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Berbers and the Nation-State in North Africa  

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman

Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate. Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones. Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore. However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.

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Ismaili and Fatimid North Africa  

Christine D. Baker

The Fatimid dynasty ruled North Africa from 909 to 1171 CE. The Fatimids identified as Isma’ili Shi’is and they declared a Shi’i countercaliphate in Qayrawan to rival the Sunni ‘Abbasids in Baghdad. Their dynasty rose to power from an underground missionary movement, but eventually conquered most of North Africa, the Levant, the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and Yemen. Their first capital was in Qayrawan, but they are best known for founding the city of Cairo as their imperial capital in 969. The Fatimids linked North African and Mediterranean trade with the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, creating an era of unprecedented economic growth. Further, Fatimid sponsorship of Isma’ili Shi’i ritual and scholarship allowed for the development of several Isma’ili movements that have persisted into the modern era. The Fatimid era ended in the 12th century during the rise of Turkic dynasties and the influx of Crusader forces into the eastern Mediterranean region.

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Libya: Modern Political History  

Jacob Mundy

The modern Libyan state began to take shape within the Ottoman Empire from the mid-16th century onward. Libya’s path to independent statehood was violently interrupted in 1911 with the onset of an Italian conquest. Rome’s efforts to annex Libya through settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing were in turn disrupted by World War II. The United Nations (UN) helped to guide Libya to independence under the Sanusi monarchy in 1951, albeit in close collaboration with the United Kingdom and the United States. The Sanusi monarchy, founded in the eastern region of Cyrenaica in the late 19th century, faced substantial difficulties in its efforts to transform an incredibly vast, thinly populated, socially diverse, and seemingly resource-poor country into a modern nation state. Though the extraction and exportation of oil from the 1960s onward help to alleviate some of the financial constraints on the government, the increasing centralization of power within the monarchy eventually led to a military coup in 1969. Libya’s new regime, under the leadership of Mu‘ammar Al-Gaddafi, would eventually pursue a radical program involving centralized economic planning funded through oil sales, a baroque system of popular consultation, a terrifying array of “revolutionary” security institutions, military aggression in Chad, and confrontations with North Atlantic powers directly and indirectly. Though the Gaddafi regime was able to survive an array of domestic and international challenges for over four decades, a mass armed uprising in 2011, which precipitated a merciless civil war and foreign military intervention, led to its downfall. Subsequent international assistance and successive transitional authorities, however, were unable to address the spiral of insecurity that consumed Libya from 2012 onwards. A second civil war erupted in 2014, one fed not only by competing domestic visions for the future of Libya, but also by the competing ambitions of other states in the region.

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Marxists of the Maghreb: Leftist Parties and Movements of North Africa  

Matt Buehler and Matthew R. Jones

In the 21st century, scholars of North Africa—known as the “Maghreb”—have focused on predicting variation in the political fortunes of Islamist political parties and social movements, some of the most potent opposition forces to the region’s authoritarian regimes. Less researched, however, are the region’s leftist political parties and social movements. Historically, such socialist or socialist-inspired groups have also played a key role in the Maghreb’s domestic politics since decolonization. They often have similar origins in the anticolonial struggle, social constituencies of support, and understandings of conflict in society. They diverge, however, in their relationship to political power: Whereas in Tunisia and Algeria the leaders of socialist-inspired political parties became autocrats, the leaders of such parties in Morocco and Mauritania remained oppositionists. Over time, nearly all traditional socialist parties of the Maghreb have declined in political influence and popularity, becoming either sclerotic ruling parties or co-opted and weak opposition parties. The traditional leftist parties’ waning influence has opened space for the emergence of new, more confrontational leftist groups from civil society. While some of these splinter leftist groups emphasize traditional socialist material concerns (e.g., economic inequality, class relations, and unemployment), others stress nonmaterial issues, like the human rights of political, ethnic, and sexual minorities. Splintering the Maghreb’s leftists in this way has created a colorful mosaic of groups that have taken up a diverse variety of progressive causes in contemporary politics.

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Mass Media in North Africa: From Print to Digital  

Emilio Spadola

The emergence, spread, and transformation of media technologies in North Africa has attracted much attention over the past decade. Yet the disruptive effects of technological mass media have been a defining feature of North African modernity from the mid-19th century to the present. Classically distinguished from pre-modern oral and scribal transmissions by “technological reproducibility,” mass media offer capacities both for simultaneous collective address (i.e., broadcast), and for nearly limitless copying (i.e., reproduction) and re-transmission (i.e., sharing). As such, dramatic expansions in mass media, from print journals, or “the press,” to electronic broadcast media of radio and television, small media of audio and video cassettes, and Internet-based and mobile digital media, have sustained modern North African political movements and mass publics, from anticolonial nationalism to postcolonial nation-state building and the 21st-century Arab Spring. Any understanding of contemporary mass media, including digital media, in North Africa must consider how these current media movements reprise and transform earlier forms of political consciousness, community, and protest grounded in a century of new media.

