A Critical Moment in North Africa

The situation in North Africa has reached a critical point, demanding greater attention from policymakers in Western capitals and elsewhere. While the crisis in Syria and Iraq, the consequences of the Iran deal, and the Yemeni conundrum have garnered global consideration, critical signals of unrest and instability continue to emanate from the North African countries. Leaving aside Egypt and the instability arising from an increasingly active anti-regime insurgency, the security situation across Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria has shown signs of further deterioration.

Libya is nearly a failed state, rapidly plunging into all-out civil war. Hopes raised by a few locally staged truces particularly in the northwest of the country have fallen flat in the face of the reprisal of the same clashes and rivalries. Fighting has left Benghazi largely destroyed, leaving most of its population displaced, exacting a high human and social cost. The south plays host to frequent and bloody intertribal clashes and is a base for criminal gangs who profit from illegal smuggling and human trafficking. The western part of the country sees continuous confrontation between militias loyal to the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and those loyal to the internationally recognized government in Tobruk. The UN-led mediation has struggled for months to guide the main rival parties to an agreement that would form a new Government of National Accord (GNA). Most participants to the negotiations signed the last draft of this agreement, presented in July, but the GNC delegation has so far refused. While not stopping the process, this hesitation raises strong doubts about its chance of success.

In neighboring Tunisia, the disruption is far less grave, but the ingredients for destabilization are all present. Hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring, Tunisia nevertheless faces potentially lethal challenges. These come not only from the terrorist threat—though its disruptive effect on civil life and economic progress cannot be underestimated—but also from an impending economic crisis and its subsequent consequences. Tunisian elites have focused all their attention on political development and consensus building to the detriment of much needed economic reforms. No strong economic initiatives have been undertaken, making the political system vulnerable to the unrest of a population worn down by raised expectations and continued economic decline. Since the uprising in 2011, economic growth has slowed, unemployment has increased, and the wage gap has widened. The acute economic disparity between regions is also cited by observers as a main reason for the diffusion of radical Islamist militants in the country. The fragility of Tunisia derives from the weakness of its economy and the lack of leadership in tackling the much-needed economic reforms.

Algeria has been, so far, immune from the turmoil of the Arab Spring. The country appears calm, but a closer look at recent developments paints a much more disturbing picture. Disruptions within the political power structure and from without in the form of terrorist threats and falling oil prices have emerged. Oil revenues make up over half of the government budget, exacerbating the potential of these external threats and Algeria’s internal instability. Clashes between Amazigh Mozabites and Arabs in the Saharan city of Ghardaia have escalated since 2013, eliciting a police crackdown and government-led mediation. Violence and subsequent security force strikes have illuminated cracks in both the government’s popular legitimacy and in the stability balanced on presidential control of the army and state intelligence service. In late July 2015, three elite generals—chiefs of the Republican Guard, internal security, and presidential security—were dismissed and swiftly replaced. Although one can only speculate as to the motives behind the dismissals, the incident hints at discord among Algeria’s small cadre of ruling elite. Algeria also faces important security challenges from revived Islamist insurgencies, despite the continued official proclamations of its definitive demise. In recent years, the country has battled Islamist militants claiming loyalties to both Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). In July 2015, militants killed nine Algerian soldiers, in an attack claimed by AQIM.

If Algeria were to plunge into a crisis similar to that of the 1990s, or worse, immeasurable political, economic, and security repercussions would reverberate through the Mediterranean region. The southern European states, already hit by the Libyan crisis and the difficulties in Tunisia, would face an even larger influx of refugees, the collapse of its gas and oil supplies, booms of terrorism and criminality, and other far-reaching consequences.

Given this context and considering the consequences of a broader and deeper crisis in North Africa, Western policies clearly appear inadequate, superficial, and perhaps even willfully delusional.

Leaving Libya to its own means after the fall of Qaddafi was undoubtedly a mistake. The continued “hands-off” approach has allowed an increasing loss of control by the central government and the consequent fragmentation and entrenchment of militias and other violent groups. A stronger reaction to Haftar’s operations in Benghazi and Libya Dawn’s actions in Tripoli in the summer of 2014 might have gone a long way towards preventing the massive destruction and loss of lives since then. Now, any initiative by the international community to stop the fighting and prevent a full-blown civil war requires much stronger action. To support the UN-brokered agreement and a new Government of National Accord, action will inevitably involve military support to protect vital installations and provide security to a new government.

The West’s failure to prioritize the success of the Tunisian democratization process and the maintenance of stability in the country deserves reproach. If the instability of Libya were to spill over to Tunisia, it would then inevitably spread to Algeria with the dramatic consequences outlined above. Europe in particular should see Tunisia as their “Maginot Line” and defend it vigorously. The manner of support is crucial as well. While providing training and equipment for security forces is indeed important, the economy is the critical concern. European help and assistance should focus on providing financial and technical support as well as incentives for infrastructure projects in order to create more viable economic development and job creation policies. So far, neither the Europeans nor the United States seem to understand how critical this temporal juncture is for Tunisia and, in turn, how critical Tunisia’s stability is for the entire region.

With Algeria, unfortunately, policy options remain limited. Algeria is a large country run opaquely by a closed elite and a powerful security apparatus. While the police state structure may seem like the key to its stability, in fact, it is reason for its fragility. Without real avenues for inclusive governance and urgently needed political and economic reforms, the system will remain closed, potentially leading to civil unrest as internal pressures grow. It would be a step in the right direction if the European and US institutions could pressure the Algerian establishment towards these reforms, rather than ignoring dangerous signs from the interior of the country in the name of an oft-abused sovereignty principle.

Critical signs of latent instability have emerged across North Africa. Although mistakes have been made, Western actors can adopt policy options to mitigate further damage. Continuing to ignore the signs or postponing action to address them could carry devastating consequences for the entire Mediterranean region and beyond.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: A boy holds a Tunisian flag as he stands near bouquets of flowers laid at the beachside of the Imperiale Marhabada hotel, which was attacked by a gunman in Sousse, Tunisia, June 27, 2015. (Reuters)