Published On: Mon, Feb 4th, 2013

Political Change in the Maghreb and North Africa

By Colin Kilkelly*

 Morocco News Tribune


Following the Arab Spring, or as some now call it the Arab Awakening, Islamist parties won power in elections in Morocco and Tunisia but not Algeria or Libya. The Islamists took over from the short lived surge of the 20 February Movement.

 The call by young people for liberty, freedom of expression and artistic creativity, access to jobs, equality, and freedom from corruption and a better life has taken second place to the Islamist parties who received popular support.

 The Islamists promised to govern for all the people. In Tunisia many of the secular parties no longer believe Ennhada will defend their human rights and freedoms. In Morocco Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane retains strong popularity but as in Tunisia there is dissatisfaction over the economic performance of the government. This is also the case in Egypt and to a certain extent in Libya which is battling militia led violence. 

 Whilst the issue of rigid Islamist conformity versus secular liberalism is very much alive in varying degrees in all countries in North Africa and the Maghreb, the issue of economic performance by Islamist led governments is now coming to the fore and shaping political change.

 In Morocco Hamid Chabat, leader of the Istiqlal party has issued a challenge to its coalition partner the PJD to reallocate ministerial posts inline with the votes castein the last election. Up till now the PJD has had its own way in government and Mr Chabat is trying to change this, saying that the government should function as a coalition. He has called for 20% of the ministerial posts to be allocated to women and he has criticised Prime Minister Benkirane and the PJD led-government for its slow moving economic policy in a time of recession. Time will tell what effect Mr Chabat’s memorandum will have.

 In Tunisia, where the struggle between islamists and secular parties, in particularCaid Essebsi’s Nida Tounes -Call of Tunisia-party, is critical, a cabinet reshuffle is imminent although delayed again and uncertain, with opposition parties like the Republican party ready to take the ministerial posts, although Ennhada and the CPR have ruled out offering Nida Tounes cabinet posts. Nida Tounes has joined with Al Massar, and the Al Joumhouri party in an election alliance although the secular parties are still divided. The criticisms of the Ennhada-led government focus on the economy, unemployment and law and order, human rights and freedom of the press.

 In Egypt a cabinet reshuffle has also taken place focusing on the economy. Egypt is the only country where the Islamist parties are in the majority. The current standoff in the streets of Cairo with a number of demonstrators were dead and continuing violence does not bode well for its economic future and the Islamist secular divide looms as large as ever. General Fattah el-Sisi, the defence minister and army commander has warned of the danger of collapse in the present chaotic situation. Could the army take over?

 Algeria has seen the Islamist parties disappear off the political radar screen without parliamentary seats. However, even in Algeria’s tightly controlled political environment there is change-Ahmed Ouyahia has left the RND and Abdul-Aziz  Belkhadem has been ousted as secretary general of the FLN. The governing coalition which won the election will therefore be leaderless. There is talk of Abdelaziz Bouteflika running for another term, despite denials of involvement in politics the army general council may yet meet and choose a candidate who will sweep the board. Whatever the result, the economy features prominently.

 Algeria is still a state run oil economy depending on hydrocarbons and a very small private sector. Unemployment is still high and Algeria has not yet experienced an Arab Spring but change is underway and the government is trying to promote youth employment and entrepreneurship. The In Amenas hostage crisis and the attack on the Abdul Ain Chikh pipeline site, 75 miles southwest of Algiers, shows that Algeria’s hydrocarbons sector, its economic lifeline, is vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

 Libya engulfed by the turbulence of its militias and intertribal fighting with heavy calibre machine guns and anti aircraft guns mounted on trucks taking a terrible toll has nevertheless had a relatively smooth political transition to the government of Mr Ali Zeidan. This government is now making serious efforts to curtail militias and secure its borders arresting smugglers of weapons and narcotics. It deserves credit for its efforts and its courage in facing the violence in post Gaddafi Libya and the

 Benghazi Mafia which is killing senior policemen and judges who served during the 40 years of Gaddafi’s regime and Benghazi remains a lawless no go area. Gaddafi left no private sector and an oil and gas industry still suffering from insufficient maintenance. Unemployment also remains the main challenge.

 The Maghreb badly needs stability, without it the countries of the Maghreb risk loosing out on foreign direct investment which they need. The international press rushed to cover the region following its impulse for change but as stagnation and uncertainty set in international coverage of the region has also dropt. America’s turning towards Asia is an example. Freedom of the press and expression has taken a hit right across the Maghreb which will have a negative effect. 

 The Maghreb is blessed with many diversified cultural links and its cultural and secular life must not become a victim to fundamentalist Islamist repression of freedoms. The concern that the Arab Spring and its call for individual rights and freedoms could turn into authoritarian repression in the face of disorder and demonstrations is a very real possibility.

*Colin Kilkelly specializes in the Maghreb and is based in Marrakech, Morocco. He has worked in Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania. Previously he has lived and worked in Pakistan where he was Regional Director for South Magazine, and has visited frequently since then. He interviewed President Musharraf on 3 occasions for Pakistan Special Reports in FIRST Magazine, and has written for Blue Chip Magazine based in Islamabad. He recently wrote the UKTI (UK Government Department for Trade and Investment) folders for commercial investment into Morocco, Pakistan and Libya. He is also a correspondent for the North Africa Journal. He is a member of the Middle East Association (MEA) London.


All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Morocco News Tribune’s editorial policy.




  • Mohamed Abouhou

    I call it the Amazigh or democratic spring.

  • Habib Jellai

    this is a very informative and analytical…I like your style and assessement

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