North Africa: A Cultural Crossroads Faces the Future

MIN READMar 17, 2014 | 09:31 GMT

North Africa: A Cultural Crossroads Faces the Future


Editor's Note: The following is the first installment of a four-part series examining the geographic, political and security challenges facing North Africa. Part 2 looks at the uncertainties surrounding Algeria's upcoming elections. Part 3 examines instability in Libya and its effects in neighboring countries. Part 4 discusses the ongoing changes in Morocco and Tunisia.

The countries that make up North Africa — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya — are defined as much by the broad desert expanses of the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains as they are by the waters of the Mediterranean. Wedged between the coastline of the southern Mediterranean and an ocean of sand, the populations of North Africa inhabit a virtual island. Despite their proximity to — and long history of interaction with — Southern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the broader Middle East, the countries of North Africa have been able to forge and maintain an identity distinct from their neighbors. This is not to say that these states are relatively insulated. Rather than preventing transportation, the Mediterranean and Sahara have been crisscrossed by trade routes for millennia, making North Africa a central node of a vibrant pre-modern trade route spanning three continents. Traders used these routes to transport gold and goods from West Africa to Southern Europe via the Maghreb, and sea-borne trade linked the ports of Carthage in what is now Tunisia with the Levant and Ancient Greece and Rome.

Because of this lack of isolation, current trends within North Africa — challenges to political stability, regional militancy and changes in energy production — can affect markets and strategic decision making both regionally and internationally. Though North African states have been — and will remain — largely constrained in their ability to influence the broader Middle East, their proximity to Europe and former European colonial holdings in Africa, and the continued economic and security relationships between these regions, makes events in North Africa resonate in regional and Western capitals.

In 2011, North Africa exploded into global headlines. The reverberations of the so-called Arab Spring were felt throughout the Islamic world and beyond: The change in civilian leadership in Egypt had many international leaders questioning the future of the linchpin of the Arab world. In addition, a NATO intervention in Libya removed the government of Moammar Gadhafi after more than 30 years of rule. The effects of the Arab Spring have not yet faded. Syria's civil war is still unfolding, and Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are still in the midst of either defining a post-revolutionary state or adjusting to the region's changing expectations of their governments.

The Arab Spring did not take root in North Africa by accident. The area's geography and the geopolitical limitations placed on the region's capitals prevent North African governments from effectively containing rising social dissatisfaction and unrest.

North Africa

North Africa

Mountains, Deserts, Sea: The Geography of North Africa

Occupying the northwestern corner of the African continent, Morocco and Algeria constitute the largest coastal plain in the Arab world. Precipitation caused by the Atlas Mountains has created a relatively fertile strip of land between the coastline and the edge of the mountain range — where most of the populations of Morocco and Algeria live. The terrain south of the mountains is relatively arid and, due to the consequent difficulty of establishing large-scale agriculture, sparsely populated. Morocco lacks Algeria's expansive southern desert regions, but the western stretch of the Sahara is largely uninhabited except for towns built around oases, and the desert's artificial colonial-era boundaries are difficult to discern, let alone secure. 

The Atlas Mountains extend eastward and terminate in Tunisia, whose population has settled along the country's eastern coastline in myriad ports. Together, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia form the region known as the Maghreb, anchored by the Atlas Mountains and united by both geography and centuries of shared patterns of European and Ottoman domination.

Libya occupies the space between the Maghreb and Egypt. Lacking the geographical definitions of the Atlas Mountains and spanning a large expanse of desert, Libyan society has remained much more tribally focused than populations in either the Maghreb or Egypt. Libya's two major metropolitan areas — Tripoli and Benghazi — are separated by a broad expanse of desert, further cementing the divisions so apparent within Libyan society. 



