Identity and democracy in Maghreb – by Juan Ignacio Castien Maestro

A year has already gone by since the Tunisian revolution started, which has been followed by some others. Everywhere people have addressed their wrath against the scarce number of minorities that took up all power and wealth. The fact that those oligarchies were either left or right-wing, rather secular or religious, or the kind of foreign-affair politics they applied did not matter much. The anti- oligarchic inclination has been, therefore, the main feature common to all those revolutionary processes. But standing up against the oppressive power has also meant the questioning of the clientelist system on which that power was based.

So it is still to be seen up to which point action is going to be taken against that rooted clientelism or if it is just going to be against the most appalling manifestations of it. And in that sense, one of the most dangerous elements in those revolutionary processes now in course is that they fight more against the effects than against the deepest causes. Should it happen so, they run the risk of having the oligarchic ancient regime reconstructed in some years, but with a gentler look. The task of implanting a more democratic system, a more efficient economy and a more inclusive society is much more difficult than that of getting rid of a despotic government. It requires, above all, setting the limits to the lushness of that clientelism present in every aspect of social life, even in daily life. But in order to reach that goal, it is also necessary to carry out reforms in depth. Those reforms must cover different aspects, such as the guarantee of individual rights, the maximal avoidance of the dependence on the nature of the politician or civil servant in power at each moment, or an effective redistribution of wealth, in such a way that the submission to the masters and their whims becomes less common.
But apart from those and some other equally necessary reforms, there is an aspect that cannot be left aside, and different though it may be regarded at first, it deserves all our attention. We are referring to the collective identities. It is necessary to elaborate national identities which can be accepted by most of the population, so they must also be compatible with their real culture and history. The issue concerning identity is not something intangible and cannot be set merely within the sphere of the ideal, unlinked with the most  burning problems of existence. Neither can it be regarded as something involving just a handful of rather idle intellectuals. It is, on the contrary, a problem affecting every individual in his deepest being inside. That is why these individuals will consider one another as members of the same community or as foreigners, if not enemies, and will feel themselves either represented or not by their institutions and politicians alike. Therefore, a modern and well-cohesioned society must also come to some kind of agreement about their own identity. Reaching such an agreement is still one of the tasks to be carried out by the societies of the Middle East and the North of Africa. It is obvious that the problem is extremely complex and that it is the source of never-ending debates among those involved.

As regards the area of Maghreb, it is a world characterized by having really opposing ideas about culture and identity. There are deeply rooted discrepancies about different issues, such as the real role that Islam must play in society and politics, the definition of the collective identity, the importance attached to the Arab  and the Amazhig, and last but not least, the degree of specificity towards he Western World. All those different views are reflected in the completely different projects of society. If we take that into account, we should not be surprised by the fact that for years there has been a common factor in those countries, that is, the big difference between the models of identity and the national culture proposed by the ruling oligarchies and those that could represent important sectors of society. The options taken by rulers, in each case, have helped them to attract one part of the society to the cost of creating a gap with the other part. In Algeria and Libya they tried to combine, on the one hand, a reformist and modern Islam with a hot-headed Arabism, on the other hand, in Morocco a more traditional kind of Islam was spread, together with a less aggressive and exclusive Arabism, whereas in Tunis modernism, religious reformism and secularism were accompanied by a much more lukewarm compromise with Arabism. Despite all these differences, the various models adopted by the Maghrebi Status share, however, the uniteralism which has condemned an important part of their society mot only to a complete cultural and identity exclusion, but also to a political and even economic one.
Whatever the specific manifestation of it, that identity exclusiveness has become one of the basic elements of the political authoritarianism which has been continuously taking place. That has been so for a number of reasons. To begin with, the fractures in society hinders the reaching of the Basic agreement acceptable to all, which is required by a democracy, that in a way, makes authoritarianism rather functional, despite the blight it brings. At the same time, the political repression is equally inevitable, in order to keep a tight rein on those excluded from the system. And finally, the same internal divisions afflicting the population make it harder for them to join forces against the common oppression they suffer. That is exactly why it has been so difficult to form a big social coalition with the common wish to get rid of it, as finally happened in he case of Tunis and Egypt, and that also explains why in some other places, for example Morocco, such a coalition has not really come about yet.

All in all, the political authoritarianism since independence may be understood in a way, as the result of an uncohesioned society, but also as one of the main reasons why internal integration is so hard to overcome. But dealing with authoritarianism means dealing with clientelism too. In fact, the disproportionate power of one part forces the other part to yield to their authority, which strengthens even more the power of the sooner and brings the latter into conflict. Moreover, the different clients of every chief in power tend to stick to the limits of the divisions in families, regions and parties, which also makes both parts stronger. When there is a lack of identity and a shared culture alike, it is more difficult to respect the others, assume the existence of equal rules for everybody and understand the meaning of institutions, rather than perceive social life as a kind of a permanent war with the only possible support coming from a network of favours of which they already take part. This situation hinders both the acceptance of a fully shared identity and fairness in rules. We could, therefore, state that we deal with a group of vicious circles interwoven, which makes it even more difficult to escape from them. However, that is what seems to be starting to happen. And even if it is hard to get free of the evils of our time, they have the burning wish to do it. This already obvious change may be brought by the modernization that, for better or for worse, these societies have gone through during the last decades. Modernization has also brought together on the one hand, the defence of meritocracy against nepotism and string-pulling, and on the other hand, the demand for a better welfare and more individual rights, which they see in the Western World. And as on many other occasions through history, people have demands and expectations that go beyond what can be satisfied by the present system. They will only be satisfied if the necessary reforms are carried out, being perhaps cultural and identity ones the most difficult. In that sense, it becomes a must to work in two big fields, one related to the Islamic and its complex relationship with modernity, and the other one related to a desirable balance between the Arab and the Amazhig.

