivocal, to say the least. Qaddafi was at some pains to assure the Tunisian regime that he had no part in the organization of the demonstrations in the south; after a telephone conversation with Mzali, Qaddafi decided to send a delegation to Tunis to emphasize the point and to encourage “coordination and cooperation aimed at overcoming the present situation.” [6] But concern about possible Libyan connections was reinforced when a pipeline carrying oil from Algeria to Tunisia was blown up on January 7, allegedly by a four-man commando group from Libya.

In Morocco, the north — and particularly the northeast where the disturbances were most violent and most prolonged — has been regarded since independence as potentially volatile. This is partly because of the long-standing connections between this region and western Algeria, and partly because of the more recent experience of social unrest. King Hassan certainly recalls the revolts of 1958 and 1959 in the vicinity of al-Hoceima and Nador. He himself — as crown prince — put these down brutally with the aid of 20,000 troops and full air support in January I960. [7] He may even bear in mind the earlier republicanism of the northern mountain regions under the rebel ‘Abd el-Krim during the 1920s. There was no suggestion officially of any influence, direct or indirect, from Algeria on those occasions. This, combined with the total lack of any evidence of Israeli involvement, removes the basis for any suggestion of a direct foreign influence on the course of events in Morocco.

Symbols of Corruption

In both Tunisia and Morocco, there was evidence for agitation by Muslim fundamentalist groups. But the Muslim fundamentalists in Morocco are divided into as many as 20 different groups, and their capacity to orchestrate large-scale demonstrations of the kind experienced in January is extremely questionable. In Tunisia, some commentators have suggested that growing Islamic fundamentalism enabled agitators to encourage violence against property representing “the symbols of luxury, corruption and foreign influence” and to adopt slogans such as “there is but one God and Bourghiba is the enemy of God.” [8] In 1983, a group of junior army officers stood trial on charges of propagating religious ideas in the armed forces, while another group of young fundamentalists were imprisoned for allegedly planning to blow up foreign cultural centers in Tunis. [9] But this is extremely circumstantial evidence as far as the January disturbances are concerned. The only direct indication of the involvement of Muslim fundamentalist groups, apart from the existence of some pamphlets and use of certain slogans, was the fact that the minarets of mosques were used, particularly in Tunis, to chant “Allah i akbar” (God is great) and other religious declarations during the course of the demonstrations. In neither Tunisia nor Morocco is there reliable evidence that Muslim fundamentalists were significant in orchestrating the demonstrations, although there is little doubt that they were involved and active. Most local sources in the south of Tunisia, where the earliest disturbances broke out, appear to agree that the role of Muslim fundamentalists — or of pro-Libyan or other political groups — was in fact extremely limited. [10]

Despite the manifest involvement of political activists in the demonstrations, there is little concrete support for the notion that these played a key role in orchestrating the social unrest. They — like so many others — were taken by surprise by what was essentially a popular uprising. In Tunisia, the Mouvement d’Opposition Nationale Tunisien (MONT) claimed responsibility — from Brussels — for the demonstrations, and denounced “the repression by the Tunisian security forces of the ‘hunger rioters’ (les insurges de la faim)” [11]; but the recognized leftwing parties clearly intervened only after the outbreak of mass protest, and then only to call on the government to resolve the crisis. The Tunisian Communist Party, for example, wrote to Prime Minister Mzali demanding that there should be “consultations” with all national forces to find a solution to the situation, and otherwise confined itself to condemning the violence. [12] The Mouvement des Democrates Socialistes (MDS) and the Communist Party both criticized the state’s recourse to the army and laid the responsibility for the troubles at the feet of the government. [13]

