As the waves of protest inspired by Tunisia continue to roll across the Middle East and North Africa, analysts have remained puzzled by the mysterious timing, incredible speed and cross-national snowballing of these uprisings or intifadas. In the six months following the electrifying scenes of thousands occupying Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, directing the imperative Dégage! (Get out!) at President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian “virus” has spread across the region, unleashing apparently similar moments of resistance and revolution. Yet a “back-door” view of the intifadas reveals wide variations. Such differential patterns can be observed by analyzing three North African countries — Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia — where large-scale protests have taken place but with decidedly different outcomes.

The back-door story is one focused on those who made the revolution, not those dealing with its consequences. In each of the three cases of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the nature of autocratic rule and its relationship to citizens created the environment in which challenges to regime incumbency would lead to protest, resistance or revolution. The deeper and more robust the authoritarian structure, and the fewer the opportunities for legal political opposition and participation, the more likely citizens are to rebel. The virtual absence of viable opposition social movements in Tunisia in the two and half decades of Ben Ali’s rule smothered participatory politics to near extinction. When the autocratic state collapsed, it left a void in which demands for systemic reform were quickly transformed into revolution. Algeria and Morocco present different instances of state-society relations in which greater, though still limited, political space for social movements tempered demands for change and moderated citizen anger. Algeria’s long history of contentious politics explains why resistance to the status quo does not necessarily demand revolution. Meanwhile, protest politics in Morocco have enabled civil society to agitate for domestic reforms that leave the monarchy both in place and able to claim credit for the advancements.

Is Algeria Next?

The uprisings that swept away the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 did not so much inspire similar acts in Algeria as they intensified festering socio-economic and political grievances that found almost daily expression in street demonstrations and labor strikes. To be sure, the conditions that led to the uprisings in other parts of North Africa (including in Libya) — massive unemployment, systemic underemployment for young people with higher education, an atmosphere of political suffocation and widespread corruption at the highest levels of power — have long existed in Algeria. Yet these challenges have rarely threatened the regime’s existence. Le pouvoir, the nexus of military and intelligence officers and elite politicians that Algerians view as the power behind the throne, has remained united in its determination to safeguard the state’s coercive, economic and technocratic assets. What cannot yet be determined, however, is the extent to which the dramatically altered regional environment, in which the state-society equilibrium has shifted significantly in favor of opposition forces and at the expense of regime legitimacy, will strain the already fragile fabric of Algerian politics. Clearly, pressures have been building up since the beginning of 2011 as wave after wave of protests, demonstrations, strikes and other forms of public contestation has washed over the country.

In early January disturbances over rising food prices and chronic unemployment spiraled out from Algiers, with youths setting fire to government buildings and shouting, “Bring us sugar!” Security forces were brought in to block off streets in the working-class neighborhoods of Bab el Oued and the Casbah as areas outside the capital were caught up in the rampages. The violence followed upon price increases for milk, sugar and flour, amid simmering frustration that Algeria’s abundant gas and oil resources had not led to broader prosperity. Despite a heavy police presence, rioting youth continued their attacks that spread east and west of the capital to cities like Oran, Bouira, Annaba and Bejaia. By the end of the month and following the departure of President Ben Ali from Tunisia on January 14, events in Algeria began taking a more confrontational turn as rioters and protesters defied the ban on public gatherings put into place following the coup of 1992. The civil disobedience accelerated following the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt on February 11. Emboldened by the successes of their neighbors to the east, Algerians began to articulate their grievances in explicitly political terms as placards and banners appeared declaring, “No to the police state,” “Give us back our Algeria” and “Le pouvoir assassin.” The Tunisian slogan Dégage! (which had become the Arabic Irhal! in Egypt) translated in Algiers as “Boutef out,” employing the unaffectionate diminutive of the name of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

In contrast to stifled Tunisia, Algeria had long seen regular riots and protests expressing the socio-economic grievances held by large swathes of the population and denouncing the elite’s generally contemptuous attitude (hogra) toward the public. The depth of the grievances came out in the words of the protester Bilal Boudamous, who declared to a New York Times reporter that the police forces “can’t kill us because we are already dead. We live with our parents, and we have no future.” [1] Public-sector strikes occur almost daily in a wide variety of professions, from medical personnel to schoolteachers to oil and gas workers. When the strikes become overwhelming, the regime often meets some of the bread-and-butter demands, for example, rescinding price hikes. The country’s large oil stabilization fund makes such policy reversals possible.

