After a brief historical interlude of revolutionary fervour and democratic aspirations, the mood in North Africa has turned sour. During 2013, the Islamist moment was aborted in Egypt and put on the ropes in Tunisia. Chaos beckons in Libya while Algeria remains in limbo, waiting for deliverance from political paralysis and economic stagnation. Even in Morocco, where the monarchy skilfully navigated the treacherous whirlwinds of the Arab revolts, popular dissatisfaction with economic inequalities are causes of concern. Where the region goes from here is uncertain. Comeback beckons for the old authoritarian order as political Islam struggles to deliver on its promises and the secular alternative remains woefully inadequate. The security outlook also remains clouded, as governments learn to deal with the new Salafist surge and the transmutation of transnational terrorism in and around North Africa.

Regional problems from the past have whipped up tensions just as North Africa needs urgent security coordination and political cooperation. The Western Sahara dispute remains a sore in the geopolitics of the region, with Morocco and Algeria battling each other for influence in the Maghreb and Western Africa. The geo-economic and strategic considerations of international actors, including Gulf countries, also complicate the outlook for the region. The excessive focus on religious extremism as the primary threat to democratic transitions and Western security has diverted scarce international resources and attention from the main economic drivers of popular discontent and radical Salafist growth.

From Arab Spring to winter of discontent

The great exuberance that the Arab uprisings provoked in North Africa faded as quickly as it came. The democratic moment took its protagonists and outside observers into a roller-coaster ride of hope and expectations. But as in other waves of democratic transitions, the process of political change has been tortuous and punctuated by violence, squandered opportunities and dramatic setbacks. Attributing the transition difficulties in North Africa to cultural particularism or illiberal religious traditions is, however, misguided.

Those in Europe or North Africa itself who have given up on the region’s dysfunctional politics not only ignore that political transitions are messy, but they also disregard the corrosive legacy of authoritarianism. The far side of social conflict, violence and volatility in much of North Africa today is the direct result of the culture of mistrust and fear that authoritarian governments perniciously fostered.

The major setbacks that Islamists have suffered in the aftermath of the Arab uprising are not due to their embrace of religious extremism, but rather to their failure to govern and provide enough reassurances to their secular sceptics. Their confidence-building measures were inadequate in Egypt to break the cycle of mistrust, and were unable to change the dynamics of their tumultuous dealings with the secular opposition. Even in Tunisia where the governing Islamist party, Ennahda, has made major concessions on ideology and politics, their efforts have fallen short of winning enough opposition support or leeway to govern a society troubled by economic hardship, rising Salafist extremism and regional turmoil emanating from Libya and Mali.

The end of the Islamist moment?

When they were swept into power, few Islamists could have predicted the intense distrust and enmity they would inspire among large swathes of society, the secular establishment and bureaucratic forces. Their inexperience in governance and resulting missteps reinforced doubts about their behaviour and escalated their clashes with non-Islamists to the point of intractability. In almost all cases across North Africa, their brand has suffered.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is battling one of the worst crises of its 86-year existence. The organisation is not only again facing state brutality, but also the ire and anger of broad sectors of society given its inability to deliver on socio-economic expectations when it was in government. It is the first time that the Brotherhood finds itself battling both the state apparatus and a hostile public opinion.

Instead of identifying the opposition’s needs and working hard to make the prospect of cooperation attractive to those amenable to compromise, the MB looked inward. It was convinced that the only way to thwart the machinations of their opponents was by solidifying its own internal ranks and using whatever government mechanisms at their disposal to beat their adversaries. In the end, the organisation’s downfall had little to do with its democratic bona fides (though its interpretation of democracy was shallow) and more with its inexperience in governing and an inability to work constructively beyond the narrow confines of its insular networks.

The question now is what lessons the Brotherhood will learn from their fall from grace. Where this reflection leads in 2014 and beyond, however, is uncertain. The organisation’s old stalwarts might very well conclude that despite their mistakes, Islamists never had a chance to succeed.

Meanwhile, the non-Islamist parties that supported the July 2013 military coup against President Morsi in Egypt are struggling to take advantage of the misfortune of their foes. Divided and disorganised, they lack clear political platforms that show political intelligence and social responsibility. As a sign of their drift and weaknesses, most are backing a potential presidential run by General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the coup’s architect. In the near term, the prospects for political reconciliation and reintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood are dim, as are hopes for rebooting the democratic transition. The draft constitution scheduled for a referendum in January 2014 concentrates sweeping powers in the same institutions that controlled Egypt prior to the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. It excludes Islamists from the political system, allows for civilians to be tried in military courts and shields the military and the security apparatus from any civilian oversight.

In Tunisia, the Islamists of the Ennahda party have so far fared better than their counterparts in Egypt. With its back against the wall, Ennahda has shown the most flexibility and willingness to embrace compromise to save the democratic transition, and spare the party the cruel fate that befell the MB in Egypt. They recognise that ordinary people are frustrated with lurching from one political crisis to the next. Many Tunisians are dismayed by both the performance of Ennahda in power – which has failed to contain the Salafist threat, reduce regional economic imbalances, and implement transitional justice – and the secular opposition, whose political opportunism and shady deals with elements of the old regime do not elicit much confidence. The failure of politicians to find common ground has sapped public trust in the political transition. But in contrast to Egypt, Tunisia has some advantages to help it overcome its crisis. The country has a fairly well- educated population, its army does not have a history of military coups and its political Islamists are more accommodating. Barring unexpected events, Tunisia should be able to finalise its constitution and hold free and fair elections during 2014.

