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Tribalism And Neo-Tribalism In The Maghreb – Analysis


The tribe is a set of group of relatives who introduce themselves as descendants of a real or mythical common ancestor according to a unilinear rule of filiation. The relationships between these groups of relatives are based on an extension of genealogical ties that can be generalized to humanity. The tribe is organized in a segmentary mode meaning equivalent segments legitimized by genealogy. If today, the tribal organization still exists, it is because it knew how to adapt to history (dynamic perspective) as a political form. The fundamental relations which organize and perpetuate the tribe are, no doubt, the political and the religious. 

The political aspect deals with governance and its related institutions and organizes its external relations with other tribes, whereas the religious aspect communicates with the invisible powers in order to acquire their divine grace and protection in exchange of adoration practices.

These two important foundations have either merged, like in the figure of the pharaoh in Egyptian civilization or have been distinct while being complementary like in the case of Indian castes of Brahmans and Kshatrya because the political / religious separation is, no doubt, a recent fact in the history of humanity.

The North African tribes are today thought of less as a unitary group than as a complex reality that can be grasped within a flexible framework that takes into account social and economic divisions as well as the role of provincial societies in the integration of tribal elites. (1)

This analysis will focus on the social and economic divisions, which will make it possible to reassess the role of tribal elites in their relationship with the dominant powers. It will also study the internal dynamics of tribal societies from their relationship to political and administrative systems; interactions with political communities and the modalities of cultural and religious integration with the dominant cultures; linguistic and onomastic uses that are still poorly appreciated and political figures that are bearers of contemporary identity assertions.

The concept of tribe

In its primary sense, tribalism refers to the self-consciousness of the group (tribal), the sense of belonging and social and cultural identity. Tribalism expresses a complex reality, which is at the same time cultural, ideological and political. The tribe is, in the end, only a signifier of the pre-colonial past and of elementary social forms of customary governance and political power.

From a historical point of view, a tribe is a social formation existing before the formation of the state. Some ethnologists use this word to designate societies organized on the basis of kinship ties, especially families with the same ancestry. Thus, several family clans living on the same territory may constitute a tribe, and several tribes an ethnic group. In some countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, tribes are indigenous peoples that have legal recognition in the country concerned. Tribal governments may be a tribal chief or some sort of tribal council, which represents the tribe and is usually made up of wise and elderly people. In Canada, the term “First Nations” is preferred to “tribe”. (2)

Talking about tribe and tribalism evokes debates that have often been passionate, if not outright heated, going beyond the scientific field to involve political judgments about the place that tribes still hold in contemporary societies. The fact is that, during the last few decades, the notion of tribe, introduced into the scientific field by historians and especially by anthropologists, has seen them progressively relinquish their object to political science. The analysis of the tribe tends to be carried out through the prism of the notion of tribalism, which has imposed itself as an instrument of analysis of primary political models of native societies. 

Tribalism, as a feeling of belonging to a tribe, (3) that is to say to a human grouping having in common a same culture based essentially on the language, is an ancient cultural phenomenon, completely normal. It translates in each man the conscience of the identity that he carries and of the cultural and moral duties linked to this identity. From the strict point of view where it contributes to the affirmation of a cultural identity, tribalism is in no way a vice or a tare. (4)

The suffix “ism” in the word indicates primacy, the first place given to something. Exploring the definition of this word from another angle, we would say that tribalism is the priority given to one tribe over another or more. Thus, in Africa, tribalism can be defined as being linked to social and political inequalities; a source of inter-ethnic conflict based on the fact that one values one’s own identity, one’s tribe or ethnicity over those of others.

The term tribalism is reproduced in different expressions by: solidarity, esprit de corps, community spirit, solidarity of spirit, idea of nationality, social force or cohesion, public spirit, tribal clan spirit, agnatic solidarity, group belonging, group consciousness, party spirit, civic sense, the allegiance of the members of a tribe to a chief, it can also in certain cases designate clan, tribal, community or religious strength.(5) 

To avoid confusion, and to limit the scope of analysis, we use the term “tribe” in the sense stated by the North African thinker Ibn Khaldun, who uses the term “’asabiyya“: (6)

“The ‘asabiyya appears in a society structured on a genealogical basis in families. It is this bond that exists between individuals of the same tribe or race, which is nourished by their feeling of kinship, and which leads them to help each other and to lend each other mutual aid. This attachment felt by the individual towards other individuals of the same family or clan, ensures the link between human society and the state of nature.”

The tribalism in question

The concept of tribalism is one that is ill-understood by most in the West, but is arguably one of the most important factors behind the myriad problems that afflict the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region today, mostly in its modern variant. Tribalism can be defined both as a mindset and as a set of practices, customs, and beliefs that are rooted in a given native society.  It is particularly prominent in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which collectively comprise the core of the Maghreb region.  Present-day “neo-tribal” practices and customs have deep historical roots; although these countries do not exhibit the kind of extreme groupthink found among the ruling Al-Saud family of Saudi Arabia, for example, tribalism exists nonetheless in the overall culture and way of life.

Hostile, elusive and resistant to the different forms of power that succeeded one another in North Africa, the tribes have long suffered from a unitary approach, which was re-evaluated in a debatable manner in the sense of a peaceful rebalancing of the forces at work. Today, questioned and re-examined in the light of a careful re-reading of the sources, they are generally freed from the ideological postulates of the contemporary period. 

