Protest Movements in the Maghreb

Recurring Revolts

In his essay, the renowned Moroccan philosopher Mohamed Sabila describes the generation gap in the three Maghreb states and the social plight of young people, who have turned away in disappointment from the political dogmatism of their parent's generation

Young people demonstrating in Tunis (photo: AP)
Young Tunisians continue to demonstrate against the interim government

​​The Maghreb states of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, as well as their geographical neighbours, have a great deal in common both politically and culturally. All three states were subjected to French colonial rule: Algeria was occupied in 1831, Tunisia in 1881 and finally Morocco in 1912.

Beginning in the 1940s, resistance groups emerged in all three countries, and together they planned and coordinated the anti-colonial struggle – with long-term success. Yet, the independence that the three states managed to achieve in the 1950s and 1960s also resulted in the gradual accumulation of political differences, especially between Morocco and Algeria.

Border conflicts occurred, such as that in Western Sahara, as well as ongoing disputes, such as that between the Moroccan Sultanate and the Algerian freedom fighter Emir Abdelkader.

Social and political upheavals

In all three newly independent states, there were political conflicts with the former standard-bearers of the anti-colonial struggle.

In Algeria, the National Liberation Army suppressed all parties and forces that were represented in the Algerian transitional government.

In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba pushed aside the political leadership from the days of the struggle against France.

In Morocco, a murderous conflict for power broke out involving the palace, progressive parties, and the army. After bloody fighting, a power-sharing agreement was finally reached, forming the basis of the country's democracy.

Young people protesting in Bab El-Oued (photo: dpa)
Recurring revolts: in 1988, "bread riots" broke out in Bab El-Oued, a working-class district in the Algerian capital, Algiers. They quickly assumed a political dimension, challenging the ruling FLN. Over 20 years later, protests took place once again in Bab El-Oued, this time against the rocketing price of food and the corruption and nepotism of the Bouteflika government.

​​The government position with respect to political Islamic movements also has parallels in all three countries, although certain particular features stand out.

The Tunisian government simply banned Islamists from taking part in politics.

In Algeria, where the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the 1990 elections, there was an annulment of the poll followed by many years of civil war, which ended in the Islamists being politically suppressed.

In Morocco, due to the religious character of state power – the King is at once the head of state and religiously legitimate ruler – there was no direct confrontation with Islamist movements (with the exception of the Adl wa-Ihsan group) because they were already integrated in the political system.

Recurring revolts

Typical of the societies in the three Maghreb countries are social protests, which automatically assume a political character and occur roughly every four to six years. These are the so-called "bread riots".

These protests usually begin as popular uprisings in the cities. They are violently suppressed and subside until a new generation has forgotten the violence of the previous revolt and a new avalanche is triggered. The cycle always follows the same pattern: initial protest, open rebellion, suppression of the unrest by the regime, and the subsidence and subsequent flare-up of the protests.

Parallel to this, the regimes have employed many different methods to tame political opposition and labour movements and, in a variety of ways, to politically integrate them.

It appears that protest movements, for the most part, form spontaneously in reaction to rising food prices. Political or labour union organizations seize upon these grievances and successfully promote them. Most state responses are merely provisional in nature and often serve to extinguish any immediate social upheavals.

The downfall of the old elite

Algerian President Bouteflika (photo: AP)
Many young people in Algeria doubt the political legitimacy of the regime

​​Characteristic of all three Maghreb states is the generation gap and the chasm between their respective ideologies. The traditional political actors, including those in the opposition, are typically held captive to the thinking and ideology of their generation, which is closely linked to the legends, heroism, and symbolism of the struggle against colonialism. By contrast, today's society has been marked by a rapid demographic transformation.

In 1956, the year of its independence, Morocco had a population of ten million. Today, this figure stands at over 30 million, and 60 percent of Moroccans are young people. The situation is similar in the other Maghreb states. Consequently, the nationalistic, anti-colonial discourse of the National Liberation Front in Algeria, the Independence Party in Morocco, and the governing party in Tunisia finds itself on the wane.

Although the older political elite still cling to their nationalistic heritage and pathos, their legends have long since faded in the eyes of the younger generation. Young people have new ambitions and expectations and desire a better life. This new political and ideological orientation has been partially addressed by the Islamic discourse, which is full of promises and utopian visions of a better future.

Strategies to combat social protest

Without a doubt, every regime has its own "recipe" for combating social protests and subduing opposition.

The Moroccan regime has developed its own political defence system that emphasizes its religious legitimacy. It has so far managed to contain opposition forces by ruling with an iron fist while keeping the political and cultural elite on its side. In addition, national unity has been promoted through the so-called "completion of territorial unity" (the annexation of Western Sahara – ed.) and the political reforms introduced by the new Moroccan king.

In Algeria, the issue of legitimacy is still based on the legendary anti-colonial liberation struggle, even though this ideological association has lost much of its mobilizing force. The younger generation tends to regard this as more of a fable, which bears little relation to today's realities.

Mohamed Sabila (photo: Mohamed Sabila)
"Continued loss of legitimacy, unfair distribution of wealth in society, as well as the lack of division of power and the guarantee of fundamental individual rights have proved to be structural hurdles in the movement towards greater democracy in all three Maghreb countries," writes Mohamed Sabila

​​Moreover, there is the general feeling that revenues from natural resources in Algeria – the Maghreb state with the greatest reserves of oil and gas – are being squandered and unfairly distributed. Many young people there also believe that the Algerian regime does not enjoy sufficient political legitimacy. This explains why the government has now so quickly reduced prices for basic foodstuffs.

The collapsed Tunisian system under Ben Ali had always boasted that it not only provided security and development, but that it also had the support of the middle class. Nonetheless, this could not prevent the powerful outcry from an anguished Tunisian society from sweeping away the whole regime.

Continued loss of legitimacy, unfair distribution of wealth in society, as well as the lack of division of power and the guarantee of fundamental individual rights have proved to be structural hurdles in the movement towards greater democracy in all three Maghreb countries. It is therefore highly unlikely that a little bit of balm poured onto the deep societal wounds will result in any real cure.

Mohamed Sabila

© 2011

Mohamed Sabila is Professor of Philosophy at Rabat University and President of the Moroccan Association of Philosophy.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.