Mounira M. Charrad: Political Developments in Tunisia, Morocco and Iraq


Tunisia, Morocco, and Iraq have developed their own unique political structures. In the following interview with Stephanie Marudas, Mounira Charrad talks about the factors that contributed to these nation-states’ post-colonial development and examines  the various elements at play in the Arab Spring- the recent uprisings and revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East that have captivated the world. Mounira Charrad has published an article on state-building at the central and local levels in Tunisia, Morocco and Iraq as part of the July 2011 volume of The Annals, “Patrimonial Power in the Modern World.” Charrad is one of the special editors for the volume, along with Julia Adams, and is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin. A podcast and transcript of her interview are below.

Mounira Charrad Podcast

Stephanie Marudas:  In your recent Annals volume article on patrimonial power in the modern world, you write about kin-based power structures within three post-colonial nation states in the Middle East:  Tunisia, Morocco, and Iraq.  Tell us how you came to write about these three countries.

Mounira Charrad: I did my research before this article on Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.  I have been interested in those three countries in what is called Maghreb, another word for North Africa, and I wanted very much to move in the direction of studying Iraq.  So in my previous work, I concentrated on questions of state formation in Tunisia and in Morocco from the pre-colonial period all the way to the time of independence and looking at the relationship between kin-based structures and central states.  And recently I have looked more and more at Iraq and found all kinds of similarities between the case of Iraq and the case of Tunisia and Morocco.

SM:  So let’s start off talking about Tunisia.  Tell us about how the Tunisian nation state came to exist through what you call in your article the marginalization of local patrimonial networks, the country unified as one, pretty much eliminating the tribal powers.  If you could take us through this.

MC:   Tunisia is in many ways a bit different from many other countries in the region of the Middle East and North Africa, the MENA region as most international organizations call it, because of its very long history of centralization and bureaucratization.  Tunisia was a nation state earlier than many other countries, certainly earlier than Morocco and Algeria and also Iraq, which is now in the process of constituting a nation state.  So Tunisia was always a very interesting country for me to study to see how the state developed. Here was already a more centralized  state in Tunisia before the beginning of the colonial period, which started in 1881 and ended in 1952, but already before 1881 there were early reformers in Tunisia.  There was more of a sense of nation state.  And for reasons having to do with geography as well as history, the kin-based solidarities in the local areas had been weakened early on in Tunisia, as I show in my book States and Women’s Rights.  The early reformers did a lot to create a central administration and also they were in constant struggle with the kin-based groups in rural areas.  This was a very bloody process; it is not to be imagined as something smooth and peaceful. On the contrary, it was a long process of weakening the kin-based groups but it occurred earlier on in Tunisia. This had further implications both for colonization, the kind of colonial domination that existed, and then what has happened afterwards, after the end of colonialism.

Today, since the uprising in December [2010]-January [2011] and the ongoing political debates, Tunisians are very proud of the fact that they had the first constitution in the Arab world and many other things happened first in terms of development of the law and development of policies and legislation that are indicative of a nation state.  That is not the same as democracy, definitely not to be confused with democracy, which a lot of people will tend to do, but definitely a more unified country and a more organized state early on with very significant implications for further historical development in the twentieth century.

SM:  And again, Tunisia is a first in kicking off the Arab Spring.  We now have Tunisia, a country that threw out its longtime president for twenty-three years, and President Ben Ali, his family held various political positions and as a government they had access to a lot of state-controlled resources, and the Tunisian people said, “enough.”  What happened to the Tunisian people to finally say, “We need a change.”

MC:  Let me also mention that I am originally from Tunisia, so I share in the pride of the Tunisian people in the uprising and in being the first in doing it.  Now, how did all this happen?  It certainly was not expected; very few people expected it.  There was a sense in Tunisia before the uprising, under the Ben Ali regime, there was a sense that maybe something would happen later on, somehow, some change.  It was a sense of uneasiness, obviously.  There was a sense that people could not speak.  And, at the same time what I kept hearing when I was in Tunisia was that yes, we do not have a democracy but we have a good economy, we have the rise of the middle class, people can feel safe in the streets, the schools are functioning, the government offices are functioning.  There was always this discourse about yes, we do not have this but we have that and so things just went on and on and on.

