The authoritarian impulse vs. the democratic imperative: Political learning as a precondition for sustainable development in the Maghreb

By John P. Entelis, Fordham University

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State” workshop held at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, October 10, 2014.  

The resurgence of the mukhabarat state in the three years after the Arab Spring revolutions has inspired several competing explanations ranging from dysfunctional leadership to external interference to radical Islamism to recalcitrant militaries, among others. What few analysts have investigated are the cultural roots of an authoritarian impulse that continues to defy a democratic imperative; an imperative that can only be institutionalized through a systematic and sustained process of political learning begun at childhood and extended throughout adulthood.

The Arab Spring revolutions exposed the desire to overcome the authoritarian impulse but without a democratic foundation to replace it. That foundation is virtually absent at the level of the mass public and only superficially inculcated among the educated elite. This paper will argue that the absence of a democratic political culture, arrived at through a foundational commitment to political learning, virtually guarantees that authoritarianism, whether secular or sectarian, will be the default governance style in the Arab world more generally and North Africa more specifically. This suggests that neither authoritarianism nor democracy are “natural” expressions of political life but, instead, must be learned, inculcated, and practiced from early life through adulthood. In North Africa political learning is transmitted indirectly through authoritarian practices experienced at home, school, mosque, and civil society. Until such practices are overturned to be replaced by a participatory, egalitarian, and open minded political culture, democratic institutions and processes will have little chance of being legitimized.

Democracy matters for human development because people everywhere want to be free to determine their destinies, express their views and participate in the decisions that shape their lives. These capabilities are just as important for human development—for expanding people’s choices—as being able to read or enjoy good health.[1]

Democracy has at least two distinct meanings: one normative, the other procedural. In either case, democracy must be learned if it is to have long-term significance. Democracy learning involves a complex process of political socialization utilizing different but reinforcing agents: family, school, religious institution, work place, community, and political system. Whatever agency is involved, the content of that learning must involve a basic understanding of and internalization to democracy’s essential core – the primacy of human freedom and individual choice articulated through a framework of representative government and the rule of law. This democratic core can never be assumed but must be firmly embedded within democratic institutions whose practitioners exemplify these principles both in words and deeds. Only when such a pedagogical propensity to democratic values finds institutional expression can other aspects of human, social, and economic development proceed. It is in this light, that democratic values, representative institutions, and sustainable development fuse into a seamless pattern of human progress.

Democracy defined

For our purposes we will be using a procedural definition of democracy to understand how political learning impacts positively on sustainable development. A basic definition of democracy refers to the mechanism by which people choose political leadership. Citizens are given a choice among rival political leaders who compete for their votes. Between elections, decisions are made by politicians. At the next election, citizens can replace their elected officials. This ability to choose between leaders at election time is democracy.

Yet this bare-bone definition fails to capture the broader cross-cultural context in which democracy finds root. Where poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment prevail, democracy’s purpose has to transcend mere institutional design and constitutional engineering. Democratic autonomy requires both an accountable state and a democratic reordering of civil society. It foresees substantial direct participation in local community institutions as well as self-management of cooperatively owned enterprises. It calls for a bill of rights that goes beyond the right to cast a vote to include equal opportunity for participation and discovering individual preferences as well as citizens’ final control of the political agenda. Also included are social and economic rights to ensure adequate resources for democratic autonomy.

Whether utilizing a narrow politically-focused or comprehensive socioeconomically-focused understanding of democracy, both require clearly defined mechanisms of accountability, participation, and representativeness if political, social, and economic opportunities are to be achieved. In this regard the government’s responsiveness to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals, is a key characteristic of democracy. Such responsiveness requires that citizens must have opportunities to formulate their preferences, signify their preferences to their fellow citizens and the government by individual and collective action, and have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government.

Given this background, political democracy thus becomes a system of government in which the following conditions apply: meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and organized groups for all effective positions of government power, at regular intervals and excluding the use of force; a highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies; and a level of civil and political liberties such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom to form and join organizations sufficient to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation.

