BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
« Previous | Main | Next »

The legacy of North Africa's past monarchies

Mark Urban | 18:32 UK time, Monday, 17 January 2011

Looking into the history of monarchy in North Africa, I discovered that modern Tunisia has had one king, who lasted just over one year and was called, surreally given the flash in the pan nature of this reign, King Mohammad VII.

His tale and that of other monarchies in North Africa highlights why succession is such a problem.

For centuries, the Ottoman Empire ran the North African littoral through princelings known by various titles such as the Bey of Tunis or the Khedive of Egypt.

Almost all were pashas or generals and assumed the character of enforcers, collecting taxes and running affairs in return for a chance to milk their opportunity for riches.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Since the hereditary principle had been abandoned by the Ottoman sultans (who felt that a man expecting his own son to take over might violate the will of God) their formula produced a situation that is all too familiar to many Arabs - constant intrigue, venality, power resting on armed force, and, most relevant in the light of events in Tunis, a complete uncertainty over who should take over when the old ruler disappeared.

This imperial legacy has produced one positive effect - stability in power.

Libya's leader has been at the helm since 1969 and Egypt's strongman for 30 years. Morocco, which boasts the region's last surviving monarch, has a king who has been on the throne for 11 years.

Mohammad VII of Tunisia was installed as bey by the French and then became king when the country declared independence in 1956.

Lacking the necessary support of the country's elite, he was elbowed aside by Habib Bourguiba whose strength in the independence movement and on the streets gave him the necessary clout to rule.

Mr Bourguiba was himself pushed out in 1987 by his prime minister, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The fate of these leaders gives some idea why many Tunisians were suspicious when the current prime minister declared himself "acting president" on Friday night.

He has since been superseded by the parliamentary speaker.

So far, it would appear that the key to exercising authority in Tunisia today is the support of the army. It retains greater public respect than the police or security service, both of which were seen as tools of Mr Ben Ali's repression.

Human rights groups have condemned the interim government announced today as a collection of Ben Ali placemen (including in the key security positions) with a sprinkling of opposition politicians in minor posts.

It is clear then both that nobody knows yet who will succeed Mr Ben Ali or whether the leader eventually appointed will come to power by ballot or by the ability to rally the forces necessary to suppress disorder on the streets.

And that is a reality that would have been all too familiar to the ineffectual King Mohammad VII.


  • Comment number 1.

    In Praise of Imperialism

    Imperialism = stability?

    for whom?

    In the zero sum role game of monarchy to make yourself royal you have to make others common as in the playground game where one person pushes another person off a spot called 'the castle' and sings 'I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal' - until someone pushes them off and sings the same song ad infinitum. This is a game of force backed power. The strongest person stay king for longest. its not about the person with the correct philosophy, a plan for the country etc. its about power no matter how immoral such a king might be.

    Fisk points out

    ..Yes, we would like a democracy in Tunisia , but not too much democracy. Remember how we wanted Algeria to have a democracy back in the early Nineties?

    Then when it looked like the Islamists might win the second round of voting, we supported its military-backed government in suspending elections and crushing the Islamists and initiating a civil war in which 150,000 died.

    any whiff of islamic democracy and the west will pile in supporting the local friendly strong man?

    monarchy as a mindset is medieval. It is anti democracy, anti human rights and has an apartheid language and structure. How can anyone call such a creature that inhabits the minds of some good?

    I we should wish for others what we wish for ourselves then no one should wish to inflict a monarchism upon anyone. Indeed it would be a moral failure. Like working for a Sith?

  • Comment number 2.

    '1. At 7:54pm on 17 Jan 2011, jauntycyclist wrote:
    Like working for a Sith?'

    If only there had been a coalition instead of an empire, then the entire clone army would have been employed but on paternity leave permanently, with consequently very little planet-exploding taking place at all.

  • Comment number 3.

    What have we found throughout history...that yesterday`s egalitarian/sectarian saviour and revolutionary gradually morphs into an oppressive tyrrant as power and status and a large family of hangers on wear them down into being no better than the chap before?

    And constitutional arrangements seem not to be able to counteract this process. Trotsky was it who talked about continuous revolution ...until he got a headache?

    But even party politics is not proof against we learned when the Liblabcon Party took over Britain and we became a virtual one party state....which closed its ears to anything our American masters didn`t want "changed"?!

    We have to make more explicit to the rest of mankind how we exercise influence over their that there can be some hope of them understanding why the different regimes we impose on them come and go depending on their preparedness to do our bidding.

    ..And surely it`s time we realised that our sort of democracy is a cultural impossiblity in large parts of the world where family and sectarian and gang or community loyalties (and an absence of education) make "democratic elections" a farcical cosmetic veneer covering western influence?

  • Comment number 4.

    3 our sort of democracy

    with a hereditary principle at its core and highest idea? our troops are fighting to bring a greater level of democracy to iraq and afghanistan than we enjoy here where it is illegal under treason laws to even suggest that someone else other than the monarch be head of state.

    at the top, our system has much in common with north korea where hereditary and a system of patronage rule.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Nice background information. Thanks.
    Tunisian opposition leader Moncef Marzouki has arrived in Tunisia; he has been greeted ecstatically after his several years in Parisian exile.
    Tunisia's interim government tooki 24 hours (or less) to run into trouble.
    Tunisian opposition leader Moncef Marzouki - first words out of his mouth - "The revolution must continue!" The crowds cheered - louder and louder as he emerged from Tunis-Carthage Airport. Supporters gave him a Tunisian flag, lifted him on to their shoulders. Supporters greeted Marzouki with placards saying "Free Tunisia! Out with the RCD".
    Marzouki, who is head of the banned Congress for the Republic party, says he is running for upcoming elections in Tunisia. He is little known to the general public because Ben Ali banned his party.
    Moncef Marzouki has already called on Saudi Arabia to give Ben Ali up and said the president's ruling RCD party should be broken up.
    Moncef Marzouki: "There is a feeling of national pride....Certain people are now fleeing, while I, who had to flee, who was a fugitive, am welcomed by my people."
    The first thing he wanted to do is to travel to Sidi Bouzid, the city whose uprising led directly to Ben Ali's downfall. In December, a graduate committed suicide in Sidi Bouzid when the police prevented him from selling fruit and vegetables.
    Marzouki: "I will do everything possible to ensure a real peaceful and democratic transition...We need to have a real coalition government ... and to hold real elections."
    Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi formed a unity government, but handed the cabinet's key ministries to allies of the deposed president. UGTT Trade Unionist Abid Brigui: "Twelve ministers in this new cabinet were already ministers under Ben Ali. They conducted his policies and this runs contrary to the people's will."
    Among the changes yesterday were the resignation of the interim president, Fouad Mabzaa, and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi from the ruling party. Exact status remains unclear to me.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.