Yet, despite the flimsy evidence, there is little doubt that both the regimes perceived a threat from small groups of organized militants. They both initiated a systematic policy of arrest and interrogation of known activists. In Morocco, not only the leftwing revolutionary groups like Hal Alam were targets, but even the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP) was suspect despite the fact that its leader, ‘Abderrahim Bouabid, was a member of the King’s cabinet.* The Communist Party in particular was harassed, and its newspaper al-Bayane seized for several days running. In Tunisia, known activists from both Muslim fundamentalist and left wing groups were taken in for questioning. Even the trade unions — which in Tunisia had organized numerous strikes in 1977-78,** and in Moroccco in 1981 had certainly orchestrated the strikes and public rallies which preceded the bloody riots in Casablanca — were not evidently involved this time. In Tunisia, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT) had sought to negotiate concessions for the poor, and a wage review, before prices were put up. [14] But their discussions were with the government at top level and did not involve the union rank and file, let alone the organization of rallies and strikes. In Morocco, there is no evidence that the trade unions played any part in increasing the pressure on the government to reverse the decision to raise prices again, even at the level of discussions with government ministers as in Tunisia. In Casablanca and Mohammedia, industrial centers with the greatest concentration of organized labor in the country, there was little sign of disturbances, despite the fact that unemployment runs particularly high among the skilled and semi-skilled manual workers. (These workers represent 47 percent of all unemployed but only a quarter of the labor force.) [15]

One social category clearly and importantly involved in the demonstrations in both countries was that of high school and university students. In Morocco, school strikes helped generate the open protest that gradually transformed growing social unrest into overt opposition to the government’s economic and social policies. By January 3, students in Tunis were throwing stones at buses, shouting anti-government slogans and marching in the streets in solidarity with the demonstrators in the south. [16] During the next few days, as the students took to the streets, the authorities closed down the schools and university. In both countries those most vocal in their criticisms of the regime during the demonstrations were these children of the middle classes whose standard of living has improved substantially as a result of the economic policies of the past decade or so. But graduate unemployment, combined with the effective suppression of political opposition to the regime in both Tunisia and Morocco, ensure that significant numbers of the young, even from the relatively privileged social strata upon whom the regimes so crucially depend, are disaffected and highly critical. [17]

The social elements involved in the demonstrations of January 1984 were various and diverse. According to Godfrey Morrison, the Tunisian disturbances “were caused mainly by the young unemployed, a section of society who until now have been largely ignored by both President Bourghiba’s government and political analysts.” “Right until the moment when President Bourghiba made his volte face, cancelling the increases,” Morrison wrote, “it was the rage of the unemployed which dominated the protest, and it was they who alarmed the government.” [18]

Phases of Unrest

In Tunisia, the social unrest evolved in two relatively distinct phases. It first broke out in the impoverished areas of the south and southwest, where the population depends heavily on food subsidies. It started as a series of small local uprisings and gradually spread throughout the southern interior. In the second phase, when unrest developed in the north and coastal areas, political orchestration appears somewhat more credible as a factor. Certainly new social elements were involved. Even there, the majority of those involved in the demonstrations were young unemployed people from the “popular” quarters and the shantytowns. In Morocco it is also possible to identify two stages. In the first, students were predominant and the demonstrations had a limited focus; in the second, students were joined by large numbers of the unemployed and seasonal workers in provincial towns in some of the most disadvantaged regions of the country.

In both countries, the specific immediate causes of the demonstrations opened up deep feelings of resentment and anger that stemmed from underlying problems of inequality, unemployment and poverty, and a sense of political and social marginalization and impotence. The social unrest was essentially “spontaneous” — significantly different from the organized rallies and stikes of 1977-78 in Tunisia and 1979 and 1981 in Morocco. In both Tunisia and Morocco, the demonstrations were first concentrated in remote and underprivileged regions. As they spread to other areas, they mobilized the deprived and disadvantaged of the popular quarters and shantytowns above all.

In Tunisia, the unrest began in the Nefzaoua, a semi-arid region southeast of the Chott el-Djerid — the salt depression that separates the Saharan south from the industrial north and northeast. The southwest is historically the poorest region in Tunisia. It has the highest unemployment rate, and many workers leave in search of jobs in the more prosperous towns of coastal Tunisia; some 60,000 are employed in Libya. It suffered severely from drought during the winter of 1983-84; in the area south of the Chott el-Djerid, the date harvest was disastrous. Poor households in the small towns of Douz, Kebili, el-Hamma and Souk el-Ahad, who live close to the bread line at the best of times, were particularly badly affected. Neglect of agriculture in the south, combined with the relatively rapid development of industry and tourism in the north and northeast over the past decade, has accentuated the historical regional division between north and south, coast and interior. The districts of the interior, such as Sidi Bou Zid, Kairouan, Gafsa and Kasserine, received only 3.6 percent of the new factories established during the 1970s. Of the 86,000 or so jobs created between 1973 and 1978 in Tunisia as a whole, around 46,000 were in Tunis and the northeast; the number barely exceeded 4,000 in the south. [19] The connection between economic disadvantage, large-scale unemployment and social unrest in the south of Tunisia was intimate.