Now, the uprising was a surprise to most people and I think what is really remarkable about the uprising in Tunisia is first of all what it is not, in order for us to think about what it is.  The remarkable thing is that there are three things:  This is not a replica of Iran by any stretch of the imagination.  It is not military, and we can speak about the role of the army in the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution and what the Army did and did not do, that the uprising was not initiated by the Army, nor was it initiated from outside.  This was not a foreign power coming in and trying to organize the uprising or trying to interfere with the politics there.  So those three things are really remarkable because that was the expectation, that if something happened it would be coming from the Army, that it had a chance of being Islamic fundamentalist, or being forced from outside.

So none of this happened and Tunisia is an example of a social movement that I would say started from below.  The term “youth quake” has been used a lot to refer to the Jasmine Revolution.  We all know how important the social media were in this.  We are learning now more and more that in fact that social movement was sort of growing and organizing itself behind the scene very, very slowly in ways that were not immediately visible.  It is also very important that it started with young people and then others joined, that they were able to gain support from critically important groups in Tunisian society.  If you look at the pictures of demonstrations you see the young, first of all, and you see men and women, surprisingly enough, or maybe not, not to me anyway, it was not surprising to see women given what I have written about the changes in Tunisia over time, but you also saw lawyers in their black robes, you saw physicians in their white gowns, you saw people from many different social groups in the country.  Another very important phenomenon is that the rural areas, or the periphery, the areas that were the least privileged or the poorest in Tunisia, not only participated but actually initiated the uprising.  The uprising started in the southwest or the center west of the country where the least developed areas are located.

So it will take a while before we completely understand the process, but for the time being I think that the young people, particularly the people who received an education and could not find a job, in the poorest parts of the country, started a form of protest and then the protest grew to other parts of the country, grew to the cities, grew to other socioeconomic groups to the point where it became a nationwide movement and, very importantly, the Army refused to support the Ben Ali regime.  So once the support of the Army was not there, there was very little left for the regime to count on, except the police force.  But the fact that the Army refused to shoot the population, that I think was extremely important because we see how critical the role of the Army can be in other places.  So once the regime no longer has the support of the Army there is not much that it can do.

SM:  Now, leaving Tunisia and going to Morocco, another country that you focused your research on in The Annals article, we look at the power structure there and today how is that power structure holding up [amid] the Arab Spring?  And as we know, King Mohammed VI recently had a referendum to the Constitution to open up power to more elected officials yet he is still in charge, ceremonially, but still has power over the military.  Some have said that this is perhaps a model that is working for the people, but take us to Morocco – what we know about its past and what is happening now.

MC:  Morocco has a different history from Tunisia, even though these countries are in the same region and they share a lot in terms of language, culture, and also the significance of kin-based solidarities in the political history of each one of those countries.  One of my theoretical points, which I think has policy relevance as I see it, is that we tend to speak of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa a lot in relation to Islam, at least in the media and the policy world.  And that is fine and of course Islam is important–no one can dismiss its importance in the region culturally.  However, my theoretical point is that when we look at politics and politics over time, unless we consider the place of kin-based solidarities in each one of those countries, we miss an important point. The question is an open one as to where they stand today, but look at them historically.  Think about the fact that people in the history of those societies came together politically on the basis of what they saw as common kinship ties and many different words have been used to refer to that in the literature and by the people themselves.  I called them kin-based solidarities because to me what matters is the solidarities part of it and what brings people together.  Sometimes people call that clans, people call that lineages, people call that tribal groups, people referred to the Sheiks.  If you look at The New York Times over the last four years or so, the term of tribe has come up many, many, many times in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, to bring us back to Morocco, the history of the country is very different from that of Tunisia insofar as before colonization, which occurred there in 1912 and ended also in 1956, same time as in Tunisia, the kin-based solidarities were very strong.  A lot of historians spoke about Morocco as a country divided between a land of government and a land of dissidents.  The land of government, called the bled makhzan, and bled siba being the land of dissidence, really meant that there were regions in the country that the government never controlled or controlled only in very partial ways.  For example, the sultan might enter into some kind of negotiation with kin-based groups about taxation some of the time but not at other times, and those lines were shifting constantly.  We could have a given situation for a couple of years or one year or more and that could change depending on the pattern of alliances and conflicts between the political center and the land of dissidence.  Those were not even clearly delineated geographic areas because a given region could be in the land of government at one time or in the land of dissidents another time.  But all of this to say that when Morocco was colonized by the French in 1912- the country was one where you did not have a long history of a central state unifying the whole territory.  You had those divisions because the land of dissidence was also one in which different groups existed in relative autonomy, different local communities that are called the patrimonial networks.

