Santa Clara University


Religion and Politics in North Africa

See also Egypt, Arab States

1. Brief Introduction
2. A Few Books or Articles
3. Other Resource Materials
4. Recent Articles

1. Brief Introduction to Religion and Politics in North Africa

Islamic states extend across the top of Africa, from Morocco to Algeria to Tunisia to Libya to Egypt. Morocco has a population of 32.2 million, with a 1.05% growth rate (2012 est). Its 2008 HDI ranking is a medium #126. (Medium HDI is #71-#155.) Algeria has a population of over 37.4 million, with a growth rate of 1.92% (July 2012 est). Its 2008 HDI ranking is #104. Tunisia has a population of 10.7 million, with a growth rate of .96%. Its HDI ranking is #91. Libya has a population of 5.6 million, with a growth rate of 2.01%. Its HDI ranking is #56. The respective Muslim percentages of the populations are 99%, 99%, 98%, and 97%. The authoritarian hand of the state, with various types of partial reform, had maintained power over Islamic oppositions across the region until the Arab Spring of December 2010. Bruce Lawrence compared Tunisia, the locus of the beginning of the movement, to Syria in its powerful central government and capital city, both of which emerged from French colonialism. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI carries the title “Commander of the Faithful” as a descendent of Mohammed. After succeeding his father King Hassan II in July 1999, the new king moved the country toward more reform.  Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi had manipulated various Islamic traditions and joined them to his personality cult, garnished with a “Little Green Book” until the fall of his government in August 2011. So authoritarian governments of various types, with more or less room for opposition, held power across North Africa, making the protest more virulent. See entrie on "Arab States" and "Egypt" for that movement. All of the above also holds for Egypt, except for its significant minority of Coptic Christians. The 2012 CPI ratings are Morocco 37 (88th globally); Algeria 34 (105th globally); Tunisia 41 (75th globally); Libya 21 (160th globally); and Egypt 32 (118th globally).

Islam helped the Independence Movement in both Algeria and Tunisia, but the state did not allow religion to assume a significant political role after victory over France. Indeed, Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) served as a model of secular leftist anti-colonial success from the 1960s. By the late 1980s, however, the expanding population and falling oil revenues exacerbated the gulf between Arabic-speaking unemployed urban youth and the new French-speaking skilled bourgeoisie who looked north toward Europe. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won local municipal elections in 1990 and the first round of parliamentary elections the next year. The government then outlawed the party and a fierce civil war began. A more radical and violent Islamic group, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) eventually joined the fray. In the 1999 presidential election Abdelaziz Bouteflika, representing the FLN Military, ran unopposed. Following his election, he offered amnesty to the Islamic Salvation Army, those guerrillas associated with the FIS. They then supported Bouteflika in the fairer 2004 election, which he also won. The military problem seemed “solved,” except for the memories of so many dead on both sides. Bouteflika has pushed through an amnesty for all but the most heinous crimes in an attempt to move on. Algeria has thus become a case study for whether or not nations can proceed in peace without going through some process of memory and healing like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Recently, however, Algerian guerrillas became Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and strengthened, causing concern in both the U.S. and Europe (see below). In foreign policy, Algeria has become more friendly to the United States than most Islamic countries because of common security concerns with Islamist movements. Algeria thus remains the most politically interesting case study of the four above states. Egypt, however, is even more crucial for the future of Islam. See the separate entry on that nation.

Hanson (2006), pp. 242-45, discusses “Sunni Politics in North Africa: The Autocratic State and Islamic Opposition in the Magrib.” 

2. A Short Introductory Course for Religion and Politics in North Africa

Huband discusses the relationships of umma, nationalism, and modernization in the first reading, and the Algerian civil war in the second.

Huband, Mark, “The Myth of the Golden Age: The Maghreb and Arabia,” in Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1999), 94-116.

Huband, Mark, “The Torn Heart: Algeria,” in Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1999), 46-72.

3. Other Resource Materials:

Anderson, Lisa. “Obligation and Accountability: Islamic Politics in North Africa,” in Daedalus. (Summer 1991): 93-112.

Tehami, Amine. “The Social Construction of Political Islam in Najd (1739-86), Iran (1963-79), and Algeria (1954-95),” paper delivered at 1998 APSA, September 3-6, 1998.

4. Recent News Articles on North Africa

“Algerian time bomb,” The Tablet 29 (October 1988): 1237-39. Analysis of rioting around the Riad El Feth, the symbol of the FLN anti-colonial triumph.

