North African diversities: a personal odyssey

The era of European colonial rule in the Maghreb was one of great plurality and intermingling of cultures as well as of power and violence. Several of these currents flow through the life of the respected journalist and scholar Francis Ghilès. Here, he draws on a remarkable familial and professional journey to reflect on the experience of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco since the 1950s, and asks whether Europe can meet the test of a new era in the region.

In the autumn of 1965, on the eve of my 21st birthday, my father took me to the Préfecture de l’Isère in Grenoble to complete the forms which would hand me my first Carte d’Identité. I had come of age and would now be able to travel abroad without the prior consent of my father. Imagine my surprise when the clerk, with a scornful look, handed back to my father his and Carte d’Identité – key documents in proving a person’s French nationality. To acquire my first Carte d’Identité, it transpired, my father would have to seek a Certificat de Nationalité. My father was humiliated but said nothing, and we went home.

Later that evening I opened the precious Livret de Famille to discover that the first names of my paternal grandfather, who had died in Bizerta (Tunisia) in 1943, were Mohammed François. The François whom my father had often told me was of Spanish descent, turned out to have been born a Muslim. Mohammed was born in the mid-1870s in Tizi Hibel, in the mountainous Berber heartland of Grande Kabylie, due east of Algiers. He had been baptised around the age of 18 in 1892 in Algiers, where he was being educated by the Pères Blancs religious order.

The bishop of Algiers, who also served as archbishop of Carthage, was deeply convinced of the need to distinguish between Berbers like my grandfather (whom he believed to be the descendants of those who had produced one of the great early figures of the Christian church, St Augustine, bishop of Hippo [Annaba in today’s Algeria]) and Arabs. He believed that every effort should be made to bring the Berbers back to the faith of St Augustine. One of the first governor-generals of Algeria viewed the Arabs as “hyenas worthy of the fate of American Indians.”

Monseigneur Lavigerie, who had established the Pères Blancs order in 1872, was a very influential politician who not only convinced the French colonial authorities of his views about Berbers but reconciled France’s Third Republic with the Vatican. The Christian schools set up by the Pères Blancs in Kabylia – the first one my paternal grandfather attended was in Taourirt Moussa, a village a few miles from his birthplace – in the late 19th century gave Kabyle Berbers a training in the ways of the modern world and gave rise to a more literate group of people than any other social group in Algeria. Although only a few thousand Kabyle Berbers were converted, the proselytising of the Pères Blancs spread fear among the population, who felt the French were out to destroy their identity.

The Kabyle Berbers played a key role in Algeria’s modern history, one quite out of proportion with their numbers. Between the two world wars, emigrants from Kabylia formed the vast majority of Muslim Algerian labourers in France, where, in the early 1920s, they founded the first modern Algerian nationalist movement, l’Etoile Nord Africaine. The Etoile and its post-second-world-war successor, the Parti Populaire Algérien, provided the fount of modern Algerian politics. The idea of independence for what had been for a century three French départements came from their ranks. The Djurdjura mountain range in Kabylia witnessed some of the most violent fighting during the war of independence from 1954 to 1962.

But the new post-independence rulers of Algeria clamped down on the freedom their countrymen had paid between 500,000 and 1.5 million lives to win. Most expressions of Berber culture were forbidden, rapid Arabisation was imposed, a sanitised version of the country’s modern history in which most references to its Berber, let alone Jewish or Phoenician past were airbrushed out of existence. Little mention was made of the Algeria that existed before 1830.

The lines that fracture Algerian society run through Kabylia as they do through every social group. Some Kabyles have backed violent militant Islamic groups; others preach a form of laicité which is very French, yet others play a key role in the state’s security apparatus. The fight to get their culture recognised is part of the broader fight for freedom in Algeria – freedom from an increasingly corrupt state-controlled economy and the right of women to enjoy equal rights with men. The Berber language (whose alphabet is drawn from Phoenician), the music and poetry of the different Berber-speaking regions (Aurès Mountains and M’Zab, to name but two) are part of the hidden diversity of Algeria and Morocco. This diversity should be a source of pride and wealth, not an excuse for repression.

