Main News


The EU’s Deforestation Package: A Test for Taking the Green Deal Global

By Olivia Lazard, Carnegie Europe, 01 June 2021

The EU is preparing a new deforestation package with international dimensions. After failing to meet its target of halting deforestation by 2020, this time the union must be aggressively ambitious. That means changing business-as-usual strategic and geo-economic behavior.


The World Meteorological Organization has just warned that the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold could be reached, temporarily, as early as 2025.

Words fail to express this looming catastrophe. Shifting energy systems is urgent, to say the least. This has taken the lion’s share of attention when it comes to climate action. But protecting natural ecosystems that help to regulate the global climate regime, host biodiversity, and provide humans with critical ecological services such as food and water security is just as crucial. That is why the EU’s announced deforestation package is of the utmost importance.

A 2021 World Wide Fund for Nature report revealed that the EU is actually the second biggest importer of deforestation after China. In 2017, it still accounted for about 16 percent of overseas deforestation and its associated greenhouse gas emissions.

This is a drop from earlier figures. In 2008, the EU accounted for more than a third of global deforestation linked to agricultural products. The union bears an enormous share of historical responsibility for the conversion of natural ecosystems for industrial agricultural purposes.

The new package, to be announced in June, will focus largely on agriculture and other industrial commodities related to deforestation. It will be based on a mix of voluntary and mandatory measures. It is expected that the package will place a lot of emphasis on private sector actors with mandatory due diligence measures that aim to ensure that production is deforestation-free.

This will be essential, along with a focus on strengthening governance systems so as to enshrine the protection of all ecosystems—including but not restricted to forests—in law and in development partnerships.

But the EU must go beyond the expected deforestation package and pursue active regeneration of critical ecosystems to fight scarcity, insecurity, and climate disruptions. These happen to be located for the most part in fragile and conflict-affected zones. They demand complex approaches to ecological, human, and political security.

The European External Action Service has already adopted language related to environmental peacemaking in relation to its mediation support activities. It now needs to rethink its competency pool accordingly and ensure that it works within the multilateral system to support conflict resolution and stabilization processes that place nature at the heart of security efforts.

This intimately relates to the deforestation challenge, since timber and biodiverse products are now increasingly part of conflict systems and transnational criminal activities.

Focusing on supply chain transparency and due diligence is essential. But working systemically on preventing deforestation and fostering regeneration will require improving approaches to security, anti-corruption, and predation efforts. Furthermore, it will require integrating ecological approaches into human rights and social empowerment efforts, and reimagining development pathways.

Yet, holistic approaches between initiatives such as the deforestation package, more ambitious conflict resolution, and innovative development pathways are still impeded by institutional silos, thereby preventing systemic change and adequate diversification of tools and competencies.

Finally, while the policy package is one step in the right direction, something much bigger needs to happen soon. An emphasis must be placed on smallholder farming and the midwifing of complex natural systems through food production.

Back in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization was already warning the world that smallholder farming had to be the way forward if food production were to remain possible on a planet with deteriorating soil health.

Instead, global markets have continued to push for intensive monocultures. This is not sustainable. Global food production and consumption patterns will ultimately need to change. This is about going back to localized, resilient agricultural systems.

Why? Because globally systematized food systems serve economic purposes while exhausting ecosystems of their biology and diversity needed to combat climate change, malnutrition, disasters, and food and water insecurity.

The EU’s package should therefore be but one step on a much longer journey aimed at rethinking economic models at all levels.

The challenge will be to marry adaptation and mitigation objectives. In the next decades, we will face more violent climate-related disasters. They will surely impact crop yields around the world, much like what we saw in the year leading up to the Arab Spring. To meet this challenge, we will need global safety nets, ensuring that global food production can withstand shocks.

At the same time, coming back to agricultural production systems that hone in on ecology, natural complexity, and local circularity will be key to ensuring resilience and, over time, mitigation. This will require supporting smallholder farming in every way possible, including through carbon credits and development aid. Just as importantly, the EU must lead the way to toward a different type of globalized food production and consumption system.

In light of the interconnectedness of the challenges, it is increasingly clear that the EU needs a whole-of-society and whole-of-economy transformation for its foreign policy. It has already started doing this at home with the Green Deal, particularly with its circular economy, biodiversity, and farm-to-fork strategies. It logically follows that the external dimension of the deal needs to question business-as-usual strategic and geo-economic behavior.

The EU’s credibility and effectiveness as a climate leader are at stake with this deforestation package.


Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.



BRUSSELS - A new study suggests the EU could collect some €170 billion in corporate taxes annually, pending such an international agreement.

"We find that such a 25 percent minimum tax would increase corporate income tax revenues in the European Union by about €170 billion in 2021," notes the report, published Tuesday by the Brussels-based EU Tax Observatory.

The tax rate is currently being discussed by the OECD.

Executive Summary

This study estimates how much tax revenue the European Union could collect by imposing a minimum tax on the profits of multinational companies.We compute the tax deficit of multinational firms, defined as the difference between what multinationals currently pay in taxes, and what they would pay if they were subject to a minimum tax rate in each country. We then consider three ways for EU countries to collect this tax deficit. First, we simulate an international agreement on a minimum taxof the type currently discussed by the OECD, favored by a number of European Union countries, and by the United States. In this scenario, each EU country wouldcollect the tax deficit of its own multinationals. For instance, if the internationally agreed minimum tax rate is 25% and a German company has an effective tax rate of 10% on the profits it records in Singapore, then Germany would impose an additional tax of 15% on these profits to arriveat an effective rate of 25%. More generally, Germany would collect extra taxes so that its multinationals pay at least 25% in taxes on the profits they book in each country. Other nations would proceed similarly. We find that such a 25% minimum tax would increase corporate income tax revenues in the European Union by about €170 billion in 2021. This sum represents more than 50% of the amount of corporate tax revenue currently collected in the European Union and 12% of total EU health spending. The revenue potential of a coordinated minimum tax is thus large. However, revenues significantly depend on the commonly agreed minimum tax rate. With a 21% minimum rate, the European Union would collect about €100 billion in 2021. Moving from 21% to 15% would reduce revenues by a factor of two. Second, we simulate an incomplete international agreement in which only EU countries apply a minimum tax, while non-EU countries do not change their tax policies. In this scenario, each EU country would collect the tax deficit of its own multinationals (as in our first scenario), plus a portion of the tax deficit of multinationals incorporated outside of the European Union, based on the destination of sales. For instance, if a British company makes 20% of its sales in Germany,then Germany would collect 20% of the tax deficit of this company. We find that that in such a scenario, using a rate of 25% to compute the tax deficit of each multinational, the European Union would increase its corporate tax revenues by about€200 billion. Out of this total, €170 billion would come from collecting the tax deficit of EU multinationals; an additional €30 billion would come from collecting a portion of the tax deficit of non-EU multinationals. For the European Union, there is thus a much higher revenue potential from increasing taxes on EU companies than from taxing non-EU companies. To improve the fairness of its tax system and generate new government revenues (e.g., to pay for the cost of Covid-19), it is essential that the European Union polices its own multinationals. Last, we estimatehow much revenue each EU country could collect unilaterally, assuming all other countries keep their current tax policy unchanged. This corresponds to a “first-mover” scenario, in which one country alone decides to collect the tax deficit of multinational companies. This first mover would collect the full tax deficit of its own multinationals, plus a portion (proportional tothe destination of sales) of the tax deficit of all foreign multinationals, based on a reference rate of 25%. We find that a first mover in the European Union would increase its corporate tax revenues by close to 70% relative to its current corporate tax collection. Although international coordination is always preferable, a unilateral move of a single EU member state (or a group of member states) would encourage other EU countries to also collect the tax deficit of multinationals—as not doing so would mean leaving tax revenues on the table for the first movers to grab. This could pave the way for an ambitious agreement on a high minimum tax, within the European Union and then globally. This analysis shows that unilateral action can play a transformative role and that refusing international coordination is not a sustainable solution, since other countries can always choose to collect the taxes that tax havens choose not to collect.Our estimates are based on a transparent methodology that combines newly available macroeconomic data on the location and effective tax rates of multinational profits. We illustrate and validate our approach by applying it to firm-level data publicly disclosed by all European banks and 16 large non-bank multinationals. We find that European banks would have to pay 44% more in taxes if they were subject to a 25% country-by-country minimum tax. This estimate is in line with our finding that EU multinationals as a whole (all sectors combined) would have to pay around 50% more in taxes, thus suggesting that this number is indeed the correct order of magnitude. Companies such as Shell, Iberdrola, and Allianz—who voluntarily disclose their country-by-country profits and taxes—would also have to pay 35%-50% more in taxes if they were subject to a 25% minimum tax. This report is supplemented by a pioneering interactive website, This new tool allows policy makers, journalists, members of civil society, and all citizens in each EU country to assess the revenue potential from minimum taxation on both domestic and foreign firms. Users can select various scenarios (e.g., internationalcoordination or unilateral action), and a full range of minimum tax rates from 10% to 50%. All the data and computer code are available online, making our estimates fully reproducible. We plan to regularly update our findings, as improved and more comprehensive macroeconomic data sources become available, refined estimation techniques are designed, and more companies publicly disclose their country-by-country reports.

