Contemporary Arab regimes and their inability to build a nation

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:59


Luis Martinez, L'Afrique du Nord après les révoltes arabes, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris 2019


Ten years on from Mohammed Bouazizi’s iconic self-immolation in the city of Sidi Bouzid the tensions that have redrawn the map of North Africa are anything but over. Scholars continue to use the word ‘transition’ to indicate a movement towards a something that nevertheless assumes different features from country to country: for Tunisia, it is the refinement of a still fragile democracy; for Algeria, renewal for a deadlocked political system; for Morocco, more substantive reforms and, finally, for Libya, the end of the civil war.


Although this picture cannot be described as unitary at a regional level, an underlying theme does exist, according to Luis Martinez, a Research Director at Sciences Po and author of L’Afrique du Nord après les révoltes arabes. Indeed, the protests that have erupted in North Africa constitute a reaction to the failure of the nation model inherited from the colonial era, as demonstrated by society’s gradual decoupling from the state in favour of alternative forms of social solidarity. The author’s perspective therefore proposes a long-term historical interpretation of the Maghreb’s internal tensions: the choices made by the post-colonial ruling classes—so convinced that it is “the modern state that makes a nation”—become the beginning of the contemporary process of territorial and identity-related fragmentation.


Indeed, after achieving independence, each one of these countries has, to a varying extent, consolidated the colonial-era political and economic structures based on the maintenance of order and the exploitation of resources. This without managing to guarantee social justice, however. The asymmetrical development of these nation-states has consolidated the historic territorial rifts and the internal inequalities: it is not by chance, Martinez emphasises, that the first insurrections of 2010-2011 occurred in precisely those regions (e.g. Cyrenaica in Libya, Morocco’s Rif region, Southern Tunisia and Southern Algeria) that had been excluded from systems of socio-economic solidarity for sixty years. The social protests have therefore laid bare the weaknesses in national projects in the Maghreb, where loyalty to the state has gradually been eroded in favour of other forms of identity and social bonds.


Thus, according to Martinez, today’s North Africa is a laboratory for political and identity-related matters and one where the various players are vying for territories and people. The most emblematic case is certainly that of Libya, where the re-emergence of tribal identities after Gaddafi’s fall has revealed how the state established in 1951 had simply been superimposed on pre-existing social structures, without managing to exercise any truly unifying influence. Upon closer examination, it can be seen that this scenario is common to various countries, including those in which the uprisings were not followed by conflict: indeed, a distancing from state authority seems to be a constant of the post-revolutionary transitions. In Morocco, after a brief parenthesis of protests in 2011 (resolved by way of constitutional reform), the rift between the Rif region and the monarchy resurfaced in 2016 by the Hirak movement, which the government managed to neutralize only by suppressing it, whilst in the “highly democratic” Tunisia there is a growing alienation from an authority that, albeit legitimated by elections, does seems incapable of governing. Even the “Bouteflika system” in Algeria, which was spared the revolutionary wave in 2011, has been freshly challenged by the peaceful demonstrations in 2019 that highlighted the citizens’ mistrust of an elite more interested in its own survival than in the country’s social and economic development.


The transnational jihadist groups are also contributing to the definition of a new regional territorial set-up. In a context of increasing indifference towards national projects, the collapse of Libya and Mali’s implosion have offered the jihadists not only new “theatres of action” but also the opportunity to restore those tribal, cultural and religious bonds of solidarity that the colonial and post-colonial period had sought to eliminate. Indeed, in manifesting functions that have not been solely destructive, jihadism has been able to replace the nationalist rhetoric of the strong state with the Islamist rhetoric of the just state, managing to propose itself as a political alternative and, above all, as a refashioning of ideologies and identities.


If the analysis Martinez proposes is decidedly convincing in the pages devoted to the past and to recent post-revolutionary developments, perhaps the author’s reading of the part played by jihadism and Islamism over the last few years risks overestimating these movements’ current force of attraction. Indeed, even Islam as a salvific response to the political and social disorder seems to have lost the fascination that it still held immediately after the revolutions. The Islamist parties’ loss of consensus (as in the case of the Tunisian Ennahda party) demonstrates that the religiously inspired movements are now judged primarily on the basis of their performance in the socio-economic field and not for the thought-systems they are advocating. The political ideologism of the early years generally seems to have failed and today, just as in 2011, the people continue to ask for “bread, freedom and social justice.”


Martinez’s work nevertheless has the merit of offering food for thought on a subject reaching beyond Maghrebi borders: in a moment of general alienation from state authority, countries must be able to find a new common denominator that can serve as an instrument of social cohesion and permit the creation of a “plural state.”


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Claudia Annovi, “When the Strong State is not a Just State”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 153-155.

Online version:
Claudia Annovi, “When the Strong State is not a Just State”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/when-the-strong-state-is-not-a-just-state