By George Joffé

A decade ago, in the wake of the Arab Awakening at the end of 2010, it seemed as if the Middle East and North Africa was about to enter a new era of equitable governance and burgeoning economic growth.  Now, ten years later, it is as if those expectations were a complete illusion with arbitrary autocracy or civil war reasserting themselves, alongside the chimera of economic prosperity.  Only in Tunisia does a simulacrum of social revolution persist, despite a worsening economy, political squabbling and peripheral violence.  Elsewhere, particularly in Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, authoritarianism appears to have continued unabated, hardly disturbed by the ruptures occasioned by the Awakening movements in late 2010 and early 2011.  And, where it has been disrupted – in Libya, Yemen, Syria or Iraq for example – it has been chronic chaos not liberalisation that has replaced it.

The past ten years have, however, seen dramatic changes in the wider geopolitical environment in which the Middle East and North Africa are situated.  The Muslim Brotherhood has been marginalised and vilified and political extremism throughout the region has dramatically increased with the advent of ISIS/Da’ish to parallel and compete with al-Qa’ida (CSIS 2018).[1]  The hegemonic competition between the Gulf and Iran has been transformed into a sectarian divide expressed through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. New states have asserted their claims to regional status; Turkey has laid claim to regional hegemony and Egypt has tried to reassert its own claims in opposition to Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions in this respect.  Meanwhile the Gulf states have both quarantined Qatar and adopted Giuseppi de Lampedusa’s maxim that “Everything needs to change so that everything can remain the same” in their response to the events of 2011. 

In addition, the great-power patrons of regional states have seen their roles alter dramatically too.   The United States, despite its commitments to Israel and Saudi Arabia – and, latterly, to the United Arab Emirates as well – has ceded position to its competitors.  Only Iran still seems to engage its antagonistic concerns as it prepares to stand down in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Russia has not been slow to replace it by expanding its ‘near abroad’, first into Syria and now in Libya, despite irritating initiatives from Turkey to challenge its new role.  And, behind them looms China’s belt-and-road project as the fore-runner of a new great-power strategic vision for the region.

The North African scene

Yet, so far the Maghrib seems little affected by these regional upheavals, even if the Arab Awakening has left so little mark on its political topography.  In Morocco, the monarchy clearly feels to be comfortably in control, with the king having just indulged in the purchase of a new urban residence in Paris, by the Champs de Mars, from the former Saudi deputy defence minister for an estimated €72-to-€80 million, even though the Moroccan economy is estimated to have shrunk by 6 per cent because of the coronavirus pandemic and some $32 billion has had to be injected into it to ensure its revival.  The economic vicissitudes that Morocco has faced over the years have clearly not affected the royal family; the king’s personal wealth has been estimated by Telquel and Forbes to have increased eightfold to an estimated €5 billion since he ascended the throne in 1999!  

Appearances, however, can be deceptive.  Thus, in Tunisia, despite the stuttering survival of its democratic experiment, the coronavirus pandemic has caused 27,000 infections and over 400 deaths.  It has also resulted in the loss of 165,000 jobs in 2020, the growth in unemployment to 18 per cent with predictions that it will reach 20 per cent by end-2020, the collapse of the economy by 21.6 per cent by mid-2020 and the concomitant collapse of the tourism sector by 60 per cent.  Even the political scene faces an implicit crisis, despite the appointment of a technocratic government.  Ennahda, the dominant party in the National Assembly, faces an internal split over the future role of its long-time leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, and both the new government and the party itself have had their own separate disputes with the policies of the president, Kais Sa’id (Daoud 2020).   

 Meanwhile, in Algeria it appears that the army has succeeded in imposing its will upon society, admittedly with the help of the COVID-19 virus, for the hirak mass movement which began in early 2019 has been in effective seclusion during 2020 because of the pandemic and Algerians still seem to be respecting government-inspired regulations for control of the disease.  President Tebboune has, nonetheless, wasted little time in enthusiastically tidying up the detritus left behind in 2019 by the vanquished Bouteflika regime – no doubt with the encouragement of the army.  Thus, throughout the year, a series of leading businessmen, politicians including former members of the Bouteflika clan and security officials have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for corruption, graft and abuse of power during the two decades of the Bouteflika era.  

They have included Ali Haddad, the former president of the employers’ federation, the Patronat, and founder of the construction company ETRHB, who received an eighteen year sentence, Zoulikha Nachinache, alleged to be the former president’s illegitimate daughter, who received a twelve year sentence, four members of a family close to the former president, the Kouninef, who received sentences of between twelve and twenty years each.  The politicians included Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmajid Sellal, both former premiers, as well as the former president’s younger brother, Said, whilst security officials involved former heads of the security services, Mohamed Mediène and Bachar Tartag, as well as the former head of the gendarmerie, Abdelghani Hamel.  It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these judicial proceedings, whether or not they reflect genuine abuses of power and corruption, might also reflect the kind of settling of accounts that has occurred so often at moments of regime transition in the past, as the army settles down once again as guarantor of Algeria’s occult ‘façade democracy’.