For the full report, visit:

Britain’s Post-Brexit Ambitions Will Be Modest, Not Global

By Peter Kellner, Carnegie Europe, 27 May 2021

Brexit Britain is discovering that its influence and ability to tackle global challenges have diminished. As reality sinks in, it could change the way Britain thinks and acts—very possibly for the better.


Boris Johnson talks frequently of his ambitions for “Global Britain.” He wants the United Kingdom, post-Brexit, to play a great role around the world.

In a government report published in March, he said that this is vital for the UK’s “safety and prosperity,” and definitely not a “vainglorious gesture.”

How seriously should we take Britain’s prime minister? Very, say his supporters. Here are some examples they cite. A new aircraft carrier has set off on its inaugural journey, to join Dutch and American ships patrolling the South China seas. In mid-June, the UK will host a G7 summit. In November, it will host another big gathering: the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26.

All the while, the UK is busy negotiating new trade deals with other countries, now that the EU no longer does so on Britain’s behalf. And the UK remains a nuclear power within NATO, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

That’s one side of the ledger. But it’s not the whole story. Here are some things that Johnson’s critics put on the other side:

- Even after the launch of the new aircraft carrier, Britain’s navy will be only half the size it was twenty years ago, and only one-quarter the size it was in 1982. It would be impossible today to put together the task force that the navy sent that year to recapture the Falkland Islands.

- To be sure, the UK is hosting the G7 and COP26 summits, but there is no evidence that being host bestows particular influence. With climate change in particular, the key players are the United States, China, and the EU. Three months ago, the EU set out its plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050. But the UK, of course, has left the EU and is now a minor actor in the climate drama. Its own recently revised targets attracted little attention in other countries.

- All the trade deals so far concluded are essentially rollover agreements that continue the arrangements Britain had as a member of the EU. If anything, the UK is less “global” than it was, because it has become harder for the UK to trade with the EU. It faces border checks and “rules of origin” restrictions on the trade in goods assembled in the UK containing components imported from non-EU countries.

- The UK’s international development program no longer sets a shining example to the rest of the world. It was one of the few countries to meet the UN target of spending 0.7 percent of its economy on aid. However, in April, the government cut its aid budget by more than one-third, with immediate effect. Given the need to honor long-term commitments to, for example, UN agencies, the impact has been to force severe cuts on many programs. These include cutting humanitarian aid to Yemen by more than half, bilateral aid to sub-Saharan Africa by two-thirds, and funding to water, sanitation, and hygiene projects by more than four-fifths.

To these examples we should add a larger point about Britain’s place in the world. Six decades ago, Dean Acheson, who had helped to create the postwar world as U.S. secretary of state, famously said: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” By joining the European Community in 1973, Britain found a role. It became a bridge between the United States and Europe.

The bridge is not as big or strong as British leaders would like; but it has made a difference. Sharing a language, history, and culture with one, and a continent with the other, Britain was able to develop close bonds with both and help to develop common approaches to global issues.

Brexit has blown up that bridge. The UK’s relations with the EU are now cold and awkward. Britain remains friendly toward the United States, but is far less useful to Washington.

If Washington wants to deal with Europe, it now bypasses London and deals directly with Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. What’s more, U.S. President Joe Biden feels strongly about his Irish roots. He will not be impressed by Johnson’s attempts to rewrite the UK-EU Northern Ireland Protocol, which the prime minister signed less than six months ago. Anything with even the faintest whiff of British bad faith will go down badly in the White House.

Recently the prestigious U.S. Council on Foreign Relations proposed a “Concert of Powers for a Global Era.” The Council suggested that its members should be the United States, China, the EU, Russia, Japan, and India. By its absence from that list, Britain has been relegated to the second division of world powers, despite having nuclear weapons and its UN Security Council seat.

The big question is: does that matter? One of the UK’s problems is that nostalgia for past glories tends to swamp its present identity. Brexit Britain is discovering that it has little influence and less power to solve the world’s big problems—such as tackling climate change, fighting terrorism, preventing future pandemics, standing up to China, and taxing big, footloose technology companies.

All in all, the days of exaggerated self-importance are finally over. A more modest Britain is on its way. Gradually, that reality is likely to sink in. It could change the way Britain, as a nation, thinks and acts; and very possibly for the better. This was not what Johnson and his fellow Brexiters intended, but it could be their most valuable legacy.

The Author

Peter Kellner is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on Brexit, populism, and electoral democracy.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


How do you solve a problem like Lukashenko? Perhaps at the ICC

By Alexandre Prezanti and Simon Papuashvili, first published by Euobserver, 21 May 2021

BRUSSELS/LONDON - How to bring an autocratic regime to account if it hasn't signed up to any international justice mechanisms?

Alexander Lukashenko – a man who has ruled the Republic of Belarus with an iron fist for over 26 years – is determined to stay in power. He has faced mass protests at home, international condemnation and sanctions.

Yet, his enforcers continue to mete out violence and arbitrary detention with impunity. The regime has forced over 14,000 citizens to flee the country. This gives the International Criminal Court a sliver of a chance to hold the regime to account. The international community should call on the ICC to act.

