This issue of Middle East Report on “Maghreb From the Margins” addresses the evolving challenges that the peripheries are posing to power structures in Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and the Western Sahara. Recent courageous actions of everyday women and men—alongside the shifts in the political and economic dynamics connecting the region to state and corporate interests in Europe, North America and the Gulf—force a rethinking of taken-for-granted assumptions about authoritarianism and the rentier social compact. The contributors to this issue are not recounting yet more sad tales of the failed dreams of Arab socialism but are instead describing the diverse hopes and strivings by marginalized people as they navigate political openings, economic ruptures, social dislocation and unexpected opportunities. The authors insist that understanding the experience of, and resistance to, marginalization in today’s North Africa requires turning attention to actors and sites normally considered outside of the political process.

Centering those dynamics that operate within the margins requires rethinking the space-time of the Maghreb. Like an older language of “modernization,” current frameworks of democratization and globalization—whether in their liberal or Marxian variants—foresee a progressive replacement of the past with the present, a rupture with traditional authoritarian stagnancy and an entrance into world History. Such Hegelian historicity is the temporal perspective of imperial power, re-imposed by Maghrebi states on their own subaltern citizens and noncitizens who, as Zakia Salime illustrates in her contribution, become the objects of neoliberal re-training efforts. As Salime demonstrates, solar energy projects are not solely about land grabs, they also create competing temporalities and geographies of marginality, modernity and development. But history is never unilineal, and no single temporal scheme ever achieves a monopoly. As the authors demonstrate, alongside the temporality of progress are co-existing temporalities of critical juncture, of transition, of sustainability, of leisure and of loss.

In his reflections on the Hirak movement in Algeria, Hakim Addad describes the recent critical juncture around the Algerian elections as a time outside of time: a momentary rupture in a seemingly unchanging temporal order but one that also gestures back to past moments of rupture. In such ephemeral conjunctures, the future suddenly emerges as open-ended rather than already determined. For those who are able to seize the day and join the street protests, the moment becomes momentous, replete with exciting possibilities, a time when individuals can differently live their femininity or Amazigh identity or youth. Such junctures are replete with affective intensity where marginalized Algerian citizens qua citizens are able to transform their fear into anger and their anger into action.

In contrast, Sabina Henneberg describes the temporality of the Libyan transition in the wake of the fall of Qaddafi, which seemed to be less one of hope and anticipation than one of anxiety or perhaps even cynical expectation of a return of the repressed. A transition is a time between time, a liminal interregnum that is constituted as temporary, but which risks either lasting too long or not long enough. The unelected National Transitional Council refuses to expeditiously give up the reins of power but at the same time leaves open the possibility of new authoritarian leaders like General Haftar to step in to fill the power vacuum. For Libyans, particularly those on the nation’s ethno-racial margins, time is needed to lay the groundwork for a new social compact, power-sharing arrangement and territorial organization. Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg groups are forced to renegotiate their standing and presence in the nation. In some cases, marginalized communities take advantage of the relatively unstructured openness of the liminal period to assert their own spatial autonomy and even attempt to determine their own futures.

As Mona Atia, Said Samlali, Zakia Salime and Sami Zemni recount in their essays, temporality—in the form of “sustainability”—is a central resource being extracted from the Moroccan and Tunisian margins. Sustainability is ultimately a temporal fantasy of a smooth, stable, predictable, crisis-free future—a developmental fetish object of states, corporate entities and investors. The solar energy produced at the Noor facility, for instance, is sustainable only to the extent that it is allowed to extract massive water resources from the surrounding landscape, rendering the local Amazigh communities’ modes of small-scale subsistence unsustainable. Public-private concerns like the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy (MASEN) do not replace those diminished resources, provide appropriate compensation or open up resource sovereignty to all citizens. Instead, they commission non-governmental organizations to train (mostly female) farmers and herders—who have not already migrated in search of wage labor—in so-called modern techniques to rationalize their limited resources and somehow generate future revenues in a world where current economies of scale and influence disproportionately matter. The general model, inherited from the colonial past, is one of guardianship, whereby urban-based state officials exert their didactic authority over their rural counterparts, who hierarchically protect their own regions of relative autonomy by controlling the flows of development funding, often for their own financial interests. Such an administrative diagram traps the rural poor in a state of spatial and temporal marginality, treated as hopelessly stuck in an obsolescent past and stigmatized (like their urban counterparts) for their communities’ infrastructural failures—a classic case of what André Gunder Frank famously called “the development of underdevelopment.”

