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ECPR 50th Anniversary Fund

A New Hope? Decentralisation in Morocco and Tunisia between Regime Change and Stabilisation

Local Government
Erik Vollmann
Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
Erik Vollmann
Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

Authoritarianism has long been analyzed purely through a nation level focus. The notion of centralism and concentration of power were intimately connected with our understanding of non-democratic rule. Indeed, the post-independent authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are amongst the most centralized. Politics are however localized and authoritarian rule is subject to questions of intra-state disparities and a struggle for control over the periphery.
The Arab uprisings in 2011 brought back to life a vivid public and international discourse on decentralization and pushed local governance reform projects in MENA countries. As strong protest movements originated from the local periphery, they also further challenged the dominant scientific focus on the national level or regime type in the MENA region. Meanwhile, expectations of international donors and local activists are high: Decentralization reforms are presented as less invasive forms of democratization, as way to bolster the efficiency of local service provision, to increase regime accountability and create new opportunities for the participation of citizens and the civil society.
Evidence towards those merits of decentralization, however, is scarce or mixed in most MENA countries. The reform processes are still coordinated or dominated by the central governments. Even in the cases of Morocco, often cited as the MENA forerunner in local governance reforms, and Tunisia, that managed to start its democratic transition after 2011, central authorities have shown hesitation to release their grip on financial or policy making power on a subnational level. Driving factors but also challenge for the reforms are disparities between central and peripheral regions, between urban and rural spaces as well as intra-regional differences.
Building on fieldwork and elite interviews in Morocco and Tunisia, we provide evidence on the possibilities and shortcomings of decentralization efforts in the two cases. We conclude that reforms might open a pathway towards local and regional regime liberation and increased self-government in the long run. But they are also employed as a strategy to reinforce the state’s power on the territory and to stabilize the ruling regimes. Essential factors are the coordination and interaction of local, regional and national actors in the process as well as the reforms’ impact on the renewal of elite structures and the financial and managerial abilities of local and regional elected governments.
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