A political landscape reshaped in North Africa

02 August 2011

The events of the past eight months have transformed political systems in North Africa. But the process of reform is just beginning and full democracy is still a long way off

Key fact

About 98 per cent voted in favour of constitutional reforms put forward by Morocco’s King Mohamed VI

Source: MEED

Walking around an upscale district in central Casablanca, it is hard to believe that Morocco is, like its neighbours, in the middle of intense debate over how far it should go down the road of political and social reform.

A visit to the city’s less affluent inner districts or the ballooning mass housing projects in the suburbs changes that perception and provides a sense of the social pressures that have helped fuel demand for change. King Mohammed VI has responded to protests with an overhaul of the constitution, endorsed by voters in a 1 July referendum.

By staging a referendum, King Mohammed VI caught opponents off guard

Morocco is a country of paradoxes. It has a vibrant press, an established multi-party political system, relaxed social life and lively summer cultural festivals. But it still faces profound social pressures, significant levels of poverty and high unemployment, especially among the young.

Change agent

Internationally, the king is perceived as a leader that has recognised the need to accelerate the pace of change. While his constitutional package has not satisfied all critics, the strength of the 98 per cent votes in favour of the amendments and a 75 per cent turnout in the referendum, suggests that most citizens feel the king has taken a big first step. Even though it has not stopped the 20 February reform campaign from holding weekly marches to push for further measures.

The road to full democracy is open in Tunisia, but the pace of progress towards this goal is hard to predict

Conditions are less clear in neighbouring Algeria, where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced a wide-ranging programme of potential constitutional changes in April. It followed an initial unspecified promise of reform made on 19 March. Top of the agenda set out by the president is an overhaul of the electoral law to focus on democratic principles and transparency. Other promised measures include new laws on political parties, local and regional government and to promote women’s chances of securing elected office. Bouteflika also spoke of reforming the constitution itself.

In contrast to previous top-down political reforms, this new programme would, the president said, be discussed by an expert constitutional commission and by what he described as “active political movements”.

The ambitious agenda raised as many questions as it answered about whether the reform would have real substance or be a cosmetic overhaul of a state that has been dominated since independence by the ruling Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and its military allies. Critics complained that there are still tight controls on the establishment of political parties.

Tunisia, by contrast, has undergone a genuine revolution, with former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali sent into exile and condemned in absentia to decades-long prison terms for abuses of power. The country is now preparing for elections in October of a constituent assembly whose task will be to design the political structure for a new democratic republic.

Despite the huge changes that have already taken place, the country still faces immense uncertainty over the way forward.

Several important political groups have pulled out of the body set up to prepare the ground for October’s vote. And while there appears to be no way back for the Ben Ali clan, there is widespread concern that elements of the old regime will find a means to repackage themselves and recover much of the power and influence they previously enjoyed.

These underlying tensions are reflected in the recent outbreak of violence in Sidi Bouzid, the provincial town where street trader Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December, sparking the wave of mass protests that culminated in the collapse of the Ben Ali regime four weeks later.

The question is whether reform in North Africa will continue to move forward and how much popular pressure there is for further change.

Morocco’s political progress

The process appears most controlled in Morocco. By staging a referendum only two weeks after his announcement of constitutional reform, King Mohammed VI caught his opponents off guard. The 20 February campaign found itself trying to argue that the king’s package, while a welcome advance, did not really go far enough.

Kader Abderrahim, Maghreb specialist at the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques (IRIS), recently pointed out that although the new rules oblige the king to accept the leader of the party that wins parliamentary elections as prime minister, he still retains the right to approve or reject items proposed by the premier for consideration by the Council of Ministers.

The new system strengthens the position of the premier and the elected parliamentary majority, but the palace still retains considerable influence. Morocco is certainly not a purely constitutional monarchy, with the king limited to a ceremonial role.

But such constitutional details were not the sort of clear cut campaign issues that could mobilise the Moroccan public to vote against the changes. Many appreciated the fact that the king had responded positively to the protests and to the regional demand for change. Moreover, many voters had become fed up with the weekly protest marches and public sector workers’ strikes over employment conditions.

Yet King Mohammed VI cannot afford to sit on his laurels. Already, learning from their referendum defeat, the 20 February campaigners are starting to refocus on issues that have a stronger echo with the general public, such as the country’s widespread corruption.