On Wednesday (19 May), the International Partnership for Human Rights, Global Diligence LLP, Truth Hounds and Norwegian Helsinki Committee asked the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime in Belarus.

Since May 2020, president Lukashenko along with key members of the presidential administration, the government, law enforcement, state security, the judiciary and others agents and proxies have waged a campaign of repression against the civilian population of Belarus in a bid to retain power at all costs.

At least six civilians have been killed, over 33,000 have been arrested, hundreds have been tortured in police and state security detention and an estimated 14,000 have been driven out of the country.

There is little doubt that the scale and ferocity of the regime's conduct has reached the threshold of crimes against humanity.

We have interviewed hundreds of witnesses who provide harrowing accounts of police brutality, interrogations under torture, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, sexual violence in prisons, intimidation and harassment on the streets and in peoples' homes.

Parents have been threatened with having their children taken away into state custody. Protesters are losing their jobs, housing, bank accounts and other basic public services.

On 17 May 2021, Lukashenko ratified a law that permits law enforcement to use lethal force against protesters, granting them immunity from prosecution. The next day, the offices and homes of one of the last independent media organisations – TUT.BY – was raided and effectively gagged.

The problem is, Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe or any other international justice mechanism.

Nor is it a state party to the ICC, and without a resolution from the UN Security Council, the ICC is only permitted to investigate and prosecute crimes committed on the territory of 'State Parties' or by their nationals.

Myanmar precedent?

However, in September 2018, the ICC accepted a key exception to this limitation in the situation in Myanmar. Where a non-state party forces civilians to flee across the border to the territory of a state party, the ICC may prosecute this conduct as crimes against humanity of deportation and persecution.

In the case of Belarus, thousands of civilians have fled to Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine (all states over which the ICC has jurisdiction) as a result of the regime's coercive conduct.

Some were physically driven into no-man's land by the authorities, others were told to leave or face prosecution, others still fled in the face of imminent arrests, violence and other serious human rights abuses.

In November 2020, Lukashenko announced that "a core group" or 2,000 protesters should be "taken away to Lithuania and Poland". In December, Lukashenko ratified a law that allows the regime to strip its opponents of Belarusian citizenship.

The same month, Lukashenko issued a clear threat - "we are not going to prevent anyone from leaving but remember this – if you leave you are not going to be able to return".

Thus, the regime's message to the people of Belarus is clear – stay and yield to the regime or run and never come back.

Whilst the ICC's jurisdictional limitations prevent our case from reflecting the full spectrum of the violations in Belarus – as in the case of Myanmar – it is the only means currently available to the international community to hold the regime to account.

Whilst Lukashenko's conduct has been met with widespread condemnation, the international community appears to stand by as thousands of pro-democracy protesters and activists are beaten up and languish in jails.

As protests continue to paralyse the country and the regime becomes more desperate, we fear further violence and bloodshed ahead. The international community must do something to hold the regime to account.

With Russia on the UN Security Council, there is no prospect of international justice for the victims of the regime – other than the ICC.

We therefore call on the international community to support our efforts to have the case investigated by the ICC prosecutor.

If nothing else, the deterrent effect of an ICC investigation may help to prevent further escalation of violence by the regime. Support from State Parties – in the form of a state referral under Article 14 of the Rome Statute – would bring the case to the fore and give the ICC more impetus to act swiftly and decisively.
Author bio

Alexandre Prezanti is a partner at Global Diligence LLP. Simon Papuashvili is programme director at the International Partnership for Human Rights.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of Euobseprver or CEMAS.



Gaza’s bereaved civilians fear justice will never come


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The al-Kawlaks, a family of four generations living next door to each other in downtown Gaza City, were utterly unprepared for the inferno.

Like others, they were terrified by the heavy bombing in Israel’s fourth war with Gaza’s Hamas rulers that began May 10. The explosions felt more powerful than in previous fighting. At night, parents and children slept in one room so they would live or die together.

Yet the relatively well-to-do Rimal neighborhood where the family lived in a cluster of apartment buildings seemed somewhat safer than areas along Gaza’s border with Israel, which had been devastated in this and past fighting.

Then one night disaster struck. Azzam al-Kawlak’s four children had gone to bed, and he and his wife were preparing to join them.

At around 1 a.m. on May 16, a thunderous boom shook his top-floor apartment, followed quickly by a second and third. “The floor cracked below our feet and the furniture was thrown to the wall,” the 42-year-old engineer said.

The four-story building collapsed, with Azzam’s apartment dropping to the ground. The family escaped through the kitchen balcony, now almost ground level. Bizarrely, the laundry hanging on a clothesline seemed untouched.

It took a day for the full horror to emerge, as bodies and survivors were pulled from the rubble. The family and neighbors used ropes to clear chunks of concrete, working alongside ill-equipped rescue teams.

By nightfall, the family’s death toll stood at 22. Eight bodies were dug out of Azzam’s building and 14 from the one next door. The dead included 89-year-old family patriarch Amin, his son Fawaz, 62, his grandson Sameh, 28, and his great-grandson, 6-month-old Qusai.

Just a day earlier, Qusai’s parents had celebrated a small milestone, his first tooth. Azzam’s two younger brothers were killed. Three nieces — 5-year-old Rula, 10-year-old Yara and 12-year-old Hala — were found in a tight embrace, their bodies the last to be pulled out, said Azzam’s surviving older brother, Awni.

The bombing along several hundred meters (yards) of al-Wahda Street took just minutes. In all, it brought down three houses — two in the al-Kawlak compound and one nearby — and killed a total of 43 people, making it the single deadliest air raid of the 11-day war.

Israel said the target was a Hamas tunnel underneath the street, part of what it called a roughly 350-kilometer-long (220-mile) underground network. The tunnels served offensive and defensive purposes, military officials said, accusing Hamas of using civilians as human shields.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said during a war-time briefing that the military target in Rimal collapsed, causing nearby houses and their supporting structures to collapse as well. “That caused a large amount of civilian casualties, which were not the aim,” he said.

He said the army was reviewing the incident and “adjusting the analysis and the ordnance used in the future” to prevent similar events from occurring again. “It’s not a totally mathematic exercise in choosing the ordnance,” he said.

He said Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes in areas just as densely populated, with far fewer casualties.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz told foreign journalists this week that Israel does everything it can to avoid civilian casualties, but Gaza’s crowded urban landscape makes it virtually impossible to avoid them altogether

“Hamas is aiming to hit civilians by purpose and we are trying our best for that not to happen,” he said.

The fighting began May 10 after Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel’s heavy-handed policing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a site sacred to Jews and Muslims, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers. In all, Hamas fired more than 4,000 rockets toward Israel during the war, while Israel said it struck hundreds of targets linked to militants in Gaza.

At Gaza City’s main police compound, Capt. Mohammed Meqdad picked through pieces of bomb fragments in a cardboard box labeled “al-Wahda Street.”

Two had serial numbers identifying them as fitted with Joint Direct Attack Munition kits manufactured by Boeing Co. at its factory in St. Charles, Missouri, to make them so-called “smart bombs,” able to be guided to a target by GPS or lasers. Boeing did not answer questions about the bombing, only saying in a statement: “In accordance with U.S. law, the U.S. government authorizes and provides strict oversight for all defense exports.”

