Phillip Naylor on recent events in North Africa

Phillip Naylor’s MENA Rihla (Travelogue) Reflection

When I stepped on the tarmac at the Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca a year ago, I hoped to see a mysterious man with a fedora, wearing a trench coat packing a .45, and “Bogarting” a cigarette. (It was late at night, but it wasn’t foggy.) Then I looked for a beautiful woman with a tear streaking her cheek remembering the words: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Ah, mais non! Personne! A few days later, after visiting Rabat and time-warping in fabulous Fez, I was in Cairo walking along Tahrir Square. Riot police were deployed throughout the area. The Revolution had begun the day before (25 January 2011). In my whirlwind tour of Cairo and Giza, Abdou, my taxi driver, made sure that I had time to visit the National Museum. Who knew that this world famous institution would soon be closed as violence in neighboring Tahrir Square escalated? (Egyptians would stand arm in arm to protect their museum and patrimony.) By that time, I was in Tel Aviv with its seemingly omnipresent throbbing, incessant dance music echoing in my head; but I liked the city’s verve and groove. Jerusalem was another story—sacred but sad—dramatic yet divisive—although hearing activist Yeduda Stolov talk about “encountering” efforts to bridge communities made me feel better as did a providential meeting with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III. Of course, having Terry Miller with me, the Director of the Office of International Education, expedited the entire enterprise, especially as a guide in Jerusalem’s Old City. Thanks, Terry!

It’s been quite a year for MENA—Middle East and North Africa. Now what? The “Arab Spring” has not only reverberated regionally but globally. As mentioned at the Middle East Studies Association meeting in December, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement can be linked to Tunisian protests that erupted in December 2010, incited by Mohamed Bouazizi’s tragic self-immolation. Since then there have been extraordinary events, e.g., the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar Qadhafi in Libya. To many observers, the subsequent growth of Islamism is worrisome as illustrated by the electoral success of Ennahda in Tunisia in October, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco in November, and the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt in November, December, and January. Nevertheless, Islamism as a movement needs clarification.

In his analysis “Understanding Islamism” (International Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa, no. 37, 2 March 2005), Hugh Roberts (now at Tufts University) equated Islamism with “‘Islamic activism,’ the active assertion and promotion of beliefs, prescriptions, laws, or policies that are held to be Islamic in character.” In other words, Islamism cannot be narrowly circumscribed but can be widely interpreted, especially in its North African context. Morocco’s PJD, despite being an opposition party, remains loyal to the Moroccan monarchy. After underestimating the 20 February 2011 protest, King Muhammad VI offered important constitutional reforms, although he maintains decisive power. Furthermore, the king’s prestige is enhanced since he is a sharif, a relative of the Prophet Muhammad. Tunisia’s Ennahda (the Renaissance party) models itself on Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. While also acknowledging its debt to and inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood, it recognizes the secular realities of the country, notably rights accorded to women by the Personal Status Code of 1956. Furthermore, Ennahda’s leader, Rashid Ghannushi (Rachid Ghannouchi), is highly influenced by the ideas of Malik Bennabi (1905-73), an Algerian intellectual who pragmatically melded his Islamism with modernity. Ghannushi has repeatedly declared his support for democracy and political and civil rights. Can Ennahda reconcile the secular with the spiritual? (See the challenges faced by Ennahda regarding the film Persepolis and its problematic personification of God [New York Times, 31 January 2012]).

The Freedom and Justice Party of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has also professed its moderation. This is not the same party as that of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), an insurgent Islamist, who was executed by Gamel abd el-Nasser’s government. Indeed, Egyptian political Islamism is divided—notably between the Brotherhood and the Salafist party, al-Nour. Furthermore, the dominant presence of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) must be taken into account, especially the Army’s role in the economy. The Brotherhood has evinced its willingness to dialogue and compromise. The most recent violence in Egypt, including the horrific deaths at a soccer match, attests to an array of issues principally relating to the need for security in order to promote a vital civil society. (SCAF’s role in this transitional political process has been discredited and its legitimacy questioned.) Will Egypt be able to inaugurate institutions that will accommodate the country’s pluralism? Although it is difficult to determine, given the tumult of the post-Qadhafi period, it appears that Libyan Islamism is fundamentally moderate as embodied by Ali al-Sallabi, although there are more conservative currents, which could transmute toward extremism. Elections for a constituent assembly are scheduled for June. The degree and direction of Libyan Islamism should be easier to discern by then. In the short-term, Libya’s National Transition Council is faced with difficult challenges, primarily disarming the militias that campaigned against the Qadhafi government.

I have not mentioned Algeria. While there have been many protests within that country, they have been primarily over social issues, e.g., the need for housing, clean water. After a coup prevented the Islamic Salvation Front from coming to power in 1992, Algeria suffered terribly from its exhaustive civil strife in the 1990s and early 2000s (reportedly 150,000-200,000 dead). The government still wages war against al-Qai‘ida in the (Lands of the) Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), which emerged from the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The AQIM’s operations (including kidnappings) have especially taxed the economically and socially challenged countries of the Sahel (e.g., Mauritania, Mali, and Niger). Algeria’s hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) revenue has allowed it to temper economic (and political) exigencies by raising salaries and retaining food subsidies. A major political issue is the question of presidential succession, given President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s health and age.

North Africans countries face shared challenges including (1) dislocated/rentier economies/debt; (2) distressed infrastructures/environments; and (3) alienated youth (affected by declining expectations, e.g., recent Moroccan self-immolations). Certainly, colonialism can be held partially accountable; it caused severe upheavals. It also introduced numerous ideologies and technologies that North Africans continue to mediate. Combined with the rapidly changing political realities in the region, North Africans find themselves dealing with disruptive existential matters involving defining national and personal identities. Thus, historicism, with its inherent phenomenological, epistemological, and ultimately ontological contexts, is increasingly important.  North Africans have shown that they possess impressive intellectual capital and, most important, imagination. Indeed, the region deserves greater study by Americans. We may learn something from their difficult democratization, since we, too, are still engaged in that great experiment.

Ma‘a salām (with peace).

Phillip Naylor

Phillip Naylor’s most recent publication is North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present


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