5 key security challenges for North Africa in 2019

North African states, most notably Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, have been constantly exposed to security threats due to a series of political, socio-economic and military factors. With the region battling old and new challenges, here are some key security risks it must confront in the year ahead.  

1. Terrorism 

Conceptualising terrorism is a challenging task; combating it is clearly even harder. It is formally defined by the Convention of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on Combating International Terrorism as “any act of violence or threat thereof notwithstanding its motives or intentions perpetrated to carry out an individual or collective criminal plan with the aim of terrorising people…”.  This definition also covers properties, national resources, international facilities and state sovereignty. 

Terrorism threats have become the new normal in Libya since former leader Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed in 2011 following a popular uprising that turned into an ongoing war among Libyan militias. Amid the absence of a single government, Libya is unquestionably bracing for new attacks in 2019. While an internationally-backed government of Fayez Al-Sarraj exists in the capital Tripoli, military strongman Khalifa Haftar — supported by some Arab states — is running a parallel government in eastern Libya. Several international attempts to end the power struggle have failed to yield fruitful results. 

Islamist insurgent groups such as the Islamic State (IS) routinely rely on terrorism tactics to advance their agenda in Libya. They target foreign and diplomatic persons and assets, hotels, commercial and petroleum buildings and government headquarters. Last November, for instance, dozens of gunmen attacked several government buildings and a police station in the southeastern town of Tazirbu, leading to the death of eight civilians, the injury of nine and the abduction of at least three others. IS militants recently attacked the headquarters of the foreign ministry of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Although backed by US airstrikes, the GNA seems incapable of moving beyond some tactical achievements such as restoring control over Sirte in December 2016 and defeating IS in the southern city , which offer no guarantees for a permanent halt to terrorist attacks.  

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach as Islamist insurgents in Northern Sinai often count on terrorist attacks to destabilise the region further. They depend on shootings, bombings or suicide bombings against civilian, security and state personnel and sites. Media pundits often assume that the miltary-backed ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 fuelled the rise of extremist attacks. However, this argument is questionable since Egypt has been involved in anti-terrorism campaigns since the rise of Islamist militancy in the 1980s, and the extent of the terrorist operations mostly depended on the competence of the state security policy. In fact, the security vacuum that fell into place since the anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011 gave these terrorists an unprecedented opportunity to operate on a larger scale than that of the previous decade. Experts have also noted attacks against ‘soft’ targets such as tourists in recent years: the most recent incident occurred on 28 December when three Vietnamese tourists and an Egyptian tour guide died when a bomb exploded near a tourist bus just kilometres away from the pyramids. 

Tunisia is facing similar challenges. Last November, a security patrol in central Kasserine’s Al-Manar district was attacked by gunmen, an incident that IS has claimed responsibility. As North African states continue to suffer in terms of developing efficient, anti-terrorism strategies, threats of new attacks loom large.

2. Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies 

Terrorist attacks and insurgencies are two different stories, for the latter involves an attempt by a militant group to establish control over territories through the support of the population. As the process involves more than a mere use of force, counterinsurgency operations are “military, law enforcement, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken to defeat insurgency, while addressing the root causes.” 

Libya has the most complicated situation as all parties are simply militias that are divided on basis of religion, ideological beliefs or tribal affiliations. Although some social and political groups managed to establish ‘governments’ in some areas and gain the recognition of regional and international governments, fighting militias continues to be a public concern for several reasons, including restoring complete order, stopping terrorist operations and paving the way for dialogues about the politico-constitutional, economic and developmental future of Libya. 

In Egypt, a counterinsurgency campaign against Islamist militants in Northern Sinai has been in effect since 2011 . The militants have continuously targeted police and army assets, killing hundreds of security personnel. While the counterinsurgents have achieved some tactical successes, the operations remain ongoing in a bid to turn them into strategic gains.

Tunisia’s counterinsurgency forces are carrying out campaigns in Mount Chaambi, Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine against Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and pro-IS militants. Tunisia and Algeria are cooperating in military and intelligence affairs as some of the operations take place near border areas. As is the case with Egypt, the threat of Islamist insurgencies has existed in Algeria for decades, and clashes between the Algerian security forces and the insurgents will likely continue in 2019. 

