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Maghreb, the inevitable democratisation

This article was published in Oasis 15. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-18 14:44:35

Author: Pierre Vermeren




Title: Maghreb. Les origines de la révolution démocratique




Publisher: Fayard, Paris, 2011




The title should not mislead us. Maghreb. Les origines de la révolution démocratique is, in reality, the second edition of a volume that was published in 2004 with the title Maghreb, la démocratie impossible? and enriched with an new preface by the author. Although this publishing initiative may provoke some perplexity, one has to recognise that the book is, today, an indispensable instrument by which to understand the change that is now underway in the Arab world. The same publisher, as the author explains in the preface, foresaw that the success of this volume would be decided by current affairs. At the time of the first edition, the question of the democratisation of the Maghreb was not in vogue: on the one hand, everyone’s eyes were on the struggle against terrorism and Islamist radicalism, and, on the other – and it is Vermeren himself who points this out – the book run the risk of being referred back to the controversial question of the exportation of democracy. But after the passing of a few years, the initiative has turned out to be a good one. The most interesting aspect of this work is the placing of the question of democracy in a long-term historical perspective. At first sight the period of time chosen by the author seems to be excessive, given that, following an approach that seems almost that of a textbook, the analysis begins with Roman Africa and the Berber States. But during the reading of this book the logic of this perspective becomes clearer: to define the specificity of the Maghreb area and to introduce a theme that runs through all the volume, that of the Islamisation and the Arabisation of Mediterranean Africa, to which are added at least another two – the political culture of the post-colonial Maghreb and the formation of the elites. Connected with the question of Arabisation and Islamisation is the rise of Islamism. Going against the tread of most current interpretations, which place its origins in the 1970s, the author brings its date back a number of decades, linking it to the reformism of the salafiyya and identity-based nationalism. Again in the transition from the colonial epoch to the post-colonial epoch we find located the formation of the political culture of the States of the Maghreb. Indeed, Vermeren writes: ‘the generation of independence belonged to a political tradition based on power relations. As a result of these last it tore power aware from the coloniser and eliminated politically, and often physically, the groups or the individuals who contended that power with it. In order to conserve this power it then installed a regime that was founded upon military or police power. At no time was democratic legitimacy invoked’ (155). Whether this ‘authoritarian syndrome’, to take up the title of a classic of the analysis of political science about Tunisia, has been defeated by the revolutions will depend on various unknowns. In the view of Vermeren, who in 2004 entitled the last chapter of his work ‘the inevitable democratisation of the Maghreb’, the revolutions whatever the case constitute a watershed given that ‘it will no longer be possible to say that the peoples of the Maghreb like submission and are hermetically sealed against democratic ideals’ (VII). Certainly of determining importance will be the balance that the Francophone and Arabophone elites manage to find, as well as the way in which the schooling question will be addressed, and thus the question of bi/tri-lingualism (Arabic, French and Berber) as well. After independence governments continually oscillated between French and Arabic, a choice whose implications greatly went beyond the merely linguistic aspects, producing with a few exceptions an educational disaster. The question is now in the hands of the Islamic parties who won the recent elections. Eight years ago the author stated that in their democratic version they would have been able to allow the broad masses access to modernity, adding that, given their electoral potential (estimated even than at 40%), only their integration into the political system would have set democratisation in motion in the Maghreb. On these aspects the observations of Vermeren would require deeper exploration and some clarifications. His idea of ‘access to modernity’ and ‘integration’ appear, in fact, prevalently sociological in character, whereas the future of the Arab countries will also be played out in relation to aspirations at the level of ideals.