Tunisia, Libya and Algeria continue to experience political instability as revolutionary anniversaries come and pass
Rabat – As countries in North Africa mark their revolutionary anniversaries, power struggles continue to dominate domestic and foreign policy. January and February hold special meaning in the region as they mark the anniversaries of the overthrow of both Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi as well as the emergence of the Algerian Hirak (movement).
While the overthrow of strongmen in the region was initially heralded in the West as an “Arab Spring” of reawakening democratic aspirations, the current reality is still dominated by internal political struggles that impact the region as a whole.
Originally hailed as the success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s democracy continues to experience growing pains one decade after the overthrow of Ben Ali. Tunisia’s 28-day protest movement dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution” ended on January 14, 2011 when the country’s long-term ruler Ben Ali dissolved his government and fled the country.
Ten years on, the January 14 anniversary was marked by protests across Tunisia as many citizens expressed their displeasure with the country’s economic state and ineffective action. Tunisia’s revolutionary movement had been fueled by similar public discontent that now, one decade on, fuels political infighting and power struggles that still dominate its body politic.
Power struggles continue between the country’s influential President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi’s “technocrat” cabinet. Mechichi’s cabinet was expected to rise above political squabbling between the country’s political parties, but has instead highlighted differences between President Saied and Prime Minister Mechichi.
The struggle between the two has morphed into a constitutional crisis after Saied blocked several new cabinet appointments that were seen as Mechichi replacing loyalists of the president. Tunisia’s constitutional crisis is likely to only be resolved by the removal of either the president or the prime minister, something both leaders are keen to avoid at all costs.
Monday February 15 marked the ten-year anniversary of the start of Libya’s revolution turned civil war that led to the ouster of President Muammar Gaddafi. Widely cheered and supported by the West, the revolution led to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant,” US president Barack Obama declared at the time.
Yet after a decade of bloody fighting in two civil wars fueled by foreign meddling, Libyans appear relieved to again return to a state of peace and tranquility. The sudden and unexpected ceasefire in 2020 has brought the return of the country’s all important oil industry. But most citizens continue to struggle economically and expect the newly appointed interim government to start mending their country’s long-running wounds.
Protests over living conditions again emerged even as both factions negotiated for a lasting peace in the aftermath of the initial ceasefire agreement. Lacking its 2011 revolutionary zeal, these protests nonetheless call for an end to political power struggles and a reprioritization of economic and social issues.
Corruption, poor living conditions and a lack of economic opportunities remain the key demands of protesters. Current protesters do not face the brutality with which protests in 2011 were met, still security forces continue to respond with a heavy hand when facing disgruntled citizens.
A transitional interim government now faces the task of organizing the country’s first nationwide elections in December. The upcoming vote has the daunting mission of healing a country divided by deep-running internal rivalries and foreign meddling. While political progress is made between the former warring factions, foreign mercenaries continue to constitute a threat to peace in the country.
In Algeria the two-year anniversary of the “hirak” (movement) protests comes with a strange sense of deja-vu and renewed revolutionary sentiment. The Algerian Hirak managed to oust former, long-term President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Two years on, however, the country eerily resembles its pre-hirak state.
Algeria’s nearly all-powerful president has spent the majority of his time in Europe over the past months, bringing back memories of Bouteflika’s rule in effigy after his health deteriorated. The country’s new constitution is presented by the government as the logical conclusion to the hirak, yet less than one in four Algerians turned out to vote for it.
For many in Algeria, the regime of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is little more than a cosmetic change as Bouteflika-era repression of the press and government critics continue unabated. After a year marked by COVID-19, Algerians again appear ready to take to the street and voice demands that have changed little in the past two years.
In response, the current regime has opted for an approach it appears to have taken directly from Bouteflika’s playbook — very little appears to have changed in the military-dominated domestic politics.
Critics and journalists are presented with the spectre of a sword of damocles that hangs over anyone who is deemed to threaten “national unity.” With few solutions available to solve domestic issues, the ruling regime instead has opted to present perceived foreign threats as the reason for both Algeria’s issues and as a demand for blind allegiance to the country’s rulers.
In Morocco, February 20 marks the start of protests in 2011 that resulted in key reforms to the country’s constitution. While political changes in Morocco were achieved through consensus instead of through revolutionary acts, the country nonetheless continues to feel the effects of the Arab Spring’s power struggles as a player in regional geopolitics.
Morocco was a key party in the initial stages of peace negotiations in Libya following the sudden 2020 ceasefire. Opposing Libyan parties met in Bouznika, where the first foundation for further dialogue was established shortly after the ending of hostilities. After ten years of civil war, Libya is only now able to again renew its historical ties with Morocco.
Tunisia similarly has been a point of focus for Morocco’s diplomatic corps. Both countries have expressed a willingness to further extend ties between the two Maghrebi nations. Meanwhile, Tunisia’s former President Moncef Marzouki appeared to take Morocco’s side when he highlighted Algeria’s role in regional instability.
Meanwhile, Algeria’s hirak appears to have done little to relieve tensions between the two neighbors.
Evolution or revolution?
Instead, the Algerian regime is apparently using the issue of Western Sahara to continue to provoke and blame its western neighbor for its own domestic issues. The stand-off between Algeria and Morocco continues to be the dominant geopolitical issue in the region, with Algeria’s proxy force Polisario as the key source of hostilities and the Sahrawi people as its main victim.
With regional stability anything but certain, Morocco is only advancing its status as a source of “constructive diplomacy” and dialogue in the region. This status has helped increase its position as a key US ally as well as bringing it closer to Tunisia and Libya.
With global opinions on Western Sahara shifting in favor of Morocco, its rising regional prominence and international trade links could finally bring a peaceful resolution in the country’s south. Such progress continues to be contested by a diminished Algeria that is likely to further isolate Morocco’s eastern neighbor.
The region is now facing a difficult post-COVID-19 economic recovery that could change the regional status. With revolutionary zeal still present in both North Africa and the Sahel region, the absence of overt power struggles in Morocco is likely to make it a hub for regional diplomacy and increase its status internationally.