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Muhammad ‘Ali of Egypt and Sudan  

George Michael La Rue

Muhammad ‘Ali ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1848. Long perceived as a reforming modernizer and founder of modern Egypt, historians have more recently reconsidered the impact of his economic and social policies on Egypt’s ordinary people. To determine his place in African history (and in the history of slavery and abolition) requires a broad reexamination of his policies and Egypt’s actions, and their consequences in Egypt, Sudan, within the Ottoman Empire, and in the 19th-century balance of power. After arriving in Egypt in 1801, Muhammad ‘Ali emerged from a complex political field as the Ottoman Pasha of Egypt by 1805. He overpowered the remnants of the old Mamluk regime, pushed them to Egypt’s southern boundaries, allied with key Egyptian elites, helped to suppress the Wahhabi revolt in the Hijaz for his Ottoman overlord, and strove to reduce the power of his Albanian troops. He reestablished trade (including the slave trade) with Sudan, and planned a new army of enslaved Sudanese. Between 1820 and 1835, Muhammad ‘Ali made a series of bold moves. The invasion of Sudan (1820–1821) and its occupation caused great political, social, and economic devastation there. Egypt toppled or threatened many Sudanese rulers, redirected Sudanese-Egyptian trade, and reshaped Sudan’s urban centers. The invaders attacked Sudanese and other African populations, conducted ongoing slave raids, enslaved thousands, and destroyed their homes. Egyptians and Sudanese found challenges and opportunities within these broader patterns. Enslaved Sudanese became soldiers in the nizam al-jadid, laborers in Muhammad ‘Ali’s new industries, diplomatic gifts, and taxable trade commodities. Newly formed elites bought African slaves for domestic tasks in Sudan and Egypt. Egypt’s new medical establishment treated Sudanese slave soldiers for guinea-worm, vaccinated incoming slaves for smallpox, and purchased Sudanese and Ethiopian women to train as hakimas—fully trained nurse-midwives. Initially, Muhammad ‘Ali sent his new army to fight in Greece on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Later, his challenges to Ottoman supremacy drew the attention of European powers, who feared any disruption to the delicate balance of power. The demographic impact of the bubonic plague epidemic of 1834–1835 on Egypt’s black slave population was notable, and led to increased demand for replacement slaves. This drew attention from European observers and added an abolitionist dimension to diplomatic pressure on Muhammad ‘Ali. By 1841, he gained Ottoman recognition as hereditary ruler of Egypt and parts of Sudan, his army’s size was capped, and he made trade concessions to Europe. With his imperial ambitions now limited to Africa, Muhammad ‘Ali renewed his interest in controlling more of Sudan and adjacent regions, and deflected abolitionist criticism by blaming supplying regions for continuing to raid and trade in slaves.

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The Normans and the Italian City-States in North Africa  

Matt King

At their closest points, Sicily and Tunisia are separated by less than 100 miles across the Strait of Sicily. Using intermediate islands as guides, it is possible to cross this distance without losing sight of land. The proximity of Sicily and the Italian Peninsula to North Africa facilitated substantial interactions between peoples in these regions across the central Middle Ages—from roughly 1000 until 1300. During this period, Norman Sicily and Italian city-states like Venice, Genoa, and Pisa had substantial interactions with Muslim lords across North Africa. Walled funduqs provided isolated and secure facilities for merchants to conduct business in Muslim ports. Mendicant missionaries tended to these traders and, at times, voluntarily martyred themselves by denouncing Islam and proselytizing in the streets of Muslim cities. These traders and monks operated against a backdrop of intermittent conflict. State-sponsored raiding from both Muslim North Africa and Christian Italy proved a persistent threat to merchants and their wares. On occasion, these raids devolved into more substantial campaigns aimed at conquest, including a handful of papally-sponsored crusades. The longest-lived Christian foray into North Africa during these years resulted in Norman Sicily seizing control over a strip of land in modern-day Tunisia from roughly 1148 to 1160 and forming the Norman “Kingdom of Africa.”

