Rise and Fall, Push and Pull (Pt. II)

It is written:

[. . .] group feeling gives protection and makes possible mutual defence, the pressing of claims, and every other kind of social activity. By dint of their nature, human beings need someone to act as a restraining influence and mediator in every social organization, in order to keep its members from (fighting) with each other. That person must, by necessity, have superiority over the others in the matter of group feeling. If not, his power cannot be effective. Such superiority is royal authority. It is more than leadership. Leadership means being a chieftain, and the leader is obeyed, but he has no power to force other to accept his rulings. Royal authority means superiority and the power to rule by force.

[. . .]

Even if an individual tribe has different “houses” and many diverse group feelings, still, there must exist a group feeling that is stronger than all the other group feelings combined, that is superior to them all and makes them subservient, and in which all the diverse group feelings coalesce, as it were, to become one greater group feeling. Otherwise, splits would occur and lead to dissension and strife. “If God did not keep human beings apart, the earth would perish.”

Things Fall Apart

Popular revolt is especially dangerous when elite cohesion is low. In authoritarian systems, elites are especially predatory and when group feeling (ʿaṣabiyya) begins to diminish. Opportunities become most readily apparent when solidarity is low and members of a group begin to undermine each other. The scent of weakness draws foxes and decay draws vultures. Elites therefore work to limit the appearance of declining ʿaṣabiyya, for such division encourages outside revolt. When an elite fragments its factions seek alliances against each other, the public and/or both. Elite interests converge partly in response to the fear that a great mass of others come and take away their means of control and profit. This basic fear motivates expressions of intra-elite solidarity and cultural institutions used to bridge and obscure points of departure between the mass and the elite, the Noble Lies, religions, ideologies, mass parties, patron-client relations, Public Enemy constructs and other artifacts bolstering ʿaṣabiyya. Weakening ʿaṣabiyya within the elite results in succession struggles and limited to medial adjustments in the distribution of power and resources. Weakening ʿaṣabiyya between the elite and society (collective solidarity) produces internal strife and: severe weakening or strengthening of elite institutions, exterminating and repopulating such structures, the diffusion of institutional powers or severe weakening/strengthening of popular powers or collapse. One recalls the divergence in perspectives within the Algerian military and FLN party elite in the late 1980s and early 1990s and how their attempt to use elections as a way of leveraging popular opinion against one another resulted in the uprisings, first diverse and disorganized and later of a more directly Islamist character. At first the crack were signs of both weakness and incompetence; as time went on them became not only symbols but indicators of opportunity. The monopoly of total force and group feeling was no longer so clear as in the past.


Clarity in the lines of command and concentration (and delegation) of power  and deliberate and inclusive solidarity is essential for effective, stable and durable leadership. As important as the fact of such clarity is the perception of clarity and the perception of group solidarity. If the masses perceive their leaders as strong, they will hesitate to rebel against them. If they see their leaders as weak or without credibility they will make efforts to dispose of them. This is true within leadership cliques as well, for it is frequently unimportant whether resources, powers or deference actually are what they are said to be if elite constituencies perceive them to be close to the ideal. Hence, even if power and resources are distributed fairly or evenly, the perception of imbalance is problematic nonetheless. A request for elite military units to undertake a dangerous mission in a remote part of the country, even if the intentions are stated in full, may be taken as an underhanded political maneuver and thus an act of intra-group aggression. Rearranging offices and titles abruptly and with brief (or no) explanation abdicates the purpose and identity of the act itself to its objects. The author of such an action allows his supplicants to construct the meaning of his behavior and thus chips away at his own authority. He loses force in an instant, eroding his authority and, if he is distracted or lacking in diligence, exposing himself to plots and challenges to his authority. In authoritarian systems as in the Maghreb it is essential for leaders to maintain control of individual and collective identify to avoid misinterpretation and slights of honor — the sorts of things that lead to conspiracies and coups and revolts. Such was the case with Maaouiya Ould Taya in 2005 when he alienated his long-time allies in the officer corps, leading to his ultimate downfall.


