Transition, Memory, and Histories of Violence in North Africa: A Comparison

Idriss Jebari

As a scholar of North African history and politics, Idriss Jebari is interested in the concept of memory and transitional justice—the idea that a country can emerge from a period of repressive authoritarian rule and break the cycle of violence by acknowledging past violence and pursuing national reconciliation.

At a faculty seminar during the spring semester, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in History looked at the examples of three North African countries that have undergone changes in this direction in recent years—Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria—and analyzed the extent to which each nation has been able to cope with its traumatic past. He also examined the extent to which these experiences contributed to democratization efforts.

The seminar presented findings from a history seminar Jebari conducted earlier in the spring titled “Memory, Violence, and Reconciliation in the Middle East” (HIST2883), and from an upcoming article in the journal Middle East Topics and Arguments on therapeutic history and national reconciliation in North Africa.

Tunisia: a unique example


Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at the Presidential Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, 2000.

The democratization process in Tunisia came about after massive popular protests—events that marked the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring in late 2010. After twenty-three years in power, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted and hopes were high that issues like high unemployment, corruption, and lack of political freedom would be tackled.

“Unlike Algeria and Morocco, Tunisia’s move towards democracy came as the result of regime change,” said Jebari, “so although the country’s still struggling with economic issues, it has the potential to go further than the other two because there is so much political will. In the case of Tunisia,” he stressed, “it’s important to remember that transitional justice has supported the process of democratization, rather than being the impetus for it, despite some ongoing challenges.”

Steps are being taken to support victims of human rights abuses in Tunisia, and a “Truth Commission” is investigating these abuses, although many of the alleged perpetrators are shielded from prosecution while others are in exile and are being tried in absentia. The Commission’s powers are also being curtailed. Jebari said it’s too soon to judge whether the Tunisian revolution has been a success because it’s an ongoing process, but there is some cause for optimism.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Getty Images)

Algeria: avoiding civil war

In 2002, Algeria emerged from a decade-long, bloody civil war between the military government and Islamist insurgency. The peace still holds, said Jebari, but the march toward democratization is very slow, and there is still a considerable way to go. “Transitional justice consisted of a national amnesty, and it is working in Algeria in so far as there hasn’t been a return to civil war. But the issues which led to the war are essentially unresolved: the army still has a strong grip on power, excluding all other groups, including those who supported the former Islamist party,” he said.

Although there is more press freedom than there used to be, the governing regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks irremovable, after nearly twenty years in charge of the country. An amnesty law, meanwhile, ensures that there will be virtually no accounting for past atrocities committed by both sides, said Jebari. “In Algeria, the fact is that transitional justice has ensured the temporary stabilization of the country, but not the transition to democracy or learning the truth about past violence.”

Morocco: monarchy-led reform

Like in Algeria, transitional justice in the Kingdom of Morocco occurred without significant, or visible, upheaval. “There was no civil war in Morocco, but after twenty five years of repressive rule,” said Jebari, “the King gave in to the groundswell of international democratic pressures during the nineties.” As a way of forestalling any kind of popular uprising, King Mohammed VI introduced further economic and political reforms when he took over the throne after his father passed away in 1999.

US President George W. Bush talks with His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco in the Oval Office, 2002.

The major achievement of Morocco’s experience was a Truth and Justice Commission that produced a significant archive of state repression in 2007. Its impact on the democratization, however, is questionable, said Jebari.

“There was legitimate criticism that regimes like this introduced only ‘facade democracies’ and other measures to satisfy foreign partners. Sure, they adopted parliaments, elections, and spoke about transparency, but they also filled these parliaments with their own supporters and attacked the opposition. At the same time, however, there was also some indirect positive transformation as more legitimate space was provided for the political opposition.”

Twenty years later, is Morocco still moving in the right direction? It’s hard to say for sure, said Jebari. A new constitution was introduced following the Arab Spring, with increased powers for parliament and the prime minister, but the monarchy still remains firmly in charge.

“What’s interesting, and tragic, about Morocco,” said Jebari, “is that the real political challenges are coming from the peripheries, rather than the center, of the country, through violent means. These kind of challenges are very localized and focused on present-day demands, which makes it harder for transitional justice to lead to national reconciliation.”

Conclusions

Jebari said he firmly believes in the principle, and the necessity, of a transitional justice that makes people truly accountable for crimes they committed, to deter future authoritarian leaders, if nothing else. However, he also recognizes that this is sometimes just not possible.

“One mistake people make is to regard authoritarian leaders as politically unintelligent—whereas in fact they understand their societies better than anyone else,” he observed. “For example, they know that the population would rather live under authoritarianism than under civil war. Also, they often manage to share the wealth in such a way that most people feel they have a stake in the regime, even if they don’t have complete political freedom.”

Tunisian union members protest against the government, January 2011. Photo: Habib M’henni / Wikimedia Commons

In other words, if enough of these populations enjoy some level of prosperity and political inclusion, revolutions are less likely. The search for truth about past violence is left for another day.

This semester Jebari will be teaching Modern Middle Eastern History (HIST 2292).

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