Within a very short space of time as historical moments go, most of the countries of North Africa recently experienced simultaneous tumult. First came popular protests against the extension of President Bouteflika’s tenure in Algeria that resulted in his formal—as opposed to already real—retirement on April 2. Then on April 4 came the assault by General Khalifa Haftar’s forces against the UN-recognized government of Libya in Tripoli. Next came the ouster of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan on April 11 in the face of massive and persistent public protest against the regime. And just when one thought things could not get any more convoluted, major anti-regime street protests broke out in Morocco on April 21.
Among the countries of Arab North Africa only Tunisia, where the so-called Arab Spring began in December 2010, and Egypt, were spared telegenic upheaval—not that nothing much was going on in those two places. In Egypt, the regime’s effort to amend the constitution through a public referendum, the point of which was to deepen the tenure of the current dictatorship, went forward during April 20-22 more smoothly than many would have hoped. According to the regime, more than 83 percent voted “yes”, even if only 44 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot—both soft numbers in all likelihood. A little public unrest there might have been a good thing.
At the end of April in Tunisia, protests and counter-protests—both small by current regional standards—erupted over the government’s effort to ban a pro-LGBT advocacy group attempting to overturn a very old law criminalizing homosexuality. On balance, it appears that the government effort was quite popular in what is still a relatively conservative society. What this shows, among other things, is that not all democracies are liberal by current Western standards, and, just to make the point clearer, not all more or less liberal orders are genuine electoral democracies (e.g., Singapore). Liberalism and democracy have different histories and ontologies. Most Americans, however, for reasons of history, do not evince much awareness of that.
Speaking of what most Americans seem not to know, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, and Morocco are distinct polities with distinct circumstances and histories, this despite the reality of a cultural pan-Arabism bequeathed by a common language and religious civilization. Americans with only casual if any knowledge of these and other Arab countries are perpetually surprised when they learn about these differences. As a rule, applicable to all things, ignorance conflates and knowledge distinguishes. Ignorance asserts, but knowledge poses questions. Ignorance is driven by emotion, but knowledge embraces reason and emotion in mixed measure.
Thus, it is no surprise that when April brought forth near simultaneous convolutions in these four countries, many American observers pronounced the arrival of the second wave of the Arab Spring. And just as occurred with the onset of the first wave in late 2010 and into 2011, most of these observers completely misunderstood what they were seeing out the bad habit of unwittingly projecting their own frames of reference onto the scene. To most Americans, any anti-regime street protest anywhere in the world is ipso facto a democracy movement, more or less akin to “people power” in the Philippines back in 1983-86.
In a way, seeing last month’s upheavals in north Africa in this same dim light is surprising because it takes a person having lived under a rock or in a cave for the past eight years not to know that the first so-called Arab Spring did not bring about the benign consequences hoped for at that time—except partially in Tunisia—either by activists in these countries or by observers in Western democracies looking on from the outside. Despite that, the same hopes for “immaculate conception” forms of democratic emergence returned, as before, almost totally untethered to any basis in political sociology.
What happened last month in Algeria, Libya, Sudan, and Morocco can be both likened to and distinguished from what happened 8-9 years ago in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. The data is capacious, and allows almost any comparison, whether a careful and considered one or not. But there are generally only two basic ways to construct such comparisons. The first, very popular with Americans, is faith-based. The second, popular with those professionally trained and experienced in such things, is social science- and history-based.
The first invariably launches expectations that reality cannot fulfill. The second councils hermetic pessimism, because nations do not jump out of their histories anymore than people jump out of their skins. Political reality everywhere is based on organic social developments moored in history; it does not fall out of the sky one day out of nowhere. Faith-based ways of thinking about other people’s business, not to mention one’s own on some occasions, ignores all this and believes devoutly in the possibility of instant conversion to the true faith.
In America, all of this is, of course, a secularized extension of classical Christian, and especially Protestant, evangelical theology. I know that and you, dear reader, at least have a solid intuition of it; but few contemporary Americans recognize this because they believe that we separate church and state, a concept whose actual origins most Americans are completely clueless about. They are examples of the proverbial fish who is the last to discover water. But let’s leave the Americans alone for the time being; they are distracted with their own political dysfunctions these days. Let’s instead briefly apply a social-science, history-based approach to the events of last month.