As important as the structural and institutional components of democracy are to ensure both political choice and socioeconomic opportunity, they assume saliency only in the context of a well informed and politically educated citizenry. This implies not only a literate and educated population but also one infused with an inherent sense of citizenship, civic mindedness, participation, compromise, and social justice. In other words, while political socialization encompasses the political knowledge, values, and beliefs of citizens, something more concretely has to exist that highlights the level and content of what it means to be a participatory citizen engaged in advancing not only individual interests but, more significantly, the collective interests of society including its economic well-being and developmental goals. This process of “citizen consciousness” of democracy I label as “political learning.” Political learning derives from political socialization but incorporates a more explicit participatory dimension of citizenship including trust in governmental institutions, incumbents, and processes.

Political socialization

Political learning is an explicit part of political socialization in which the political self begins to inculcate, from childhood to adulthood, the values, norms, and expectations of citizenship, participation, and collective responsibility. A child’s exposure to authority figures both at home and in the public sphere has a decisive impact on the way he or she is socialized to politics as an adult. Thus political learning begins in the most intimate setting, that of family, home, and community.

If a child views authority figures in a benevolent way and those figures behave accordingly, a positive image develops that carries into adulthood. Trust, confidence, and respect for political authorities thus become essential components to the development of a democratic political culture that subsequently serves to animate a participatory spirit critical for sustainable development. If, on the other hand, a child grows up within a politically hostile environment at home, school, and religious institution, one that views non-familial authority figures with suspicion, fear, or distrust, it will be difficult for the adult to develop a political self predisposed to democratic values and true citizenship. Thus even if such an adult joins political parties, participates in political activities, and votes regularly in elections, the absence of democratic values embedded in spirit and practice established through sustained political socialization will reduce such procedural practices to nothing more than routine exercises in compulsory behavior.

Pathways to political learning

There are at least two pathways to political learning: one direct, another indirect. Direct political learning involves an individual’s direct exposure to and experience in political life. While an important dimension to political learning, direct methods have a positive impact on participatory citizenship only if indirect methods have first established a participatory foundation. Thus the inculcation of democratic values occurs indirectly within a broader environment of social upbringing particularly in the home and school. Subsequent agents of political socialization including the influence of peer groups, involvement in civil society, the role of mass media, and the impact of other secondary associations, reinforce democratic trends established early in life. The causal pathway argued in this paper begins with the formation of a participatory orientation in childhood while at home and in school that is reinforced later in life through direct exposure to politics that then prepares citizens to involve themselves constructively and creatively in the process of democracy-building, good governance, and sustainable development. Democratic citizenship cannot be imposed from above or ordained by fiat if its foundation is lacking in political learning initiated indirectly in childhood.

The combination of indirect and direct ways in which political learning is communicated serves to instill a positive, trustful, and participatory orientation among citizens. Only when such a foundation has been firmly established can democracy’s institutional practices such as forming political parties, running candidates, allowing equal access to the media, and holding free, fair, and transparent elections have genuine significance for a country’s citizens. Once these two preconditions of political learning and political democracy are institutionalized sustainable development can take hold, thus serving as the launching pad for political freedom, social autonomy, and economic opportunity to endure.

Sustainable development

In the modern period, sustainable development has referred to a mode of human development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come. Analytically such development can be broken down into four separate but related domains: economic, ecological, political, and cultural sustainability. It is clear that the world can no longer be sustained under conditions of global inequality where certain world regions and collections of countries monopolize power, resources, and skills at the expense of those lacking or minimally possessing such resources.