In Morocco, the earliest demonstrations also occurred in the south, particularly in Marrakesh. Here the drought of 1983-84 had seriously affected the availability of food and the cost of living. The condition of the poor and unemployed in Marrakesh had deteriorated markedly over the winter. Small wonder that the students were soon joined by others from the poorer quarters protesting the prospect of further price increases.

The region in which mass demonstrations developed on the most significant scale, and generated the greatest violence, was the northeast. This region, and particularly that part of it that had experienced Spanish colonial occupation between 1912 and 1956, has suffered considerable economic and social disadvantage in comparison with the rest of the country ever since independence. The integration of the old Spanish zone into the former French protectorate between 1956 and 1958 immediately caused great hardship and substantial increases in the cost of living for the population of the north. In 1958 and again in 1959, the region experienced massive social unrest as the people of the northeast expressed their resentment and anger at what they saw as discrimination, maladministration and neglect. A commission of inquiry into the disturbances of 1958 in the central and eastern Rif mountains (the provinces of al-Hoceima and Nador) revealed exceptionally high levels of unemployment, lack of credit for agricultural development, inadequate economic and social infrastructure and poor and corrupt administration. [20]

Unemployment and Insurrection

During the 1960s and 1970s, many Moroccans from the north sought employment outside the region. Historically, emigration had been east to Algeria, but after independence that route was closed and men from the Rif mountains either went west to the large cities of the Atlantic coastal areas (such as Casablanca) or to Western Europe. [21] For the last two decades, remittances from abroad have been the mainstay of the local economy, while agriculture and industry remained almost entirely underdeveloped. In 1971, when some 35 percent of the Moroccan population was recorded as unemployed, the province of al-Hoceima recorded a rate of 65 percent unemployed. [22] An evaluation of the 1973-77 national development plan shows that the north — notably al-Hoceima and Nador — received very little investment. [23] The development of irrigated agriculture on the left bank of the Moulouya river (which marks the southern boundary of Nador province) in the second half of the 1970s provided a boost to incomes among the minority owning land in the new irrigated perimeters, and a small increase in the local demand for labor. The northeast as a whole, and particularly the mountain areas, remained relatively disadvantaged and underdeveloped. The national plan for 1978-80 stressed the need for a reduction in spatial and social inequalities, but again concentrated investment in the most developed industrial and agricultural areas of the Atlantic littoral.

Inequality, unemployment and poverty are fundamentally social and not simply spatial problems. The “poor” regions themselves exhibit major social inequalities, and the general lack of investment and economic development in these regions affects certain social classes more than others. In the northeast of Morocco, for example, it was clear even at the beginning of the 1970s that while foreign labor migration had increased the number of households with substantial incomes and had raised the average level of incomes within the region, it had also served generally to intensify economic and social inequalities. Those unable to obtain employment abroad were now, more than before, from the working classes and small peasantry. The difficulty of finding reasonably paid jobs within the region ensured that their incomes were depressed both relatively and absolutely as the general cost of living rose. [24]

In the south of Tunisia, after the demonstrations of January 1984, one local observer in Kebili remarked that “it was not for bread that the young demonstrated, but because they were the victims of unemployment.” [25] In the impoverished regions of Tunisia and Morocco, the lack of investment in the rural areas has stimulated a massive rural exodus. But in the absence of any real growth in urban jobs, unemployment has grown there almost as rapidly as the population has grown.

Unemployment statistics are notoriously unreliable, but a figure often cited for the total unemployed in Tunisia is 300,000 (about 20 percent of the active labor force). This is almost certainly an underestimate. With a rate of population increase well over two percent a year, some 60 percent of Tunisia’s 6.5 million inhabitants are under 20. A high proportion of the unemployed and underemployed are young. A large percentage of the young unemployed are in the poorer neighborhoods and shantytowns which have mushroomed in the last ten years. Roughly 21 percent of the population of greater Tunis now lives in shantytown areas; and 12 percent inhabit housing projects. The “city” of Ettathamen, for example, which had a population of 7,000 in 1975, had grown by 1979 to 28,000 and by 1983 had reached 65,000. [26]

Morocco has also experienced very rapid urbanization. With a demographic growth rate of some 2.5 percent a year, a large majority of the population under the age of 20, a massive expansion of the size and population of the popular quarters and shantytowns, and very considerable youth unemployment, the general features of the problem are similar to those of Tunisia, although arguably more serious. Even in 1971, the rate of unemployment and underemployment was estimated at around 35 percent of the labor force, and half of those recorded as unemployed were aged less than 24 years. The situation has worsened, if anything, since that time. [27] Within the remoter and relatively impoverished regions, rates of unemployment remain significantly higher even than in the shantytown areas of the big coastal cities.

