The Arab Spring May Still Be Alive in Northwestern Africa

The world looked on in 2011 as the uprisings of the Arab Spring toppled longtime authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and seemingly promised to bring sweeping change to every corner of the region. In the years since, however, this promise has sharply eroded as authoritarians struck back, restoring control by severely restricting a wide variety of civic and political rights and jailing opponents in staggering numbers. In doing so, many Arab rulers have learned “best practices” from one another, including how to mete out crackdowns while portraying themselves as reliable and valuable allies in Washington in order to forestall potential pressure from US administrations. Indeed, prospects for improved human rights and more political freedoms have never seemed so distant.

Yet recent developments in northwestern Africa suggest that the Arab Spring may be alive and well in parts of the Arab world. Political events in Algeria, Morocco, and, to a lesser extent,  Mauritania—three countries where citizens have stood up to governments and demanded their rights at the ballot box and in the streets—have thrown a scare into regional governments, especially in light of the downfall, in April, of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir and strong popular demands for civilian government there. The cases of the three countries serve as further reminders that the conditions that prompted the Arab Spring in the first place—political repression and poor economies chief among them—still pertain to countries throughout the region and are likely to pose difficult challenges to authoritarian systems in the future.

The conditions that prompted the Arab Spring in the first place—political repression and poor economies chief among them—still pertain to countries throughout the region and are likely to pose difficult challenges to authoritarian systems in the future.

Indeed, the varying experiences of these three countries have a lot to tell us about the enduring and persuasive power of political change, not just in North Africa but in the rest of the Arab world as well.

Algeria: Military and Opposition Still at Loggerheads

Algeria’s longtime president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and the military-led government behind him long appeared immune to the sort of popular uprising that had overthrown Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Algerians had largely resisted the siren song of the Arab uprisings then, having experienced the horrors of civil war in the 1990s and, more recently, watched as Syria crumbled in its own civil conflict. The ability of the regime to leverage oil and gas revenues to purchase political acquiescence was also a major factor in heading off confrontation with the Algerian populace.

But the plunge in oil prices in 2014 undermined the government’s ability to buy off political opposition. A number of other factors, including deterioration in the quality of government-funded public services, a high rate of youth unemployment (nearly 30 percent in 2018), a wave of corruption scandals, and harshly limited civil liberties eventually took their toll on the regime’s ability to deflect demands for sweeping change.

When Bouteflika, in ill health and confined to a wheelchair since a stroke in 2013, announced his intention to run for a fifth term in February, the public reaction was immediate and overwhelming. Massive street demonstrations quickly made his renewed bid for office untenable, and the army’s chief of staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, forced him out and orchestrated the election of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah, leader of the upper house of parliament. When this, too, proved unacceptable to the opposition, plans for a new presidential election scheduled for July 4 were canceled, with no new date set.

As demonstrations continued, protesters began to sense that something more was possible: not just a transition to another military-approved leader, but a real transition, through free and fair elections, to an accountable civilian government. The attempts of the military and Le Pouvoir—the unelected group of old guard political figures and oligarchs who serve as the power behind the presidency—to stage-manage the ascent of a new leader began to founder.

Success in the streets is one thing, however, and the varied opposition groups and factions that helped bring down Bouteflika quickly faced problems of their own. Riven by internal disagreements over both goals and tactics, the opposition has so far failed to come forward with a clear strategy to address the many political uncertainties and pitfalls facing Algeria.

Riven by internal disagreements over both goals and tactics, the opposition has so far failed to come forward with a clear strategy to address the many political uncertainties and pitfalls facing Algeria.

These fractures were on clear display at a national dialogue forum held in Algiers on July 6. Those in attendance, including unions, civil society organizations, political parties, journalists, and prominent political figures, were able to agree on a “serene, organized and credible national dialogue” as well as a “road map” leading to elections. But some key oppositionists and respected political figures boycotted, and backstage pressure from the military forced participants to water down a draft accord in certain significant respects, including the removal of any reference to a “political transition.” And key issues were unaddressed, such as the role of the military in future governance. The dialogue is likely to continue, though disagreements and wrangling certainly will as well.

