The Path of Independence in North Africa

Jordan Rocke, Dickson College, 2012


The following essay was written as part of the The Practice and Legacy of Colonialism unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2012. It was written in response to the following question: "Being colonised for quite a long time, North African countries wish to live at peace with the West, as well as the East, but at the same time not be dominated by them." How true is this?


“Being colonised for quite a long time, North African countries wish to live at peace with the West , as well as the East, but at the same time not be dominated by them.” This statement can easily be backed with proof taken from the history of three nations located in the Maghreb. The country of Morocco is the perfect demonstration of a country which is struggling to maintain a relationship with the west and adopting Western concepts, while trying to overcome their colonial history and attempting to avoid being dominated by Western ideals. Tunisia is a demonstration of a nation which is trying to avoid being dominated by the West, even in this post-colonial world. Algeria is a country which demonstrates both a country trying to recover from their colonial past and a country simultaneously trying to balance Western and Arab cultures, without letting either dominate the culture of their country.

Attempting to fit aspects of Western culture into any other kind of society has been a problem for many countries in the past, and often carries the risk of losing aspects of culture and tradition. A nation in the Maghreb which demonstrates how problems can arise both with and without aspects of Western culture is Morocco, which had large-scale protests in 2011 to attempt to obtain completely free elections as well as more power for the Prime Minister, taken from the king. These protests were led by the February 20 Movement, eventually culminating in a referendum, which was passed by 98% of the vote, which gave more power to the Prime Minister and earlier elections than planned. In Morocco's electoral history, the King was accused of influencing the vote, the elections before 2002 being “considered rigged and corrupt” (Record-Journal, 2002). The referendum passed in 2011 in an attempt to end the protests was considered “ridiculous" (Radio France Internationale, 2011) by the February 20 Movement, who also called for continued protests. The majority of the population, however, was appeased by this action and the majority of the protests ceased after the referendum was passed. Protests are still being held by the February 20 Movement as recently as March 2012, showing just how much difficulty the country is having with attempting to introduce democracy to a degree that coincides with tradition, but still is enough to appease the general population.

In 1987, a man named Zine El Abidine Ben Ali became the president of Tunisia, replacing the former president Habib Bourguiba. Internationally, Ben Ali was seen as a positive change for Tunisia, being praised for taking a direct approach to problems of his country, as opposed to his slower predecessor. Over the next 22 years, Ben Ali won five elections with over 90% of the vote each time, increasingly igniting suspicion over the fairness of these elections. In 1999, an Italian agent of the former Italian secret service, SISMI, Fulvio Martini, admitted to orchestrating the bloodless coup which placed Ben Ali in power, not by any direct action, but by ensuring that a government headed by Ben Ali would have international support, making Ben Ali's presidency a clear sign of the Western world attempting to indirectly control Tunisia. There were several reasons for the removal of Ben Ali during Arab Spring. Corruption, repression, high unemployment rates, extravagance by Ben Ali's family and lack of freedoms were all marks of Ben Ali's rule, but due to strong international relations, his regime was rarely questioned on an international level. During his reign, the Ben Ali administration was on friendly terms with the USA (Ben Ali even sending a congratulatory note to president Obama upon his election), France (one French minister even proposing that France could "offer the know-how of (its) security forces to help control this type of situation" (Simons, Speigel Online International, 2011) during the protests that eventually removed Ben Ali from government), Italy (sheltering the fleeing Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi in 1994), Spain (Ben Ali having been a military attache to Spain before becoming president) and Saudi Arabia (where he is currently believed to be living). Although the majority of these countries distanced themselves from the Ben Ali regime after he was removed from office, the support which they offered him was vital to his 23 year rule. One Iranian reporter even went as far as to say: “[E]ver since he seized power in 1987, Ben Ali counted on the support of the West to maintain his grip on the country.” (al-Amin, Tehran Times, 2011). Although this statement was made after Ben Ali was removed, for a reporter to make such a bold statement shows just how much Ben Ali was seen as a western puppet and was truly a a sign of the western world attempting to continue to control Tunisia in a post-colonial world.

Due to its unique status as a settler colony in the French Maghreb, Algeria is an example of a nation attempting to overcome its imposed Western culture to return to its Arab traditional roots. This process has become known as simply “arabization”. Due to French education practices in Algeria during the 132 years in which the French ruled the country, the majority of educated Algerians were raised speaking French, becoming the cultural elite, just below those of French heritage. Not only the French language was passed on by French educators, French values, both religious and cultural, were also passed on. Algeria gained independence in 1962, and the process of changing the education system to promote study of the Koran and to educate in Arabic was seen as too big of an issue to handle, with the bureaucracy of Algeria requiring French speakers and few teachers of Arabic being available in Algeria. The first of the problems was changed by gradually changing the bureaucracy to be bi-lingual with a focus on Arabic. The second problem was solved by bringing in Arabic speaking educators from Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries. This was where several issues with the Arabization project (which were only really addressed this century) began. Many of the educators brought to Algeria from other Arab nations held strong religious views, some even extremist, which led over the next 30 years to leave many educated Algerians with a very religious views, also leaving Algerian youth prone to terrorist recruiters, due to the religious attitudes they have been raised with. In the 2000's, many of these issues were addressed, with French being re-introduced as the language of education in Algeria and rote learning of the Koran being played down, with more of a focus on mathematics and science. Many of the extremist educators were also removed. Although this revamp of the educational system has addressed many issues brought on by Arabization, it hasn't prevented the Algerian youth from being very confused, considering their education had been divided between French and Arabic and extremely religious and near secular. It is clear that Algeria is caught between the West style education (French, secular and with the risks of separating Algeria from its geographical “world” and losing aspects of Algerian culture) or the Arab style education (Arabic, religious, with the risks of extremist terrorists receiving more recruits and moving away from the Western world, which Algeria can relate much more with in regards to modern history and some cultural aspects). The problem faced by the Algerian education system was summarised by an Algerian man who was raised under the French education system: “Now they are at a crossroads, either they go with the West, or stay with this and become extremists.” (Slackman, New York Times, 2008). One of the core reasons this is such a problem for Algeria is clearly that they wish to preserve some aspects of Algerian culture severely impacted by French colonialism. Algeria wishes to keep this aspect of its national image so as to keep its status as a part of the Arab world, something it was not for over 120 years while the country was controlled by the French. In the end, it comes down to Algeria wishing to be controlled by neither the East or the West.

“Being colonised for quite a long time, North African countries wish to live at peace with the West, as well as the East, but at the same time not be dominated by them.” In regards to the French Maghreb, some things are clear: Morocco is a clear example of a country which is trying to maintain tradition with the West, without changing too much from tradition. Tunisia is a demonstration of a nation which is attempting to show that it will not have its freedoms taken just because the West supports a dictator. Algeria is truly a country which is trying desperately to balance the influence of the Western and Arabic aspects of its society, specifically on the influence these forces have the youth of Algeria. As these facts show, the statement at the beginning of this paragraph is very accurate.


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