The North African tribes are thought of less as a unitary group than as a complex, protean reality that can be grasped within a flexible framework that takes into account social and economic divisions as well as the role of provincial societies in the integration of tribal elites. Based on sources evoking the recurrent conflicts that opposed Rome, the Vandals, the Byzantines and the Arabs to North African tribes that are not always easy to identify, and whose territory is difficult to circumscribe, their history passes, according to the periods, from darkness to light. (7)

The recently published or re-examined documentation could be subjected to new reading grids privileging the social-economic divisions (humiliores/honestiores), which would make it possible to re-evaluate the role of tribal elites in their relationship with the dominant powers. In this perspective, it would be interesting to study, for example, the internal dynamics of tribal societies from their relationship to political and administrative systems; interactions with political communities and the modalities of cultural and religious integration (paganism, Christianity, Islam) to the dominant cultures; linguistic and onomastic uses that are still poorly appreciated; and political figures that are bearers of contemporary identity.

But, alas, tribalism has always had and still has bad press in the West, as Richard Tapper, a professor of anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies –SOAS- argues quite rightly: (8)

“Tribalism has a bad press. Commonly presented as a dark, destructive, primeval force – the antithesis of rational modernity – tribalism is anathema to those who defend civilisation – supposedly law-bound, egalitarian, human rights-based. This perspective ignores both the awful barbarities committed by purported civilisations, and the existence of recognised tribal features within so-called civilised societies: football clubs, some political parties, some businesses, some closed institutions, organised crime. Nepotism and other forms of corruption are tribal in that they avoid the rule of law and the institutions of the state by favouring personal ties of kinship and patronage. No country today is free of such activity – it appears to be ‘human nature’ to seek a way around rules imposed by state perceived to be unresponsive, impersonal, undemocratic.“

The origins of tribalism in the Maghreb dates back to the era before the arrival of the Arabs and the conversion of the North African population to Islam.  In the pre-Islamic era, the region was populated by Amazigh/Berber people, many of whom were Jewish or animists.  This was particularly true in Algeria and Morocco.  The many Amazigh tribes and sub-tribes lived in relative autonomy from each other, and are believed by many historians to have joined together into larger political units known as leff only when confronted with external threats.  (9) In normal times, these small, regional tribes existed largely independently; the primary reason Amazigh tribes interacted on a regular basis was for the purpose of trade.  Thus, there was no conception of the ideal of the nation-state that so dominated global political thinking and governance then and now.  

Islam and tribalism

The arrival of Islam to the region in the 8th Century served to moderate the oftentimes fierce tribalism among the Amazigh by, eventually, uniting nearly all of the people of North Africa under a common religion, Islam.  At the same time, as the conquest of North Africa by Arab forces took place, Islamic dynasties of Amazigh extraction (Almoravids, Almohads, etc.) began to emerge in Morocco and to extend their power to Spain and North Africa and their religious influence to Black western Africa.  These dynasties steadily expanded their borders over many years, and eventually came to control a region known as “Greater Morocco”, which encompassed most Algeria as well as Saharan territory in present day Mauritania and Western (Moroccan) Sahara.  

At this point, one may wonder about the real interest of highlighting the concept of tribalism in the Khaldunian sense. It turns out that most of the analyses carried out on the tribal/‘asabiyya question highlight the close link between this notion and power. The need for the sociability of Bedouin tribes to carry the movement that allows them to move from a rural and Bedouin civilization to an urban and sedentary one. 

This passage can only be made thanks to the ‘asabiyya (solidarity) of a human group that presents a social cohesion, and a certain awareness of its common goals and collective interests. For that purpose, it organizes itself and its esprit de corps is transformed into an instinct of domination that gives birth to the mulk (power) and leads to the creation of a state whose goal is to allow men to live in society, to accumulate knowledge, power and wealth. (10) In the Khaldunian perspective of power, which is limited to the Islamic field, clan cohesion (‘asabiyya) allows the body to attain power (mulk). 

The tribal body thus enables the taking of power and the construction of the state structure. In the same vein, the manifestation and guarantee of the stability of power, both internally and externally, is achieved through the armed body. The army is the manifestation of the lock of the clan body on the levers of power.  The army as an agent of tension regulation constitutes the paradox of the Islamic construction of power. Indeed, the quantitative and qualitative leap induced by the passage from the “primary” civilization (al-‘umrân al-badawî) to the sedentary civilization (al-‘umrân al-hadarî) should have atomized the tribal cell, the original and central body of the so-called “primary” civilization. 

The passage to sedentarization and even more so in the Islamic framework to urbanization, should have, in the perspective of the North African “father of sociology” destroyed, annihilated the tribal structure and created an individualized relationship to the new center of power: The Caliphate. (11)  However, the tribal power remained at the heart of all Islamic power centers: whether they are Ommayad or Abassid. The central power, whatever its genealogy of reference, concentrated and articulated its armed forces around the clan, whether it is restricted or enlarged according to the degree of allegiance wala’


Neo-tribalism (also called modern tribalism) is a sociological concept that postulates that human beings have evolved to live in a tribal society, as opposed to a mass society, and will therefore naturally form social networks constituting new tribes. (12)

Neo-tribalism (13) manifested itself in the Maghreb with the advent of colonialism that promoted the essence of tribalism in a new approach and new direction to best serve its interests in the long term. When we say “long term “we mean after independence that is to say the continuation of the effect of this concept to best serve the French political and economic establishment. Thus in Morocco, the Makhzen and the Makhzen families still serve today the French state directly. The Makhzen controls the political structure and the Makhzen families the economy and the interests of France are thus served and, most importantly, perpetuated. In Algeria, the army controls the state and though it is in constant conflict with France on some political issues yet economically it is dependent of the French economy. In Tunisia, the state in its entirety serves the French establishment and interests and depends on its protection for its survival whether in the time of Bourguiba, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali or, today, with Kaïs Saïed.