The Algerian transition remains troubled and uncertain, as the political power of the mass demonstrations and allied forces continues to clash with a weakened but dangerous military. But Algeria’s ossified politics appear to have been cracked open permanently.

Morocco: Opposition Making a Comeback

Pressure for change took longer to build in Morocco, where the respected monarch and “Commander of the Faithful” presided over a managed system—sometimes known as the  “Moroccan exception“—that, while authoritarian in practice, allowed some open political contestation in what was presumed to be a slow and stately progression toward a more democratic arrangement. The king sat above politics and was seen as the glue that held the system together, protecting it from the political fires burning in other Arab states.

Still, in 2011 a wave of public protests burst upon Morocco just as it has elsewhere in the Arab world. On February 20 of that year, protests broke out in Rabat and several other Moroccan cities to demand constitutional changes to limit the powers of the king and allow broader political space. Anger at pervasive corruption and poor economic conditions helped fuel the grievances expressed in the streets.

As the protests grew, the so-called February 20 Movement—a loose coalition of youthful demonstrators, rights activists, unions, Islamists, and others—began to clarify and amplify their demands, and King Mohammed VI found himself under increasing pressure. He eventually came to the conclusion that, in the atmosphere of political chaos then sweeping the region, he must come to terms somehow with the protesters’ demands in order to save the existing power structure and the interests that backed it. (In Morocco, this is the Makhzen, a network centered on the king and comprising members of the court, the military and security services, landowners, wealthy businessmen, and other elites—Morocco’s version of Algeria’s Pouvoir.)

Thus, on March 9, the king announced that “we have decided to undertake a comprehensive constitutional reform” and said that a commission would be established to recommend the necessary constitutional changes. The new constitution, passed in a national referendum in July 2011, made significant structural changes to the government—ostensibly to dilute some of the king’s powers—and enshrined human rights as a major focus.

Restrictions persist on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, accompanied by credible reports of the use of excessive force against demonstrators and torture of jailed activists trying to exercise those rights.

These changes notwithstanding, the practical effect was to reinforce the powers of the monarch and his role as final arbiter within Morocco’s political system. Moreover, many of the protections for human rights proposed by the constitution failed to materialize. Restrictions persist on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, accompanied by credible reports of the use of excessive force against demonstrators and torture of jailed activists trying to exercise those rights, many of them associated with protests and activism in the Rif and Western Sahara. According to Human Rights Watch, the Moroccan government, rather than lessening restrictions on political activity, is demonstrating “an increasing intolerance of public dissent.”

If the promises of the new constitution have not been met, neither have the rosier promises of a better economic future. Infrastructure and basic development needs are lagging, and without broad regulatory reform, projected GDP will soon decline, according to the World Bank. Overall unemployment stands at about 10 percent, with only small variations over the last five years; the picture is bleaker for Moroccan youth, whose unemployment rate is 24.1 percent, and even worse for urban youth (40.3 percent). According to a recent BBC News Arabic survey, about 70 percent of those under 30 would emigrate if they could.

The king’s reforms and promises of stronger economic prospects, however, did serve to weaken the February 20 Movement, which was largely the intent in the first place. Apathy started to replace activism as February 20 organizers began to understand they had been outflanked by the king and the Makhzen.

But the success of the monarch in sidetracking popular protest may not last long. Last March, teachers protesting working conditions demonstrated in the capital and police used water cannons to break up a sit-in by 15,000 educators at the parliament building. Demonstrations erupted in Rabat in April as thousands demanded the release of imprisoned Rif activists whose 20-year sentences were confirmed by a Casablanca court; marchers streamed through the streets to chants of “freedom, dignity and social justice.”

There are signs that the tenuous “Moroccan exception” may be crumbling at last. The BBC survey shows that only 18 percent of those aged 18-19 have a positive view of the government; in addition, nearly 50 percent of Moroccans support immediate political change, a higher percentage than in any of the other nine countries surveyed.