So authority frequently relies on force, to contain rival ambitions and interests and so on. And to do so requires some transcendental force to legitimize and further empower ʿaṣabiyya. This “greater group feeling” binds together all other interests in common cause; this could be fear of the consequences of dissent (from a leader or from chaos), economic ties (frequently “corruption” or patronage in the modern parlance), blood ties (tribal, regional or ethnic loyalties), ideological or religious conviction or something else that goes beyond immediate calculations. Loyalty to traditions and institutions often provides this, though such things are frequently overridden by personal fidelities or ambitions. Comfort and arrogance erode transcendental sentiment and empower individuals. In times of relative stability, elites often take to banditry and pillaging the weak and grow accustomed to weak targets. They begin to believe that all people are as easily taken advantage of and they have only themselves to fear. Group feeling then weakens vertically, between the elite and the masses, and tensions rise, and the system of competition and leverage begins. Leaders thus try to maintain some sense of common purpose and direction for their entourage, clients and citizens. There is often one for all and another within the elite, one more utilitarian than ideational. At best, the later is some sense of noblesse oblige or severe duty; at worst it is a mere economic relation.

Efforts to expand the inner circle are often signs of fear that not doing so would result in rebellion. Strategically altering elite narratives to include outsiders, superficially or tangibly, allows for more aggressive competition and can subdue popular demands that might put powerful interests at risk; That is, it co-opts public narratives for its own ends. But this is not a one street: Such negotiation and brokerage comes from the top down and the bottom up. Because regimes seek equilibrium, pragmatic elites tend to try to pacify restive oppositions. This is done by allotting resources or offices out to those who, by virtue of their charisma or following, pose the greatest threat to the establishment. In the Maghreb it is often the case that the opposition’s fundamental narrative causes some conflict of interest at this stage. Because regimes are frequently imposed and maintained by force, much of the population is estranged from authoritative institutions, whose identity is treated as a sort of alternate polity, illegitimate and distinct from the Everyman. For the opposition, there is a serious dilemma: to associate with the regime to achieve limited goals but at the cost of leaving the popular polity versus remaining at the periphery of power but maintaining public credibility. Association with the regime is often a kiss of death; sitting on the sidelines offers little agency.

Maghrebi oppositions are often fractious and lack ʿaṣabiyya. If they possess group feeling, it is in pockets or in brief instances and personalities overshadow collectives. Ideology, class and paranoia divide them so that unity in diversity is often fleeting if at all present. Those who join the governing polity abandon most of whatever popular following they once had but regime sponsorship makes up for this. Regimes have been especially adept at dividing and crippling opposition movements, playing on practically every point of difference and weakness. Thus, cautiousness and division often make collective action difficult. Witness for instance, the Mauritanian opposition’s recent call to arms against Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Here is an alliance of several parties of various backgrounds that has waited for several months to put out a forceful stand. The logic is to demonstrate patience with the president, but part of the result has been to squander multiple opportunities to incriminate the regime — such as immediately after the July 2009 election when fraud was obvious. For international and domestic purposes, though, there is something reasonable here. There have been several months where the president has demonstrated incompetence or hypocrisy and these are hot on the minds of average people. Recall also that in the April demonstrations important faces of the post-coup opposition, the Islamists for instance, have been absent. Small factions gravitate toward strong poles that can help them advance. Incumbents have an advantage with such parties for this reason. But nothing is static in the current climate and every order of alliance and manipulation is possible. It is likely, though, that those parties that have committed to removing Ould Abdel Aziz from office democratically will be able to maintain cohesion through the summer, unless the government decides to reverse its refusal to form a unity government. It would be especially devastating if the regime were to attempt to co-opt any meaningful  individual faction within the opposition, causing it to collapse. The same effect could be had by convincing influential members of the RFD, APP or UFP to defect to the government. This remains unlikely, though. There is a strong sense of common cause, fueled by the results of their efforts after the 2008 coup through to the 2009 presidential election. Lessons have been learned and understandings reached. Whether the opposition’s unified stance will be more productive or successful than in the past remains to be seen.


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