Obama and the Maghreb in the Wake of the Arab Spring

By David Mack | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Nov 7, 2014
Obama and the Maghreb in the Wake of the Arab Spring
Morocco's King Mohammed VI

This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

Washington’s attention span does not often include North Africa. The American public has relatively little interest in the region, and the foreign policy agenda is crammed with hot button issues in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. It has been too easy to ignore slow burning fuses in Libya and the Maghreb until they explode in the world’s face. Conversely, positive opportunities may go unfulfilled due to lack of interest by top decision makers and few resources to nurture hopeful trends. 

Developments in the Maghreb have grabbed attention in the United States, but too often only briefly. Mohamed Bouazizi, a desperate Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. That set off a chain of demands for dignity and a better life that continues throughout the Arab world. It also was the beginning of waves of instability, violence, and bloodshed that have led to widespread reactions in favor of greater security and a lingering nostalgia for strong rulers and government crackdowns. 

Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had held court at the palace in Carthage for far too long, and Muammar al-Qaddafi was more out of touch with the world and with his own people than all but a few absolute despots. At least Ben Ali saw the handwriting on the wall and opted for a comfortable and stress-free if obscure retirement. No one doubts that Tunisia is better off, although the outlook for stable, pluralistic democracy and steady economic improvement remains unclear. Morocco combines relative political stability and daunting economic problems under a monarch with strong dynastic legitimacy. King Mohammed VI may have his eye set on steering Morocco to constitutional monarchy, and he has a de facto political partnership with moderate Islamists. North Africa also makes room for an unreformed authoritarian petro-state in Algeria, which looks better and better by comparison with Arab experiments in democracy. While that may reflect short-term thinking in both Algiers and Washington, it is not easy to point to an example that would inspire dramatic change.    

Current Situation

Libya’s Struggle to Combine Democracy with Stability

Qaddafi fought to the bitter end, and Libya still suffers from his legacies of megalomania and hostility to the institutions of both government and civil society. Libyans have been free from his despotic rule for three years. Life goes on in most parts of Libya for now, but others already suffer from the gang violence and terrorism, as well as shortages of food, water, fuel, electricity, health facilities, and other services that would be marks of a failed state. Despite a series of elections that were reasonably orderly and two peaceful if now incomplete government turnovers, Libya’s nascent political institutions are deadlocked and riven by conflicts among ambitious politicians who have yet to learn the art of compromise. Public education and job-producing economic activity have also broken down. Libyans are increasingly discouraged by the prospects for democracy as a path to solving their daily problems. Once again, members of the Libyan elite whose skills are essential for the country’s recovery are heading for the exits. Even as they leave the country of their own volition, many of the more experienced members of the Libyan elite are excluded from government service due to often long past and mostly technocratic roles in the four-decade-long Qaddafi regime. The situation is ripe for the claims of both extreme ideologues and would-be military strongmen.       

Two loose and shifting coalitions are vying for control of what is left of Libyan state institutions and authority over Libya’s wealth. A coalition of the elected House of Representatives and units of the Libyan armed forces control many parts of eastern Libya. It claims constitutional legitimacy and international recognition. It faces a shifting coalition of regional militias and both moderate and extreme Islamist groups that control Tripoli, Misurata, and some other parts of western Libya. Benghazi is the current battlefield, but violent conflicts are likely to flare up elsewhere. For now, many oil fields, pipelines, and terminals have resumed operation, but the various Libyan factions will return to fighting over these national resources unless they forge a political agreement.  Neither side wants to reject mediation by the United Nations, but neither side fully embraces the international call for an inclusive compromise. 

Libya’s post-Qaddafi fate is existential for Libyans and extremely important for its African and European neighbors. It also impacts key interests of the United States, especially in the realm of regional security and counterterrorism. The current turmoil in Libya is beginning to resemble the specter of ungoverned spaces like the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area or Somalia. Potentially, Libya’s political evolution can either validate or call into question the support of the United States for democratic transitions in the Arab world. In the short term, Libya is a source for arms smuggling, terrorist recruits, and other forms of regional infection.

