2019 is a big year for politics in the Maghreb. In April, Algeria is due to vote on whether to return President Bouteflika for a fifth mandate with few doubting the results, but on Friday 22 February, large protests broke out in cities all across Algeria in opposition to the fifth mandate and further mobilisation is planned.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI will mark his twentieth year in power in July, and Tunisian voters will head to the polls for both parliamentary and presidential elections in the autumn. All of these events take place against a background of an increasingly unsettled region; high unemployment, poorly paid and insecure informal employment, low-quality service provision by the state, and growing levels of inequality have left much of the region’s population, particularly youth, struggling to build a future for themselves.

Disillusionment and protest

The Maghreb countries vary considerably in their political systems, but leaders across the region have shown themselves unable to respond to the expectations of their populations. Tunisia experienced a political revolution in 2011, Morocco got a new Constitution following mass protests in 2011, while Algeria’s sporadic protests in 2011 were easily quelled. However, the political leadership in all three countries has lacked a viable societal and economic project that can capture the imagination of their people and maintain social cohesion.

This has led to growing disillusionment across the region, with an increasing number of protests, strikes and social movements in the past couple of years. Data shows a rise in the number of protests and riots in Algeria, and Morocco in the past two years, while Tunisia has experienced an ever-growing number of protests since its 2011 Revolution. This trend also shows no sign of abating following the mass mobilisation of the January UGTT strike, protests in Morocco on the anniversary of the Arab Spring, and the biggest protest movement in more than thirty years in Algeria.

The forms of protest employed across the region have been diverse. The deep-seated mobilisation of the Hirak movement in the Moroccan Rif region began in October 2016, and included months of mass protests against the slow pace of development and the corruption of officials. In January 2019, a general strike took place in Tunisia, organised by the region’s most powerful labour union UGTT followed by more sporadic mobilisation in villages and towns across rural areas. Algeria’s 22 February protest was organised through anonymous online channels, with different civil society and student movements calling for further mobilisation. Activists have also shown adaptability, as with the organisation of an online boycott of key companies in Morocco last year, that was organised anonymously in the wake of the repression of the Hirak and other protests.

Migration, Brain Drain and slow socio-economic development

Alongside this mobilisation, the region has also seen a growing number of migrants originating from the region itself. This includes increased numbers of irregular migrants, with interceptions of migrants from the three countries rising more than threefold between 2016 and 2018. At the same time, rising numbers of middle- and upper-class individuals, including many of the most educated people in the region, are leaving by legal routes, contributing to a growing brain drain.

This causes multiple problems. All three countries have experienced minimal growth in recent years, while a tiny elite in each country continues to benefit from its privileged position, and opportunity continues to evade the majority of the population. The wider MENA region has the rather undesirable distinction, together with Latin America, of being the worst performing region in the world since 2011. The Maghreb saw growth rates in 2018 of just 2.3% in Algeria, an estimated 2.6% in Tunisia and 2.8% in Morocco. With high unemployment and underemployment in the region, these growth rates are not high enough to fuel the kind of development that would be necessary to move towards full employment and improved living standards across the region.

Furthermore, the concentration of power in the hands of an aging and debilitated president in Algeria, and of an often ill and absent king in Morocco, is clearly causing growing anger, particularly as these regimes fail to deliver on economic and social development promises. Tunisia’s democratic transition meanwhile remains unfinished and the political elites have failed to inspire the country’s youth, who largely abstain from voting. In all three countries a small group of economic elites maintains a controlling stake in the economy and often exerts enough influence to prevent policymakers adopting policies that might interfere with their privileges, whilst the majority face stagnant or falling living standards.

