The startling changes that have transformed the political landscape of Eastern Europe in 1989 may have no equivalent in the Middle East exactly, but that region has seen some remarkable developments nonetheless. The Arab versions of perestroika, or restructuring, while less profound in comparison with those of Czechoslovakia or Poland, reflect certain realignments of political forces. No regimes have toppled — yet. But from Palestine and Jordan in the Arab east (the Mashriq) to Algeria in the west (the Maghrib), a phenomenon of intifada, or uprising, is challenging the static politics of repression that have prevailed for many years.

North Africa — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania, the five countries comprising the Arab Maghrib Union — accounts for about 30 percent of the population of the Arab world, and plays an important role in the region’s politics. Libya and Algeria were central to the campaign of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to raise oil prices and nationalize local industries in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Algeria and Morocco, the two largest Maghrib countries (in the Arab world only Egypt has more people), frequently lead mediating efforts in the region. Hassan of Morocco, for instance, has probably served more often than any other leader as head of the Arab League (and at other times of international Islamic gatherings), and Algeria has hosted recent meetings of the Palestine National Council. Both countries (along with Saudi Arabia) headed up the Arab League’s mediation efforts with Lebanon and Syria. Tunisia, for its part, became the seat of the Arab League secretariat after Egypt’s Camp David estrangement, and Tunis is also the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Politically, the Maghrib countries reflect major trends in the region. Algeria has served as an exemplar of the radical nationalist mode of Arab rule; its long armed struggle for independence against French colonial rule inspired the emergence of the Palestinian resistance movement in the late 1960s. On the other side of the spectrum, Morocco has defined itself as a constitutional monarchy, though King Hassan, not for nothing, retains the title of Commander of the Faithful. Tunisia for many years represented the enlightened, secular, liberal Western modernizing state, though Habib Bourguiba’s rule was fundamentally authoritarian before it was compromised by his senility. More recently, Tunisia pioneered in the Middle East (much like the Philippines in the Pacific) the preemptive “democracy from above” style of removing dysfunctional dictators while preserving the regimes over which they presided. And then there is Libya, where Mu‘ammar Qaddafi has tried to construct a populist regime incorporating contradictory elements from left-wing radical nationalism and Islamist conservatism.

While the Maghrib countries play an integral role in Arab politics, they do have a distinctive history and political character. Unlike the Mashriq, where British rule played the leading role and challenged French influence, North Africa (except for the Italians in Libya and Spanish enclaves in Morocco) was a playground for France’s imperial designs and colonial assaults. In the rest of the Middle East, only Palestine experienced a colonial implanting, demographic as well as economic, anything like (in the end surpassing) that of Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia and Morocco. The human and social cost of Western colonialism was much higher in the Maghrib, both in the phase of conquest and in the phase of liberation.

Politics in North Africa has involved masses of people more than in the Arab east. The greater development of civil society there may partly reflect the region’s colonial background: Did the harsh impact of settler rule elicit indigenous social defenses and barriers against the state which have carried over into the post-colonial era? The independence movements in the Maghrib in any case involved higher levels of popular mobilization than elsewhere in the Arab world (except perhaps Egypt). They also involved a greater degree of underground armed resistance. Trade unions and other popular bodies had operated for longer and to a greater degree outside of direct state control, though a limited union autonomy persists only in Morocco. Today this legacy of mass politics is reflected in the more muted character of North Africa’s brand of political authoritarianism. On the radical nationalist side, the sins of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) pale against the arbitrary depredations of the Baath regimes in Baghdad or Damascus. In the monarchist camp, King Hassan, while every bit as avaricious as his shaikhly cohorts on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, has had to maneuver within a society comprising institutions autonomous from the throne. What other Arab monarch, for instance, has confronted and survived encounters with trade union federations engaging hundreds of thousands of workers?

Maghrib Economics

The economies of North Africa share with most other states of the Middle East a threefold dependency: on mineral exports, on the interest rates charged by Western banks and on annual rainfall. What they also share with some states in the area is a dependence on the export of labor and worker remittances as a key component of their foreign exchange earnings. Nearly 1 million Moroccans live in Europe, two thirds of them in France. In the mid-1980s their remittances amounted to more than 50 percent of the value of the country’s total merchandise exports. Some 850,000 Algerians and half a million Tunisians also live and work in France. In addition to foreign exchange, this labor force is a source of alternative and generally more democratic political views, a factor of some importance in recent Algerian developments.

The key economic vulnerability of the main Maghrib countries is their heavy dependence on mineral extraction and export — hydrocarbons for Libya and Algeria, phosphates for Morocco, oil and phosphates for Tunisia. In Algeria, oil accounts for 97 percent of exports; in Libya nearly 100 percent. As producers of primary products, all the Maghrib economies are vulnerable to shifts in world market prices. When crude oil prices dropped by half, from $28 to $14 per barrel in 1985-1986, Algeria’s government revenues declined 21 percent and imports dropped by 35 percent. Morocco, an oil importer, gained from this particular decline, but that country’s experience with phosphate markets has been a similar kind of rollercoaster ride. Phosphate earnings covered 16.5 percent of imports in 1970,49 percent in 1974 (despite sharply higher oil bills) and only 11 percent in 1986 (despite the sharp drop in oil prices).