Meqdad said that based on the fragments, the bombs that brought down the al-Kawlak homes were likely GBU-31s, packed with 430 kilograms (945 pounds) of high explosives. The GBU-31 typically is used for large buildings, but also can destroy underground targets, said N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of Armament Research Services, a specialist arms investigations firm.

The bombs carry a powerful blast, meaning surveillance, intelligence-gathering, pre-planning and the correct choice and explosive punch of the weapon should be carefully considered before an attack, he said.

“The intrinsic wide-area effects of large explosive munitions mean they must be used judiciously in the urban environment,” he said.

The Israeli military did not respond when asked what bombs were used in the al-Wahda Street strikes.

Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court began investigating Israel and Hamas for possible war crimes going back to the previous 2014 war. This includes random Hamas rocket fire toward Israeli communities — widely seen as a violation of the rules of war — and some of Israel’s deadliest practices, such as the toppling of high-rises that killed entire families in pursuit of militants.

Two Gaza rights groups — al-Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights — have been documenting Israel’s strikes and incursions for years. This time, they again interviewed survivors, including the al-Kawlaks, visited hospitals, took photos and collected death certificates, in preparation for possible new submissions to the ICC.

Samir Zakout of al-Mezan and Mohammed al-Alami of PCHR said they believe the al-Wahda Street bombings — along with other deadly airstrikes — violated the laws of war, arguing the value of any possible military target was dwarfed by significant harm to civilians.

Zakout accused Israel of intentionally using excessive firepower to sow fear, saying it was “one of the direct goals of the war.”

The Israeli military does not recognize the ICC, but says its airstrikes are cleared by lawyers to make sure they comply with international standards. During the fighting the military released video of what it said were air force teams calling off strikes because they spotted children in the vicinity. In many cases, it ordered occupants to evacuate buildings before bombing them.

International law professor Paola Gaeta said that “certainly we are witnessing something which is wrong,” referring to civilian deaths, but there is a high threshold for proving a war crime. This includes proving disproportionate use of force and intentional targeting of civilians, said Gaeta, who teaches at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

If Israel says it made a reasonable mistake in calculating the amount of explosives in the al-Wahda Street strike, this could serve as a defense, she said.

In all, 254 people were killed in Gaza in this war, including 67 children and 39 women. according to the Gaza health ministry. Hamas has acknowledged the deaths of 80 militants. Eleven civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.

Awni al-Kawlak keeps 22 death certificates in a briefcase, along with the deeds for the two destroyed homes. A third family house was damaged and awaits demolition. The family business, a generator repair shop, was also destroyed. Two apartment buildings, including Awni’s home, remain intact.

Sitting in a courtyard behind the rubble, the 49-year-old shrugged when told of Israel’s apparent acknowledgement of error. “What will I do with this information?” he said. “I lost my livelihood and I lost my brothers and their children.”

The fear that justice will never come makes it harder for the family to deal with loss, he said. He worries that Gaza and its problems, including a suffocating blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since 2007 to contain Hamas, will soon sink back into oblivion.

“We know that the world is now empathetic, but after a while it will forget our problem,” he said. “Even when they remember us again, they will remember us as numbers.”



Does Cairo Care?

By Michael Young, Malcolm H.Kerr Carnegie Middle East, 26 May 2021

In an interview, Mohannad Sabry discusses Egypt’s reaction to the recent conflict in Gaza.


Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist and author who lived in Cairo until 2015, before he left in self-imposed exile after facing mounting threats. In 2011 he was named a finalist for the Livingston Award for International Reporting, and was nominated for an Emmy Award as part of the PBS Frontline team that produced the show “Egypt in Crisis” in September 2013. Sabry is knowledgeable about developments in the Sinai Peninsula, where the Egyptian government has been fighting an insurgency for several years. He is the author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, and Israel’s Nightmare (2015), which was banned in Egypt soon after publication. Diwan interviewed Sabry in late May to get his perspective on Egypt’s role in the recent conflict in Gaza.

Michael Young: Now that a ceasefire is in place in Gaza, how would you assess Egypt’s behavior during the recent conflict?

Mohannad Sabry: The ceasefire, which Egypt brokered and pressed for quickly and diligently, was evidence of how effective and positive Egypt’s behavior was during this conflict. Without such efforts the war between Israel and Gaza’s armed factions would have continued for weeks and seen hundreds of more civilian and military victims, as well as greater destruction to an already debilitated Gaza.

However, Cairo’s actions during the conflict, which were very different than its past positions on Gaza, raise serious questions and concerns over the true intentions of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime. Its position in defense of Gaza and its people, like the full return of communication with leaders of Hamas, took place even as Egypt’s judiciary continued to prosecute and imprison hundreds of people over charges of terrorism and collaboration with Hamas. Even Egypt’s late president Mohammed Morsi, whom Sisi toppled, died in court after being accused of collaborating with Hamas.

While Egypt’s behavior seemed positive, it now has to deliver on promises of working for a just and peaceful solution to the longstanding problems associated with the Palestinian cause and the Gaza Strip. State-sponsored television presenters crying on air over the civilian deaths in Gaza seemed laughable and was met by sarcasm, especially when the same regime mouthpieces had called for burning all of Gaza a few years ago. Unless a real change in Egyptian attitudes materializes, recent Egyptian actions will remain meaningless.

MY: In the regional context, what were Cairo’s calculations? Egypt used to be the main Arab interlocutor on Palestinian issues, but is that still true? How did regional factors play into its behavior over Gaza?

MS: Regional developments and the normalization deals sealed last year between Israel and other Arab states were definitely a major influence on Egyptian calculations. Sisi’s regime wants to show that despite the importance of other regional agreements and developments, Egypt remains the strongest and most capable mediator when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Reestablishing this position was a greater win for Sisi’s regime than all other calculations of preserving peace and protecting the civilian population of Gaza. Egypt did play the humanitarian, propeace card, but the regime was far more concerned with entrenching its rule by maintaining and publicly parading the efficacy of its regional influence. Egypt reaped the fruits of such actions almost immediately, and remained the only party to receive global applause and messages of gratitude from both Israel and Gaza, as well as from U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders.

On the other hand, such plaudits impose a grave challenge when it comes to Egypt’s relations with other Arab states—primarily the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who have been Sisi’s prime backers and financiers since the 2013 coup that brought him to power. Any sense of competition or rivalry with those countries would disrupt the already fragile relations between Egypt’s regime and other regional powers.

MY: Egypt kept the Rafah crossing with Gaza open for humanitarian reasons, suggesting more flexibility than in the past. How would you assess its approach to humanitarian issues this time when compared to what had taken place previously?

MS: The situation at the Rafah terminal and Cairo’s approach to humanitarian issues in Gaza in general cast major doubts over how genuine the Egyptian position was. While the terminal remained open for ordinary travelers, including students and people with travel clearances finalized before the conflict, it remained closed to the victims of the war and to humanitarian aid convoys, journalists, and workers in nongovernmental organizations.

It was only on the seventh day of the conflict that Egypt allowed a mere twelve injured victims to cross the border for treatment. Sources in the Rafah terminal and inside Gaza reported that the majority of injured civilians were banned from crossing into Egypt over security concerns. As for aid, it was only after the ceasefire began that Egypt allowed an 80-truck convoy to enter Gaza, covering trucks with pictures of Sisi and a slogan that was met with condemnation: “The Egyptian President’s Gift to the People of Palestine.”

The recent situation was the opposite of the total closure of the Rafah terminal during the 2014 war. At that time Egypt fully encouraged Israeli military action and state-sponsored media called for the full destruction of Hamas and its fellow armed factions. But this time Egypt did less than the bare minimum of its capabilities on the humanitarian level, after the destructions of infrastructure, hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian homes, and around 2,000 injuries.

Egypt’s approach to Gaza’s humanitarian crisis raised a serious question that the Sisi regime must answer practically: Is Cairo genuine about alleviating the suffering of the people of Gaza or is it simply using their plight as a stepping stone to achieve its political objectives? How it chooses to answer that question will either boost its popularity further or completely shatter the credibility of its sudden shift to adopting humanitarian rhetoric.

MY: Amid signs that there is increasing regional and international dissatisfaction with Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians, how do you think this might affect Egyptian policies toward Israel?

MS: Egypt and Israel have invested far too many resources in building an unprecedentedly close relationship in recent years since Sisi’s rise to power for them to forgo such an investment over international or regional dissatisfaction. Moreover, both Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have benefited greatly from this relationship, as have their militaries.

The depth and complexity of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship was visible in the contradictions that took place. Sisi’s regime rushed to broker a ceasefire that put an end to the firing of rockets at Israel. Yet it also ran an anti-Israel campaign on state-sponsored television stations that was watched by hundreds of millions of people across the region, and still received public messages of gratitude from Netanyahu and Israel’s celebrated ambassador to Egypt Amira Oron.

At the same time, Sisi remains a very unpopular leader with a bloodstained human rights record, despite how popular his behavior was toward the situation in Gaza. Netanyahu, in turn, faces grave domestic challenges that might end his time in office, which places both governments and their ties at a significant crossroads. The near future will reveal how much Sisi and Netanyahu are willing to compromise on the future status of Gaza and whether the blockade there should be lifted. This will show what remains their top priority.

Once again, how Sisi decides to deal with Israel going forward will determine the fate of his new policies toward Gaza and the Palestinian people. Either he will emerge as a defender of Gaza despite his record and push for lasting solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or he will remain the ironfisted dictator who began his reign with the massacre of protesters on the streets of Cairo.


Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


Union for Mediterranean scorecard? - 'must do better'

By Nasser Kamel

BARCELONA, May 2021 - The tight grip the virus has held on our movement and on the economy has given us food for thought. The global fight against Covid-19 has highlighted the limitations of the international community's capacity to coordinate a global response to some of the other crises and challenges facing our world today.

Previously championed supply chains were unable to adapt to restrictions. The reliance on distant sources of production made us vulnerable to shortages and ill-equipped to respond accordingly. The circular migration some industries thrive on all but came to a halt.

The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) has long vouched for the need to enhance regional cooperation and integration in the Mediterranean, as detailed in the UfM Roadmap for Action, adopted in 2017.

That is why the publication of the first progress report on Euro-Mediterranean Regional Integration is so timely.

Commissioned by the UfM and prepared by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the report focuses on five domains of regional integration – trade, finance, infrastructure, the movement of people, and research and higher education – presenting key findings, clear indicators to follow future progress, and policy recommendations for each of these areas.

Critically, it is driven by data that allows us to draw some stark conclusions. The good news is that integration has advanced in the region.

Slow, and below potential

Dig a little deeper, though, and the truth is that progress has been slow and remains below its potential in terms of capacities and resources.

Uneven integration across and within sub-regions helps explain this in part.

The European Union is still responsible for over 95 percent of the region's internal merchandise exports and 93 percent of the external merchandise exports.

The majority of financial exchange in the region involves at least one EU member state, and most scientific cooperation in the region is characterised by North-South interactions, though there are South-South exceptions.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, trade agreements within the Euro-Mediterranean region were perhaps too narrow in scope and lacked the conviction that now drives our ambitions for the sustainable development of our communities.

No services?

They focused mainly on reducing existing tariffs in the trade of manufactured goods, while not covering trade in services. This is a lost opportunity, as trade in services accounts for 25 percent of global trade flows today.

Two further important challenges to regional integration are the inadequate infrastructure for transport and energy connectivity, as well as the lack of a common vision on human mobility as a driver of innovation and growth in the region.

Solar energy farms

Indeed, the World Bank estimated in 2020 that over the next five to 10 years the Middle East/North Africa region will require an investment of over seven percent of its annual GDP in the maintenance and creation of infrastructure; while concentrated solar power plants in the region could generate 100 times the combined electricity consumption of MENA and Europe together.

Though some progress has been made to facilitate human mobility in the region, further cooperation such as softening visa requirements could enable countries to fully leverage the potential of different forms of mobility, such as tourism, student and researcher exchanges.

On top of these priorities, we must not lose sight of the importance of digitalisation, and the opportunities it unlocks for regional cooperation.

Digital transformation is changing global production, trade and foreign investment, and offering more ways to collaborate and participate virtually in science and education.

It can be used to lower the cost of remittances – an important part of GDP in many southern and eastern Mediterranean economies – as well as improve e-commerce. In 2017, studies reported that only eight percent of SMEs in the wider MENA region had an online presence and only 1.5 percent of the region's retailers were online.

As we recover, we must leverage the opportunity to create new inclusive societies that ensure young people and women can fulfil their potential as agents of development and contributors to the region's economy as a whole.

Regional integration is of common interest to all and to see meaningful change, we must start to show what we really mean by building back better.

As always, at the UfM, we believe that ever more committed cooperation is the only way forward.

The Author

Nasser Kamel is the secretary general for the Union for the Mediterranean.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver or CEMAS.

The EU’s Passive Approach to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

By Marwan Muasher, Carnegie Europe, 06 May 2021

The Europeans have paid lip service to a two-state solution based on an independent Palestine alongside Israel. But without a clear plan to make it happen, such a solution will remain unattainable.


In 2002, shortly after I became Jordan’s foreign minister, a senior EU official shared an observation that I have not forgotten since. “The EU will never get ahead of the Americans on the peace process,” he said. He was right.

The EU has taken positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that have gone further than different U.S. administrations have.

Nine EU member states have already recognized Palestine as a state. The EU has been, for years, the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority (PA). In addition, the EU’s position—supporting a two-state solution to the conflict—has been steady even when the United States wavered in such support under President Donald Trump.

In sticking to its position, the EU has consistently insisted that it will not recognize any changes to the 1967 borders unless agreed to by the two parties.

But the EU’s support for a two-state solution has, not unlike that of much of the international community, become rather passive, particularly in the absence of a negotiating process between Israel and Palestine.

When in January 2020 the Trump administration unveiled its “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which allowed for the annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank and practically an end to a viable two-state solution, a few EU members tried not to reject it out of hand on the basis that it might lead to something positive.