Intensified Inequality

With such high levels of unemployment and underemployment, very large numbers of households subsist on low incomes. Among the mass of workers and small producers, even multiple activities (several household members in different occupations) often-fail to maintain subsistence levels of income. In Morocco, where income distribution is very unequal, the past two decades have witnessed a steady decline in the purchasing power of the poor. In 1960, the poorest 10 percent accounted for only 3.3 percent of the total value of consumption; by 1971 this had declined to a mere 1.2 percent. The introduction to the 1973-77 national plan recognized that “the overall improvement in living standards far from diminishing differentials in standards of living has to a certain extent accentuated the differentials.” [28] Betwen 1973 and 1977, food prices rose by an average of 11.1 percent a year, [29] substantially faster than wages, which in any case benefitted the lower-paid and irregularly employed only marginally. The rate of increase in the cost of living and in food prices slowed down somewhat in the period from 1977 to 1980 (averaging between 8.3 and 9.8 percent per year) but then accelerated dramatically again in the early 1980s: 12.5 percent between 1980 and 1981, 10.5 percent between 1981 and 1982, and 8.1 percent in the first nine months of 1983. Between 1973 and 1983, Morocco’s cost-of-food index more than tripled. In the five months between July and October 1983, largely as a consequence of the August price increases, the food index rose 10.6 percent and the general cost-of-living index 8 percent. [30] For those able during the past twenty years to improve their incomes — certain sectors of organized labor, the better situated small businessmen and the middle classes as a whole — the rising cost of living has been associated with improved standards of living. For those unable to keep pace with the rising prices — the “unorganized” workers and some sections of the traditional petty bourgeoisie — the rise has meant declining living standards and pauperization.

In Tunisia, the vast majority of households rely on substantially less than the average per capita income of about $1,500. Income distribution is less skewed than in Morocco, but there are substantial inequalities. The recent downturn in the Tunisian economy has seriously affected the situation of the lower paid and the unemployed, who now amount to between 20 and 25 percent of the labor force. Wage rises of around 30 percent to basic wage earners in industry in 1981 and 1982 had little impact on those with only seasonal jobs or without employment, or on those working in the extensive “informal sector.” Indeed, there is a significant divide between the organized industrial workers who benefit from wage increases, trade unions and social legislation (health, safety, minimum wage, pensions, etc.), and the mass of casually or seasonally employed and those without jobs at all. When the government proposed to compensate for the price increase by a raise of 1.9 dinars (at the end of 1983, $1 equalled 0.73 Tunisian dinars). On the monthly wage of the most disadvantaged, one local UGTT official remarked: “but what can Mabrouk, with his eight children, do when a kilo of meat costs 4 dinars and the price of flour is doubled. For the poor, it means despair.” [31]

For the lower paid majority of workers in Tunisia and Morocco, and for the unemployed, the rising cost of living has had a devastating effect on their capacity to fulfill even their most basic needs. Only two and a half years ago, the World Bank suggested that well over 40 percent of the Moroccan population was living below the absolute poverty level. [32] In Tunisia, a very large proportion of households in the southern interior live at or below the level of basic subsistence. In some of the shantytowns, conditions are at least as bad; infant mortality in the shantytown areas of Tunis, for example, ranges from 112 to 169 per thousand compared with only 8 per thousand in the middle class residential area of el-Menzah. [33]

When President Bourghiba cancelled the price increases, he made some attempt to justify the original decision, remarking that bread was so cheap that some were feeding their cats on it. Such profligacy would be unthinkable for the majority of the population, and this comment reveals the yawning gap between the lived experience of rich and poor in Tunisia. When the price increase came in Tunisia at the end of December 1983, it was dramatic. The price of the 700-gram flat loaf that is the basic staple for most poor people was raised from 80 millimes to 170 millimes. In the far south of Tunisia, it was the increase in the price of semolina (used for cous-cous) that created the main impact; as one local person explained, “a sack of 50 kilos of semolina went from 7.2 dinars to 13.5, and a kilo of flour from 120 millimes to 295.” [34]