Tunisia: The need for economic vision

This is particularly worrying in Tunisia, where policymakers have lacked courage in attempting to address the deep inequalities and vested interests that permeate the system. The deterioration of the economy after the revolution, and the policy choices that have followed caused many to lose faith in the country’s infant democracy. Tunisian and international policymakers speak about the need for the private sector to provide employment for the growing number of unemployed youth. However they have been slow to put structures in place that would allow the private sector to flourish, and insufficient attention is being paid to the need to safeguard and improve basic human development. The banking system remains inaccessible to many local businesses, and requires thorough reform to allow indigenous businesses to borrow and grow. Meanwhile, businesses also complain that the regulatory framework in many sectors is inadequate. Prime Minister Chahed’s initial rigor in pursuing corruption has lost steam, while tax evasion by business elites is estimated to cost the country as much as USD 8.3 billion in lost revenue. There has also been little will to widen Tunisia’s relatively narrow tax base by tackling unfair tax structures. Tackling taxation and corruption is necessary to raise funds to invest both in regional development programmes that spread investment more evenly across the country, and stall the decline of the education and health systems.

Tunisia’s future economic direction has often been treated as a technocratic question, rather than the most important political question facing the country. In the 2014 elections, Tunisia’s major political parties failed to offer coherent and competing visions for the economy, instead splitting along an Islamist-anti-Islamist divide. As the economic situation declined, the Tunisian government entered a 4-year loan agreement for $2.9 billion under the IMF Extended Fund Facility in 2016. The agreement was based on a reform program that notably included reducing the budget deficit, reforming the public sector with the aim of making it more efficient and cutting the public sector wage bill, thus allowing for greater exchange rate flexibility. Many of these reforms have been highly controversial, and have led to protests and strikes, including the UGTT General strike in January 2019. The major parties in theory all agree on the need to follow through on the IMF reforms, although they disagree with the IMF on the speed of implementation. But the absence of a real economic debate and a range of economic perspectives amongst the leading political parties has ultimately weakened democratic debate. Should the UGTT formally enter the political field by supporting or running candidates, as it has indicated that it might, this could play an important role in redirecting the debate towards economic issues, – however it may take some years before political actors offer more mature economic visions.

Tunisia needs to get its budget deficit under control, or it risks rising indebtedness and debt servicing costs in years to come, or it risks entreching deeper economic hardship across the country. But while parts of the public sector certainly require restructuring, there should also be wider policy proposals focused on raising government revenues and on strategic state investment in key sectors, rather than simply on cutting costs. If not, Tunisia risks growing inequality, falling health and education standards, and ever more turbulence in its underdeveloped interior regions. These issues need to be part of a national debate ahead of this year’s elections, or the democratic process is going to become increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of most Tunisians.

Algeria: Elections but no economic reforms

Algeria’s large hydrocarbon reserves allowed it to maintain a higher standard of living than its neighbours while hydrocarbon prices were high, but also to avoid economic diversification. After the fall in hydrocarbon prices in 2014, a period of attempted budgetary retrenchment ended quickly. Politicians have burned through Algeria’s extensive reserves, and have been printing money to stave off reform ahead of the presidential elections this spring, while the standard of service provision continues to fall. The country has stagnated both economically and politically in recent years, with little appetite for any real reform in either sphere. When in Summer 2017, Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune tried to introduce reforms that would have touched on the privileges of much of the business elite, he was swiftly deposed after only three months in power, raising major questions about their power, and the ability for any Prime Minister to affect deep-seated change as long as President Bouteflika remains in power. Algeria’s foreign reserves, which fell from nearly USD 200 billion to less than USD 80 billion, are likely to fall yet further short of a major overhaul of the Algerian budget for years to come. Observers expect that in case the price of oil and gas drops again, the economic crisis point could come within a year or two.

But the point of political crisis has already arrived ahead of April’s presidential elections. After the announcement that Bouteflika would again run for President, there was a scattering of popular mobilisation against the fifth mandate in various parts of the country, notably a march in Béjaia in Kabylie on Friday 15 February, and more spontaneous demonstrations of anger in football stadiums and elsewhere. Then on 22 February, large peaceful protests were held all across the country, with some estimates suggesting that hundreds of thousands took to the streets carrying banners and chanting slogans against another term for President Bouteflika. Protestors also made it clear that his brother, Said, would not be an acceptable alternative. Further protests were organised by the opposition movement, Mouwatana, on Sunday 24 February, and although certainly smaller, these again gathered thousands and possibly tens of thousands. Security forces, who had intervened with tear gas when protests reached the Presidential palace on 22 February, appeared to use greater force on 24 February.

