Emslie Horniman Award – Nejm Benessaiah

Home Past Awards Emslie Horniman Award – Nejm Benessaiah

Award Holder: Nejm Benessaiah
University: University of Kent
Title of Research: Authority, anarchy and equity: Emerging social processes of change and governance in a desert oasis community.

Formal and informal modes of governance

This thesis is a political ecology of the gradual replacement of old governance institutions by new ones to manage a desert agricultural system in the M’zab valley, Algeria. The old institutions, still present but in decline, were ‘declawed’ by French colonial practices and later by independent state policies, by negating the punitive capacity (of a group of people and of codified rules) at the local level by means of an alternative state-level legal and juridical system of justice and punishment, and through economic development that acted to commoditise local relationships previously based mutual aid. Such commodification is in stark contrast to ‘the spirit of generosity’ prevalent locally and region-wide among Saharan societies.

While some wholeheartedly accept new innovations, and others cloister themselves away from them, many within this once secluded religious community in the desert are attempting to regulate global processes of change at the local level. In actively engaging with global change rather than seeking to avoid it, many are seeking to ‘develop slowly’ on their own terms, by cautiously examining what development has to offer, and rejecting or controlling other forms that are contrary/anathema to locally-held values. For example, intensive agricultural techniques such as dairy farming is being employed unquestioningly by some, while others question the logic of such practices and the ramifications for the whole community in a water-starved region where the aquifers are already being exploited at an unsustainable rate (Al Gamal 2010). The use of other technologies such as high-yield seeds is debated, as these seeds require constant inputs of fertiliser and irrigation. Some argue that stabilising strategies are far more suitable as agricultural practice in a region where water availability, even with state-wells, is highly variable. Such strategies offer lower returns but are generally more drought-resistant, for example. On top of this, farmers complain that industrial fertilisers result in food produce with less taste.

Flexible institutions exist to deal with variable ecological conditions in the management of their natural resources, most importantly, of water. These institutions have been stretched to breaking point by the current socio-ecological changes, yet appear to be in the process of mutating into new formal management structures (alongside the old ones and sometimes in conflict with them). Governance institutions previously based on hierarchical structures are being replaced by more egalitarian ones, facilitated by the emergence of civil society since the 1980s Algerian political reforms. Unlike their predecessors, these new institutions lack punitive capabilities, however, and must govern through persuasive coercive means and measures, based on agreement. Such agreement is predicated on a sense of trust between individuals. Such trust as may have existed has been shaken by feelings of increasing injustice and inequality in the community, based on favouritism and corrupt practices by local authorities, including l’oumna (water officials) and the priesthood.

Except for damaging utopian-like community values of how local society should be (or outdated functionalist notions in anthropology), such atomisation and alienation within the community might not be such a problem as such, if were not for the fact that collective action around natural resource management were necessary. The ingenious hydraulic system was designed in previous times to act like a circuit board, requiring minimum input when the flood waters came. All that was necessary was for the necessary irrigation channels and openings between walled gardens to be calibrated according to need and kept open. With the introduction of state-wells and growing wealth among many Mozabites, these channels and openings have become increasingly ill-maintained. When devastating floods arrived in 2008, water pooled at blockages where it was supposed to flow, and as a result, many mud and limestone buildings collapsed, causing significant loss of life and property.

Until this point in time, people were starting to believe that they didn’t need each other. This event proved to them that they still do.