In the sociology of neo-tribalism, it is the emphasis of “neo” that links the two versions of the tribe and defines it positively. It signals a main difference between the old “traditional tribes” mentioned above, and more particularly those in the Khaldunian thought, and their contemporary equivalents. For Keiller neo-tribalism manifests itself in the following way: (14)

“today, individuals will participate in the short term, experience a succession of affective participations using various masks to move between temporary groupings.”

As for Michel Maffesoli he speaks of post-modern “nomadism” which corresponds to the possibility of neo-tribalism. He, thus, argues: (15)

“It seems to me that we can elaborate such an observation and ask ourselves if it is not also valid for the social circulation of the “aesthetic forms of life together” as well as for the contemporary experiences of the “nomadic subjectivity”, embarking on the neo-tribal baths.“

We focus in the above citation on two elements, to our opinion, raising and revealing the scope of the neo-tribalism. It is a typically contemporary experience that involves nomadic subjectivity.  This reflection is of particular interest to us, as the phenomenon of the Islamic State -ISIS- poses its transnational and, one might even say, globalist character in an uncomplicated manner. (16)

Thus, the ISIS stated proudly that it is the modern and even post-modern standard-bearer of the globalization of relations, the unabashed companion and home of stateless people from all corners of the world, (17) it clearly claims the concentration in its midst of dozens of “nationalities “, (18) all of which participate in the same political-religious project, both global and local, hence the neologism “glocal. ” 

French colonialism

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, France took over Algeria, Tunisia and then Morocco. It controlled the Tunisian and Moroccan governments, as well as much of the modern economy of these countries. In Algeria, the installation of a large number of settlers of European origin disrupted the economy and traditional life. France organized a sort of legal and political segregation between Arab-Berbers and settlers. During the 20th century, nationalist movements challenged the French presence in the Maghreb. Morocco and Tunisia regained their independence in 1956 and It took a very hard and bloody war for Algeria to become independent in 1962. (19)

The arrival of the French in the early 19th and 20th century in North Africa played a key role in creating and shaping the tribal fault lines that define and hold back Maghrebi societies even to the present day.  The French adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy in order to gain a foothold in Morocco before essentially annexing it and creating the Moroccan Protectorate. However, in the 1930s and 1940s anti-French nationalist agitators became increasingly influential, in these two countries, among their respective populations and vocal about their opposition to French rule.  To counter their influence, the French strategized to play off the Amazighs against the Arabs by, supposedly, giving more privileges and opportunities to Amazigh people largely because they viewed the Amazigh as more reliable and loyal than the Arabs, in principle.  

This distinction stemmed, also, from the fact that most Amazighs lived in rural areas where anti-French sentiments were relatively uncommon, and because local Amazigh power brokers were keen to defend their privileges from the Arab regimes, which could be done by collaborating with the French colonizers.  By contrast, the cities, which the French conceptualized to be inhabited mainly by Arabs, were hotbeds of dissent in the years before Moroccan independence and the Algerian Civil War.  Thus, French colonial administrators worked to implement policies that disfranchised Arabs in the region and thus reduced their ability to organize against the French.  In reality, the distinction between Arabs and Amazigh was fuzzy at best.  Over one thousand years of interbreeding between the two groups had rendered the distinction between them largely symbolic in Algeria and Morocco (Tunisia never had a large Amazigh population to begin with, so its population can be classified as primarily Arab in the present day).  

In effect, the favoritism shown by the French towards the Amazigh created an artificial tribal divide in the North African society where there had never really been one before. In fact, some greater Moroccan dynasties were of Amazigh origin.  After Morocco and Algeria gained their independence, in 1956 and 1962 respectively, the post-colonial regimes initiated a policy of Arabization, as a reaction to the French divide-and-rule approach, that resulted in the economic and cultural disenfranchisement of the Amazigh people and heightened the emotional division between those who self-identified with the Amazighs and those who saw themselves as Arabs.         

Furthermore, the rise of the FLN to power in Algeria, with the ruling ALN military clique at its core, created a new “tribe” in the country that based its legitimacy and its domination of the Algerian political and economic system on its defeat of the French during the Algerian independence war.  A dictatorial regime also arose in Tunisia, led first by Habib Bourguiba and subsequently by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.  The latter regime also adopted a tribal mindset; regime insiders dominated the Tunisian economy, and sought to enrich and empower themselves rather than foster the growth and development of the country.  

