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Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia: North Africa Gripped by Turmoil

Analyses - 6 September 2021

This summer was marked by instability for the Maghreb states. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing structural challenges of the region, rooted in the 2019 Algerian hirak, the Moroccan Rif revolt of 2017 and the political and social instability that has plagued Tunisia since 2011. Corruption, inequality and poverty - especially in rural areas - undermine the relationship between the state and its citizens. The pandemic, which brought the economy to a halt and drastically drove gas prices down, has worsened the situation. How are we to interpret the institutional crisis that has been taking place in Tunisia for the past month, or the recent cut in diplomatic ties between Algeria and Morocco? What will the consequences for Europe and France be? Hakim El Karoui, Senior Fellow at Institut Montaigne and author of Stability in the Maghreb: an Imperative for Europe, breaks down these latest developments. 

An explosive cocktail

Algeria is in a state of political fragility. Despite having led to the departure of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the hirak of 2019 failed to bring about concrete institutional change. Whether it will transform the Algerian regime into one that is more efficient and representative of its citizen’s aspirations remains to be seen. This was the context in which the pandemic took place, with devastating consequences for Algeria: along with the challenges linked to handling the pandemic came the collapse of oil prices, which severely impacted the economy. Now the government lacks the resources needed to boost consumer spending. This bleak picture was worsened by wildfires that ravaged Kabylia in August. This unprecedented natural disaster killed 100 people, 30 of which were part of the Algerian military. The fact that these fires occurred in this contentious region also revived underlying tensions in Algerian politics, notably the relationship of this region with the central government. 

Morocco’s political situation is less tumultuous. The pandemic there was kept under control partly thanks to a strict lockdown and a vaccination campaign that began very early. Clinical trials of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine were conducted as early as November 2020. However, multiple diplomatic events have stoked tensions these past months. One of them is Morocco’s signature of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations with Israel. Another is the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara by the United States. The third cause of agitation is the economic rapprochement between Morocco and China: over the past three years, the volume of commercial exchange between both countries has increased by 50%.
Finally, Tunisia is confronted by a double-pronged crisis. The first is political and marked by the rejection of the parliament by both the people and the executive branch of government. The second is financial: the Tunisian state is heavily indebted and is struggling to secure additional financing. It is in this context that the delta variant wreaked havoc in June and July. 

A summer of tensions

It is in this unstable context that on July 25, Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed dismissed the Mechichi government and suspended parliament, invoking the sanitary and political risks facing the country. In such a scenario, article 80 of the constitution grants him full powers to rule. This clause allows the president to "take measures imposed by a state of emergency [...] in case of imminent peril that threatens national integrity, security or the independence of the country and hinders the regular functioning of public authorities." This decision was supported by 91% of Tunisians, according to a Sigma Consulting / Le Maghreb survey from August 17. On August 26, Kaïs Saïed announced that the suspension of Parliament would continue indefinitely, plunging Tunisia into the unknown.

It is in this unstable context that on July 25, Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed dismissed the Mechichi government and suspended parliament.

There are multiple risks now facing the country, the first being bankruptcy. Tunisia is struggling to secure creditors other than the Gulf states, whose promises have yet to be fulfilled. The popularity of Kaïs Saïed, which is largely based on his promise to fight corruption and to redistribute the gains, could fade as such a prospect becomes increasingly unlikely, leaving the president exposed to a potentially massive wave of popular discontent with dire political consequences. 

The summer was equally agitated in Algeria and Morocco. On August 24, Algeria announced that it was breaking off diplomatic relations with its neighbor. The timing feels opportunistic. Algeria, by pointing its finger either to Morocco’s support for Kabyle independence or to the Kingdom’s rapprochement with Israel, can turn the focus away from its deep economic and institutional woes. Meanwhile, Morocco continues to cement its position in the region and to assert its autonomy by establishing close ties with major powers such as France, the United States (through the Abraham accords) or China. Finally, the Pegasus scandal (where Morocco allegedly used technologies developed by Israeli company NSO to conduct large-scale espionage) reveals the normalization of relations between Israel and Morocco.

The fate of Europe is intimately linked to that of the Maghreb

What will be the consequences of these regional dynamics in Europe? How should the EU react to this instability? European states, fearing a popular uprising or a military coup, were initially relieved by President Saïd’s decision. This relief could be short-lived if no concrete changes ensue. Yet, neither France nor Europe has the means to exert significant pressure: President Saïd, unfamiliar to most Europeans and deemed nationalistic, needs both enduring cooperation and financial support. Internal economic pressures will be more efficient than diplomatic ones. Tunisia’s allies i.e. France, Germany and Italy, but also Algeria and the Gulf states, should promptly establish dialogue with Saïd to accelerate an institutional transition. This course of action should be coupled with substantial economic reforms in exchange for the financial support that Tunisia so desperately needs.

The tensions between Algeria and Morocco may not be as critical as they seem: their shared border has been closed for almost thirty years. An escalation of the conflict seems unlikely. Furthermore, Europe has little room for manoeuvre: Algeria must continue to pursue its political and institutional transition, and it will do so alone. 

Europe must keep paying very close attention to the situation in the Maghreb.

Nonetheless, Europe must keep paying very close attention to the situation in the Maghreb. While it was able to shelter itself from a serious socio-economic crisis by directing15 percentage points of its GDP for economic relief, its North African border states were only able to unlock 2 to 4 percentage points of theirs. All this occurred in the midst of a dire context, aggravated, in the cases of Algeria and Tunisia, by the institutional fragilities previously underscored. Europeans should note that Tunisia’s GDP declined by 8% last year and that it is expected to drop by another 6% this year. Such economic decline has been known to lead to popular uprisings, that in turn cause major political, social and economic crises that will be felt in Europe due to its narrow ties to the region. The same rings true from a healthcare perspective: as long as the Maghreb is threatened by the pandemic, Europe will remain exposed to a potential surge in cases. Therefore, it is urgent for Europe (and France) to actively promote a vaccination strategy geared towards these neighboring countries. This strategy must also include financial support. Although all eyes are currently turned towards Afghanistan, Europe and France should be wary of neglecting the Maghreb. What is currently playing out could have consequences far more dire than the crisis that is unfolding in Afghanistan. 

Stability in the Maghreb: an Imperative for Europe by Hakim el Karoui, May 2021.





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