Tunisia on Track to Constitutional Democracy

Tunisia is in a key electoral period with a strong record of combining an outlet for the large part of its population that turns to Islam for personal identity in an increasingly materialistic world with an historic instinct for moderation, gradual reform, tolerance, and extensive interaction with Western Europe. What some see as the Mediterranean side of Tunisia’s national heritage coexists with its Muslim and Arab heritage. Better than any Arab country, Tunisia entered the twenty-first century with a relatively homogeneous population, a long history of national identity, and institutions that were the legacy of its independence leader and modernizing head of state, Habib Bourguiba. His successor, Ben Ali, lacked Bourguiba’s vision, common touch, and deep concern for the lives of Tunisian workers and peasants, but he did not erase the legacy of his predecessor.  

In the wake of Ben Ali’s overthrow, Tunisians of widely varying political views were able to form a coalition government followed by a government of technocrats to steer the country to free multiparty elections. Moreover, they achieved massive popular support for a balanced constitution resulting from a painstaking process of dialogue and compromise. Much credit goes to two senior political personalities, Islamist leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi and the former Bourguiba ministerial ally and establishment gadfly, Beji Caid Essebsi. In their very different perspectives they represent the two sides of Tunisia’s national heritage, and they share the Tunisian political preference for evolutionary change.

Ghannouchi came back from prison, torture, and exile to build the Ennahda Party into a broad-based representative institution for Tunisians seeking a more pious life and the freedom to express their religious views in public. Steered by Ghannouchi, who often overruled more zealous party members, Ennahda avoided the kind of mistakes made by the Muslim Brothers and the Morsi government in Egypt. Despite winning a large plurality in Tunisia’s first free elections, Ghannouchi accepted roles for secular parties and personalities, including prominent human rights advocate Moncef Marzouki as president. Ghannouchi recognizes that a large part of the Tunisian population does not embrace his moderate Islamist ideals. He wisely conceded important points to secularists in the careful drafting of the constitution, and Ennahda yielded to a technocratic government.  

Over the course of his 88 years, Beji Caid Essebsi has played many roles on the Tunisian political stage, generally with great distinction. He served as a government minister whenever Bourguiba needed a man known to be an independent liberal. In between official posts, Essebsi was often the leader of the tame, liberal opposition to Bourguiba.   In the wake of the popular uprising in 2011, Tunisians resisted the urge found in so many Arab countries in post revolutionary circumstances to rule out prominent old regime figures. Becoming prime minister, Essebsi did a skillful job of steering Tunisia toward its first elections and showing Tunisia at its best in relations with the international media and foreign governments. Now he faces challenge and temptation. The Nidaa Tounes Party has won a substantial plurality of parliamentary seats in the recent second election.  Presidential elections are scheduled for late November. While Essebsi is the nominal leader of his secular leaning party, he probably enjoys less real influence with the grassroots members than Ghannouchi has with Ennahda. Nonetheless, Essebsi is in a position to exercise similar influence to that of Ghannouchi after the first election. He will be under strong pressure to form a coalition with other secular parties, rather than a national unity government including a major role for Ennahda. The outcome may determine whether Tunisia is on the road to an electoral democracy that will also be stable and pluralistic.  

Despite the rivalry between Ennahda and the secular parties, along with personal rivalries among ambitious politicians across the board and a smoldering terrorism problem, the main obstacle to the success of Tunisian democracy is not political but economic.   Unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is at high levels. In a country that has long stressed education, the ranks of the unemployed include many men and women with university degrees and advanced technical training. In the past, Western Europe and the Arab petro states served as outlets for highly qualified Tunisians who sent remittances home to their families or bought their own homes for retirement. As the recession in Europe lingered, Tunisians often lost job opportunities. Tourism, a major employer of Tunisians prior to 2011, has suffered greatly for two major reasons. As harder times in the tourist-sending countries of Europe cut into the demand for Tunisia’s combination of sun, Mediterranean beaches, and exoticism, Tunisia also lost the reputation of being a safe destination. Economic growth, while recovering somewhat from its collapse in 2011, is still very inadequate.  

