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Sultans of Swings: The Zigzagging of State, Society, and Economy in the New Maghreb

Session III-06, sponsored by American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel sponsored by the American Institute for Maghrib Study brings together leading experts and new scholars of contestation and state-society relations in the Maghreb to examine how both state and society having been evolving to adapt to each other’s exigencies and demands in the post-Arab-spring and pandemic context. Two of the presentations are country specific, one on Algeria and one on Tunisia, looking at the evolution of state and society amidst increasing calls for cleaning house and systemic change. A third paper compares popular inputs to the post-Arab-spring constitution-making in Morocco and Tunisia, especially in light of what the author terms “dignity demands,” which are central features of what the organizer calls the “Arab spring ethos.” That paper will look at the hitherto unstudied influence of one constitution’s creation on the other. The other two papers look at all three core Maghreb countries from the perspective of cyclical economic failures, intensifying economic demands, and small successes in addressing demands with temporary distributive largesse and microlevel concession. Each core Maghreb country prior to the pandemic was experiencing an estimated 10,000 microprotests annually and during the pandemic continues to experience thousands of microprotests in each country annually despite lockdowns (with some of those protests against the lockdowns.) In some respect, state and society in the Maghreb are in constant evolution, but in other important aspects they engage in cycles and predictable actions and responses that have long histories and known patterns and contours. One of the results is a kind of management of protest (and microprotest) that preserves the system through a modicum of incremental concessions and service provisions and important symbolic moves on identity issues which are cheaper and easier to implement than fundamental restructurings. The fact that much of this activity circumvents established political channels like parliaments and parties attests to both disturbing dysfunctionality but also a degree of predictable and unpredictable ingenuity, all in the interest of states’ and societies’ interest in self-preservation and empowerment.
Political Science
  • Tunisia emerged in the decade between the Arab Spring of 2011 and presidential coup of 2021 as a country that has relative success with democratic processes towards regime transition. The long drafting process of the Tunisian Constitution from 2011 to 2014 has often been heralded as a proof of Tunisia’s leadership in making profound political transformations compared to hasty processes of change, such as the 2011 constitutional reform in Morocco that only took a few months. Yet, both constitutions presented noteworthy innovations that advanced a legalization of dignity demands in the region. In certain key respects, the latter constitution was even inspired by innovations in the former. This research aims to untangle and compare the mechanisms that produced such innovations and identify the actors involved, particularly the public as a contending force at the time. It also identifies the philosophical and practical objectives of such innovations. Comparative analysis will be aided by primary data from interviews with key political officials who witnessed and were directly involved in Rabat and Tunis in the constitutional reform and creation process. The theoretical framework of this study is inscribed in studies of politics of dignity (Kateb, 2014; Fukuyama, 2018) with a connection made to processes of constitutionalizing human rights and human dignity and implications for state-society relations (Daly, 2012; Rosen, 2012; Düwell, 2014; Barak, 2015; Sikkink, 2017). The comparative case for constitutional changes in Morocco and Tunisia can help us understand the political transformation of both individualized and collective demands such as the ones for human rights, particularly as they stem for a recognition of human dignity.
  • In 2019, Algeria witnessed for one year one of the most promising moments in its post-independence history. Millions of Algerians from all walks had taken up to the streets to demand that the ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ran the country under a sultanistic regime for two decades, to retire. They also demanded that all incumbent rulers leave, and that the political system erected after independence be replaced by democracy and good governance. The movement forced the military, the backbone of the regime, to remove Bouteflika from office. Regardless, the movement continued and was only stopped because of the pandemic. Though they had depicted the hirak as a blessed movement that saved Algeria from catastrophe, the new rulers decided to end it. Like its predecessor, the regime addressed a handful grievances and established its own roadmap for an alleged transition to a “New Algeria,” By the third anniversary of the hirak, it was obvious that the regime has no intention of changing the reviled political system or to initiate genuine political and economic reforms. Algeria, a rentier state, has always relied on high hydrocarbon prices to coopt citizens. Whenever prices dwindle, the regime promises to introduce reforms and when they increase, it reneges on those promises. Today, the regime is devising yet another stratagem to sustain the old system, that is, to change enough to remain the same, notwithstanding that some attempts at change that are worth analyzing. This paper critically investigates the changes that have occurred since the hirak. The research questions are 1) whether the post-Bouteflika regime is willing to change, 2) whether it is concocting, as it did after the 1988 protests and temporary democratic opening, new instruments to preserve the old system. The paper also asks, does the hirak have any influence in forcing the regime to initiate genuine change? What are the political and economic instruments that the regime has introduced to gain legitimacy? The paper is grounded in decades of research on Algeria in-country and internationally and thousands of interviews, but the method is to engage senior Algerian officials, opposition leaders, and stakeholders with a new set of questions around regime cooptation methods, so well documented in Algeria. The author, located near Algeria, has been in regular communication with dozens of hirak activists, party members, officials in ministries, and high-ranking military officers throughout the pandemic and plans to return as soon as possible.