Algerians belong to a complex nation, which has yet to decide between its historical roots and its somewhat skewed vision as a model of “third-world” development. Dialogue is a form of politics which is desperately lacking in Algeria. Yet only when ordinary Algerians and those who rule them accept that their roots are both Arab and Berber, African and Mediterranean, Muslim yet open to the modern world, will such dialogue come about and a solution might be found to rebuild a country which paid a heavy price for its civil war in the 1990s (150,000 dead, many “disappeared”, widespread torture and 500,000 people, many well educated, fleeing the country).

Algeria’s historical reality, like that of so many other southern-rim Mediterranean countries, is one of diverse cultures and religions, intermarriage and overseas trade (both across the Ottoman empire and with European nations such as Italy, France and Britain); these have painted a canvas much richer than the bland image of the past offered by nationalist textbooks since independence.

The end of the colonial period and the early decades of nationalism broke a number of fragile points of equilibrium and impoverished Algeria – as they have its middle east and North African neighbours. The younger generation, motivated by a deeper desire for individual autonomy and happiness than were its parents, aspires to greater freedom and more opportunities to work, not least in the private sector; it is desperate to communicate with the outside world.

The difference between North Africa and the Middle East is that “Europe” in North Africa is something very real and tangible because every family has a brother, a cousin, a father or a daughter who lives in Europe, many of whom are now French or Belgian citizens. Europe is part of North Africa and, whether European politicians like it or not, the Maghreb is part of Europe. These intricate networks of family, economic interest and culture simply cannot be broken.

The origins

My paternal grandfather became a junior officer in the French army and settled in Bizerta, then a major French naval base, at the turn of the 20th century. He was appointed to run the post office. There he married the daughter of a humble Sicilian peasant from Sciacca, near Agrigento, Francesca Russo. Tens of thousands of Italians fled the grinding poverty of Sicily to settle in Tunisia from the middle of the 19th century, a movement that accelerated after Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881. They constituted a majority of the European population up to independence in 1956. My paternal grandmother’s features were handsome and hard, those of a true Sicilian peasant, little different from the women who tilled the land in the Tunisia of my youth.

My mother, née Margaret Hyman in London in 1921, was Jewish. Her family and friends had a much greater influence on shaping my identity and my view of the world as a young man than my father’s family, which I hardly knew. My maternal grandfather, who was born in east London, refused to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a rabbi, instead pursuing a business career; he joined the Asiatic Petroleum Company as a clerk and (after the company merged with Shell Oil) became the head of its paraffin wax department. My maternal grandmother’s family hailed from Lithuania and settled in Manchester, where she was born. She was a remarkable woman, a liberal intellectual New Statesman reader who became one of the first women in the United Kingdom to gain a masters degree in history, with a thesis on trading posts in Africa. Her beauty, which hinted at origins in the Caucasus, her elegance and intellectual rigour shaped my view of the world, the way I dress and behave to this day.

My parents met in Tunis in the summer of 1943, just after the Anglo-American forces had pushed out the German army: my mother had just graduated in French and Italian from University College, London and was posted as an interpreter with Richard Crossman. Crossman, later a Labour cabinet minister, was then under the command of Harold MacMillan (himself a future Conservative prime minister) in charge of British propaganda against the Axis powers. After spending a few weeks in Algiers my mother moved to Tunis for a year. My father had just been freed from three years’ imprisonment on Tunisia’s frontier with Algeria by the British and American high command and invited to join the Corps Francs d’Afrique, a unit created to accommodate all the French army officers who had fallen foul of Vichy.

As a young Frenchman, he had been brought up in Bizerta and educated, like his father, by the Pères Blancs in their school of St Joseph de Tibar in northern Tunisia. He trained at the Ecole Navale in Algiers and joined the French merchant navy. But on account of his Muslim and Algerian origins, promotion was extremely slow. In 1936, as one of the leaders of the Confédération Générale du Travail, he helped organise the strikes which, in Bizerta and elsewhere in France and the Maghreb, ushered in the government of the Front Populaire. He was arrested as soon as Vichy came to power on the orders of the Résident Général, Admiral Marcel Peyrouton. After the war, Marcel Ghilès trained as a lawyer and became legal advisor to Mobil Oil.

