Political Leadership in North Africa

What Comes After Authoritarian Regimes?

Tahrir square
Political Leadership in North Africa : What Comes After Authoritarian Regimes? - Karim Mezran


The leadership styles of and relationships between the authoritarian regimes and militaries in North Africa are important factors in understanding the dynamics of the current upheaval in the region. Inhabitants of the region, affected by blogs, social networks, and liberal European and American culture, demanded either a more rational, value-driven, and open leadership responsible to the people, or a constitutional system. Further, the United States and its allies should maintain political and military distance from the movements sweeping the region as not to discredit them, while training the local population in polling, election monitoring, and the like, to create a basis of democratic action that would ensure the success of the transition process.


An analysis of the leadership styles that characterized north African countries prior to the 2011 revolts is essential in order to understand what kind of leadership could emerge from the at times violent demonstrations observed in the past few weeks. Key to this analysis is the discussion of the main features of two prominent players—the authoritarian leaders and the military—and the kind of relations that existed between these two actors before 2011, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, and Algeria. How the authoritarian leaders and the military shaped their relationship clearly influenced the development of recent events. On the one hand, in Tunisia and Egypt, the regimes remained stable until the army sided with the protesters, or decided to assume the role of guardian of national unity. On the other hand, the divisions within the army in Libya, determined by tribal affiliations, provoked a situation in which some units defected whereas others remained loyal to the regime, creating a general state of confusion. The stance of the army vis-à-vis the regimes would also be crucial if future uprisings were to occur in Algeria and Morocco.

Moreover, it is important to observe that the authoritarian leadership in North African countries accidentally prompted the onset of a different idea of leadership among political opponents. This aspect will have major implications in determining who will take the lead in these countries and the ways in which the transitions will be managed after the revolts.

The Style of Leadership pre-2011

North African countries were characterized by similar but distinctive styles of leadership. Egypt and Tunisia were similarly typified by the so-called praetorian style. Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali came to power as military officers and later abandoned the uniform for civilian clothes to run the country as civilian presidents. The case of Algeria is mixed in the sense that Abdelaziz Bouteflika is not a military officer but rules over a system strongly influenced by the country’s military apparatus. Lastly, the idiosyncratic rule in Libya and the traditional, charismatic style of leadership in Morocco are rather unique in the area.

Turning first to the leadership in Egypt and Tunisia, the styles of Mubarak and Ben Ali appeared similar. Both leaders surrounded themselves with loyal supporters and established a nomenklatura system where clientelism and nepotism dominated the game. Although the two supported a pseudoliberal capitalist system, their authoritarian style of leadership spilled over to the entire society, causing widespread corruption—a problem prevalent within these societies as a whole. People’s lives depended on networks controlled by the leader and the nomenklatura. In both countries, the leaders established personality cults to solidify the center of power. The pictures of Ben Ali and Mubarak displayed throughout these countries were evidence of this, as was Mubarak’s commonly-used nickname “the Pharaoh.” the leaders also preferred to use technocrats to run the day-by-day affairs of the country, and the implications of this choice will be analyzed later in this paper.

The role of the military differs significantly in these two countries. On the one hand, in Tunisia, the army was marginalized by the regime as a professional, relatively independent, but weak group. The army officers in Tunisia are loyal to their institutional hierarchy. They are compact and professional patriots, mostly trained in Western countries. On the other hand, in Egypt, the army is an integral part of the system due to its history since the 1952 coup d’état led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. High-level officers were co-opted by the nomenklatura and thereby have direct access to economic power and resources. In both countries, the relations between the leader and the heads of the military were personal.1 therefore, the regimes’ stability was not called into question until the recent events of December 2010 and January 2011. In Tunisia, the army refused to obey the leader’s order to shoot at the demonstrators, whereas in Egypt, the army staged a pre-emptive coup d’état to force the leader to resign in order to save the system.

Another peculiar kind of leadership rules Algeria. The war of national liberation left the legacy of a competitive authoritarian political structure. The triangular system of government composed of the military, the party, and the state apparatus, who shared and competed for power, changed after the 1989 upheaval. Within two years, the country seemed close to a competitive multiparty democracy but, today, the institutions have yet to enjoy power of their own.2 under Bouteflika the style of leadership in Algeria changed significantly from that of his predecessors, who had been former military leaders. Bouteflika adopted a charismatic leadership style, making himself the center of all expectations and authority. In his first term (1999-2004), he was still subordinate to the military, but in his second, he started to push the army, the main power in Algeria since 1965, to the margins.3 While the military is still an important actor in Algeria, the country is transitioning from a military praetorian rule to a form of charismatic but still authoritarian, although progressively more open, rule.

