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Not such a happy new year for North Africa

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The North Africa Journal: January 11, 2018- The new year started off on the wrong foot for North African nations, and the seeds of discontent for the years to come have been sown.  The year 2017 ended with a lot of drama and lingering crises that promise to stick around again this year and next.  In the Maghreb countries, there is a sense of permanent unrest as the populations continue to express their anger over economic issues, social inequalities, and corruption.  Libya remains entrenched in its internal civil war, and there is no progress that’s hinting on an improvement ahead. And the Egyptians are stuck between deadly terror groups that continue to launch attacks on civilian targets, and a government that maintains repression as standard policy.   General Sisi’s re-election this year will promise more status-quo ahead for the Egyptians.

For the North Africans, there is not much to celebrate as they transition to the new year.  The system is so stifling that even the Awqaf (religious endowments) and the Islamic Affairs Administration in eastern Libya warned people against celebrating Christmas and New Year.  No one is allowed to have fun these days.

The rising cost of living and the governments’ austerity measures across the region have led to an escalation of tension everywhere. In Tunisia’s central Kasserine region, a group of protesters took to the streets on 7 January to protest against rising prices and inflation. The police used tear gas to break up the protest, leading to riots. Residents of Sakiet Sidi Youssef in Kef, staged a protest march, blocking access to the Algerian border post. In Sidi Ali Ben Aoun, Sidi Bouzid governorate, protesters blocked the national road number 3 linking their town to Tunis and Gafsa. Unrest expanded beyond these regions.  In Testour and Nefza, governorate of Beja, anti-inflation riots were reported on 10 January. Police cars, the financial authority HQ and municipal assembly HQ were torched. The municipal warehouse was also looted, according to local sources. Hundreds of people have been arrested as security authorities seek to restore order.

In Morocco, the death of two brothers in a tunnel accident in a coal mine in the impoverished city of Jerada at the end of December, sparked unprecedented protest, which turned the accident into  an opportunity for socio-economic demands.  Just as it happened in nearby el-Hoceima last year, the Jerada population is demanding better economic opportunity and the government to pay attention to its plight with focus on jobs, development and an end to corruption.

Signs of a stabilizing North Africa are nowhere to be found.  In Libya Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (yes that one again) announced his intention to run for the 2018 presidential election, a move that is likely to galvanize the groups that have always supported the Gaddafi family, throwing more political uncertainty into an already highly destabilized nation.  Foreign powers continue to insist on a presidential election as a way to solve the Libyan crisis.  The head of Libya’s U.N.-backed government says he is pushing ahead with preparations to hold the country’s presidential elections in 2018, though no exact date has been set yet. Prime Minister Fayez Serraj has gathered support on the need to move forward with elections from both the Italians and the French, who have no idea on how to solve a crisis that they helped kick start, to begin with. Between Serraj, General Haftar and the European powers, there is really no room for hope for Libya this year. But the Libyans lashed out at the Czech Prime Minister who suggested sending troops in Southern Libya to halt illegal migration.

 

The civil war pitting everyone against everyone else in Libya appears permanent for now and the last week of 2017 had its share of drama. The Libyan National Army announced that it re-gained control over the Al-Balady hotel and its surrounding areas, while a 42-year old civilian was killed by a landmine in Benghazi, and two bodies of LNA soldiers were discovered beneath rubble of a destroyed hotel in Benghazi.   In Sirte, the oil pipeline of al-Zuqut al-Sidra, a unit of Waha Oil, exploded after an attack attributed to Islamic State militants. The attack could remove up to 100,000 barrels of crude per day from the Libya production.  Other acts of violence include the kidnaping of Tendamira imam, the murder of Misrata Mayor, and the continued clashes between LNA soldiers and Shura Council.

Tunisia is not only facing general unrest but it is also facing continuous terror threats.  Tunisia remains an active area on the insurgency and counter-insurgency as it closed the year.  The country stepped up its security posture ahead of the New Year’s eve celebrations and apprehended a security guard at the airport of Enfidha who vowed allegiance to the Islamic State.