In Morocco, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) has been more circumspect in exercising political power. Since it won the November 2011 parliamentary elections and hence the right to form a coalition government, the PJD has been conscious of the lopsided balance of power between the party and the royal palace. After the dramatic reversal of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the travails of Ennahda in Tunisia, the PJD has grown even more conciliatory in its dealings with the Moroccan monarchy. This does not augur well for a deepening of the democratic reforms that the king initiated in 2011, especially as the non-Islamist political parties remain weak and docile. Those that do call for immediate democratisation lack popular appeal. The only serious challenger to the monarchy is Adl Wal Ihsane, the largest and non-violent Islamist opposition group in the kingdom. But even they recognise that the monarchy remains popular and in firm control. The pace of democratic reforms will therefore remain slow and controlled by the palace.

In Algeria, Islamists remain weak and mistrusted. The military and security forces continue to call the shots in the country, while the rest of the political parties are plagued by corruption, disorganisation and internal conflict. Algeria is poised to remain relatively stable, though questions abound about how long a stagnant political system can endure in the face of sporadic rioting and mounting popular frustration with economic distress. For now, however, very few Algerians are willing to call for drastic political change. It looks increasingly likely that the 76-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, will seek a fourth five-year term in the upcoming 2014 elections and a ‘consensus’ vice-president that has the support of the military-industrial complex (known as Le Pouvoir in Algeria) will be appointed to succeed Bouteflika if he cannot serve his full term in office.

Looming security challenges

The security outlook in much of North Africa will remain cloudy. In Egypt, any ruling alliance that emerges from next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections will struggle to meet people’s aspirations for economic security. Dissent against the resurrection of authoritarianism is starting to surface despite a massive media campaign to delegitimise opponents of the military-led regime and the enactment of repressive laws that outlaw protests, and militancy continues unabated in the Sinai Peninsula. In Tunisia, the major threat to the transition continues to be popular polarisation and economic insecurity, which foment both social unrest and radical Salafist growth.

The European Union (EU) and the United States (US) have immediate security interests in political stability in North Africa and should strategically deploy the means and leverage at their disposal to promote political, economic and security reforms. To be sure, there are other foreign actors that work to neutralise Western leverage. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have used their deep pockets to undermine US and EU attempts to press for political reconciliation and moderation in Egypt. There are also fears that Gulf countries are meddling to abort the democratic transition in Tunisia.

The most worrying security forecast concerns Libya, as growing lawlessness there has regional implications. The country is awash with weapons and militias, some of whom have connections with terrorist networks in Algeria and Mali. Increasing evidence shows that affiliates of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are starting to use Libya as a base of operations and a conduit for arms smuggling into neighbouring countries, including Tunisia and Mali. The weakening of state authority and the disorganisation of security forces has accelerated the growth of a plethora of groups derived from or linked to Salafist-jihadist organisations. Most of these groups and individuals share AQIM’s ideology, but they are circumspect about the use of violence and their activities are primarily locally-driven.

This new phenomenon of Salafist jihadism is much more dangerous than al-Qaeda’s old-style terrorism. Salafist-jihadists try to undermine the authority of the state without directly confronting it. In poor urban zones marked by social malaise and high unemployment, they are positioning themselves as agents of order and purveyors of justice. With a view to 2014, the challenge is how to take on the radical extremes in Salafism without falling in the trap of over-reaction, abuse of human rights, and indiscriminate repression.

Conclusion

The underlying causes of unrest in North Africa are complex and differ from country to country. But growing economic distress is by far the region’s Achilles heel. The current crises that the region faces may worsen if Western economic support remains lukewarm in 2014. European engagement in Tunisia needs to be stepped up, as the country desperately needs foreign investments that spur job creation and targeted economic initiatives in marginalised regions. In Morocco, the king has recently announced an ambitious economic programme to promote human development in the Western Sahara. Such plan, if buttressed by judicial and police reforms, has the potential to address the grievances of the local population and the security concerns of Western powers.

In Libya, plans by the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Turkey to train and equip about 12,000 Libyan army personnel need to be expedited. But building the Libyan national army will not by itself restore security, nor force militias to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate into the army or civilian society. Sustainable peace and security will require broader reforms that include the professionalisation of the military, political reconciliationand writing a new inclusive constitution.

In Egypt, the difficult but necessary choice is to confront the military over its attempts to broaden its powers and enhance the status of its allies in the security services, police and judiciary. The EU and the US should speak out against the abuses of Egypt’s security forces and the detention of activists. They should be alert at developments and prepared to anticipate or respond to them in a proportionate way, cutting or even suspending military assistance if the military-backed regime persists in its current trajectory.

Despite serious challenges across the region, properly targeted Western economic incentives, security assistance and diplomatic engagement can still be of tremendous help to several countries, especially those largely dependent on economic links with Europe and the US in terms of trade, investment and aid.

This chapter was originally published in the Challenges for European Foreign Policy in 2014 by FRIDE.