The Maghreb: Any Cure?
The Maghreb is sitting on a volcano that could erupt at any moment and create havoc around the region. Like the rest of the “fractured Arab lands” the past and present issues have not been resolved.
It is true that the hope for democracy was born in tiny but resourceful Tunisia in 2010 but instead of bringing peace and wellbeing to Arabs, it has brought civil war, desolation and an existence without predictability or security.
The Maghreb in question
Morocco has miraculously survived the upheavals of the Arab uprisings but the king, emboldened by his popularity, has failed to deliver incremental democracy as promised implicitly in the constitution of 2011.
In Algeria, the aging leadership is widely contested verbally, for now, but this could spawn uncontrollable strife if the state, impoverished by falling oil prices, dismantles subsidies.
In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party when rebuked by the electorate decided to go secular to regain power. The secular Nidaa Tounes party is in power now, but it has no sound base because it is a hodgepodge of politicians publicly willing to serve the country but privately interested in power and financial gain. Within its ranks remain many from the time of the dictator Ben Ali who are bent on revenge and personal gain.
In spite of the UN painfully-brokered peace in Libya, wounds are not healing and one wonders if it is truly a country or an unruly fractured confederation of tribes.
Patriarchy and nepotism
Historically speaking, the North African communities evolved from tribes into caliphate-type Islamic states modeled after Felix Arabia’s pre-Islamic political institutions. The aboriginal Amazigh population had a progressive tribal system: egalitarian in spirit and democratic in practice.
The tribe was ruled by an elected council called ait rab3in representing the different clans. The elected representatives were fully accountable to the council. With the arrival of Islam in the region in the 8th century AD, the Amazigh, in the name of this new religion, were emasculated and their political system ignored.
Since then, patriarchy has become a political system in the region and has spawned autocratic monarchies in which hereditary leaders rule single-handedly in the name of religion. These political systems considered the population as subjects and not citizens, subject to allegiance and obligations, but with practically no rights.
After independence in the 20th century, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya became republics and Morocco remained a monarchy. But this change of heart in the former did not mean democracy, at all, just more of the patriarchal system, if not worse.
In Morocco and Tunisia, democracy was subverted by political co-optation, whereas in Algeria and Libya by generous subsidies from oil revenues.
The establishment in the North African nations co-opted political parties, trade unions and civil society to remain in power.
When co-optation fails, political police take over to create a culture of fear through intimidation and, when need be, torture that maimed and, mostly, left terrible psychological scars. Morocco during the Années de Plomb (Years of Lead) (1960-1990) made extensive use of such tactics to subdue opposition.
In Tunisia, during the rule of the dictator, Ben Ali, the ratio of police per inhabitant was the highest in the world. The intent was to create fear and subvert opposition.
In Libya, opposition was not tolerated and resulted in political assassinations.
In Algeria, the electoral landslide win of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS, Islamist party) in the legislative elections of 1991 was annulled by the army and the party outlawed leading to a civil war (December 26, 1991 – February 8, 2002) that claimed over 200,000 lives.
Corruption and embezzlement
In the Maghreb corruption proved to be the best weapon to subdue opposition and it literally became the unofficial currency of the North African states that all pay lip service to fighting this scourge but have never tried officials who were corrupt or have been caught embezzling public funds.
The officials think of corruption as a privilege of the office and not as a felony. On the other hand, the political establishment uses its knowledge of corruption practices as a sword of Damocles over the head of politicians and officials, in case they decide to contest anything.
Some political analysts argue, tongue in cheek, that because governments do not want to eradicate these two scourges, they ought to tax their beneficiaries.
Lack of personal, cultural and religious freedom
People in the region are “born” shackled by a number of cultural taboos that restrict their freedom, creative thinking, power to discern and evaluation capacities. Over centuries these have become traditions that have morphed into a culture, and with time they have become sacred, too.
No religious freedom is allowed and any expression of belief in other religions is considered as apostasy and heresy, punishable by death. Religious minorities such as the Shia and the local converts to Christianity are stigmatized by society and chastised by the police and live mainly in the closet waiting patiently for better times.
The Amazigh/Berber people are still struggling in North Africa to achieve full recognition of their language, culture and civilization. Morocco and Algeria have written recognition into their laws, but in the field, Arabic is still the predominant language and culture because of its link to the Koran and Islam.
Tradition and deviant interpretation of the Koran have literally emasculated women and made them subservient to men and society, but also have denied them empowering education and better living conditions.
In the Maghreb, some progress has been made in the area of gender equality lately to counter religious radicalism, but there is a lot of work to be undertaken in such fields as: family law, women education, equality at work and criminalization of rape.
Failed educational system
Since independence, most North African countries have invested massively in education to empower their population and encourage economic development. However, to attain quality education, first, governments ought to generalize learning and ease access to knowledge by empowering people through literacy, especially in remote areas. This can be achieved by providing custom-tailored literacy courses coupled with vocational training that would, ultimately, allow the individual to subsist and survive in a very difficult environment.
Education in the Maghreb is in total crisis and needs to be revamped urgently to lead to quality, equality, equity, dignity and employability.
It is illogical that the region of North Africa where youth are predominant is ruled exclusively by a gerontocracy totally disconnected from their needs and aspirations, governing them in a time-old tribal and patriarchal fashion.
Needless to say, the Arab uprisings started in Tunisia in 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi, a young street vendor immolated himself after being humiliated by local police and his products and wares confiscated. But, alas, no change in favor of youth has occurred as a consequence.
Furthermore, due to tradition, youth are also, made to carry weights of social taboos. In some countries like Morocco this has led to a silent cultural revolution undertaken by millennials.
Many young people feel emasculated by their governments because they are unable to get a job after going through the educational system and graduating from universities.
The Arab Spring, this youth-initiated and led revolution started in the Maghreb, but it has not solved the persistent problems and cured the painful headaches. Instead it has brought the Islamists to power and many analysts view that as a social and political setback.