In Morocco, the major increases came in August 1983, when the 20 percent reduction in subsidies on basic commodities had its first impact: tea (much consumed by the poor) increased by 77 percent and sugar by 14 percent, butter went up by nearly half and cooking oil by 18 percent; on top of these came increases in the prices of soap and candles. At the beginning of January, virtually all basic foodstuffs (flour, bread, tea, sugar and cooking oil) went up by at least 20 percent, while cooking gas increased by 5 dirhams a bottle (at the end of 1983, $1 equalled 8 dirhams). [35] The budget for 1984 proposed further increases still. The Financial Times reported at the beginning of December that “so far, the population has accepted the austerity measures and appears resigned to the lean years that lie ahead.” [36] But the second round of price rises, with the prospect of more to come, created an enormous sense of despair and anger which required only the trigger of the school strikes and demonstrations to burst out in open, violent protest.

Determinants of Economic Policy

Why was the price of basic goods raised, and why so dramatically? After all, the 1970s provide numerous examples of violent mass response to such measures. In Egypt in 1977 and the Sudan in 1979 “bread riots” were a reaction to major increases in food prices. [37] In Morocco itself, only three years ago, price increases in June 1981 for a range of basic commodities (sugar, flour, butter and cooking oil) provoked a warning strike by the Democratic Labor Federation, founded in 1978 to protest against price increases in staple goods. In Casablanca these turned into violent street demonstrations as workers in both the private and public sectors were joined first by small shopkeepers and then by students and the unemployed from the shantytowns. The social unrest brought special police units, the national guard and finally the army into action. In two days of clashes throughout the city, between 637 and 1,000 demonstrators were killed. [38]

These mass movements of social protest are significantly different from the organized and carefully orchestrated strikes in both Tunisia and Morocco during 1978-79 — although those also received very substantial popular support and were also subject to severe state repression. They obtained significant concessions in terms of wage increases for those who came within the protection of the law and the trade unions. By autumn 1977, the strikes in Tunisia effectively brought whole sectors of the national economy to a standstill, and the army was called in to deal with the striking workers. In response, the UGTT called a national strike for January 26, 1978, observed throughout the country. The hardliners in the cabinet voted for a massive repression of the strike movement with a view to destroying the power of the trade union movement; when there were disturbances in Tunis during the general strike, the army was given carte blanche. Estimates of the number killed in clashes vary between 46 and 200; some 800 people were arrested at the time, and shortly afterwards thousands of trade unionists were sentenced by summary courts. In Morocco, in 1978, a significant increase in the country’s trade deficit led the government to introduce austerity measures, which produced a wave of strikes in April and May. The cost of living continued to rise, as did inflation. Throughout the winter and spring of 1978-79, there were numerous strikes; these involved largely organized workers — in textile manufacturing, banking, transport, the docks, the mines and the railways — and teachers. The government dispersed their rallies, often with considerable brutality, but the actions gained increases in the industrial and agricultural minimum wage by 30 percent and 40 percent respectively.

Despite this record of violent response to such measures, why did the governments of both Tunisia and Morocco decide towards the end of 1983 to increase prices for basic commodities? In Morocco, the king himself referred to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other creditors to implement austerity measures and further open the economy to the workings of “the free market.” Liberalization and the promotion of the “free market” are part of a package which the IMF has increasingly made a condition of loans to Third World countries. The situation of both the Tunisian and Moroccan economies at the beginning of the 1980s looked grim, and the governments believed that even more stringent measures were required to improve the balance of payments situation and the medium term economic prospect.

In a period of increasing economic difficulties, the economic cost of maintaining subsidies on certain consumption items may appear too high to governments, and the social costs of removing these subsidies simply the price to be paid for improved performance. If those whose support for the government is essential can be convinced of this need for austerity, and if the most obvious sources of organized opposition can be either muzzled or co-opted by preferential treatment, the social and political repercussions of adopting a hard line on subsidies may appear manageable.