In 1943 and 1944, Algiers and Tunis were very diverse cities, with sizeable groups of Italians, Spaniards, Jews, Maltese and White Russians. The recent history of the Jews was of particular interest in Algeria. In 1941, the Vichy regime had deprived all French Jews, both in France and in Algeria of their citizenship. The Pieds Noirs applauded Vichy’s leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain, for the move but the Muslim population extended a helping hand to their Jewish friends and neighbours. Between 1941 and 1945 thousands of Jewish and Muslim children attended schools together without incident.

The Algerian native Jews had been granted automatic French citizenship in 1870 when the provisionary government in Paris had enacted the Décret Crémieux. Named after its author, the Jewish interior minister, Adolphe Crémieux, the decree helped drive a wedge between Muslims and Jews who had lived side by side for close on 2,000 years during which they shared a rich culture, notably in music and food. The Algerian Muslims, particularly in cities like Constantine, were incensed as they could only hope to become French citizens by abandoning their allegiance to the laws of the Dar al-Islam.

While this stirred up a lot of anti-French sentiment, it did not foment anti-Semitic feelings within the still-tolerant Muslim majority. Rather it was Algeria’s French population that began to embrace virulent anti-semitism. When Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer, was accused in 1894 of spying for Germany, treacherous behaviour attributed to his Jewish condition, it unleashed a wave of anti-semitism in the French quarters of Algerian cities far more violent than anything seen in metropolitan France. The colonial government enacted a quota limiting the number of Jewish civil servants and threw Jewish children out of French state schools.

Shortly thereafter, a demagogic, anti-Semitic rabble rouser, Max Regis, was elected mayor of Algiers, while Edouard Drumont, one of the early theoreticians of racial superiority, was elected to represent for the city in France’s Assemblée Nationale. Huge crowds, made up primarily of Europeans – French, Italian and Spanish settlers – greeted Drumont as a saviour while French women of every rank worshipped their handsome mayor. Native Muslims were stunned and stayed on the sidelines until finally, strongly incited by the Pieds Noirs, they also rioted against the Jews.

By the 1930s, many Catholic priests in Algeria, notably in Oran, were preaching anti-semitic Sunday sermons. What followed in 1941 – the stripping of Jews of their citizenship – thus hardly came as a surprise. During Algeria’s fight for independence the bulk of Jews sided with the French. Nonetheless, the first bomb-maker of the Front de Liberation National (FLN) was a Jew, not a Muslim, while many Jewish intellectuals on the French mainland supported the FLN.

The French turned Algeria into a test-ground for modern urban guerrilla warfare during the battle of Algiers. Général Raoul Salan, the leader of the (OAS) made up of French settlers and extremists in the French army, noted that his group aimed to “destroy the best Muslim elements in the liberal professions, in other words to turn Algerian society into a vegetable by destroying its brains.”

In March 1962, the OAS assassinated Mouloud Feraoun, a Muslim writer and friend of Albert Camus who was both a patriot and deeply attached to French ideals and literary models. Feraoun, who is buried in the village of his birth, Tizi Hibel, had been one of the great symbols of Algeria’s dual culture. He had very dark forebodings of what the future held in store for Algeria after the torrent of violence, which had accompanied the eight-year fight for independence, a fight which witnessed a armed struggle between the Algerian and the French, civil war among the French quite apart from the killings between Algerians. The campaign of the OAS culminated with its burning the Bibliotèque Nationale d’Alger and the destruction of 600,000 books on the eve of independence in July 1962.