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The Ottoman Maghrib, 1505–1830  

Stephen Cory

Between 1505 and 1830, the foundations were laid for the modern nation-states of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Of these three countries, only Tunisia had established a clear independent identity prior to the 16th century. Early in that century, all three regions came under the control of the Ottoman Empire, mostly in response to attempts by European powers to create strongholds along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. By the end of the 16th century, the Ottomans had implanted their traditional provincial governments in the regions of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, complete with governors (pashas), who ruled with the assistance of administrative officials known as beys, and a cohort of Janissary troops. Thus, governance was carried out by a foreign military caste with limited connections to the local population. These governments derived much of their income from corsair enterprises launched against European ships under the leadership of captains known as raises, many of whom were European converts to Islam. During these three centuries, Tunis and Tripoli would develop nominally independent hereditary dynasties that were initially founded by Ottoman officials who ruled in cooperation with local religious, political, and tribal elites. In Algiers, power remained in the hands of military officers known as deys. This situation became increasingly unstable throughout the 18th century, eventually resulting in the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. Over the course of the 19th century, rising European influence would enable the French to take power in Tunisia in 1881 and the Italians to occupy Libya in 1911. Thus Ottoman rule ended in the Maghrib, but the local identities developed in these states under Ottoman sovereignty eventually led to the rise of nationalist movements in all three countries and the achievement of independence by the mid-20th century.

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The Tangier American Legation Museum  

Diana Wylie

The Tangier American Legation Museum reflects the evolution of Moroccan–American relations over two centuries. Morocco, the first country to recognize the independence of the United States (1777), became the site of the first overseas American diplomatic mission in 1821 when the sultan gave the US government title to the museum’s current home—8 rue d’Amérique (zankat America)—in the old city of Tangier. The building went on to house the US consulate (1821–1905), legation (1905–1956), a State Department Foreign Service language school (1961–1970), and a Peace Corps training center (1970–1973), before becoming a museum dedicated to displaying art and artifacts about Morocco and Moroccan–American relations (1976). Despite the official story of the origin of the forty-one-room museum, its holdings and activities since the late 20th century derive more from unofficial American relationships with Morocco than from US government policy. The private actions of individual Americans and Moroccans, with some State Department support, led the museum to become in the late 20th century a research and cultural center serving academics and the broad public, including the people in its neighborhood (Beni Ider). In 1981 the US Department of the Interior put the Legation on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1982 it became the only site outside the United States designated as a National Historic Landmark due to its past diplomatic and military significance, as well as to the building’s blend of Moroccan and Spanish architectural styles.

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Youth Activism in 21st-Century North Africa  

Christoph Schwarz

In the 21st century, North African societies have been counting with the largest cohorts of young people worldwide. These demographics, in combination with the highest youth unemployment rates worldwide, have been a cause for concern since the turn of the millenium. But in the respective debates in social research and among policy makers, the political subjectivities of young people themselves were rather overlooked. Instead, the situation of young people was often discussed either as a question of deficit—they were regarded as lethargic and apolitical and in need of help—or security—they were discussed as potential adherents of radical interpretations of Islam, as prone to political violence and as a threat to “stability.” However, in 2010 and 2011, mass protests initiated mostly by young people, starting in Tunisia and soon spreading to Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, Algeria and Sudan, very quickly and effectively mobilized large swaths of the population and thus illustrated young people’s social agency, political relevance, and capacity for inclusive solidarity. To many observers, the events that were soon dubbed the “Arab Spring” came out of the blue and appeared as a sudden “generational awakening.” But the region-wide protests, and in particular the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, not only mobilized people from all walks of life, they were also the result of at least a decade of persistent experimentation by young and not-so-young activists with different forms of collective action under extremely unfavorable conditions. Youth activism in 21st-century North Africa has been operating and strategizing under the constraints of authoritarianism, surveillance, and violent repression. Young people, particularly young women, have long been excluded from most institutional forms of politics. Against this backdrop, many political activists eschew the terms politics or the political, which they associate with corruption, manipulation, and illegitimate rule. Many other young people who appear at first sight “apolitical” have nevertheless engaged in different meaningful endeavors to improve everyday lives in their communities. Following a critical youth studies and youth cultures perspective, as well as a feminist perspective, young people’s activism can thus be analyzed along a spectrum that ranges from rather innocuous forms of everyday quiet encroachment, to public, but “apolitical” forms of mobilization, to highly committed and exposed social movement activism, as well as digitally networked forms of engagement and explicitly political demands for new forms of citizenship. A decade after the Arab Spring, and despite a “Second Wave of the Arab Spring” in Sudan and Algeria from 2018 to 2020, authoritarian rule has gained the upper hand in the region, even in Tunisia, the country that, for a long time, was considered “transitioning” to a representative democracy. Despite these setbacks, the experience that young people, as part of an organized citizenry, were able to oust long-ruling authoritarian presidents within a matter of a few weeks has arguably had an impact on political culture in the region. In the mid-2020s, their example continues to inspire youth activists in North Africa and elsewhere and will likely continue to pose a challenge to authoritarianism.