If the government tackles this and other core socio-economic issues, Moroccans may be satisfied with the limited scope of political change. However, lack of progress could revive demands for more profound reform.

Algeria concessions

In Algeria, the leadership is now trying to appropriate the reform movement, seeking to present itself as the leader of change rather than a defender of the status quo, making concessions only with reluctance.

On 23 July, Miloud Chorfi, spokesman for the Rassemblement National Democratique (RND), the main minority partner in the ruling coalition, told party activists that the political reforms put forward by President Bouteflika were “essential for the consolidation of the democratic process”.

Since the state of emergency was lifted earlier this year, Algeria has seen an eruption of debate across a range of forums, with national discourses on civil society, urbanisation and the environment, regional seminars and a revival of organised consultations with employers and the trade unions.

However, the regime remains determined to lead and control this process. Chorfi made it clear that the president would take the key decisions on constitutional reform.

He indicated that his party, including the current prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia, favours a political system that involves all parties in the running of the country. RND is seen as close to the military establishment.

This would appear to suggest that, with some adaptations, Algeria will continue with the current political system. The FLN and President Bouteflika will remain at the heart of power, with a range of smaller groups coopted into the ruling establishment.

The government does not appear willing to contemplate creating a system where the public could actually vote one administration out of power and replace it with a new one.

Not all political parties are satisfied with this limited version of democracy. The small Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie (RCD) and Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) parties led respectively, by Said Sadi and Hocine Ait Ahmed, have snubbed the recent reform debates organised by the authorities. They do not believe that genuine reform can be led by the government and they see Bouteflika’s proposals as essentially a regime attempt to manipulate the situation.

The RCD and FFS, which have long campaigned in favour of more far-reaching political liberalisation, can count on strong support in the Kabylia mountain region to the east of Algiers. At the height of the protest campaign earlier this year, the RCD attempted to bus in student supporters from there to join demonstrations in the capital.

It is unclear how far these two parties can mobilise support beyond their bases of support among the people of Kabylia and among the liberal urban middle class.

There are two major factors that work in the government’s favour. Algeria’s booming energy revenues mean that the administration does have the cash to tackle some immediate social pressures. For many Algerians, the relative success of Bouteflika’s efforts to end large-scale Islamist militant violence is a major point in the regime’s favour.

Despite longstanding amnesty initiatives and the gradual re-admission of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) into political life, some jihadist fighting bands are still operational under the banner of Al-Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique. But the violence is on a much smaller scale than a decade ago and normality more or less prevails. Perhaps to a greater extent than in Morocco, demands for political reform have been linked to economic discontent, particularly the shortages of housing and jobs. Failure to tackle these could reignite political tensions.

Next door, in Tunisia, confidence is more fragile, despite the success of January’s mass protests in forcing the downfall of the Ben Ali regime, which had stifled internal debate and political activity with far greater effect and ruthlessness than its regional neighbours to the west.

With the old authoritarian structures swept away, the political class is having to make up the process of democratisation as it goes along, amid inevitable mistrusts and disagreements. There is also a lingering background of worry that elements of Ben Ali’s old Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD) party might yet succeed in finding a way to get their fingers back on the levers of power, in much the same way as senior communist apparatchiks ended up back in the driving seat in post-revolutionary Romania two decades ago.

Political Islam

At the same time, many secular reformers fear that political Islam may emerge as the dominant force once citizens go to the polls. Such tensions explain why the preparations for the election of a constitutional assembly in Tunisia, now scheduled for October, having been postponed from 24 July, are proving so awkward and contentious.

Recent localised violent clashes confirm the scale of unresolved pressures bubbling in Tunisia. They are likely to persist until the constituent assembly is in place and can begin to demonstrate an ability to develop reformed political structures that command the confidence of different strands of opinion – if it can do so.

Potentially, the road to full democracy is open in Tunisia, but the pace of progress towards this goal is hard to predict. The building of a new national consensus over the way forward is proving a painful and complex process.

The events of the past eight months have reshaped the political landscape in North Africa. But the process of change is just beginning. The people will need to keep up the pressure on their governments if they want the reforms to be seen through to the end.

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