The same kind of analysis cannot be applied to Libya, where there is a clear example of idiosyncratic rule. In Libya, the legitimacy of the country’s leadership rests in the shady idea of a revolutionary mission. The officers, having overthrown what they considered a corrupted and backward regime—that of King Idris I—portrayed themselves as the saviors of the country. Soon, Mu’ammar Gaddafi emerged as the charismatic leader within the revolutionary Command Council, and the Council became his personal instrument to control the country in a highly personalistic style of government. The successive changes to the system, meant to substitute the military council, maintained the same purpose, i.e. to strengthen the authoritarian leadership. The revolutionary enthusiasm of the 1970s soon dissolved and the “just society,” often mentioned by the “guide of the revolution,” never materialized.4 Moreover, instead of the creation of a nomenklatura resembling the ones discussed for Egypt and Tunisia, the power in Libya rested in the hands of the Gaddafa tribe and other loyal tribes whose interests were intertwined with those of the Gaddafi family in a well-defined tribal system.5 In more recent years, Gaddafi began to insert technocrats into the system of government, and some of them even joined his close circle of relatives. It is important to note that in Libya there has not been a privileged class as in Egypt or in Tunisia, but instead a close-knit group of relatives tied to the leader by a strictly personal association.

These tribal rivalries and alliances are also present within the armed forces and have been used through the years to strengthen Gaddafi’s control over the military as well as to draw attention away from himself and from the regime.6 Indeed, although Gaddafi’s charismatic leadership was key to the survival of the regime, it would not have lasted forty years were it not coupled with a strong security system based on tribal ties. Today, it is unlikely that Libya’s military will be able to play the role that the Egyptian and the Tunisian armies played in their respective revolts. Libyan armed forces do not possess the professionalism, the discipline, or the popular respect needed to fill a power vacuum and serve as a transitional structure to civilian government. The reports of senior air force officers fleeing to Malta and other recent defections highlight the chaos pervading the Libyan military.7 nevertheless we have also seen that the core of the leadership of the insurgents is formed by former military officers who have defected—the former Ministry of Defence Abubaker Jaber Younes is an example of this trend. It is also possible that in case of Gaddafi’s loss of control over Tripolitania a military figure will emerge as the main representative of that part of the country. What we have also seen emerging from the Libyan crisis is the role of former members of Gaddafi’s technocratic elite who have shamelessly switched side to become the spoke persons of the revolt. Among these are the Libyan ambassador to the UN Abdurrahman Shalgam and former Libyan ambassador to the US Ali al-Ujali. No other relevant data has really emerged so far to clarify the leadership aspect of the Libyan revolt.

A different system of leadership characterizes Morocco, where the king is the center of the political, economic, and military system. The king is mainly perceived as the traditional and religious leader legitimized by god—he is a descendent of the Prophet, the “Commander of the faithful” endowed with baraka (divine blessing).8 the system of government, called the Makhzen, is a very peculiar one. It revolves around the palace and its denizens. There is not a nomenklatura per se, but there is an elite, especially an economic one, that is used by the Makhzen to rule the country through a system of commercial and patronage resources, which are the king’s most effective levers of political control.9

The army in Morocco is similar to that in Tunisia, although in the past—especially during the early seventies when it was accused of having staged failed military coups—it represented a serious threat to the monarchy.10 king Hassan II dealt with this threat by sending the army to fight the Polisario front in the Western Sahara. Since then, the loyalty of the army to the king has never been questioned. While the higher echelons of the army are not directly part of the Makhzen, they are in personal relationship with the king and belong to his inner circle. The officers are trained in Western countries, especially in France and Spain, but also in the United States. Today, it is a highly professional army, which in case of disruptions, as seen in Egypt and Tunisia, might behave more like the Egyptian army.

The Style of Leadership post-2011: What Comes Next?

The systems of leadership described above, entered a crisis in the early months of 2011. Among the determining factors behind the outbreak of the crisis, the awareness of a different style of leadership in Europe and the United States played a significant role. The North African peoples, influenced by blogs, by social networks, and by the liberal European and American culture, demanded a more rational, value-driven, and open leadership responsible to the people and to a constitutional system. For this reason, the leaders emerging in the context of the protests are technocrats or prestigious figures coming from civil society. Political parties are not yet organized; therefore, there is not a rational bureaucratic political leadership. The opposition is modern—not tied to the traditional forms of political activity such as family, clan or political party. Therefore, it is probably post-modern—that is, interconnected on a horizontal level through the net of the new media, although for now it does not seem very structured. Even groups like Kifaya and Ghad are disorganized and still too small to determine the leadership of the opposition.

Particularly important within this framework could be the role that the youth may play, especially those militating with Egypt’s April 6th youth movement, which began rallying for increased political freedom in 2008. They have not only set the stage for the revolts, but also have continued to pressure the regime to make the transition to a more open and pluralistic system effective—beyond the promises of the military. They do not yet constitute a new power since they have no direct organization to support their request, but nevertheless the importance of their ideas and numbers will definitely play a role in the style of the leadership to come. Their frank, quick, and direct approach to tackling the various issues will mean that any leader willing to acquire their consensus will have a clear and less abstruse discourse, a direct style of command, and a highly responsive approach to the various issues—that is, he or she will have to be very alert to the demands of this group and quick to respond.

