North African Transitions in 2014

The events of 2013 have had a variable impact on the countries of North Africa—Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco—resulting in variations along the spectrum of political openness. On one end is the semi-authoritarian regime of Algeria, where cabinet shuffles raise speculation over power play within the governing establishment but have no impact on the populace. On the other is the Moroccan constitutional monarchy that has aptly taken steps to curb social discontent but is not necessarily looked to as a model by a region experiencing widespread social and political turmoil. Libya and Tunisia experienced revolutions and face vastly different prospects for success in transition to democracy. These countries in the sub-region of the wider Middle East demonstrate just how no two stories of the so-called Arab Spring are the same. Given the developments in 2013, what can reasonably be expected in 2014? 

Throughout 2013, the kingdom continued to take steady steps toward progressive economic reforms intended to strengthen the emerging private sector and to create an environment conducive to foreign investment and trade. While laudable, this is in general an easy lift for Morocco, which enjoys a considerable advantage over its neighbors insofar as it has robust economic relations with Europe. Given its fraught relationship with Algeria over the contentious Western Sahara, prospects for a regional economic union are slim, prompting Morocco to look south for more profitable opportunities. The kingdom will continue its expansionary investments in sub-Saharan Africa and open up more markets to its companies.

Politically, the reforms delineated in the new constitution will be put on trial to see how much they contribute to developing a political system more respondent to the expectations of the Moroccan citizenry. The real task will be for the anemic Moroccan political parties to exploit the openings, albeit small, in the system to nurture their grassroots organizations to become more effective in representing their respective electorates.

Morocco’s foreign policies are unlikely to change in 2014. It will continue to enjoy strong relations with Europe and will seek to further cement a strong partnership with the United States. The cold front with Algeria will not thaw, preventing Morocco from exercising a role in the Maghreb that is worthy of its overall economic and political leverage.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika spent several months in 2013 recovering from a stroke in France, leaving everyone wondering what this could mean for the April 2014 presidential elections. All eyes are on the power struggle at the apex of the government establishment, as were those of the media that covered and speculated about the cabinet reshuffle Bouteflika implemented upon his return to Algeria. Questions abound: will Bouteflika run again for a fourth term as president? If so, given his current health condition, will he be able to govern? Or will he prop up a surrogate and rule from behind the scenes? How will Bouteflika’s opponents react? How will this power struggle affect the country’s stability?

Given the utter lack of transparency in the Algerian political system, these questions do not have answers. They do, however, have an impact; the uncertainty they create amid the country’s elite establishment does not bode well for the future of reforms—political or economic—that Algeria badly needs to reverse negative trends. The economic data show scarce improvements, if not a downward slide, in unemployment, debt, and inflation. The highly subsidized Algerian economy is fast approaching a crisis point similar to that reached in the late 1980s.

The country’s politics is a game reserved for a small minority only, characterized by shady intra-elite power struggles and an overall dysfunctional system that provides no opportunities for growth to its citizens. It merely perpetuates political dependency by using its flush oil revenues to buy calm and takes for granted how memories of the bloody civil war in the 1990s quell any ideas of popular uprising. It is unclear how long the authoritarian government can use money to keep people off the streets. An estimated 88 percent of Algerians were born after independence—an incredibly young population, a sub-demographic of which does not have memories of violence to temper any revolutionary inclinations. Without a doubt, the gap between the “legal” country (the political establishment) and the “real” one (the people) grows ever wider.

With its strong security apparatus, Algeria managed well its insecurity throughout 2013. The continued presence of low intensity extremist terrorism, however, exacerbated by the instability challenging its neighbors, sparks cause for concern regarding Algeria’s future stability. As Libya and Tunisia work to overcome the obstacles in their democratic transition, they may have to rely on Algeria to play a more active role in curbing lawlessness along the borders. Arms smuggling from Libya into Algeria, for example, is a daily reality. In response, Algeria established cooperative security arrangements with both Libya and Tunisia. With Tunisia, Algeria has also positioned itself as a potential mediator in the political talks and will continue to monitor developments there. The least open North African country could find itself facilitating political negotiations in the cradle of the Arab Spring.

