North Africa In 2017: Many Fears Mingled With Little Hope – Analysis


North Africa might be facing tremendous instability and many uncertainties in 2017 as the result of three main factors:

  1. The after-effects of the failed Arab Spring;
  2. The rise of religious extremism; and
  3. 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 facing tremendous challenges because of lack of social justice and equal opportunity; patriarchal tribalism doubled by fragile military rentier states in Mauritania and Algeria confronted by possible popular uprisings anytime or possible military coup; an explosive and tribally-fragmented Libya on the verge of becoming an official failed state, and a fragile and volatile democracy in Tunisia threatened by violent religious extremism.

All of these Maghreb countries are living dangerously in the shade of over-looming religious fanaticism that thrives on social inequalities and youth dissatisfaction and anger and are dangerously tightrope-walking hoping to reach safety, at the least cost possible, with the hope to make 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 omnipresent, stronger than ever, women continue to be discriminated against and the same is true of minorities, education is in shambles and only leading to unemployment and more frustration, equity and equality are a wishful thinking, and democracy is many light years away, if ever.
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?

Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Photo: Presidencia de la Nación Argentina, Wikipedia Commons.
Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Photo: Presidencia de la Nación Argentina, Wikipedia Commons.

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, that has never been a problem because the true power, in Algeria, is, clearly, in the hands of a military junta that holds the reins of the country, behind the curtains, of course.

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 that it is 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, then. 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.i

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.ii

Algeria, nevertheless, continued, since then, to be a rentier state using oils revenues to insure national reconciliation and social stability. But now that the president is in a wheelchair and the 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 that the Algerian government will cut drastically the subsidies to reduce its budget deficit in order to avoid state bankruptcy. In fact, it has already started timidly doing that in certain sectors to test the reaction of the public and the reaction was immediate and violent. So, the future looks bleak, alas.iii

This explosive situation will spawn, then, two important questions:

  1. Why are the military still in power and why are they still benefiting grossly from the largesse of the state?; and
  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 their arch-foe: the Islamists who will be tempted to put an end to the benefits the generals get from the state and stopping support to the Polisario is offering the other arch-enemy Morocco the Western Sahara on a silver platter, without a fight and, consequently, strengthening the monarchy thereby.

But as the economic situation worsens every day, an Algerian Spring gets nearer and nearer. If the social uprising happens, the Amazigh peopleiv 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, into chaos that might bring about another episode of a bloody civil war. So, 2017 does not look clement to the Algerians at all: government and people?v

Libya: more of the same but there is a flicker 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 led to what Libya is

On this particular point, Yasmina Khadra, a world-renowned Algerian writer argues:vii

“The Libyan people did not exist as a homogenous nation under one flag and sharing one common ideal. It was a collection of fiercely autonomous, proud and unruly tribes, suspicious of centralised rule (first there had been a substitute Ottoman regency, then a mandated principality, next a short-lived monarchy – the last king of Libya, Idris I, was Algerian), which they saw as a potential threat and to which they would only give allegiance to preserve their own independence.
The history of deeply hostile relationships between Libya’s ethnic groups is littered with violent raids, betrayals, unfulfilled vendettas and long-held frustrations carried like shameful injuries that have festered over the years as each generation is brought up to seek revenge for old sins. The terrible reality of the Libyan situation is precisely what Nato’s generals did not deem it necessary to know, dangerously choosing to ignore the unique combination of factors that make up the Libyan mindset. They failed to consider how Libyans would react to having a war thrust upon them.”

This state of affairs is very dangerous to North Africa, which is the soft belly of Europe, and has two potential dangerous implications:

  1. International Islamist groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda or other could launch terrorist operations in Europe to destabilize these countries; and
  2. The inexistence of state could lead to a massive exodus of African migrants to the shores of southern Europe creating social tensions in 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 September 17, 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.

Libya, as it is today, is a serious threat to the whole of southern Europe, either at the hands of the mercurial and violent Islamist groups, or 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 Eldorado.

The fall of oil revenues will make Libya even weaker economically and politically to be attracted by the Islamist solution that blames the woes of the Muslim world entirely on the “emasculating” influence of the West.

Libya's General Khalefa Haftar. Photo Credit: Magharebia, Wikipedia Commons.
Libya’s General Khalefa Haftar. Photo Credit: Magharebia, Wikipedia Commons.

