Background and Scope of the Project


Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, scholars and policymakers have sought to assess the importance of the popular protests for democratization, political stability, and geo-strategy across the Arab world and especially in the Maghreb. Yet, whether the Arab Spring brought regime change, as in Tunisia or Libya, or regime continuity, as in Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria, the upheavals reshaped the political landscape dramatically and created exceptional opportunities for social movement mobilization. Throughout the Maghreb, diverse social movements – feminist, labor, Salafi, tribal, and minority groups – have exploited these opportunities to advance their interests, protect their supporters, and sideline their rivals. Both in the North African regimes that collapsed during the Arab Spring and those that survived it, a new political dynamism has emerged unseen in decades.

In light of this dynamism, CIRS is launching a research initiative on “Social Currents in the Maghreb” in order to investigate variations in social movement mobilization in Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria before, during, and after the Arab Spring. The project will also examine social and cultural vibrations evident throughout Maghrabi society. The research initiative will comprise a series of tightly-focused, empirically-grounded studies that focus on both comparative and single-country case studies examining social movements and currents in North Africa.

As the first country to depose its leader during the Arab uprisings, Tunisia’s political landscape has been in flux since the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The moderate Islamist ruling party – Ennahda – has brought the role of political Islam to the forefront of Tunisia’s political debate. In drafting Tunisia’s new constitution and addressing its economic crisis, Ennahda has positioned its governance along the Islamist-secular spectrum, bringing it into conflict with social movements – feminists, unionists, and Salafists. Now that Ben Ali’s autocratic government has been uprooted, these social groups seek to protect their interests by demanding inclusion and influence in the new political process.

The ousting of Muammer Qadhafi in Libya proved to be less swift and more violent than Tunisia’s experience. In the aftermath, tribal mobilization has shaped Libya’s social, economic, and political dynamics. Marginalized under Qadhafi’s rule through divisive patronage and territorial politics, tribal groups have activated kin-based networks to secure their policy preferences in the post-revolutionary regime. Tribal elders are playing a significant role in local politics and are considered to be important leaders in Libya’s state-building process. As some of these tribes extend beyond the Libyan borders, their kin-based solidarity plays a vital role in reshaping the balance of power in both regional and national politics.

While the mass protests of Morocco and Mauritania’s youth groups, the February 20th and 25th movements respectively, did not culminate in regime change, they did create avenues for political and social change. In response to the uprisings, King Mohammed VI created a new constitution, raised workers’ wages, and made Amazigh (Berber) an official language. The regime conceded to numerous policy demands made by civil society, labor, and ethnic minority groups. For decades, Amazigh (Berber) activists in Morocco, Algeria, and other parts of the Maghreb had been struggling for their rights – particularly in relation to territorial and linguistic autonomy. The recognition of the Amazigh language as an official state language in Morocco’s new constitution, signals a step in securing rights for this marginalized ethnic group.

Although sporadic riots and protests have been taking place in Algeria for many years, the Arab Spring largely bypassed the country. Social mobilization of Algeria’s Amazighs, the Kebyle, has taken place without government concessions. Meanwhile in neighboring Mauritania, another social movement – the Haratine anti-slavery movement – has experienced increased government repression since the Arab uprisings. While slavery is officially outlawed in Mauritania, law enforcement is weak and activists continue to struggle against this practice prevalent in the countryside.

As political change occurs throughout the region, academic focus on social movement mobilization taking place is both timely and necessary. With its common historical, cultural, socio-economic foundations, the Maghreb is a cohesive area of study that allows for greater understanding of domestic developments from both a single-country and comparative perspective. Moreover, while several books and articles compare various countries of the Maghreb, there is a dearth of scholarship on Mauritania and how it relates to Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco.

Some additional areas of inquiry are:

  • As countries such as Tunisia undergo political change, the negotiation of women’s rights and inclusion within society is left to a variety of civil society organizations and social actors. Islamist women, who were marginalized during the Ben Ali’s rule, constitute close to 50% of the Ennahda party’s bloc in the assembly. What is the role of these women in shaping Tunisia’s political and social attitude towards women? How do they engage with other actors mobilizing for women’s rights?
  • How have other ethno-religious minorities such as Maghrabi Jews and Sufis mobilized or been affected by social and political transformations across the region?
  • How and why have labor movements mobilized pre and post Arab uprisings? What were their major demands related to both the economic crises and government policies in these countries? How have regimes sought to pacify labor unions?
  • How do the domestic social movements translate into regional transformations? What are the linkages between social movements in North Africa?
  • Under what conditions do social movements become co-opted by authoritarian regimes? How conducive and committed are the various social movements to democratization in the Maghreb?
  • How do regional developments affect the Polisario movement and their mission for Western Sahara autonomy? Has the Arab Spring created opportunities for mobilization of social movements seeking to secure Western Saharan self-determination?
  • Located at a geographic crossroad between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, the five countries of the Maghreb are permeable to regional flows of knowledge, people, and goods from the North and the South. How do actors from abroad contribute to the social movement mobilizations taking place in the Maghreb?
  • Currents in various social and cultural artistic productions also influence and shape the rhythm of society. What are some recent trends in the arts, music and literature of the Maghreb?
  • A significant proportion of youth in the region continue to suffer from socio-economic woes. How are young people dealing with unemployment issues? What other issues are youth concerned about? How have various youth groups in the Maghreb organized and mobilized to tackle their concerns?


Click here to read more about another related CIRS research initiative, “Transitional Justice in the Middle East.”


Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS