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North Africa 2020: Domestic challenges and tense relationships

The Maghreb region witnessed in 2020 several developments on the domestic and foreign fronts. The most prominent of these were the complex transition to democracy, rifts in political and partisan circles, in addition to the re-emergence of thorny issues, as was the case with border issues, and more so in the Western Sahara issue. These developments took place against the background of the worsening crisis of the Guerguerat crossing and the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. The trends can be divided into two paths as follows:

First – Developments at home

  • Internal developments:

There was an important constitutional entitlement in Algeria in 2020, which was manifested in the referendum on the draft constitution prepared by the committee formed according to the decision of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune at the beginning of the year, to fulfil the roadmap drawn up by the current administration in response to the aspirations of the popular movement. Despite the passage of that draft through the popular referendum, it was met with popular reluctance, which was evident in the small participation in the referendum, which is largely due to the rejection of a large segment of the popular movement of the entire process of democratic transition along with various concerns. However, the political scene in Maghreb countries witnessed a number of transformations in 2020, which can be illustrated as follows:

  • Continuation of popular protests in Algeria:

Despite the success of the popular movement in Algeria, which was translated into holding presidential elections in December 2019, and the subsequent implementation of some other entitlements as procedural reform steps in the midst of the domestic political scene, the popular protests still cast a shadow on the Algerian street. In order to achieve a degree of cohesion with that movement, a political initiative known as the 22 February Initiative was established on 23 October 2020, which is considered a political project for the popular movement in Algeria that includes many activists, with the aim of reaching a consensual political agreement within the movement that strengthens the path of political transition, especially in light of this nascent bloc’s vision of constitutional amendments that they are nothing but the consolidation of the ruling authority, and come as a stage to complete the amendments to the 1989 constitution, the last of which was in 2016, without any noticeable positive change, which confuses the political scene once again.

  •  Political crisis in Tunisia:

One of the political paradoxes in the Maghreb is the difficulties in forming a national coalition government that enjoys the consensus of all factions and political parties. Perhaps the most prominent in this context was manifested in the Tunisian scene, which has faced great difficulties in achieving political balance and forming a consensus government since the beginning of 2020. At the beginning of that year, there was difficulty in forming a national consensus government following the assignment of Elyes Fakhfakh to form the government, after Habib Jemli, the Ennahda Party’s candidate, failed to form a government following his failure to obtain the confidence of the parliament.

However, Fakhfakh succeeded in obtaining the confidence of the parliament, but it did not remain much. Voices demanding the overthrow of the government were raised through the various practices of the Tunisian Ennahdha Movement and the parties loyal to it, to collect signatures to withdraw confidence from the government, which led to the resignation of the government of Fakhfakh in July 2020. It was also followed by designating the Minister of Interior in the caretaker government Hichem Mechichi as prime minister. The complexities of that scene greatly portend the dissolution of parliament, and perhaps the creation of a legislative and political vacuum in Tunisia, which continues to suffer from multiple political upheavals.

C. Elitist transformation in Mauritania:

The formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate a number of economic deals and files during the era of the former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz and summoning him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Police to investigate suspicions of corruption, in addition to the dismissal of all presidential advisors holding those positions prior to the arrival of Ould Al-Ghazwani as President of the Republic, the removal of the military elites loyal to Abdel-Aziz are all important indicators of the state of confusion among the elites in Mauritania, and a step towards various internal reforms. Those steps have caught the attention of the American administration, as it expressed through its Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well as the American Ambassador in Nouakchott Michael Dodman, its support for that path of reform, and described these relations as better than they earlier were.

  •  Rise of Islamic current in a changing partisan environment:

There is a significant increase in political parties with an Islamic background in the Maghreb region, most notably in Tunisia, which saw the escalating influence of Ennahda Party in the course of political life, because it is largely in control of the Tunisian parliament. This was evident in the various movements that Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda, made to Turkey in 2020, which contradicts the tendencies of the Tunisian President, kais Saied, in addition to the popular rejection of this unilateral action. 

Tunisia has seen political rifts between its parties, specifically between the Tunisian speaker of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives and the Islamist Ennahda Movement, which has a parliamentary majority, Ghannouchi and the Free Destourian Party headed by Abeer Moussa, who has repeatedly demanded the withdrawal of confidence from him.

