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  • Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring
  • Jason Pack (bio) and James Roslington (bio)
Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring, by Michael J. Willis. London: Hurst & Co, 2012. $35.

Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring by Dr. Michael Willis is a single-volume guide to the post-independence high politics of the three core countries of the Maghreb. Willis — currently director of the prestigious Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University — effortlessly guides the reader through scholarly debates in the existing English-language literature on North Africa. Intense cross-referencing between chapters, an excellent index, and extensive endnotes make this an ideal reference volume. The paucity of coverage of the rich French-language scholarship and the absence of Arabic sources can be said to be the book’s primary drawback. It is also part of the work’s unique strength: its accessibility. Despite its dense, detail-filled narrative, Politics and Power in the Maghreb remains approachable for the lay reader and fulfills its primary aim — the creation of an up-to-date reference work on contemporary North Africa tailored specifically for the concerns of an Anglo-American audience.

The book’s novel contribution lies in its broad and comparative approach. It builds upon the magisterial overviews of the Maghreb’s contemporary history which were in vogue after independence, but which have appeared with ever-decreasing frequency in recent years (Barbour 1959; Berque 1962; Entelis 1980; Zartmann and Habeeb 1993; Vermeren 2004). Politics and Power is particularly timely as its broad focus links the apparent pre-2011 “stagnation” and increasingly authoritarian modes of political control to the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

Willis’ broad, almost bird’s-eye, view underlies his description of the divergent paths of post-independence state-building: revolution and populist military rule in Algeria; elite secularism and one-party rule in Tunisia; monarchy and political patronage in Morocco. He asserts that, by the 1970s, governance strategies in all three states had paradoxically converged upon ever-increasing centralization directed by a powerful individual. In narrating these processes, Willis provocatively emphasizes the passivity of ordinary people. “It is noticeable that, in discussing the political evolution of the Maghreb … little mention has been made of the ordinary populations … [who] were essentially peripheral … they played little or no role in either the struggles for power or in the construction of the post-independence state — both processes being … the preserve of the elites” (p. 70). This view may arise from the real deficiency in the existing literature concerning popular participation, but it strikes us as unlikely to reflect the complex reality during the rough-and-tumble grab for power at the local level to fill the vacuum left by Spain and France.

Politics and Power is a refreshingly old-fashioned book. It appears calculated to strike a blow against the post-colonial focus on cultural studies which has dominated campuses in recent decades, culminating in the “marginalization” of diplomatic history. Willis resoundingly reaffirms the value of high politics and grand narrative for area studies. Consider his treatment of the evolution of Maghrebi state structures: the state was traditionally weak under the Ottomans and the Moroccan Sultan; it was the European colonial powers which created functional, modernizing, yet oppressive governance; “the comprehensive and pervasive nature of colonial control meant that its effects would not cease with the withdrawal of the last European troops and administrators” (p. 35); [End Page 150] in the post-colonial period, the indigenous French-educated elites inherited, maintained, and buttressed these structures “not just out of necessity but in full consciousness of the fact that the colonial structures had been designed with the specific objective of establishing exclusive political control of the country” (p. 64); this process culminated in the hyper-centralization of political and economic power leading to the backlash of the Arab Spring.

Willis’ comparative approach draws parallels between the Maghreb countries that usually pass unnoticed. The role of the military in Algerian politics is well-known, but Willis discusses the subterranean role...


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pp. 150-151
Launched on MUSE
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