The scope of anti-regime activity in the first quarter of 2011 forced the regime into broader concessions than usual. For the first time since coming to power in 1999, Bouteflika convened the National Security Council, the body established to advise the president on security matters, especially those concerning radical Islamist terrorism. Its first decision was to lift the emergency laws imposed in 1992 that limited political activities, demonstrations, protests and other forms of public contestation not authorized by the state. For its part, a loosely knit group of opposition figures formed the National Coordination for Democratic Change to spearhead demonstrations to achieve fundamental shifts in the country’s political economy, reflecting popular demand over many years. [2] The National Coordination was assembled by the main Berberist party and the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights. The Berberists and the League had come together before in the years following the 1992 military coup d’état, under the sponsorship of the Community of St. Egidio, an Italy-based Catholic lay organization, to form a national front that would engage the military toward a resolution of the bloody civil war. The 1994 and 1995 meetings in Rome encompassed Islamists, socialists, Trotskyites and old-guard nationalists, some of the same political forces that have joined the National Coordination today.

Having kept virtually silent throughout the first three months of 2011, President Bouteflika finally went on state television in mid-April to announce a series of constitutional changes. Speaking in a low, hoarse voice bespeaking poor health, he declared that the amendments to the constitution would “crown the institutional edifice with the aim of strengthening democracy.”

Given the intensity and longevity of public demands for major political change, most observers felt that Bouteflika’s speech did not go far enough, especially since no clear timeline was provided for the constitutional reforms. One Algiers newspaper editorialized that the speech showed that le pouvoir “wants to keep things in hand while making it appear that it is reforming — which it is not.” [3] Opposition groups like the National Coordination have called all along for deeper changes, including the dissolution of the government and parliament as well as the creation of a constitutional council that brings together all of the country’s political forces in advance of genuinely free and fair presidential and legislative elections. [4] Other critics of the president’s proposals referenced intrigues underway between the president’s office and the military-industrial complex. [5]

To what extent, therefore, do the conditions in Algeria today forecast a fundamental change in the political system à la Tunisia and Egypt? As of late May, the protests in Algeria have not coalesced into a nationwide opposition movement seeking the overthrow of the Bouteflika regime. By hiking food subsidies, doubling the salaries of state workers, offering free land and ending the emergency laws, the regime has contained the most excessive aspects of the unrest. Additionally, the memory of the civil war in the 1990s, which nearly tore the country apart and left nearly 200,000 people dead, hangs over the national consciousness and serves as a brake upon large-scale domestic violence. Indeed, to the extent that the chaos in neighboring Libya deepens, and fears mount that al-Qaeda’s local franchise may exploit the instability, revolts elsewhere may dampen the support for those calling for violence against the regime. Yet “were Algerians to protest forcefully and coherently against the structure of the government, particularly the concentration of power in the executive and the military, the regime lacks the flexibility or credibility among the people to meet their demands through constitutional means.” [6] Given its history, there is little doubt that the army would intervene in a forceful if not deadly way to prevent any attempt at an extra-constitutional transfer of power that is not engineered by le pouvoir itself.

Morocco: Adaptive Contestation

Morocco has also been unable to avoid the challenges experienced by its neighbors to the near and far east. Protests erupted on February 20, 2011, bringing thousands of people to the streets of the country’s major cities under the umbrella of a self-styled non-movement labeled the “February 20 Movement for Change.” Launched on Facebook by cadres of disaffected young people, the mobilization called for democratic change, lower food prices, freedom for Islamist prisoners, Berber rights, a freer media and better social services. Morocco’s political space has long been constrained by an autocratic system of rule dominated by the makhzen or secretive royal court elite who hold the real reins of power. Yet, unlike in pre-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt, civil society in Morocco has never been strangled to the point of political impotence. Particularly after King Mohamed VI succeeded his more autocratic father, Hassan II, in 1999, a broad range of associational groups representing religious, ethnic, political, media, student, feminist and economic interests has been permitted to operate in relative freedom as long as the “red lines” of Moroccan politics are never crossed — the sanctity of Islam, the primacy of the monarchy and the state’s claim upon Western Sahara.

Given this relatively pluralistic order, contestation has taken place within both formal institutions and outside of them, including regular demonstrations and protests staged by aggrieved groups against unjust government policies, but rarely directed at the king. The successive waves of protest unleashed on February 20 have therefore fallen short of being truly insurrectionary. The “revolutionary” character of the protests rather lies in how they have incorporated such politically diverse groups as socialists, Berberists, Islamists, among others.