The widespread use of torture on civilian populations during the war created an indelible legacy of brutality. French military commanders also committed the first plane hijacking in history when they forced down a military jet carrying a group of FLN leaders to Tunisia. The campaign of terror made the post-independence flight of one million European settlers inevitable. It also completed the tragic destruction of a generation of Algeria’s proudest sons, many of whom were either killed by the French army or caught up in the bitter infighting between various Algerian nationalist groups. What happened in Alexandria in the 1950s and Beirut two decades later is part of the same tragic trend. The war of independence ushered in a period of Arab nationalism as the new state built an identity which excluded the other – be that other European, Jewish, even Berber.

The patrimony

I was born in November 1944 in Rome, where my mother had moved on from Tunis and was involved in the unit that oversaw the censorship of the Roman press. A year after my birth she moved back to England: my father had come down with tuberculosis and had yet to divorce his first wife. I was sent to Anna Freud’s school in the north London suburb of Hampstead. By 1951 my father had recovered his health and acquired a secure job: my mother joined him in Tunis – more precisely Salammbo, the residential suburb of Tunis at the foot of Carthage. I learned French in two months and started on a new road, that of a French schoolboy.

During the less than six years I spent in Tunisia, where I also learned to write basic Arabic, which my father spoke fluently, I remember visits to our house by young lawyers who belonged to the Neo-Destour Party which was then fighting for the independence of this French protectorate: a rare event in such a European neighbourhood. Before 1940, my father had known the party’s leader, Habib Bourguiba whose wife was French and who modelled himself on the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk. Within a year of his return to Tunisia from exile in June 1955, Habib Bourguiba was to oust the Husseinite dynasty which had ruled Tunisia for three centuries; within two years he had become president of a new republic, and in what was a revolutionary act granted Tunisian women equal rights (1956) and family planning (1961) – rights which many of their European sisters won only decades latter.

After 1945, my father no longer engaged in any political activities but I remember his emotion when on 1 June 1955, tens of thousands of Tunisians lined the shores of the Gulf of Carthage as the ship carrying Habib Bourguiba sailed up to the port of La Goulette, in front of Tunis: the Mujaheed al-Akbar (the Great Fighter), as Bourguiba later styled himself, was greeted in triumph, riding into the city on a white horse.

Tunis in the late colonial period was an extraordinarily mixed city. Even in many Arab homes, dinner would invariably start with a plate of pasta. The music-hall songs of the inter-war years and the late 1940s were a mixture of French, Italian and Arabic and the leading singers were, more often than not, Jewish. The cafés of Bab Souika were a sight to behold on hot summer or Ramadan evenings.

Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, a painter and musicologist, had built a sumptuous Moorish residence on the hill of Sidi Bou Said near Carthage where he would host lavish parties. The baron’s grandfather had “managed” the foreign debt of the Bey of Tunis in the late 19th century and his father had written the first modern academic study of classical Arab music. The family was of German-Jewish origin and had become British at the turn of the 20th century; the first baron had been the first to promote the idea of a Channel tunnel. Their palace, which is now a museum of musical instruments, was the very symbol of a cosmopolitan city. A number of White Russians, who had fled their country after the Bolshevik revolution, added a further exotic touch – and a lovely little Orthodox chapel to the already very mixed architecture of central Tunis.

In 1957, my parents decided to move to France, not least because they felt that after the Suez crisis, my mother’s Jewish background made staying in Tunisia problematic. Although both of them knew France, neither had ever lived there. Leaving Tunisia was an experience from which my father never really recovered – he spoke Italian, French, Arabic and English and sang well in French, Arabic and Italian. For him the Bizerta, the Tunis and the Algiers of his youth with their rich cosmopolitan culture, where everybody seemed to be speaking in three tongues at once, were his very raison d’être.

After a year in London in 1957-58, I joined my parents who had settled in Grenoble. I got my second Baccalaureat in 1963, completed a SciencesPo degree in 1966, worked for the former prime minister (and by then MP for Grenoble) Pierre Mendès France, and in the winter Olympics of 1968. But I was restive.

I discovered Spain in 1961 and already sensed that the story of the Spanish origins of my paternal grandfather’s family which my father claimed did not ring quite true. I loved the language and the people.