Tunisia’s economic woes feed the security problem and threaten political stability. The paucity of economic opportunity for many Tunisians is an urgent issue. While the great majority of Tunisians responded in a constructive way to the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, extremist salafi groups have rejected electoral democracy. If Ennahda is excluded from Tunisian governance going forward, the salafis will trumpet this as a validation of their opposition to participation in a constitutional political process. They already provide a base for both domestic terrorists, especially in the rugged western mountains near Algeria, and for young Tunisian recruits for jihad in Syria. Some 3,000 Tunisians are fighting with ISIS, more than any foreign country. Many will return from Syria to become a troublesome factor in Tunisia, if they do not head to Western Europe or North America instead, honed with resentment and terrorist skills. Moreover, Tunisia shares a long border with Libya, and there are no Libyan institutions capable of policing that border and preventing the movement of arms and terrorists. Just as the weak economy contributes to terrorism, the potential for even more terrorism contributes to the economic weakness that is the greatest threat to Tunisian democracy.  

Will Morocco Become a Constitutional Monarchy?  

While Tunisia has been in the headlines and has gained praise for its democratic transition, Americans are largely blind to the incremental but potentially historic evolution of Morocco to a constitutional state. No one doubts that King Mohammed still holds the reins of power, but his governance differs greatly from the absolute despotism practiced by his father, the long serving King Hassan, and that of Hassan’s predecessors. The changes underway are partly the result of conscious decisions by the young monarch and partly the result of forces that he does not control but with which he seems to have reached a constructive accommodation. The process may seem glacially slow and jerky in worrisome ways, but it is likely to prove more durable than the lunges toward dramatic change that have dominated the headlines about the Arab world over the course of the past four years. For every two steps forward there is likely to be one step back as the king’s circle of establishment advisors and agency heads struggle with the dominant party in the elected parliament, the Justice and Development Party (PJD).  

The constitutional changes of 2011 committed the king to appoint a prime minister from the largest party in the elected parliament, but they left unclear the power of the prime minister and other PJD ministers. Prime Minister Abdelilah Benikrane has maneuvered skillfully to avoid outright confrontations but to establish a degree of independence from the palace. Unlike most of his predecessors, he has avoided being an automatic scapegoat for government failures or security crackdowns that were not the results of his own decisions. By publicly stating that he would leave office if the experience of power sharing with the palace proved unworkable, he has ensured more accountability for the king. The PJD and other parties now have political space that they will guard jealously. 

Morocco is experiencing something akin to the history of the relations between the British crown and the British parliament in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Alawite dynasty of Morocco enjoys a strong sense of legitimacy going back to the seventeenth century. Morocco’s strong sense of independent nationhood is connected in part to the ruling dynasty. Unlike other potential Arab candidates for constitutional monarchy—Jordan, Kuwait, and Oman come to mind—Morocco is at a geographic remove from the most existential conflicts in the Arab world. At some point in the future, Morocco may be a genuine constitutional monarchy, or it may be a failed experiment in setting limits on an authoritarian and hereditary monarchy. King Mohammed and the PJD face many of the same accelerators of violent change that other hereditary Arab rulers and the parties with which they share political space must consider. Will the gradual process of political change in Morocco be rapid enough in the age of satellite television and social media? How vulnerable is Morocco to the offshoots of al-Qa‘ida?

Like Tunisia, stable constitutional development in Morocco faces more daunting obstacles than the purely political ones. With 51 percent of the population under age 25, Morocco has a high rate of unemployment and slow economic growth rates. Demands for economic and social development are urgent, and the system of subsidies that has bought time is benefitting the middle and upper classes more than the mass of Moroccans at or below the poverty level. The nearest European country, Spain, is still deep in a recession with few opportunities for Moroccan émigré workers. The lure of adventure and a salary for young alienated Moroccans makes them prey to the recruiters of terrorist movements.  

