Friday, June 5, 2015

Islamists in the Maghreb, by Styliani Vlachopoulou

The Maghreb’s countries have started to capture attention since December 17, 2010 when thousands of Tunisians protested against the former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The "Jasmine Revolution", which took place in Tunisia after this tragic incident led both to the exile of the first Arab leader Ben Ali (Saudi Arabia) and, secondly, to the rapid spread of insurgency and other desperate and angry Arab peoples of North Africa and the Middle East where poverty, oppression and corruption prevailed. Since December 2010 a lot has changed. Libya was split in two because of the civil war that caused instability in the region, political Islamists won elections in Morocco, and in Tunisia there is a delicate representative government after years of dictatorship.

Of all the Maghreb countries, Tunisia is the only one who has experienced the biggest change and holds the promise of creating a new political system based on representative government and consensus. Ennahda’s decision in late 2013 to relinquish power was partially influenced by the military coup d’état in Egypt, which ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, and the declining popularity due to rising terrorist violence. Still, taken into consideration Tunisia’s past authoritarianism and repression due to political Islamists’ regimes, it was a move that saved the country from deeper polarization and political violence[1]. Since then, Tunisia has made historic moves forward, with another round of free and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections. Several threatening challenges make Tunisia’s path uncertain. Tunisia’s greatest problem may be how to shift from an economic system built to support authoritarianism, to a system that is more open to trade, economic growth, and job creation. But structural problems also undermine Tunisia’s economic performance. According to the World Bank, more than half of Tunisia’s economy remains closed or is subject to entry restrictions, while low productivity, corruption, and inefficiencies continue[2]. Tackling many of these economic problems requires political decisions that could hurt well-established business interests, many of which support the new government. The environment of growing insecurity in Tunisia and the whole region creates a heightened threat. The March 18 attack on the Bardo Museum, which killed more than 20 people, is a reminder that Tunisia remains the meeting point of several radical currents including homegrown militants, al Qaeda, the Islamic State group (ISG), and various jihadist groups fighting in Syria. In the meantime, violence and instability in Libya heighten security risks in Tunisia. Greater political coordination between the government, military, and interior ministry in late 2013 helped enable Tunisia’s security forces to launch a more cohesive counterterrorism push on several fronts. The danger, however, is that a strategy that relies too heavily on security or is seen as violating human rights could trigger a reaction and greater sympathy for jihadi-salafists and creates a new wave of radicalization.
 The way to end Libya’s multiple conflicts and most importantly the fight between two rival governments is one of the biggest challenges in Maghreb. These conflicts are based on the question of legitimacy; that is a battle over who has the authority to head Libya’s central government and rebuild the country. Those who fought Qaddafi ask for revolutionary legitimacy. Some claim legitimacy from elections. Hundreds of militias claim legitimacy by force of arms or tribal affiliation. In the short period since Qaddafi’s fall in October 2011, Libya has had three governing bodies: the National Transitional Council (NTC), which formed during the rebellion against Qaddafi; the General National Congress (GNC), which was elected in July 2012; and the Council of Deputies (House of Representatives), elected in June 2014. Throughout 2014, the legitimacy of elections, political officials, and government decisions were doubted. The result was the creation of two competing governments. Libya Dawn, a loose alliance of Islamists and numerous militias associated with Misratan tribal forces, that controls Tripoli. The coalition includes the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which once fought together with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and is nominated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. The Tobruk-based government, the House of Representatives, allied itself with General Khalifa Heftar, a former Qaddafi officer who spent years in exile in the United States and was at one point funded by the CIA to bring down Qaddafi[3]. Heftar calls for eradicating all Islamists, including those that have participated in parliamentary elections, and in May 2014 launched air and ground attacks against Islamist forces in the Eastern city of Benghazi. He has been accused of using cluster weapons in civilian areas. Reality in Libya is more complicated than a battle between Islamist and nationalist forces. It is unclear whether Libya Dawn’s approach to jihadi-salafists might shift, leading to a military confrontation at some point in the future. What is clear is that without future cooperation between the Tripoli and Tobruk governments, it will be difficult to root out the ISG and other jihadi-salafists. Meanwhile, political insecurity threatens Libya’s energy. Hydrocarbons account for nearly 96 percent of total government revenue and 98 percent of export revenue[4]. Production cuts due to violence and blockades of oil ports have caused a significant drop in production and export. Over the long term, the unreliability of Libyan oil exports, the current global oversupply, and price pressures could hinder future government’s efforts to build a legitimate and functional state system that provides security and basic services to its citizens. Without considerable oil revenue, Libya will be dependent on external aid. Libya’s conflict threatens all of its neighbors. After decades of interfering in others’ internal affairs, Libya has become an arena for proxy battles by external actors. While foreign governments seek to shape political outcomes, local factions are manipulating outside political and financial support for their own interests. This makes the establishment of a legitimate government controlling Libya’s territory, security, and resources a discouraging challenge, which could take years, if it is even possible.