Pathways to sustainable development require global cooperation among the have and have-not states in order to create a level playing field in which all nation-states have the opportunity to advance the human condition. Yet for such a level playing field to exist, domestic political orders must possess popular legitimacy, democratic institutions, and bureaucratic accountability. For its part, this architecture of democratic authority can only be established and sustained once political learning has infused the citizenry with a participatory orientation, one free from intimidation, coercion, or fear. The causal pathway is thus clear: Political learning socializes citizens to democratic values; democratic institutions provide popular legitimacy from which economic and social resources are distributed equitably; a democratic polity maximizes human resources that empower the nation-state to engage in the world as a legitimate global partner. The result is the establishment of the conditions that allow sustainable development to take place.

Sustainable development in the Maghreb: A political learning deficit

In 2004, the United Nations Development Program and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development published a scathing assessment on the status of knowledge, learning, and education in the Arab world entitled The Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society. Produced by a distinguished group of Arab public intellectuals, scholars, academics, and journalists, the report exposed the major failings in the way knowledge is produced, learning is processed, and education is administered in the modern Arab world indicating that “the most important challenge facing Arab education is its declining quality.”[2]

The report highlighted the totalistic character of the challenge that Arab education confronts. It noted, for example:

Key knowledge dissemination processes in Arab countries (socialization and upbringing, education, the media and translation), face deep-seated social, institutional, economic and political impediments. Notable among these are the meager resources available to individuals, families and institutions and the restrictions imposed upon them. As a result, these processes often falter and fall short of preparing the epistemological and societal environment necessary for knowledge production.[3]

The above quotation makes clear that deep structural, political, and institutional obstacles make it nearly impossible for average men and women in the Arab world including the Maghreb to achieve the quality and quantity of education required for citizens to participate actively and constructively in their societies thereby providing opportunities for personal advancement for themselves but, more importantly, empowering society and polity to achieve the level of sustainable development necessary in an increasingly competitive globalized environment. While political learning is not explicitly identified in the report, it is clear that the inculcation of participatory, autonomous, and democratic values are visibly absent in the socialization of young and adult Arabs. In this regard the report is unambiguous.

Studies indicate that the most widespread style of child rearing in Arab families is the authoritarian mode accompanied by the over protective. This reduces children’s independence, self-confidence, and social efficacy, and fosters passive attitudes and hesitant decision-making skills. Most of all, it affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative.[4]

A deeply embedded patriarchal system has highlighted the relations of authority, domination, and dependency in the structure of Arab social relations.[5] The work of Arab psychologists, for example, has repeatedly demonstrated the “lostness” of the individual in the father-dominated family. “The family is relentless in its repression,” the Lebanese psychologist Ali Zay’our has written. “The child is brought up to become an obedient youth, subservient to those above him—his father, older brother, clan chief, president.”[6] In describing this condition of psychological subservience, analysts are not suggesting that this is the product of some natural condition but instead the result of social construction that can be changed. There is thus a need for critical self-knowledge that serves as the precondition for possessing the appropriate consciousness through which individuals can transcend their patriarchal legacy.

The above passages serve as templates on the need for political learning, in this context understood as the ability of individuals to calculate risk, weigh choices, and grasp at opportunities. If anything democracy is about risk taking as it requires individuals to put aside loyalty and trust on the basis of familial ties or communal connections but, instead, direct one’s political fidelity toward legitimate institutions headed by democratically elected officials. For such choices to be made rationally and objectively individuals must be socialized to a freedom environment – free to be themselves, free to think independently, free to make choices, free to express their opinions without fear of intimidation or coercion. Such an environment must be created in early childhood through a socialization process that rewards initiative and individual effort. Once routinized, this process must be reinforced in adulthood through reinforcing agents such as school, work place, house of worship, or civic associations. Only in this way do citizens provide the human capital to make democratic institutions work as representatives of the popular will, not merely as formal structures of government. Simply put, sustainable development cannot exist in a non-democratic environment and a democratic environment cannot exist without democratically-oriented citizens. Political learning is thus, first and foremost, about inculcating citizens with such democratic values.