The second vulnerability of the Maghrib economies, to Western interest rates, stems from the fact that they are among the Middle East countries most heavily indebted to Western (and Gulf Arab) banks, governments and official institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Algeria is currently paying out more than $6 billion a year to its creditors. The debt service ratio — interest and principal payments as a percentage of exports of goods and services (including labor) — amounts to 23 percent for Tunisia, 29 percent for Morocco and 97 percent for Algeria. The ratio of total debt to gross national product is 48 percent for Algeria, 70 percent for Tunisia and 106 percent for Morocco. (Three quarters of Algeria’s debt is to private banks, hence the higher debt service ratio; three quarters of Morocco’s and Tunisia’s debt is to governments and official institutions, often at concessional rates, so the payout burden is less.)

The third vulnerability the region shares with the rest of the Arab world is a narrow base for agriculture and scarcity of water resources. Arable land in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco amounts to 0.3 hectares per inhabitant. The economic fortunes of all three countries are hostage each year to the rains. In Morocco, agriculture contributes only 11 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP) but represents the main source of livelihood for 40 percent of the population. Rainfall varies up to 35-40 percent a year, and cereal production (accounting for 70 percent of land cultivated) fluctuates as much as 60 percent from the long-term average. Drought and locusts devastated Tunisia’s cereal crop in 1988, leaving a harvest of only 200,000 tons as against nearly 2 million tons in 1987.

One thing that is not fluctuating, in contrast to world raw material prices and yearly rainfall, is the relatively high rate of population growth in the region, between 2.5 percent and 3.2 percent. The Maghrib countries now account for nearly 63 million people. At present rates of growth, this number will be 80 million by the year 2000 and 130 million by 2025. Variations in harvests determine how much food these countries have to import, while world markets determine how much they will have to pay for these imports and how much their own exports will earn. And all these states have other priorities in addition to feeding their citizens — factories and dams, for instance, and arms. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia all borrowed heavily in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and have since come under pressure from the IMF and the private multinational banks to cut spending and sell off state enterprises. A confidential World Bank report notes with satisfaction that Algeria has abolished its Ministry of Planning, and that the word “socialism” has disappeared from the new constitution of February 1989.

Perestroika Politics?

There is an important social dimension to the economic restructuring dictated by the commanding forces in the world market, and this social dimension has its varied political expressions in the Maghrib countries. Algeria, since independence in 1962, has made some remarkable achievements in the social arena, in areas such as health and education. Population per physician dropped from 8,600 in 1965 to 1,200 today, and per nurse from 11,700 to 300. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates show similar gains. Enrollment of primary and secondary school age children, and especially girls, is up sharply. But the high population growth rate of 3.2 percent is exceeded by the 3.7 percent growth rate in the labor force and 3.8 percent growth of urban population. Unemployment is officially 22-23 percent. Living standards, according to World Bank estimates, dropped 8 percent in 1986 and again in 1987, and a further 7 percent in 1988. In Morocco, according to London’s Financial Times, “two thirds of the new entrants into the labor market every year [are] unable to find a job.” These statistics take a human shape on the street corners of cities like Algiers and Casablanca, and they underlie the strikes and demonstrations that have been occurring throughout Algeria’s major towns and cities over the last two years.

Economic declines, just like economic gains, do not affect all sectors of the population equally. In Morocco, for instance, the south of Morocco has a per capita income only 70 percent of the national average. Statistics on income distribution and concentrations of wealth are veritable state secrets in the Maghrib (another characteristic those countries share with the rest of the region). A World Bank study of food subsidies in Morocco indicates that rural poor incomes are under $300 per household, while well-off urban incomes are more than $2,150. (And we can assume that the Bank’s researchers did not visit the palaces of those thousand or so Moroccan families, including the king’s, who control more than a fifth of the country’s national income.)

Politics enters through another window, too. Western creditors have treated Morocco and Tunisia with much more solicitude than they have Algeria. Morocco’s debt dilemma goes back to the mid-1970s, when King Hassan’s regime counted on rising phosphate prices to finance simultaneously a nationalist war to conquer Western Sahara and a “Moroccanization” of the economy — i.e., the transfer of ownership of major companies and other holdings from Europeans to Moroccans, primarily those close to the throne. The United States backed the king with arms sales and economic credits, and when the dimensions of the debt crisis emerged, the IMF and the World Bank took on Morocco as a major project. Given the size of its economy, the $300 to $500 million that Morocco receives in new World Bank loans each year is quite significant. Morocco’s political alignment with the US and France, and with conservative Gulf monarchies, has provided a significant economic cushion, and the kingdom has not experienced sizeable social unrest since the upheaval in January 1984.