When I returned from Valencia, my father could not believe that I had “fallen in love with Franco” as he put it. I defended bullfighting, arguing that Britain and France had lost any sense of “ritual” and were becoming “Americanised”. After 1945, my father had remained a communist fellow traveller – my first “political” memory is of being taken by him to the headquarters of La Presse on Avenue Jules Ferry (later Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis) in February 1953 after he had learned of the death of Stalin. A large crowd had gathered to read the pages of La Presse posted on the walls. I went back to Spain twice, in 1962 and 1964, took intensive classes in Spanish and learned the language well. My discovery of Grenada, Sevilla and Cordoba was a real cultural shock – to this day Grenada, which before the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors after the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, was a Berber and Jewish city par excellence, retains a special place in my soul.

In 1965, I travelled to Israel but heard no “call” to go and live there, I felt very much a Frenchman, “un fils de l’école de la République”. I worked in the fields of the Ein-Dor kibbutz in Galilee which was affiliated with the Mapam, the left-wing Labour Party, but was puzzled at how the Jewish settlers treated their Arab neighbours: they were not overtly hostile, but kept a distance. It reminded me of behaviour I had witnessed in Tunisia in the early 1950s.

The care that left-wing kibbutz like Ein-Dor took to avoid employing Arab labour served less to burnish their egalitarian credentials than to isolate them from the inconvenient facts of middle- east life. I think I sensed this intuitively though I would not then have articulated it so clearly. When I tried to raise some awkward questions about relations between Arabs and Jews in Galilee, the uncle of my mother with whom I was staying in Jerusalem was not best pleased. He was very much a member of the Ashkenazi establishment and was interested only in whether I intended to come and settle in Israel.

In 1969 a British Council scholarship allowed me to pursue a higher degree at St Antony’s College in Oxford and by then I was clear that I wanted to explore further the Algerian roots of my father which I had discovered that autumn day in 1965. I chose to write on Algerian colonial history from 1830 to 1834, putting French historical studies of the period through the grid of the British consular papers of the time.

I then decided to confront my father with his Muslim origin – a subject treated at home as omertá. He was left speechless but did not protest. It was years later that I came to realise that his only wish had been to integrate into French society. I remember my mother saying, at the same dinner-party, that if Israel stayed as an occupying power in the West Bank for too long, a French-Algerian-type syndrome was bound to develop with very unhappy consequences for the future of the region.

The influence of my maternal grandmother, who would give me Arthur Koestler’s The Zero and the Infinite and Bertrand Russell’s early essay on the USSR to read, far outweighed any influence my father’s crypto-anarchic musings might have had; nor was I interested in my maternal grandfather’s conviction that being a good Tory and loving money offered the keys to a happy existence. His sole wish was to integrate, mine was to understand where I came from. I had the freedom and some means to do this. Looking back I can better understand my father and maternal grandfather’s behaviour, but at the time I was contemptuous of both.

I then set about becoming a journalist. Joining the Financial Times in 1977 and working regularly for the BBC World Service offered me the opportunity to learn and explain, as I saw it, the richness that was North Africa. My maternal grandfather, by then deceased, would have been thrilled that his grandson was working for the Financial Times but my father saw it as class betrayal, though of what class I was never quite sure. My journey of self-discovery also set me at loggerheads with many people who carried a heavy ideological baggage: those in the 1960s and 1970s who were convinced that the Algeria of Houari Boumedienne was a “truly revolutionary” country; those who, in France in particular, could never forgive Algeria for becoming independent.

In Morocco I was suspect because I knew and liked Algeria, though I remained critical of many of that country’s policies: in 1984, the then Moroccan prime minister, Mohammed Karim Lamrani, who was also one of the late King Hassan’s most trusted advisors, told me that the Moroccan ambassador in London had written a number of reports to the monarch suggesting that I was “an Algerian spy with a Swiss bank account.” I then asked the prime minister, who had done much to help me understand Morocco after my appointment as the FT’s North Africa’s correspondent in 1981, to advise me on how I should manage the situation. His response was tart: “Comment peut on nommer des cons pareils a Londres?” (How can one appoint such assholes to London?).

