North Africa might be facing tremendous instability and many uncertainties in 2016 as the result of three main factors: the after-effects of the failed Arab Spring, the rise of religious extremism and its influence on the marginalized youth, and ongoing economic hardships.
The key political players in the arena are still traditional systems represented by: a consensual monarchy in Morocco, patriarchal tribalism doubled by military rentier states in Mauritania and Algeria, an explosive and tribally-fragmented Libya, and a fragile and volatile democracy in Tunisia. All of which are living dangerously in the shade of over-looming religious fanaticism that thrives on social inequalities and youth dissatisfaction and anger.
All North African countries are dangerously tightrope-walking to reach safety, at the least cost possible, hoping to make the political status quo a solution acceptable to all the protagonists, as long as possible.
In this particular state of affairs very little has changed since the advent of independence in the fifties of the last century. Youth is still marginalized and the patriarchal tribal systems are still omnipresent, stronger than ever, women continue to be discriminated against and the same is true of minorities, education is still in shambles and only leading to unemployment and more frustration, equity and equality are a wishful thinking, and democracy is still many light years away.
So, in many ways the future looks very bleak, and all the ingredients are there for potential uprisings and explosions of violence.
Algeria: Is there a pilot in the airplane?
De facto, Bouteflika is still the president of the country though he has been incapacitated by a heart problem and is, now, permanently in a wheelchair. But, in reality, this has never been a problem because the true power in Algeria lies clearly in the hands of a military junta that holds the reins of the country, behind the curtains. The military have always made use of the “revolutionary violence”, a concept which makes them the “lawful” inheritors of power in the country and its riches. On the ground they are the liberation army that fought the war of independence and obliged the French to depart. Which means, in many ways, that Algeria is their rightful spoil of war? This, indeed, has been proved in the past when they denied the Islamist party FIS in 1992 the constitutional right to rule the country after their landslide win in the first round of the legislative elections. A contested move that plunged Algeria in the horrors of a bloody civil war that lasted until 1999, claiming the lives of 150,000 people.
President Bouteflika in a wheelchair
Bouteflika, who was handpicked by the army to rule, at the height of the civil war, brought some sort of social peace to the country through the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which was approved by a referendum on September 29, 2006, by 97% of the votes.
Algeria, nevertheless, continued since then to be a rentier state using oil revenues to insure national reconciliation and social stability. But now, the president is in a wheelchair and oil revenues have dwindled, dangerously pushing the state to make use of its sovereign reserves to maintain the status quo. It is only a question of time before the Algerian government cut drastically the subsidies to reduce its budget deficit in order to avoid state bankruptcy.
This explosive situation will spawn, then, two important questions:
1. Why are the military still in power and why are they still benefitting grossly from the largesse of the state?
2. Why is Algeria still spending billions of dollars on the perpetuation of the existence of Polisario in the South, to no avail, at the expense of the Algerian people’s welfare?
The two issues are painful for the army: giving power to the civilians is committing willingly hara-kiri, because that will bring to the helm of their archenemy, the Islamists, who will be tempted to put an end to the benefits the generals get from the state. Stopping support to the Polisario is offering the other archenemy, Morocco, the Western Sahara on a silver platter, without a fight and strengthening the monarchy there.
But as the economic situation worsens every day, an Algerian Spring gets nearer and nearer. If the social uprising happens, the Amazigh people would want a state of their own or full autonomy, at the least. The southern Tuaregs might want a similar arrangement. These two probable situations will weaken beyond belief the Algerian state and if the army does not give up to the demands of the rank and file Algeria will fall, yet again, to chaos that might bring about another episode of a bloody civil war. So, 2016 does not look clement to the Algerians.
Libya: More of the same but there is a gleam of hope
Since the uprising of 2011 that led to the downfall of the dictator Qaddafi, the country has fallen into chaos becoming almost three countries in one. Rather than building on the positive outcome of the Arab Spring, tribal identity grew stronger and lead to what Libya is today.
This state of affairs is very dangerous to North Africa, which is the soft belly of Europe, and has two potential dangerous implications:
1. ISIS, profiting from the inexistence of a strong central state, started flexing its muscles within the country arousing the fear of everyone that the Islamic State could become the de facto Libyan State with all the implications that will have on the region.
2. The inexistence of state could lead to a massive exodus of African migrants to the shores of southern Europe destabilizing the countries of the region.
