INTERVIEW: North Africa, a region in flux

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 27 Nov 2021

Intissar Fakir, senior fellow and founding director of the programme on North Africa and the Sahel programme at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, shares her thoughts on the political developments that are unfolding across North Africa.

Intissar Fakir, senior fellow and founding director of the programme on North Africa and the Sahel p
Intissar Fakir, senior fellow and founding director of the programme on North Africa and the Sahel programme at the Washington-based Middle East Institute

North African countries have been at the top of the news every day throughout the past few months. From Libya to Mauritania, there are serious questions over their stability, at least in the long short term. Each of the five adjacent states are suffering political hiccups at different levels.

Conflict between Algeria and Morocco is getting more complicated by the day. In addition, both countries are going through shifting political dynamics internally. In August, the Moroccan Islamists, who had enjoyed a comfortable majority since 2011, suffered a crushing defeat in the general elections. Meanwhile, there is a big debate on the process of normalisation with Israel that has made Algeria nervous. In Algeria, there is also a debate on the local elections that are scheduled later this month – with big question marks over participation or boycott.

The prospects for the UN-scheduled 24 December presidential and legislative elections in Libya are slim, given the tug-of-war between the political leaders of the east and west of the country – and their regional and international supporters as well. Only this week, head of the internationally supported government in Tripoli Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah showed that he has his eyes on the presidential seat, alongside his strongest rivals Khalifa Haftar, head of the self-styled Libyan army in the east of the country, and Agila Saleh, head of the Tobruk-based parliament.

The political forecast for Tunis is no less confusing. It has been nearly four months since Tunisian President Kais Saied passed a set of extraordinary extra-constitutional measures in the one Arab country that was considered to be the successful example of the first wave of the Arab Spring. Saied has been taking his time and it is not clear where the country is heading. He promised to return the country to a political process, but it remains unclear what that will entail.

Mauritania is also having its share of unease, thanks to the unending debate over the trial of former Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz.

In all five states there are varying levels of unease over economic conditions leading to the occasional protests against the failure of governments to improve living conditions, especially in the view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Do these hiccups spell a tough time for North Africa, including declining hopes for democratisation despite the first and second waves of the Arab Spring? According to Fakir, the simple answer is “yes.”

 “The region is in flux politically, economically, and socially,” Fakir agreed. However, unlike some other analysts who seem to worry about long-term instability in most of the countries of North Africa, Fakir is urging a bit more caution with her projection.

The hiccups that these countries have been suffering, she said, demonstrate “no reason to automatically expect instability long term.”

 “The region's dynamism is generally the product of a population that is striving for more,” she argued.

For example, before the pandemic, she explained, “Algerians were motivated to demand a wholesale reform to their political system which had been unresponsive to their needs for years, if not decades… The Algerian government [before and after the ouster of Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika] cracked down on protests and political dissent, however [with the pandemic] and wildfires that ravaged in Kabilya, the authorities in Algeria have also struggled to respond.”

The pandemic and the subsequent added economic hardships might have put the protests for political reforms on halt – but only temporarily, Fakir said. She argued that “it is likely that [Algerians], once they are able to mobilise, will return to the streets and continue to put pressure on the government to do better for them.”

Meanwhile, she said that in Tunisia “we are starting to see protests against President Kais Saied's efforts to amass executive power with limited accountability and we have seen stronger calls for a dialogue and political process.”

 “This is a president that until now has enjoyed popular support, but the protests [that have been slowly expanding since the second and third week of September] suggest that Tunisians are reluctant to relinquish their hard won liberties,” Fakir said.

 “These are just a few examples of populations that are demanding accountability. And while that might seem destabilising in the short term, it could also put pressure on these governments to do better, to be more responsive, and to generate solutions to long standing problems,” she added.

Fakir is not offering a negative forecast on democratisation in the region – certainly not in Tunisia. She believes that there is still a chance for this North Africa country to return to democracy, despite growing concerns around possible constitutional amendments that some Tunisian commentators and politicians have said would take their country to Kais Saied’s rule by decree, the suspension of legislative branch, and the lack of a constitution court that would normally curb him, Some have also expressed concern over the level of impartiality of the technocrat government the Tunisian president had recently appointed, she noted.

Fakir says the new government of academics seems to be largely implementing Kais Saied’s vision. And one of the major issues facing Tunisia’s government right now are budgetary concerns. The country needs funding and is currently in talks with the IMF.

Moreover, Fakir admits that Saied’s intentions are not very clear for now – although the signs seem to point towards more powers for the president – if not an outright set up of “one man rule.”