One reason for considering Trump’s proposal was that the EU hardly has a strong and unified position on the conflict. France and Sweden have more advanced positions in support of the Palestinians than countries like Hungary and Poland. And there are some states that have criticized such support, in particular bilateral financial assistance to Palestinians.

On the one hand, many EU governments have said, publicly or privately, that Palestinians, instead of focusing on building a sustainable economy, strong democratic institutions, and combatting corruption, have grown more dependent on foreign aid.

On the other hand, they consider such assistance as helping finance the Israeli occupation, by allowing Israel not to spend much money on development in the occupied territories.

Either way, the Europeans have opted for the status quo by perpetuating a PA that appears to be doing Israel’s bidding and is seen by many Palestinians as either corrupt or out of touch with its citizens.

The PA has consistently cracked down on any genuinely independent civil society movement that campaigns for real political reform and on a non-violent peace movement. Neither is in the interests of the PA or Israel. The EU should have long ago moved out of its status quo box.

That aside, the main flaw in the EU’s position toward the conflict is that the continued passive support for a two-state solution—while acquiescing to Israeli actions—has helped kill that solution. Yet it remains the EU’s preferred outcome to the conflict.

The EU’s reluctance to challenge Washington’s views on the peace process or even to try to influence them when the two sides’ views diverge, such as in the Trump administration era, has practically meant that Europe—even if unintentionally—is contributing to the demise of the very objective it seeks: a two-state solution.

Paying lip service to the two-state solution without accompanying it with a clear plan to make it happen has essentially given Israel a green light to continue building settlements and creating new facts on the ground that will make such a solution unattainable. The situation is comparable to two people arguing over a slice of pizza while one of them is eating it.

As for a clear plan: reviving the road map would be toothless without introducing a monitoring mechanism to ensure there is accountability when one of the parties does not adhere to their commitments.

The EU, as others in the international community have done, has chosen what it sees as the easiest path—push the problem ahead and hope for better times, when a more forthcoming constellation of Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leaders might improve the chances of a breakthrough.

Such wishful thinking cannot be substituted for policy, especially when the main assumption behind such thinking—that the status quo can be preserved—is a deeply flawed one with the continued expansion of settlements.

For almost thirty years since the Oslo agreements were signed, the issue of rights for people under occupation—that is, the Palestinians—has been relegated to the sidelines in the hope that a two-state solution to the conflict might make it moot. No more.

As the possibility of a viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel is becoming less likely, the international community cannot ignore the issue of rights for much longer.

The decline of the possibility of statehood for Palestinians is increasingly going to be coupled with their call for equal rights within the territories they live in.

What will the international community do then? Will the EU be able to deny Palestinians a state and also equal rights? How will it accommodate a situation where Israel maintains two separate and unequal legal systems within the territories they occupy—a textbook definition of apartheid?

This is the situation that the EU will increasingly find itself in, should it continue to watch passively as Israel solidifies its control over what is already a one-state reality—with unequal rights.

The prospects for solving the conflict may be slim now, but the alternative of dealing with an apartheid system in Israel might push the international community to do the right thing: help end the longest occupation in modern history.

The Author

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at Carnegie, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


North Africa

‘Egypt is a very useful partner for a declining France’ says analyst

By Mourad R. Kamel, The Africa Report, 01 June 2021


France may talk the talk when it comes to its concerns over Egypt's handling of human rights, but at the end of the day, the African country is its best customer of arms and closest ally in the fight against political Islam.

When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Egypt in January 2019, he underlined how stability and lasting peace go hand-in-hand with respect for individual freedoms and dignity as well as the rule of law. “This stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights,” he told Egyptian and French reporters at the Ettihadeya Palace. Macron also announced that he would be meeting with local human rights organisations – a remark that did not go unnoticed.

READ MORE Egypt & Hamas both emerge strengthened by Palestine/Israel conflict

Given that France had hundreds of millions worth of prospective military contracts with Egypt, Macron’s words carried much weight. La Tribune reports that in the wake of Macron’s visit, the French arms attaché was summoned to be informed of the termination of prospective arm contracts that were launched in 2015 by Jean-Yves le Drian (France’s former french minister of defense under Francois Hollande, and the current minister of foreign affairs).

But a lot can happen in a year. During this time, France learned its lesson: as the saying goes ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results’. Only in this case, France was saying the same thing.

For the rest of the article, visit:


Jihadism in Tunisia: A Receding Threat?

International Crisis Group Briefing 83, 04 June 2021

Despite a marked decline in jihadist attacks in Tunisia since 2016, the government persists with repressive and unfocused counter-terrorism measures. The Tunisian authorities should make criminal justice and security reforms to prevent an upsurge in violence.


What’s new? As the threat of jihadist violence recedes in Tunisia, some of the counter-terrorist measures put in place in 2013 are eroding social cohesion and undermining citizens’ trust in the country’s institutions.

Why does it matter? These government measures have the potential to drive up the number of jihadist attacks, and in worsening socio-economic conditions they could exacerbate crime and urban unrest.

What should be done? To restore trust and prevent an upsurge in violence, the government should introduce a new state of emergency law, amend counter-terrorism legislation and the criminal code, improve police practices and coordinate work to suppress terrorist activity.




Jihadist violence is declining in Tunisia. Since March 2016, when security forces fended off an Islamic State attack on the border town of Ben Guerdane, the Salafist-jihadist movement has been losing its appeal. Nevertheless, counter-terrorism measures the government passed in 2013 remain in force. Some of these – mainly repressive – measures are eroding social cohesion and citizens’ trust in the country’s institutions. This situation could reignite jihadist violence in Tunisia and increase crime and other forms of urban insecurity, especially if socio-economic conditions continue to worsen. In order for the counter-terrorist struggle to avert collateral damage, the government should move quickly to enact a series of criminal justice and security reforms. It should introduce a new state of emergency law, amend the anti-terrorist law and criminal code, improve police detention practices and ensure more effective coordination between counter-terrorism prevention and suppression efforts.

The number of jihadist attacks in Tunisia has dropped considerably between 2016 and 2021, largely because al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have been routed throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Several thousand Tunisians fought for jihadist groups in the Middle East or Libya between 2011 and 2016, and Tunisian citizens were responsible for four terror attacks in France and Germany between 2016 and 2021. But no large-scale jihadist movement has threatened Tunisia itself. The Salafist-jihadist ideology has faded from view in the country, including among the most vulnerable sectors of the population, who tend to identify more with gang culture than with martyrdom.

Tunisia is not entirely safe from Islamist militancy, however, partly because the counter-terrorism measures in force since 2013 could have unintended consequences. Most of the 2,200 prisoners sent to jail in connection with terrorist activity are scheduled to be released over the next three years. Many of these people have faced conditions that could be conducive to recidivism – including abuse – and the prospect of their rehabilitation is minimal. The risk is high that they will resume militant activity upon release or choose a path of crime. Moreover, the draconian administrative controls applied to many individuals outside jail in the name of counter-terrorism could also prompt some of them – who feel treated unfairly – to renew their contact with jihadist groups.

Even though jihadism is receding in Tunisia, it has far from disappeared from the African continent. In the Sahel, in particular, around 100 Tunisians belong to armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. They could opt to take the fight to their country of origin any day.

