Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui

What is alarming are these international interventions. A bad scenario is emerging through the combination of Emirati-France-American strategies to help duplicate the Sisi model in North Africa. The summer of 2019 is a good opportunity to reject all foreign conspiracies.


Proposition 1: Limitations of the Electoral Process

Most transitologists agree on three consecutive steps for the democratization process to function in light of their forty-year focus on democratization studies:

First, the achievement of liberalization and the opening of the authoritarian regime as in the context of Arab states. Political scientist Sheri Berman points to the dawn of a promising new era for the region, and it will be looked at down the road as a historical watershed, even though the rapids downstream will be turbulent.

Second, the pursuit of political reforms and regular elections paves the way for democratic governments to rise to power. The Arab experimentation with non-rigged elections, for the first time in 2011 and 2012, restored some trust among millions of Arab voters who waited for hours outside the polling centers on hot days to cast their votes across Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries.

Third, the last phase is expected to generate some consolidation of the democratization process over a long-time framework. It presupposes state institutions would embrace the norm of political legitimacy and civil society gains more strength and momentum vis-à-vis the political elite.

This final phase should solidify the overall acculturation of society to the democratic model.

Nowadays, there is strong sentiment among most Arabs that the ballots have not fulfilled the desired democratization phase. Once again, the electoral process has been undermined by the return to militarism and growing security paradigm in Sudan and Libya, as a déjà vu scenario of Egypt, amidst fear of duplicating the same move in Algeria.

Moreover, the whole picture reveals how the Arab region has made a step backward with the emergence of new forces of tribalism, sectarianism, militarism, and political violence, driven by the narcissism of small differences, between Shiites and Sunnis, Muslims and Islamists, or radicals and modernists.

Tunisia, the most celebrated model of the Arab uprisings, was perceived as a case of potential pluralism, inclusive politics, and prevention of a political impasse or derailment into violence.

Since early September 2017, the momentum of reform has been shaken up by three controversial decisions made by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed:

1) the appointment of some of Ben Ali’s former ministers to a new cabinet after a government reshuffle;

2) the adoption of the so-called “administrative reconciliation” law by the parliament regarding corruption during Ben Ali’s presidency; and

3) the postponement, once again, of the municipal election. Essebsi had made big strides by supporting the idea of granting women equal rights in inheritance and legitimizing mixed marriages between Tunisian women and non-Muslim citizens of other countries.

He was heralded as the leader of reformism and “the good Arab revolutionary of the moment” after his victory by 55.68 percent of the vote in the 2014 election.

However, the Tunisian public opinion remains cynical about the government’s claim of efficiency and pragmatism. Tunisia now faces a hard choice between stability and justice in handling its legacy of corruption and power abuse.

A sizable majority of 89 percent of Tunisians believe corruption in Tunisia is worse now than it was prior to 2011. Consequently, President Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes Party are running the risk of deepening disarticulation between the government and young Tunisians who are frustrated by the lack of economic reform and agitated about partisan politics.

They belong to a generation that is breaking long-held fears, but they remain captive to long-term unemployment.

In Morocco, the silent big elephant in the room, has been embroiled by frequent protests in the northern region Rif, miners’ strike in Jrada, doctors’ and teachers’ strikes since early 2017.

There has been also an open-ended battle between the state-backed Authenticity and Modernity Party, founded by Fouad Ali El Himma, advisor to King Mohammed VI, and the Islamist Justice and Development party, after a six-month political void known as ‘Blockage’ against the premiership of its leader Abdelilah Benkirane,  after the legislative elections held in October 2016.

Now, the dominant Makhzen has decided to invest in the National Rally of Independents (RNI) as the new “black horse”, after substituting its leader Salahedine Mezouar by the wealthy agriculture minister Aziz Akhenouch, to sail through to the next election. However, Benkirane, the PJD’s ex-prime minister has promised a hard fought election in 2021.

Back in April 2017, I foresaw how the situation in Libya was not in favor of the UN’s plan of holding new elections in the spring 2019. I wrote then, “Like many Libyans, most politicians are less hopeful of the feasibility of election next spring.

There is a sense of diplomacy fatigue after holding scores of meetings in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere; and none of the signed agreements have been fully implemented.

There have been reoccurring themes of ‘promising’ dialogue and ‘imminent’ reconciliation, proposed by five consecutive UN special envoys.”

A growing number of North Africa scholars have abandoned the framework of transitology for transformation. Steven Heydemann defends the term “transformation” since it captures the notion of “systemic change yet without implying directionality or some form of democratic teleology.

It emphasizes the fluidity and unpredictability of transformational settings.” He argues, “Conceptualizing the Arab uprisings as transformational processes without imposing on them either the expectation that they will take the form of democratic transitions or that they can be adequately explained simply as cases of failed democratization is important for avoiding deterministic or essentialist traps.”

