Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Democratic Imperative vs. the Authoritarian Impulse: The Maghrib State between Transition and Terrorism

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Democratic Imperative vs. the Authoritarian Impulse: The Maghrib State between Transition and Terrorism

Article excerpt

Despite public promises to the contrary, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia continue to be ruled autocratically even as their civil societies aspire to greater public space. Rather than promoting concrete steps towards democratization including institutionalizing freedom of speech, association, and pluralistic political practices, the three states of the Maghrib are pursuing survivalist strategies leading to a robust authoritarianism that seems unlikely to be overturned anytime soon. Yet failure to transform authoritarian politics dramatically and decisively into a sustainable democracy will not only hamper long-term socioeconomic development but, more ominously, foster an environment within which radical forces will emerge to threaten domestic as well as regional and global stability. Current American efforts to promote democratic reform in the region must evolve more imaginatively if they are to meet the challenge of global terrorism that itself is so deeply embedded within the authoritarian impulse that can only be overcome through the democratic imperative.

Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia stand at a crucial crossroad in their political evolution as they face simultaneous challenges from domestic, regional, and global forces. Despite all surface appearances to the contrary, all three Maghribi states are governed autocratically. As such, they will be unable to meet the upcoming threats to their political stability, social cohesion, cultural integrity, and economic viability. One result will be increased domestic, regional, and global tensions as militant forces seep through these sociopolitical fault lines finding support from, and identification with, similarly discontented co-religionists living in Europe. Terrorism is the most extreme manifestation of this diffused discontent made "legitimate" through an Islamic idiom of martyrdom.

The demands for political pluralism, democracy, and transparency continue to make themselves felt both within and outside society.1 The Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative2 is but one important and highly visible such effort originating from Washington but similar appeals derive from diverse sources including international human rights organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), domestic political opponents both secular and Islamist, multilateral lending institutions, and regional groupings like the Arab League, which has produced three scathing reports, co-published with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), on the absence of political freedoms in all of the Arab world.3

Economically and socially as well, the demands for visible improvements in living standards and the quality of life cut across diverse social classes and occupational groupings. Despite repeated promises by ruling elites of significant improvements in macro and micro-economic performance through accelerated structural adjustments, expanded privatization efforts, increased foreign direct investment, implementing transparency and the rule of law, rooting out corruption and nepotism, and creating an overall environment conducive to productive human effort, the full potential of all three Maghribi economies remains unrealized.

These combined failures in the political and socioeconomic spheres have impacted negatively on migration flows and levels of foreign remittances. Such disruptions in critical financial life-lines have disoriented co-religionists on both sides of the Mediterranean as Maghribis surviving precariously in ghetto-like suburbs outside large, prosperous European cities mirror the situation of many of their Arab brothers and sisters living in the "homelands."4

Such conditions of political oppression, social marginalization, economic deprivation, and cultural alienation, whether perceived or real, have created a wide-ranging landscape of disaffected young people ever ready to engage in militant activity often catalyzed by religious invocation and Islamist appeal, inspiring, among the most fanatical among them, a sense of martyrdom justifying the use of terror including suicide bombing. …

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