Yet, at the same time, the president is undoubtedly committed to rooting out corruption and schadenfreude is a powerful motivator.  After all, in mid-2017, during his brief three month-long premiership, he had attempted to do the same but had then trodden on too many powerful toes linked to the presidential clan and was rapidly forced from power.  Now he also needs popular support, even from the quiescent hirak and his campaign against corruption will certainly earn him that, even if the movement’s basic antipathy towards the army-backed regime persists.  And the new presidential regime will need all the support it can muster, for an economic crisis is pending from which Algeria will only be able to extricate itself with considerable difficulty.

The problem that Algeria faces is twofold. Firstly, over the past three years, oil prices have collapsed far below the level that Algeria needs to sustain its rentier economy.  The country has, as a result, been forced to raid its foreign currency reserves which have declined from almost $200 billion in 2014 to only $44 billion today and, it is expected, will be exhausted within eighteen months if spending continues at the present rate.  Secondly, behind these bleak figures stands an even bleaker reality; the fact that the country has failed to engage in effective structural economic reform throughout the Bouteflika era and now there may be insufficient time to correct this.  In addition, the new presidential regime and the army behind it may be too timorous to do so, given the evidence of the massive popular antipathy towards both of them.  Even though the presidency put forward generally welcomed economic reform proposals at the end of August and has sought to demonstrate its resolution in the face of popular unrest, doubts still persist as to whether it really will or can carry through its plans in the face of popular distain and anger.

The Libyan conundrum

It seems clear, in short, that the seamless autocratic normality that apparently characterises the Maghrib is little more than a superficial illusion and that, below the surface, problems are amassing that will demand solutions of the kind that were tactically postponed ten years ago.  Interestingly enough, however, this does not seem to be the case with the fourth member of the region, Libya.  There, the Turkish and Russian interventions that occurred in the first half of 2020 unexpectedly (and, no doubt, unintentionally) appear to have eased the logjam that had maintained the country in a state of chronic chaos for so many years.  Whether the recent burst of activity presages a real change that could eventually lead to a solution is, of course, not yet clear but it seems dramatically different from other recent initiatives.  And there appear to have been some clear winners and losers, notably Khalifa Haftar’s stranglehold on power seems to have been weakened.

Perhaps the first sign of the impending end to the stasis emerged in early September 2020, when the commander of Eastern Libya’s armed forces agreed to temporarily suspend his blockade on Libyan oil exports that he had imposed at the start of the year.  The blockade was estimated to have deprived Libya of between $9 and $10 billion in vital oil revenues as production was dramatically cut from 1.7 million b/d to as little as 120,000 b/d instead.  In fact, since 2013, Libya has foregone oil exports worth $180 billion as a result of blockades and field seizures – mostly engineered by the errant field marshal as part of his quest for political dominance – and the country now has a foreign debt equal to 270 per cent of Gross Domestic Product.   A month later the suspension was extended by agreements with local militias allied to Haftar’s forces to allow force majeure to be suspended on the production from the Oubari region south of Tripoli, a development which expanded production by a further 300,000 b/d, thus ending the penury in local fuel and electricity supply after repeated demonstrations over alleged corruption in Tripoli itself. 

The suspension came shortly after a surprising and unexpected move at the end of August when the premier of the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, Fayez Serraj, and the speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR), the Tobruk-based parliament in Cyrenaica, Aguilah Salah, jointly proclaimed a ceasefire.  They also proposed to demilitarise Sirt in the centre of the country on the current frontline between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.  Shortly after this unexpected development came an even more unanticipated initiative when Mr Serraj abruptly announced that he would leave his post in the following month of October.  His decision was followed by the announcement of the head of the Cyrenaican government in Bayda, Abdullah ath-Thinni, that he too would be stepping down.  It seemed as if the Libyan decks were being cleared in order to allow for their reconstruction in a new guise.

These developments coincided with a series of moves in the regional and international arenas that also suggested that significant changes were underway.  It was clear that, despite his undoubted military power, fed in part by Emirati and Egyptian support, other external players in Libya’s complex politics – in the wake of the Turkish and Russian interventions – had tired of the Libyan National Army’s commander’s tactics.  Furthermore, domestic unrest also undermined Khalifa Haftar’s ability to dominate the domestic Libyan agenda as the role of external interveners escalated.  Negotiations in Morocco, at Bouznika, sought to renew the leadership of the Libyan central bank – the crucial institution determining the financing of the chaotic Libyan state – but ignored his preferences.

Other negotiations through the United Nations sought to reorganise the provision of electricity to the vital Great Manmade River supply system which ensures water supply to Libya’s coastal cities, thus easing electricity shortages.   The United Nations, too, held preliminary negotiations for discussions in Djerba in Tunisia during November to bring the two sides in the Libyan conflict together.  They were then expected to define a common governance structure for the fractured country, an initiative which was designed to reinforce the second stage of the German initiative launched earlier in 2020 to resolve the Libyan crisis.  And, finally, discussions took place at Hurghada in Egypt to create a unified military command and to end the roles of the militias in Libya’s fractured politics. Now France has joined in with the Egyptian initiative which has widened to include political resolution too.

