Sample Essay on The History of North Africa in the 1980s- 1990s

The History of North Africa in the 1980s- 1990s


Between the 1980s-1990s, most MENA- Middle East and North Africa countries were governed under Islamic law such that Islam had a significant influence over state affairs. The origins of relationship between religion and politics emanated from the ancient Muslim world where the Muslim dynasties in this region were governed by Caliphs who were religious leaders as well. The form of administration at the time was brute and oppressive from leaders who were dictatorial. The practice continued for a long time until the beginning of the modern era in the Arab world, around (1919). However, in the 1980s-1990s it was still difficult to separate religion from politics in these countries. This close relationship between religion and politics in the Maghreb region has continually triggered many problems like political unrest, supremacy and radicalism, for example the Sunni supremacists. The rise of Islamist movements and secularization began to take form in North Africa in the 1980s-1990s. This paper explores the effect of Islamist movements and secularism had on countries in North Africa in distinguishing religion from state and promoting democratic systems. These movements used the ideologies of Islam as a unification strategy in facilitating liberation against their former colonies, tyrannical rule and secularization (Willis, pg., 160-161).



History of North Africa-1980s-1990s- The Rise of Islamist Movements

The ideological decent of current day Islamic fundamentalism regarding Islamic purification are not so recent. In most Maghreb states just like in the Arab East, there was proliferation of Islamist movements who sought to purify Islamic practices from the influence of westernization and modernization (Cavatorta, pg., 28). The activities of these movements were varied, ranging from the most peaceful to the most radical and apolitical. However, the general consensus among these groups is the endeavor the establishment of the religion of Islam in political matters such that the western notion of separating the state from religion bears no resonance to these Islamist movements. This explains why these groups were aggressively against any form of westernization or modernism. These movements went to such lengths as creating networks in schools and mosques that Islam and Arabic and not any other culture, are at the core of these states identities. These Islamist movements were led by intellectual individuals and largely drew support from the education sector. Some of these movements soon became political parties concerned with religious conservatism (Willis, pg., 172).

These Islamist groups differ in the manner in which they presented their agenda and carried out their activities. Some movements are peaceful; others form political parties and actively participate in the political process; while others cause violence and strife to make sure they achieve their set objectives. The governments in these three countries have employed different strategies in the handling of these Islamist groups. The paper will analyze how the agenda and activities of Islamist groups influenced the nature of politics in Maghreb at the time. The interaction between political systems and these movements consisted of a mixture of compromise and hostility. Most times these movements were disruptive and opposed to the political systems that they believed were supportive of westernization and secularism.

These movements were particularly cautious of European meddling and their culture in their countries. These movements were particularly against the influence of French culture in their countries given that they were former colonies of France. France on the other hand, wanted to establish relations with its former colonies in order to facilitate relations fostered on development, both political and economic. The European Union as well was keen on the affairs of the Maghreb states and their political systems. Their interests were similar to those of France, that is, the revolution of the political systems in the region through the integration of democracy, its ideologies and protection of human rights (Youngs, pg., 47). In return, these countries would collaborate with the union towards economic and social development initiatives that would foster development in Maghreb states. This would mean Maghreb states would have to respond to some form of globalization and modernization which was considered secularism by Islamist movements. Islamist movement became even more vocal against any form of western interference.

Additionally, the ideologies of democracy would contradict the strong influence of Islam on state affairs which Islamists strongly advocated. It is debatable whether the interests of European countries in Maghreb are genuine or if it is a disingenuous strategy to exploit these countries. Most countries in Europe are stable and are established global leaders and it may seem like their involvement and interests in these Maghreb countries are motivated by hidden agenda, particularly a share in the vast resources available in North Africa-oil resources. This is exactly the view of most Islamist movements. They were concerned that cooperation with the western world could undermine their independence and that European interests were motivated by the need to achieve status quo (Zank, pg., 113-115)

In order to understand the political shifts and developments in most of the Islamic states in North Africa, such as in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, among others, in the 1980s-1990s, it is important to consider the role of Islamism in propagating the influence of religion in political systems. At the time, these groups were concerned with the implementation of religion in all aspects of life. These Islamist movements were integral in shaping the political atmosphere in these countries through mobilization of ordinary citizens and influencing change in political systems. The proliferation of Islamist movements began around the 1970s in Maghreb. The religion of Islam already played a dominant role in shaping the political atmosphere in these countries (Willis, pg., 153). Initially, these movements were started to oppose secularism and promote the spread of Islam and its laws in all spheres of life, particularly in governance. Post-independence, Islam was constituted as the official religion in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. This move was an affirmation that facilitate the identification of these states as autonomous. However, most importantly, Islam was the establishment of Islam as the official religion was perceived as unification strategy to help unify and mobilize the people. The governments in these countries had already witnessed the mobilization power of Islam during the fight for independence against colonialists and as such they wanted to use Islam to legitimize the policies they implemented.