Given this scenario, in Egypt, which is currently under the control of the Egyptian army, the only actor in a position to distinguish itself from the rest of the disorganized opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a completely different approach to leadership. The leader of the movement is the murshid al-‘Am, or the Supreme guide, a role created by the founder of the organization, Hassan al-Banna. A member of a mystical Islamic Sufi sect, al-Banna transformed the traditional Sufi way of leading into a real political organization. However, today, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, is not a particularly charismatic figure. He is more a primus inter pares than a leader. This is due to the fact that the organization has changed from a monolithic, cohesive sect into a fragmented, plural movement with many factions following ideological and generational divides. This reality carries enormous consequences for the proposed leadership in the post-Mubarak period. It is possible that the Brotherhood will develop a more open and technocratic style of leadership based on mediation and compromise, instead of charismatic authority as was the case in the past. Outside the Brotherhood, a new group of people that follows a more Westernized leadership style emerged in the past few years, including Secretary general of the Arab league Amr Mohammed Moussa, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize Mohammed el Baradei, the 1999 Nobel Chemistry Prize Ahmed Bewail, and the leader of the Ghad party, Ayman Nour.

As opposed to Egypt, the Islamists are not formally present either in Tunisia or in Libya where the authoritarian regimes have strongly suppressed them with coercion. In Tunisia, there has been a political Islamist movement since the 1980s called An-Nahda led by the charismatic Sufi philosopher Rashid Ghannouchi, who recently returned to Tunisia after more than 20 years in exile in Europe. Whether he will be the leader of a new Islamist party and what kind of style he will adopt remains to be seen.

In Algeria there are political parties, Islamic in nature, whose leadership does not differ much from that of the non-Islamist parties. Morocco presents a different picture because of the presence of a legalized Islamic party, the Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD), which has the structure and the organization of a regular political party, and also because of the existence of a non-legalized but enormously more popular Islamist movement, al-Adl wa’l-Ihsan, whose leader and ideologue Abd alSalam Yasin is a typical Sufi sheikh (a spiritual leader of a mystical sect), highly charismatic, and venerated by the militants of the movement.

Concluding Remarks

In Libya, the transition is ongoing, and neither an organization nor a leader has emerged. The personalized system of government created by Gaddafi centered on his family and a narrow elite and completely lacked functioning institutions. This left the country without forces that might have led a smooth transition process such as the ones present in Egypt and Tunisia—i.e. political parties, opposition groups, trade unions or civil society organisations.11 the fact that some elements within the armed forces have defected to the protesters, along with a handful of senior government figures and diplomats, de facto left the country without institutions and alternative leaders. It is possible that the leadership style that will emerge will again be that of a former military or of a tribal leader. In both cases it will be a higher personalistic charismatic rule.

In Egypt, the military may present a candidate of their own. In that case, the dominant leadership style will be similar to the previous one, but perhaps with more constitutional guarantees and abiding to the rule of law. In Tunisia, the power seems to be shifting into the hands of technocrats who are either part of the former Ben Ali’s regime, such as Prime Minister Gannouchi, or who belong to the opposition. Nevertheless, it is expected that leadership dynamics will retain past characteristics in Tunisia as well. Still, one possibility is that the army will not play a dominant role, and a typical bureaucratic and technocratic style of leadership emerging from civil society will gain power. At this stage, it is still too early to understand whether new dynamics will emerge and to advance any forecast on what kind of leadership could come forward and whether any significant change of leadership in Morocco and Algeria should be expected.

Considering all these factors, one last question regards what role, if any, the United States should play to foster a new, more open, and modern leadership style. Given the suspicion with which any action by Western powers is received in the region, it would be advisable for the United States and its allies to maintain a distance from the events, at least politically and militarily. The united States can nevertheless employ its consistent soft power to help the new movements and parties to create an internal structure that, by being open, rational, and democratic, could help in creating a new leadership which mirrors these characteristics. The skills of consultants, educators, training experts, and polls analysts could be taught to the native populations and thus create a basis of democratic action that would ensure the success of the transition process. In this field therefore, Western countries can contribute without raising concerns within the militants.

Notes & References

  1. Marius Deeb, “Arab Republic of Egypt,” in The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, ed. David E. Long, Bernard Reich, and Mark Gasiorowski (Boulder: Westview Press, 2007), 420.
  2. Azzedube Layachi, “Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria,” in Government and Politics, 499.
  3. Ibid., 500.
  4. Luis Martinez, The Libyan Paradox (London: C. Hurst &Co, 2007), 84-86.
  5. Ibid., 87.
  6. Mohamed Hussein, “Libya Crisis: What Role Do Tribal Loyalties Play?,” BBC News, February 11, 2011., http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-middle-east-12528996.
  7. Paul Koring, “Libyan Military Widely Regarded as Murderous Thugs,” Globe and Mail February 22, 2011.
  8. Gregory White, “Kingdom of Morocco,” in Government and Politics, 474.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 477.
  11. Allison Pargeter, “What Future Would a Post-Gaddafi Libya face?,” BBC News February 14, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12569902.
Karim Mezran is an Adjunct Professor at the Bologna Center and the Director of the Center for American Studies in Rome. His analysis on the Middle East and North Africa has been widely published in Italian and foreign-language books and journals.