By Karim Mezran
The situation in North Africa is developing in unexpected directions. Challenged by the Libyan crisis and the consequent threats that derive from its instability—continuing violence, expanding terrorism, and flourishing organized crime—it could be reasonably expected that a more assertive cooperation would incur among the North African countries.
However, this is hardly the case: Tunisia is embroiled in a difficult economic and political moment with strikes and protests in many parts of the country, and Algeria and Morocco are facing their own developing crisis while Libya is slowly collapsing into a state of semi-anarchy.
The two main drivers of Algeria’s crisis are the state’s diminishing budget due to decreasing oil and gas prices and the uncertainty of Algeria’s leadership. Traditionally, the Algerian “pouvoir” has dealt with strikes and protests from the various sectors of society with a mix of police repression and government distribution of money.
The opportunity for the government to employ the latter has decreased considerably in the last few months due to low oil profits. Therefore, the regime has intensified its use of the security apparatus, which has only escalated protests and put further stress on the political elite. Influential personalities close to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika are exploiting the illness and the consequent feebleness of the president by making decisions on his behalf and in his name, thus indirectly running the country.
It is becoming clear that this situation is not sustainable and the elites must decide on who will succeed the ailing president—but they are also failing in this task. To disguise the instability both internally and externally, the regime is spreading the news that Bouteflika plans to run for a fifth term. This could, albeit only for a short time, calm down the anxieties of the various groups that are jockeying for power, but it also puts Algeria’s regime in a very weak position at home and in the region.
The weakness of the presidency hurts Algeria’s position and ability to project power on the continent. Traditionally, Algeria has been the balancer of power in North Africa, a role it played by balancing the expansionary appetites of its neighbors. However, in Libya, Algeria has failed to play its role. A strong president in Algeria would have never allowed Egyptian expansionism in the eastern part of Libya.
The decisiveness with which Egypt has supported the adventurism of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar would have been met and matched by equivalent Algerian positioning and projection of power in the western part of Libya.
This would have balanced the forces in the Libyan crisis, which could have brought opposing blocs to the negotiating table. Instead, Algeria’s role has been limited to diplomacy and supporting the UN-led mediation in Libya.
The Algerian elite might decide to deal with its domestic issues by diverting attention to external threats—whether real or presumed threats. In this case the sudden increase in tension with Morocco because of the Western Sahara issue could serve the purpose.
The renewed military engagement of the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, the political and military force representing the indigenous people of Western Sahara fighting for independence of the territory) on the borders with Morocco have caused the latter to take strong diplomatic initiatives, including threatening military action if the provocations continue.
Nevertheless, Morocco as well is in a delicate situation: there are rumors of King Mohammed VI’s being ill. Moreover, Morocco is aware of the inferiority of its army vis-à-vis that of its eastern neighbor, and would not likely risk a full confrontation. Morocco itself, much like Algeria, is seeing increasing protests and rising public malcontent directed at the ruling elites.
Morocco has also implemented a successful strategy of economic development projects in many sub-Saharan countries, which has notably expanded its influence there. This has upset the Algerians who fear the establishment of an influential Morocco in the African continent, in which they have always played a large role.
Relations between Algeria and Morocco could rapidly escalate into violent confrontations, especially if either side decides to divert attention toward an external target and away from its domestic problems.
While none of the issues discussed is itself reason enough for a conflict between the two countries, added all together they reach the level of making conflict a tangible possibility. A war between Algeria and Morocco, the more stable states in North Africa, would be disastrous.
It is therefore apparent that the situation in this part of the region should be monitored constantly and affirmatively by the international community. To prevent any kind of escalation, international powers would be wise to follow the situation closely and be prepared to facilitate talks.
However, although France has interests and influence in both countries, it would hardly be seen as a neutral mediator in case the crisis escalates. The only other power strong enough to play a calming role is the United States, and it does not look ready or even willing to engage. The vacuum is thus left open to possible influence from other powers such as Russia or the United Arab Emirates.
Another area at risk of worsening is the eastern border of Libya. Egypt has traditionally been interested in exercising influence in the border region once called Cyrenaica. After the descent of Libya to a state of semi-anarchy and an increase in visibility and strength of Islamist movements—who at some point seemed keen to dominate the whole country—Egypt decided to intervene by supporting General Haftar’s and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) against the common enemy: political Islam.
Nevertheless, after more than three years of bloody fighting and destructive campaigns, the situation is stalled: Haftar is in uncertain control of the eastern provinces and in no position to project power over the western parts of the country. The level of malcontent among the Egyptian decision-makers toward Haftar’s lack of meaningful accomplishments has further escalated in the last few weeks. Although it is hard to foresee a more direct military intervention by Egypt to secure its western borders, the possibility cannot be excluded.
Further exacerbating the situation are the conflicting interests of the Arab and non-Arab tribes in the southern part of Libya. In the area once known as the Fezzan, each belligerent party has dragged in regional support, thus increasing the instability in all Sahelian countries.
The same kind of tensions that have given rise to protests and wars in the past remain present in North Africa: declining economies, competitions for power among elites, regional interfering, and the constant risk of terrorist and criminal networks.
Western countries should not only remain alert, but need to play a more assertive role in mediating and de-escalating points of tension. The United States in particular has settled for a backseat on most of these issues, but its power and influence could be key in keeping the region stable.
Karim Mezran is a senior resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council.