Western Libya, including the capital city of Tripoli, is nestled along the smaller Nafusa mountain chain where pockets of Amazigh Berbers and Ibadi Muslims live. The region, also known as Tripolitania, abuts the southern Libyan region of Fezzan and is culturally closer to the Maghreb than to the eastern Libyan province of Cyrenaica. With similar geographical challenges as Algeria, but without the fertile lands along the coast or as unifying a geographic feature as the Atlas Mountains, Tripoli has struggled to emerge as the decisive leader of post-Gadhafi Libyan politics. Eastern Libya, anchored around the coastal city of Benghazi, boasts the majority of Libya's significant crude oil reserves. Benghazi's inability to either fully secure itself against outside challengers or dominate Tripoli has led to an extended stalemate between Libya's two leading city-states.

Stratfor's organizational understanding of North Africa excludes Egypt for several reasons. Egypt's political and cultural ties are much stronger to the broader Middle East. Strong Fatimid and Ottoman legacies — including al Azhar University, a leading center of Sunni Islamic learning — have endured despite Egypt's own colonial legacies. Egyptian arts and media are broadcast throughout the Arab-speaking world but face competition within the Maghreb from other domestically produced media representing the blending of European, Arab and Berber cultures. North Africa uses a different form of Arabic then Egypt (and the rest of the Middle East), separating the two. Geography again underpins these distinctions; Egypt's Nile-based demographic core is separated from Benghazi by a vast desert. While this geography is far from a perfect barrier, Egypt has found it much easier and more geopolitically compelling to look eastward rather than engage its distant western neighbors.

The Maghreb and Libya's coastal cities all benefited from the rich maritime trade activities that dominated the Mediterranean economy from late Antiquity through the 16th century. As long as the European consumption of goods from Islamic lands continued, North Africans stood to prosper through trade and piracy. Fortunes changed with Europe's imperial expansion into the New World, and Europe's Mediterranean powers — Spain, France and Italy — moved quickly into North Africa, either to secure the agricultural lands and resources or to eliminate threats from the region.



Challenges of Statecraft in North Africa 

Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya all face the daunting task of managing significant coastal populations in countries mostly comprising semi-arid highlands and open desert. Though not impassible, North Africa's terrain makes infrastructure development difficult and costly. As a result, communities outside the coastal, or northern, population cores of North African states have traditionally found themselves outside the broader economic and political circles of the coastal elite. Whether in Western Sahara, southern Algeria or Libya, or even interior Tunisia, these southern regions range from poorer and less-developed areas to locales whose populations face active and institutionalized repression from the coastal capitals.

For decades, these more mountainous and desert regions have been home to either ethnic minorities (very often various groups of Amazigh Berbers) or more traditional, conservative Muslim populations. Both groups often waged insurgencies against the coastal-based governments and other native targets as well as fighting across the porous borders of North Africa and the Sahel. The geography that impedes North Africa's capitals from integrating their interior populations facilitates rebel and militant movements, making it easier for them to seek sanctuary.



The ethnic Sahrawi inhabitants of Western Sahara, to Morocco's south, consider their homeland occupied territory. For the population to the north, however, it is undeniably part of the Moroccan kingdom. (Western Sahara remains a divisive issue within Moroccan politics — one that Algeria often exploits in its competition for regional influence with Rabat.) While Western Sahara remains generally — if not totally — secure within Morocco's grasp, Algeria's vast southern territories present challenges for Algiers. The southern regions hold most of Algeria's vital hydrocarbon production facilities, but the porous desert borders — and proximity to militant activity in Tunisia, Libya and Mali — have required a strong and pervasive military and security establishment there.


Tunisia has found it especially difficult to deal with a budding domestic jihadist threat on its own. This has given Algeria several opportunities to bring a once reticent Tunis further into its sphere of influence. Libya, now the institutionally weakest North African state, has faced the greatest challenges in reforming a post-revolutionary national identity.
These challenges are not new; they reflect the region's historic propensity toward authoritarian regimes. Morocco and Algeria both boast significant military and security capabilities, and both have a strong focus on counterterrorism activities. Both have used these institutions to quell domestic unrest — containing Sahrawi independence movements in Western Morocco and during Algeria's civil war in the 1990s. The long-standing competition between Morocco and Algeria has traditionally maintained a balance within the region that allowed Tunisia and Libya to pursue their own imperatives without too much Moroccan or Algerian encroachment. This balance has been upset by Morocco's greater inward focus and by the ousting of regimes in Tunisia and Libya, triggered by the Arab Spring. Algeria, the most economically and politically stable state in the region, has worked to expand its regional influence and secure its interests while neighboring states are in disarray, though even Algiers faces significant political uncertainties looming on the horizon.

