Across North Africa and the Middle East, 2018 looks to be a year of civil unrest

A number of "MENA" states face the prospect of further upheaval as economic conditions worsen

January 24, 2018
Tunisians chant slogans during a demonstartion held in the capital Tunis. Photo:  NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Tunisians chant slogans during a demonstartion held in the capital Tunis. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Civic protests look set to become the theme of this year in a number of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states.

The year began with the Iranian protests in full swing. Then, for the first two weeks of January, thousands of people took part in sporadic protests across a number of Tunisian towns and cities against the apparent indifference of the government towards the impact of austerity. Its citizens have borne the brunt of IMF-backed economic reforms as the country struggles to regain economic balance seven years after the Arab Spring.

The protests continue this week in the southern Tunisian town of Metlaoui over jobs—or rather the lack of them—in the region’s phosphate mines, a main source of work and income. However, Tunisia is not alone in facing the challenges of poverty and chronic under- and unemployment, particularly amongst young people. Across North Africa, people can no longer afford the basics of life. Their governments grapple with rising public account deficits and debt, but offer little to mitigate the inflationary pressures on foodstuffs and basic services that new taxation and cutbacks inflict disproportionately on the poor.

More contained protests have been simmering in the northern Rif region of Morocco since late 2016, after the death of an illegal fishmonger triggered a wider set of demands for local investment and jobs long promised, but still not delivered. Earlier this month, the Moroccan dirham was partially floated for the first time, with fears of devaluation presaging hikes in import prices. Algeria has just imposed restrictions on the import of over 850 products, the prices of which have risen sharply; local substitutes are scarce and thus equally susceptible to sharp price hikes on the black market.

In Egypt, the promising economic growth projections just released by the government—of up to 5.5 per cent by 2019-20—could provoke a backlash on the basis of public expectations: inflation has been brought down to 21 per cent from a 33 per cent high last summer, but needs to reach single digit figures for escalating food prices to be curtailed. Higher growth also means higher expectations for jobs, which the Egyptian economy is still a long way from providing.

North Africa has a history of “bread riots” dating back to the 1970s. A shortage of cigarettes and basic goods in Algeria in the late 1980s provoked nationwide protests which indirectly led to a decade of violence in the 1990s.

Similar shortages and spiralling prices today form just one part of an explosive combination which may inspire Arab populations to take to the streets in 2018. Other critical components are elite corruption and the coming of age of the generation who were still at school the last time the region erupted in 2010-11.

“Across North Africa, people can no longer afford the basics of life”
The region’s political classes have no easy fixes to calm the popular mood. Many of the economic reforms currently being introduced from Morocco to Saudi Arabia reflect a long-standing need to restructure economies on a completely different basis from the years which preceded the explosion in the region’s youth population. With over 50 per cent of the population currently under 25 years of age, it is not so much a fit of feminism that has inspired Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to lift restrictions on the mixing of the sexes in public life and allow women to drive; the success of his “Vision 2030” strategy depends on women entering the workforce in greater numbers to raise productivity.

Managing economic transitions also requires convincing populations that promises of better outcomes in future are credible, and this is where regional leaderships are falling seriously short. Governing elites are unprepared to share the brunt of austerity—in ways familiar to debates across Europe since the financial crises of 2007-8—but neither have they confronted the most dysfunctional forms of corruption in their midst. In Tunisia, the self-interest of the governing coalition explains to many why so few high-level corruption cases have been investigated.

The IMF is also blamed, but international funds have not necessarily been lacking to restructure the Tunisian and other North African economies. Foreign-funded projects often stall in implementation in the absence of local capacities to absorb and deploy funds accountably; in turn, foreign private investors are deterred by the lack of local partners willing to risk their own capital in investments at home.

There is no single root cause for the various challenges that are not being risen to, but the fish rots at its head. Without political leadership capable of communicating and delivering a clear set of strategic objectives for the region’s economies, the populations of the MENA region will not wait patiently on the side lines for long.