Pressure Points: Revolution in North Africa


Until the start of this year, North Africa was generally regarded to be a region of stability and predictability. On the other side of the Mediterranean, its economic environment was certainly seen as worrying, not least because of the pressure of unemployed youth seeking to migrate into the European space. But in terms of politics, there seemed to be an atmosphere of unchanging calm. The region’s autocracies appeared to be firmly in charge and political Islam was being kept comfortably at bay in the deepest recesses of the Sahara.

That image has been overthrown in a few short weeks, as first Tunisia and then Egypt experienced veritable massed and popular revolutions that forced their leaders from office in a matter of days. And, since February, Muammar Qadhafi’s regime in Libya has suffered a sustained challenge to its survival. Although Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika seem to have weathered the storms of popular protest, they too now know that change can no longer be avoided.

In Europe, it quickly became clear that both the Union and its member states had been wrong-footed and they were forced to contemplate the implications of decades of misguided policy towards their southern neighbours, where the kaleidoscope of political transformation was still being shaken.

Some observers consider that these extraordinary events were interlinked in a kind of domino effect, such that, when one regime fell, the others inevitably followed, tumbling into a democratic future. However, although there was certainly an inter-linkage – the success of the Tunisian uprising spurred on the Egyptian protesters which in turn encouraged the widespread Libyan rejection of the Qadhafi regime – the patterns of revolution and the likely outcomes have been, and will be, distinctly different in each country. And, furthermore, the key drivers of change were far from identical. Although economic hardship – a problem across the region – was the initial cause of protest, only in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was this translated into political transformation as well.

The answer to this conundrum seems to have to do with collective memory and the popular legitimacy of the state. The event that catalysed the transformation occurred on 17 December in Sidi Bouzid, an unremarkable town in central Tunisia. There the insults heaped upon Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable seller, by the municipal administration and the governorate led him to immolate himself. His act of desperation was seen as a statement about the arrogance and corruption of the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime and so gave life to the protests that eventually brought it down. In Egypt, it was the ability of youthful demonstrators – rallying against the arrogant indifference of the Mubarak regime – to resist police charges on 25January that fired the mass later. While, in Libya, widespread resentment against the corruption, protests after Friday prayers three days repression and neglect visited upon Cyrenaica for decades, sparked off the so-called ‘day of rage’ on 15 February.

A significant common factor between the three revolutions has been the role played by the armed forces, although its effect was rather different in each case. The small Tunisian army, traditionally non-political, refused to fire on demonstrators which precipitated Ben Ali’s fall from grace – as Tunisia’s single political party, the Rassemblement Constitutionelle Démocratique, dumped him in what was ultimately to prove to be an unsuccessful attempt to save itself and its own hold on power. In Egypt, once the Egyptian army, the emblem and backbone of the Nassirist state, realised that President Mubarak had become a liability, it decisively moved to force him from office and took over power itself. Now the army has become the principal arbiter of transition and it will, no doubt, define the profile of a future democratic regime.

The Libyan army, long distrusted and despised by the Qadhafi regime as a potential threat and for its failures in Chad in 1987, split in Cyrenaica, with the rebel units giving the demonstrators the muscle they needed to force pro-Qadhafi elements out. The regime, however, has massive military resources available through its mercenaries, elite brigades and tribal support, so the battles in Libya may well be long drawn out as the regime struggles to reassert itself.

Contrary to all the systemic and existential fears of Western politicians about political Islam, Islamist movements played no part at all in any of these massive changes of regime. Nor will Islamic extremists slide into power on the coat-tails of moderate Islamist parties in the new administrations that emerge, simply because the distaste between moderate and extremist has always been intense. In any case, although Islamic moderates will undoubtedly play some role in the new political systems that emerge, it will be within a political plurality in which they are unlikely to become the majority.

And why have Algeria and Morocco escaped the wave of revolution unscathed? In Morocco’s case, the political reforms of the 1990s gave its citizens a meaningful say in political affairs and a sense that the repressive regime of the past was over. It is true that the king has stalled on further political reform and that this has been one of the demonstrators’ demands, but the Moroccan monarchy still retains sufficient popular respect to be able to manage its future reform programme in its own way, despite worsening economic hardship. In

Algeria, the regime adroitly subsidised food prices at the start of the year, thus defusing public anger, while promising to remove the state of emergency in place since 1993. At the same time, it firmly blocked all attempts to stage rolling demonstrations in the capital, profoundly aided by divisions amongst the demonstrators themselves and by popular memory of the horrors of the civil war a decade ago.

That leaves a final question; what will the revolutions in North Africa produce, now that the first stage of overthrowing autocracies nears completion? In Tunisia, the vigilance of the civil society that survived the Ben Ali regime and engineered its downfall seems likely to produce a truly democratic outcome.

Egypt will remain dominated by the army, now partnering a democratic civilian regime – provided it does not threaten the army’s privileges and the peace treaty with Israel remains intact, even if the border with Gaza opens. Morocco and Algeria will probably manage their own challenges without political catastrophe or regime change. Libya remains the biggest conundrum so far. The Qadhafi regime may have proved that it has an ability to recover lost ground with the deployment of its elite brigades equipped with heavy weaponry but, having lost moral authority, its path to a probably inevitable final defeat could prove very bloody indeed.

About the author:
George Joffé is a Research Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge

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