Aside from Libya and Algeria's energy wealth, North Africa is largely resource-poor. It is also difficult to develop and prone to unrest (and subsequent strong reprisals). It is no wonder that North Africa — specifically Tunisia — was the cradle of the Arab Spring. Poor economic conditions and high unemployment among a young and disenfranchised population provided a ready foundation for an uprising, following Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation on Dec. 17, 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Bouazizi's response to what he viewed as an overreaching and degrading state bureaucracy that benefited only an elite few touched on broader themes throughout the Arab World.  From Morocco through Egypt, the same leaders, chosen in largely pre-determined elections or appointed by shadowy and pervasive military institutions, had ruled governments for decades.

Hailed by the West as bastions of stability and partners in the global fight against jihadist militancy, the states with a more pronounced geographic core — Morocco and Algeria — remained largely intact. However, Tunisia's and Libya's national leaders and their political machines and patronage networks were ousted by popular uprisings and — in Libya's case — a NATO intervention. What the Arab Spring has shown, especially in the case of Libya, is the difficulty in ruling a North African state, absent a centralized authority backed by not only a capable military or security apparatus but also economic and political patronage networks. 

Continuing Economic Pressures and Instability

A persistent complaint from North Africans concerns the lack of economic opportunities in the region, exacerbating the economic constraints of regional geography. Algeria possesses the largest regional economy — twice the size of Morocco's and nearly four times as large as Tunisia's — and is driven by exports of crude oil and natural gas. Algeria's energy sector has financed the continent's largest defense budget and increased social spending, underwriting Algeria's stability. Morocco's economy has been more diversified but less robust: tourism, phosphate exports and agricultural and fishing activities have provided the kingdom with modest growth. The lack of domestic energy supplies and a population still dependent on imports of foodstuffs has necessitated a stronger alignment between Rabat and the United States, European Union and Gulf Cooperation Council.

Among the Maghreb states, Tunisia is the most dependent on foreign investment. However, Tunis was able to develop strong institutional control over workers, tying together private business ownership, organized labor and government objectives into a carefully balanced patronage network and large state bureaucracy, rather than adopting the more robust military apparatuses of other North African states. Libya's large oil reserves and small population — the smallest in the region — led to relative increases in infrastructure and the development of the small, urbanized population centers along the coast. Yet, with the removal of the previous state management system, Libya's economic potential lies largely untapped. Various stakeholders are currently involved in an extended, well-armed stalemate over the future control of Libyan resources.

Economic stability and revitalization will remain critical to stability in the region, as Algeria struggles to retain regional influence and all the North African states deal with increasing militant activity. Economic and political reform will come slowly to a North Africa faced with few options and many threats. The West has a strong desire to see a return to normalcy across the Mediterranean, a region that is a significant supplier of both energy exports and immigrants into Europe. However, the region remains in flux. The Arab Spring is a symptom — not a cause — of a larger regional shift in rising populations of young people, aging authoritative leaders and a geography that makes unifying and ruling these countries difficult and expensive. The spread of a more conservative form of Islam is also hampering economic growth, especially in places like Tunisia, trying as it was for decades to encourage economic growth through tourism. While outside countries push regional capitals to offer safer and more stable investment environments, the same areas that once linked transcontinental trade now risk becoming conduits for transnational jihadists eager not only to establish emirates at home but also to spread their influence beyond the nebulous boundaries of the Sahara.  

The world will continue to watch North Africa. The question of political transition (and possible economic reform) in Algeria, Libya's threat to regional stability and the future of Morocco and Tunisia will all affect strategic decision-making within these countries as well as abroad. As it has for much of the past 1,000 years, North Africa's geographic proximity to the Middle East, Africa and Europe — now tinged with volatility — will make outsiders wary but will not keep them from seeking opportunities.

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