In December, the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front began UN-sponsored talks over the future of the disputed Western Sahara. The conflict remains frozen since 1991 following a UN-brokered ceasefire, but tensions have remained consistently high and diplomacy has thus far failed to produce a political solution.  Talks between both parties – which have stalled since the first UN-sponsored round table in 2008 – usually coincides with discussions about prospects of a new war, especially given that the threat of using force has previously been a factor in the equation. 

3. Border Threats

A recent study by the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies found that roughly 30% of ‘illicit cigarettes’ that exist in the French market originates from Algeria. But border threats go beyond cigarette smuggling: migrants, weapons and drugs are reportedly smuggled through the borders of North African states. Governments are fighting to control the illegal movement of people and goods along their borders, which pose greater security threats and require co-ordinated policy efforts between the states. As Jacques Roussellier writes in an article titled Breaking North Africa’s Border Security Conundrum, “embedding cross-border security efforts at the regional and local levels with a practical economic development strategy that offers alternative economic resources to smuggling and human trafficking could help stabilise [the region]”. 

Moroccan king Mohammed VI has called on Algeria to accept talks with Rabat “without taboos” over a wide range of issues, including migrants, terrorism and drugs. It can be argued that the inability of the North African states to control their borders has been a major cause of the migration crisis in Europe. Talks between the European Union (EU) and North African governments have been constantly held for years over this matter, and joint coordination of efforts will possibly continue in 2019.

4. Economic Security

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), economic security entails a bundle of basic living necessities such as health, education, dwelling and social protection. This is another concern for North Africans in 2019. The war in oil-rich Libya led to concerns about the collapse of the banking system in the country amid a huge decline in the value of the Libyan dinar and shortages in liquid cash, causing a delay in the transfer of regular payments such as salaries. In Egypt, extremely high levels of public and foreign debt have pushed the government to impose several waves of austerity measures, including lifting state subsidies for public services and goods. In Algeria, the great reduction in oil prices in 2014 had a negative influence on foreign reserves: the country had only $97.3 billion in 2018 as opposed to $178 billion four years earlier. Tunisia is also burdened with a foreign debt that is worth billions, high inflation and unemployment, and all governments that took office have failed to handle the crisis since 2011. 

Many have argued that governments and policy makers must take greater note of the connection between poor socio-economic conditions and violent extremism. In North Africa and elsewhere, such as the Central African Republic, the economically marginalised are prime targets for recruiters. If poverty and unemployment are proven to drive the poor – especially the youth – to join militias and insurgent groups, then this will certainly affect the duration of counterinsurgency and anti-terrorism campaigns that are fought in the region. 

5. Human Security

The security of people’s livelihoods (economic, food, environment or health) is crucial to development and stability. The abovementioned forms of threats will seemingly continue to impact the lives of the individuals living in North Africa in 2019. They will have to contend with unemployment, high costs of living, pollution, and threat of death if living in conflict-hit areas. 

Although some indicators reveal a whiff of progress — including the reduction in the number of North Africans living on less that $1.90 per day from about 13 million in 1981 to 3 million in 2013 — the post-Arab Spring years saw a rise in youth unemployment, low productivity in rural areas among farmers and rise in ‘disfranchisement among people living in economically lagging region.’ 

Youth unemployment rates in the Middle East and North Africa region are among the highest in the world. As was the case with the Rif protests in Morocco in 2017, several incidents of unrest in the region were driven by the dire economic conditions that citizens must endure. In December 2018, protests over economic conditions also took place in the western city of Kasserine in Tunisia. 

These socio-economic problems cannot be solved quickly or easily, but governments must act decisively to implement pro-poor and youth-friendly policies.

(Main image: A member of the Egyptian security forces stands guard at the scene of an attack on a tourist bus in Giza province south of the Egyptian capital Cairo, on 28 December 2018. – Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

10 January 2019