Bill Lawrence is director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Morocco), Fulbright scholar (Tunisia), development consultant (Egypt), State Department official, Arabic translator and filmmaker (Marrakech Inshallah, Moroccans in Boston). He has also participated in the production of 14 albums of North African music, including co-production of the first internationally released Arabic rap song. He has lived in North Africa for 12 years, six of them in Morocco. I spoke with him in Rabat on March 15.

Can you talk about the problems in Libya caused by the proliferation of militias and arms?

Many Libyans frustrated with the security situation think that you can simply remove the arms and shut down the militias. That won’t solve anything. Although it’s true that the security forces and army are a shambles, the more important problem is that people won’t give up their arms until they are comfortable with the political evolution of the Libyan state. Right now there are few indications that the Libyan government is evolving in ways that inspire the confidence of local communities. You can’t put the cart before the horse on this.

Everyone forgets that about 95 percent of the militias work for or in concert with the state. Even Ansar al-Shari‘a, members of which were involved (without the backing of the leadership) in the US consulate attack that led to Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death, are back on the job in Benghazi, not because anyone wants them there, but because there is nobody else who has guns and is willing to stand guard at government institutions. The faster Libya evolves politically, the faster the conditions in which you need militias will disappear.

Libya has another problem: Surveys have revealed that only 10-15 percent of the 200,000 or so Libyans under arms want to be in the police or army. Most of them want to start businesses or to be doctors or lawyers or to go overseas. So most of the models we have for demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) don’t work for Libya. You almost have to say, “How do we move all these kids with guns into other professions and move new people — maybe not even Libyans — into the security forces?” Maybe a lot of private security work could go to other nationalities.

Libya has one of the most highly educated populations in the Arab world. In the Human Development Index report, Libya is 30 places above Algeria and Tunisia and 70 places above Morocco. It’s much better to think of Libyan militiamen as engineering or medical students with guns than as tribal leaders with guns, though, obviously, there are some of both.

The way to fix the security issue is to fix the politics of Libya, and the way to do that is to get the justice sector to address this awful law that wants to ban all the people who worked for Qaddafi. There aren’t enough people in Libya to exclude all of those who worked for Qaddafi. The only people strongly in favor of this law are the Islamists. In a country of only 5 million, they’ve got to get back to a reconciled Libyan political space. And there are federalism issues to work on.

All of this is a huge project and there are no easy answers. Certainly, putting foreign troops on the ground or gathering weapons or shutting down militias will not deal with the fact that Libya became what it became because a population had to arm itself because the international community didn’t want to put troops on the ground. Now we are looking at the consequences of that justified but strong reticence of the international community. We’re left with an armed population that wants to keep its weapons. Being a militia member is also a relatively dependable way to earn a living in Libya right now. Job opportunities are limited.

Should there have been a NATO ground assault to accompany the airborne intervention?

No. I just think we should have been smarter about the effects of not putting troops on the ground and not having any peacekeepers.

Has the Libyan experience of the recent upheavals been different from those of other North African countries? If so, why?

There are a lot of misunderstandings about Libya — inside and outside the country. One of the more important ones is that Libya didn’t have an Arab spring. There is a big misconception that since Libya descended into civil war rather quickly, it is a different animal — for tribal reasons, for Qaddafi-legacy reasons, for rentier state reasons. But the fact of the matter is that Libya did have an Arab spring.

The east of the country fell in a way very similar to Tunisia and Egypt: 8,000 army defections, peaceful protest using the same kind of slogans, taking over public buildings. The five biggest cities in Libya rose up in unison. The difference was that, though protesters in Benghazi, Bayda and Misrata all took over their towns, in Misrata they faced Qaddafi, who threw everything he had at them. That battle went on for months and became the symbol of how things in Libya were different.

Missed by the press and in most analyses, protesters in Tripoli and Zawiya rose up, too, but were overwhelmed by Qaddafi’s forces. Many hundreds of people, perhaps close to 2,000, were slaughtered in those cities. The next best evidence that the Arab spring happened in Libya was that when the call to prayer went out on August 20, 2011, the entire civilian population of Tripoli, barring three neighborhoods, rose up. They had 80 percent of the town under civilian control within 24 hours. And the militias hadn’t arrived. There were some NATO-friendly guys who landed on a beach, but most of the Libyan militias hadn’t gotten to Tripoli yet. Libyan militias from east and west were instrumental in taking over the last 20 percent of the city after almost entirely unarmed civilians had taken over the rest through direct action.

Libyans want their Arab spring back. Their issues are very similar to Tunisians’ and Egyptians’, whether religious or identity issues, constitutional issues or election issues.

I have a friend, a major Algerian scholar who has been studying the region for decades and just came to Morocco. He said, “I came to Morocco expecting to find the same culture but different politics, but what I found was a different culture but the same politics.” And I think you can generalize that to the whole of North Africa. The countries have very different historical trajectories, very different political and cultural backgrounds, and very interesting national, regional, municipal and tribal individualities, but the political debates of the day are remarkably similar from country to country. It’s one of the reasons why the Arab spring had such a tremendous impact in this part of the world — even more than in the Mashriq.

Certainly one of the similarities is what I call the new order-old order dynamics. That refers to the way in which identity and political contestation operate quite similarly in the young generation across countries. And they talk to each other. To miss that is to misunderstand Libya and to misunderstand Morocco vis-à-vis, say, Tunisia. We have to be much more careful in parsing what’s cross-regional and what isn’t, because we often get it wrong.