 Mauritania saw escalating developments in 2020 due to the presence of political Islam. It witnessed a state of rapprochement between the opposition parties, headed by the Islamist National Rally for Reform and Developmen, Tawassoul, in light of its efforts to achieve a party bloc opposing the authority. Two things have manifested: The first was evident in reaching an agreement to achieve a degree of coordination between other opposition parties, including (the Sawab Party, the Moustaqbel Party, the national forum for democracy and unity, the Coexistence Alliance) on 23 June 2020. While, the second lies in proposing a document that includes a comprehensive vision for reform in all fields by launching a comprehensive national dialogue, and achieving occasional coordination with all parties. 

This document was presented on 26 November 2020 in the presence of the Union of Progress Forces, Union for the Republic, the Coexistence Alliance, the IRA Movement, the Sawab Party and the SOS Movement, which is the same demand that The People’s Progressive Alliance called for in October of the same year.

However, some parties witnessed a state of alignment and support for the ruling party in Mauritania, the Union for the Republic. As proof of this, El-Islah party (the ruling majority party and one of the loyalty parties) witnessed the participation of a number of parties within it, which were represented by the National Democratic Meeting Party, Al-Amel Party, Al-Watan Party and finally the Development and Civilization Party in the second half of last year.

However, the situation in the Kingdom of Morocco is different. The Moroccan Justice and Development Party, which has an Islamic orientation, witnessed a great involvement in the Moroccan government, and a remarkable rapprochement and alignment with the royal establishment, and this has emerged greatly in the course of the issue of resuming Moroccan-Israeli relations once again.

  • Counter-terrorism:

The file of terrorism constitutes one of the main and extended dilemmas and challenges in the Maghreb region, which cast a dark shadow in 2020 in terms of changing the approach to dealing with it, or in the course of regional and international interaction and cooperation to limit this phenomenon in light of the various global variables, on top of which is Washington expressing its desire to reduce the number of US forces present in this range. Perhaps the direction of developments in this file lies in the following:

a. Rivalry between terrorist groups and the rising influence of the Islamic State: Terrorism saw a qualitative shift in 2020 in the regions surrounding the countries of the Maghreb, which was largely manifested in the rift between terrorist organizations. This was significantly evident in the clashes that took place between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara affiliated with Abu Walid Al-Sahraoui and the wing of Amadou Koufa, leader of the Macina Liberation Front affiliated with the Jamaat Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin, which is closely related to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, on 12 March of the same year in the area of Bofille located 50km away from the Mauritanian borders, which is considered a traditional area of influence of the Macina Liberation Front, but recently there has been an increasing involvement of the Islamic State (IS).

Perhaps this leads to saying that IS is considered a rising terrorist organization in the Sahel region, especially along the fragile borders between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, on the borders of the Maghreb countries. Perhaps the danger of this escalation is evident in what France and the five Sahel countries considered in early January 2020 that this organization has become the prime enemy in the region.

Perhaps the repeated incidents along the Mauritanian-Malian border line, as happened in January 2020, of armed attacks by Jamaat Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin on security camps in the Malian village of Sokolo, which is located close to the Mauritanian border, pushing the latter to reinforce security along its borders, and to work on confronting challenges in their home countries in coordination and cooperation with the countries of the continental neighborhood and under the umbrella of international peacekeepers.

b. Separate accidents and pre-emptive strikes:

Some Maghreb countries saw a number of sporadic terrorist incidents in Tunisia and Algeria. Tunisia witnessed an operation targeting a security patrol near the American Embassy on 6 March 2020, north of the Tunisian capital, which resulted in the death and injury of six people. It also witnessed on 6 September a car-ramming operation in the eastern Tunis governorate of Sousse resulting in the death of one policeman.

In Algeria, clashes between extremists and Algerian army troops in June 2020 near the Algerian capital led to the death of an army personnel, in addition to other clashes in Boumerdes province, which led to the arrest of five terrorists and the destruction of nine hideouts belonging to terrorist organizations.