The annual report of Tunisia’s central bank warned last autumn of difficult years ahead. Clearly it believed that an economic crisis was a possibility. In the last few years, lower output and prices for oil and phosphate (the two major foreign exchange earners), a decline in foreign tourists, and a slowing down of industrial growth all affected the balance of trade and balance of payments. Last year, the trade deficit grew by 24 percent, to 738 million dinars, during the first ten months. This led to the restriction of imports of certain raw materials and semi-finished goods to 80 percent of 1982 volumes. Agriculture, which has remained a low priority in Tunisia’s development strategy, has virtually stagnated in terms of output since 1976, and grain imports have become increasingly necessary. Inflation has also risen significantly in the last five years to double digit figures in 1982. In 1983, the bread subsidy alone cost around 114 million dinars — about two percent of GDP; in 1984 it could climb to 143 million. Subsidies on all cereal-based products (bread, cous-cous, pasta) account for 60 percent of the total food subsidy of 259 million dinars. [39]

But this deterioration in the state of the Tunisian economy could not be said to have reached a crisis yet. The Financial Times, which reflects an economic philosophy close to that of the IMF, observed that “the manner in which the Tunisian authorities set about reducing the growing budgetary burden of subsidies on basic food stuffs provides an object lesson in how not to do the right thing.” [40] In its view, it was not the removal of subsidies that was at fault, but the suddenness and the size of the increases in the price of basic goods and the failure to consider seriously the social and political implications. It argued that “neither the IMF nor the World Bank advocated, or would have advocated, the approach to subsidies adopted by the Tunisian government at the turn of the year.” [41]

Implications of Austerity

In fact, the IMF and World Bank have pressured numerous Third World countries, including Morocco, to adopt austerity measures without delay and with little heed for the social, and even political, implications. The former Tunisian minister of economic affairs, Azouz Lasram, who had overseen the gradual and relatively trouble-free removal of subsidies on energy prices since 1980, resigned in October 1983 precisely because he was aware of the implications of the sudden dramatic increase in basic commodity prices. Lasram argued that the poorer Tunisians should be protected. Yet the price of the baguette (mainly consumed by the middle classes) increased by less than that of the popular flat loaf that is the staple for the urban poor, or of the cous-cous that is central to the diet of the far south.

The new draft budget presented to the Tunisian National Assembly in Tunis in March 1984 included proposals to raise revenues by increasing taxes on a variety of goods such as cigarettes and petrol and also to cut back on investment. Together, these measures would generate approximately 40 million dinars. Between March and July 1984, several small price increases were introduced for specific food stuffs and public services, and gave rise to no obvious social unrest. A slight increase — up to 10 millimes — in the price of bread, semolina and other cereal products on July 10, 1984, occurred without any particular reaction from the mass of the Tunisian population. Why, then, the earlier decision to put up prices suddenly? Prime Minister Mzali stated that the potential saving was around 140 million dinars. “If the government had relied on taxes,” he said, “all prices would have increased as in 1982 and the government would not have raised a fifth of that amount.” [42] Another reason is the confidence of the government that they had the strong support of the middle classes and the tacit acceptance of organized labor. Finally, there was clearly a belief that the security forces could maintain control and prevent social unrest.

In the event, it was not from organized labor that the protest came, but from the mass of the poor and disinherited; it was not from the middle classes, if one excepts the students. The government had seriously miscalculated both the response of the Tunisian people and the capacity of the state to implement its “new” economic policies without repression.

If the Tunisian economy was in serious difficulties at the beginning of the 1980s, the Moroccan economy was already in crisis. Morocco’s foreign debt is now over $11 billion, and debt servicing alone rose from 700 million dirhams in 1976 to 2,500 million in 1980 and reached an estimated 5,000 million dirhams in 1983. The critical balance of payments situation results from internal problems, world price changes, increasing Common Market competition and protectionism and the cost of the war in the Sahara. Industrial output has not increased significantly and agriculture has remained generally stagnant in terms of output over the past decade, while the international price of phosphates declined in the second half of the 1970s. The overall value of exports has grown slowly — from 6,200 million dirhams in 1975 to 7,300 million in 1979 — but in the second half of the 1970s the cost of imports rose steeply, from 10,440 million dirhams in 1975 to 14,300 million in 1979. The balance of trade deficit has steadily worsened. [43] In the 1950s, Morocco was a net exporter of cereals, but by the late 1970s between 40 and 50 percent of the country’s cereal requirements were imported. Earnings from remittances and from tourism have failed increasingly to cover the deficit, and Morocco has become ever more dependent on aid and loans.