Comparison of Islamist Movements in different states in the Maghreb region

Tunisia was the first of the countries to experience a strong emergence of Islamist movements around the 1960s. The first Islamist group in Tunisia would have their meeting in the Zaytouna mosque in Tunis motivated by the unimpressionable leadership of Bourguiba who they believed had become too secularized due to the manner in which he implemented policies and reforms. The opposition from Islamist groups in Tunisia was particularly stronger than in Morocco and Algeria due to the nature of the reforms that Bourguiba was implementing. Most people felt that he was trying too much to incorporate French culture in Tunisia such that the people felt like strangers in their own country (Pargeter, pg., 85-88). Bourguiba was an extreme secularist who even prompted to the elimination of fasting and the wearing of veils by women and it is no surprise that he received such opposition from Islamists. These groups, referring to themselves as Jamaa Islamiyyah, soon started touring institutions, mosques and schools spreading religious themes and conservatism regarding Islam with the intent to counteract what they saw as secularization of the society. As a result, the government started to become suspicious of their activities (Willis, pg., 160-164).

By 1973, these groups had become very vocal and the government expelled their activities. However, they continued to spread their agenda and mobilizing people to join in their agenda from schools, especially from universities. When Tunisia experienced a decline in socio-economic developments in the 1970s the group, which consisted of more members, became more vocal against the government prompting riots in 1978. People became united by the impetus that the religious imperative advocated by these groups was efficient in advocating for social justice which facilitated further unification of these movements. Despite hostility from the government, these groups continued their activities and in 1979 the reorganized itself with intention to join formal politics as a way to reduce the hostility from the government who considered the group as illegal. In 1981, the named their movement Islamic Tendency Movement (also known as MTI) and formally made it a political party. This created further hostility from the government and the leaders of the party were arrested.

President Bourguiba was not keen on allowing another party challenge him, particularly one that was opposed to his style of leadership. Thereafter, there was continued back and forth hostility between the government and MIT to the point its leader, Ghannouchi left for Algeria on voluntary exile (Willis, pg., 169). The constant confrontation between the government and Islamists led to civil strife which affected the people in Tunisia such poverty, which was the result of economic downturn. Eventually, the Islamic Tendency Party and its successor movement An-Nahda were responsible for ousting Habib Bourguiba’s regime and Zine al-Abdine Ali, who was the Prime Minister assumed power (Willis, p. 167).

In Morocco, the emergence of Islam in Morocco was quite similar as was in Tunisia in the context that these groups were formed in educational institutions. These small groups formed a single association in Casablanca referred to as, Shabiba Islamiyya al-Maghribiya or Moroccan Islamic Youth. Just like in Tunisia, the authorities were cautious of the association when it started to gain prominence in Morocco. The association was banned in 1975 when they were blamed for an assassination.

The emergence of Islamist movements in Algeria was not as radical as in Tunisa. The first Islamist group in Algeria was known as the Al- Qiyam (values) Association whose agenda was against Ahmed Ben Bella’s administration. However, the expulsion of Ahmed Ben Bella’s administration by Boumedienne in collaboration with army in 1965 undermined the efforts of the Al-Qiyam movement. Additionally, Boumedienne’s administration was strictly opposed to the formation of such movements as he knew that the proliferation of Islamist movements posed a threat on his rule. The Al-Qiyam movement was banned in 1996. By the 1970s there was no sign of Islamist activities in Algeria. However, as the 1970s progressed small groups began to form in schools and mosques just like in Tunisia. Also, similarly, the authorities did not pay them any mind but Boumedienne’s administration remained strict regarding the formation of these groups. After his death in 1978, his successor did not take a similar stance regarding the formation of Islamist groups which prompted these groups to seek increased presence and vocal profile. This led to the formation of The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was the most radical Islamist group in Algeria and who propagated the Gulf war where several people lost their lives (Dillman, pg., 64).

