Challenges Facing the States of North Africa / Bruce Maddy - Weitzman

November 3, 2011
Mr. Maddy-Weitzman addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on November 3, on the implications of the North African upheavals for U.S. and Western national interests.

Mr. Maddy-Weitzman began by describing 2011 as a transformative year but cautioned that the Arab uprisings had produced mixed results, with a final verdict still pending.

The Maghreb is strategically located on the southern Mediterranean, and both Algeria and Libya are oil rich countries. This makes it significant for the US and Western interests, though probably not the most vital area. With a population of some 80 million (50% of whom are under the age of 30), the Maghreb has the potential to present the West with substantial problems in the near future. Specifically,

Tunisia is in a clear state of flux. It has a strong national identity, a vibrant middle class, and it has traditionally adopted comparatively secularist policies (e.g., the banning of polygamy). But the Islamist Ennahda party won 40% of parliamentary seats in the latest elections, and the country may well be the first test case of whether an Islamist government can be genuinely democratic.

In Libya, by contrast, the state has never really existed. Tribal and regional interests were kept at bay by the ruthlessness of the Qaddafi regime but with him gone, all bets are off. Too many people are armed and there is evidence that weapons are "leaking" to Sinai and the Gaza Strip to be used against Israel by jihadist groups. Maddy-Weitzman wondered whether Libya was likely to become another Somalia.

At the time of the address, Morocco seemed to have dodged the bullet of the Arab uprisings by proactive measures, though Maddy-Weitzman contended that greater power needed to be given to the parliament and the prime minister. (NOTE: in the parliamentary elections held after the lecture the Islamist Justice and Development Party [PJD] won the most seats.)

Maddy-Weitzman then turned to Algeria, a rich country with a poor citizenry, beset by simmering social unrest due to a corrupt regime run by both military and political mafias. He cautioned that the country was a pressure cooker, and that unless there was a movement toward reform it might well blow up. On the other hand, just taking off the lid and allowing for minor or cosmetic reforms could cause an explosion too.

Maddy-Weitzman concluded by advising a case-by-case approach for U.S. policymakers in view of the Maghreb's diversity and volatility. He saw no need for heavy U.S. military presence in the region, pointing out that Washington had long been involved in regional development projects - civil society initiatives, microfinance, women's education etc. – that should be encouraged. Yet even in these fields there were clear limits as to how much influence such undertakings could exert.

Summary written by MEF intern Stefan Kirschner.

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman is Principal Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University, and an expert on the Maghreb. He is a frequent contributor to the Middle East Quarterly and has authored three books, the most recent of which is The Return to History: Berber Identity and the Challenge to North African States (2011).

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