The political regimes in place in North Africa after independence from the French colonialism have all adopted a neo-tribal mindset as to what concerns economic and political opportunities, with negative consequences for the welfare of the people of North Africa (Tunisia has democratized substantially, but it is uncertain whether the country will be able to overcome its legacy of authoritarianism and tribalism as its democracy is in danger of a permanent limp). (20)

Overall, the origins of tribalism in North Africa are ancient, but tribal thinking, especially among the ruling elite of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, can be blamed for many of the ills and setbacks that have plagued the region for years.  Tribalism is simply untenable in an age when the world is dominated by nation-states, and is especially detrimental to the diverse, multifaceted societies of the Maghreb.  Today neo-tribalism has led to the corruption, nepotism, and economic stagnation that have ailed the Maghreb for generations since independence. (21)



The kingdom of Morocco (or sultanate, as it was formerly referred to) was primarily administered from Fez or Marrakech, depending on which dynasty was in control.  The rise of Greater Morocco resulted in greater political centralization and created a new pernicious variety of tribalism that still dominates society today.  The tribes that came to power at various times- tribes such as the Almohads, Almoravids, Alaouites, etc.- monopolized economic and political power among themselves.  The general population of greater Morocco was excluded from the dynastic power structure, while members of the ruling tribes, ranging from the sultan and his immediate family to distant cousins and rich allies, held exalted positions in society.  In many cases, members of the ruling family were more interested in enriching themselves than in making decisions in the best interest of their Kingdom.  This system of special privilege reserved for the royal family and well-connected insiders has continued to this day. (22) 

Traditionally, starting as far back as the 19th century, Morocco was divide, de facto, into two geographical and political spheres: bled al-makhzen, many coastal areas and fertile plains inhabited mostly by Arabs controlled by the central government and bled as-siba, mountainous areas and plateau lands under the authority of dissident Amizagh/Berber tribes that recognized the religious mantle of the sultan but not his political role and thus refused to pay him taxes. With the arrival of the French colonialism this land dichotomy continued under different names of economic resonance: Maroc utile (useful Morocco) and Maroc inutile (Maroc inutile).

In the light of this fragmentation of power, Gellner wonders how a society in siba (dissidence) could function and maintain a social equilibrium far from any central power. He finds the answer to his question in the patrilineal filiation within this society where the terms and grazing rights were transmitted in agnatic lineage. He underlines the coexistence of two powers: one of religious essence, the marabout (amrabed), chosen by the tribe and enjoys permanent power; the other is of secular essence, the chief of the tribe (agurram) elected for a limited time. (23) 

Gellner also noticed that these Amazigh/Berber societies are at the same time segmentary and marginal. Their marginality comes from the fact that they are decentralized. Gellner further points out that the marginality of these tribes is only institutional and not cultural. Their integration into the Muslim culture makes them comparable to Arabs in many ways:  (24)

“Both Arabs and Berbers show linguistic continuity (although no identity) and in fact they have in common a cultural continuity: there is no frontier between them. There is no clear cultural border, no break in communication.” 

The fear of the outside makes the social equilibrium of these tribes of the High Atlas an urgent priority for survival, otherwise the whole society would cease to be viable and thus would lose a powerful source of action and initiative. As in all segmental societies, the fission / fusion phenomena seem to be the essential elements which at the same time contribute to the contradiction and the complementarity of these tribes of the High Atlas. To be effective, this system needs arbitrators and intermediaries from outside of the tribal society in many situations. This is the role of religion and the agurram (tribal chief). Gellner describes the agurram in these terms:

“… an agurram is such in virtue of the will of the people, even although in the eyes of the people, he is such in virtue of divine and hence independent approval. Vox dei is really vox populli.” (25) 

Actually, from the manner in which the elections take place, we understand why these societies are not centralized. In this respect, Gellner writes:

“The mode of election of these lay chiefs is highly significant. They are, first of all, elective, and they are elected for one year only. They are elected in a manner I call ‘rotation and complementarity’. Suppose a tribe consists of three sub-clans, A, B and C.  This year, it will be the turn of A to supply the chief. This also means, however, that the men of A cease to be electors: during the year when they are all potential candidates, none of them have the vote. It is the men of B and C who are electors. The subsequent year, when B supplies the chiefs, similarly its men are without the franchise, and A and C do the electing, and so forth.” (26) 


In modern Morocco, neo-tribalism has had very adverse effects on the economic and political structure of the country since independence.  In terms of economics, the tribal mindset held by the wealthy business elite of the country has led to inequality, lack of opportunity, and corruption for the majority of Moroccan citizens.  Wealthy Moroccan businessmen, based mostly in Casablanca, have helped to create a system in which the rich continue to amass the wealth while the wealth and wages of many at the bottom of the spectrum have not meaningfully increased.  Investment opportunities in the private sector have essentially been available only to those with connections to the establishment. 

This “tribe” has benefited greatly from the privatizations that were put in effect by the administration of King Hassan III in the early 1990s as a condition of loans from the International Monetary Fund.  Companies such as Maroc Telecom and Royal Air Maroc became free of government control, and many large-scale infrastructure projects were also undertaken during this period; examples include the development of phosphate reserves in Moroccan Sahara and Central Morocco, and the construction of a new fishing port at Dakhla.  These projects required immense amounts of capital, and the corporate privatizations undertaken by the government were heavily dependent on the support of deep-pocketed investors able to commit large sums to buy stakes in the companies being privatized.  The only group with adequate capital to invest in these proposed infrastructure projects and buy significant portions of companies being sold by the government were those who were already wealthy. 

The Moroccans who were very wealthy during the era of economic statism which existed before the opening of the economy in the 1990s were in many cases members of the establishment, with strongly-rooted connections to the royal family, oftentimes dating back generations, they are commonly known as The Makhzen Families. (27) Thus it was these groups of insiders that reaped the benefits of privatization, because the investments they made in Morocco’s economy began to pay off handsomely when the economy began to pick up in the 1990s and 2000s.  

Although Morocco has on the whole experienced decent economic growth during this period, the benefits of this growth have accrued mostly to the wealthy insiders who own much of the economic assets of the country, and consequently this tribe of the rich, exacerbated inequality and demonstrated how tribal thinking among the ruling elite harmed, beyond belief, the country.  Closely tied to this system of economic inequality is a lack of job and educational opportunities for most Moroccans that has resulted from the cronyism of the ruling tribe.  

