18 April 2019

North Africa: Fluid Dynamics in Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia Leaves Little Room for Certainty About Regional Stability

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The situation in Algeria continues to command worldwide attention, especially with the ousting of long-time leader Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and his replacement (twice) by military figures, which has led to a field day for analysts and pundits regarding Arab authoritarian regimes.

While these events continued, another general now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt met in Cairo with Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who seems intent on imposing his mantle on all of Libya, as he claims, to combat terrorism and extremist groups and militias, reflecting his view of those allied with the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. Haftar has issued an arrest warrant for Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, while his military forces continue to fight for control of Tripoli.

There is little agreement on the way forward in Algeria where demonstrations continued demanding the removal of the vestiges of elite control of the country with little indication as to what comes next.

While the opposition clearly wants change, it lacks a structure to mobilize negotiations with the military as to reaching a consensus on what process might emerge. Constitutionally, Abdelkader Bensalah, speaker of parliament's upper house and now interim president, has 90 days to hold an election. His appointment has increased public frustration since he and others currently in charge are veteran politicians tied to the current leadership.

As an example of the casting about for alternatives by the regime, it was mentioned that former Algerian president, Lamine Zeroual, had been approached by another old guard leader, in this case, General Mohamed Mediene said Toufik, with the agreement of Said Bouteflika, brother of the ex-president, to lead the transitional body, which he refused.

As noted in an Aljazeera posting, "It seems Algerians are not going to go home until their demands are met. And today their demands are clear. They are asking for the 'Three Bs' to leave, meaning [the head of the Constitutional Council, Tayeb] Belaiz, [Prime Minister Noureddine] Bedoui and [interim leader Abdelkader] Bensalah." Belaiz has subsequently resigned his position.

For the first time this past week, police arrested 108 people during the Friday demonstration in Algiers, claiming they were "infiltrators" among the protesters, resulting in injuries to 27 policemen. General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was instrumental in Bouteflika's departure and then threw his support behind the interim leader, warned against the "unrealistic slogans" of protesters aiming to sweep away the whole ruling system.

Tunisia faces different challenges to its evolving democracy as internal fissures in one of the leading political parties, and the inability of the government to improve basic social and economic conditions, has soured the democratic experience for many Tunisians.

The country has more than 200 registered political parties, further adding confusion to the election scenario as most are based around individuals rather than political issues that would resonate with large numbers of voters. Since 2011, there have been 10 government reorganizations, further undermining people's confidence in the system. As a recent Carnegie Endowment paper noted, "Reversing the trend will demand a shift from the consensus model the country embraced during the early transition years to a system that creates real political opposition and acts as a check on those in office."

The article also notes that "the entire political apparatus is hamstrung by a lack of adequate human and financial resources to allow lawmakers and executive officials to make informed decisions based on the needs of their constituents." In surveying the party landscape, it is clear that aside from the Islamic-oriented Ennahda party, others have been unable to "to build strong party institutions and develop competing political and economic agendas ahead of the 2019 elections."

Beji Caid Essebsi, the current president and founder of the former leading secular party Nidaa Tounes, has announced that he will not run for president, paving the way for his son, who now leads the party, to push ahead with his candidacy. If he is able to rebuild a party that lost more than half of its parliamentary seats in the recent past, is far from clear. But the concern is even deeper than party politics, if one looks at recent polling results.

According to the Carnegie Endowment paper, "Polls suggest a growing disenchantment with not only the performances of political parties but also with democracy itself. According to the 2018 Afrobarometer survey, 81% of Tunisians do "not feel close to any political party," and 79% either would not vote or would not know whom to vote for if elections were held tomorrow, which is alarming given the upcoming elections."

An early sign, such as the poor turnout of only 36% at last year's municipal elections, does not bode well as independent candidates gained 33% percent of the vote, with 29% for Ennahda, and 22% for Nidaa Tounes. "Thus, it is not surprising that overall support for democracy dropped from 70 percent in 2013 to 46 percent in 2018."

With growing instability in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, the Maghreb seems set for a challenging 2019 that may result in needed changes and a broadening of political space or more of the same, which will only suppress tensions and discontent.

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