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Maddy-Weitzman Bruce and Zisenwine Daniel (eds.), The Maghrib in the New Century, Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 2007, 266 p.

Francesco Cavatorta

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1The book is a most welcome contribution on the state of the Maghreb at the start of the new century.  A number of external and domestic factors made the three countries examined in this edited volume (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria) primary candidates for successful processes of democratization in the Arab world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Morocco, despite the significant executive powers of the monarchy and the authoritarianism of the années de plomb, always displayed a degree of political and social pluralism, which many thought could be harnessed to transform the country into a Spanish-style constitutional monarchy. Tunisia, upon Bin Ali’s arrival to power in 1987, accelerated its process of economic and social modernization, creating the conditions for the emergence of a potentially pro-democracy bourgeoisie, while liberalizing the political system and ending the most authoritarian practices of the Bourguiba’s era. Algeria, under the weight of its economic and social crisis, reacted to it by implementing the most impressive liberal political reforms of any other Arab country, allowing political pluralism and free and fair electoral competitions.

2As all the authors in this volume correctly underline, these expectations for democratic political development have not materialized. Quite the opposite in fact is true despite the attempts of the various regimes in the Maghreb to give the impression that they are on the way to democracy. As Zisenwine highlights in his contribution, the changeover from Hassan II to Mohammed VI did not lead to a restraining of the executive powers of the King, who remains the ultimate unelected and unaccountable decision-maker. The same applies to Algeria, where, as explained by Hamadouche and Zoubir, the introduction of formal political pluralism following the ‘black’ decade of the 1990s does not coincide with substantive democratic changes, as significant power remains in the hands of a behind-the-scene Pouvoir. Finally, Angrist’s analysis of Tunisia correctly claims that Bin Ali was able to strengthen his hold on the country following his medical coup and that the presence of a political opposition together with an emerging middle-class does not threaten the survival of his oppressive regime.

3A superficial reading of the previous contribution would lead one to conclude that not much has therefore changed in the politics and government of the three Maghreb states. Such a conclusion would be however highly misleading and one of the strengths of this book is to precisely highlight that much has indeed changed in the Maghreb. All the contributions in this volume, despite dealing with radically different issues ranging from the revival of Amazigh identity politics to political Islam and from economic reforms to international relations, directly or indirectly shed light on how Maghreb regimes have been able to survive by transforming the nature of governance, shifting their support basis and adapting to new international circumstances.

4The strategies of survival of the Maghreb regimes rest on a combination of co-optation and repression. In Morocco the monarchy has been able to play secular Amazigh revivalism off against Islamist Arab nationalism in an attempt to defuse the challenge of both to the institutional primacy of the monarch. In addition, both Hassan II and Mohammed VI have been able to co-opt sectors of political Islam. A similar trend has occurred in Algeria where the regime is able to play the secular Francophone sectors of society off against the Islamists and vice-versa according to the political issue of the moment. In Tunisia, political Islam has been repressed and the Bin Ali’s regime survives partly because it has been able to make the secular middle-class its ally in the struggle against the potentially regressive policies of the Islamists. The liberalisation of the economy and the progressive integration of the three countries into the global market have also provided the three countries with sufficient material resources to create an indigenous business class beholden to the state and therefore unlikely to challenge its authoritarianism. Thus, the social constituencies supporting the three regimes are very different from the ones supporting them in the 1970s and 1980s. While the secular left used to be the main opposition challenger, it is now a reluctant supporter for fear of Islamism. While workers and peasants used to be one of the main supporting constituencies, it is today the turn of a globalised merchant class to be the bulwark of the regime.

5More specifically, the contributions on Morocco in this volume highlight how the monarchy has been able to offer significant incentives to the secular middle-class such as the reform of the family code in exchange for its allegiance against the rise of the militant Islamism of the Justice and Charity Group and the violence of the salafis. In Algeria, the ruling elites have managed to co-opt sectors of political Islam in order to secure some religious legitimacy given the social and therefore political importance that Islam has in terms of national identity. In Tunisia, Bin Ali has implemented economic policies aimed at satisfying the interests of the export-oriented business class and the urban secular middle-class.       

6The success of these survival strategies is however precarious. Despite co-optation and repression, the appeal of opposition political Islam is still strong. The absence of improvement of the socio-economic conditions for the masses despite the market-oriented reforms implemented and the volatile international situation that the ‘war on terror’ provoked still constitute powerful motivators for Islamist opposition. In his contribution, Rivlin points out that the worst socio-economic situation is to be found in Morocco and it is no coincidence that the disenchantment with the political system has been very profound in the Kingdom, as the very low turnout at the 2007 legislative elections confirmed. While all political actors and the King underscored the significance of the electoral competition and the importance of turning out to give substance to the process of democratisation, only one third of the electorate went to the polls. The stance of Sheikh Yassine’s movement which refuses to participate to electoral competitions because they simply legitimise an unjust political system, was thus vindicated. Tunisia does not have the same dramatic socio-economic indicators of Morocco, but its model of development is also bound to stall if democratic institutional reforms are not undertaken and an economic crisis would undermine the social contract between Bin Ali and its supporting constituencies, reviving the popularity of political Islam. Algeria, as it emerges in Aghrout and Hodd’s chapter, should be theoretically better equipped for addressing its socio-economic situation due to its hydrocarbons wealth, but progress has been very slow and the oil wealth does not really trickle down, leaving an Islamist alternative still open.

7Limited political pluralism, inequitable economic reforms and controversial international alliances are all ingredients that make the Maghreb a potential powder keg. The rise of terrorist incidents in Algeria after some years of clam and the arrival of jihadi violence in both Tunisia and Morocco are but one indicator of the difficulties of these regimes. Intense and polarizing debates about national identity and collective memory sap domestic solidarity, while emigration deprives all these countries of valuable resources. It is the great merit of this volume that all these issues are analysed in considerable detail, giving both scholars and policy-makers the opportunity to be better informed of the challenges emerging from such an important but oft under-examined region of the world.

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Francesco Cavatorta, « Maddy-Weitzman Bruce and Zisenwine Daniel (eds.), The Maghrib in the New Century, Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 2007, 266 p. »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 126 | 2009, mis en ligne le 04 septembre 2009, consulté le 27 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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