“In Morocco, A Rights Movement at the King’s Pace,” New York Times, October 1, 2005. Treatment of current reform movements and relationship to King Mohammed VI’s rule, tied to testimony of Ahmed Marqouki after 18 years of solitary confinement. Discusses the official Equity and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate the abuses of the rule of King Hassan II (1961-99) and to establish reparations, and analysis of degree of possible opposition in Morocco. New family law of October 2003.

“Algerian Voters Said to Approve President’s Postwar Plan,” New York Times, October 1, 2005. The government announced that President Bouteflika’s Charter for Peace and Reconciliation passed with 97% approval from 82% of qualified voters, despite the lack of such numbers at the polls. This was the government’s proposal to put an end to memory of the civil war: amnesty for Islamists who committed all but the most terrible crimes, exoneration of military and security forces, and reparation money for families of those who disappeared.

“Algeria to Free Jailed Islamists Under Amnesty,” New York Times, March 6, 2006. Algeria announced the completion that week of the release of 2,629 Islamists. The civil strife, which began in 1992, claimed an estimated 150,000 lives and caused $20 billion in economic damage. Officials estimate that about 1,000 guerrillas, most of them members of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, remain fighting.

“Many Algerians Are Not Reconciled by Amnesty Law,” New York Times, June 28, 2006. Human rights and Islamist complaints against amnesty law.

“Christian Shepherd Shines His Light in Islamic Pasture,” New York Times, July 22, 2006. Interview with Henri Tessier, 77, Archbishop of Algeria. “The central tension in Algerian society today is. . .between Muslims and other Muslims, as competing currents within Arab society struggle for domination. . . .The importance of the church in a Muslim land, he said, is to act as a kind of living exhibition of Western values for Muslims who are otherwise cut off from the Western world.”

"Algerian Blasts By Qaeda Unit Kill at Least 23," New York Times, April 12, 2007.Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, "North Africa's most active terrorist group," claimed responsibility for the deadliest terrorist attack in the Algerian capital in nearly a decade.

"North Africa: Under Attack, and Relying on Repression," New York Times, April 15, 2007. Analysis of threat and liberalization versus crackdowns as responses.

"A Quiet Revolution in Algeria: Gains by Women," New York Times, May 26, 2007. Women make up 70 percent of lawyers and 60 percent of judges, etc. Women make up 20 percent of workforce, double ten years ago.Women are more religious, more modern, and see universities (sometimes discredited as job routes by men who can emigrate) as desireable.

"Twin Car Bombs Strike Algiers, Killing Dozens," New York Times, December 11, 2007. Attack on U.N. building by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The Group's stated aim is to install an Islamic theocracy in North Africa, and changed its name in January 2007. Most organized terrorist group in region now, and receiving foreign training and assistance.

"Familiar Threats Constrict Press Freedom in Algeria," New York Times, December 28, 2007. The fragile space between the government and the Islamists is beginning to constrict again reminding some journalists of the beginnings of the 1990s.

"A Ragtag Insurgency Gains a Qaeda Lifeline," New York Times, July 1, 2008. Fine long investigative piece on the resurgence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) out of weak Algerian movement which joined with Al Qaeda. In 2004  Abdelmalek Droukdal became leader of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat had asked Zaraqawi for help. Formally joined Al Qaeda and renamed in 2006.

"Qaeda Branch Steps Up Raids in North Africa," New York Times, July 10, 2009. Connection of AQIM to Algerian roots and recent activity in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger on southern edge of the Sahara.

"Unknotting Father's Reins In Hope of  'Reinventing' Libya," New York Times, March 1, 2010. Discussion of succession to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, focused on younger son Seif, with older son and national security adviser Mutassim the contrast. Seif has led the initiative to renounce nuclear weapons and the unsucessful effort to open the economy globally, but has not yet taken a government post. He hopes Libya will become "a new Dubai," but many obstacles, especially from entrenched bureaucratic elite. Future will likely see influence of both sons.

"Tunisia Faces a Balancing Act of Democracy and Religion," New York Times, January 31, 2012.

"In Timbuktu, Harsh Change Under Islamists," New York Times, June 3, 2012. The bad results of fall of Qaddafi, Islamists get arms and strike south into Mali.

"Islamists Struggle to Run North Mali," New York Times, September 2, 2012. Islamists call for return of educated officials.

"Jihadists' Surge in North Africa Reveals Grim Side of Arab Spring," New York Times, January 20, 2013. Weapons for Islamists. French drive Islamists out of Tibuktu, but guerrilla threat remains. Jihadists led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar capture Algerian gas facility for few days. Significant loss of life in recapture.

List of other Regions

March 6, 2012.