The February 20 movement has challenged the efficacy of the king’s established approach to resolving society’s problems that highlights “evolutionary change” and top-down “reform” as the policies of choice. As one protest followed another in the streets of Morocco’s major cities, the king made a dramatic about-face. Effectively surrendering to popular pressure as never before, he gave a major speech to the nation on March 9. Echoing the protesters’ very demands, Mohamed VI called for a drastic overhaul of the constitution intended to reinforce the country’s “democratic principles.” His proposals went far beyond any changes previously recommended, in part to coopt and preempt populist demands that could target the monarchy itself for overhaul, transforming Morocco into a genuinely constitutional monarchy à la Spain. The sweep of the proposed changes includes: formal recognition of the Amazigh (Berber) language and identity; consolidation of the rule of law and protection of human rights; creation of an independent judiciary and respect for the separation of powers, with enhanced authority for the parliament and prime minister; a larger role for political parties and establishment of institutions to guarantee good governance. All these reform measures are to be formally considered by an advisory body that is to report back to the king in June in advance of a national referendum scheduled for later in the year.

For many of the protesters, however, these reform measures seem insufficient to overcome the deeply held resentment over corruption, injustice and the despotic attitude of the makhzen. While the king himself is still regarded with respect among Moroccans, including most of the protesters, there has long been a feeling that too much power remains concentrated in the monarchy. Critics point to several amendments in the constitution that will not be revised: Articles 19, 23, 29 and 106 reaffirm the king’s status as “commander of the faithful,” the sanctity of his person, his authority to govern by issuing non-questioning legal decrees or dahirs, and the constitutional inviolability of the monarchy. The more insistent among the demonstrators will continue to challenge the very political architecture of the monarchical state, believing that the reforms being proposed are part of a pseudo-democratic process intended to give Moroccans half the reforms they deserve.

The regime’s knack for adaptation will most likely ensure the monarchy’s survival even as protests continue unabated. Testimony to both the durability of the monarchy and the integrity of the protest movement is a statement made by one of the more “revolutionary” representatives of the country’s most popular yet banned Islamist movement, Nadia Yassine, leader of the Justice and Welfare Association and daughter of its founder, Abdesslam Yassine. While keeping a relatively low profile at the February 20 and subsequent demonstrations, the Association has indicated its support. According to Nadia Yassine, “It’s excellent what’s happening in Morocco. It’s a quiet revolution. We’re moving slowly but surely.” [7]

Tunisia Before Bouazizi

One of the distinctive characteristics of Ben Ali’s Tunisia was the virtual absence of an effective social movement. Almost from its inception, the Ben Ali regime outlawed the leading political currents on both ends of the ideological spectrum, the Islamist Nahda party and the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party, building a de facto monopoly for its party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD). In so doing, the regime nearly eliminated any possibility for opposition movements willing to work within the system to operate legally and freely. Yet there was ample expression of dissent through the everyday activities of ordinary people. Tunisia’s disenfranchised masses developed mechanisms for dodging the tentacles of the authoritarian state, including tax avoidance, illegal tapping of municipal water and electricity supplies, and illicit construction of houses. Within this atmosphere of circumvention, moments of contentious politics nonetheless occurred eventually leading to the precipitous puncturing of Ben Ali’s system of control.

The short history of Tunisia’s revolution commonly begins with the self-immolation of a young Tunisian food cart worker by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi from the south-central town of Sidi Bouzid, just north of the mining city of Gafsa. It is thought that Bouazizi’s dramatic public act was caused in part by the almost daily humiliation of ordinary Tunisians confronting an uncaring and often deeply corrupt bureaucracy. Bouazizi’s plight, many believe, represented the frustration of thousands of Tunisia’s young lumpen-intelligentsia, often overeducated but underemployed, facing an uncertain economic future at a time of rapidly increasing food prices.

Following Bouazizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010, riots indeed spread across the rural south. Ben Ali ordered police to quell the unrest. Within days, documentation of police violence was disseminated via the Internet, including the social networking sites Vimeo, Facebook and Twitter, while the pan-Arab satellite network Al Jazeera spearheaded in-depth television coverage of the disturbances. As these images swept across the country, Tunisians became incensed at the sight of unarmed protesters being brutalized by police. More social media challenges to the regime were unleashed, none more symptomatic of the character of the revolution-to-come than the song of the rapper El General, “Rais el Bled.” After El General posted the song on his personal Facebook page, authorities quickly arrested him. For their part, web-savvy residents of Tunis, Sfax and other large cities quickly formed Facebook groups calling for solidarity against the Ben Ali regime.