Algeria Keeps a Lid on Political Reforms while Making Economic Progress   

Cracking down with an iron hand on both terrorism and the smoldering embers of popular rebellion, Algerian leaders have been able to rely heavily on the acquiescence of most of the Algerian population. Algerians are tired of decades of conflict and yearning for a chance to build a normal life. They often say that they had their “Arab Spring” in the last decade of the twentieth century and have no desire to repeat the experience in the twenty-first. The bloody Algerian civil war may have cost 200,000 lives, and there is little appetite for pushing now for a more liberal political system with room for Islamist parties. Older Algerians remember and have told their children and grandchildren of the over one million who died in Algeria’s war of independence from France from 1954 to 1962. These two events frame the proudly independent Algerian nationalism and fierce suspicion of foreign intervention, including al-Qa‘ida-inspired terrorist groups.  

The real power brokers of Algeria, career senior military and intelligence officers, or “Le Pouvoir,” are wise enough to stay in the shadows while maintaining a façade of elections and civilian leaders in the government. A sign of weakness, however, was the inability of this power structure to agree upon a younger (or at least healthier and fresher) successor to 77-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The Algerian state also commands a strong revenue stream from oil and gas that feeds the energy markets of nearby Western Europe. Other authoritarian security states, such as Egypt and Syria, have lacked the readily available capital for economic and social development that Algeria has available. We have seen, however, how the Qaddafi regime in Libya and the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq wasted the opportunity to combine effective use of state revenues with benefits for the population in a way that would maintain social peace. Whether the Algerian state will find the mix of carrots and sticks to maintain social peace for long is an open question.  Finally, Algeria has made progress in dealing with its Berber minority, but that is another problem that is potentially destabilizing.  

The per capita wealth of Algerians does not approach that of the petro states of the Arabian Peninsula. A per capita GDP of less than $8,000 does not allow a large enough margin for the reported corruption in the government offices and other state institutions that dominate the Algerian economy. Moreover, the Algerian state has yet to come to terms with the need to encourage private sector job creating economic activity. This relatively populous country has high levels of poverty and unemployment, both explosive ingredients. It lacks the means available to some other petro states to smother discontent with a generous social safety net. Greater numbers of young Algerians with good education and work experience are returning to their mother country as the European recession lingers and instability in Arab states to the east makes jobs there less tempting.   This provides the Algerian state with a challenging opportunity. If it does not satisfy these talented men and women’s aspirations, they will either leave the country or start making trouble.     

Drivers, Dynamics, and Obama’s Legacy

Factors for Violent Change, Evolutionary Progress, or Continued Stagnation

Like the rest of the Arab world, the countries of North Africa must deal with both an authoritarian past and present-day demands for change from young populations that can find a radical cyberspace if the political space of representative institutions does not exist.  These populations all have far higher levels of education now than when their countries became independent in the middle of the last century. This can be either a productive human resource or fuel for the fires of discontent. The countries’ location close to Western Europe and their diverse natural resources offer great potential for the development of a wide range of job producing industries. But they are also vulnerable to the forces of terrorism and political extremism.  

Beyond these general drivers and dynamics applicable across the Maghreb, Georgetown University Professor Michael Hudson has observed that while the Arab Spring spread contagiously from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya and to some extent to Algeria and Morocco, the responses have been quite varied based on national circumstances. Shaping “each country’s self-contained path” has been the interplay of bureaucratic capacity of each country’s governing institutions and the legitimacy of the political level itself. Tunisia, for example, has a strong bureaucratic capacity that has eased the transition from Ben Ali’s autocratic regime to a more democratic one. Libya, in contrast, has grappled with a void both regarding bureaucratic competence and legitimacy at the top. In sum, the differing circumstances will continue to drive the Maghreb countries on individual national paths.[1]

A North African Legacy for Obama and His Successor

Given the competing priorities for the United States in other parts of the world and the far more immediate impact of developments in these four countries on Western Europe, it might be tempting to neglect both the threats and the opportunities discussed above.   This course would be unwise. Tunisia and Morocco, especially, may offer good examples for the rest of the Arab world in terms of political development, but they need extensive economic help from Western governments and international institutions to make success a reality. At least parts of Libya could become ungoverned spaces, this time on the Mediterranean, with far-reaching potential effects beyond the immediate neighborhood.   The Algerian state might turn more and more to repression of discontent if it cannot find a balance of economic and political reforms that would lead to favorable development.  