Algeria has enjoyed a rare decade of political predictability and relative security after years of violence and terrorism. The future, however, will be complicated. Algeria is largely surrounded by insecure borders and weak governments in Mali, Tunisia, Niger, and Libya while its western border with Morocco remains shut because of diplomatic conflict. On the political front, 78-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ushered in more than a decade of relative calm, does not have a clear successor. Other senior regime figures are also aging or ill, raising the ghost for some Algerians of an unmanaged, and potentially violent, generational transition. Rising energy prices over the last two decades enabled the government to unite its own different factions around a shared source of income, pay off the country’s external debt, boost foreign currency reserves, fund patronage networks, and buy off former militants as part of a national reconciliation process[5]. Public demonstrations have failed to translate into structural political changes, but the memories of the oil price collapse in the 1980s and its political impact still weigh heavily on Algerian policymakers. In addition to the above, Algeria’s overall oil and gas production is declining. Since 2006, lower production, stagnant reserves, and higher domestic consumption have meant less oil and gas for export[6]. While Algeria’s domestic policy remains relatively stable, its regional policy has shifted in significant ways. It has an old policy of non-interference in its neighbors’ affairs and opposing foreign military intervention in the region[7]. As a large and influential country, Algeria’s decisions will echo throughout the Maghreb and beyond.
Morocco successfully escaped the political instability that affected its North African neighbors in 2011 by responding quickly to popular uprisings. Less than a month after youth protests erupted in February 2011, King Mohammed VI launched a series of political reforms granting enhanced parliamentary powers through a new constitution. Later that year Morocco held parliamentary elections won by the Justice and Development Party (PJD), an Islamist political party that has competed in parliamentary politics for more than a decade. Yet rather than addressing Morocco’s socioeconomic challenges and demands for greater transparency and economic equality, the reforms reinforced the palace’s control of nearly every aspect of Morocco’s political, economic, religious, and security affairs. These reforms split the opposition by offering limited concessions that satisfied some but not everyone. Further, by allowing the PJD to head the government for the first time, the king neutralized the most organized political party that might oppose him. Through its electoral victory, the PJD was transformed from being the loyal opposition to the king’s chief defender, creating a mutually dependent relationship between the PJD and the palace. Though there is no serious call for revolutionary change at the moment, challenges emerge on several fronts could disrupt Morocco’s political stability. One challenge is tackling a long list of socioeconomic problems. Morocco’s widely exposed reforms and impressive economic growth over the last few years have largely benefited the ruling elite while failing to fight corruption and create greater transparency, economic opportunity, and equality. Many of these problems are deeply ingrained in Morocco’s power structure and elite patronage systems. If the deeper issues of economic inequality and opportunity are not solved, criticism to the palace is likely to continue, posing political challenges and greater inquiry of the king’s executive authority. Second, Morocco faces the common regional challenge of growing radicalization, which has lured an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Moroccan fighters to jihad in Syria since 2011. Morocco has battled local jihadi-salafi cells in the past, and dozens of Moroccans fought with al Qaeda during the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Morocco has responded to growing radicalization with a program to promote a Moroccan Islamic identity based on the centrality of the king and the Maliki School of jurisprudence[8]. The objective is to make Moroccans to respect state religious ulema (religious scholars) and by extension royal authority. One of the main challenges is creating religious leaders and institutions that reverberate with young people and provide a compelling alternative to the radical and rebellious message of jihadi-salafists. Morocco’s efforts are the most comprehensive, but similar strategies are underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and the UAE. This component of what the U.S. government calls countering violent extremism (CVE) is one of the most important government strategies to fight radicalism. Every country in the region and European countries with sizeable Muslim populations will be affected by Morocco’s success or failure and will closely watch its development.

[1] Haim Malka, “Maghreb Rising: Competition and Realignment”, (chapter 7), “Rocky Harbors Taking stock of the Middle East in 2015”, A report of the CSIS Middle East Program 2015
[2] The World Bank, “Tunisia: Development Policy Review,” May 24, 2014, 82, 12800Box385314B00PUBLIC0.pdf
[3] Heftar called his force the Libyan National Army and allied himself with forces in Libya’s regular army, including air force units stationed in the East. “The Unravelling,” New Yorker, February 23,2015,
[4] Crude oil accounts for 79 percent of hydrocarbon exports. See U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Libya,” November 25, 2014,
[5] Haim Malka, “Maghreb Rising: Competition and Realignment”, (chapter 7), “Rocky Harbors Taking stock of the Middle East in 2015”, A report of the CSIS Middle East Program 2015

[6] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Algeria,” July 24, 2014,
[7] Algeria has repeatedly opposed requests for military intervention in Mali and Libya. “Algeria rules out military intervention in Mali,” Al Monitor, June 16, 2014, security/2014/06/algeria-mali-will-not-intervene.html
[8] Haim Malka, “The Struggle for Religious Identity in Tunisia and the Maghreb,” CSIS, May 2, 2014, http://

Styliani Vlachopoulou earned her bachelor and master degrees in International and European Studies at the University of Piraeus. She wrote the present article for RIMSE.