So then what did happen the first time around, and, more to the point, what is happening in North Africa now?
During the first wave of the so-called Arab Spring—which, according to the calendar, began and developed in the dead of winter……but never mind—there were some true democrats among the protesters. They were mostly younger people, many of them reasonably well-educated and plugged into then-new social media technologies. But the majority of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria who joined the protests, and many more who passively supported them, knew far better what they were against than what they were for. It wasn’t necessary to understand or be for democratic reform in order to be very angry at one’s government. But the absence of a consensus on the direction of change undermined the protest movements and prevented them from becoming a coherent force for sustainable political reform.
And so the consequences of the Arab Spring’s first wave? They were positive for the country where it all began—Tunisia. But Tunisia has special precursor advantages.
One is that it is small, hardly larger than a city-state, and as Montesquieu argued long ago, democratic habits form and are sustained more easily in smaller polities. In a large republic, Montesquieu observed, “interests become particular; a man senses then that he can be happy, great, glorious without his fatherland; & soon that he can be great solely on the ruins of his fatherland.” One consequence is that “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations; it is subordinated to the exceptions; it depends on accidents.” But “in a small” republic “the public good is more fully felt, better known, closer to each citizen; the abuses are less extensive there & as a consequence less well protected.”
Tunisia was also advantaged by its having a liberalizing autocrat in the long post-independence rule of Habib Bourguiba, whose promotion of women’s rights and education, in particular, revolutionized Tunisian society. Tunisian urban elites are also closer to France culturally than the elites of other North African countries, and the country as a whole has thus been affected more by liberalizing French mores. And finally, going back further into history, the Bey of Tunis during Ottoman times developed an early and deep commercial relationship with Europe on account of the shashiya guild located there. A shashiya, for those who may not know, is the signature hat of Tunisian men that became the favorite style throughout North Africa and beyond in the Ottoman Empire. To acquire the wool needed to make the hat, a significant trading relationship was established with several European countries. Those commercial relationships helped to modernize Tunisian society well before that of other North African societies.
But for all its apparent success, Tunisia’s genuinely pluralist, albeit fragile, democracy has yet to substantively ameliorate the socioeconomic and psycho-social conditions that underpinned the widespread alienation of the region’s overwhelmingly youthful population that drove the 2011 protests. As the American philosopher Yogi Berra might have put it, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over”, until, in other words, “the fat lady has sung.” And in Tunisia thing are still not really over.
Things did not go so well elsewhere. Egypt today has a more repressive regime then it did under Hosni Mubarak. Yemen and Syria collapsed into civil war. It is not clear what might have happened in Libya had not the United States and its allies invaded the country in March 2011. But it is clear what happened since they did: a full-frontal collapse of governance.
None of this really had anything to do with a deep yearning for democracy. In the Arab world, the decay of cynicism within a population can lead to a kind of faith-based approach as well. It is a faith that things are so bad that tearing down the status quo cannot possibly lead to anything worse. Unfortunately, that faith is often disappointed, and it certainly has been in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria.
We can hear an echo of this in the understanding of recent events in North Africa. This time around, many Western observers believed at the outset of the tumultuous events of last month that Algeria and Sudan, and possibly Morocco as well, were on the very cusp of democratic emergence. Once again there were relatively small numbers of people at the core of the protests who held up such a result as their aspiration. But once again the majority of the people involved in the protests only knew what they were against, not what they were for. Under such conditions, it became relatively easy for the regimes to co-op the protest with fairly minor and often symbolic concessions.
Algeria and Sudan
Both Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir were long past their sell-by dates. Their regimes displayed torpor at the top and kleptocratic excess throughout to extraordinary degrees, and both relied on the army to keep a political oligopoly in power. Both regimes also displayed systematic prejudice against non-Arab minorities within, Amazigh in the Algerian case, several Beja and Nubian groups in the Sudanese one. The Algerian power, or pouvier as the protestors have called it, used oil revenues to palliate the population; the Sudanese regime manipulated a folk version of populist Islam to do much the same.
But eventually the charms wore off as the leaders lingered far too long in power, and the regime’s assault upon the dignity of the majority grew too onerous to sustain. People took to the streets in Algiers and Khartoum not to demand democracy, but to demand that their crooked and corrupt elites relinquish power.