As security forces react to political demonstrations with increasing repression, public anger has risen—and along with it, criticism of the king—a relatively new and concerning development. The growing weakness of the Justice and Development Party, the main legal Islamist party, and other “mediating elites” has decreased avenues to channel dissent peacefully. The stunning events in Algeria and Sudan, not to mention Tunisia’s rough but generally successful transition to an electoral democracy, have strongly influenced Moroccans’ views of what is now politically achievable. It may be only a matter of time before the Arab Spring arrives in Morocco in full force.

Mauritania: “Democratic Pluralism” or “State of Siege”?

Change in Mauritania has been less consequential and certainly less dramatic than in either Algeria or Morocco, and it may appear to be an outlier in this survey. But Mauritania is also a country in the midst of a political transition rooted in popular discontent with the economy and politics as usual. And, like Algeria and Morocco, the country is laboring to find a way around a long legacy of authoritarian—in this case military—rule.  The election may be over, but the struggle is not.

Mauritania is also a country in the midst of a political transition rooted in popular discontent with the economy and politics as usual.

Mauritanians went to the polls on June 23 to cast votes for president in a bid to effect the first democratic transition of power in Mauritania’s history. The electoral campaign was generally low-key and centered on economic issues and maintenance of stability in the country. But other issues were on the menu as well, including demands for social justice and equality—polite phrases describing the need to address the persistence of racism and slavery, which was ostensibly outlawed in 1981.

Authorities announced the winner as former general Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the only military man among a group of six candidates and an ally of outgoing President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who took power in a 2008 military coup. But charges of electoral fraud soon cast doubt on the final results and provoked formal protests by three opposition candidates.

The government responded with a 10-day internet shutdown, arrests of critical journalists, and detentions of a number of opposition figures, moves widely criticized by the international human rights community as an attempt to head off efforts to mobilize protests against the election results.

The president-elect praised the results as a demonstration of “democratic pluralism and dialogue” in the country, but the disputed transition from one general to another has stoked fears of the perpetuation of military rule under the guise of civilian government. Opposition figures, some of whose supporters clashed with security forces immediately after the election results were announced, decried the “state of siege” imposed by security forces; the opposition’s formal legal challenges to the results were denied by Mauritania’s Constitutional Council on July 1.

The vigorously contested election, while certainly displaying weaknesses in the narrative of a peaceful democratic transition, appears to have exposed something else as well: rising dissatisfaction with strongman rule as well as discontent with the familiar conditions (as in other Arab countries) that have beset Mauritania: economic underdevelopment, corruption, and widespread human rights violations,  However flawed the most recent presidential election, the campaign uncovered a growing desire for meaningful change, the struggle for which is likely to sharpen in the coming years.

Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object

Seven years after the last Arab dictator was overthrown—Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen in 2012—the next, Algeria’s Bouteflika, fell, followed shortly by Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. During the long interlude in between, the Arab Spring was pronounced dead and many an autopsy was conducted to explain its demise.

But the events of the last four months in northwestern Africa and Sudan have underscored that the conditions that drove the Arab Spring in the first place remain very much alive: pent-up demand for political change that is fueled by disgust with entrenched elites, repression, corruption, and anger at persistently underperforming and apparently rigged economic systems. These conditions will continue to put pressure on existing regimes, whose weak institutional capacity leaves them ill-equipped to respond effectively.

There is no doubt that authoritarianism, particularly as embodied by military regimes, has proven extraordinarily adaptable to changing circumstances. And popular movements have repeatedly demonstrated a penchant to fracture as a result of political squabbling and failure to remain united on political goals and strategies. As a result, they are subject to co-optation or outflanking by a nimble regime, as has been the case in Morocco.

The resilience of authoritarian regimes and the shortcomings of popular movements cannot disguise the fact that longer-term dynamics favor the latter.

But the resilience of authoritarian regimes and the shortcomings of popular movements cannot disguise the fact that longer-term dynamics favor the latter. Popular uprisings may not come on a predetermined timetable that makes for a tidy narrative, but authoritarianism has proven to be anything but the immovable object many in the West have assumed. As they try to make sense of the political turmoil in the Arab world over the last eight and a half years, foreign policy elites in the United States and Europe would do well to ponder the current trajectory of the Arab countries in northwestern Africa as they assess the future of political change in the region.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here