The ‘bin Laden’ of marginalisation

The real terror eating away at the Arab world is socio-economic marginalisation.

From Tunisia and Algeria in the Maghreb to Jordan and Egypt in the Arab east, the real terror is marginalisation [AFP]

Conventional wisdom has it that ‘terror’ in the Arab world is monopolised by al-Qaeda in its various incarnations. There may be some truth in this.
However, this is a limited viewpoint. Regimes in countries like Tunisia and Algeria have been arming and training security apparatuses to fight Osama bin Laden. But they were caught unawares by the ‘bin Laden within’: the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region’s population.
The winds of uncertainty blowing in the Arab west – the Maghreb – threaten to blow eastwards towards the Levant as the marginalised issue the fatalistic scream of despair to be given freedom and bread or death.

Whose terror?
The gurus of so-called ‘radicalisation’ who have turned Islam into a security issue have fixed the debate, making bin Laden a timeless, single and permanent pathology of all things Muslim.

It is no exaggeration to claim that since 9/11 so-called radicalisation has replaced new Orientalism as the prism through which Western security apparatuses view Middle Eastern youth and societies. Guantanamo Bay, profiling, extraordinary renditions, among others, are only the tip of the iceberg.
The policing, equipment, funding, expertise and anti-terror philosophy being fed to the likes of Algeria, Libya and Morocco are geared towards fighting the ‘bearded, radical salafis’ whose prophet is Osama bin Laden. But, the tangible bin Ladens bracing suicide in its entirety have emerged from the ranks of the educated middle classes whose prophet is Adam Smith.
Al-Qaeda, literally “the base”, may today be the swelling armies of marginals in the Middle East, not the ‘salafis’.

It is not the Quran or Sayyid Qutb – who is in absentia charged with perpetrating 9/11 despite being dead since 1966 – Western security experts should worry about. They should perhaps purchase Das Kapital and bond with Karl Marx to get a reality check, a rethink, a dose of sobriety in a post-9/11 world afflicted by over-securitisation.
From Tunisia and Algeria in the Maghreb to Jordan and Egypt in the Arab east, the real terror that eats at self-worth, sabotages community and communal rites of passage, including marriage, is the terror of socio-economic marginalisation.
The armies of ‘khobzistes’ (the unemployed of the Maghreb) – now marching for bread in the streets and slums of Algiers and Kasserine and who tomorrow may be in Amman, Rabat, San’aa, Ramallah, Cairo and southern Beirut – are not fighting the terror of unemployment with ideology. They do not need one. Unemployment is their ideology. The periphery is their geography. And for now, spontaneous peaceful protest and self-harm is their weaponry. They are ‘les misérables’ of the modern world.
The ‘bread compact’
The bread compacts which framed the political order in much of the Arab world came unstuck in the mid- to late-1980s.

In the 1960s, regimes committed to the distribution of bread (subsidised goods) in return for political passivity. In the 1980s, the new political fix shifted to giving the vote instead of bread.
Who can forget the 1988 bread riots that eventually brought the Islamists to the verge of parliamentary control of Algeria in 1991? The riots in Jordan at around the same time inspired state-led political liberalisation in 1989.
For Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Egypt, the impoverished Arab states, in need of the liquidity of Euro-American and International Misery Fund aid, infitah (open-door policy) was the only blueprint of forward economic management. Within its bosom are bred greed, land grab, corruption, monopoly and the new entrepreneurial classes who exchange loyalty and patronage with the political masters as well as the banknotes and concessions with which both fund flash lifestyles.
Thus the map of distribution was gerrymandered at the expense of the have-nots who are placated with insufficient micro credits or ill-managed national development funds. The crumbs – whatever subsidies are allowed by the new economic order built on the pillars of privatisation, the absence of social safety nets and economic protectionism – delay disaffection but never eliminate it.

Below the surface the pent-up anger of the marginals simmers.
‘Tis the season of ‘bread intifadas’
The ‘khobzistes’ have returned. At home they are marginals; abroad, they are largely persona non grata for being born in the wrong geography, inheriting the perfect genes for ‘profiling’ and being too culturally challenged for some European assimilationists. Their only added value is as objects of social dumping in capitalism’s sweat shops.

Potentially, they are the fodder of chaos in the absence of social justice, culturally sensitive sustainable development and democratic mediating networks and civic channels of socio-political bargaining and
Bread uprisings have a plus and a minus. On the positive side, they act as elections, as plebiscites on performance, as an airing of public anger, they issue verdicts on failed policies and send stress messages to rulers.