While formal modes of local governance have been denigrated by the state, informal means of coercion have also been slowly eroded by conflict with the new ideas that arrive by global mass media. Informal factors exert a powerful coercive influence in a relatively small community, such as social norms. High social visibility means that behaviour contrary to local expectations is seen and communicated along networks of influence. For example, the pressure to pray at the mosque regularly, at least twice a day and especially at the pre-dawn and Friday prayers is strong, and conformity is seen as measure of one’s moral character. Locally emphasised values, for example, loyalty to one’s family and clan, are challenged as empowered youth seek to subvert systems of control by operating in less visible spaces. Recently, many young couples who could afford it have been leaving the confines of the family compound and the vigilance of the mother-in-law (Farrag 1971). Even more recently, youth have been experimenting with alternative forms of identity is the less socially accountable realms of social media (as one local friend complained to me). These new, unregulated spaces allow young people to experiment and engage with new ideas and values, and some of these values are perceived to pose a threat to the moral fabric of the community. In engaging with the outside as never before, the previous sacrosanct inner sanctum of the local community, once upheld by the family and mosque appears to have been violated from within, as young Mozabites sit in front of their computers with the walls of the old towns, engaging with an unprecedented, unregulated flow of information, ideas and images. Individuals are now debating the role of conformity in limiting the creative process, for example, referring to economically successful ‘Western’ role models, such as Steve Jobs.


Mozabites differentiate themselves from local Arabs in many ways, such as a self-reliant ability to organise under conditions of need. They point to rubbish as an example, where local Arabs rely on the state, through the local council to deal with rubbish collection, whereas Mozabites organise litter-picking groups, emphasising how their streets are visibly cleaner. Historically, Mozabites also moderated conflict between parties at the local level through a recognised, systematic hierarchy of procedures. Arbitration of conflict was first attempted by appealing to family members. If this first point of call failed, then an appeal would be made to the ashira, council of families or tribe to pressure parties to resolve their problems in an equitable way. If this didn’t work, then the problem would be escalated to members of the mosque, whose elevated social standing usually gave them the necessary gravity in the eye of the beholder to sort the problem out. Now, the various authorities, from family members to councils, are said not to hold the same power of awe over individuals, who instead often elect to try their chances at the law courts.

For example, it was explained to me that resources such as land was held in common, managed by the family patriarch. Families, like in medieval Europe, it was pointed out to me, were like microcosms of society, in that sons would actively choose different careers, e.g. one priest, one lawyer, one teacher, one soldier, one farmer, so that each could draw on the benefits of the various social and political fields for the prosperity of the family. Thus the proceeds of each would be ‘equally’ shared out among members, such as the yearly harvest of the land. Certain factors, analysed below (inheritance law, local wealth, influence of spouses and their families), have caused family members to cease to acquiesce to the ascendancy of the elder male, especially after the death of the father, and seek their share of the communal resources, in monetary value. These land claims have often gone to the law courts, where they are tied up for years, causing land to lie uncultivated and barren in the interim.

Other conflict may lie in use of public areas, especially between neighbours. Customary law, known locally as ‘arf, deals primarily with such cases, giving pre-eminence to the sanctity of the family over the business. Customary law is used to deal with areas not covered by Islamic law, i.e. with no set precedence in the Koran. Building work that affects others, for example, must be carried out according to local customary law, and through consultation with the appropriate authorities and with those directly affected. Some, seeking their own gain or a shortcut around time consuming procedures, may seek to subvert said procedures by petitioning the now ‘higher’ authorities, and going ahead with plans without any further consultation process. I observed one such example of this, when a local hotel owner, attempting to provide better access to the front of his business, consulted with only one such elderly, retired l’oumna official. This involved building a small concrete bridge over a canal that ran past the hose I was living in. The official informed the hotelier that his proposition was sound in theory, and so the latter forged ahead without any further concern for due process. One day I heard shouting outside my house. I later found the bridge knocked down and all building work abandoned. The hotelier paid the price for not consulting his neighbours, perhaps feeling that his prestige as a wealthy man of influence, as some of these undoubtedly are, would win him powerful support in favour of his project. In this case, however, he was unsuccessful.

Thus, traditional systems of governance are be shifting to coercive rather than punitive forms of control. With the decline of more hierarchical structures, new social configurations appear to be emerging, as Mozabites continue to organise themselves in ways to manage their natural resources, and community values as a whole. Thus, as one Mozabite put it, ‘modernity’ provides the tools, and ‘tradition’ provides the direction,