Most well-paying jobs are available only to those who possess elite connections (known as piston in the Maghreb and as wasâtah and in the Mashreq); obtaining a job in a company or in a prestigious government ministry usually requires the involvement of a high-ranking official or executive.  These elites oftentimes choose only the children of friends or relatives for these elite positions, shutting out many Moroccans from management-track positions that would potentially allow them to escape poverty and better their position in society.  The graduates who manage to obtain elite positions inevitably rise to the top of Moroccan society.  They then inevitably continue the cycle of cronyism by helping the children of their friends and relatives obtain the elite entry-level positions that they once had, perpetuating the lack of opportunities available to the Moroccan non-elite and perpetuating favoritism.  

Cronyism: utmost expression of neo-tribalism 

This cronyism (blatant expression of neo-tribalism) has led to anger and hopelessness among college graduates who cannot obtain good jobs (or even any jobs at all) because they lack the right contacts/elite connections even though they are often more qualified than those who obtain positions, and Moroccan society suffers as a result.  In addition, one of the most visible and malevolent economic effects of neo-tribalism is the corruption that has permeated all levels of Moroccan society.  Although the pervasive petty corruption common during the reign of King Hassan II has lessened to an extent, corruption among the elite is still a characteristic of the Moroccan economic landscape.  Firstly, corruption makes the cost of doing business prohibitively expensive; the bribes that many businesses and organizations must pay to ministers and other senior officials simply to operate in Morocco lessen the attractiveness of investing in the country.  Thus, businesses would often rather invest in countries with lower levels of corruption that are thus cheaper to operate in.  As a result, the Moroccan economy suffers from a lack of investment capital and employment opportunities.  Corruption also lowers the quality of government services.  

Corrupt ministers have come to focus more on enriching themselves than on doing their jobs effectively, leading to poor governance and deficient services in Morocco.  This governmental ineffectiveness further discourages investment by job-creating companies, and further depressing the Moroccan economy, unfortunately.  Politically, neo-tribalism has stifled democracy and blocked the adoption of much-needed reforms by the administration of King Mohammed VI.  The establishment elite, as well as the various other notable families (The Makhzan Families) that have dominated Moroccan political and economic scenes for centuries, have acted as a supremo tribe dedicated to perpetuating its political power and economic benefits.  It does not allow opposition groups to have a say in the way Morocco is governed, and allows Parliament to exist only as an essentially consultative body, not to say a mere rubber-stamp institution.  

Parliamentary political parties ultimately have no real power because they are in their majority co-opted and thus are themselves small tribes seeking benefits for their members from the establishment.  Although Morocco’s political system is relatively moderate when compared to the regimes found in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the ruling tribe retains a monopoly on political decision-making and democracy is a mere window-dressing artefact for external consumption.  

Neo-tribalism has also precluded the imposition of governmental reforms by King Mohammed VI.  The King has voiced his support for initiatives designed to reduce corruption and devolve more power to parliament, but the ruling elite that seeks to preserve its existing privileges and prerogatives has fiercely resisted these ideas.  An end to corruption and a more decentralized and pluralistic distribution of power would lessen the power of the tribal elites that control Moroccan society, and would decrease their ability to enrich themselves at the expense of the state and the rank and file. In aggregate, tribalism has held back the economic development of Morocco and has retarded the democratization of the Moroccan political system, negatively affecting millions of Moroccans who do not have access to the connections and privileges of the ruling tribe. Thus thousands of young educated and talented, desperate for employment and recognition, become potential candidates for illegal immigration to Europe known as Hrig or religious extremism.



Traditionally it is It is the pastoral practices that keep the tribal territories alive in Algeria. As for matrimonial practices, they are oriented towards a strong tribal endogamy, a marriage of proximity for purposes of tribal consolidation against external enemies. The institutions of the tribe: the shaykh (tribal chief), the zawiyya (lodge) and the wa’da (tribal feast) are contemporary forms of tribal incidence. 

In Algeria, in addition to the values of ancestry and solidarity, we find those of honor and baraka (divine blessing). The appearance of individualism, or rather the process of individuation, seems to be opposed to the values of the community. Community pressure is undoubtedly an element of analysis applied to realities that ignore it. For example, it is known that in early childhood, Algerian Saharan societies give precedence to the acquisition of a skill and not to the need for learning that is corroborated at the calendar age. In other words, it is individual development that takes precedence over what the group expects of a person.

In Algeria, the process of dismantling the tribal order began with colonization in 1830 through land dispossession, which was more effective than inter-tribal wars that reshaped the groups but did not eliminate them. The land dispossession heralds as Ben Hounet writes: “L’arrêt de mort de la tribu [the death warrant of the tribe]“. (28) In this regard, it is regrettable that a contemporary land analysis of the use of these lands has not been fully carried out. The analysis of tribal de-structuring is based on three facts: land dispossession (not applied in southern Algeria), pastoral nomadism and the discrediting of tribal authorities. Elsewhere in the Maghreb, as is the case in southern Morocco, tribal lands remain autonomous and the identity of the groups remains above all territorial matters.

Tribalism in the service of neo-tribalism

Tribalism, as a feeling that inspires the social behavior of Algerians, largely determines the national political reality. It is the main parameter of the balance of power. Currently, regionalism, the geographical avatar of this chauvinistic mentality, organizes the management of state institutions. The reflex is reproduced all the way down the hierarchical ladder.