The fact that there was no consensus on what was supposed to come next has allowed the elites in both countries to buy off the protests. So two heads of state rolled, but the underlying power structures have managed to preserve themselves in both countries, at least for now.
In Algeria a few spectacularly corrupt relatives of the old upper elite have been sacrificed on a makeshift altar of political contrition. It remains to be seen what will happen next. In particular, while so far the action has not centered on the Kabilye Berbers, it could very well migrate there. If it does, there is really no telling what will happen.
In Sudan, no one knows exactly what is happening even now. It’s not even clear that al-Bashir was not somehow involved in his own dismissal—call it a peculiar method of Sudanese smoke-and-mirrors retirement. If that turns out to be the case it would mirror the manner in which al-Bashir took power. Back in 1989, Hassan al-Turabi, al-Bashir’s Islamist co-conspirator in the military coup, supposedly went to prison, but it was all a trick set up beforehand to bamboozle the nation.
The Sudanese protests were extremely telegenic, epitomized by the iconic image of a woman in a white dress with large metallic earrings speaking truth to power while standing on top of a car in front of cameras from the world’s media. It was beautiful, ennobling, breathtaking, and energizing. But the question remains as to whether it was really efficacious.
In neither case, Algeria or Sudan, has the regime itself changed. And in neither case it is likely to change genuinely anytime soon. The people have thrown a punch, and the punch connected. But the other fighter is still standing.
As for Morocco, a bit more recent history is needed to even minimally understand April’s events. But again, it is a history that has nothing to do with any yearning for democracy—unless one defines the term so broadly that it ends up signifying “good” or “clean” government in a hopelessly vague, generic sense, which renders the term all but meaningless.
Modern governments in the Arab world as elsewhere, whatever their form (monarchical in Morocco), must effectively deliver services to their youthful, better educated, and often restless populations. King Mohammed VI, who came to power at he tender age of 35 upon the death of his autocratic father Hassan II in 1999 (the same year Bouteflika came to power, as it happens), hoped to humanize and thus better sustain what had become a remote and feared monarchy.
There followed a controlled liberalization of political life and the press, reconciliation with many political opponents of the monarchy, symbolic (and later constitutional) recognition of the Amazigh language and culture as an integral part of Moroccan national identity, and large-scale development projects. All of this bought time and a measure of good will, but the makhzen, the historic Moroccan political term for the interlocking political, military, economic, and religious establishment, remained.
During the first wave of the Arab Spring, Moroccan energies rose from the street. A heterogeneous February 20th movement called for comprehensive reform (islah al-nizam) and a “parliamentary monarchy.” The movement brought the largest number of anti-government protestors into the streets since the mid-1960s. The King soon gamed the movement, however, by engineering a modest constitutional reform process and new elections that produced an Islamist party-led government. The wind subsequently abandoned the movement’s sails, leaving real power where it has always been: in the Palace.
Meanwhile, the King has become very wealthy, with a personal wealth of $5.7 billion according to a 2015 Forbes report. He and his family own decisive stakes in every sector of the Moroccan economy. In the political sphere, business as usual has prevailed since the denouement of the February 20th movement, with the authorities persisting in much-practiced methods of manipulation, co-option, and selected repression to deflect all serious challenges to the status quo.
But the April protests suggest that the old methods may no longer prevail. There were signs, among Morocco’s many contentions with the Palace, well before last month. Water scarcity in villages such as Zagora has prompted repeated outcries. The Imider protests against a Palace-owned silver mine that has been draining the neighboring villages’ water and poisoning their crops is now in its seventh year. Consumer boycotts organized through social media of water bottling and dairy products companies, and a network of petrol stations owned by a friend of the King, have hit home. The protest song “F’bladi Dalmouni” (“In My Country I Suffer from Injustice”) has become the fans’ anthem of Casablanca’s RAJA soccer team, its soundtrack viewed by millions on YouTube.
Above all have been the sustained protests of the Hirak al-Rif (“Rif Movement”). The predominantly Rifian Berber region of Morocco has historically been alienated from the center of power. The Hirak movement dates from fall 2016, when police confiscated the goods of a fish monger and threw them into the back of a garbage truck. In trying to retrieve them, the owner jumped into the truck, only to be crushed to death when a policeman ordered the driver to activate the grinder. The incident was captured by a cellphone camera and distributed on YouTube.
