POMED Notes: “The Political Economy of the ‘Maghreb’ Spring and Its Aftermath”
On Tuesday, the University of California in Washington’s Maghreb Center hosted a panel discussion discussing the economic causes of the Arab Spring. The panel discussed economic development strategies of the Maghreb countries since independence, possible alternatives for future development, and recently adopted reforms in Morocco and Tunisia. The panel featured Ahmed El-Hamri, Development Economist with the World Bank, Robert Prince, professor of the University of Denver, and Francis Ghiles, Senior Research Flow at the Barcelona Center for international Affairs. Maghreb Center President Nejib Ayachi moderated the discussion.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF
The Arab Spring, or as Nejib Ayachi called it the ‘Maghreb Spring’ was caused by “exacerbated economic inequalities”, stalled social development for large segments of the population (including youth), with a context of “lack of basic human and political rights, rule of law deficits, and high levels of corruption.”
Ahmed El-Hamri began the discussion noting that while much has been written about the political and social causes behind the Maghreb Spring, “very little has been said of the economic reasons.” El-Hamri suggested that the economic causes were the “crossroads” or “nexus” of the Arab spring. The economic woes have plagued these countries since their independence. All of the Maghreb countries (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) have witnessed roughly three distinct stages of economic strategy, all of which consisted of a mix of centralization and market policies. He noted that Algeria stands out among the three because of its vast hydrocarbon wealth, which El-Hamri said has resulted in very centralized investment decisions. This centralized, state economy deters foreign investment and keeps Algeria from complying with the requirements of the global market. Tunisia, said El-Hamri, has seen 5 decades of important changes: liberalism, social protected market economy, IMF structuralization program implemented due to a balance of payments crisis, and then liberal economic policies under the IMF structure. Tunisia, from 2002 to 2008, witnessed an average growth in GDP of 5%, implemented a social modernization and population control program, and saw heavy involvement of the state in the economy. To the west, the rules of Morocco have been relatively development oriented. Initially dominantly agrarian, Morocco has necessitated modernization in the form of manufacturing and textiles. A major problem with all of the Maghreb countries, said El-Hamri, is the failure of their re-investment projects and their inability to export value-added products. El-Hamri also noted that Morocco has realized the need for females to participate in the economy, which has helped their modernization.
Robert Prince discussed his experience in Tunisia, noting his interests in post-colonial cultural anthropology and economics. He stated that while Tunisia, without the hydrocarbon wealth of Algeria has developed a relatively more diverse economy. However, his time spent in Tunisia revealed to him that their economy did not look to be sustainable, “but this does not explain the social explosion,” said Prince, “something is missing from the numbers.” Not explicitly visible in the numbers is the polarization of society between the rich and poor, the uneven development of infrastructure development, the role of women, and extremely poor working conditions. Prince said that wages had been kept low so to be competitive. “Once this [the labor] apparatus breaks down there are going to be strikes for higher wages and better labor conditions,” he added. He compared Tunisia’s democratization to the democratization of the Philippines to put to scale the massive corruption (17 billion dollars) of the Tribelsi family and the Ben Ali family. Prince questioned whether the Bourguiba years were a failure, hinting that the economic woes of his period may have been exacerbated by poor economic conditions in Europe. Prince added that Tunisia is dependent on the European economy. He concluded saying that there has been “virtually no change” in the Tunisian economic model. While privatization “makes a lot of sense,” he ended asserting, “I don’t see how Tunisia can get out of the crisis its in without significant state involvement in the economy.”
Francis Ghiles characterized the economic experience of the Maghreb countries as typical of third world economies. In neither of the countries have the states role in the economy diminished in the last 30 years, said Ghiles. Subject not often discussed and often overlooked said Ghiles, is the talented diaspora each of these countries have at their disposal. He called North Africa’s location across from Europe “misfortunate.” He hinted that the rigid, bureaucratic structure of the Maghreb economies may originate from Ottoman and French colonial legacies. He discussed the isolation North Africa has experienced from Europe, often hailed as the Maghreb’s closest economic partner. He said that movement from North Africa has become virtually impossible. Evidence of Europe’s continued mistreatment of the Maghreb is evidenced, said Ghiles, in the disparity in development aid given to Eastern Europe and the Maghreb. Eastern Europe was given aid and a promise of joining the E.U., which was great leverage in pushing reform. Turkey, said Ghiles, is a perfect example of this E.U. leverage. “It suited Europe to divide N. Africa for many years,” said Ghiles. Another problem experience by the Maghreb countries is the miseducation of the youth. The youth are accumulating degrees that have little or no value. “This will not be fixed within the next five years,” he added. In addition, Ghiles affirmed that “women will decide the future of Tunisia,” saying that the involvement of women in the economy is a key aspect of modernization that has helped Tunisia in the past. He discussed Tunisia as an outlier, far more advanced than other countries in terms of development and modern history. Recent tensions between Islam and the west has not helped assuage economic ties between Europe and North Africa, but he urged Europe (in particular France) to view N. Africa “as part of the solution instead of the problem.” North Africa has had ties to Europe for centuries, concluded Ghiles, “In every North African mind there is a French chip—their relations are over 200 years old.”