The regime does not limit itself to considering the ambitions of citizens according to their regional, clan or family extraction. It imposes a tribal approach on its political practice. It solicits the participation of customary, pre-republican authorities in the formation of popular opinion, its expression and even in electoral choices. The eagerness of the authorities, especially during election periods, to contact tribal notables and zawiyya chiefs, often supported by financial arguments, is no longer hidden.

This resurrection of tribal and confraternal power and its political role coincides with the official valorization of violence as a mode of political expression, national reconciliation being nothing more than that. The two ingredients of tribal confrontation are there: the recognition of the tribe or brotherhood as a political entity or network, on the one hand, and the acceptance of violence as a legitimate means of political expression, on the other.

The state, in this dynamic, has a new role: after each conflict, it comes to do what it can to reduce the effects of the violence and, above all, to note the balance of power between the belligerents and propose that they “dialogue” in order to “reconcile”. The belligerents have evolved from justiciable entities into political entities. The state, when it agrees to supervise reconciliation, does so as a supra-political entity, as was the case for the “Ghardaïa agreements”. (29)

By refusing to alienate the nuisance capacities of some and others, starting with those of the Islamists, the government has shirked its responsibility to maintain order and renounced the principle of the state’s monopoly of legitimate force. Today, at the slightest outburst, all groups develop the reflex to arm themselves, no matter what, to fight the other neighborhood, the other club, the other tribe or… the police. The neighborhood – al-houma -, the club, the village, the tribe, etc. can, on occasion, raise their armies, equipped with sticks, iron bars, bladed weapons, or even hunting and war weapons, depending on the case.

Paradoxically, by wanting to put itself above everything and everyone, the state has deserted national life and left the spontaneous social actors, to their own devices, in a kind of escalation of violence which, after having trivialized insecurity in the country, threatens its unity.

Neo-tribalism and the military tribe

Of all the countries of the Maghreb, Algeria has arguably been the state most visibly, and negatively, affected by tribalism.  The Front de libération nationale -FLN-, (30) Algeria’s ruling party, is essentially shell-controlled by the Armée nationale populaire–ANP-, Algeria’s armed forces. (31) The ANP’s brutality, incompetence, authoritarianism, and corruption are unmatched by even the worst deeds committed by the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia.  Algeria should be a very wealthy and prosperous nation, but because of the widespread, staggering corruption among the country’s ruling generals its economy has merely limped along, lurching from crisis to crisis in tandem with the whims of the price of petroleum products. (32) Its generals, who act as a tight-knit tribe, aggressively opposed both to international influence and to domestic opposition, have almost completely banned foreign investment in the country.  As a result, Algeria is one of the least diversified states in the world; its entire economy is based upon the export of oil and natural gas.  

Popular opposition to the regime has been relatively muted, because Algeria functions as a rentier state where nearly revenues from commodity exports heavily subsidize all goods.  This system has in the past worked relatively well, because the proceeds from the sale of petroleum products have covered the cost of these subsidies (albeit barely).  However, given the recent fall in oil prices and the ballooning cost of these subsidies, the Algerian government today faces a serious fiscal crisis that will likely force it to drastically curtail the rentier state.  Cutting subsidies makes economic sense, as cheap goods prices have encouraged overconsumption, destroyed labor productivity, and created the lack of economic diversification seen in Algeria today.  

However, Algerians have grown accustomed to the welfare state, and a sudden termination of subsidies will likely result in serious economic and political turmoil.  The inefficient and distortionary subsidy system, as well as the societal strife that will result from the inevitable overhaul of the system, can be traced entirely to the neo-tribal system that has characterized the Algerian political system since Algeria’s independence.  To maintain its grip on power, ruling military tribal group has essentially resorted to buying off the Algerian population.  The economic policies it enacted were unsustainable from the very beginning, and the reckoning now looms clearly on the horizon.  In addition, the ruling generals have treated Algeria’s treasury as their personal piggy bank, embezzling large sums and requiring large (mostly oil) companies to pay them massive “fees” in return for being allowed to operate in the country.  Thus corruption has discouraged investment, decreased the quality of governance, and resulted in the impoverishment of Algeria and its people.

Politically, the military regime has resorted to brutality and ceaseless oppression to perpetuate its rule.  This willingness to remain in power at any cost was especially evident during the Algerian Civil War (Dec 26, 1991 – Feb 8, 2002). (33)  The military killed tens of thousands of civilians, and even deployed members of the secret police posing as Islamists to commit acts of terror in order to turn the population against Islamist rebels, who had resorted to violence after the military staged a coup in 1992 to prevent the democratically-elected Islamist government from taking power.  The memories of the Civil War still run deep among the Algerian population, and, having witnessed the lengths to which the military “tribe” will go to preserve its privileges, are unlikely to oppose the government a second time.  As a result of the undisputed dominance of the ANP, Algeria has made no progress in implementing real political reforms of any kind.

The Hirak is a rejection of state neo-tribalism

The popular mobilization that is taking place in Algeria is not only a revolt against living conditions that have become unacceptable, it is also a movement that makes the streets of the country the theater of an organized construction of the collective and political life by citizens who revisit their history and take their independence from state neo-tribalism. 

Since February 22, 2019 Algeria has been living to the rhythm of unprecedented mobilizations. Millions of Algerians have taken to the streets of the country to oppose the fifth term of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, before demanding a radical change of regime. This has resulted in an inflation of analyses aimed as much at defining the phenomenon – insurgency, crisis, revolt, Hirak, revolution – (34) as at reflecting on its conditions of emergence. 