Meanwhile, she said, “Saied’s support seems to be waning in the face of formidable economic challenges and the continued ambiguity about the future of political institution."

"The current state of ambiguity that Tunisia is witnessing will have to end at some point. In my mind the question is now about how much are his actions going to alter the current balance of power between different political institutions," she added.

According to Fakir, the president of Tunis "is looking to reshape Tunisia’s political system." However, she added, the question is whether or not what he has to offer fits in with Tunisia’s needs and expectations, and whether it will be accepted by other political actors, especially when it comes to the balance of power between the president and parliament upon the possible constitutional amendments that some of Saied advisors' have indicated are possibly coming through one way or the other.

Should this happen, she said, then that would be a hard-to-miss indication that Saied “is walking down an authoritarian path at a time where he will need to make some painful and likely unpopular reforms to secure funding from international financial institutions." To pass any possible economic reforms, Fakir noted, Saeid would still need support from powerful unions.

So far, Fakir noted, Saeid has marginalized most traditional political actors including unions, as he has focused on popular support. However, she said, that might have to change once he embarks on the path of economic reforms.

However, Fakir argued that Saied’s acts should not be viewed independent of the public’s reactions. It is important, she said, to keep an eye on “the recent protests against these potential measures.” Those, she said, indicate a clear will on the part of “powerful political and civil society actors such as the labor unions and political parties… to push back... and to protect the country's democratic gains.”

 “In the absence of a constitutional court which would normally challenge this sort of action, this is what Tunisia has: a vocal and highly mobilised population,” she stated.

Tunisia is perhaps the one country in North Africa where the military is very cautious with its interventions – if one excludes Morocco, a monarchy with a different profile for the military. However, Fakir said that the military’s tacit support has certainly been important for Saied.

Meanwhile, she accepted that today, unlike the heydays of the Arab Spring, the role of the military, especially in Algeria and Mauritania, is growing more visible and there are considerable questions over their intentions if there should be a face-off between authorities and the public.

Fakir is not excluding the role of the military in the political dynamics of the countries of North Africa. In Mauritania, she said, “the president [Mohamed Ould Ghazouani] currently has the support of the military and there are little signs that the military would destabilise him.” Likewise, she added, in Algeria, President [Abdel-Madjid] Tebboune is the military's direct [choice] so there is little reason to remove him. He has shown no indication or desire to do anything that could undermine the [established] military’s supremacy. Certainly in Algeria the military is already heavily involved in running the country so it's not clear what further military engagement would entail.”

It is the contest of powers in Libya that does not seem to be coming to any end soon. During the last few weeks, the battling political leaders – Agila Saleh, head of the Libyan parliament in the east, Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan army in the east and the internationally acknowledged Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah – have all shown determination to keep contesting each other’s power with the unmasked support of regional and international players - despite the countdown to the scheduled elections that they are going to contest. Meanwhile, the figures of the former regime, including Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the influential son of the ousted dictator, are slowly showing their resurrected political ambitions -- again despite an elementary exclusion from the list of candidates for the presidential elections. For some diplomats the political rebirth of the Gaddafis is not impossible given the power of the tribe. However, they argue that it will not be easy to get the son of the old dictator on track – certainly not without some tough resistance, especially from the militant factions in the west of Libya.

According to Fakir, in Libya there are more questions than answers now. “The 'battle' in Libya does not seem to stop,” she said. Currently, she added, “the situation in Libya is up in the air." She added that the elections scheduled for 24 December were meant to usher in a new period of consolidated transition but "it is not clear how that will be achieved with the same political figures running in this election.”

Fakir added that “the elections seem to raise the spectre of instability with serious questions about whether the results will be viewed as legitimate, whether they are legitimate given questions about the process and even the foundations of the elections. In fact, she added, there are so many conflicts among the political leaders and it is not very clear where the regional and international players stand today on these elections and what possible alliances they are possibly entertaining.

 “Are we expecting another round of bloody militant confrontation? Should we expect the elections to happen as scheduled on Christmas Eve? And what is Libya waiting for if there is no agreement among the parties on the elections? And would Libya be the first country that votes for a figure of the regime that was removed by a popular uprising given all the speculations about Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi" if he manages to eventually qualify to run? "These are all questions with no clear answers," Fakir stated.

According to Fakir, “The planned elections were supposed to pave the way for some sort of resolution, and effort to move forward, but many see the potential for greater instability and potential violence during and in the aftermath of the elections. Almost every aspect of the election is fraught in a context of conflict and internal turmoil that has pretty much lasted since 2011.”

