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What North Africa Wants to Hear from John Kerry

As John Kerry sets out to Europe and the Middle East, the situation in post–Arab Spring North Africa should be high on his agenda.

The United States’ 68th secretary of state knows the countries of the region quite well. As chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he expressed early support for uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and was clearly empathetic to the transitional governments there and the crucial challenges they were facing. 

But initial interest in the political of transitions in North Africa has given way, in recent months, to mounting security concerns. The September 11 attacks last year on US diplomatic missions in Cairo, Benghazi, and Tunis, shocked American leaders and diplomats and became a contentious political issue both before and after the American presidential elections. The new year brought new concerns about the stability of North African nations. With the war and French intervention in Mali, North Africa is seen today as an “arc of crisis” extending into the sub-Saharan region. The January terrorist attack on the In Amenas gas installation in Algeria, coupled with continued unrest in Egypt and Libya and the assassination in Tunisia of leftist politician Chokri Belaid, have furthered the sense of turbulence.  

But the United States and the West should not be “spooked” by current events in North Africa. Anti-Western acts of terrorism are rejected by the overwhelming majority of the populations, even if the much freer environments created by the Arab Spring revolutions have provided new platforms for criticism of US Middle East policies. Such viewpoints are no longer constrained by restrictions imposed by previous regimes, which were more interested in appeasing the successive US administrations, behind closed doors, than in being responsive to their own public opinions. Washington’s stands against of the misguided practices of previous regimes have relatively offset the criticism of the US as the previous enabler of repressive governments in the region. 

Make no mistake: the terrorist threat in the region is real. Dealing with it will require more effective domestic responses, tighter cooperation among North African nations, and a complex-free collaboration with the West in dealing with region-wide issues. Domestically, the post–Arab Spring security doctrines (and institutions) still have to adjust to the requirements of today’s much freer political environment. But more crucially, they have also to meet the challenges of mounting trans-border security threats, especially the proliferation of weapons since the fall of the Qaddafi regime and the risk of blowback from the conflict in Mali.

Antiterrorism measures will be necessary to deal with specific threats but will not suffice to disentangle the region’s complex web of social, economic, and ideological factors. Previous regimes thought their countries could be “secular islands” in the middle of swirling ultraconservative currents under the surface of deceiving calm. The appeal of Salafism was fueled, not only by Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by the previous local regimes’ inadequate religious, cultural, educational, and communication policies. Soaring rates of youth unemployment and development imbalances have exacerbated the underlying frustrations. It should not come as a surprise that the majority of Salafists are under the age of 30 and originate from poor urban neighborhoods and disadvantaged segments of the population.

 

A durable recovery will require far-reaching policy reforms addressing the chronic mismatch between educational training and the job market. In this particular concern, US advice and assistance could help North African countries modernize their inefficient higher education and vocational training systems.

More immediately, there is need for a new social contract between business and labor in order to implement the necessary measures on the road to economic recovery, without further penalizing the poorer segments of the population (who have already paid their share of sacrifice). Countries of the region cannot withstand the disruptive pressures emanating from continuous strikes and work stoppages that deprive the state of precious revenues and scare off foreign investors.

Emerging North African democracies have their work cut out for them on several other fronts as well. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, political antagonisms remain a major hurdle to the establishment of new constitutional frameworks and democratic institutions. Persistent political polarization is often less a reflection of deep and irreversible schisms in society than of the absence of traditions of compromise and concessions. The “winners-take-all” legacies still nourish a dangerous mind-set of fear and suspicion. The politics of the past decades have led to enduring grudges and deep fault lines, which can be overcome only through dialogue and national reconciliation. The fallen regime, under which I personally served in Tunisia, had foolishly thought that, with its’ tight hold on power, it could pursue deeply autistic policies, at home and abroad. North African nations, today, need all their citizens. They also need all their friends in various parts of the world.

The populations of post–Arab Spring North Africa would like to be reassured that by engaging more powerful nations they will not relinquish ownership of their newly gained freedoms. Traditional conspiracy theories notwithstanding, it should be made clear that only the ballot box will determine to whom the future belongs. The United States and European powers should dispel any notion, in the minds of the new political actors, that they favor or disfavor any set of protagonists, be they liberals, Islamists, or others. De-legitimized and repressed for too long, Islamists should be given a fair shot at competing and governing. But like their secular rivals, who were also oppressed, they should have their chance at winning (or losing) the votes in free and fair elections. The US should only encourage transitional governments to ensure a level playing field for all candidates.

North African countries also expect outside support as they struggle for economic recovery. Expectations of engagement were high, maybe too high, after the Arab Spring. Disappointment was deep when very little of the $70 billion pledged by the 2011 Deauville Summit was delivered to Arab Spring nations. It is true that the US administration is strapped for cash, that Europe faces an unprecedented financial crisis, and that the Arab Gulf countries have their own regional concerns on mind. But it should not be an option that North Africa joins “the world of increasing failed and failing states,” which John Kerry described in his confirmation hearing. Nobody today expects North Africa to be the next basket-case region. But a protracted “wait-and-see” attitude, because of the fear of Islamic radicalism or inadequate investment climates, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Economic stagnation and social unrest in North Africa could create propitious conditions for a crisis-level exacerbation of extremism and illegal emigration on the southern shores of Europe.

In the past, Kerry himself has expressed support for assisting the economically challenged transitional countries of North Africa. In a 2011 speech, he recalled how the United States and the West came to the succor of Eastern Europe. “Now, we must take similar action in the Middle East,” he said.

The region, which is vital for world peace, has many assets going for it, including natural resources, educated young populations and being part of the world community of democratic nations. The lands of ancient Carthage and Egypt should not be driven by less ambition than that which drove their ancestors to success and glory.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States from 1981 to 1995 and is currently an international media analyst.

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