As the secular general Klhalifa Haftar, representing the Tobruk Parliament in the east, continues to fight the government of Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli, recognized by the international community, for control of Libya, the Zintan Tribe, in a surprise move released from prison the second son of Qaddafi i.e. the charismatic Seif al-Islam following the decision of the Ministry of Justice of the Provisional Libyan Government on June 15, 2016viii and throw their tribal support behind him for the purpose of re-conquering power and uniting Libya after half a decade of political and military strife.ix

Tunisia: a democracy on the surface but a fractured country in the underlying structure

On October 26, 2014, the secular party Nidaa Tounes won the legislative elections pushing the strong and regimented Islamist party Ennahda into the opposition. People around the world acclaimed this victory of the secular forces on the Islamists.

Tunisia's flag.
Tunisia’s flag.

However, this looked as an easy conclusion out 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. In appearance it has given up its Islamist identity but that seems to be just a political ploy to gain support internally and externally.

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.

On this particular issue, The Economist, in its electronic edition of November1, 2014, points out:x

“Nidaa Tounes still struggles to shake off claims that it represents an attempt by members of the previous ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), to regain influence. In what was in effect a single-party state, the RCD built clientelistic relations running from taxi-drivers to corner-shop owners, lawyers, senior civil servants and—importantly for its funding—business people. Although the RCD as an organisation is long dead, these networks may have played a role on polling day.”

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 they 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 years have proved that.

Morocco: an economic force awakens

Morocco is the best-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; and
  2. The historical legitimacy, the monarchy enjoyed for more than 13 centuries uninterrupted 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/Berber hinterland, the Berber tribes recognized the religious charisma of the Sultan but denied him the tax collection prerogative.

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's King Mohammed VI.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

Morocco rode through the tempest of the Arab Spring remarkably well with a new constitution, not the best of constitutions possible, but certainly another important phase within the Moroccan incremental democracy.

In 2011, the Islamists of the PJD (Justice and Development Party) won the general elections and were used nimbly by the establishment to ride out safely the Arab Spring tensions. In October 7, 2016, they won again the legislative elections with more seats but were unable to form a coalition government because palace parties denied them a majority in the parliament.

After five months of blockage, the king appointed a new head of government designate El Othmani from the Islamist PJD in lieu of the uncompromising Benkirane. The new designate formed a government that heralded, indirectly, the end of the Islamist rule.xi

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 Black 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.xii

For François Soudanxiii of Jeune Afrique, Morocco is rising to the status of a regional power in Africa:

« Loin du carcan d’Addis-Abeba, Rabat est parvenu à se tailler le statut de puissance régionale autonome et de puissance relais entre l’Europe et le sud du Sahara. Une stratégie directement pilotée depuis le palais royal par un souverain personnellement investi, au point que les tournées africaines de ce chef d’État de 51 ans ne ressemblent à nulles autres. »

Though Morocco is seen as an island of stability in a sea of turmoil, yet the “Moroccan Exception”xiv leaves a lot to desire in the arena of freedom of expression, for the Moroccan journalists are constantly harassed by the establishment and put in prison. The Moroccan government has yet to come to terms that freedom of the press and freedom of political expression are the foundations of democracy, if any.

Mauritania: Tribes aspiring to become a nation

Mauritania is a huge desert territory populated by several tribes aspiring to become a nation, but the country is fractured along northern and southern groups of population identified by the color of their skin.

In the north live al- bidan “the whites,” who consider themselves superior and control the security forces, the economy and the government. In the south, along the Senegal River, live the African Mauritanians, known as as-sudan, who are in many ways the underdog of this country.

Until recently, they were slaves owned by the white tribes of the north of the country and even when they were freed from slavery they continued to live with their masters because of poverty and lack of opportunity. In any cases they work on the land of their masters and are obliged to give them a big portion of the crops.xv

Location of Mauritania. Source: CIA World Factbook.
Location of Mauritania. Source: CIA World Factbook.

For Amnesty International when talking about slavery in Mauritania there is a “gap between words and actions.”xvi The government says one thing about this inhuman practice and the reality, in the field, is another and the country continues to jail anti-slavery activists like Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, the runner-up in 2014 presidential elections and the head of an anti-slavery group.xvii

In spite of the north-south jockeying for power and riches, the main important and most powerful tribe of all is, undeniably, the army, which remains the main power broker. Indeed, since independence and the stable civilian rule of the father of the independence, Mokhtar Ould Daddah (1961-1978), the country has been subject to successive military coups that have pushed the dream of democracy further away and kept the country in the status of tribal patriarchy ruled by the Arab al-bidan, who enjoy the riches of the recently-discovered oil in total ignorance of the minority black Mauritanians, who are still considered as second class citizens.

Is the Maghreb Union dead?

