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. (Part one of the interview is here.)

Could you talk about the impact of Algeria on other Arab spring countries?

First of all, Algeria had the first Arab spring, in the 1988-1992 period, the most important democratic moment in the Arab world from independence until late 2010. The successes and failures of the Algerian experience still serve as a model for the region. In that leaked tape where Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, is talking to the salafis, he made several references to Algeria. It is a frame through which the whole region looks at the potentiality of democratic transition and draws a long list of both correct and incorrect lessons.

The most important impact is that the discourses of contestation of power in this part of the world evolved in an Algerian incubator. One of the major venues — not the only one — is rap. It’s in literature, it’s in popular music, and it’s all over social media. Algeria had one of the most highly networked youth populations in the region. As youth came out of doors in the 2000s, after the awful conflict of the 1990s, they spent a lot of time in person and online thinking about ways to challenge state power. The DNA of the Algerian youth protests is in the discursive backbone of the Arab spring.

When I talk about Tunisia, I often bifurcate the experience there for explanatory purposes. The first Arab spring there was rural, male, older, unemployed, angry, swimming in the sea of Algerian political-cultural influences. It didn’t succeed, and the participants voted for anti-establishment parties in the elections. Then there was a second Arab spring, which was more urban, cross-gender, socially networked, easier on the eye for Western viewers, more secular, middle- and upper-class. Its main goal was to get rid of the Ben Ali regime and it succeeded. In many ways, you can interpret the ongoing struggles in Tunisia as the Arab spring inachevé against the Arab spring accompli.

Where do Tunisian unions fit in?

They were very much involved in both Arab springs. The unions also had a generation gap: In the UGTT the senior leadership wanted to play a mediation role in defense of stability and its negotiating leverage with the regime. It was the young, radical leftist rank and file from the provinces that joined the revolt and then made it impossible for the UGTT to take a neutral position.

Anyway, this rural Tunisian spring was very much influenced by the percolating social confrontation in Algeria, which never ended. You had spikes of protests in 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001 and 2003. What’s less well known is that since 2005, you have had almost continuous hyper-local protests, which led to some 10,000 deployments of riot police in 2008 and a little shy of 10,000 in 2010, a figure the Algerians don’t hide.

You might ask, “Why didn’t they have an Arab spring in Algeria?” Good question. I think the primary reason is the war weariness of the population. But the modalities are not as well understood. There is a kind of brinksmanship between the security forces and rebellious forces where both sides step back when they get to the edge. The conditions for revolution are never only on the protesting side — what states do has a huge impact. The Algerian regime has become very sophisticated at not pushing the population to the levels of anger and humiliation that we saw in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases.

What about fear of the army as a lesson of the Algerian experience?

There is no question that, to quote a Moroccan who was fixing the plumbing in my house, one of the reasons that the February 20 movement has declined in Morocco is that “we are tired of the stick.” The stick is effective up to a point, and its judicious use in combination with other actions can succeed in quelling crowds. An excessive use of the stick will usually push crowds to take much more unified and decisive action, as we see in revolutionary situations. So the actions of the state matter; the actions of the population matter.

Are you suggesting that Moroccan youth pay attention to what Algerian youth have done or just that Algerians experimented with networking and social media first?

Both. Moroccans definitely watch. The closest connection was between Algerian and Moroccan Berber movements. Morocco has many more Amazigh speakers than Algeria does, and yet the Algerian Amazigh movement was always better organized and more politically effective than the Moroccan one. But the Moroccans learned a lot from the Algerians and when there were spikes of protest in 2001 and 2003, a lot of Maghribi youth in France and elsewhere in Europe, as well as in Morocco, who were socially networked were trying to help the Algerian youth with their protests. So there are direct connections, and the Arab spring has been a further elaboration of that connectivity.

Were Libyan youth paying attention to what was happening in Algeria?

