Human Rights and Reform: Changing the Face of North African Politics

By Elahi, Maryam | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview
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Human Rights and Reform: Changing the Face of North African Politics


Elahi, Maryam, The Middle East Journal


Human Rights and Reform: Changing the Face of North African Politics, by Susan E. Waltz. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. xiv + 237 pages. Notes to p. 269. Index to p. 281. $45 cloth; $16 paper.

Reviewed by Maryam Elahi

The human rights movement in the Maghrib has had significant impact in influencing public debate and bringing discussions on democratization and political reform to the forefront of Maghribi political society. With this book, Susan Waltz has succeeded in examining the role played by the Maghribi human rights movement in integrating the notion of civil and political rights in modem Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan political culture. I highly recommend Human Rights and Reform to anyone interested in North African contemporary history and politics. It examines the struggle of human rights activists and the cultural and political impediments that challenge them.

This book discusses the development of modern state structures in Maghribi societies. One cannot get a sense of contemporary North African politics without understanding the role of the human rights movement-of whom it consists, what it strives for, and its undeniable influence over the substance of political discourse in the region. The author also discusses the impact that the international community has had in influencing the public debates and political measures, in some cases merely cosmetic, on human rights. In addition, these "external forces," be they human rights organizations or the US Congress, have bestowed credibility and thereby protection to the domestic human rights organizations.

Unlike other regions in the world where the human rights activists come from labor, indigenous movements, or political parties, the movement in the Maghrib was dominated initially by professionals: academics, doctors, and lawyers. Thus, being part of the professional elite, they had easier access to the political apparatus and developed a somewhat confusing rapport with the government, which at times they respectfully challenged and at other times they threatened.

The birth of human rights organizations in each of the three countries has its own specific stories. In Tunisia, the Tunisian League for Human Rights was formally recognized by the government in 1977. Its original leadership chose individuals who had a reputation for being politically independent to head the organization and its executive committee. The League immediately proved itself to be a serious human rights group by organizing a commission of inquiry to look into detainees' situations and by sending observers to attend political trials.

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