What a fascinating process. My general curmudgeonly attitude has kept me from doing much collaboration. Today is an exception I think I would like to make a rule. A number of months back I reached out to one of the most successful geopolitics YouTubers for advice. Shirvan of Caspian Report was generous with his time, and you may have noticed how some of his suggestions have worked their way into the MFF vids (stock footage, length). In the spring, Shirvan suggested we collaborate on a project. Caspian Report has about 30x more subscribers, and his videos are typically viewed 200 times more often than mine are. Shirvan is a generous guy. It took a number of months circling to find the right project, but today we’re finally publishing them both! A video on my channel and a video on his… I hope you enjoy them!
Video Transcript after the jump…
So it’s been a rough couple months for North African democracy. Surprising few, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has extended the 30 day emergency suspension of that country’s Parliament, and planning for Libya’s December elections just keeps falling further behind.
So maybe we should be looking to some other countries for hope. Well it turns out that Algeria had an election back in June, and Morocco had one just this past week! So are these countries democracies? Well, not really. We should all be suspicious of US government funded and defense contractor run organizations like freedom house, but my reading of the region’s history leads me to believe their rankings of Morocco and Algeria are mostly fair. Morocco probably gets a nicer rating from Freedom House because Morocco buys a lot of US weapons, but neither country has a truly free or representative government. That doesn’t mean they aren’t on their way there though.
If the past five years of US history have taught us anything it’s that democracy is not an either or an on off thing. It’s a spectrum. Call it the Korea spectrum, you have the full blown totalitarianism of North Korea at one extreme and the world leading consolidated representative democracy of South Korea at the other extreme. And any country, from Africa to Europe to the Americas can move back and forth on this spectrum. It’s something every country’s public has to be constantly vigilant about.
Like at points over the past ten years Tunisia looked like it was closing in on South Korea territory. But With President Saied’s suspension of the Parliament back in July, it now looks like Tunisia has fallen back to the level of what Algeria and Morocco have, systems with functional elections, but a too powerful individual or group that really calls all the shots. I still have hopes that Tunisia can bounce back fairly quickly, but the power figures in Morocco and Algeria are more entrenched.
Morocco is led by a dynasty that goes back to the 1600s. Perhaps because it has so much more real history and weight than most of the Gulf Monarchies, the Moroccan monarchy is also comfortable with a more real looking Parliament than most Gulf countries can handle.
But these institutions are only real up to a point. Last week’s election provides an example. Morocco does have real political parties, that do have real differences, and in some cases discernible ideologies. But the power they are fighting over is limited by the whims of the king, both constitutionally, and even more strongly by tradition & practice.
So yes, last week’s election provided some really interesting headlines, that can flatter any number of agendas. But it’s important to recognize the limitations of what these words mean in the context of the Moroccan system. Yes, the liberals won! But the new Liberal Prime Minister, Aziz Akhannouch is basically a dynastic oligarch, and the head of a company that has flourished under monarchy for generations now. I have my own agenda that I would like to see served here. Perhaps with the Islamists out, the king will have fewer excuses to withhold real power from the elected government. But so far, the system has always been his. In last week’s election, the King’s liberals defeated the King’s Islamists. It’s a smallerl change than the headlines indicate.
The situation in Algeria couldn’t be more different from Morocco in some ways, but in others it’s strikingly similar. Le Pouvoir, or the Power, the military-business oligarchy that runs Algeria doesn’t go back to the 1600s, but it’s just as firmly rooted as any monarchy. Revolutionary ideology mixed with corruption has made for many sad stories over the past century. Algeria has fairly regular elections, but at this point the Algerian public just isn’t interested. The persistence of Le Pouvoir, even after a protest movement kicked the 20 year President out in 2019, combined with public services that are declining with the oil price, mean that most Algerians stay home when it’s time to vote.
The Algerian election in June was supposed to have an exciting narrative in the opposite direction from Morocco, with Islamists doing surprisingly well. In the event, the Islamists neither won big nor lost big. Instead the main story again became the embarrassing lack of participation. The election delivered none of the legitimacy that the establishment was looking for.
It’s common in the US to have low expectations of Muslim, and African democracies. But that’s not the way I see it. In fact, as someone who has spent a lot of time looking at US and British political development, I am pretty optimistic about Algeria and Morocco. Both countries have a lot of the systems they need in place already, and it’s entirely possible to imagine peaceful evolutions towards more democracy.
I believe this because that’s exactly what happened in both the United States and Britain. The US constitution goes back 230 years, and the roots of the British Parliament go back at least 800 years. But neither the British nor American systems were more democratic than today’s Algeria and Morocco before the mid 20th century. I mean maybe you could argue that the Anglo systems became as free as today’s North African countries with the abolition of slavery in the mid 19th century, but I think you would be wrong. Women didn’t get the vote until the 20th century, and both countries were ruled by a very corrupt and nearly impenetrable white male Protestant elite until fairly recently.
But what both the US and UK had, long before their 20th century improvements, were systems that had the potential to improve. They didn’t need some cataclysmic revolution to get more representative, more equal, and more wealthy, the governments had what they needed to evolve in a positive direction. And that is exactly what I see in Algeria and Morocco today. Systems that have the potential to evolve very positively. In fact both systems have had lurched in that direction already. Morocco in 2011, and Algeria in the 1980s, if not today.
Now that view is almost certainly terribly naive. Having that kind of optimism makes it pretty obvious that I am from the English speaking world. There are other democratic traditions that are just as valid, and they might predict a very different outcome.
I am on shaky ground here, but my sense is that Islamic tradition is more preoccupied with the idea of justice. For many Muslims it might seem necessary to wipe away the old corrupt system and start anew, instead of engaging in incremental improvement. I feel like I am on firmer ground, when I talk about the French tradition, which also remains powerful in North Africa, as I covered in my Tunisia video a month or so back.
“It’s very easy, coming from the Anglo tradition of centuries of unbroken wealth and world leadership, to throw a hissy fit when the forms of representative democracy are trampled on. ….
Even before the imperialist invasion, Tunisia was more closely associated with France. France is, in its own way, a very strong democracy, but it isn’t exactly known for institutional stability. The current French government is the fifth republic and it only dates back to 1958. Some of the French republics have lasted as long as seven decades, but the second one only lasted four years. I think it’s fair to say that after seven years, Tunisian Democracy’s second Republic has failed. But that doesn’t mean we should lose hope…”
It’s entirely possible that North Africa isn’t interested in the sort of slow boring change that worked in English speaking countries. These countries may prefer transitions that are a little more dramatic and a little more French. But that should inspire optimism too. Maybe these countries are even closer to better systems than I think they are.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe. And I would like to thank Shirvan of Caspian Report,for inspiring this video. It was an honor to research Morocco and Algeria with Shirvan, and help out a little with his new video. If you don’t already know Caspian Report, you are in for a treat, check out and subscribe to his channel at the link here.