In a more benign world, counterterrorism cooperation would not be at the top of Washington’s agenda in dealing with North Africa.  Realistically, it must be, along with an appreciation that long-term stability demands far more.  Moreover, each country demands a different approach. Whereas Ansar al-Shariah has declared a caliphate in the port city of Derna, formerly the main center of recruits for jihad in Iraq, Libya’s own civil strife has taken precedence over expeditionary terrorism for now, with relatively few Libyans (or Algerians) traveling to Syria, whereas large numbers of Tunisians and Moroccans find their way there. Regional counterterrorism cooperation would be a worthy goal, but it is hard to see how that can be achieved without an improvement in the frosty relations between Algeria and Morocco, a diplomatic standoff that has defied the efforts of mediation by the United Nations and Western governments. Given its long border with Libya, Egypt will also demand to be at the table. Indeed, it has already weighed in.

Washington will be more effective in all four countries if it acts in coalitions with European Union partners and international institutions. The United Nations, firmly backed by the United States, was instrumental in the creation of an independent Libya. The UN can only be effective if backed by the muscle of key member states, but the blue flag has favorable symbolism in bringing Libyan factions to the table of dialogue and political compromise. 

The United States and the World Bank have both been generous to Tunisia during recent years, but the great bulk of Tunisian trade is with Western Europe. If Tunisia does not pull out of its deep economic problems, it will be European states that feel most of the unfavorable effects. Much the same is true for the potential evolution of a constitutional monarchy in Morocco. Perhaps the United States can make better use of its free trade agreement with Morocco. The history of diplomatic relations that the Sultan of Morocco extended to the United States as a young and struggling nation also offers goodwill that should help make a U.S. contribution effective.  

Algeria will continue to take a tough line with both terrorists and all but the tamest domestic opponents. The government values its interaction with U.S. companies, but it will be wary of any U.S. prescriptions for political change. Washington cannot hope to nudge Algeria toward political and economic reforms with any hope of success if Algerian leaders hear different advice from their European economic and security partners. One way that Secretary of State John Kerry can make good use of his influence in Paris is to get the French on the same page regarding Algeria.     

“Leading from behind” was a terrible way to describe in public what needs to be a guiding principle of U.S. policy in North Africa. Washington does need to “organize the team,” often from behind the scenes. Sometimes the United States also needs to make use of its unique assets in assuring the success of the team effort.  

North Africa has important lessons for Obama and his successors who might contemplate involvement in the internal affairs of countries in a state of turmoil.  

1) Institutions really matter. Obama has noted the failure to plan for a post-Qaddafi Libyan future, which would have provided more support for a country emerging from authoritarianism without institutions. While the United States erred in Iraq by dismantling the military and some other means of governance, it erred in Libya by assuming that they would emerge.  

2) When the direct U.S. national interest is unclear, the need for an international coalition and effective partners on the ground is greater. The model of coalition warfare in Libya will endure as a necessary way to sustain foreign engagement.  

3) Obama’s policy of collaboration with the EU and others is the only realistic means of helping the states of North Africa to transition out of turmoil.   

4) Elections are only a step on the path to a stable democracy. The failure of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt to be inclusive was absorbed by Ennahda in Tunisia, but lasting legitimacy only comes when a government delivers the security, services, and economic progress that the populace demands. 

5) Electoral democracy may be the preferred model of Americans, but other forms of stable rule of law may fit better in countries with different histories and current experiences.

>> Series Overview: Obama's Legacy in the Middle East

[1] Presentation, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations 23rd Annual Conference, Washington, D.C., October 28, 2014.