Now comes colonization. The French did not have all [the] administrative and military resources they might have wished for to control Morocco.  So what do they do in Morocco?  They use indirect rule.  What do they do?  They make an alliance with the Sheikhs, they make an alliance with the leaders of those kin-based communities.  You know what?  They did the same thing as what the British did in Iraq and what happened most recently in Iraq with the U.S. policy there.  So these alliances that the French made during pretty much the entire colonial period in fact kept those kin-based solidarities in place.  Scholars have used various metaphors to talk about the politics of Morocco during colonization, saying that those local communities were in an icebox, they were in mothballs, all imageries of things really not changing very much.

So, the colonial state in Morocco in fact rigidified a lot of those political structures in rural areas, again, contrary to what a lot of people think; that the colonizer comes and kind of changes everything and everything becomes like it is in France.  Well, not so.  It did not happen that way- on the contrary.  So when independence occurs in 1956, you have a country that is very much divided among communities and the only institution that is able to generate a sense of unity is, in fact, the monarchy.  The monarchy which is the same dynasty as the one that existed before independence.  And the unifying role of the monarchy, which we could call a patrimonial system, was extremely powerful in Morocco and most Moroccans could share in that.  They could accept the monarchy as the unifying institution and symbol of the country, more so than they could accept representatives of cities because the rural areas, the local communities there said, “Uh-uh, no no, we do not want an urban-based Nationalist party to rule over us.”  And the conflicts were, in fact, quite significant between the Nationalist party and the rural areas with the kin-based solidarities.  So in this conflict the monarchy played the role of unifier, of orchestrator among different factions and the image of the monarchy as the unifying principle of Moroccan society is one that has very deep historical roots, going to before colonization and then being strengthened during the colonial period.

Coming into today since 1956, independence from France, much has happened in Morocco and I think it is a good example of the integration of kin-based solidarities, integration of those local communities into a nationwide political system.  That has been done through a variety of policies and I think we can say that in the end, you know, ultimately, kind of half a century later, those policies have succeeded in minimizing the fragmentation that could have arisen from the maintenance of kin-based solidarities and has, in fact, succeeded in creating a more unified political entity.  At the moment what we see is a monarchy that carries with it a strong symbolism of unity, also a religious symbolism, and that is attempting to make reform instead of being swept away by it.  In 2004 the King of Morocco made significant reforms having to do with family law, Islamic law, codes of personal status that have been applauded in Morocco itself, in the Middle East and North Africa, and I think in the world at large, even in the U.S. people spoke a lot about those reforms.  Those reforms give greater rights to women and I think they do not go quite as far as the reforms that occurred in Tunisia in 1956, which I discuss in my book States and Women’s Rights, but nevertheless the reforms in Morocco in 2004 were really the first in an Arab country in the twenty-first century and were very important.  And I see the reforms that the king is proposing now as continuing on that path.  It is a way for the state to address some of the issues that are there and could become more inflamed and we will see where things go.

SM: Bringing this all together, when we think about the Middle East today, North Africa, the directions that they are heading, how will kinship ties perhaps play out going forward?  Is it an inevitable piece of the region or for all politics in the modern world asThe Annals demonstrates, that patrimonial power is still very much a global phenomena?

MC:  I think that first what we tried to show in the volume is that patrimonial power in one form or another, to one extent or another, is part of all power systems or most power systems in the world.  So in that way the Middle East is not that different from the rest of the world because I think, again, we tend to emphasize all the differences and the exceptionalism of the Middle East and I am so pleased that this volume, in fact, is showing similarities in patrimonialism throughout the world globally, and we made a real effort to try to cover many regions.

That being said, I think in the Middle East what we see today is that the kin-based solidarities are not disappearing, they take different faces.  They operate in different ways, there are many countries where they are not as significant in politics and I think we have got to make a distinction about the kin-based solidarities being activated for political purposes versus not so.  And I think if we look at the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution or what happened in Egypt we see solidarities on another basis, on the basis of ideology, on the basis of class.  It does not mean that kin-based solidarities are not operating in another sphere, in the sphere of the family, in the sphere of welfare, where people turn to when they have a problem. There are systems of reciprocal obligations where people in the same kin group may help each other not because they love each other necessarily but because they expect that from kin and it is reciprocal.  So if you have a system where everybody is expecting pretty much the same thing, then people are more likely to comply than not.  There are political movements and situations where the kinship network really has mattered a lot but it is not everywhere.

As we have seen in Afghanistan, it is a different political game and unless the policy world pays attention to how different that political game is, well, there is very little hope. We have to understand what are the forces that enter into the political game in different countries, in different parts of the world, and we cannot just use blanket understandings.  And so that is how I see it.