The Adverse effects of Islamism

The rise of Islamism and Islamist movements had a negative effect on the political systems in Maghreb. This is because of the disruption and conflict between the instituted political systems and these movements. As mentioned, the members of these movements were against secularization and the slightest tendency by their governments to collaborate with western countries, particularly European countries, who were interested in promoting pro-democracy in these countries. The 1970s saw the proliferation of a new breed of Islamists who were more radical and considered themselves and not the state as the true advocates of Islam.

The role of Islamism in the loss of lives of numerous people in the Maghreb states is apparent. During the political activities facilitated by radical Islamists, often, ended in unrest and violence in their constant fighting with governments, the army and ordinary people who were considered secular. Additionally, some of the Islamist movements became too radical and started participating in terrorism which facilitated turmoil across the Arab world. There was extensive violation of human rights and mistreatment, particularly for women and children. Also, it is important to consider the role that women played in these Islamist movements. There is continued debate whether the participation of women in these movements was that of inclusion or exclusion. The relationship between women and the Islamist movement can be said to be monolithic. Islamic politics has always followed a patriarchal system regarding the participation of women in politics. Also, the social and cultural norms in the Islamic world excludes women in the dominant issues affecting the society. Therefore, the participation of women in Islamist movements was largely limited. They, however, experienced the adverse effects of the political instability that resulted.

One of the main consequences of the Islamists movements in Maghreb states was the economic downturn that resulted due to the constant civil strife in these countries. In addition, the emphasis on conservatism delayed any attempts of globalization and in return these countries lagged behind regarding issues that affect the global community. There is a distinct relationship between politics and its influence on economies. The economic policies adopted by Maghreb states post-independence were quite similar such that they were geared towards stability and rectify the vacuum left by their colonialists.

The political instability brought about as a result of Islamist movements further undermined the economies in the Maghreb region. However, there was a significant proportion of the population in these countries who were supportive of westernization and modernization with the intention that their economies would improve through collaboration with the western world. Particularly with European interests in the Maghreb countries, there was a gradual “Europeanization” process that promoted the need for trade liberalization and economic development. This led to the rise in Arab socialism in the Maghreb region where people became more open to economic integration through commercial exchanges. However, these socialists were met with resentment from Islamist groups. For example, leaders who were perceived to be secular were overthrown from their positions by these movements. This prompted contention between secularists and Islamists (Zank, p. 114).


Islamist movements of one kind or another were prominent in the Maghreb states from the 1970s, gaining prominence in the 1980s-1990s. These movements were keen to spread their ideologies regarding the purification of Islam and the inclusion of religion in the political realm. The activities of these movements had some form of effect on the social, economic and political scope of these countries. These include, the lack of economic and political reforms geared towards westernization and development hampered by Islamists. The European Union took interest in the Maghreb region, particularly France, a former colony of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Their interests were driven by the need for economic integration and trade liberalization, interests that Islamists regarded as some form of invasion that could potentially undermine the religion of Islam. However, there were people in these states interested with integration and modernization despite opposition from Islamist movements. It is clear that these movements used the idea of Islam as tool for spreading their propaganda and a means for controlling political systems in the countries. This because most of these movements started as informal groups or organizations but ended up as formal political parties.

Works Cited

Cavatorta, Francesco. “A Clash of Civilizations inside the MENA Countries? Islamist versus Secular Civil Society and the Failure of Pro-Democracy Policies.” Clash of Cooperation of Civilizations (2009): 27-42.

Dillman, Bradford. “Globalization, modernization, and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria.” (2004).

Pargeter, Alison. “5 Radicalisation in Tunisia.” Islamist Radicalisation in North Africa: Politics and Process (2012): 71.

Youngs, Richard. “Democracy promotion as external governance?” Journal of European Public Policy 16.6 (2009): 895-915.

Youngs, Richard. Democracy Promotion: The Case of European Union Strategy. Centre for European Policy Studies, 2001.

Willis, Michael J. “Political parties in the Maghrib: ideology and identification. A suggested typology.” The journal of North African studies 7.3 (2002): 1-28.

Zank, Wolfgang, ed. Clash Or Cooperation of Civilizations? Overlapping Integration and Identities. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009.