The province of Kasserine saw several incidents prior to the new year.  The national guards captured two Islamic insurgents in Kasserine who were part of the pro-Islamic State group Jund al-Khalifa. Another raid netted nine individuals suspected of providing material and logistical support to Islamic insurgents based in the mountains. Militants have been active in that region, with the latest being Islamic insurgents opening fire on a group of three shepherds in Foussana.  In Mount Semmama, also in Kasserine, a land mine exploded on 30 December, killing livestock.   Elsewhere, seven individuals were apprehended by the security forces in Monastir, Beja, Zaghouan and Sousse over their alleged ties to the Islamic State. Correspondence between them and IS operatives was intercepted by the security forces.

In Algeria, the military and other security services remained busy and continued to downgrade the capabilities of suspected militant groups and prevent attacks.  As in Tunisia, the police force has mobilized 60,000 officers to secure 36 airports, 11 ports, 20 border posts, as well as embassies and consulates on new year’s eve.

On the ground, in the Saharan provinces, several caches containing war-grade weapons were found in Bordj Badji Mokhtar and in El Bayadh, which also netted arrests.  In Tamanrasset an Islamic militant loyal to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has surrendered to the security forces. In Batna, in the northeast of the country, three terrorism supporters were captured, and two others on charges of illegal weapon possession.

During a sweeping operation in Jijel’s Mechtat Mohcen region, the army killed an Islamic insurgent who was in the possession of a Kalashnikov machine gun. Nine insurgent hideouts were found in nearby province of Bouira. More arrests of suspected militant supporters or individuals carrying illegal weapons were reported in Tlemcen,  Constantine, and Biskra. Tlemcen, near the border with Morocco, was the most serious incident, considering the arrest of six individuals over alleged their ties to the Islamic State. The suspects were part of the same cell as the other five IS militants captured recently, and were preparing attacks on new year’s eve.

The security environment in Egypt was characterized by a continued escalation in the repressive measures against civil society actors and insurgency groups alike.  Egypt executed 15 people after they had been convicted of terrorism-related charges, in cases of violence and terror attacks against armed forces personnel in August 2013 in North Sinai. Another military court in Cairo sentenced 11 other people to death for “acts of violence”.

On the insurgency front, three people were killed in an armed attack on a café in the village of Al-Amiraya, the Governorate of Giza. Four masked armed men broke into the café and shot at people, then fled the scene on motorbikes.

In the restive North Sinai, six Egyptian soldiers died when their vehicle exploded during a raid against insurgents.  In a separate operation, three suspected jihadists were killed. They were found in possession of weapons, ammunition and explosive devices. Four vehicles belonging to the cell were also destroyed, killing the passengers inside. In the same province, militants killed two people, including a policeman, at a bank in the town of El-Arish. A separate explosion in the region killed an army officer and five soldiers, as militants fired a rocket and shot at police who were guarding a bank.

In Cairo, a gunman on a motorcycle opened fire outside a church and at a nearby store, sparking a shootout that killed at least nine people, including eight Coptic Christians. It was the latest attack targeting Egypt’s embattled Christian minority. The gunman was also killed, along with at least one police officer.

Looking at this big picture and one can only conclude that the seeds of instability have been sown and that 2018 and 2019 will likely remain dangerous years for the region.

The North Africa Journal is a leading English-language publication focused on North Africa. The Journal covers primarily the Maghreb region and expands its general coverage to the Sahel, Egypt, and beyond, when events in those regions affect the broader North Africa geography. The Journal does not have any affiliation with any institution and has been independent since its founding in 1996. Our position is to always bring our best analysis of events affecting the region, and remain as neutral as humanly possible. Our coverage is not limited to one single topic, but ranges from economic and political affairs, to security, defense, social and environmental issues. We rely on our full staff analysts and editors to bring you best-in-class analysis. We also work with sister company MEA Risk LLC, to leverage the presence on the ground of a solid network of contributors and experts. Information on MEA Risk can be found at www.MEA-Risk.com.