April 2016

What Lurks Beneath

A Survey of North Africa

Photo of Francis Ghilès

By Francis Ghilès

Francis Ghilès is a Sr. Associate at Perim Associates, and Mid East regional energy and security expert at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB). He spent 18 years reporting on North Africa and international capital markets for The Financial Times.

Western military intervention in Libya to stop ISIS from expanding its influence beyond its present base in Sirte could help stabilise a region beset by many domestic and regional conflicts, often drawing in actors beyond North Africa.

Factors at play involve the control of oil and gas resources, social and economic rents, political posturing and security issues, with the lines between terrorism and smuggling becoming increasingly blurred.

The recent history of Western military intervention in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Syria, hardly inspires confidence. These examples suggest that if the consequences of such a policy are not well planned, matters could backfire spectacularly. President Barack Obama’s recent remarks on ‘free riding’ French and UK allies in the 2011 Libya campaign point to the need for a more serious approach from leading Western powers before they decide to intervene.

In the first week of March, ISIS fighters from Libya launched two deadly attacks on the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane. This points to the urgent need for the EU and US to hand Tunisia weapons for free, and train its national guard and army in the use of such weaponry and monitoring systems to keep a close watch on the frontier. It further suggests that, unlike what happened when ISIS overran Mosul, the local population refuses to welcome the raiders. It may be best left to local armies or security forces to fight ISIS and avoid the presence of Western security forces. After all, ISIS fighters in Sirte are reckoned by Algerian security, which is well informed, to be at most a few hundred, made up of Tchechens, Sudanese, Afghani and Pakistani nationals.

Tunisia is doing its utmost, in close cooperation with Algeria, to contain the ISIS threat. The terrorist attack against the presidential guard last November saw the head of state, Beji Caid Essebsi move people who were disgraced after the fall of Ben Ali into senior posts at the Interior Ministry. The new director general of National Security is none other than Abderrahmane Belhadj Ali, former director of Ben Ali’s security guard. The Minister of Interior Najem Gharsallah was able to secure a 7.6% increase in his budget to €1.3bn at a time of stringent economic austerity. These moves can also be read as a way of the leading party, Nida Tunes, regaining control of a ministry where key seniors were close to the Islamist Ennahda Party, which led the government in Tunis from 2012 to 2014.

Turbulence in the southeast and west of Tunisia could increase if Libya’s instability continues to grow. The frontier between the two countries was closed after last November’s attack in Tunis and, with the help of Western security advisers, the Tunisian army is doing its best to seal the border. But such efforts are clearly insufficient. A further element of uncertainty in the southwest is the bitter conflict in the phosphate mines around Metlaoui, where production levels of ore, and consequently of fertilisers has dropped to a third from before the fall of Ben Ali. Alongside tourism, which has declined by more than half since last summer’s Sousse terrorist attack, ore is a key foreign income earner for Tunisia.

However events unfold in Libya, Tunisia must face up to the fact it has produced a large number of jihadi fighters for Iraq, Syria, Libya and Mali. How and when they return, how much they influence or inspire budding home-grown imitators poses as a threat, will take years to face down. Tunisian authorities must face up to that challenge, as foreign advisers can only be of limited help.

In January 2013, Algeria was struck by a terrorist attack on the In Amenas gas field. Since then, the army has been massively redeployed from the country’s frontier with Morocco to the southeast border with Libya and Tunisia. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent on buying new weapons in Germany and the US. Counter-terrorist training is a priority and focus is on the northern Kabylia region where the only serious ISIS inspired terrorist groups are proving a tough nut to crack.

However, the main factors of Algeria’s recent instability remain domestic. For example, in December 2015 accusations of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s brother Said committing a ‘soft coup’ began to arise as Abdelaziz’s health declined. Never before in the country’s modern history had the head of intelligence been dismissed – Tewfik Mediene was given the push last September after 25 years in power – and never before had top army generals been jailed. The battle to succeed the current frail head of state became ferocious last fall when retired Algerian lawyer Zohra Drif complained that her request to meet the president remained unanswered. Former Prime Ministers such as Ali Benflis and Mouloud Hamrouche have spoken out against what they see as a vacancy of power at the top. Their view that extra constitutional forces, which include shadowy businessmen and senior generals close to Said Bouteflika, have effectively succeeded in a power grab is shared by a broad spectrum of Algerians. The irony of Algeria turning into a louche republican monarchy is all the more sobering for those who remember a country which fought hard for the rights of the PLO and ANC to be recognised after it won independence from France in the 1960s and 1970s. If this power grab materialises after President Bouteflika dies, the consequences are anybody’s guess.

A rudderless government has to contend with a 60% collapse in the country’s income from oil and gas exports – a situation it failed to anticipate and for which it had no contingent plans. It has belatedly acknowledged the necessity to reform, but loose-talk of cutting 40% of Algeria’s 2.5m civil servants, abandoning major investment projects, and announcing price rises every week without any logic as a solution is fraught with danger. The government bought social peace at a huge cost in budget expenditure. Reversing it risks serious social turmoil. The government has done little to help younger people acquire skills and set up new companies; it has done nothing to modernise an archaic banking system which feeds a rigid bureaucracy and private companies, who enjoy access to credit because their owners are well connected. Youth unemployment is high – 30% or more in some regions.

Today Algeria invests less of its GDP (10% on average) than countries including Brazil, Turkey or South Korea, where 30-38% is the norm. Much of the industrialisation of the Boumediene years (1965-8) has gone to waste and the country, despite the quality of its diplomatic corps, does not punch its weight internationally. Algeria has failed to diversify its industrial base – grand, overpriced and shoddily built infrastructure projects have helped line the pockets of regime insiders and fatten foreign bank accounts.

Another serious issue is the hollowing out of officer corps and the intelligence service. Worthy officers who are aged between 45 and 60 have been systematically side-lined by the presidential clan and General Tewfik during his long years at the head of the DRS intelligence service. The younger officers are well educated but do not have access to the levers of power while too few older ones, well versed in the affairs of the world remain in their jobs. The current Algerian government is arguably the most incompetent the country has ever had. Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal has lost control of his government as his powerful Minister of Industry openly defies him. He has also failed to appoint competent staff to run Sonatrach and the Ministry of Energy. Most Algerians scorn him, highlighted in January this year at the burial of former-revolutionary leader Hocine Ait Ahmed. Thousands of citizens gathered in the Kabylia region jeered Sellal and his ministers away from the funeral as chants of disdain towards the government filled the air.

Morocco appears to be the only stable country in the region. Its border with Algeria is officially closed, yet billions of dollars worth of goods, not least oil, are smuggled across the frontier as senior officials on both sides take their cut. Its leaders bask in the approval of the West but serious trouble in Algeria could metastasize across North Africa. Algeria is the continent’s largest country, and as armed groups of smugglers/jihadis make freely cross the borders, the scope for mischief increases. Two zones in Tunisia have effectively become free trade zones for weapons, drugs and oil: the first is west of Gafsa, stretching to the Algerian border, and the second is from Tataouine to the Libyan border.

It is almost impossible to predict how these diverse and often contradictory economic, political, tribal and security factors will play out in 2016. At best, a low price of oil and a weak tourist sectors spells economic stagnation in Tunisia and Algeria. Social inequality is growing in both countries and foreign investors will hardly be rushing to consider them as good places to build new factories. Libya will continue its own course while Morocco, so long as it suffers no terrorist attack, can be expected to stay the course.