In his acceptance speech of the re-admission of Morocco in the African fold, King Mohammed VI declared solemnly the death of the Maghreb Union.xviii He first underscored that he has always believed in the regional integration of the Maghreb states, but this, alas, did not materialize for a score of reasons and, as a result, he went on to make public the clinical death of this failed union:

“Morocco has always considered that its strength comes primarily from the integration of the Maghreb sub-region. It is however clear that the flame of the Arab Maghreb Union has faded, because faith in a common interest has vanished! The mobilizing momentum of the Maghreb ideal, advocated by the pioneers in the 1950s, has been betrayed. Today, we regret to see that the Maghreb Union is the least integrated region in the African continent, if not in the whole world.”

In this regard, he argued forcefully that intra-regional trade within ECOWAS is at the 10% mark and it is at 19% between the countries of the SADC community, whereas it has always stagnated at the poor 3% level in the UMA (Union du Maghreb Arabe.) He went on to say that while the West African Economic Community is realizing ambitious projects of integration and while ECOWAS is allowing the free flow of citizens, merchandise and capital, the Maghreb is at its lowest level of cooperation since its creation 28 years ago.

So, one wonders why was has the ambitious UMA project faltered so miserably? Indeed, the reasons are multiple and have to do mainly with the two main countries of the union, i.e. Morocco and Algeria, and some of these are as follows:

1. Historical:

France occupied Algeria in 1830 with the intention of making out of it a French territory facing Marseille on the other side of the Mediterranean. So, the concept of Algérie francaise dominated the French colonial policy for the 132 years of the colonization period. To make the territory big, France took entire swaths of land rich in minerals: Gourara, Jbilet, Tindouf, etc. from Morocco, but, also, from other conterminous countries such as Tunisia, Mali and Niger.

When France realized that it was definitely leaving Algeria in the early 60s of the last century, it turned to Morocco and showed readiness to return the land it took unlawfully, but King Mohammed V refused the offer on the grounds that it will be a form of betrayal of a sister country immersed in independence war. Mohammed V pointed out that Morocco will discuss the matter with Algeria after its independence. As such, on independence, Hassan II brought up the subject with the Algerian government, nevertheless, the latter categorically refused Moroccan demand and immediately after, in 1963, the War of Sands broke out between the two countries, as a result of that; and

2. Political

On independence, Algeria became a socialist country and joined, somewhat, the Soviet bloc while Morocco was a liberal economy very close to the Western world. In 1975, Spain expressed its willingness to decolonize the Western Sahara that Morocco has always claimed as an integral part of its defunct empire.

While Boumeddienne’s Algeria paid lip service to the Moroccan move, yet its intelligence apparatus created the independence-seeking movement of Polisario. Morocco organized the Green March and took control of the territory from Spain in 1975. Since, however, Algeria has spent billions of dollars in its support of the Polisario Front besides diplomatic assistance, last of which is its vote against the re-admission of Morocco in the African Union.

Last word

The Maghreb is moving into 2017 with much apprehension and fear as the future looks pretty much blurred because of the following challenges:

  1. Political instability;
  2. Identity crisis;
  3. Economic hardship;
  4. Social fracture;
  5. Religious extremism; and
  6. Lack of democracy and freedoms.

The Maghreb countries are requested to find solutions to these ailments soon for fear to fall into chaos and disorder that could last for decades to come.

i. p. 106

ii. Ibid. p. 114
« Algerian voters approved the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation on September 29, 2005, by more than 97 percent. The charter absolves government forces of their role in the violence, contains an amnesty for Islamist fighters except those responsible for “massacres, rapes or bomb attacks in public places,” and provides for reparations to families of victims, including those who disappeared during the civil war. Turnout, taken by some as an indication of the unanimity of the referendum result, varied significantly across Algiera, even as the turnout rate nationally was almost 80 percent. Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia in Kabylia, for example, had turnout of about 11 percent.”


iv. Ibid. p. 112
« Most histories of Algeria mention the “Berber Question” close to the outset. This chapter is an anomaly in that respect. The current conflict in Algeria, however, is unrelated, at least in a direct way, to problems surrounding the role of Berber identity in Algeria. Rather, conflict over Berber identity is more related to efforts to reform the government and reconceptualize the Algerian nation. Violent conflict in Kabylia related to these issues, both in the early 1980s and after 2000, represents a focal point for opposition to the government, if limited in the movement’s support outside the region.”








xii. ttp://




xvi. ibid.

« In an open letter …, one of the accused, Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, vowed to continue his fight against slavery and appealed for the United States and European Union to put pressure on Mauritania to act against the practice, including stopping financial aid.
“From my dark cell I urge them to mobilise all legal and diplomatic means, including the suspension of all financial aid, to push the government to take real action to eradicate slavery as well as the racism and exclusion underlying it,” he wrote.”


Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

One thought on “North Africa In 2017: Many Fears Mingled With Little Hope – Analysis

  • April 12, 2017 at 10:11 am

    Insightful, thank you


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