The Maghreb: Comparative political learning

While the political systems of the Maghrebi states of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia may appear to be different, all three possess an equal deficit of political learning. As such, their ability to achieve a level of sustainable development will be difficult regardless of the status of their principle resource base whether it is hydrocarbons in Algeria, agriculture and tourism in Morocco, or tourism and small manufacturing in Tunisia.

One author, in reviewing the status of educational reform in Morocco, cited the World Bank Middle East and North Africa report The Road Not Traveled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa. That report indicated that North African Arab education had fallen behind the rest of the world despite that governments had devoted significant resources to education. The World Bank report concluded that Arab public education systems were “not yet fully equipped to produce graduates with the skills and expertise necessary to compete in a world where knowledge is essential to making progress.”[7]

Referencing the pessimistic conclusion of the World Bank report, Charis Boutieri noted that Morocco “ranked among the worst performers.”[8] In response to this critical assessment of Morocco’s educational performance, Morocco’s High Council for Education announced in 2008 an Emergency Reform Plan for 2009 to 2012 involving a restructuring of public education “that would remodel student competences.”[9] Yet, despite this highly visible effort at educational restructuring, the Moroccan media remained highly suspicious that anything of consequence would be achieved. One Moroccan press report, for example, openly declared the “total failure of education in Morocco.”[10] Boutieri argues that, “despite constant chastising by the press and seemingly ongoing efforts on the part of the government, Moroccan education is considered, to this day, to be in a state of serious crisis.”[11]

What is most interesting in Boutieri’s perceptive analysis of the failings of the Moroccan educational system has less to do with school budgets, textbook selection, teacher competence, or administrative efficacy, but, more decisively, on the critical role of “political learning” in the broader educational process. The author seeks to redirect attention “away from the technical diagnostics of international policymakers and toward the political nature of all learning (emphasis added). Given the affinity between the experiences of education and citizenship, [Boutieri] maintains that an ethnographically and historically informed portrayal of this educational crisis is central to an understanding of contemporary Moroccan society.”[12]

Boutieri’s granular and textual deconstruction of the historically-determined and ethnographically-influenced nature of sociocultural production in Morocco is equally applicable to the situations in Algeria and Tunisia. In all three countries the existing educational environment, more often than not, reinforces the socialization practices of early adulthood in which authoritarian values are both directly and indirectly imposed. Educational reform efforts rarely emphasize the need for the development of personal identity, autonomous action, and independent thinking that allows political learning to create engaged citizens, cognitively aware of their political environment but also affectively and evaluatively able to express feelings and opinions about the political world.

Has the Arab Spring altered this learning environment in the Maghreb? Not really. Although three different forms of political systems exist in the Maghreb – constitutional monarchy in Morocco; a socialist republic in Algeria; and an incipient democracy in Tunisia – the authoritarian socialization processes discussed earlier that impact the child’s view of the political world is still very much in place. Indeed, it will take some time before this process is fundamentally altered, made even more difficult by the preoccupation of governing elites to stabilize, regularize, and institutionalize existing political arrangements in order to prevent further social unrest, economic decay, and political chaos. In whatever direction democracy emerges, it will need a democratic political culture to ensure its survivability and long-term endurance. For that to take place, political learning must be a central undertaking both in the home and school. It is this combination of political learning that creates a democratic political culture upon which democratic institutions are built and, ultimately, from which sustainable development can take place.