The incident sparked protests with a decidedly ethnic dimension, and produced a leader in Nasser Zafzafi, a 40-year old political militant with family ties to the leader of a short-lived anti-colonial rebel government in the region in the 1920s. Some 400 activists, including Zafzafi, were arrested in May 2017. Zafzafi was convicted of undermining state security, disrespecting the King, and accepting foreign funds to help destabilize the country. More than 40 other protestors, as well as a journalist covering the protests, were sentenced from one to 20 years.
Until April’s protests, it seemed that the crackdown had overcome the Hirak. But the April 21 “march of the Moroccan people” pointedly demanded the release of Hirak activists, indicating that the equilibrium may be shifting against the regime. Morocco’s underlying socio-economic debilities, its developing culture of protest, and the demonstration effect of contested politics next door in Algeria and elsewhere in the region suggest that cosmetic cooptation may no longer be enough to keep the King and his court safe.
The situation in Libya is completely different from those in Algeria, Sudan, and Morocco. Libya has no actual government to overthrow. It has either two governments or no governments depending on how you count.
This is not the place to go into detail over the utter foolishness of the March 2011 war that resulted in the overthrow of Muamar Qaddafi. Suffice it to say that, in the aftermath, the vacuum of governance in the country resulted in, among other things, a funnel for uncontrolled immigration through Libya into southern Europe; a fuse for a Tuareg rebellion that convulsed Mali and required significant French military effort to put right; and an upsurge of Islamist radicalism that took the life of an American ambassador and members of his staff. It also resulted in a rump government in Tripoli whose writ runs no further than a few dozen city blocks.
Khalifa Haftar is a colorful figure if there ever was one. His biography could furnish the basis of a movie plot that virtually any normal person would imagine to be fiction. He was trained in the Soviet Union, served in the Egyptian army for a while, distinguished himself for ineptitude in the Libyan war against Chad in 1978-79, escaped Qaddafi’s wrath by fleeing into the Congo, and ended up living in the United States, not coincidentally down the road from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, for almost twenty years. You can’t make stuff like that up.
Libya is a deeply riven and very conservative society, a pre-modern patrimonial state defined largely by tribal affiliations. Its existence as a state in its current boundaries is an incidental function of Italian colonialism and Western state-engineering in the aftermath of World War II. Its initial monarchical independence government, dating only from 1951, lasted a mere 18 years before being overtaken by a military coup. Colonel Qaddafi ruled the country by engaging in shrewd and ruthless arbitrage among the larger tribes, operated a military-centric patronage network facilitated by oil revenues, and over time infantilized what there was of the young state’s political institutions. It is no wonder, then, that the protests of early 2011, doubtlessly stimulated by the demonstration effect of what had gone on previously in Tunisia and Egypt, were tribally based and aimed at a fairer split of the country’s resources. The protests were not entirely peaceful—a fair number of demonstrators were armed—and they had nothing whatsoever to do with democracy.
The Western intervention, based in part on a misinterpretation of regime threats against the protesters, destroyed not only the Qaddafi regime but also the coherence, such as it was, of the Libyan state. General Haftar is from Libya’s east, from the Benghazi region, where the February-March 2011 protests began. The feeble UN-sponsored government in Tripoli is made up of elements similar in the main to those that composed the old regime. It is not hard to understand, therefore, why UN efforts to reunify Libyan politics under that aegis were never going to succeed, unless the United States and the major countries of Europe were willing to physically police and pay for the unification operation for an extended period. And that was never in the cards.
Knowing that, Haftar decided to force the issue by seizing Tripoli by surprise and destroying the government there. But once again demonstrating his poor military judgment, he failed.
He is no longer in the quiet employ of the U.S. government. His supporters in recent months have been Russia and the Arab version of the 19th-century European Dreikaiserbund made up of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These three conservative and frightened leadership cadres see lunatic Islamists everywhere under the bedding, and so oppose regime change of any kind under any circumstances, especially any regime change that might affect their own long-term viability. They also oppose Qatari support of Muslim Brotherhood-friendly elements in the Libyan morass, which is part and parcel of their enmity for the Qatari regime generally. Their interest in Russia is predicated on the simple fact that Moscow has some entrée into Iran, their central nemesis, thanks to shared interests in Syria, while Washington does not. So unless the Trump Administration is determined to overthrow the Iranian government, the Russia connection is the only leverage the Arab Dreikaiserbund has over the situation in Libya, and anywhere else in the region where the tentacles of the Iranian monster might possibly reach.
