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
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