What is important is that the protesters are now in direct confrontation with the army, the power behind the throne, which they are asking to leave political life and put an end to state violence that, Algeria has subjected to since independence and return to their barracks and act only as defenders of the nation’s integrity. They are referring to the army generals and their civilian puppet politicians as ‘isabah meaning gang or rather neo-tribal institution. In return the military are arguing that the urban insurgency hirak is the result of external meddling in national affairs and not an internal matter.

In this regard Mohamed Aziz argues: (35)  

“The collective anger directed at the FLN regime followed decades of economic stagnation, rising unemployment, endemic corruption and labor market segmentation. That anger was not merely over corrupt electoral politics. The cumulative demands, aspirations and grievances of generations of Algerians are being channeled into a composite protest movement attempting to shift, by collective political action, a static and corrupt politics that has refused to adapt. The protests are not unprecedented in the manner of an awakening; rather, they have emerged over broader long-standing and cumulative tensions and frustrations over national stagnancy. Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek a fifth term only helped to ignite those protests.“

Some readings explain the timing of the mobilizations by the political opportunity offered by the electoral moment in an authoritarian context; others emphasize the role of new technologies in the structuring of the networks that articulate the movement; still, however, others explain the mobilizations by the deterioration of public finances and corruption that would fuel popular grievances and some insist finally on the contribution of youth and focus on describing the advent of a political generation freed from the traumas of the past and bearers of democratic renewal. Citizenship is then captured by the semiotic practices of the actors: the way they shape the categories of their public commitments, draw the contours of their communities and define the meaning of the common good.

The mobilizations proceed from a concern for the self (36)  that manifests itself in the deployment of an urban civility. The public performances of Algerian citizens contribute, through self-control and self-mastery, to disprove an official discourse that condemned the demonstrations and qualified them as “Syrian chaos”. The citizens also draw on a common fund of struggles for dignity, in order to break with figures of corruption that the regime had come to embody. (37)


Aspects of tribalism

Throughout the Middle Ages and until recently, Tunisia has known a mosaic of Amazigh/Berber tribes and then Arab, which organized themselves from the late sixteenth century into confederations to cope with the violence and disdain of central powers.

Since Roman times, the populations of the Dahar, established themselves around their system of defensive citadels to regulate the management and access to water. They demonstrated a very elaborate political and social organization based on successive alliances between tribes, clans and families to ensure the security of the region. These alliances were extended to the Arab tribes that came to settle in the mountains at the end of the Middle Ages. The mesh of villages and citadels known as ksour, belonging to various tribes and located at a good distance on the top of the mountains to communicate between them, testify to these alliances between tribes and clans.

In the 16th century, a group of sedentary and semi-nomadic tribes from the Dahar and the Jeffara plain (as far as Ben Gardane near the Libyan border) came together to form the Ouerghemma Confederation in order to compensate for the remoteness or disorganization of a burgeoning central power of the Beys of Tunis, and to organize life in southeastern Tunisia around a pact governing regulations and disputes. The collective memory states that this union of tribes was the work of a man of Sherifian (saintly) descent, Moussa Ben Abdallah, who preached an Islam of tolerance and equality between Arabs and Berbers.

From the 17th century, after a long period of Arabization that led to a sharp reduction in security risks (looting, etc.), a “modern proto-economy” saw the light of day with the development of markets in the plains and the growth of towns surrounding the Dahar mountain area. The proliferation of sizeable ksour in the plains in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, testifies to the vitality of economic exchanges and real prosperity at that time in this region.

Under the Beylical reign, which ruled most of Tunisia since 1612 with a real central power, the inhabitants of the Dahar repeatedly refused to submit and pay taxes. This led the Beys of Tunis to try to control this territory and bring the situation under control. Thus, the Bey Hammouda Pacha and his army besieged the Djebel Matmata (North of the Dahar) to submit it and force its population to pay taxes. Organized in the Confederation of Ouerghemma, the Amazigh/Berber and Arab tribes of the Tunisian south-east were, however, able to obtain, after negotiations, an agreement with the Beys of Tunis to provide them with mounted fighters in exchange for a tax exemption allowing their region to remain politically autonomous.

With the installation of the French protectorate in 1881, southern Tunisia experienced strong resistance to French military penetration and sometimes served as a refuge for resistance fighters from other regions, before being occupied and placed under military administration. The colonial regime profoundly de-structured the socio-economic system of the region, in particular by introducing measures for the sedentarization of populations. Among these measures was the restriction of the areas of movement of the tribes that practiced transhumance in adaptation to the aridity of the climate. The Ouerghemma Confederation, whose chief locality was Médenine, where the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs was installed, was dissolved by the colonial administration in 1883 as soon as the Bureau was officially installed.

Some Ouerghemma’s tribesmen took refuge in Libya, others chose to remain in the territory, pledging allegiance to the French Protectorate, leading to bloody fraternal clashes. Although the Confederation was officially dissolved, the colonial administrative organization, being under strong pressure in southeastern Tunisia, still relied on the Ouerghemma Confederation and its horsemen to protect the territory and the Libyan border until independence in 1956. 


Tunisia, has also been adversely affected by tribalism in modern times.  However, it differs from other Maghreb countries in that the effect of tribalism has been limited mainly to the political sphere; the country’s economy has been relatively prosperous and open historically, and it has been characterized by a remarkably liberal social framework incorporating respect for women’s rights and a generally western outlook.  Political tribalism has marred the success of Tunisia’s unique social and economic model, and ultimately proved the bane of Zine Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian government.  Ben Ali, as well as his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, had centralized power within his ruling party (tribal group).  He viciously persecuted any person or group that opposed his regime, and committed innumerable human rights abuses in order to maintain his grip on Tunisia.  

