Kal Ben Khalid is an analyst and writer focusing on Maghreb politics and security issues. His academic interests include post-colonial Algerian and Mauritanian elite formation and diplomatic history.
Kal, thank-you for agreeing to be interviewed by Your Middle East. You are the principal author of the much followed blog ‘The Moor Next Door’, which is mainly about Maghreb affairs but also touches upon IR and geopolitics. Would you mind giving us some background on you as a person, as well as your experience working in/with MENA?
I was a student at university when I began blogging; I have travelled in the region for school and for personal reasons. But I keep the blog separate from my professional and personal activities.
So, what influenced and prompted you to start this blog in the first place?
I began blogging mainly in order have a place to “think out loud” about politics and the region. There are not a lot of people writing regularly in English about North Africa, especially Algeria and Mauritania, which I find to be fascinating places. Everyone is interested in the Middle East proper, the Gulf, Lebanon and Egypt. This is fine. But I am personally interested in North Africa and so I write about it. Not only do I find it more interesting, but I have also grown up with and made many friends from the Maghreb, so I have an affection for the area and a respect for its peoples.
I was an avid reader of The Arabist blog going by to my high school days, and even more so in university. I was inspired by this blog’s style and focus to begin blogging about the Maghreb in the way The Arabist was writing in a sophisticated and empathetic way about the rest of the Arabic speaking countries. This was probably one of the biggest influences on my deciding to blog.
You mention you find Algeria and Mauritania to be “fascinating” places. What draws you to them in particular?
Algeria has a colonial and post-colonial history that is unique in the MENA region, given its experience with France but also from the stand point of someone who is interested in civil military relations. You have relatively few other Arab states that compare to Algeria closely in this sense. Mauritania is also interesting in terms of civil military relations, its ethnic and social composition which compares to some of the other majority Arab states. Both countries are very diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, lifestyles and all the rest.
A core theme throughout your blog is Algeria. For a lot of people, especially in the U.S., there is a lack of knowledge or interest about this country. Why do you think this is?
Part of this is because to learn about Algeria in a meaningful way one needs Arabic and French. Americans are not good with languages. Algeria is also a marginal research interest where writing is not done in English, so many people shy away.
Many Americans are interested in Egypt, for example, because there is an alliance built on the Camp David arrangement and the government courts foreigners for economic reasons. So Americans travel there, “fall in love” with it, study there, whatever. The same is true for Morocco for different reasons. These places are like Disney Land for a certain sort of American, who goes ahead learns Arabic, or some Arabic; Algeria is not like this.
Do you think that Algeria has a lot to show in the West in terms of how this Arab Spring could and might progress within the North Africa region?
Yes. The first thing is that what happened in 2011 should be put in historical context. The expectation that Algeria will follow the same course a place like Egypt or Tunisia ignores Algeria’s political history. Whatever happens in Algeria will be more the result of that background and process – not mere imitation of what has been seen on Al Jazeera. The dominant factor in Algerian politics is domestic politics. This is also reinforced because Algeria’s leadership is older and its position relatively more stable than in the neighbouring countries; that is, its senior leaders are more likely to die in power than younger leaders in Morocco or Syria or Jordan. So the bottom line is really that each of these countries have their own politics and their own polities however broken or fragile they may be.
The other thing is that regime adapts. The Algerian regime learned a lot from its experience in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It also appears to have learned and adapted following the 2001 uprising. They have learned to be less aggressive with demonstrators and to avoid provocative uses of excessive force. This is the mistake Ben Ali, Mubarak, and probably most obviously Qadhafi and As’ad have made: they were took brutal, too conspicuously contemptuous in their violence.
Many of our readers will be familiar with the Libyan and Tunisian uprisings; what do these countries show us about regional trends during this Arab Spring?
They show us that these things are highly idiosyncratic.
Tunisia has turned out relatively well compared to the Egyptian case. But this is because of factors that existed before the uprisings in either country – the size and political role of the military, the structure of the economy, the levels of education and size of the population, the role of foreign aid and regime backers. These uprisings are all very different even as they have important similarities. If we focus too much on what they have in common we don’t get enough analytically.
Why is it that Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria and other North African states have largely escaped the Arab Spring? Or have they?
Only two have “Escaped” the so-called Arab Spring, if we can say this.
Morocco has a more traditional regime with greater popular legitimacy. Whatever one thinks of the monarchy, it suffers from less of a crisis of basic legitimacy among its people than the regimes in Algiers or Cairo. It has support in a way the other regimes don’t and benefits from some of its defects in terms of development – lack of literacy, the urban versus rural dynamic, etc…
Mauritania, and I have said this for some time, is heading for a potential constitutional crisis since its legislative elections were pushed back from last autumn into this spring and organizing for that has just not been done well enough to hold credible elections. The regime has structured its patronage networks in such a way that only a few, small tribes benefit. Consequently corruption money is not spreading widely, thereby creating openings and reasons for dissent.
The country had the largest demonstration in its history this week. I will say this: I don’t like calling these uprisings by seasons, springing, wintering, summering. These things will happen as they do and on their own terms.
Omar Ashour contends that in Libya: “If the Islamists win the elections of the National Assembly that will be held in July, as many analysts expect, article one is more likely to be upheld with some provisions asserting religious identity of the state. This will continue a process of political and ideological polarization that is already severely dividing the new Libya.” Does Islamism have to be divisive in the North African context?
These identity questions are inherently divisive in just about any place, not just North Africa, except for exceptional cases where you have a theocracy or communist state where all questions are settled and people are brainwashed from childhood.
They are even more divisive in North Africa because religious politics often comes along with a strong Arab-centric view in terms of identity, which adds to other ethnic divisions on the Berber issue. The fact that there are significant numbers of Algerians, Tunisians, Egyptians and Moroccans who are not Islamists and who do not subscribe to their worldview or their identity politics means ensures it will continue to be a divisive point for some time, causing both Islamist and non-Islamist trends to adjust to each other.
This is tangentially related and applies to some analysts in the US, but I find it very troubling that many people who are not part of these polities have sort of adopted the view that Islamism is this inevitable and authentic form of Islam or Muslim politics. This takes political oversimplification and applies it to analyses that gives a better understanding of the full picture. We should resist temptations to sort of accept majoritarian views of societies of which we are not part of and try to get a sense of these countries in the fullest way. I am not saying there are major points of agreement in the countries on religious identity or even on shari’ah in some case. I’m saying it’s not enough to stop there.
What are your views on Cyrenaica threatening to secede from the rest of Libya? Is this inevitable or just political posturing?
This looks mostly like political posturing by some people who were left out of the NTC process or fear that the region will not get fair representation in the new government.
My understanding is that “Cyrenaica” did not threaten or do anything in the way of autonomy but a few people from aggrieved elites made a declaration that was condemned by the important militias, local council, tribal leaders, and activists throughout eastern Libya. There were vastly more protests it seems against that declaration than in favour of it. This is not inevitable.
Finally, which news source about North Africa is very important to follow in terms of information and analysis?
The major local newspapers are often good sources of information and at the very least give insight into the perspective of certain power centers in most countries; there are too many great individual blogs to list. It depends on what one is looking for; if he wants an academic perspective the Middle East Journal Editor’s Blog is a very good site, which covers many subjects in the MENA area really well. There is also a great site in French and also English (on occasion) called Arabs Think, which has had excellent coverage of Algeria. For Tunisia there are Nawaat and Tunisia Live. For something more newsy but not dumb The Economist is often good, so are the articles on the Middle East Channel on the Foreign Policy magazine website, which are usually in between academic and news stories.