Are Algeria and Morocco Exceptions to the Arab Revolution?
Abdelmajid Hannoum* (University of Kansas)
The current successive and completely unexpected waves of revolution in Arab countries is reminding us, among many things, that it is not enough to topple a government to claim the success of a revolution. The toppling is only the beginning because a revolution entails the creation of a new order, a new regime, and as such it is a continuous struggle, it is a long process, it is a day-to-day battle, it is arduous, uncertain, and unpredictable.
The high optimism that spread after both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was followed by an attitude of reserve and prudence, caused by the fact that a revolution is over only when the forces of yesterday are completely erased from the political scene, and when the revolutionary force creates its own regime of governance.
For unlike violent revolutions, when the old structure of power is dismantled or appropriated by force, with peaceful revolutions, the structures of power are difficult to change, especially when those with the experience of running a state are mostly those who constituted the force of the old regime. How then can the new be created from the old against which the revolution occurred in the first place?
While Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya revolutionaries have declared victory, and Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria are the theater of massive peaceful protests that are met with state violence, a number of other countries have yet to experience upheavals of such magnitude. Among those are Algeria and Morocco, two countries with a long history of political protests against tyrannical rule, both colonial and domestic. While neither of them is out of the waves of revolution, one can only wonder why these two countries seem to be slow to jump into the fray; and as of today are not hit, or rather not yet hit hard, by a wave that is sweeping through the region. Are they exceptions, as their officials insist on telling us?
It is worth remembering that the first Arab country that was about to engage in a truly democratic process as a result of a massive and prolonged street march was Algeria, had the army not intervened to abort the elections and trigger a tragic civil war that has caused the death of over 200 000 people over 15 years, and the disappearance of thousands of others.
While Western media portrayed that tragic event in the early 1990s as the work of Islamists wanting to seize power violently, it was clear that the movement started as a massive protest in October 1989 by crowds of young men and women asking for more freedom and the end of the one party system. The consequence of that revolution was precisely the end of the one-party system and the beginning of a democratic process that was aborted in 1992 by the army coup that was, if not instigated, at least blessed, by postcolonial France.
In this regard, the Algerian Spring, in which all segments of society participated, was part of the Socialist Spring that started in Eastern Europe. But whereas Western countries wholeheartedly supported democracy against Communism in Eastern Europe, it fell short of supporting a similar movement in North Africa and instead either officially or unofficially supported military action against democracy. This struggle for freedom and dignity was soon forgotten and presented by the media as a struggle of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS, according to each French acronym) against the state, one of terrorism against legitimacy.
The Algerian post-independence revolution was aborted immediately, both militarily and discursively, both inside Algeria and abroad. To the masses of people in the region, the lesson taught and tragically learned was that democracy meant not the rule of the people by the people, but rather the rule of those people whose ideology is deemed acceptable by standards that are not those of the people. To defend the cancellation of the January 1992 parliamentary elections, one used to hear in the French media, ‘no freedom for those who oppose freedom,’ ‘elections brought Hitler to power’, and so on. All statements that express an undemocratic and paternalistic view. The logic is clearly, if we give them democracy, they will not give it back, as if democracy were a privilege that is offered or withheld, and not a fundamental human right.
After the elections of January 1992, a wave of police and military repression immediately followed, and fear spread throughout Algerian society, giving rise to a wave of state and militia terror that claimed many lives. The impact of these “black years”, as the Algerians call them, can still be clearly seen in Algerian society today, in its media, in its streets, in the discourse of its people, in protests of women every Wednesday asking about the fate of their relatives, and of course in the ideology of its state. After all, the country is only one decade away from the 1990s, not to mention that its major political problems were “resolved” mainly by military repression and never politically, despite the so-called “project of national reconciliation” announced by President Bouteflika in September 2005.
For the men and women of Algeria who want to convince themselves that this represents the past by talking about it in the past tense, the loss of many thousands of people is a reason not to replicate the experience, especially since the political atmosphere is still the same. The army still holds a firm grip on the state, the FIS, even though banned, is still an important actor, and postcolonial France still keeps a wary eye (or rather two) on in its former colony, today maybe more so than before because of the wave of change that hit the region this year.
For those I have spoken to in the years since that tragedy, in Algeria and abroad, there is something more precious in their country than democracy, and that is life itself.
This is not to say that Algeria will not join the Revolution and that the Algerian people learned how to be obedient and accept dictatorial rule. Nor is it to say that Algeria has been calm despite the storm of the Revolution in the region, even across two sides of its borders. In fact, Algerian youth protested, went to the streets last February, have their own movement as most Arab countries (as shown by the large demonstration of February 12). However, what prevents them from going en masse to the streets and demanding the fall of the regime is not the popularity of President Bouteflika, or the legitimacy of his party, but the tragedy of the 1990s, a tragedy too recent to make people consider repeating it.
Algerian officials have been already issuing statements similar to the ones issued by Ben Ali and Moubarak before popular protests forced one to flee and the other to resign. Algeria, they say over and again, is the exception. However, we learned through the experience of Egypt, Libya, and Syria that this statement made in this context translates not a social or political reality, but tension and insecurity, and for good reasons.
Morocco too claims to be the exception. The sight of powerful dictators falling one after the other, like autumn leaves, must have sent a wave of fear throughout the Moroccan government, as it must have done in all the remaining dictatorial regimes in the region, and beyond. The Moroccan supporters of the Moroccan state, the makhzen (ruling elite), in a savvy style inherited from the Lyautey* legacy, did not only say that Morocco is the exception. Immediately after the fall of Mubarak, Moroccan media started claiming that the Revolution had already been accomplished in 1999, after the new king was enthroned. One can only conclude from their statements that both Tunisia and Egypt are far behind Morocco in the rise of a revolutionary impulse.
