On the face of it, North Africa looks highly unstable: a civil war rages in Libya, with no end in sight; Tunisia faces a very uncertain political future after elections during which the serious challenges facing the country were not discussed; in Algeria the stalemate between the army and the people is, nine months after it started, as great as ever; while Morocco appears a haven of stability and sound economic management.
In Europe, policymakers wring their hands in despair at the violence in Libya but neither the United Kingdom nor France are prepared to accept that the policies they encouraged the United States and NATO to pursue are responsible in large part for the situation the country finds itself in.
In Tunisia, France supported outgoing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who crashed to defeat in both elections and looks on in disbelief at the new president.
In Algeria, the European Union is and will remain mute. France knows change is inevitable but dares not embrace it.
Meanwhile, Morocco is presented by many outside observers as a model economy — the same was true of Tunisia until 2011, so caution is necessary when the World Bank or the European Union dish out medals for good management.
The countries of the Maghreb share one characteristic: Islamic parties of different hues are mostly integrated into the political game. The starting point of political analysis can no longer be the Islamists versus the rest.
A second vital point is that Europe remains the destination of choice for North Africans wishing to study, travel, work and receive good medical treatment.
A third point is the increasingly important role played by women in society in North Africa. Many Europeans who first visit Maghreb countries are struck by their “Mediterranean aspect.” When they travel to Egypt and the Gulf, they know they are in countries that are fundamentally different.
Major differences exist between North African countries: Morocco has been better managed than its neighbours to the east, a much broader part of the country is involved in the modern economy from Tangier in the north to Agadir in the south. Yet the north and east remain poorer and will not enjoy faster economic growth as long as the frontier with the richer neighbour to the east remains closed. That frontier is unlikely to open soon.
Europe often bemoans the cost of No Maghreb but the conflict between Algeria and Morocco suited Europe, especially France, for decades. The European Union has no effective response and France even less. Fear of radical Islam, a condescending view how a united Maghreb could have contributed to a faster rate of economic growth in Europe, misreading of the key role North Africa plays in stemming flows of African migrants to the European Union and underestimating the growing Chinese presence have contributed to a form of autism in the Europe.
For all its economic mismanagement, Algeria achieved one important goal: wealth is spread evenly across the country; no region is really poorer than the other. Exactly the opposite is true in Tunisia where the poorer western and southern regions export 20% of their GDP (water, phosphates, et cetera) to the richer coast to the tune of $1.75 billion a year, said Kais Daly, the former CEO of the state phosphate company, not to mention their children.
Unless a new political contract is agreed between the coastal regions and the interior, Tunisian unity will fracture further.
The turmoil in Libya deprives legitimate manufacturers of their traditional export market while pushing into Tunisia a flood of contraband consumer goods and forcing the closure of many Tunisian industrial plants. Greater stability in Libya is essential to Tunisia’s economic and security wellbeing but that does not look likely to happen soon.
Whatever the fears of many in Europe and North Africa, change is coming to North Africa. When a model of economic growth rests everywhere in the region of forms of crony capitalism, of rent capture and corruption comes unstuck, two reactions are possible: pretend nothing has changed or embrace change knowing the ride will be bumpy.
Nowhere is this state of affairs better illustrated than in Algeria. The popular genie is out of the bottle and will not be put back in. How a consensus is formed is anyone’s guess. What happens in Algeria will probably be the most decisive feature of the immediate future of the region.
Were Algeria to descend into bloody mayhem, an outcome that looks unlikely after nine months of peaceful demonstrations, all hell would break out across the region. If a consensus is found among the various political groups and the army, new ways of thinking might spread.
Libya looks set to continue its ways. Too many foreign cooks spoil the broth and look to continue to do so.
It is essential that, in Algeria and in Tunisia, economic and political reforms should be homegrown. The less France, the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the Gulf countries, interfere in the countries’ politics, the better the chance for each country forging its own destiny.
This does not mean that the European Union and the broader West, as well as Gulf countries, should not provide greater financial support to countries like Tunisia. They may have to help Morocco even more than Tunisia, despite Tunis paying a very heavy economic price for the misjudged French-led intervention in Libya in 2011.
One thing is not in doubt: in all above-mentioned countries there are many well-educated professionals and young people who can offer solutions to the many challenges their respective countries face. Why not listen to them rather than to countries that offer development aid and are often quite disconnected with the countries they operate in?
The answer is to modernise the political systems of the Maghreb, allow local talent to emerge, dare have serious debates. Get rid of a neocolonial mindset that believes that the answer lies in Washington and Paris.
The maturity of the millions who demonstrate in Algeria every Friday and their refusal to use violence suggest that North Africa might be on the right path.
Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.