  • Based on over 100 interviews conducted in Tunis in July-August 2021 and January 2022, with actors from across the ideological spectrum, and additional rounds of interviews planned for spring & summer 2022, this paper examines why and how Tunisians have failed to articulate a coherent and unified democratic alternative to President Kais Saied's populist, autocratic power grab. Tunisians have a history of forming cross-ideological opposition coalitions to resist autocratic consolidation, most notably the 2005-2006 October Movement, in which leftist and other secularly-oriented actors worked together with the center-right Islamist Ennahdha Party to resist Ben Ali. Informed by recent fieldwork and a decade's worth of field interviews, this paper explores the extent to which Tunisia's oppositional landscape resembles or departs from Tunisian (and, to a lesser extent, regional) oppositional coalitions. How and why does the topography of Tunisian resistance to Saied's comparatively esoteric brand of autocratic rule depart from historical resistance praxes and oppositional coalitions that have preceded it in Tunisia's post-colonial era? What are the key obstacles to cross-ideological coalition-building in Tunisia today? How are Tunisia's new post-2011 political and civil society elites reacting to Saied's rule, and what patterns and common characteristics can be discerned in these responses? Do their reactions resemble or break from those of Tunisia's legacy politicians and CSOs? How are these influenced by regional oppositional coalitions that inform Tunisian choices? Finally, how do every day acts of adaptation or resistance to Saied contrast with the acts of resistance observable on the elite professional and political levels? This paper attempts to provide critical new data for answering each of these questions, informed by heavily immersive, textured, ethnographically-oriented field research conducted since the July 2021 presidential coup in Tunisia and over the longer durée, drawing on over a decade of qualitative in-depth interviews.
  • While protest spikes and waves have been relatively well studied in the Maghreb when they crest into full view, the Arab Spring and the latest hiraks being the most apparent, since 1999 Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia have together experienced an average of over 20,000 microprotests annually that influence and interact with the larger waves and each other in interesting and not well documented ways. They also set some of most significant terms of evolving state society relations in all three countries. While there have been a few excellent country-specific studies of these phenomena, including on this panel, there has not been much valuable analysis on microprotest beyond the most prominent waves and spikes and how they incubate and inform evolutions in state-society relations and dynamics. When they are studied, they are often studied through distorting, often exterior lenses, such as “bread riots,” “intifadas,” “uprisings,” or dress rehearsals for revolutions that never occur. Amazigh and environmental activism, among many other examples, also fall into the category of microprotest that dialogues regionally and globally with often hyperlocal modalities and dividends. Housing, employment, education, health, social service, utility, water, and other microprotests cross-pollinate and interact in interesting ways with other forms of identity and rights-orientations, again with global, regional, and hyperlocal characteristics. National and regional governmental concessions and state largesse are also more feasible with regards to micro-protest than they are with national calls for revolutionary or systemic change. These dynamics also related closely to the problem of broken politics: weak and ineffectual parliaments, coopted and coerced political parties, sycophantic and insufficiently independent civil society organizations, become the best or even only way for local citizens to articulate demands and win concessions. The paper will also look at microprotest during the covid pandemic, including in relation to mandates and lockdowns. The paper will look at a variety of studies on these phenomena, most notably the regional and more abstract work of Hugh Roberts and the groundbreaking work on microprotest in Algeria of Robert Parks. But most of the data will be empirical, based on thousands of past interviews with protest participants and direct observation in all three countries and ongoing online interactions with microprotest organizers and state and social stakeholders. Overall, this research will examine how both state and society evolve and adapt to articulate demands and win and distribute concessions within a context of increasingly dysfunctional politics.