The transition to democracy, a kingly revolution in and of itself, the makhzen and its propagandists argued, was accomplished by Mohamed VI when he succeeded his father. The fragility of this narrative maneuvering was soon revealed to the public when a youth movement, called the “20th of February”, appeared on the political scene, like rain in a season of drought. On February 20, many thousands of young people took to the streets of every city in a popular protest unseen in the history of the country. Tangier alone, a medium-size city, witnessed a protest estimated at more than 50,000 people. Since then protests have occurred at the rate of one a month, usually on a Sunday, but as of today they have not been transformed into a revolt or a revolution; that is to say, they have not (yet) used the strategy of a continuous massive protest that would put the regime in a real corner, as is happening in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, and as it happened before in Tunisia and Egypt.
The youth are demanding practical reform that would end the state of oppression, nepotism, and injustice. They are demanding a new constitution, coming from the people, and the dissolution of the government, and of the parliament, and free elections. In some ways, one would say that they are royalists in that they do not demand the end of monarchy and the founding of a Republic.
The monarchy responded rather cleverly, though not necessarily intelligently. On March 9, the King announced new reforms, a new constitution, and new elections. Relatively quickly the new constitution was born and was submitted to a referendum on July 1, and, as expected, was approved by a large margin. And the case seemed to have been settled once and for all. But not for youth movement called the February 20th movement. The constitution, like all others the country has known in its postcolonial history, was given from above and not from below, they responded, and does not meet the minimum demand, which is the change to a constitutional monarchy. And even if the prime minister held more prerogatives than in the past, he still needs to be approved by the King before he takes office.
In a country that counts an illiteracy rate of more than 54% illiteracy, defined only as those who have never been minimally schooled, the constitution was inaccessible to Moroccans. What was accessible was the propaganda of the state, including in mosques, and the waving of the portrait of the King and the Moroccan flag, the chanting of portentous slogans, such as “The King created a revolution,” “Morocco is now a democracy.”
Also, the members of the February 20th movement, despite their call for a constitutional monarchy, were presented as anti-royalists, a grouping of homosexuals, fundamentalists, breakers of the Ramadan fast, and atheists.
A counter-movement calling themselves the Royalist youth or the 9th March movement was also formed, and engaged in activism against the 20th February movement and for the new constitution. For the political parties, all allied with the regime, the constitution was “a historical event” that either totally achieved a real democracy similar to the one in France and Great Britain, or is going to do that soon. For the Facebook youth who know how to read, and often know more than one language, the new constitution is a rewritten version of the old one. The protest has to continue, and no giving up on the demands: “mamfakkinsh.” This was the new slogan born out of the first attempt, to be followed by “mamsajlin, wa mamsawtinsh, wa mamfakkinsh” (no registering, and no voting, and no way to go away).
This year then has seen a transformation of the political scene and the end of the state of comfort for the makhzen. Since February 20th, the movement has been organizing monthly protests. It is clear that they are part and parcel of the larger revolution that Arab countries have known since the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazzi burned himself to death, but it is also inscribed in a longer history. Morocco too has witnessed major upheavals in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Throughout its short post-colonial history, it was faced with unusual ruthlessness, similar to the most notorious one in the region at that time.
Massive repression and numerous and extremely serious violations of human rights against activists and students were carried out with impunity in the context of the cold war by a regime that had the blessings and the support of Western democracies. The prototype of the political enemy was then Communist, an atheist by definition. From 1975 he became somehow also identified with the enemy of national territory, a Communist who undermines national unity by recognizing the legitimacy of the Polisario in the Sahara. When this narrativewas no longer functional after the fall of the Soviet bloc, the enemy became the Islamist, bearded, unmodern, sexually frustrated, and above all violent. Since the dreadful events of May 2003 20, when 20 people were killed in Casablanca terrorist bomb blasts, the Islamist activist always runs the great danger of being identified with the terrorist, the member of Al-Qaeda.
However, against all expectations, the political enemy that emerged this year, all of a sudden, is neither the Communist nor the Islamist. He/she appeared suddenly, as in Egypt and Tunisia, young and dynamic, “hip” and for the most part non-ideological, mostly born in the 1980s and 1990s.
He/she wants neither to establish a Communist regime, nor a Caliphate; he/she only wants to clean up the house of corruption, of tyranny and tyrants, and to give it back to its real owners: the people (al-shaab).
Nevertheless, the February 20th movement appears less radical than its Tunisian or Egyptian counterparts. And the Algerian movement appears more slow than the Moroccan one. But radical or not, slow or fast, these movements are the new forces of social and political change, and they are part of a larger political makeup of the region. Their slow process, or their relatively smaller number, should not hide the fact that this movement is larger than all political parties combined, more dynamic than all of them, and definitively more independent of the political constraints of the existing regimes.
For both Algeria and Morocco, the change has just begun. As in the past, when the national youth movement claimed what seemed to be the unthinkable and even the unachievable, independence, the new forces in both Morocco and Algeria may well be a youth movement for a postcolonial independence from the national forces, themselves inheritors of colonial structures and colonial privileges. As in the case of Libya, people put their demands on the table, but it is up to the government to decide the nature of the transition to the future. For history has always demonstrated that change is its law and ruptures are its doctrine, that days are not alike, nor years, nor ages. And to this there has never been an exception.
Tangier, November 3