As a priority, the government should work to limit a potential upsurge of jihadist violence and prevent the development of minor criminal activity and banditry by enacting security and criminal justice reforms. The authorities should focus on prevention instead of repression. Such measures will strengthen society and restore citizens’ trust in the country’s institutions.

The government should take several steps with these goals in mind. In terms of security, parliament should pass a new state of emergency law that has human rights guarantees. It should also amend the 2015 anti-terrorist law, particularly to shorten the maximum length of pre-trial police custody, which is when many abuses occur, and to modify the criminal code to ensure that everyone who has been arrested, without exception, has access to a lawyer during preliminary investigations. Criminal justice reforms should seek to reduce the size of the prison population, to set up personalised security and socio-psychological monitoring for inmates and former prisoners, and to increase the number of social rehabilitation and job placement programs. The government should also improve the work of various government departments to harmonise initiatives to combat terrorism and “extreme violence”, coordinated by the National Counter-Terrorism Commission.


Algeria: Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship sinks

By Charles Gurdon, managing director of Menas Associates, London, May 5, 2021

State-owned Sonatrach took the decision in April to revoke UK independent Sunny Hill Energy’s interest in the highly prospective Ain Tsila gas field on the grounds that Angelo Moskov — who controversially took over Irish producer Petroceltic in 2015 and changed its name to Sunny Hill — is more interested in a speculative investment than a long-term commitment to Algeria.

The issue of compensation will now be decided in the arbitration courts. Unfortunately, however, this is only the latest self-inflicted damage to Algeria’s hydrocarbons sector and the country as a whole. For decades, Sonatrach has played hardball with IOCs — whether it was long-term take-or-pay gas contracts which became uneconomic or punitive E&P fiscal terms for blocks — which have made Algeria far less attractive than more flexible neighbours such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Simultaneously, different factions of the so-called ‘le pouvoir’ Algerian political establishment have fought for control of Sonatrach, which is Algeria’s milch-cow.

This instability has resulted in: eight Sonatrach CEOs in the past decade; numerous corruption scandals; unsuccessful licensing rounds; glacially slow and poor decision-making; delayed projects; falling foreign direct investment; numerous arbitration cases; and much more.

Production drop

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic oil production had fallen from nearly 2.0 million b/d in 2015 to less than 1.5 million b/d in 2019, which is similar to the levels of 20 years ago. Algeria continues to export less than its 876,000 b/d OPEC quota.

At the same time, domestic gas consumption is constantly increasing — from 32% of production in 2000 to 62% today — thereby reducing exports and government revenues. When Algeria’s population reaches 50 million by 2030 there is the very real risk that it will be no long be able to export gas.

The disastrous situation in the hydrocarbons sector is mirrored in the country as a whole. It had been hoped that the political and economic paralysis of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s final five years would be replaced by a more dynamic proactive government.

Instead, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was fraudulently installed by the army in late 2019 in yet another election in which the actual turnout was less than 10%. Tebboune is now insisting on holding legislative elections on 12 June despite them almost certainly being boycotted, not only by most of the political parties, but also the vast majority of the population.

These are designed to divert attention away from the vast anti-regime ‘Hirak’ demonstrations which resumed in February after a COVID-19 lockdown. Despite increasing police violence and mass arrests, hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of Algerians protest on the country’s streets each week.

So far, they have done so 115 times on Fridays, and there are also large weekly student demonstrations every Tuesday. The regime’s violence, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, rigged trials and propaganda have failed to stop the Hirak demonstrators, who continue to demand genuine democracy and an end to the incompetent kleptocracy that has ruined post-independence Algeria.

Tebboune, who spent three months in a German hospital, is suffering from long-COVID and is currently physically, and probably mentally, incapable of running the country. He is increasingly seen as a lame-duck president and one faction of the army and intelligence services — who imposed him on the country — are considering replacing him. Another believes that increased repression will re-exert the regime’s control over the Algerian people.

The lethargy in the Presidency is mirrored by total paralysis in Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad’s office, where there are at least 255 economic files currently awaiting attention. There has been no progress on major economic reforms and — because of a combination of the June elections, summer holidays, and autumn local elections — this situation is unlikely to change. It is therefore feared that 2021 will be yet another of the many ‘blank years’ that Algeria has experienced.


Egypt: Adapting to a Region in Flux

By Nael Shama, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East, 10 May 2021

Former foreign minister Nabil Fahmy discusses the evolving Middle East and Egypt’s role in it.

Nabil Fahmy is a former Egyptian foreign minister, who has spent nearly four decades in public service. He worked in the offices of former president Anwar al-Sadat and his vice president at the time, Hosni Mubarak. He also served at Egypt’s permanent mission to the United Nations, and was Egypt’s ambassador to the United States and Japan. After leaving the office, Fahmy established the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace, and Transition (Palgrave, 2020). Diwan interviewed Fahmy in April to get his perspective on regional affairs, and to talk about the Arabic translation of his book, due out in June.

Nael Shama: The Middle East is going through rapid transformation. What are the main regional challenges Egypt faces today?

Nabil Fahmy: Take into account that Egypt is on two continents, Africa and Asia, borders two waterways, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and imports most of its foodstuffs and its national security capacity requirements, tries to attract foreign investment, and up to a decade ago also imported its energy needs. With such realities you have to depend strongly on foreign policy. Therefore it is imperative that Egypt be activist in its foreign policy and try to stay ahead of the curve, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

As the Middle East has changed, Egypt has faced the challenge of how to lead the region and how to be proactive in a regional and global environment that is in flux. The region and Arab world are now being influenced by non-Arab countries in the Middle East. And many of the Arab countries, including Egypt, have gone through domestic transformational periods. So, we need to once again be ahead of the curve and that is a challenge in an unstable period.

Because of rapid population growth we are also more driven now than ever before by asset needs—in contrast to a period in the past when our direction was more visionary and was focused on political objectives. The biggest challenge therefore is to balance needs and aspirations looking forward, all at a time when the future is not clear. However, that is what leadership is all about!

NS: There seems to be a consensus that Egypt’s regional influence has declined in recent years. Do you agree? If so, how can Egypt regain its prominent role?

NF: I would change that a little bit. I think it is more that we don’t continue to have the semi-exclusive leadership role that we had in the past, at least for now. That’s true whether the people like it or not. The region has grown and changed structurally and functionally. To lead it you have to lead it differently. That is the first point. Has our influence decreased? Yes it has, but I still believe that if you want to define leadership it should not be in absolute terms, but relative to others. I believe that Egypt can, more than any other country in the region, have a very strong, even a salient, influence when it comes to defining regional directions on a multitude of issues.

Egypt’s uniqueness or advantage traditionally goes back to its intellectual soft power rather than its hard assets. We have always engaged on a multitude of fronts regionally and globally. We’ve had opinions on North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. We’ve had opinions on the Mashreq (the eastern part of the Arab world), on the Arab-Israeli peace process. We’ve had opinions on the Gulf. And that’s just in terms of politics. We’ve also had opinions on economic issues and on social direction. More than any other country in the Arab region we’ve been ahead of the curve intellectually. I still believe that if we reinvest in creativity and refocus on that, we can regain much of our leadership.

