Eight years after Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation in a dusty provincial Tunisian town ignited a tsunami of popular protest and political upheaval across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, another round in the increasingly contested politics of the region appears to be underway. This time around the tumult is concentrated in North Africa, and despite the appearance of resolution in one case, Sudan, all of these episodes are ongoing, with no clear destinations in sight.
Massive weekly demonstrations in Algeria prevented the country’s long-serving and infirm 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from being elected to yet another five-year term in office, and are continuing to challenge the ruling military-bureaucratic oligarchy there. In neighboring Morocco, the authorities remain firmly in control, but the usual formula—repression, co-option, and limited liberalization—no longer guarantees continued success. Bouteflika’s forced exit, and the recent massive protests that toppled Sudan’s indicted war criminal President, Omar al-Bashir, after 30 years in power, surely give pause to autocratic rulers and entrenched elites everywhere in the region. That includes Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.
At the same time, as the upheavals of 2011 amply demonstrated, removing a ruler, however euphoric and inspiring it may be, hardly guarantees a better future. In the Libyan case, Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal dictatorship has been succeeded by a chaotic struggle for power, lately of a decidedly kinetic sort, with continuing implications for the whole region and beyond. Syria’s tragedy has been unspeakable, as has Yemen’s. Egypt eventually became a case of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”—with apologies to Peter Townshend. Only Tunisia, where it all started, has emerged as a genuinely pluralist, albeit fragile, democratizing country, but its success has yet to substantively ameliorate the socioeconomic and psycho-social conditions that underpinned the widespread alienation of the region’s overwhelmingly youthful population that drove the 2011 protests.
In 2011, Algeria was a noted exception to the wave of regime-challenging upheavals. To be sure, protests over specific grievances did ensue, and have been a regular feature of Algerian life ever since; the authorities moved quickly to raise salaries and promise liberalization measures, including constitutional change. Moreover, it is fair to say that the country was still suffering from the effects of the “Black Decade” of the 1990s, in which more than 150,000 Algerians perished in a brutal conflict between Islamist insurgents and an equally noxious military regime, and had little stomach for renewed instability.
Bouteflika, whose place in public life reached back to the war of independence against France (1954-62), and subsequent service as Foreign Minister for the victorious FLN, was elected President in 1999, thanks to support from the military. He received considerable credit for engineering a reconciliation process that tamed most of the remaining politically active Islamists and brought a degree of normalcy back to Algerian life, enabling his easy re-election in 2004 and again in 2009.
This did not mean, however, that Bouteflika was the sole or unchallenged master of the house. Indeed, Algeria’s ruling pouvoir has always constituted a number of cliques or “clans,” based on familial, geographic, and personal ties who compete over, and share, the country’s riches. The country’s formal political institutions (parties, parliament, judiciary) mask the real sources of power, whose decision-making processes have always been opaque, albeit occasionally revealed by a pluralist and competitive media usually affiliated with one power center or another.
By 2014, Bouteflika was seriously ill, having already endured stomach cancer and a 2013 stroke that left him seriously disabled, unable to even cast a ballot unaided. Nonetheless, the pouvoir decided that he should continue to serve, and successfully engineered his re-election by 81 percent of the vote, according to official figures. By 2016, he had completely disappeared from public life, and even from Cabinet meetings, supplanted by his portrait.
Up until 2014, Algeria, Europe’s third-largest supplier of natural gas, had been awash in oil and gas revenues. They were the source of 95 percent of its foreign currency receipts. However, the subsequent precipitous price decline cut the country’s foreign currency reserves by half. Keeping domestic peace through massive food and energy subsidies, the classic strategy of rentier states, raised the budget deficit to 9 percent of the GNP in 2018. This was becoming increasingly unsustainable, particularly since the hydrocarbon sector required massive new investment that was not available, even while corruption remained rampant. Completing the familiar picture of frustration and alienation was the high unemployment rate among Algeria’s overwhelmingly youthful population: approximately 60 percent of the country’s 42 million persons are under the age of 30.
With presidential elections scheduled for April 18 looming, the inner circles of power decided that Bouteflika would again stand for re-election. Whether the decision stemmed from an inability to agree on a successor, or utter contempt (hogra, in North African Arabic) for the public, or both, it was a shocking display of ineptitude, and the straw the broke the camel’s back.
Beginning on February 16, hundreds of thousands of Algerians from all walks of life poured into the streets in massive weekly peaceful demonstrations demanding an end to the farce. We don’t yet know what level of organizational prowess has been behind these demonstrations, but the energy exhibited and momentum they generated recalled the heady days of Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. Dubbed the “Smile Revolution” (revolution du sourire), the ubiquitous Algerian national flags and the oft-creative and humorous slogans signified an effort to reclaim the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle in the name of the people.
Amazigh and Kabylian flags were also present. Algeria’s Amazigh (Berber) minority, particularly its historically well-defined Kabylian segment, were keen to participate in this massive civic outpouring against the well-entrenched establishment, as well as to advance their particularist ethno-cultural demands in a new and more democratic Algerian order. No less significant, perhaps, was the fact that Bouteflika lost the support of an important segment of the country’s business class. As had happened in Tunisia, local chapters of the national labor union joined the protestors as well.