Oh yeah. Everyone has their own version of what happened in Algeria — some accurate and useful and others less so. If you look at the Ghannouchi tape, his great fear is that there is going to be a secular backlash in Tunisia as there was in Algeria. The Algerian population, according to him, is much more Islamized than the Tunisian population, making the threat of backlash in Tunisia even greater. I’m not sure that I agree with his line of analysis, but everyone has an elaboration of how what’s going on in Algeria gives us fodder for thinking about political evolutions in all these countries.

Marnia Lazreg, the Algerian sociologist, has said that the FIS lost the military battle but won the cultural battle. Would you agree?

Yes. But I would rephrase it. I would rather go with Francois Burgat’s analysis that says there are three waves of independence — political, economic and cultural — in the post-colonial period. We are in the third wave now, the cultural independence one. The degree to which the cultural independence is Islamist or not depends on all these things I’m talking about. On the other hand, to view the trend as linear in one direction or the other is a problem. Nawal El Saadawi used to say that for every woman in Egypt putting on the hijab, there was another one putting on lipstick. And now I can add that there are many donning both. The cultural divides go down to the very foundations, not only of society, but also of each family. We have as many non-Islamist trends hitting this region as we have Islamist trends. It’s like Elizabeth Fernea’s Behind the Veil: The woman puts on the hijab in order to get out of the house and take a job. So suggestions of linear evolution are partial at best.

The best lens is the lens of hybridity. Within each young person, and to a lesser degree within each older person, there are competing identities and politics. One does not always win over the other in predictable ways. Just like during the Cold War, when it was hard for the West to accept the idea of a “fallen communist,” today, I don’t think we have fully realized the number of “fallen Islamists” who are living in this part of the world, nor the number of “Islamisms.” Washington, which tends to be obsessed with a ridiculous notion of Wahhabi vs. Sufi Islam, would do well to look at the complicated mess of Islamism.

Let me give you one of many examples: In the famous Bin Laden video with the sheikh from Bahrain, where he talks about the attack on the Twin Towers, Bin Laden makes all kinds of references to dreams that sound like any conversation I could have with Sufis down the street. The way in which Islamists mobilize Sufi imagery to be popular, and the way in which Sufis combine with Islamists, both defy Washington’s conceptions of what is Islamist.

Experts on Morocco list accomplishments by the state in the 2000s that had the effect of making Morocco less susceptible to revolt — the Equity and Reconciliation Commission of 2004, official recognition of the Amazigh movement, the new family law. Do you agree that these progressive developments revealed to Moroccans that the regime was hearing their pleas for change?

Yes and no. Yes, these are major accomplishments for Morocco. The mudawana or family law was a significant step forward for Moroccan women and a model for the region. The Equity and Reconciliation Commission paid reparations to many thousands of families — something like 17,000, a quarter of whom were Sahrawi. That was unheard of. The concessions to the Berber movement were another very important step forward. There’s no question that these moves helped the regime to stay in power, particularly vis-à-vis the political elites who were active in debates going on around the new constitution. But the degree to which the king and government are popular has much less to do with Berber or women’s issues or reparations for the “years of lead” than with the questions, “Can I find a job? Is the government supporting me economically? Or is it making my life financially unbearable by lifting the subsidies on fuel and bread?” The bread-and-butter issues are much more important to most Moroccans.

And no, because the structural problems Morocco is facing are bigger than what the current solutions can address. There is the youth bulge; there are global and regional economic pressures; there are cycles of drought — all these stresses could push Morocco toward instability quite easily. Ultimately, the regime will stand or fall based on how it addresses socio-economic issues. The regime is flexible and subtle, but it hasn’t managed to create enough employment or to implement constitutional reforms such as regionalization in any significant way. Moroccans are growing skeptical that the reforms will amount to much, especially in terms of bread-and-butter issues. Morocco has a long road to travel and I’m not sure that the measures taken so far are sufficient.

How to cite this article:

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

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This