As things stand now, as a result of what transpired last month, the prospect of a reunified Libyan state is lower than ever. The prospect of a democratic one is very close to zero.
This may seem a very depressing conclusion for the events of April to those whose expectations were excessively optimistic to begin with. And so we have a repeat of the psychological dynamics of the first Arab Spring. But in truth, for the realistic and the patient, at least, it is not a depressing conclusion at all.
The typical American tends to think that unless a government is democratic, and democratic of a sort that resembles Western democracy, then the government must be evil, or despotic, or even tyrannical. This is yet another manifestation of the problem that Americans have in counting to three. Between a democratic government of the Western kind on the one hand, which is an organic development out of a very long history in a particular cultural idiom, and on the other hand a horrific tyranny such as that of Ba’athi Iraq, there are many, many other possibilities. There are traditional forms of accountability that work well enough, but that are not post-Weberian modern democratic forms of accountability, which sometimes do not work very well at all. There are soft forms of authoritarianism as well as ruthless hard forms. There always have been, and the differences matter.
In that light, the events of April in North Africa show three things. First, except in Libya, the protests we have seen in Algeria, Sudan, and Morocco give evidence that civil society is alive and reasonably well in these countries. As more people become educated, especially women, as the generations roll and as more people become interconnected by new technologies, their willingness to put up with outsized kleptocratic corruption and the various indignities visited upon them by their elites is eroding. No one should ever underestimate the damage that bad government can do, but if societies remain basically honest, virtuous, and whole, they will outlast bad government in the end.
Second, as things stand now, conservative forces in the Arab world are determined to stand athwart of any positive change in the region if they can. They are even willing to fuel murderous wars, like the one in Yemen, and to welcome back into the Arab fold even mass murderers, like the one in Syria. The Russian government has no problem with any of this, because its own antipathy to regime change is equally as embedded, and the transactional, cold-blooded character of its foreign policy has been consistent since Czarist and through Soviet times to the present. That the current U.S. administration is willing to overlook this sort of behavior is both relatively novel historically, and deeply depressing. It is one thing for Washington to have tolerated the behavior of authoritarian allies as lesser evils during the Cold War, and it was never true that U.S. policy alone or in the main determined regime type in allied states. But it is quite another to tolerate and even encourage such behavior when the stakes have completely changed.
In the end, however, the behavior of outsiders, whether other Arab regimes or more distant great powers, will not be the deciding factor in the internal politics of Arab countries. The people of these countries will ultimately determine their own futures. If they really want more decent governments, and are willing to take risks and make sacrifices to get them, they will ultimately get what they want. That is not a bad thing.
Third, certainly in the United States and in Europe, if not also among the educated and technologically adept in the region, immersion in the digital world’s technology is speeding us up. It is destroying the capacity of many people to sequence events, to conceive of causal chains, and to appreciate the nature of political time. There are three kinds of time: personal time, defined by the circadian rhythms of our bodies; geological time, measured in hundreds of thousands of years; and political time, which is everything in between. Social and political change takes time. Progress takes time. Regression takes time, too, although regression can happen much faster because a well-constructed political order is an artifice of accumulated human effort, not a natural outcropping of human social nature.
Arabs and those who wish them well perhaps should recall some advice that Adam Clayton Powell once gave to his supporters. He said, “Keep the faith, baby.” I would amend that statement to fit the circumstances, and urge everyone to keep their real faith, not the various versions of it that have been hijacked by political entrepreneurs. If the beleaguered citizens of Arab countries do that, things will in time get better, God willing. After all, does it not say in Surat Yunus, verse 17, “The wicked shall not prosper”? Yes, it does.
 See Omar al-Turabi, “Sudan’s Half Revolution”, The American Interest, May 3, 2019.
 This account draws from Bruce Maddy-Weizmann, “Takin’ It to the Streets in Algeria and Morocco”, The American Interest, April 25, 2019.
 For an extended analysis, see my “Can Americans Count to Three?” The American Interest Online, March 9, 2018, a fuller version of “The Anglo-Protestant Basis of U.S. Foreign Policy: Examples and Evidence,” Orbis (Winter 2017-18).