By this time, protests had moved to the capital and the regime’s end was imminent. The army’s commander, Gen. Rachid Ammar, disobeyed orders from Ben Ali to shoot at protesters even as the army rumbled into cities and towns. Ben Ali tried to appease the populace, paying a visit to Mohamed Bouazizi’s hospital room just before his death and delivering a series of three public addresses, each less combative in tone than the one before. He concluded with a pledge that he would not run in the 2014 presidential election and subsequently promised to reduce censorship, lifting restrictions on YouTube and DailyMotion on January 12. By then, however, hackers organized as “Operation Tunisia” had already shut down Ben Ali’s presidential website, his Facebook page, the Tunisian stock market website and other government portals. Within hours, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) called for a strike and 2 million Tunisian Facebook users changed their profiles to read, “Ben Ali dégage!” Many furiously stated that over one hundred protesters should not have had to die for YouTube to be unblocked. One day later, on January 14, thousands took to the streets in downtown Tunis and occupied the broad Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Facing the notorious Interior Ministry, opposite the towering, ultra-modern RCD headquarters, the inflamed crowd yelled epithets at the hated dictator. Within hours, Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia, after both Malta and France denied him asylum.

The front-page version of Tunisia’s revolution is accurate, but incomplete to the point of being somewhat misleading, in that it provides a mechanistic portrayal of a repressive state pitched against a quiescent population that suddenly exploded. To be sure, resisting Ben Ali, his one-party state and the mafia-like clan that surrounded him was no easy task. Deepening repression — from arbitrary economic barriers to jailing, disappearances and torture — achieved a widespread political inertia just short of absolute submission. Nonetheless, courageous Tunisians engaged in episodic contention, notably in the southwestern mining town of Gafsa close to the Algerian border. The year 2008 was an especially hot one in Gafsa and nearby Redayef, as street protests began in January and February against unfair hiring and labor conditions imposed by the state-run phosphate company. In an area where unemployment hovers around 40 percent, people looking for work believed that the company had worked out nepotistic arrangements with the local UGTT branch in violation of an agreement with the national federation. Yet, the street protests, which began as labor actions, soon attracted unexpected levels of support and proliferated across the whole of the Gafsa governorate.

The weekly protests in Redayef were not reported in the state-controlled press, though opposition papers such as al-Mawqif, al-Muwatin and al-Tariq al-Jadid gave full coverage to the events. The waves of protest also caught the attention of university students on campuses in Tunis, Sfax and Sousse, as well as among the Tunisian diaspora in France and Montreal. Many of the supporters were members of the illegal Workers’ Communist Party or its student wing, and committed to supporting the plight of Tunisians in the impoverished rural south. Within days, local schoolteachers, women, wives of miners, marginalized youth and even local union branches joined in. A targeted demonstration against unfair hiring practices on the part of a local phosphate monopoly had expanded into a broad movement attracting local, national and international adherents.

As was to happen in 2010-2011, Ben Ali ordered security forces to quash the 2008 protests, arresting hundreds of demonstrators, even children, and torturing jailed suspects. Catalyzed by the use of excessive force, greater numbers of Tunisians engaged in peaceful anti-government protests. For its part, the government justified its brutal tactics by branding opponents as “coup makers” intent on overthrowing the state — language that was to be repeated on the eve of the regime’s collapse. In April 2008, wives of imprisoned workers, widows of others and union members took to the streets in Redayef, while activists organized a day of solidarity in Tunis on April 4. As clashes continued sporadically over the spring, the military occupied Gafsa and Redayef, fatally shooting two protesters in June. Internet activists in Tunis, Gafsa and Sfax began spreading the mining towns’ story on Facebook, reacting to the virtual non-reporting in the Tunisian press and the blocking of all international news sites that covered the events. On August 18, Ben Ali ordered that Facebook be shut down, citing national security concerns. (The regime’s narrative that Facebook in Tunisia is a tool used primarily by Islamist terrorists resonated among less critical observers for years, particularly following the April 11, 2002 bombing of a synagogue on the island of Djerba by al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghrib. [8]) But the regime was compelled to unblock the social networking site less than a month later following an international pressure campaign on Facebook. By 2010- 2011, activists in Tunisia were well schooled in Internet campaigns as well the Ben Ali regime’s responses to them.