When the secular opposition, with the support of the powerful trade unions, protested en masse in an effort to overthrow the Islamist Ennahda-led government in the summer of 2013, most analysts expected a repeat of developments in Egypt. An ouster would have abruptly ended Tunisia’s transition to democracy. Conditions in the country are different from Egypt, however, insofar as the Tunisian military has no political involvement or aspirations. With the security apparatus standing to the side, the stakeholders realized that political negotiations were the only effective answer to breaking up the deadlock. Despite widespread distrust, deepened by the assassinations of two secular politicians, the parties finally agreed to a caretaker prime minister. With the help of a technocratic government, caretaker-Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa will oversee the transition through new elections in 2014 as the National Constituent Assembly finalizes the new constitution.

Tunisia has certainly progressed in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution and is often hailed as the region’s best hope for a successful democratic transition. Unlike Algeria, the Tunisian system is more cohesive and transparent. Political elites are better integrated in the social body and more reflective of their constituents’ aspirations. Despite initially missing deadlines set out in the agreed-upon roadmap, the National Constituent Assembly nevertheless has, as of early January 2014, begun voting on the various constitutional articles and the caretaker-prime minister will soon name his cabinet.

Despite these positive developments, the most significant party in the secular opposition Nidaa Tounes did not agree on the choice of Jomaa as caretaker prime minister, which could threaten the durability of the arrangement. The economy struggles to rebound, as disparity between the coastal areas and the country’s interior persist. Youth unemployment hovers around a staggering 30 percent. Inflation rose to 6 percent in December 2013 after remaining steady at 5.8 percent for the last three months, attributed in large part to a jump in food prices. While Tunisian security forces remain loyal to the state and make a concerted effort to confront extremists, insecurity is undoubtedly spreading. Clashes with terrorists at the Algerian border are alarming for a country that has experienced a relatively peaceful history compared to its neighbors.

The 2014 roadmap set forth through the national dialogue could conceivably hold. There is reason to be optimistic; despite the deep mistrust and political deadlock characterizing much of the Tunisian polity in 2013, the parties never abandoned negotiations, reflecting an inherent commitment to play by the rules, even if it requires compromise.

Libya is the North African country with the highest degree of uncertainty and volatility. Prime Minister Ali Zidan’s government demonstrates lack of capacity to act, prompting growing challenges to its authority and rumors about its overthrow. The lack of transparency and the high degree of political fractiousness in the General National Congress delegitimize what is supposed to be the highest legislative authority in the country. Public order is in shambles, and tribal leaders and elders resolve disputes in the localities in the absence of state security. Governance and administration is hindered by the legacy of bureaucratic mentality and the absence of a comprehensive regulatory framework.

Following the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, the security situation in 2013 severely deteriorated, marked by ongoing targeted assassinations of security personnel, increased assaults on foreign institutions (notably the threats against the United Nations and the attack on the Russian embassy), and the kidnapping of Zidan. Insecurity keeps foreign direct investors at bay and hampers much-needed revitalization of the country’s infrastructure.

Oil port blockages by rogue militias who for the last several months have reduced the country’s oil exports to a mere trickle. Consequently, this has robbed the Libyan government of the revenues it has been using to buy consensus in a meager attempt to compensate for its inability to provide goods and services as a state would to its population.

Libya appears on the path to a failed state. This could occur as soon as the spring 2014 unless political forces rally around an agreed-upon political program that would usher in a new government and legitimize state institutions. Such a program could include two very important developments in Libya’s transition: (1) the establishment of a commission to prepare a national dialogue conference and (2) preparations for electing the committee that is supposed to draft a new constitution. Although difficult, success in these areas is critical if Libya is to be brought back from the brink and put on a democratic track.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: The North Africa and Sahel regions. (Photo: Wikimedia)