There seems to be little doubt that it has been the determination of Libya’s patrons that has been responsible for the latest burst of energy in seeking a solution to the country’s chronic security and political problems.  The obvious leaders in this respect would appear to have been Russia and Egypt, capitalising on international displeasure over the continued disruptive behaviour of Khalifa Haftar and international alarm over the intervention of Turkey in support of the GNA in early 2020.  They have also enjoyed tacit French support given its concerns about regional terrorism, although Italy, given its anxieties over migration from Libya, continues to support the GNA.  Apart from marginalising Khalifa Haftar because of his unpredictability and unreliability, both Egypt and Russia seek to stabilise Cyrenaica and, in the case of Egypt, to exclude Muslim Brotherhood influence, an objective supported by the United Arab Emirates as well.  Russia, too, is alleged to have imported its own Syrian mercenaries under the guise of the Wagner Company to bolster its forces in Cyrenaica.

The state that would appear to be on the losing side is Turkey, both because of its ambivalent relationship with Russia and because of its original ambitions to reunite the country under its aegis and that of the GNA.  In that respect, its support for moderate Islamists in Libya has further isolated it from regional states, particularly Egypt.  The consequence has been that the Egyptian and Russian objective of establishing a permanent frontline along the Sirt/Al-Jufra boundary now seems established as Turkey discovers the difficulties of cooperating with militias in Tripolitania and former political figures associated with moderate political Islam begin to re-emerge.  They include former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and supporters of Sadiq al-Ghariani, the old mufti of Libya.

Perhaps, however, the most surprising influence in the current flurry of peace initiatives and political readjustment is the one state that had seemed to have deliberately stepped away from involvement in Libya affairs – the United States!  It seems that displeasure at Turkey’s disruptive behaviour in the Mediterranean, particularly with the proposed Lebanese-Israeli maritime delimitation which the United States is mentoring, had spurred the State Department into action, although there is no evidence to suggest that it has enjoyed the whole-hearted support of the Trump administration in this respect.  President Trump, however, is increasingly desperate for foreign policy successes to bolster his weakening electoral prospects and has, therefore, not interfered.  American pressure seems to have been responsible for Fayez Serraj’s proposed resignation – largely because of his welcoming of Turkish intervention but also because of his failure to control the ambitions of his rival, Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister who is an Islamist sympathiser.  It has also been responsible for the renewal of United Nations engagement in promoting peaceable solutions to the Libyan crisis designed to reunite the divided country.  The final factor in the revival of American interest seems to have been the potential for the renewal of extremist violence in the Sahel and the Sahara.

In late August 2020, President Boubacar Keita of Mali was forced from office by an army coup, organised by junior officers at the Kati military base just outside the capital, Bamako.  His presidency had been seriously marred by corruption and electoral malpractice the previous April, alongside the worsening security in the north-eastern half of the country. He was also challenged by a popular imam, Mahmoud Dicko, over the corruption and the incompetence of his regime.  France was also involved for it has been restraining Islamic extremism since 2013 inside Northern Mali, as part of a five-member Sahelian force involving the commitment of 5,000 French troops to controlling violence there.  To date, France has lost 44 members of its armed forces in Northern Mali and has seen losses amongst indigenous troops from Mali, Niger, Mauritania and other neighbouring states mount alarmingly despite the sustained attacks on extremists originally from Algeria and amongst separatist-minded Tuareg in the nominally independent enclave of Azawad.

For the United States, these developments imply the threat of a renewed commitment to regional engagement, despite its desire to avoid continued involvement in Middle Eastern and North African violence.  Indeed, in August 2020, the Pentagon’s ‘Africa Command’ (AFRICOM) sought support from the GNA for a physical presence in Libya, in order to control violence there as a first stage in organising a region-wide response.  It is an ambition that has not been abandoned, even if Libya has not yet embraced the opportunity.  We shall have to wait to see what this may mean in the regional and global context.  No doubt, the aftermath of this new Libyan engagement with the United States might tell us.  And that, in turn, may demonstrate that the spirit of 2011 is not dead as a new, unified Libya might emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the current chaos there.

[1] Perhaps the statistics that most starkly reveal this emerged at the end of 2018 in a report published by the Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, as reported by Al-Jazeera (2018).  Its summary revealed two key points that are germane:

  • The number of Salafi-jihadists in 2018 had declined somewhat from a high in 2016, but was still at near peak levels since 1980. To put this into historical perspective, the high estimate of fighters in 2018 was 270 percent greater than in 2001 when the 9/11 attacks occurred.
  • The regions with the largest number of violent participants were the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Other regions, such as Southeast Asia, had fewer fighters.

In other words, the ‘war on terror’ appeared to have dramatically worsened global security.  There were by then estimated to be between 114,500 and 249,500 militant extremists in the five major geographic arenas of activity, compared with between 30,000 and 70,000 in 2001, distributed amongst 67 discrete groups of which 44 groups (67 per cent) were not affiliated with either Al-Qa’ida or Da’ish.  In 2001, there had been 25 such groups; by the time of the report extremist groups worldwide had been augmented 180 per cent