At the time of writing, it is impossible to say what the outcome of the protest movement will be. The army, and particularly its powerful chief of staff and deputy defence minister Gaid Salah, are likely to play an important role in the coming weeks. There is currently no clear candidate to replace Bouteflika, either within the opposition or within the regime. Former General, Ali Ghediri, who is presenting himself as the candidate of reform and rupture, is currently the most serious opposition candidate, but the opposition remains bitterly divided. There is some speculation that former foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra, who recently returned as an advisor to Bouteflika may run.

Morocco: Economic advances, but inequality and political stalemate

Morocco is widely regarded as the most promising economy in the region, while its political stability and security after 2011 made it a favoured partner for European governments. In economic terms, it has risen up the rankings of the World Bank’s Doing Business to 60th position, became the only country in the MENA region to have a dedicated OECD country programme, and become a favoured destination for European car companies to outsource car production. Yet Morocco’s economic and political model is coming under increased pressure; despite the political change that the 2011 constitution was supposed to represent, a small power elite close to King Mohammed VI largely controls key ministries, including almost all economic and developmental portfolios, rather than the largest party in the government, the Islamist PJD party. Further, Morocco’s development efforts have not kept pace with expectations; unemployment remains high, and social contestation of one kind or another has been continuous since the Hirak protests began in October 2016. Governance measures have largely been aimed at facilitating international investment but have left many of the highly unequal structures of the domestic political and economic landscape untouched, notably the vast accumulation of wealth by a few businesses with close links to the palace.

Protest movements around the country shed light on the uneven distribution of local development projects, and the country’s flagship development project, the National Human Development Initiative (INDH), aimed at reducing poverty, insecurity and social exclusion, came under increased scrutiny. The initiative included investments of 40 billion dinars in 44,000 projects reaching 10 million people, but while the initiative was supposed to strengthen local governance, many of its critics see it as a means for the distribution of patronage, pointing to the fact that the Ministry of the Interior administered it. The National Observatory on Human Development (ONDH) highlighted in its 2017 annual report that absolute poverty has been reduced, but focused on the fact that inequality remains pronounced across the country and is a major impediment to development. In response to the unrest since 2016, the King fired several key ministers charged with development related portfolios, promised to devolve greater power to the local level, and called for the Moroccan people to participate in a national debate on Morocco’s development model, but it is unlikely that this debate will allow for any questioning of the political and economic role of the king’s inner circle, and the patronage networks that undermine more equitable development in the country.

As migratory pressures via Morocco have mounted in the past year, the EU and its member states have begun to refocus attention and resources on Morocco, including the promise of EUR 140 million for border management, but also to the announcement of new development funding for projects focused on the “root causes of migration.” Morocco also looks set to benefit from the growing European focus on investment in Africa, expressed in Juncker’s 2018 State of the EU proposals, in the growing German interest in the continent, including the ‘Marshall Fund for Africa’, but also through growing Chinese investments in the country. All of this may provide Morocco with the necessary economic firepower to push real political change further down the road and to avoid truly tackling the country’s problematic political economy, but if joblessness and inequality continue at current levels, then demands for change are likely to continue.

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In the absence of real political and economic change, the region is likely to experience continued protests and strikes, accompanied by a rise in both the brain drain, and in illegal migration emanating from the region. In each of the three countries, courageous leadership is sorely lacking, economic elites block the path to true economic development, and international financial institutions play a sometimes-ambivalent role in promoting an inclusive economic order.

The economic problems across the region are inextricably linked to the political structures. It is very difficult to imagine real reform in Algeria without political change first, while in Morocco, the political and economic power concentrated in the hands of a few businesses close to the palace have become inextricable. Tunisia’s political leadership has thus far failed to rethink its economic structures, but this year’s elections at least offer the opportunity for a conversation about the country’s economic future.

Chloe Teevan is the programme coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Her research focuses on the political economy of North Africa, and European policy options for supporting greater stability in the region.

Photo © Mohamed Mouha • CC BY-SA 4.0

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