The Maghreb and the coronavirus: future prospects

Algeria is the country in the region that, a priori, has the most to lose in the post-COVID-19 world
Factory workers pack disposable protective masks along a production line in Casablanca, Morocco

AFP/ FADEL SENNA  -   Factory workers pack disposable protective masks along a production line in Casablanca, Morocco

What effects will the coronavirus have on the Maghreb region? How will the societies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia evolve once the global pandemic has abated? COVID-19 has been a destabilising factor where it has spread and, in the countries of the Maghreb, it will also have significant effects.

The Maghreb region, with its challenges and strengths, is, for the time being, a geographical area where the pathogen has not spread much. Compared to countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean, such as Spain, France and Italy, the southern shore has recorded a relatively low incidence of the virus among its population, although its impact may condition each country in different ways.

These issues were discussed at the end of last week at the round table 'Coronavirus and the Maghreb: challenges for stability and reforms' hosted by the Real Instituto Elcano. The prestigious Spanish think tank brought together Isabelle Werenfels, researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP); Intissar Fakir, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Sada; Dalia Ghanem, researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut; and Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, researcher at Elcano, in a virtual conference.

Sanitarios en una de las unidades de cuidados intensivos (UCI) COVID-19 del hospital Moulay Abdellah en Sale, Marruecos
AP/MOSA’AB ELSHAMY - Healthcare workers in one of the COVID-19 intensive care units (ICU) of Moulay Abdellah hospital in Sale, Morocco
Morocco, exemplary in early response

In general terms, the measures taken by the Moroccan Executive to curb the virus are applauded from many quarters. In particular, the promptness with which the Kingdom of Morocco acted to combat the spread of the pathogen when it had not yet reached the country was particularly noteworthy.

Trabajadores de una fábrica que producen batas y otros equipos de protección para ser usados por los hospitales en la ciudad de Berrechid, a unos 42 kilómetros al sur de Casablanca, el 16 de abril de 2020
AFP/ FADEL SENNA - Workers at a factory producing gowns and other protective equipment for use by hospitals in the city of Berrechid, some 42 kilometres south of Casablanca, on 16 April 2020

Fakir emphasises that the confidence of Moroccans in State authority figures was very important in order for the strict containment measures to have the desired effect. He also stressed the great effort made by local industries, which diverted their production to manufacture their own sanitary equipment, which was then distributed by public institutions at the local level.

In the same way, the participants in the round table coincide in pointing out the role that Morocco has played in the crisis as the spearhead of the response against the virus on the African continent. They point out, in particular, the possibilities that Rabat has to lead economic and health aid so that the countries of the Sahel strip, with a much more precarious infrastructure, can face the pandemic with more guarantees.

Miembros del personal médico del hospital militar de campaña de Marruecos en la región de Benslimane llevan máscaras de protección en medio de la nueva crisis de pandemia de coronavirus
AFP/ FADEL SENNA - Members of the medical staff at Morocco's military field hospital in the Benslimane region wear protective masks in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic crisis
Algeria, a nest of uncertainty

Of the three Maghreb countries, the one that represents the greatest concern, at least in the opinion of the speakers, is Algeria. The coronavirus pandemic has proved to be a multiplier of the problems already being experienced by the various administrations. Of these three countries, it was Algeria that was in the throes of a previous, deeper crisis.

With oil prices plummeting due to the global slowdown in economic activity, the short and mid-term economic outlook for the North African country, which is heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports, does not look too good.

In socio-political terms, Algeria is also going through a period of uncertainty. Massive protests against the political elite, embodied in the Hirak citizens' movement, have been momentarily halted by the pandemic, but the speakers have little doubt that they will return and do so with recovered strength.

According to Dalia Ghanem, it is very likely that, in the future, Algerians will also begin to protest to demand greater and better provision of public services from the Executive led by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, which, in the words of the analyst, "will add a new layer of complexity" to the demands already made by the Hirak.

Likewise, it remains to be seen in what sense the government's response will be articulated. In general, the participants recognise that there is an authoritarian temptation that, in the long term, could lead to the establishment of a militarised political regime similar to that led by Abdelfatah al-Sisi in Egypt.

Manifestantes llevan banderas y pancartas nacionales durante una protesta antigubernamental en Argel, Argelia, el 13 de marzo de 2020
PHOTO/REUTERS - Demonstrators carry national flags and banners during an anti-government protest in Algiers, Algeria, on 13 March 2020
Tunisia, an opportunity for resilience

Thirdly, Tunisia, like Morocco, introduced measures from the outset that facilitated early containment of the virus. This, coupled with the country's advanced health system, has so far helped to significantly limit the impact of the pandemic.

Analyst Isabelle Werenfels stresses that the crisis is strengthening the country's main institutions. She notes that, thanks to the transparency that has characterised their management, both Parliament and Elyes Fakhfakh's government have significantly improved their support among the majority of citizens.

El primer ministro tunecino Elyes Fakhfakh
PHOTO/KHALED NASRAOUI - Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh
The future as a region

Can the coronavirus help the Maghreb emerge more united from the crisis? Opinions differ. Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, for example, believes that there is indeed an opportunity to promote greater unity of political and economic action. Intissar Fakir, however, does not see much reason to think that progress will be made in this direction in the near future.

In any case, the coronavirus crisis may aggravate other challenges shared by the three countries, such as attempts at interference by external powers - such as Russia, China or Turkey - that seek to sow social division, or the spread of conspiracy theories that add even more confusion to an already complex reality.

Un vehículo militar blindado de transporte de tropas marroquí (APC) circula por una calle de Sale, al norte de la capital, Rabat, el 24 de marzo de 2020
AFP/ FADEL SENNA - A Moroccan military armoured personnel carrier (APC) drives along a street in Sale, north of the capital Rabat, on 24 March 2020

Furthermore, the speakers agree that the war in Libya should not be overlooked. The confrontation in which the country, which shares a border with Tunisia and Algeria, is immersed does not allow for efforts to be focused on halting the pandemic, so that it could facilitate the spread of the virus throughout North Africa, not to mention the inherent risks to regional security.