Tunisia in White

One of the last instances of contentious politics preceding the revolution was a protest organized by six young activists via Facebook and Twitter called Tunisie en Blanc (Tunisia in White) on May 22, 2010. “This Saturday,” the participants promised each other on their Facebook pages, “I will dress in white and have coffee on the avenue,” in a peaceful demonstration against Internet censorship in Tunisia. The plan consisted of two parts: a protest in front of the Ministry of Technology in downtown Tunis as well as something resembling a white-clad flash mob sipping coffee in one of the many cafés on Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

Tunisia in White was a bold initiative by young activists to mobilize around an issue that affected the daily life of hundreds of thousands of Tunisians. So pervasive was the censorship that Tunisians created an imaginary character named Ammar as a metaphor for the invisible gremlin impeding their online communications. One of the organizers of the campaign was Slim Amamou, who has devoted years to fighting Internet censorship in Tunisia. His nickname “Slim 404” refers to the ubiquitous error message indicating that a site is blocked or censored. [9] Amamou and others involved in the initiative were later prominent in the revolution against Ben Ali. He was arrested on January 6, 2011 for dissident blogging, but then appointed minister of sports and youth after Ben Ali’s fall. Even earlier than 2010, some of these activists had navigated the censorship and police harassment directed against Internet mobilizations, for instance the nationwide support groups for the Gafsa protests. Relying primarily on Facebook, the activists used a medium that was shielded from the government’s censors. To ensure the wide dissemination of the Tunisia in White campaign, the activists launched the event just days before the planned activities. On May 17, a Facebook group named Day Against Ammar appeared, and approximately 5,000 Tunisians clicked on “Like” to spread the word, as did diaspora Tunisians in Paris, Montreal, New York and other cities across the world. The page described the Tunisia in White event as a peaceful and citizen-oriented effort pressing for a free Internet in the country. As Tunisians were guarded under Ben Ali, the organizers stressed:

Do not hesitate to invite your friends. There is nothing illegal about dressing in white and having coffee on the avenue. There is nothing illegal about demanding Internet access free of censorship. The demonstration will be held in front of the Ministry of Technology and Communication…but if you do not want to or cannot attend, meet at a café dressed in white and simply have coffee.

On May 21, a day before the planned event, two of the organizers were detained at the Interior Ministry, where they had attempted to obtain approval for the protest. Another organizer’s Facebook account was disabled, forcing peers to resort to Twitter to communicate with supporters. Tunisia in White never fully came about, as the police dispersed those individuals who showed up at the avenue’s cafes dressed in white. The event, nonetheless, provided important training for future Internet campaigns and marked out a public forum for political debate.

The unrest in Tunisia before the revolution, like the North African intifadas themselves, reveals multi-faceted political mobilizations that transcend the categories of ideology, formal organization and charismatic leadership long associated with revolutionary transformations, whether democratic or not. In Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, existing opposition movements, legal and otherwise, have been willing to collaborate to challenge incumbent rule. Most analyses of the uprisings, finally, begin at the moment when thousands of ordinary citizens occupied central urban plazas in the glare of the global media. It is important to start the timeline earlier and enter the stories of the intifadas through the back door.


[1] New York Times, February 12, 2011.
[2] Numerous petitions in favor of such democratic change signed by respected Algerian scholars, lawyers, human rights activities, journalists and others including Mohammed Harbi, Madjid Benchikh, Aïssa Kadri, and Ahmed Dahmani have circulated nationally and internationally. See “Appel pour une transition démocratique en Algérie,” El Watan, February 10, 2011.
[3] El Watan, April 18, 2011.
[4] El Khabar, April 17, 2011.
[5] See Rachid Tlemcani, “Le discours de Bouteflika confirme qu’il n’y a pas une volonté politique de sortie de crise,” El Watan, April 18, 2011.
[6] Economist Intelligence Unit, “Country Report: Algeria,” April 2011, p. 5.
[7] Reuters, April 24, 2011.
[8] See, for instance, Saloua Charfi, “Tunisie: Terreur Intégriste sur Facebook,” Réalités, April 22-28, 2010.
[9] Guardian, January 18, 2011.

How to cite this article:

John P. Entelis, Laryssa Chomiak "The Making of North Africa’s Intifadas," Middle East Report 259 (Summer 2011).

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