Efforts in late 1983 to reschedule about $530 million of its debts owed to commercial banks (which fell due between September 1983 and the end of 1984) ran into considerable difficulties. In September 1983, the International Monetary Fund formally approved the program of “economic stabilization” that it had earlier recommended and made a condition for further loans. This was the program which the Moroccan government began implementing in August. It included a creeping devaluation of the dirham, the rescheduling of part of the foreign debt, severe cuts in public expenditure (including investment), and the removal of subsidies on basic goods. August saw a 10 percent devaluation and a first round of price rises. At the beginning of December 1983, negotiations with major US and European banks to reschedule part of the country’s foreign debt were reportedly nearly complete. But the prospects for the next year or so looked grim even at that time. Just servicing the foreign debt would absorb at least 40 percent of Morocco’s hard currency income, while the visible trade deficit — which the government reduced by around 27 percent during 1983, largely by restricting imports and stifling domestic demand — would remain uncomfortably high. Officials projected that the investment budget for 1984 would decline by roughly a third, compared with the 1981-85 Economic Development plan projections. The figure for 1985 was thought likely to drop to 40 percent below initial projections.

Given this bleak outlook, and the pressure from the IMF to maintain tight control over expenditure, the Moroccan government was inclined to reduce even further the burden of subsidies, and the draft budget for 1984 contained proposals to raise prices again. Unlike the case of Tunisia, the pressure from the IMF to adopt extremely stringent austerity measures was great and immediate. With the recent experience of 1978-79 and 1981 clearly in mind the Moroccan government must have approached the price increases of August 1983 with very considerable trepidation. There was no dramatic response at the time, for several reasons. Firstly, the price increases came after two years of rapidly rising food prices, whereas in Tunisia the price of basic foodstuffs had been kept level for a long period of time. Secondly, the price increases in August were between 20 and 35 percent, compared with the 100 percent or more increase in Tunisia. Thirdly, wage increases among certain sectors of organized labor had helped reduce the threat of union-organized strikes. But if the price increases did not immediately bring the Moroccan people onto the streets in open protest, they added considerably to the sense of desperation and frustration of the large majority whose living conditions have not visibly improved over the past decade, and particularly of those who have seen their standard of living deteriorate. A second round of price increases at the end of December set the stage for the Janaury “bread riots.”

The Snare of the Open Door

In both Tunisia and Morocco, the logic of the economic “liberalism” pursued over the previous decade led directly to the growth of inequality, unemployment and social deprivation, which themselves underlay the discontent and social unrest. Particularly in a period of world economic recession, the “open door” strategy for economic development has proved a snare and a delusion. Ultimately, these economic policies and their social consequences derive from the distinctive class structure and dynamic of contemporary Tunisia and Morocco, and from the dominance of certain economic interests within the political sphere. The balance of forces in both countries has enabled certain sections of the bourgeoisie to maintain their predominance in the political as well as the economic sphere. They thus could ensure that the government pursued “liberal,” export-oriented economic policies — over the past decade in Tunisia and for roughly 20 years in the case of Morocco — to their very considerable advantage, but also to the general benefit of the middle classes as a whole at the expense of the majority of workers and peasants. The struggle between the various sections of capital, and that between capital as a whole and organized labor, have marginalized a significant proportion of the population, and perpetuated economic policies favoring big capital. These policies have created their own social and political contradictions, and deepened the crisis of the national economy.

These contradictions are likely to increase rather than decrease in the coming years. For the time being, both governments will attempt to pursue broadly similar economic policies, but in a more “moderate” fashion, given the recent social unrest. At the same time, there are many indications of an initial reaction to the “troubles” which stresses the need to strengthen the forces of “law and order.” On January 7, Prime Minister Mzali replaced Driss Guiga as minister of the interior for failing to cope with the early stages of unrest in Tunisia; Guiga was later indicted for treason. “The first lesson to be drawn from the events of January was that it is necessary to reorganize the forces of order so that they can respond adequately to all situations,” Prime Minister Mzali declared as he himself assumed the interim post. [44] It remains to be seen how long such a policy — “turning the heat down slightly and tightening the lid on the pressure cooker” — will be viable.