Slow to respond, the ruling power elites offered one half-measure after another to try and placate the demonstrators: reshuffling the government; a Bouteflika promise that he would step down after one more year in office following the election; and then a postponement of the election entirely, while matters would be rethought. Bouteflika then promised that he would resign on April 28. None of this placated the demonstrators, and though they constantly proclaimed that “the army and the people are brothers,” all eyes were on Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, who both promised not to lift a finger against the demonstrators and yet warned darkly of imminent chaos if the demonstrations continued. Under pressure from Salah, Bouteflika finally resigned on April 2.
For Salah and his allies in the pouvoir, it was now time for the demonstrators to go home. Abdelkader Bensalah, a trusted Bouteflika ally, was appointed Interim President, and a date for new presidential elections was set (July 4). What General Salah was offering, essentially, was the model that the Egyptian military had sought to impose in 2011 with Mubarak’s removal, and eventually succeeded in doing so in 2013, with the removal of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Indeed, among the first measures taken by the post-Bouteflika regime followed the Egyptian script, as it began purging some of Bouteflika’s clan from power, placing his powerful brother Saïd under house arrest, arresting a leading businessman and Bouteflika intimate, Ali Haddad, and summoning the former Prime Minister and Finance Minister for judicial questioning. And then came news that five well-connected Algerian billionaires were about to be defenestrated.
By now, though, the demands of the demonstrators had already shifted: It wasn’t just Bouteflika and his close associates to whom they were opposed, but the entire regime which, they insisted, should be replaced by a truly democratic and representative government. However, political transitions are notoriously vulnerable to manipulations, setbacks, reversals, and outright hijackings. Given the absence of a national coordinating body uniting the various political factions and streams within Algerian society, the successful pursuit of a transformative path toward a genuinely new political system seems more like a utopian vision than one with a real chance of attainment for now.
At the same time, the formerly powerful pouvoir seems more vulnerable than ever: One telling indication is that numerous local municipalities were reported to be refusing to cooperate with the Interior Ministry’s instructions to prepare for the presidential election. With the situation in flux, an enormous amount of political smarts will be required from both official quarters and civil society sectors if the Sisyphean task of fashioning a new Algeria can even get underway.
Algeria’s neighbor to its west, the Kingdom of Morocco, has been Algeria’s intimate geopolitical rival since both countries shook off the shackles of French colonialism more than a half-century ago. Sharing a common spoken Arabic dialect, large autochthonous Berber-speaking populations, Maliki and Sufi Islamic doctrine and praxis, and the intrusive and influential experiences of French colonialism, the two countries have been territorial rivals since the border War of the Sands in 1963, a rivalry which continued to express itself in the unresolved 45-year long struggle over the adjacent territory of ex-Spanish Sahara.
Moreover, their legitimacy formulas and regime types have stood in stark opposition to one another. Whereas Algeria’s regime is grounded in its revolutionary anti-colonial legacy, Morocco’s foundational mantra is “Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik” (God, Country, King). Monarchical rule is integral to Moroccan political culture: The current Alaouite ruling dynasty, which claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and thus religious as well as political legitimacy, is 350 years old; and the monarchical form of rule in the territory goes back 1,200 years. As such, public criticism of the King or his family is strictly forbidden.
However, even if this sort of monarchy provides the regime with a comparative advantage, it hardly insures lasting stability. Modern governments, whatever their form, have to deliver the goods to their large, youthful, educated, and restless populations. King Mohammed VI, who came to power at age 35 upon the death of his long-ruling autocratic father Hassan II in 1999 (the same year Bouteflika came to power, coincidentally), was keen to push the reset button, and humanize what had been a remote and feared monarchy.
Controlled liberalization of political life and the press, reconciliation with long-time political opponents, symbolic (and later constitutional) recognition of the Amazigh language and culture as an integral part of Moroccan national identity, and large-scale development projects were all part of the new package. All of this bought time and a measure of good will, but didn’t change the underlying nature of political, economic, and social life. The makhzen, the historic Moroccan political term for the interlocking political, military, economic, and religious establishment, continued to call the shots, just as the pouvoir did in Algeria.
In contrast to Algeria, the excitement of the Arab Spring did manifest itself in Morocco. A heterogeneous February 20th movement, calling for comprehensive regime reform (islah al-nizam) and democratization (“parliamentary monarchy”), brought out the largest number of anti-government protestors across the country since the mid-1960s. However, the King quickly gained control of the situation, engineering a constitutional reform process and new nationwide elections that produced a new government led by an Islamist party. The moves gradually took the wind out of the movement’s sails, while leaving real power in the Palace and its associates.
Lacking Algeria’s oil and gas riches, and having a much larger population, proportionately, in the non-urban peripheral areas, the process of economic integration and educational social development has proceeded at a slower pace than in its neighbor. Morocco ranks 123rd on the UN’s Human Development Index, nearly the lowest among Arab states; unemployment for those aged 15-34 stands at 20 percent, 75 percent of whom have no social security, and 60 percent would like to emigrate.
