Civil Society in the Maghreb

Delicate Plants in a Harsh Environment

The first independent NGOs in North Africa were formed around 20 years ago. They are the agents of diverse and multifaceted civil societies. Nonetheless, their ability to work effectively remains strictly limited – especially in Tunisia. By Beat Stauffer

NGO activists protesting against attacks on freedom of the press (photo: dpa)
Faced with the grim diagnosis concerning the work of NGOs it's astonishing that the few truly independent NGOs are still active, Beat Stauffer finds

​​It happened at a conference centre in Geneva in the Spring of this year: A Tunisian delegate – a university professor and an activist in an independent NGO – noticed a young man who was constantly taking photos and making tape recordings.

Judging by the man's clothes, the professor took him for an anti-globalisation protestor; but when he asked him what he was up to, the man hissed, "Leave me in peace! I'm just doing my job!" The professor is convinced this was an "oreille du pouvoir" – an agent paid by the state, mingling with the audience.

Systematic infiltration

Anyone keen to find out just how free NGOs are to go about their work in Tunisia will hear many such anecdotes, not all of them as innocuous as the one above. The most serious accusation is that the Tunisian state has created a host of "fake" non-governmental organisations whose sole purpose to combat the real NGOs – and, not least, to deny their legitimacy at international conferences.

Essia Bel Hassen, spokesperson for the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, explains: "Officially, there are more than 9,400 NGOs in existence in Tunisia; but, of these, just seven are truly independent." All the others were set up by the authorities, she says, and none of them has any authentic basis.

For this reason, the independent associations and organisations are faced with enormous difficulties in their work; many of them aren't even able to hold their annual general meetings.

Infiltration strategies and systematic interference

What's more, says Bel Hassen, the real NGOs are all confronted with an infiltration strategy implemented by the former "Unity Party", the RCD (which is still practically all-powerful). She tells us that large numbers of agents in the pay of the government attempt to join the genuine NGOs, in order to acquire a majority in their boards of management. Subsequently, they go about the task of "correcting" the course of that NGO in accordance with the wishes of their paymasters.

The Tunisian human-rights organisation LTDH is the oldest in North Africa – and it, too, has been the target of repeated "takeover bids". This strategy, though, is frequently unsuccessful, because the NGOs are aware of the danger and have developed ways of dealing with it.

Yet the Tunisian state also has other means at its disposal when it comes to hindering their work. For one thing, it regularly blocks financial assistance sent to the Tunisian NGOs by international organisations that sympathise with their aims. At the same time, the government also makes it impossible for the NGOs to finance themselves independently by holding gala events or collecting contributions.

When all else fails, the authorities try to cripple any organisation they don't like, by instituting endless legal proceedings against them. Omar Mestiri is a board member of the Conseil National pour les Libertés en Tunisie. He says that the Tunisian state does everything it can to "soak up the resources of the independent NGOs, tie them up in interminable court cases, and hush up the work that they actually manage to do."

The NGOs' creed: In spite of everything

Faced with this grim diagnosis – which is essentially confirmed by everyone we spoke to – it's astonishing that the few truly independent NGOs are still active. The motto appears to be: "We won't let them grind us down!"

LTDH President Trifi says the daily oppression only serves to strengthen people's will to maintain some kind of opposition against this totalitarian system. Others are less optimistic: "Tunisian civil society is in a coma" was the verdict of one person involved in the arts (who, like many others, wished to remain nameless)s.

In Algeria, things are a little better. Certainly, organisations and associations are confronted with many limits on their activities, and they have to accept a whole range of compromises just in order to get their work done. The impression remains, however, that they are not as crudely harassed as in the neighbouring country of Tunisia.

Civil society in an embyonic state

But even in Algeria, the situation is anything but rosy. With few exceptions, says the Algerian journalist Hafida Ameyar, civil society is still in "an embryonic state". To be precise, there are three categories of organisation in Algeria.

Firstly, the so-called "mass organisations" that already existed in the days of single-party rule; for example, the "Union of Algerian Women". These organisations are not truly independent, but instruments deployed by the powers-that-be. In the second category, Ameyar includes associations of cancer sufferers, and groups with similar aims. These function pretty well, often receiving government subsidies, and they can generally depend on being smiled upon by the state.

Not so the third category of organisation: those that insist on maintaining their independence from the apparatus of state power. Ameyar says that these are merely tolerated rather being officially recognised, that they have to struggle against numerous difficulties, and that the state provides them with no financial support.

But in recent years, she tells us, some of these independent organisations have been approached by members of circles close to the government – and "corrupted" by gifts of money, trips abroad, or job offers. As a consequence, they have lost their independence and become "pseudo-NGOs". Hafida Ameyar says they should therefore be included amongst the clientele of the current rulers.

In Morocco, more room for manoeuvre

All observers agree that Morocco is the country in which independent organisations currently enjoy the greatest freedom to go about their work. The Tunisian human-rights activist Sihem Bensedrine and her husband Omar Mestiri have written a new book: "Despoten vor Europas Haustür" (published in German by Verlag Antje Kunstmann, Munich 2005).

They write: "Of all the autocracies in the region, Morocco is the country that permits most room for civil society." Nonetheless, the outer limits of this free space are unambiguously marked by "red lines", which no-one is permitted to cross.

For all that, a range of NGOs now carry considerable weight in Morocco – first and foremost, the women's and Berber organisations. The cultural life of the country is now unthinkable without them, and their voices are increasingly being heard; without the stubborn work of numerous women's organisations, the new laws on women's and family rights could hardly have been passed in late 2003.

One female observer sees this as a sign of a new recognition on the part of the king: that Morocco needs the help of civil society and its organisations if it is ever to deal effectively with its massive problems and its backwardness in many areas. In this way, civil society is forced to shoulder part of the burden, yet strengthened at the same time.

The concept of "citoyen" introduced to Maghreb

The term "citoyen" denotes a citizen who demands his or her rights but is also actively involved in finding solutions to society's problems. For the countries of the Maghreb, this is certainly a new concept, and it will take time before it supplants the picture of the man-in-the-street as a client or a serf. Civil society in North Africa still has a long way to go.

That it should be flourishing best in monarchist Morocco is not without irony; but for many Tunisian NGO activists, the irony is bitter. "We used to be the leaders in North Africa in this area", says LDTH President Trifi. "In the 90s, we helped the Moroccans to form their own human-rights organisations." Today, he says, Tunisia has regressed, and it will take years to recover the lost ground.

In mid-November, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) takes place in Tunisia. The representatives of Tunisian civil society expect little from it. Now that all attempts to wring some concessions from the regime have failed, the NGOs will have to content themselves with having a platform that's normally denied to them – even if that platform will be available only for a very short time.

Beat Stauffer

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/ 2005

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

Defamation of Tunisian Journalist
Smear Campaigns Waged at the Lowest Level
The Tunisian journalist Sihem Bensedrine is fighting against the indescribable methods of the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who stops at nothing when it comes to dragging oppositionists through the mud. The Arab and Muslim world is all but indifferent to the situation. By Hamid Skif

Analysis Presidential Elections in Tunisia
Hopes Dashed for Democracy and a Civil Society
The recent presidential elections in Tunisia shed light on the deplorable state of democracy in that country and the regime's all-powerful control apparatus. A post-election report and analysis by Sihem Bensedrine

The Press in the Maghrib
Between a Rock (Censorship) and a Hard Place (Prison)
From Mauritania to Egypt, which borders with the Maghrib, not a day goes by without journalists being harassed because of their work. To mark the International Day of the Freedom of the Press, the Algerian journalist and author Hamid Skif sums up the situation

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.