New Socio-Political Actors in North Africa: A Transatlantic Perspective
The chapters in this report analyze a number of features of each of the three socio-political actors (civil society, economic actors, and Islamist parties) in North Africa: their role in the current phase of transition, the extent to which they can be defined as “new” actors, and their relationship with other components of the state and society, including the remnants of the old authoritarian systems. These features highlight their relevance, whether and how these actors have changed in light of the Arab Spring, their goals and instruments, and the main challenges they face in promoting democratic change.
Paola Caridi’s contribution focuses on the spontaneous mobilization of the youth, which has been identified as one of the main drivers of the Arab Spring, forcefully unveiling the existence of untapped human resources. Their mobilization was possible due to the extensive exposure to and use of new communication technologies such as blogs and social networks, which worked not just as mobilizing tools but also as political spaces to create a common, transnational political culture. The keyword of such mobilizations and actions was “rights.” Although embracing numerous political and cultural dimensions, from political Islam to secularism and post-Marxism, the Arab youth, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, overcame considerable differences through their focus on rights. Caridi’s paper emphasizes the fact that the key demands of these youth movements centered on rights, and that it was through a rights-based discourse that they confronted the old regimes and are confronting the new powers in-the-making. Their rejection of traditional leadership and forms of organization, as well as their insistence on different forms of citizen representation suggest that a different elite is emerging in opposition to the old political categories.
Other actors have increasingly started to occupy relevant spaces on the socio-economic and political scenes of North Africa. Indeed the stabilization and future development of these countries cannot be achieved without the involvement of the economic sector, since most of the societal grievances are of a socio-economic nature. The paper by Jane Kinninmont offers a comparative analysis of the economic and political role of entrepreneurs in various North African countries, giving special attention to the role that entrepreneurs are playing in the transition. It argues that entrepreneurs have been among those challenging the regimes in Tunisia and especially Egypt, as the middle class and the private sector have seen considerable growth in recent years. They would stand to benefit from political changes, especially if there were significant efforts to shed crony capitalism and develop a more rule of law-based system. Entrepreneurs could also represent a political force in their own right. However, the paper argues that so far they do not constitute a clear-cut or unified interest group in any of the North African countries and, as a consequence, do not play a prominent political role. In particular, there are significant class distinctions between wealthy entrepreneurs operating in the formal sector and the majority of micro-entrepreneurs who operate informally and seek to avoid direct dealings with government. Other aspects concerning the links between the private sector and the former authoritarian rulers in the current phase of transition are also illustrated in the paper.
Finally, the increasingly prominent role played by Islamist movements and parties in the North African countries is the object of the analysis carried out by Silvia Colombo. The paper dwells on the novelty that characterizes these Islamist actors in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, underscoring the extent to which this is linked to the complex interplay between Islamists and other components of the political systems of the different countries. The formal institutional architecture under the former authoritarian regimes has always represented a powerful mechanism for controlling and channeling the Islamist opposition. Now these movements and parties are emerging with a completely new role as a result of the rapidly changing institutional context. In particular, one can speak of the growing fragmentation and pluralism inside the Islamist camp due to political competition. This increasing pluralism means that it is important to focus on the differences more than on the similarities across the North African national contexts, with a view to developing policies of engagement in a transatlantic perspective. Moving from the perception of political Islam as a homogeneous phenomenon to a more diversified and nationally-bound political force could help capitalize on the opportunities offered by this phase of transition.