What are the prospects for popular democratic governance and sustainable development in the post-Arab Spring Maghreb? One avenue of understanding the Maghreb’s future during this delicate period of democratic transition whether achieved through bottom up revolution as in Tunisia or constant civil society pressure as in Algeria or top down evolutionary change as in Morocco, is to compare similar experiences that occurred in post-Communist East Europe. In The New York Times, Anne Applebaum provides an enlightening perspective. She writes that in their drive for power:

The Bolsheviks and their East European acolytes eliminated or undermined churches, charities, newspapers, guilds, literary and educational societies, companies and retail shops, stock markets, unions, banks, sports clubs and centuries-old universities. If nothing else, Eastern Europe’s [post-World war Two] history proves just how fragile human organizations are.[13]

As a result of this damage, Applebaum writes:

Post-Communist countries required far more than elections, political campaigns and political parties to become functioning liberal societies again, and far more than a few economic reforms to become prosperous. They also needed independent media, private enterprise, flourishing civic life, a legal and regulatory system, and a culture that tolerated independent groups and organizations.[14]

It is this latter feature, in particular, that serves to inform our understanding of the link between a democratic political culture and sustainable development.

She notes that although post-totalitarian Europe has little in common with the Arab world culturally and politically, both regions do share this: “their dictators repressed (or tried to repress) civic activism and independent organizations.”[15] In the wake of the Arab intifadas and the emergence of new political actors, especially Islamist ones, what kind of governance structures will be put in place? Will they recreate the methods of the autocracies and suppress other organizations? Or will they encourage a wide range of civic activism?

These are central questions given the long history of autocracy in the Arab world including the Maghreb. Preliminary evidence as observed in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and even Algeria is that a wider social mobilization of citizens is taking place in which people are engaging in civic activism in order to determine their own social, political, and economic destinies. Perhaps such efforts will help the Maghreb “build a political culture that is democratic in the best sense—with citizens participating in decisions that affect them. But the infrastructure required for such activity is complex.”[16] To sustain it, the Maghreb countries will need “good laws on nonprofit organizations, regulation of charitable donations, a press that is free and professional enough to chronicle such efforts, and government officials who respond to the public.”[17]

However much it may seem desirable, the outside world is of limited use in supporting the changes identified above. Those aspiring to both democracy and development, inasmuch as both are deeply intertwined, must charter a course of their own creation. If they are to succeed in the face of long-standing political repression, Maghreb societies need a motivated populace if they are to become politically vibrant again. Applebaum’s concluding assessment captures accurately the challenges facing Maghrebi societies if they are to attain the democracy and development they so fully deserve, when she writes that such societies need “patriotism, historical consciousness, education, ambition, optimism and, especially, patience. The destruction wrought by totalitarian governments always takes decades even generations to repair.”[18] Moreover, newly emerging democrats will have to take into account that the everyday activity of individuals within the new institutional order will have been shaped by habits developed mostly in the old one. The Arab Spring examples testify to this condition as the total loss of trust in the political system that led to the downfall of the authoritarian orders lingers as a lack of trust in the developing democratic system – a distrust of politics and politicians in general, whether authoritarian or democratic.

John P. Entelis is a professor of political science and chair of the department of political science at Fordham University. He is president of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies and an international advisory board member for The Journal of North African Studies.


[1] United Nations Development Program. 2002. Human Development Report 2002: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World. NY: Oxford University Press, p. 1.

[2] United Nations Development Program. 2004. Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society. New York: UNDP, p. 3.

[3] UNDP, 2004, p. 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sharabi, Hisham. 1988. Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society. Oxford University Press, p. 41.

[6] Zay’our, Ali. 1977. The Psychoanalysis of the Arab Self. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Tali’ah, p 4(Arabic).

[7] The World Bank. 2008. The Road Not Traveled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, D.C. The World Bank, p. 3.

[8] Boutieri, Charis. 2012. “In Two Speeds (à deux vitesses): Linguistic Pluralism and Educational Anxiety in Contemporary Morocco,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 44, no. 3 (August) p.443.

[9] Ibid


[10] Mokhliss, Brahim and Mohammed Zainabi. 2008. “La faillite totale de l’enseignement au Maroc, “ Le Reporter (April 24), pp. 22-27.

[11] Boutieri, 2012, p. 443.

[12] Ibid, p. 445.

[13] Applebaum, Anne. 2012. “After Tyrants, the People Must Act,” The New York Times (November 3, 2012).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

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