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In Arabic, the Maghreb means "where and when the sun sets." The region, which includes Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia, is part of both Africa and the Arab world, and it enjoys a special relationship with Europe, thanks to geographical proximity, colonial history, and economic ties. The Maghreb is where the Arab world's recent dramatic political upheaval first began (Tunisia) and where it has reached its most violent climax (Libya). Of the four countries, Algeria and Morocco have been the least shaken by these events -- but this calm may not hold for long.
After gaining independence from their colonial masters in the 1950s and 1960s, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya opted for different economic development strategies and political systems. But they all ended up with authoritarian regimes that relied on repression and paternalistic rule.
Algeria, which was governed by a one-party system under military control from independence in 1962 until 1989, now has a multiparty system in which political parties do not matter as much as the military. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI oversees a nominal multiparty system under an absolute monarchy. He appoints key members of the government, including the prime minister, and has the power to dissolve parliament and impose a state of emergency. No one is allowed to criticize him or question his religious leadership as the "commander of the faithful."
All four Maghrebi countries made major headway in economic and social development since their independence. They improved social services, education, employment, health care, and national income. In the last two decades, however, the limits of such progress became apparent. They could not keep up with their growing populations.
In Algeria, economic liberalization magnified the effect of global economic shocks, which made it difficult to maintain the welfare system that was behind the country's tacit social contract. In Morocco, however, this contract has been more limited: the monarch simply provided security and national unity (not material comforts) in exchange for loyalty and obedience. This began to change some as power passed from King Hassan II, who died in 1999, to his son, Mohammed VI. In contrast to the outright neglect of Hassan, Mohammed made some efforts to address his country's economic and social ills.
Following serious economic crises, both Algeria and Morocco privatized some public companies, reduced subsidies, and lifted some price controls as part of structural-adjustment programs sponsored by the IMF and the World Bank. These reforms helped to stave off economic decline, but they did not do enough to improve living conditions, unemployment, and income disparity.
In Algeria, a large sector of society has seen its living standards decrease (23 percent live below the poverty line). Foreign exchange reserves, meanwhile, reached $157 billion in 2010, thanks to oil exports. This paradox has become untenable -- especially when combined with a housing crisis, a failing school system, and rampant unemployment among the youth (above 20 percent). In Morocco, which, unlike Algeria and Libya, does not have the benefit of hydrocarbon income, similar conditions have created a sense of desperation among the large number of unemployed youth, several thousand of whom are college graduates.
Whereas Libya under Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi and Tunisia under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali repressed all political opposition and relied on extensive security services, Algeria and Morocco have enacted some important political reforms but without changing the nature of their regimes.
In Algeria in the late 1980s, the political system was opened to the opposition under President Chadli Bendjedid; nowadays, it even includes small moderate Islamist parties such as the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), Islah, and Ennahda. This does not mean that the country is a democracy by any definition. The system remains controlled by three key centers of power: the military, the president and his close allies, and the National Liberation Front, which controls a pro-government coalition in parliament.
In Morocco, a multiparty system has existed since the country's independence in 1956, but it has been more pro forma than real because most of the power has always been in the hands of the monarch. In 1998, under Hassan II, the Union of Socialist Forces party (once a bitter enemy of the monarchy) was allowed to lead the government, and moderate Islamists were permitted to enter parliament -- but none of this fundamentally changed the system.
Over the past two decades in the Maghreb, authoritarian regimes have used the fight against Islamist extremism to justify the hardening of their rule. Algeria, for example, was until February 24, 2011, under a state of emergency for 19 years. The emergency law was put in place in 1992 to deal with a rising and violent Islamist challenge and was used throughout the 1990s to arrest and detain people without due process and to muzzle the press.
In the name of security and counterterrorism, the Moroccan state also clamped down on both religious and secular opposition, detaining suspects without due process and, up to the late 1990s, restricting political dissent. More recently, Morocco, a willing partner in the U.S.-led "war on terror," became a destination country for suspects detained under the United States' "extraordinary rendition" program. By participating in various security agreements with Washington, Morocco received military hardware and training for its security forces -- and earned the silence of Western governments regarding abuses of human and political rights.
Given this collective backdrop, the outbreak of protests in Algeria and Morocco was no surprise. Indeed, Algeria's riots in January were the culmination of a decade-old pattern of almost daily protests in many towns and villages against poor government services, injustice, and corruption. But these riots took place on a scale that had not been seen since the historic upheaval of October 1988, which ended the one-party system.
The Algerian riots of January 2011 spread quickly -- but also ended quickly, after the government reduced the price of basic food items. The rioters did not have a wider political agenda or slogan, and no major political party or organization joined them. It was not until the protests in Tunisia that some opposition figures in Algeria formed the National Coordination for Change and Democracy on January 21 to call for large-scale demonstrations. The resulting protests, however, failed to bring out a large number of people and were restricted by anti-riot police. They had little effect, largely because they lacked clarity and details and were led by the Rally for Culture and Democracy, a party known for having supported the government's cancellation of the 1991 elections and repression of the Islamists. Moreover, the leaders of the protest movement underestimated the reluctance of people to confront the state so soon after a decade-long war that traumatized the entire population and killed 200,000 people.
In Morocco, the demonstrations of February 20 attracted a few thousand people but lacked the energy and zest of the revolts of Tunisia and Libya and even the much smaller protests in Algeria. The Moroccan demonstrators demanded a new government, a constitutional reform that would limit the powers of the king, an end to corruption, the improvement of living conditions, and social justice. They did not target Mohammed VI himself. Since ascending to the throne in 1999, the king has enacted several reforms, such as his 2004 changes to the moudawana, or family code, which improved the legal status of women, and programs to alleviate poverty and illiteracy. These moves served to enhance his legitimacy even if they did not actually improve living conditions or create jobs.
Yet with Ben Ali and Mubarak gone, and Qaddafi's regime under assault, leaders of Algeria and Morocco are nonetheless nervous. Both regimes recently promised cuts in food prices and reforms that would create more jobs and enhance political freedom.
The Algerian government, for its part, finally lifted the 19-year-old state of emergency on February 24 and promised more political freedoms and economic reforms. To thwart the possibility of social upheaval in Morocco, Mohammed VI announced a plan to reform the constitution, giving more power to parliament and the prime minister and his cabinet. He also promised more political freedom and more jobs. But the protest did not end -- more people than ever took the streets to demand immediate economic reforms and a say in the process of reforming the constitution, rather than leaving this process solely to a commission entrusted by the king.
In both countries, substantial power is held by important, and virtually unaccountable, behind-the-scenes players. In Algeria, they are known as Le Pouvoir and in Morocco as the Makhzen. Even if formal political structures are reformed, there will be no serious change unless both Le Pouvoir and the Makhzen are discarded. This is one of the reasons why protesters in Algeria are not likely to accept cosmetic changes. In Morocco, constitutional reforms may make for a good start, but such steps are not likely to be enough without taking on the elusive powers of the Makhzen.
As Tunisia builds a new governing system and the Qaddafi regime remains under a dual assault of internal rebellion and Western airstrikes, the Maghreb is experiencing a period of unrest and uncertainty. If Qaddafi is eventually overthrown and Libya democratizes, both Algeria and Morocco will face increasing pressure to liberalize, too. But if the Libyan revolt fails to dislodge the Qaddafi regime, Algeria's and Morocco's rulers may decide that holding out against popular protest is a tenable strategy. The future of Algiers and Rabat may very well be affected by what happens Benghazi and Tripoli.