Meanwhile, even as he promoted an image of a benevolent “King of the Poor,” Mohammed VI has become fabulously wealthy during his two decades in power. According to a 2015 Forbes report, his own personal wealth amounted to $5.7 billion, with he and his family owning decisive stakes in every sector of the Moroccan economy—banking, mining, media and telecommunications, insurance, the cement industry, energy, food and agricultural production. Much of this was detailed in an investigative French-language book, Le Roi Prédateur (The Predator King), which was banned in Morocco but has been widely available in PDF form. A Wikileaks document from 2009 stated that all major investment decisions involving the giant Omnium Nord Africain holding company were made by three people: the King and two of his advisers.
In the political sphere over the past decade, it has likewise been business as usual, as the authorities continued to use tried-and-true methods of manipulation, co-option, and selected repression to prevent the emergence of any serious challenges to the status quo. And internationally, Morocco has steadfastly promoted an image of a moderate Islamic country, one that is open for business, embraces a multicultural heritage, and constitutes a veritable paradise for tourists.
But the degree and variety of social protests that have manifested themselves in recent years suggest that all is not well, and that the old methods of governing may no longer be enough. Water scarcity in pre-desert villages such as Zagora prompted repeated outcries, led by colorfully robed women carrying empty jerrycans. The Imider protests against a Palace-owned silver mine draining the neighboring villages’ water and poisoning their crops is now in its seventh year; the fatal shooting of a female student on a dinghy seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe by a Moroccan naval patrol resulted in violent demonstrations in her home city of Tetouan; consumer boycotts of large water bottling and dairy products companies, and a network of petrol stations owned by a government minister and tycoon friend of the King, organized through social media, have been surprisingly successful; teachers have struck for decent wages and conditions repeatedly, sometimes clashing with the police. The protest song “F’bladi Dalmouni” (“In My Country I Suffer from Injustice”), has become the anthem of the fans of Casablanca’s RAJA soccer team, and its soundtrack has been viewed by millions of YouTube viewers.1
The most sustained protests, ultimately drawing the harshest response, have been those of the Hirak al-Rif (“movement”). The northern, predominantly Rifian Berber region has historically been alienated from the center of makhzen power: It was the center of Abdelkrim’s short-lived anti-colonial republic in the 1920s, saw a brief revolt in 1958-59 that was crushed brutally by forces commanded by then-Crown Prince Hassan, and was thereafter entirely neglected by the Palace. Upon coming to power, Mohammed VI initiated major reconciliation measures and invested heavily in the region. Nonetheless, the sense of alienation has remained widespread.
The Hirak movement was sparked by the horrific death of Mohcen Fikri, a fish monger in the city of al-Hoceima, whose goods were confiscated by the police and thrown into a garbage truck, on October 28, 2016. Desperate to retrieve them, he jumped into the truck, only to be crushed to death when someone ordered the driver to activate the grinder. Naturally, the incident was captured in the gathering darkness by a cellphone camera and distributed on YouTube.
The incident, recalling Bouazizi’s death six years earlier, sparked large-scale ongoing protests calling for bringing the perpetrators to justice, combined with broader themes condemning the regime’s hogra toward the region. These protests also carried an ethnic dimension, with the flags of Riffian icon Abdelkrim being flown prominently in the demonstrations, along with the pan-Berber Amazigh flag and occasional Moroccan ones. Eventually, a movement leader emerged, Nasser Zafzafi, a 40-year old political militant with family ties to Abdelkrim’s short-lived government.
Zafzafi’s message was angry, unadorned, and populist, with a dash of religious rhetoric thrown in as well. His confrontational interruption of a mosque sermon, which quickly appeared on social media, proved to be the last straw for the regime, which decided to put an end to the protests. Around 400 activists, including Zafzafi, were arrested in May 2017. Zafzafi was secretly held for a time, and eventually convicted of undermining state security, disrespecting the King, and accepting foreign funds to help destabilize the country. His 20-year prison sentence was recently upheld by the Casablanca appeals court. More than 40 other protestors were sentenced from one to 20 years, as well as a journalist who covered the protests. The crackdown, credible reports of torture, and harsh sentencing have drawn strong criticism from Human Rights Watch.
Will the crackdown finally deflate the Hirak? One never knows. For a long time, the odds seemed to be in the regime’s favor. However, this past Sunday’s “march of the Moroccan people” in Rabat—a thousands-strong manifestation against the detainment of Hirak activists—suggests that the equilibrium may be changing. Given Morocco’s underlying problems, its developing culture of protest, and not least the demonstration effect of renewal of contested politics elsewhere in the region, one senses that active, and not just cosmetic, measures are required if Morocco is to successfully renew the increasingly fraying social contract between the regime and the public at large.
Sudan shutters in chaotic uncertainty, Libya endures a so-far low-level renewal of civil war, and Algeria continues to launch headlines into the global media space. If the streets of Rabat are any indication, Morocco, too, will not be immune to the region’s unrest.