The privatization campaigns in the Maghrib reflect one side of the economic crisis. Increased political mobilization, especially but not exclusively from the Islamist camp, and the moves toward “democratization,” reflect another. As an economist in Jordan recently put it, “They want to give their people some choice in how they should suffer.” In the case of Tunisia, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 99.3 percent win at the polls in April 1989 hardly suggests democracy, but the regime has found itself compelled to deal with opposition forces by coopting their platforms and no longer has recourse to the blunt repressive tactics that had once been sufficient. Algeria, interestingly, seems to be experiencing a much more widespread and deeper political opening. If President Chadli Benjedid thought that he could simply set his economic reforms on the horse of democracy, the November 1989 congress of the FLN suggests otherwise. There is more than one vision of “national renewal” there, and not everyone is ready to capitulate to the “free” market. In late March 1989 Benjedid felt the need to assert that even though his new constitution no longer mentioned “socialism,” this did not mean the state was abandoning socialism, and he urged the FLN to purge “so-called militants” who criticized the constitution for this reason.

Europe’s Other Frontier

One further aspect distinguishes the Maghrib from the rest of the Arab world, and that is its proximity to Western Europe. The region’s distinctive colonial history has left its mark on the dynamics of relations across the Mediterranean basin. Western Europe, and especially France, remains North Africa’s major trading partner and a major source of foreign investment, private bank loans and concessional aid. For Europe, the region is a source of profits, agricultural produce and inexpensive manufactures as well as labor.

The flow of workers from North Africa to Europe has now largely stopped, as demand for cheap labor has leveled off. This removes what has been an important social safety valve for North Africa’s youthful, rapidly growing labor force, and limits what continues to be a very important source of foreign exchange for those countries. Still, there are probably close to 2 million Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians living in France today. North Africans represent for France, and to a lesser extent other European countries as well, what Hispanics represent for many parts of the United States in terms of labor markets, social and ethnic tensions and cultural commingling.

The prospective economic unity of Europe in 1992 will likely have significant consequences for the Maghrib states — not, for the most part, to their advantage. Many Maghribi products directly compete with those of Spain and Portugal, for instance, which will be favored in the European framework. Given the current excitement about free-market capitalism in Eastern Europe, private capital from the West will likely move east rather than south to take advantage of cheap labor and market opportunities, though France and other states are providing large aid packages with the aim of heading off new waves of labor migration into Europe. It is most unlikely that the European states will choose to expand their ranks to include countries like Morocco; even if they did, the immediate consequence would be to open Maghribi markets to European firms, while unde-capitalized local firms would be hard pressed to compete either at home or in Europe.

Those working to maintain their hold on state power in the Maghrib — Ben Ali, Benjedid and Hassan II — have revived a scheme for unity at the state level, the Arab Maghrib Union. Since the fanfare surrounding the AMU’s founding in Marrakesh in February 1989, though, achievements have been few. The unresolved conflict in Western Sahara continues to be a source of tension between Algeria and Morocco. Trade and customs barriers still impede the free flow of goods and people, and President Ben Ali’s call for “a united economic front toward foreign partners” seems wishful at the moment. The Arab Maghrib Union is a unity of regimes: there is not yet anything equivalent to the “people’s power” or political reform movements at work in Eastern Europe. In the Maghrib, as elsewhere in the Middle East, such political liberalization as has occurred has opened the field to Islamist forces, many of whose commitment to democratic political practice is uncertain, to say the least. Developments in the Maghrib in the 1990s are likely to be difficult economically and politically, and there are few signs that the regimes and their allies are up to the challenges ahead.

Sources: Charles Issawi, An Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); Jean-Frangois Clement, “Les Menaces et les composantes internes de la securite,” forthcoming from the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI); Hasan Tuluy and B. Lynn Salinger, Trade, Exchange Rate and Agricultural Pricing Policies in Morocco (World Bank Comparative Studies, 1989); Jean-Jacques Perennes, “L’agriculture maghrebine en etat d’urgence,” Le Monde Diplomatique (September 1989); Middle East Economic Digest and African Economic Digest, various issues; ABECOR Country Reports (Barclays), December 1989; Karim Laraki, Food Subsidies: A Case Study of Price Reform in Morocco, World Bank: LSMS Working Paper 50 (1989); Michael Sutton, Morocco to 1992: Growth Against the Odds (Economist Intelligence Unit Special Report 245, 1987); Financial Times, January 17, 19, 20-21 and February 1, 1990; Middle East Journal (Summer 1989); LDC Debt Report, various issues; Robert Mortimer, “Maghreb Matters,” Foreign Policy 76 (Fall 1989); Middle East International, various issues.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Yahya Sadowski, Fred Halliday, Marsha Pripstein and Dirk Vandewalle for their helpful reading of an early version of this article.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "North Africa Faces the 1990s," Middle East Report 163 (March/April 1990).

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