The response comes swiftly: when initial oppression becomes too heavy and politically costly, bargains begin. They include promises of jobs and policy, reversals of hikes in food prices and even scapegoats in the form of ministerial dismissals.
This is where Algeria and Tunisia are today.

In Tunisia, in particular, the government has been clumsy, nervous and completely out of line for threatening the use of force and then employing it. Fatalities have been on the rise. The death toll is heavy and may already have produced irreversible tipping-point logic.
Bargains, but no democracy
On the negative side, there is no ‘democratic spring’ in Algeria. Bread riots come and go. But regimes stay on.

The absence of a critical mass that produces a tipping-point dynamic means that regimes know how to buy time, co-opt and fund themselves out of trouble when pushed. Genuine democratic bargains do not ensue. The states have not invested in social and political capital.

Oppositions and dissidents have not yet learned how to infiltrate governments and build strong political identities and power bases. This is one reason why the protests that produced ‘Velvet revolutions’ elsewhere seem to be absent in the Arab world.
The momentum created by the bread rioters is never translated into self-sustaining critical mass by opposition forces. Regimes wait until the last minute after use of force fails to kill off the momentum through the offer of concessionary and momentary welfare.

Tunisia will be the first Arab exception to this: Ben Ali is in no position to act Machiavellian and intransigent. He is weak, and the party following and army that has protected him for 24 years may be withdrawing loyalty as the crisis deepens. 
The ‘fishers of men’
The misery belts tightening around the pockets of affluence and opportunity from Algiers to Amman hint at the microcosm of the unevenness of global distribution.

Just as Sidi Bouzid, El-Kobba, Ma’an or Imbaba function internally in that belt of misery, so do the cities of Arab states globally. They are the periphery, literally the misery belts tightening around rich ‘fortress Europe’ – a Europe that is increasingly more interested in the technology of security, surveillance systems, ‘radicalisation’ theories, policing and the mental nets functioning as ‘fishers of men’ according to one study. Today the ClubMed geography is in rebellion mode.  
Frontex is the EU agency that spearheads the task of constructing fortress Europe. It is at the front, fighting against the boat people that threaten the lifestyles and comfort of the EU. Its planes, frigates and patrols literally fish men from the tiny boats laden with Arab and African human cargo destined for EU shores.

These desperados weather the high seas knowing that their chance of survival is not more than 10 per cent. Many drown. Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of insanity was not the only suicide. The ‘harraqa’, as North African boat people are called, seek exodus by stealth, and by death.
Those who do not drown are chased back to their shores of departure. Some are caught and returned to countries of transition such as Libya.
A 2009 EU agreement assigns maritime patrolling and policing to Libya so that boat people do not reach Italian ports, discarding the ethical implications of entrusting refugee protection to countries with dubious human rights records.
From Israel to Spain, fences are erected to keep non-Europeans out. They are allowed to dream of Europe … but not of setting foot in it.
The time has come for the Arab Gulf labour markets to do more for the Arab marginals.
The ‘geography of hunger’
In Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth one finds resonance with the misery engulfing Tunisia and Algeria today, where the have-nots, or the mahrumin, and the khobzistes strike back at the state and target its symbols. They fight back and thus “struggle … and with their shrunken bellies [and humiliated egos] outline of the geography of hunger”.
In this geography of hunger and marginalisation, the ruling native becomes the new coloniser. By contrast to the have-nots, the ruling natives and the economic ‘mafias’ are sheltered not only in mansions and villas, but also within ‘a hard shell’ that immures them from the “poverty that surrounds” them.

In The Wretched of the Earth one reads about the “poor, underdeveloped countries, where the rule is that the greatest wealth is surrounded by the greatest poverty”.

To map out the “geography of hunger” is not complete without marking out the geography of authoritarianism. In both Algeria and Tunisia, the big interests and profiteers supporting Bouteflika and  Ben Ali seem to fulfill Fanon’s prophecy about corruption “sooner or later” making leaders “men of straw in the hands of the army … immobilising and terrorising”. It is the security forces and the army that run the show in both countries.
Fanon, the ideologue of the Algerian revolution, is probably turning in his grave at the thought that a country of “one million martyrs” sacrificed for independence is today battling for new freedoms from housing shortages, rising food prices, autocracy and overall marginalisation.
The figures construct on paper stories of growth and stability that are not matched by the reality of marginalisation.

For how long republics of paper and men of straw can withstand the hell-fire of the Algerian and Tunisian eruptions fuelled by marginalisation remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the beginnings of a ‘Tunisian democratic spring’ are in the offing.

Larbi Sadiki is a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.