Aware of these imminent dangers, the United Nations through the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has brought together all Libyan protagonists to agree on a solution acceptable to everyone. After many years of bickering, the Libyans reached an agreement in the city of Skhirat in central western Morocco on 17 September 2015 for power-sharing but this agreement has still to become reality on the ground. In the meantime, Libya will continue to be a powder keg able to blow up without any prior notice.
Libyan parties sign the Libyan Political Agreement in Skhirat, Morocco, December 2015 (UNSMIL photo)
Libya, as it is today, is a serious threat to the whole of southern Europe, either at the hands of the mercurial ISIS, or – at least according to populist rhetoric – through the thousands of potential African migrants that are waiting in the dark for any sign of instability to push their way to the European El Dorado.
The fall of oil revenues will make Libya even weaker economically and politically, further fueling the ISIS solution that blames the woes of the Muslim world entirely on the “emasculating” influence of the West.
Tunisia: A democracy on the surface but a fractured country in the underlying structure
On 26 October 2014, the secular party Nidaa Tounes won the legislative elections pushing the strong and regimented moderate Islamist party Ennahda into the opposition. People around the world acclaimed this victory of the secular forces against the Islamists.
However, this looked as an easy conclusion because Ennahda is a strong party whose only tagline is: “For the grace of Allah” and mobilizing its forces along this line is extremely easy, to say the least.
Nidaa Tounes is not a strong party, it is a patchwork of many political groups some of which are inherited from the era of the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Unlike Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes party members are motivated by money and power and they might, at any time, leave the party for some other destination where life is rosier and the grass is greener.
As of today, Tunisia is a fractured society. On one side, there are the Salafists, who vote for Ennahda but do not share its views and consider it to be too soft on such important issues as the re-Islamization of society. On this issue the Salafists have shown that they could use violence, if need be, to achieve their aims. On the other side of the spectrum, there are the secularists for whom Tunisia is a country that has a long tradition of secular culture and should keep it so. At some point there is going to be a clash between these two tendencies that both believe to have the right solution for the country.
So the future of the country is not secure and the spate of terrorist attacks in the past months has proved that.
Morocco: The economic force awakens
Morocco is the most blessed of the countries of the Maghreb, for the time being. Its long-standing monarchical system, though not totally democratic, has offered the country much-needed cohesion and unity along two legitimacies:
1. The religious legitimacy, which is as old as the monarchy and is traced back to the Idrisid dynasty (788-974) when the monarch was primarily “the Commander of the Faithful”, amir al-mu’minin, before being the head of state.
2. The historical legitimacy, which the monarchy has enjoyed for more than 13 centuries in spite of various uprisings and even the division of the country in the 19th century into bled siba “land of dissidence” and bled l-makhzen “land of law and order”. Because even in the land of dissidence, which was mostly Amazigh hinterland, the Berber tribes recognized the religious charisma of the Sultan but denied him tax collection prerogative.
King Mohammed with John Kerry
The monarchy has always been contested, especially during the reign of Hassan II, but it was never rejected outright because it always offered some sort of flexibility to the opposition forces.
Morocco rode through the tempest of the Arab Spring remarkably well with a new constitution, though certainly not the best of constitutions, but another important phase within the Moroccan incremental democracy.
Strong with a competitive economy and aided by dwindling oil prices, Moroccan capital and Moroccan companies moved south to invest in the promising economies of West Africa. This nimble action was met with much acclaim from Western countries that saw in this approach an embodiment of the long-hoped for south–south cooperation and exchange scheme.
Though Morocco is seen as an island of stability in a sea of turmoil, the “Moroccan exception” leaves a lot to desire in the arena of freedom of expression both for the Moroccan journalists who are constantly harassed by the establishment and put in prison and the Sahrawi independent activists in the major cities of the Sahara region as Smara, Laayoune, and Dakha.
The Moroccan government has yet to come to terms with the fact that freedom of the press and freedom of political expression are the foundations of democracy.
The Maghreb is moving into 2016 with much apprehension and fear as the future looks pretty blurred because of numerous challenges: political instability; identity crisis; economic hardship; social fracture; religious extremism; and lack of democracy.
The Maghreb countries should find solutions to these ailments soon, or will otherwise fall into chaos and disorder that could last decades.