In Algeria, relations with senior members of the establishment – including military and security were not always easy but they understood that, however critical I was of their policies, I did not despise them for the simple reason that I could not despise myself. When in 1994 I inquired of Colonel Fodhil Saidi, the head of Algerian external intelligence, what he thought of my coverage of the difficult time Algeria was then going through, he rather wistfully said: “Tu dis moins de bêtises que de tes confrères”, which is the nicest back-handed compliment I have received in my career.

Tunisia was easier to report, at least until the advent of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in November 1987, when politics became altogether coarser. My defence of private enterprise (after all I was working for the FT) puzzled many French and North African left-leaning friends throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As they climbed up the job and social ladder, many of them took to worshipping private enterprise, which was becoming fashionable.

But I was mindful that, in North Africa, it was often the same people who had held power and influence as senior servants of the state who seemed to be doing so as “private entrepreneurs”. The ideological garb they adopted suited their interests. When at the turn of the millennium I tried to explain to some senior western officials that the Ben Ali family was not simply corrupt, but plain mafiosi, my arguments were met with disbelief.

The inheritance

In the first months of 2011, the young people of Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and beyond have confronted their erstwhile or present leaders in the name of values which the European Union has sought to promote, since 1995, through the “Barcelona process”. So far the EU’s response leaves a strong taste of déjà vu. The European Council’s declaration of 11 March 2011 falls far short of what might have been expected from European leaders who are today faced with a historic opportunity to help southern Mediterranean countries become a stable, democratic and economically stronger area.

To date, the instruments of the partnership between the countries of both shores have been controlled by the EU. If there is any hope of Europe being able to build a stronger and mutually trustworthy relationship with southern-rim countries, none of which has any ambition or desire to join the EU, it will have to accept that they participate in the shaping of EU policy in certain  areas: the only condition being that whichever country in the south which wished to participate would have to follow European legislation in the relevant sector. European values and standards would thus be translated into banking, farming, trade and any other policy-area involved.

Hence the idea of a Bank for the Mediterranean whose role would be to foster private investment, notably for medium-size companies whose development is key to higher economic growth in the region. Hence too the need for a greater political effort to promote joint ventures in sectors such as fertilisers; the Maghreb holds considerable reserves of phosphates, gas, ammonia and sulphur, the basis for its production of the cheapest phosphate-based fertilisers in the world. Such a bold policy would mark a break from the recent past when the thicker the layer of EU plans and statements became, the higher the fences of “fortress Europe” rose. The Barcelona process lacked from the very start the critical mass of investment needed to allow any serious economic takeoff, and the much vaunted corporate upgrading (so-called mise à niveau) never really materialised, except in a limited way in Tunisia.

A more enlightened approach in these areas would also prevent Europe falling prey to parties on the right, which preach hatred of Muslims (whose pre-1949 equivalents were promoting anti-semitism). It might in addition help the media talk less of  banlieue riots or niqab wars and more of the many European Muslim citizens who have married into “Christian” or “Jewish” families, done well professionally and integrated without right-wing rabble-rousers noticing.

For the enriching diversity that characterised Tunisia and Algeria in the years before independence has long migrated to Marseilles, Paris and London. Yet the older and much stronger European states found (and still find) it difficult to accommodate variety when it carries a Muslim tag, suggesting –  a point reinforced by the modern history of the United States – that Europe faces a bleak future if the continent is incapable of reinventing itself as a political construct which accepts the multiplicity of cultures and religions among its citizens.

A dominating fear of the other, particularly the Muslim other, will turn the old continent into an irrelevance in world affairs. In Realpolitik terms, the European Union will have to reinvent its relations with its own “near-abroad”, not least North Africa, if Europe wishes to maintain any real influence in the world and have a foreign policy worthy of its economic weight. Europe will accordingly have to consider the 80 million North Africans as part of the solution to, rather than a source of its problems: an asset, rather than a threat which must be constantly guarded against.