Tunisia had its share of terrorist acts. On 20 December, a citizen was murdered at the hands of a terrorist group in the Kasserine governorate, west of Tunisia.

c. Strategic shifts and increasing involvement in Africa: In light of the talk about the issue of terrorism, which represents a great pressure on the countries of the Arab Maghreb, and the terrorist operations that some borders of those countries, as is the case with Mauritania and Algeria, these countries took the initiative to correct the security equation through more participation of their national forces in countries that suffer from terrorism. This was largely evident in the new Algerian constitution that was included in the referendum and approved in early November 2020 to allow for the participation of Algerian forces in peacekeeping operations in the region, in addition to sending Nouakchott a new unit of gendarmerie (comprising 140 soldiers) to the Central African Republic to work under the umbrella of UN peacekeepers in early March of last year.

D. Increasing regional and international security coordination: Maghreb countries have strengthened their military interactions with Western parties, contributing to undermining terrorist movements. This cooperation emerged in the European Union providing seven light armored vehicles as military assistance to the Mauritanian battalion participating in the peacekeeping forces in the Sahel region, in addition to expanding the circle of interaction with international security institutions, headed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was evident in the discussions that took place between the Mauritanian Minister of Defense and the Secretary-General for Political and Security Affairs of the Alliance, James Apateral, in the field of defense and the strengthening of military capabilities to confront terrorism. In addition, during the meeting of the eight representatives of the Arab League and their European counterparts in January 2020, Mauritania highlighted the importance of working on finding developed initiatives to curb the phenomenon of terrorism.

To cooperate on combating terrorism, France has formed a military force with the participation of Western countries along with the countries of the Sahel and Sahara, led by Mauritania, known as Takuba, in March 2020.

This coordination resulted in the liquidation of the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdel-Malek Droukdel, in early June 2020.

H. Response to coronavirus:

The economic conditions in the Maghreb region worsened owing to the coronavirus pandemic, which spread significantly during the second quarter of 2020, greatly affecting the economies of Maghreb countries as a result of the various precautionary policies and measures they adopted.

Countries’ policies have varied in dealing with the different vaccines that have emerged in the recent period to curb the spread of the pandemic. Algeria signed at the end of December 2020 an agreement to obtain the Russian vaccine Sputnik-5. Rabat did the same, signing a memorandum of understanding to purchase the Russian vaccine in September.

While the trend in Tunisia is largely biased towards the US represented by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, there was no clear position in Mauritania regarding the tendency to contract for a specific vaccine.

Second — External developments in the Maghreb:

Multiple features dominated regional interactions, which are reflected in the following:

1- Significant shifts transformations and emerging issues:

2020 witnessed various qualitative shifts and the re-emergence of thorny issues, such as:

a. The Sahara developments:

The Sahara saw significant developments in 2020, making it the focus of regional and international attention. The most prominent of these developments were the incidents at the Guerguerat border crossing between Mauritania and Morocco and the Polisario Front’s closure of the crossing, as this file witnessed great coordination between Morocco and Mauritania, which led to Rabat deploying its forces along the border with Mauritania and more on the path of the Guerguerat crossing, and pushing the path of resuming commercial and civil movement again after a state of suspension that lasted for about three weeks in November 2020, and the subsequent announcement by the Polisario of its withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement signed in 1991, which boded ill for Moroccan-Algerian relations.

The second important variable was the American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Saharan region, support for the autonomy initiative proposed by Rabat, and Washington’s intention to establish a diplomatic representation in the city of Dakhla, which proves the radical transformations in this file, especially after the change in the American approach.

The third development was also manifested in the various regional trends to largely recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara, and thus largely include the Moroccan initiative to solve this issue, which created diplomatic isolation for the Liberation of Saguia El Hamra front and the Val d’Or, “the Valley of Gold”, the Polisario, following the decrease in the number of countries considered to be the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was established by the Polisario Front for less than 28 countries, after it was 84 countries, and 19 countries opened diplomatic representation in El-Ayoun, the last of which was the United Arab Emirates, which would create a pressing stage in the moves for secession, and the right to self-determination.

b. Demarcating maritime borders with northern Mediterranean countries:

The year 2020 witnessed Algerian as well as Moroccan efforts to demarcate their maritime borders with riparian European countries. The Moroccan Parliament issued a decision on 22 January 2020, approving two draft laws to demarcate the Moroccan maritime borders, and their entry into force on 13 March, which constitutes a watershed point in the Spanish-Moroccan geopolitical conflict. A national strategic characteristic as they perpetuate Moroccan sovereignty over the adjacent seas and impose a new reality for the Sahara region, and this decision comes in order to bridge the legislative vacuum that marred the Moroccan legal system for maritime spheres.