As far as the first one is concerned, the starting point must be the fact that a modern society must be, up to a certain point, a secularized society. Life has become so complex nowadays that it is impossible to arrange it according to what is established by any religious view of the world. But once this essential requirement is met, the levels of religiosity of a society may be different from another one in a very evident way. The Maghrebi population does not  have to be less religious than they are today in order to live in a fully modern way. But, apart from the role that strictly religious beliefs and practices play, Islam is, without doubt, not only a religion in the strict sense of the word.
It is also the basis of a whole culture. We can therefore talk about an Islamic culture that goes beyond the Islamic religion itself. Nowadays, this Islamic culture plays a key role as far as identity is concerned. It means the grounds for a shared identity, which is common to most Maghrebi people, and it is connected to a really valuable heritage, opposed in a way, to the Western identity, all of which is very useful in order to create a necessary collective self- affirmation. That is why any subsequent secularization in these societies must be carried out, to a large extent, bearing in mind this deeply-rooted religious culture. The modernization process, and even the secularization itself, must be developed on the grounds of an Islam-based culture. Therefore, they must both have some endogenous nature. And to make it possible, it is also necessary to adapt the doctrinal body of Islam, following the trails of the old Islamic reformism, but skipping its limitations. It is by no means an easy task, but we cannot see any way to avoid it. In this sense, the present increase of a moderate Islamism can be regarded, at the same time, as hopeful and worrying. Hopeful, as for the revival of the heritage and the effort to adapt it to a new historic situation, but worrying because of all the ambiguities and contradictions involved in such an effort.

The ethnic issue is equally complex. The nationalist movements that built up the present Maghreb had the Arabity and the Islam as their identity signs. During the last decades this attitude has been contested by a growing claim for all the Amazhig. This claim is, in our opinion, really valuable. It means the recovery of a real element of the Maghrebi culture and identity, which had been excluded for too long in the name of an abstract Arabity. When doing so, the official and real culture and identity are brought together, and that defuses an important source of exclusion and discrimination, which turns it, at the same time, into a fundamental contribution to the creation of democracy in the Maghreb. But all those good efforts may grow negative if the claim of the Amazhig is excessive and one-sided, as when they so often try to reduce the importance of the Arab to a minoritarian element and in some way to a phoney element, in contrast with the so-called deeper-rooted Berber. Doing so means forgetting about the present realities on ground, and of centuries of history, but also leaving aside all cultural and linguistic elements that link the great majority of Maghrebi people with those peoples from the Western World, and that constitute a heritage of civilizations with a deep history and a internal wealth to serve as a starting point for that endogenous modernization which is so urgent and necessary. The cultural element of Amazhig, in spite of its value and interest, has not been able to reach, due to historical reasons, a similar wealth

and richness, so it is just not useful for that. That is why, claiming a key role for the  Arabity must not be the result of any cultural essentialism, or any old romanticism, but the result of a purely and plain pragmatism. But as what happens with the Islamism, the Arab must be also understood as a compatible way with the construction of integrating and democratic societies. The mistake made by old nationalisms was not the claim of the Arab and the Islamic, but to promote idealized and monolitical versions of them, which could hardly fix within the challenges of the modern world or the much more plural and complex reality of the Maghrebi societies. It seems much more reasonable, therefore, to think of the Maghrebi identity as a synthetic or even mix-blooded one, as are in fact nowadays almost every, or all identities. Within this cultural and identity synthesis, Arabity must play a fundamental though not exclusive role. And, above all, it must be an open and inclusive Arabity, able to enrich itself with other contributions and offer contributions as well.

Reaching this goal is urgent in our opinion. As long as  it remains doomed to being just an aspiration, the construction of more cohesioned societies, able to get rid of the clientelism and authoritarianism that threaten them, is still far from happening. It is not just enough to encourage plurality. It is equally necessary to promote the common elements to a different level, as it links people who are fully entitled to enjoy their own particularities, but also should be interested in promoting meeting points. If they do not act so, they run the risk of widening the breach even more dividing different sectors of society. Only by neutralizing, if not overcoming, up to a point the never-ending disputes between lay and religious people or between the Arabists and Berberists, will it be possible to start a unified fight against the misfortunes common to all of them. What has happened last year, but also some time ago, gives rise to a reasonable optimism.