The challenge is urgent, for in the Maghreb history is now again being made. At the end of January 2011, two weeks after the flight of the erstwhile dictator, I walked through the streets of Tunis and listened to ordinary young people speak freely; thought of the extraordinary humiliation these highly educated people, in a country where women won equal rights well before Italy and Spain, had suffered for years; reminded myself of the songs of praise about the Tunisian “model” that had echoed through western chanceries and at the IMF; even dropped into the offices of La Presse to find journalists working tirelessly with such rudimentary equipment that it was pitiful – and I felt thrilled and happy, but also a little ashamed of the west and its endless hypocrisy and moralising towards the Arab people.

At the same time, around the ministry of the interior in Tunis – the very place where for years some of the worst torturing in the country was perpetrated – hundreds of young men smartly dressed in black clothes stood around, idly chatting. It turned out that they were members of the former militias, whose main recruiting-grounds included the country’s orphanages. Many in Europe were surprised that the young Tunisians who bravely confronted Ben Ali’s police in their clamour for freedom, dignity and work spoke the continent’s languages. This is in part the legacy of a period when Tunis was – like Smyrna, like Alexandria – an extraordinary mixture of cultures, religions, foods and music, even if a city by no means always devoid of bigotry or violence.

The question posed by this history in combination with the new political opening is: how to restore to a country like Tunisia the diversity which, until it greatly receded during the fight for independence and the building of a homogeneous nation-state, was the very essence of its capital city?

Much the same can be asked of neighbouring Algeria. Algiers was for a long time the capital city of privateers whose daring expeditions spread fear to the coasts of southwest England and Ireland. Indeed, in the mid-17th century more Englishmen lived in Algeria and Morocco than in the new world, and along with men from Ireland and Holland many were among the boldest privateers.

In colonial days Algiers was both a kaleidoscope of creeds, behaviour and smells and a city where vicious anti-Jewish riots during the Dreyfus affair showed French politics and colonial society at its worst; a city which had lived through the invention of modern urban guerrilla warfare and again, in the 1990s, dreadful acts of terrorism. In the 1940s a famous Jewish singer, Lili Boniche, had in the same song celebrated the beauty of Algiers in French and the beauty of Paris in Arabic. When he moved to Paris in 1962, his songs interested nobody. Their revival at the turn of the millennium evoked the trace of longing for such fluid affections. This too poses a question: where and how today might a new and durable Euro-Maghreb melting pot be created?

The people of the Maghreb, like those in the broader Arab world, have woken to the need for freedom. Many among the younger generation seem to be eschewing the false promises of nationalism and radical political Islam, but will they be able to construct a fairer and freer society?

The tasks are daunting: finding jobs for the millions of unemployed and underemployed young north Africans, getting rid of corruption, avoiding the risks of persistent economic malaise. So too are the risks and uncertainties: it is not clear if Morocco’s monarchy will really be able to recast itself as constitutional, or at least as a system which redistributes wealth somewhat more fairly; the outcome in Algeria is difficult to predict; and harsh tyrannies such as Libya are, in the event of their fall, more likely to leave a social void than a reasonably well structured middle class (as Tunisia, for all its corrosions, still has).

The imponderables extend to Europe. Will some influential voices, not least in France, seek to cast the options once more in simplistic terms, as Us (modern, Christian, western) versus Them (traditional, Islamic, Arabs, non-western) – or can a genuine dialogue of cultures and economic interests knit a web of new links across the mare nostrum? Will fear dominate the European response, or can economic exchanges and a more liberal visa system point the way to a more relaxed and open relationship?

Of one thing I am sure. If a vision of “fortress Europe” triumphs over a bold and generous vision of future Euro-Med relations, Europe will forfeit its rank as a continent of influence and as a grouping of nations with a voice in world affairs. As Europe ages and the Maghreb remains much younger, the clamour from the south – for jobs, for freedom, for dignity, for a new place in the world that includes a new relationship with neighbours – will not go away. How this clamour develops will depend to no little extent on how Europeans respond to the changes sweeping across the southern Mediterranean lands.

In memory of Pierre Mendès France (1907-82)

Francis Ghilès

Published on openDemocracy (http://www.opendemocracy.net)

May 23, 2011

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