Meanwhile, she argued that any analysis of the political future of the countries of North Africa – just like most Arab countries – is incomplete without a careful assessment of the role of political Islam, especially vis-à-vis the “solid powers” including the military - perhaps especially in the case of Morocco.

Fakir argues that there “hasn't been a [contest] between the Islamists and the palace since [Abdelilah] Benkirane [the former Islamist prime minister from the autumn of 2011 to the spring of 2017] was driven out of the government formation process.”

Since then, she said, “the Islamists have been in total submission to the palace. This was a strategic decision they made to ensure they held onto the government leadership. The strategy worked with the palace, and they were able to retain their position as leaders of government but it backfired with their constituents,” she argued.

However, she added, most recently the Islamists of Morocco “failed to rise to the challenge of galvanising their voters, explaining their wins and losses over the course of the past five years, and they ceded that space to other actors who took advantage of it.”

Accordingly, she said, “I think the palace for now is not concerned with the Islamists. The Islamists are sufficiently weak now and will need to focus on regrouping. The palace has a different focus, ensuring the new development model they have unveiled succeeds — or provides enough benefits to keep people off the streets — and that the new government can deliver some of the urgently needed social reforms, without which the country could face popular unrest.”

According to Fakir, overall, the parties of political Islam are not at an all-time high in terms of public appeal, not because of their ideology, but because of their failure to govern effectively.

Fakir argued that for strict purposes of effective governance, voters in North African countries might have better alternatives to go to. She added that the Islamist parties of Tunis and Morocco still maintain some support. However, she said that these parties are increasingly being seen, especially in the past couple of years or so, as old entrenched political actors that are part of a political status quo rather than parties with direct answers to the pressing concerns of the people.

In Tunis and in Morocco, Fakir said, political Islam parties “had the benefit of the doubt after 2011 as they were perceived by the public as “either newcomers to the political arena as in Tunisia” or as “less corrupt and more serious as in Morocco." However, she added, these parties failed to live up to the expectations of the people and "are now largely perceived as just another dysfunctional or ineffectual parties."

However, Fakir added, this current state does not mean that the political Islam parties in Tunis and Morocco are seeing their end. This, she said, is an “unlikely” scenario. The reason, she explained, is that there are “important segments of the population that identify with [these Islamist parties] and support them.” She stressed that if these parties wish “to remain relevant they have to rebuild their reputation, to become once again part of the answer.”

In all North Africa, Fakir assessed, there is an overall “political fatigue” that cannot be just described as “Islamist fatigue.” People are just tired, she said, of “politics as usual, of ineffective governance and unresponsive governments,” she explained. And in that sense, she added, “governments, whatever their ideology or composition, have to prioritise post-pandemic economic recovery and growth and social development.”

 “This is the most pressing issue in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria,” she said. Yet, she added, “it is the most fraught” at least in Algeria and Tunisia.”

According to Fakir, “Tunisia's myriad economic problems have no easy or clear answers." Algeria, she added, is in a similar situation. "The country will have to undertake a transition away from energy – or at least lessen reliance on energy income – that has yet to happen." In Morocco, she said, there seems to be "promising" economic plans but the issue is not about the plans but about making difference on the ground. Indeed, she said, “prioritising urgent economic needs, and more specifically building responsive and inclusive economies is an overriding and shared challenge that transcends ideology and religion.”

Ultimately, there has been quite a debate on the defeat of Islamists in these countries – from Libya to Mauritania – as an inevitable path to the rise of military-designed regimes that are mostly supported by Russia at the southern borders of NATO. For the most part, the over-riding sentiment seems to be that better the Islamists than Russia.

Fakir does not seem to disagree. “I am not sure that Europeans are happy to see the [Islamists away]," she said. “I think European partners' main concern is having stable and reliable allies in the region, and the Islamists were part of that,” she added. However, she insisted that there is no one best solution for all. In Morocco, she added, “the relationship with international partners was and remains to be the domain of the palace, so in that regard the Islamists’ presence in power had little impact.” Similarly for Tunisia, she added, “Ennahdah sees itself as [only] marginally Islamist. In fact, the party publicly separated its religious and political wings precisely to alleviate these types of concern.”

Overall, she added, “I think the presence of Russia among other non-traditional actors in North Africa has little to do with Islamists' share of power.” She argued that Russia is perhaps most relevant, “in the case of Libya where Haftar, an anti-Islamist, is [directly] supported by Russia” among other regional actors.

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