What are some elements that are not cross-regional?

Often what’s different is where they’re coming from, but what’s similar is what they’re pointing to in the future. So, for example, women’s status in Tunisia is vastly different than in neighboring countries, but the debates about women’s status are very similar to the parallel debates in Libya or Algeria or Morocco. It’s very important to figure out what’s driving this. Part of it is social networking; part of it is Arab satellite television. There are a number of ways in which the younger generations across the region are talking to each other. One of the most fascinating aspects is the way in which the new generation rejects the ideological debates of the older generation. In politics, a certain level of purity has traditionally been required to be an Islamist or a socialist or a feminist or an Amazighist or a nationalist establishment guy. The new generation is challenging all of these ideologies and mixing them in very unorthodox and anti-establishment ways.

One of the rallying cries of the Arab spring has been a message of inclusivity. Particularly in 2011, there were a lot of attempts by secular people to make sure that their Islamist brothers were included in conversations and vice versa. The old ideological divides are now trying to reimpose themselves, but only with partial success. In the long haul, the Arab spring animus will win. In the short term, the ideologies of the previous generation of leaders, whether Islamist or whatever, are winning the day because these forces are the best organized. But ultimately they won’t succeed because there isn’t enough room in the more orthodox, exclusivist ideologies for broader, more national-inclusive conversations. This generational aspect is in many ways the most important aspect of the Arab spring.

Let me give you a concrete example: After the referendum in Morocco, the Islamist group Justice and Charity was looking for the right moment to leave the February 20 movement. They hesitated in July and in the early fall — before and after the elections — because they felt that their departure would be misconstrued. Their take was not that the February 20 movement was too radical, but that it was too tepid. They did not want to kill the movement by leaving it. They finally left in December 2011 and, of course, their departure was misinterpreted for all the reasons they had feared. But there was a significant split between the old guard and the young guard in the group. The young guard was devastated that they weren’t fully consulted or informed. They went, some of them in tears, to the February 20 movement leaders to apologize for the breakup. They continued to attend rallies, not as participants but as observers, and they continued to toe the Justice and Charity line, but with a kind of regret.

Young people are proud when they can be part of something bigger about the future of the country and not just lining up according to the debates that both the powers that be and the Western powers seem to be comfortable with. They don’t want to have a conversation about women’s issues, for example, but a bigger conversation about democracy and inclusivity. Famously, the rap anthem “Rais Lebled” by the Tunisian El Général became an anthem in all of the other countries. He has a reference in the song to the exploitation of women in hijab, the manhandling of those women by the Ben Ali regime. And the rapper himself has gotten more religious since the revolution, turning not to a salafi ideology of exclusion, but to an effort to be part of a bigger community that is more democratic and less corrupt. And that is kind of anathema to the way we would like to see Tunisia in the West. We’d like Tunisia to line up as secular forces vs. Islamist forces. My estimate is that the violence of 2012 in Tunisia was over 75 percent — actually, probably over 95 percent — socially and economically driven, but if you read the Western press you would think it was 90 percent Islamist forces vs. secular forces.

All of the 64 self-immolators in first 60 days of the Arab spring were engaged in informal trade or some kind of extra-legal business — 39 of them died, while 25 survived and have been interviewed by economist Hernando de Soto’s team. There have been hundreds more self-immolations, with two more just last week in Tunisia. Of all the affected countries affected, Morocco was the only one where a significant number of self-immolators were unemployed university graduates. But in most of the countries, as research has shown, they were driven to despair by being excluded from both the informal and the formal economy. There is a discouraging parallel between the lack of political reforms and the lack of economic reforms that could address the root issues that are causing people to self-immolate, to rebel, to not buy into the schemes on offer. In fact, many of these schemes are cookie-cutter schemes that we have seen for a long time in this part of the world. In each of these countries, from Mauritania to Egypt, between 40 and 60 percent of the work force is working in the informal economy. The game is not to integrate all of these people into formal-sector jobs that do not exist. I roll my eyes when I see Tunisia announcing another 25,000 government jobs when the work isn’t there. There just isn’t the capacity.

It won’t be until you find mechanisms for employing informal-sector workers, for moving them into a taxable, regulable sector that creates jobs, that you will be addressing the underlying problems. I heard a former World Bank official say that the real problem with Tunisian commerce is that stores can’t sell things because there are all these guys with carts selling the same stuff out in front. What we really need, he said, is to get rid of the guys with carts. Did this gentleman observe the same Arab spring that I did? Chasing away the guys with carts did not solve the problem before and it won’t now.

Solutions have to be driven by an assessment of how to move the maximum number of people into productive endeavors, defined broadly. There must be new opportunities for youth — people under 35 — whether in entrepreneurship or things like the Peace Corps in Africa or other types of assistance. You have a huge surplus of highly educated, underemployed people, on a much greater scale than anything we see in Europe or the United States. It’s astounding that the median age is about 30 in Tunisia, about 27 in Algeria and Morocco, about 24 in Egypt and Libya, and about 18 in Mauritania and Western Sahara. There is a big youth bulge. Some years ago I saw reliable data from an international organization saying that unemployment among Moroccans with no education was less than 2 percent; among those with some primary education about 9 percent; among those with secondary education around 22 percent; and among those with higher education about 29 percent. In other words, the higher your level of education, the greater your risk of unemployment.

Read part two of the interview here.

How to cite this article:

David McMurray "North African Commonalities (part one)," Middle East Report Online, April 02, 2013.
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