This neo-tribalism and political exclusion eventually led to the revolutionary events of 2011, in which a frustrated, disenfranchised street vendor, Bouazizi, self-immolated and set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to a period of political chaos in Tunisia, the ignominious resignation and exile of Ben Ali, and the spread of the “Arab Spring” to all corners of the MENA region, with unprecedented consequences.  

A democratically elected government today leads Tunisia, but the country’s nascent democracy is fragile. (38) The tribal remnants of Ben Ali’s regime still vie for power against newly formed opposition parties, and the Tunisian government bureaucracy is still led largely by cronies of Ben Ali who were part of his tribal clique.  In summary, tribalism was omnipresent in the Tunisian political sphere until the events of 2011, when democracy was introduced to the country by popular mandate, but the country’s political system could easily slip back into tribalism and cronyism.  Backsliding is particularly likely if external events or interference threaten the stability of the current democratic political system.

Neo-tribalism is the main obstacle to the success of the Arab Spring in The Maghreb and the Mashreq

The main obstacles to democratization in the Maghreb and the rest of the Arab world are the resistance of undemocratic regimes and their deeply entrenched economic, political and military elites. The undemocratic forces, whom the autocrats shower with considerable advantages, may resist the political transition unless they can influence it. (39) These elites contribute to state-building that is designed more to facilitate the centralization of provision than to provide essential public services, including an extensive state security network, expensive residential neighborhoods, private schools and courtyards. 

Obstacles also include the armed forces and a sizeable military budget that not only provide national security but also military support for the regime, which signs the checks. Therefore, even if elections were to be held in the Arab world, “entrenched state” structures, neo-tribal in essence, would, undoubtedly, remain the chief obstacle to the development of democracy and even foster counter-revolution, (40) as what happened in many Arab countries in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.   

Persistent dominance has become a feature of many Arab regimes: the al-Saud family has ruled Saudi Arabia since 1932, the sultan Qabous of Oman since 1971, the Assad family has controlled Syria since 1970, Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya since 1969 and Ali Abdallah Saleh served as president of the Arab Republic of Yemen since 1978 and then became, afterwards, president of unified Yemen in 1990, to name just a few cases of Arab autocrats’ longevity thanks to neo-tribalism. In other cases, the state has been dominated by the za’ims “glorious leaders “, as what happened in Egypt with Nasser, Algeria with Boumedienne, Tunisia with Bourguiba and Lebanon and Palestine under Yasser Arafat. (41) The latter, and other long-ruling Arab leaders, could claim to have brought political stability and security to their country, not only by suppressing leftist and Islamist movements but also by negotiating to prevent the armed forces from launching periodic coups d’état by buying their support (co-optation) through appointments to senior positions in government and the economy and cultivating a culture of tribal solidarity. Many Arab rulers did the same with the powerful chiefs of tribes and families, offering them prebends to stay afloat. (42)

Neo-tribalism disfavors the Amazigh people in the Maghreb

In both Morocco and Algeria, the native Amazigh population was historically marginalized and discriminated against by the ruling elites.  King Hassan II, an Arab, especially distrusted the Amazigh, as he viewed them as a threat to his rule.  Similar sentiments were held by the Algerian regime.  As a result, the traditional Amazigh language was shunned, Amazigh activists were imprisoned (or in some cases co-opted), and the Amazighs were shut out from economic opportunities in their own countries.  (43)

Because of this animosity, the rural communities in which the Amazighs predominated became economic backwaters, home to legions of unemployed, and undereducated youths.  Although the situation of the Amazigh has improved over the last 10-20 years, signs of official neglect are still difficult to miss; poverty, crumbling villages, and inadequate infrastructure still define the Amazigh communities of North Africa.  The plight of the Amazigh serves as a testament to the political and economic violence committed by the elite, Arab “neo-tribes” against the Amazigh people.


The tribalism of North Africa dates back centuries, and has always been defined by a mindset of “us” against “them”; whether it be the ruling Amazighs versus the invading Arabs, the colonial French against the colonized, or, in the present day, the entrenched undemocratic ruling elites versus the ruled.  Tribalism has taken many forms over this long historical period, but its central tenant- a concern for the preservation of the ruling tribe rather than the welfare of the whole- has not changed.  Because of this inherently selfish mindset, severe problems such as corruption and political repression have bedeviled the Maghreb region and held it back from experiencing the sort of economic and political development that has occurred in other, formerly backward nations of the world like Asia or Latin America.  

One can conclude, based on the sheer suffering of the rank and file, that tribalism has wrought havoc on Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and that a neo-tribal mindset among the ruling elite is simply untenable, today, in the era of nation-states, democracy and respect of human rights. This is leading to the revolts of the under-privileged in Morocco (Hirak (urban insurgency) in the Amazigh Rif and in the poor mining city of Jerada) and the Hirak in Algeria and recent uprisings in Tunisia.

Thus, these countries’ best, and perhaps only, shot at improving their collective situation is to adopt a societal framework that seeks to empower the entire nation, rather than an elite minority.  This process will not be easy, but it is necessary. Someday, the Maghreb region will rid itself of tribalism for good, but the path to this outcome will be long and treacherous, no doubt.  

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

End notes:

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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