Instead of considering the mass protests and toppling or killing six presidents [Ben Ali, Mubarak, Ghaddafi, Saleh, Bouteflika and Bashir] so far, it is high time to shift from the use of a tally sheet to the study of unique experiences and separate destinies of different tracks of social change.

Despite the frequent electoral processes in North Africa in the last years, they have not served as a compass toward a smooth transition or management of the majority-minority game through the ballots.

Harvard economist Eric Chaney relates this setback to the determinants of the Arab world’s democratic deficit. He argues that inasmuch as the region’s institutional history is useful for forecasting the future, it suggests “democracy is less likely to emerge where political power remains largely divided between religious leaders and the military to the exclusion of other groups.”

Once again, the current dynamics in Algeria, Libya, and Sudan indicate Arab political systems are “veering in some sharply different directions”.

Proposition 2: Fragmentation of Political Legitimacy

The new buzzword nowadays in North Africa is legitimacy. Protestors, professional associations, civil society organizations, and the establishment in Algeria, Sudan, and even in Libya have defended distant frameworks of political legitimacy.

The current controversy over political legitimacy undermines, as discussed earlier, the potential of the desired consolidation of the anticipated three steps of the democratization process in other Arab countries.

The clash between the protestors’ and army general’s narratives has deepened the fragmentation of legitimacy. New variations of legitimacy have emerged in the public discourse such as Shar’iya thawriyya (revolutionary legitimacy), Shar’iya intikhabiya (electoral legitimacy), Shar’iya sha’biya (legitimacy of the street in reference to the “people”), and Shar’iya tawafuqiya (consensual legitimacy).

This clash puts the region at limbo: how to reconcile the conflict between two main schools of thought: power politics versus people politics, a claimed constitutional framework of transition [e.g. Article 102 of the Algerian constitution) and the tabula rasa, or clean slate, demand of protestors.  

For instance, the Algerian case has come to a crossroads of state building. Lahouari Addi of L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lyon argues, “The specificity of the Algerian regime is that, at the State’s cupola is a bicephalous structure in the form of a legitimising real power belonging to the military hierarchy, and a formal power that directs the government administration and state institutions.

This duality is a heritage of the War of Independence, during the course of which the military personnel of the National Liberation Army (ALN) took the upper hand over the civilians of the National Liberation Front (FLN).”

The outcry for legitimacy has been louder in Sudan. The African Union (AU) has denounced the military takeover, and protesters are still in the streets demanding civilian rule. Some analysts have expressed skepticism about the alleged ‘coup d’etat’ against President Bashir.

Nandita Balakrishnan of Stanford University focuses on her research project on how autocrats have left power since the end of World War II.

She found they tend to choose negotiated settlements preemptively, out of the other choices of coups or elections, rather than gambling on hanging on to power by trying to prevent or survive conventional coups.

She wrote, “A gray-zone coup occurs when the military must use more coercion to force a negotiated settlement, thereby falling in the gray zone between a negotiated settlement and a conventional coup.”

The legitimacy narrative remains inspiring for protesters in Khartoum in maximizing pressure against the Transitional Military Council (TMC) for a civilian rule.

It has also highlighted the international community’s firm stance against the pursuit of militarism in the country. The European Union has supported the African Union’s call for handover of the power to a civilian-led transitional authority in a two-week ultimatum.

The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said at the plenary session of the European Parliament “As long as the transition is not managed by civilians, the European Union will not recognize the legitimacy of the Transitional Military Council.”

In the case of Libya, the outcome of the last two elections has shattered the construct of legitimacy. The first ballot was held in July 2012 to elect the General National Congress (GNC) with the mandate of forming a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.

The second ballot took place June 25, 2014 to elect the House of Representatives, with a 30-seat quota for women and a total of 200 seats. The public turnout was very low at 18 percent. 

New members of the House suspected the powerful militias of Misrata were controlling the GNC, from which they refused to take office in Tripoli, and decided to establish their own parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk.

Still, the United Nations Special Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) made to recommendation to the international community to recognize the House of Representatives (HoR). This decision has set Libyan politics on two rival tracks of political legitimacy.

Some Libya observers have pointed out,  “The first and most important is to avoid conferring legitimacy on one side over the other through expressions of support for “state institutions” or “elected bodies”: although the HOR was originally an elected legislature, it is now a rump parliament that represents one side in an ongoing conflict.”

While serving on the UN Panel of Experts, I could sense closely the fierce showdown between two lines of international recognition bestowed on leaders like al-Sarraj in the west, HoR in the east, and the exercise of power – legitimate or otherwise – on the ground.

The lack of UN diplomatic progress has derived also from the unsettled controversy surrounding Haftar and his military machine, and the trajectory of the political and military support he has secured from countries like neighboring Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, and Russia.


Dr. Mohammed CherkaouiSenior researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.







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