This step came in tandem with various Spanish moves aimed at extending the continental shelf to the Canary Islands, especially since it submitted a request to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2014, in order to extend that shelf south and west for about 350 miles, which means that Spain has the right for full exploitation in it, while other countries have the right to pass through the same area.

Under the two draft laws, the boundaries of the territorial waters of Morocco, which extend to 12 nautical miles, and the contiguous zone estimated at 24 nautical miles, are delineated, as well as the creation of an exclusive economic zone at a distance of 200 nautical miles, and the subsequent extension of the sovereign and exclusive rights on the continental shelf, within the limits of 350 nautical miles, according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Algeria took similar moves to demarcate its maritime borders with both Spain and Italy, and this was largely evident in the talks that took place in March 2020 between Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laia and President Abdel Majid Tebboune and Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum. It was confirmed in those talks that there are no problems related to the demarcation of maritime borders, and the two countries have the right to demarcate their maritime borders, but in a bilateral and not unilateral manner, which was expressed by the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs’s determination to negotiate in the future regarding any interference in the maritime fields.

Algeria sought to demarcate its maritime borders with the Italian side. A technical committee was formed to demarcate the maritime borders between the two countries during the visit of the Italian Foreign Ministry Undersecretary on 23 September 2020 to coordinate on bilateral negotiations on the common maritime borders. These movements began in early July, in order to avoid any possible paths in the Mediterranean Basin.

c. Morocco’s normalization with Israel:

The announcement by the outgoing US President, Donald Trump, to reach understandings about Moroccan-Israeli relations, and Rabat’s decision to resume relations with Israel on 10 December 2020, constituted a milestone in the file of Arab-Israeli relations in light of inter-Maghreb interactions. The decision was neither welcomed in Algeria nor in Tunisia, while the Mauritanian positions were positive regarding this path.

Despite the positive Mauritanian attitude towards the Moroccan-Israeli normalization, it declared during the meeting of the Mauritanian Foreign Minister with the Palestinian ambassador its adherence to the United Nations resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative, which is aimed largely at preserving the rights of the Palestinian people, and this is the same thing that Morocco showed after its declaration to resume its relations with Israel.

D. Bolstering presence in the depth of Africa through the extended interaction in the depth of Africa, specifically between Mauritania and its neighbors Senegal, Mali and Gambia to develop various mechanisms to enhance security cooperation, and address the phenomenon of illegal immigration and human trafficking along the road linking West Africa and the Atlantic ocean, in addition to the permanent military coordination between Mauritania and Senegal on border and terrorism issues, the last of which came in December 2020.

The Arab Maghreb countries contributed to resolving the crisis that erupted in Mali in early September 2020, which was a strong opportunity to enhance the presence and existence of the Maghreb in it, and this was evident in the mediation that Mauritania led to solve the internal political impasse with the various parties as it achieved Successful evacuation of former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta for treatment abroad, and full support to get out of the political impasse, according to the announcement by Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismaïl Ould Cheikh Ahmed during his meeting with his financial counterpart on 30 November 2020.

2- International partnerships for the Arab Maghreb:

In 2020, a number of different international tensions emerged in the Maghreb region, which can be explained in the following points:

a. Strengthening the strategic security partnership between Washington and the countries of the Maghreb:

US-Maghreb relations have grown significantly in 2020, especially at the level of military coordination, and this was evident in the successive visits made by official delegations to the Arab Maghreb countries, perhaps the most important of which was the visit of US Defense Secretary Mark Esper to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in September 2020, which is a qualitative turning point in the interactions between the countries of the region and the US, as this visit is the first of its kind to Africa since he assumed the defense portfolio, and it is also the first visit of a US Secretary of Defense to Algeria in 15 years.

The visit was preceded by a similar visit by the US Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs to Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania in February 2020, in addition to a visit by a delegation from the US Congress and US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale, to Mauritania in the same month.

