Change in the southern Mediterranean: consolidation, collision and continuity

The nations of the southern Mediterranean, from Morocco to Syria, are all experiencing political change. The nature of this change however varies deeply form country to country which makes a consistent international community appraoch to the region highly difficult. 

Pol Morillas
12 July 2012

The post-Arab Spring Mediterranean has become a fragmented region where diverse prospects for political change coexist. Three words describe the main different political realities that exist in the region: consolidation of democratic processes, collision between democratizing forces and remnants of the old regimes, and the continuity of a pre-Arab Spring reality.

First, a progressive consolidation of democracy is taking place in Tunisia and Morocco, and may follow suit in Libya. Debates in Tunisia since the 2011 elections of the Constituent Assembly have focused on building an inclusive democratic system. Secular and liberal groupings from the revolution have entered the political scene and the media to establish the pillars of a secular liberal democracy. In the meantime, critics of the current coalition government between the Islamist Ennahda, the nationalist-leftist Congrès pour la République and the leftist Ettakatol argue that revolutionary momentum is sufficient and would not require a coalition justified on the sole grounds of preventing an unlikely return to the status quo ante.

Non-revolutionary countries like Morocco are also moving towards a more inclusive political system. From the top down, Morocco has introduced substantial revisions of its Constitution after the November 2011 elections, broadening the powers of the elected Parliament and Government. The executive branch is now in the hands of the Islamist Parti de la Justice et du Développement and the “cohabitation” between the King and the newly elected government is shaping a unique path towards democratic reform.

While too early to tell what the outcomes will be, Libya too, having toppled Gaddafi’s repressive regime, has a chance to transition towards a democratic system. Political elites agree that the recent parliamentary elections are essential to establishing the fundamentals of a new democratic system. There is also general agreement on the need to draft a new constitution after the elections that would delineate the contours of a roadmap towards democracy. The need to establish solid state institutions, disarm militias and ensure national unity remain key challenges for a future democratic state, but there is general consensus to avoid a return to a Gaddafi-style regime.

Second, Egypt and Syria appear to be on a collision course between democratizing forces and the remnants of the old regime. Violent collision looms large in Syria, where the Assad regime shows no sign of halting the slaughter of the civilian population. More than a year after the first demonstrations began, the country is split along sectarian lines, the risk of civil war increases by the day while the opposition struggles to form a united front. Collision also characterizes the international level, with the international community split over regime change and support for the Syrian leadership. The dangers of a regional spillover of the conflict have at the same time underpinned and undermined both the “Responsibility to protect” doctrine and the UN mediation efforts.

In different ways, Egypt as well seems set on a collision course between democratizers and remnants of the old regime. Before Mohamed Morsi was elected President, the Egyptian political system was in disarray given the “soft coup” by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in June 2012, which dissolved the Egyptian parliament dominated by the Islamists, assumed legislative functions and increased its power over civilian authorities, including the writing of a new constitution. After the presidential elections that month, there are few reasons to believe that collision will be avoided. In the coming months, the old regime is likely to use Egyptian institutions, and above all the judiciary which remains firmly in its hands, to recover its loss of influence. Open contrast between the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood and other democratization forces are likely to re-emerge on the occasion of the next legislative elections and the appointment of a constituent assembly.

Third and finally, continuity is likely to characterize Algeria and most Gulf countries for now. The fault lines of Algerian politics have not been shaken by the Arab Spring. Social uprisings have been far weaker than in other countries and the few political reforms that have been passed have left the political scene mostly unchanged. The country’s recent history of civil war and terrorism has proven to be a powerful demobilizing factor for a large part of the Algerian population. Also, previous political openings, freedom of expression (notably in the written press) and a subsidized economy have been perceived by Algerians as gains that should neither be dismissed nor compromised. All in all, the parliamentary elections of 10 May 2012 did not bring about intense debates on the need for a democratic revolution, leaving the Algerian political scenario in a pre-Arab Spring condition.

Some Gulf countries have also avoided political turmoil by relying on the redistribution of energy-generated wealth via social security programmes. Buying domestic peace has been the standard formula of Saudi Arabia and Oman. Others, such as Qatar have transformed the Arab Spring into a foreign rather than domestic policy issue. Only in Bahrain have popular uprisings shaken the grounds of the ruling family. Shia opposition movements have been severely repressed with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, preventing the emergence of a powerful opposition with close links to Iran.

Consolidation, collision and continuity typify the uneven path towards democracy in the region. Some countries that had experienced revolution like Egypt are still caught in an uncertain democratization process, while democracy seems more promising in other countries like Morocco that engaged in top-down reform. As a result of the fragmentation of the region and the emergence of polarised societies, the international community will struggle to uphold regional policy frameworks for the southern Mediterranean region.


An earlier version of this article was published in the Op-Med series of the German Marshall Fund of the US and the Instituto Affari Internazionali

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