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Do The Middle East And The Maghreb Have A Future

Visiting Professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy and President of the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies Mohammed Benhammou offers an overview of the challenges to North African and Middle Eastern statehood, analyses the causes and suggests solutions

Since the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, or, as I prefer to call it, the Arab turmoil or uprising, the southern Mediterranean has faced a new set of challenges leading to bad management of the transitions, state fragility and emerging security problems in the Middle East, North Africa and in the Sub-Saharan states of the Sahel.

The key issue is terrorism not just in Syria and Iraq, but also in the Sahel, especially in Mali and Central African Republic, Northern Nigeria and in North Africa. In the Maghreb, the leading terrorist group is AQIM, al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, but since the Malian crisis and the military intervention a lot of smaller groups have also emerged.

The nature of terrorist groups is changing. We observe an evolution of the culture, the structure and the modus operandi of the terrorist groups. Today, defining a clear profile and identity of terrorists becomes much more difficult.

Terrorism has now become global and the numbers of fighters have increased exponentially. Foreign jihadists, who were former fighters in Afghanistan, are now fighting in Syria and Iraq, and will certainly return home and cause more unrest; their number is estimated at more than 2,000 fighters coming from Europe and 16,000 coming from the rest of the world.

A second issue in the region is organised crime, especially drugs and weapons trafficking. When we talk about drugs trafficking we mean principally cocaine, imported from South America.

The proliferation of weapons is equally important. A lot of stolen small arms and heavier weapons are being used throughout the region, especially in the Sahel-Sahara area. There is a link-up between transnational organised crime and terrorist groups, exploiting the situation to make money and ensure supplies of weaponry. There is close cooperation between the two groups. The aims are different, illegal trade on the one hand and ideology on the other, but they have found a way to work together.

A third issue is illegal migration. This is a huge problem and a lot of criminal groups and terrorist organisations are using illegal migration as part of their network.

Border security and state border controls are clearly unable to control immigration or weapons smuggling in the Sahel. This is partly because of the long inaccessible borders but also because of the inability of some states in this region to impose their authority over the whole country.

When we think about border security we tend to consider it as a land-based issue. But in the southern Mediterranean we must also consider maritime security. The Mediterranean is a major maritime thoroughfare and the potential for terrorism and transnational organised crime is very strong.

As a reminder, the instability that started a decade ago in the Sahel has now reached the heart of the Middle East and the southern Mediterranean space. The danger in the Middle East, the Sahel and North Africa could easily spread to the northern Mediterranean states of Europe.

So what are the southern Mediterranean states and the European powers doing about it?

The most noticeable thing is the lack of cooperation. The only platform that seems to be working is the Five Plus Five group of Portugal, Spain, Italy, France and Malta, and Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauretania. This is the main active collaboration but it is not enough.

As for the Middle Eastern and North African states, there is little or no common policy or trust, and no sharing of intelligence between the security forces and services in each state. The 24 members of the Arab League do not speak with a single voice to reach a common goal.

Regarding international powers, Russia is trying to become a really strong actor in the international order but we don’t know what its influence will be in the Middle East crisis. Western European countries are not managing to act together. Europe has a lot of crises and does not have a single European policy. Up until recently the US has been reluctant to intervene and, at the moment, China does not want to play a real active role in international policy, preferring to concentrate on economic relations.

So what is the short- and medium-term outlook? I fear that things will get much worse before they get better. For some Middle Eastern countries, the future looks very dark. There are large numbers of groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, radical Islamic groups, Salafists, jihadists with little homogeneity and no cohesion. There are also separatist groups seeking to exploit the turmoil to secure their own territorial power and to bring more instability.

Libya is a case in point. At the beginning of the Libyan uprising, Colonel Gaddafi bought weapons and mercenaries and armed the local tribes to support him.  Now we have militias, tribes and ideological groups – specifically the Islamists – who do not want to build a state. As a result, I cannot speculate on the future of the Libyan ‘State’.

What needs to happen? We need to remember that the impetus for the Arab uprising was an urge for democracy and dignity by those we call ‘the dispossessed, the disenchanted and the dissident.’ The only way forward is democracy – the vote. This is what we have seen in Morocco. The ‘Islamist’ party won votes in the last election and leads the government. They made promises. Yet, people are still waiting for the results. In North Africa people were waiting for the dividend of democracy but it never happened. There is a strong possibility that this young constituency will radicalise and cause even greater instability.

To break this ‘industry of instability’ we need international assistance but the West, by and large, is standing back. There is talk of a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Middle East but no-one wants to pay and no-one wants to be ‘Marshall’.

NATO as a mechanism has broken down. There is no agenda to deal with terrorism. We need international enforcement agencies, such as Interpol or the International Maritime Organisation to intervene and organise and train officers to control international security in cooperation with the Governments of the States of the region.

I believe that countries like Tunisia and Egypt need more than a decade to resolve their issues, and Libya certainly more. We are in a new context, and to deal with the current instability we need new approaches. We are facing collective threats and we need collective responses, a regional strategy and regional and international cooperation. Unfortunately, we have a lack of cooperation, a lack of trust, and a lot of contradictory regional and international agendas.

Whatever happens, of one thing I am sure. The destiny of the Middle East and North Africa lies in the hands of its citizens, and not in the hands of its pressure groups. We need democracy, good governance and real citizens, able to live and vote with dignity. I believe the only way for us to move forward is through democracy. How we achieve it is the question.


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