The increase in military coordination between Washington and the Arab Maghreb countries, and the expansion of security and military cooperation in that region is understood from the American desire to undermine Russian moves in this strategic and vital area for US interests, in addition to strengthening the capabilities of those countries in the face of terrorism in the Sahel and Sahara region, as well as the common interest of the US and Maghreb about what is happening in Libya, and Washington’s desire to adapt the Libyan file, recycle it and mix it with regionalism under the umbrella of the Maghreb Union (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), in light of Morocco’s success in the consultations that took place between the Libyan parties during its hosting of the Bouznika talks at the beginning of September 2020, they reached an agreement on the distribution of sovereign positions.

As a result of this American move, a roadmap document was signed in the field of military cooperation with Tunisia and Morocco, for a period of 10 years, with the aim of raising the readiness of the armed forces of both countries and developing their capabilities in confronting security threats and challenges, thus contributing to combating terrorist groups and maintaining security in North Africa and the Sahel region, and that agreement is considered as a roadmap for cooperation in the field of defense, and establishes an approach towards the strategic partnership between the two countries.

To strengthen the military strategic partnership between Washington and the countries of the Maghreb, America contributed greatly to the completion of the Flintlock 2020 exercise, which was hosted by Mauritania in February of the same year with the participation of 34 Western, African and Arab countries, including Morocco, as one of the largest military maneuvers held by Washington Since 2005 in Africa, despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

b. Troubled French presence:

The situation of France in the Sahel region in 2020 witnessed a state of popular rejection of the French military presence, in addition to the state of popular anger in the Maghreb region over the statements of President Emmanuel Macron defending the publication of the offensive cartoons insulting the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH), which prompted France to Achieving greater diplomatic balance with the countries of the Maghreb, headed by Mauritania, one of the countries of the Sahel group, and this was significantly evident in the various arrangements and discussions that preceded the French summit with the five Sahel leaders in early 2020, in addition to the financial aid estimated at 12.5 million euros to meet coronavirus, and canceling the debt service owed by it by 5.3 million euros.

In addition to the continuous coordination between France and Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia on terrorism, and this was most evident in the visit of the French Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanan, to Tunisia and Algeria in November 2020 to discuss terrorism issues.

c. Chinese economic penetration:

Chinese interest in the Maghreb region has increased during the year 2020, through the economic and investment portal, and this was significantly evident in the consolidation of cooperation with Mauritania in the field of marine fishing, as the two countries engaged in negotiations in November 2020 to renew the agreement protocol in the field of fishing for the period between 2021-2025, as the distribution of fishing areas in Mauritania is one of the most important issues, especially in light of the Turkish-Chinese competition in this field.

In connection, the Chinese company CITIC signed an agreement with the Algerian National Hydrocarbon Corporation Sonatrach at the beginning of January 2020, with a value of $6 billion, to establish the phosphate project.

Strengthening Maghreb Gulf Cooperation

Cooperation between Mauritania and Morocco with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was boosted, and this has been translated greatly at all levels, as Mauritania concluded three cultural cooperation agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last February during the visit of Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, in addition to discussing various investment opportunities in Mauritania, as Saudi Arabia is the largest contributor and financier of development projects inside Mauritania, with about $ 1.147 billion.

In addition to the deepening of the Mauritanian-Emirati cooperation, as the latter came as the first stop of Ould Ghazouani’s visit after his election as president, and the growth of these relations emerged through the signing of a number of agreements in the economic, commercial and investment fields and the mutual exemption from visa, on the sidelines of the work of the second session of the joint committee between the UAE and Mauritania, which was held in March 2020 and the previous allocation of $2 billion to establish investment and development projects in Mauritania, and the Emirati Salam Holding Company financed the construction of an art institute in Mauritania, which led to the publication of reports stating that the UAE intends to form a military base in the north of the country, which was denied by Mauritania.

This rapprochement also appeared at the level of military cooperation, through the multiple meetings that brought together the military leaders of a number of Gulf countries and the Arab Maghreb countries, as is the case for the military talks that took place between Saudi Arabia and Mauritania in early March of 2020, which are aimed largely at Enhancing defense cooperation.

If anything, these interactions are an indication of the ongoing domestic challenges in all the countries of the Arab Maghreb and the tendency towards more tensions in regional relations. That is in addition to the enhanced presence of international partners in the region, foremost among which is the US which achieved considerable progress at the expense of the traditional European role in the region.

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