Such spaces of marginality, broadly outside the public purview and projected to rapidly disappear, contrast with the building of hyper-visible, permanent spectacles of state power. The most evident of these constructions are perhaps the urban mega-projects in cities like Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier. But as Vivian Solana’s essay makes clear, they also include the massive separation berm and other infrastructural facts on the ground developed to solidify Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara. While the Moroccan military state deliberately blinds observers to the ongoing plight of displaced Sahrawis in refugee camps and those living under occupation, the berm has become the target for renewed attacks by the Polisario Front, which for the last several months has blocked roads and taken up small arms against Moroccan tanks and warplanes. Similarly, the Noor solar power facility described by Salime functions as a de facto military installation, a contemporary kasbah, with imposing perimeter security and panoptic surveillance designed to see the surrounding village life that is otherwise obscured from the external gaze. Unlike the classic kasbah which testifies to the absent-present power of the Moroccan makhzen, Noor is arguably the garrison of a private Saudi-run company with European investors, just the latest and most prominent of the many Gulf-owned land tracts in southern Morocco.

As Gulf investments flow into the Maghreb, Maghrebi professionals leave for the Gulf to work in its media, logistics, banking and religious education industries, thus literally re-orienting the Maghreb. Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem reminds us of the long history of Mauritanian Islamic scholars who have spread learning from Bilad Shinqit across the Middle East, played major roles in the nahda and in the development of Salafi reformism and even in providing the theological legitimation for recent calls to jihad. The fatwa endorsing the so-called Abraham Accords between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel—provided by Mauritanian national Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, president of the UAE’s High Fatwa Council—is but the latest example of how the Maghreb’s margins are producing broader regional and global effects.

To a certain extent, the contemporary turn of Maghrebi professionals to the Gulf has been necessitated by the militarization of the Mediterranean, patrolled by European navies who seek to offshore their immigration abatement to a Maghreb treated as only a transit zone for sub-Saharan African migrants and asylum seekers. The instability in Libya and, to a lesser extent, Algeria and Tunisia, has shifted these migrant routes to even more perilous crossings and has resulted in the forced repatriation of many Sahelian and sub-Saharan Africans and pushed others to forge precarious futures elsewhere along the Maghrebi margins. Brahim El Guabli highlights what he calls the “sub-Saharan turn” in Moroccan literature, which indexes increased public attention not only to the plight of the tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans living in the country’s margins, but more generally to Blackness as a constituent and constitutive feature of Moroccan society.

If Libya’s ongoing instability has created a space for the mobilization of racialized Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg Libyans, it has also effectively made Cyrenaican self-determination a de facto reality. Amidst (largely expatriate) calls for Kabyle, Chawi and Mzabi autonomy, Algerian authorities deploy the threat of national instability (pointing to Libya or Syria) in a bid to delegitimize the Hirak mobilization as terrorism. But protesters have succeeded in out-nationalizing them, forcefully replying that the future of Algeria depends on the political cronies and their deep state backers (popularly known as les décideurs) just getting out. While there is no exact equivalent to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the spatial logic of the Algerian protests also involves taking back the streets, including some of the key historical sites of the anti-colonial revolution. In so doing, they look productively to the past to transform these sites into new spaces for a future Algeria.

Power in the Maghreb operates, as Zemni insists, not in contradistinction to the margins but through a political economy that continually produces spatiotemporal marginality as an object of infrastructural development, resource exploitation and capitalist profit. Rather than eroding state power, neoliberalism expands the scale at which North African states can operate, both in terms of their micro-level interventions into rural communities and individual life trajectories and in terms of their new alignments with global capital beyond traditional ideological commitments. Yet, as the authors show, those who inhabit the margins are not mere passive objects or victims. They are agents with a resilient capacity not only to adapt to new economic and political conditions but also to continually innovate the means to confront them. Indeed, it is their untamed demands and creative struggles for equity, inclusion, social justice and popular sovereignty that force the hand of elite actors, state officials and global power.


[The editors of issue 298, “Maghreb From the Margins,” are Zakia Salime, Mona Atia, Jacob Mundy and Paul Silverstein.]


How to cite this article:

The Editors of Issue #298 "Maghreb From the Margins," Middle East Report 298 (Spring 2021).

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