Even if the unrest of January 1984 does not oblige an immediate reassessment of the entire economic strategy on the part of government in Tunisia and Morocco, it may stimulate more serious consideration of an alternative among those whose interests are not best served by the “open-door” policies that have predominated for so long. The opposition parties and trade unions may reconsider their own political strategies and recognize the potential for a broad-based working class movement to include the unorganized and unemployed as well as the organized workers and disaffected members of the middle class.


*Some 100 cadres of the USFP were rounded up during this period — apparently for preventive reasons — in cities like Rabat and Casablanca, which remained relatively calm. — Eds.

**This period of strikes culminated in the violence following the general strike of January 1978, when the army intervened and large numbers (estimates vary between 46 and 200) were killed. See W. Ruf, “Tunisia: Contemporary Politics,” in R. Lawless and A. Findlay, eds., North Africa (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1984), p. 109.



[1] Le Monde, January 31, 1984.
[2] Ibid., January 5, 1984.
[3] The Times (London), January 4, 1984.
[5] Le Monde, January 7, 1984.
[6] Ibid., January 6, 1984.
[7] Cf. J.D. Seddon, Moroccan Peasants (Folkestone, UK: William Dawson, 1981), pp. 176-180.
[8] Le Monde, January 6, 1984.
[9] The Financial Times, February 1, 1984.
[10] Le Monde, January 31, 1984.
[11] Ibid., January 7, 1984. [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid., January, 4, 1984.
[14] Ibid. [15] Anne M. Findlay, “Geographical Pattersn of Moroccan Emigration,” MA thesis, University of Durham, 1978, p. 60.
[16] Le Monde, January 4, 1984.
[17] Cf. A. Zghal, “La Tunisie, derniere republique civile,” Jeune Afrique, no. 1205, February 8, 1984.
[18] Godfrey Morrison in The Times, January 7, 1984.
[19] Cf. A. Findlay, “Tunisia: The Vicissitudes of Economic Development,” in R. Lawless and A. Findlay, eds. North Africa, p. 225.
[20] J.D. Seddon, Moroccan Peasants, p. 179.
[21] J.D. Seddon, “Labour Migration and Agricultural Development in Northeast Morocco, 1807-1970,” The Maghreb Review (1979).
[22] Anne M. Findlay, “The Moroccan economy in the 1970s,” in R. Lawless and A. Findlay, eds. North Africa, IV, 3 (May-June 1979).
[23] P. de Mas, “The Place of Peripheral Regions in Moroccan Planning,” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, vol. 69, no. 1-2 (1978).
[24] See J.D. Seddon, Moroccan Peasants, p. 247-48.
[25] Le Monde, January 31, 1984.
[26] A. Zghal, “La Tunisie; derniere republique civile,” p. 35.
[27] Anne M. Findlay, “The Moroccan Economy in the 1970s,” p. 210.
[28] Plan de Developpement Economique et Social 1973-1977, Rabat, 1973, vol. 1, p. 14.
[29] Anne M. Findlay, “The Moroccan Economy in the 1970s,” p. 193.
[30] Banque Marocaine de Commerce Exterieur, Monthly Information Review, no. 46 (November-December 1983), p. 26.
[31] Le Monde, January 31, 1984.
[32] The Financial Times, January 24, 1984.
[33] A. Zghal, “La Tunisie, derniere republique civile,” p. 35.
[34] Le Monde, January 31, 1984.
[35] Sophie Bessis, “Mais qui peut-on reajuster dans ce pays?” Jeune Afrique, no. 1204 (February 1, 1984).
[36] The Financial Times, December 1, 1983.
[37] For a discussion of these, and the factors behind them, see M.G. Weinbaum, “Food and Political Stability in the Middle East,” Studies in Comparative International Development, no. 15 (Summer 1980), pp. 3-26.
[38] Le Monde, (English version) in The Guardian Weekly, July 12, 1981.
[39] The Economist, January 14, 1984.
[40] The Financial Times, January 9, 1984.
[41] The Financial Times, January 9, 1984.
[42] Le Monde, January 7, 1984. [43] P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, “Modern Morocco: Political Immobilism, Economic Dependence,” in R. Lawless and A. Findlay, eds., North Africa, p. 88.
[44] Jeune Afrique, February 8, 1984.

How to cite this article:

David Seddon "Winter of Discontent," Middle East Report 127 (September/October 1984).

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