It’s not going to be exclusive leadership, nor do I want it to be so. I am happy to have competition and I am happy to have others striving to lead in certain areas. However, Egypt has the foundation, manpower, and intellectual depth to engage simultaneously on many issues, more than anybody else in our region.

NS: Now that the African Union-led talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in Kinshasa have collapsed over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, what are the options available for Egyptian policymakers to deal with this challenge?

NF: Our leadership role was always about finding where the region was going or where we wanted to take it—setting the agenda looking forward. Frankly, if Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia had looked at the Renaissance Dam issue strategically 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the crisis we are today because this is an issue in which we don’t have conflicting interests. Ethiopia wants more development, which is possible. Sudan wants to regulate the flow of the Nile without floods and droughts, which is also possible while providing Ethiopia with development. And Egypt wants more water because we have a rapid increase in population growth. That is also possible, even with Ethiopia getting the electricity it needs for development and Sudan being able to regulate water flows.

So, the problem isn’t that there is insufficient water to address those issues. The problem is that over the years we have dealt with each other in an adversarial way rather than seeking solutions that benefit all. But today the options are very very limited. We’re at a crossroads. Either we will see, between now and the end of summer, the political will to resolve this problem constructively, which would be surprising since it’s so late in the game; or one country or the other will change its position fundamentally, which would also be surprising.

If either of these two alternatives happens, a negotiated settlement is possible. However, if there is no settlement we will be faced with situation in which Ethiopia will be creating facts on the ground and asserting that it and it alone can decide how to manage the water flow. That goes against accepted international practices regarding water flows that cross national boundaries. This will put everyone in front of hard choices. I think a solution is possible, but I don’t expect one over the next two months. A solution will require both wisdom and resolve.

NS: Do you believe military options are on the table?

NF: I never rule anything out. That being said, I always believe in negotiating first, second, and third. Only use force if there are no other options, because it always brings unexpected consequences, tremendous risks, and long-term resentments. My patience with negotiations is almost endless, but there is a point where negotiations become useless. That is why I mentioned wisdom and resolve. You have to have both, but take a decision when one has to be taken.

NS: Let me move to the issue of peace with Israel. In the 1990s, Egypt felt uneasy about the pace of normalization between the Arab states and Israel, feeling it was too quick. Do you think Egypt looks the same way at the recent normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries?

NF: No, I don’t actually. Egypt was actually the first to talk about a normalization of relations at the UN General Assembly in 1977, but we projected it as being the result of an end to occupation. Even under those conditions the concept raised eyebrows and discomfort among some circles because it was a novel idea. When we negotiated peace with Israel they insisted on including official normalization between the two countries, which we accepted while pointing out that comprehensive normalization, including with other Arabs, would not be achieved without peace.

In the 1990s, talks about a new Middle East were mostly presented by Israel and as a prelude to peace. We weren’t against a new Middle East, but our problem was that this was supposed to be a consequence of the end of conflict, not take place in lieu of an end of conflict. And that’s really where we felt that we could not forgo Palestinian rights, which are historic and legitimate, in exchange for short-term material gains. My position is consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Normalization should happen, not only between Israel and bordering states but between Israel and all Arab countries, provided that the occupation is ended and you establish a Palestinian state. The concept of normalization is more acceptable today, but there still are differences about sequencing before or after the end of conflict.

That being said, governments can and will take sovereign decisions. I have told my Palestinian colleagues that I understand their concerns. However, I also told them that they shouldn’t spend their energy criticizing Arab decisions, which are the prerogatives of these countries. They should try to increase the diplomatic momentum and push the peace process forward, while focusing more on Israel.

NS: You mentioned the influence of non-Arab states on the Arab world. What are your views about rising Iranian influence in places such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen? Do you think a rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran is needed?

NF: The Middle East is suffering from an Arab vacuum, one defined by a lack of engagement and creativity, an overdependence on foreigners, and an imbalance between the national security capacities of Arab states and of non-Arab Middle Eastern states—Turkey, Israel and Iran. All this has fuelled these countries’ ambitions in the region.

Second, I am an internationalist and a realist. Turkey, Israel, and Iran are not going anywhere. They will remain in the region and they will continue to have interests and aspirations. So, the issue is not about having them or not having them, but how we deal with each other. I support engaging all three countries. But engagement is not the goal, it is a tool to better manage the relationship. I don’t think we’re going to have stability in the region except through Turkish-Arab and Iranian-Arab rapprochements. By this I mean through the involvement of Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel when it pursues policies not defined by its right-wing parties alone, but includes centrist parties that can move the peace process forward.

However, to do all this seriously you have to proceed gradually. I don’t want to claim that everything has been resolved, but there has been progress of late in Egyptian–Turkish relations, while Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a dialogue. So, I hope these will lead to concrete steps from the Iranian and Turkish sides, and reciprocal steps after that to build confidence for a more serious diplomatic dialogue. I think the first contacts should be through the security services because interference in the affairs of other countries is above all a security issue.

NS: The map of alliances in the Middle East seems to be changing, as is the security architecture. Do you think that institutions such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are now obsolete, or can they be revived?

NF: The Arab League and the GCC are different. The GCC is subregional while the Arab League is regional. The issues of the Middle East are no longer a part of a bipolar Cold War era as in the past, when the prominence of the Arab League was at its peak. Today, we are in a period in which issues are more regional and even subregional, which affects the Arab League.

The Arab countries allowed the Arab League’s political approach—not its approach to social and economic issues—to be focused on dealing with threats rather than opportunities. If you’re looking only at threats, then if some members don’t feel threatened by a particular issue there is a breakdown in collective cohesion. And because of that, except for the Palestinian issue, most of the matters preoccupying the Arab world are now subregional. And therefore, the Arab League has not really been as effective as it should be, or was in the past.

I would add another problem. The Arabs have been great at adopting resolutions announcing they are in full agreement with each other, truthful or not, but they have not done well in dealing with their differences and their separate priorities. States need to understand that the regional composition of the Arab League supports all Arab countries in their interregional competition with non-Arab states. The GCC, which is growing very quickly, has done so because it has tended to deal with short-term, tactical subregional issues rather than long-term, strategic ones.

We are now in an evolving global environment, therefore it is important to invigorate the Arab League by focusing more on opportunities for cooperation while addressing existing threat perceptions. If Arabs do not reestablish a balanced national security capacity with non-Arab regional states—involving the military, security, intelligence, political, and other dimensions—and we’re living in a regional environment rather than a global political one, we will end up being on the wrong side of things because global powers today are fighting different battles. They are simply not as focused on the Middle East as they once were. They will not try to defend Arab interests at the expense of other interests.

NS: Finally, let me ask you about your book. I believe an Arabic edition is coming out soon. Does it include information not available in the English edition?

NF: It is due out in June. The English version that came out last year dealt with Egyptian diplomacy in war and peace and was directed at a foreign audience. That is why a number of Arab and Egyptian anecdotes and details were not included in the book. The Arab version has the same backbone as the English version, but deals with particularly sensitive Arab issues not dealt with in the English version, especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example. It also includes Arab and Egyptian accounts that are more relevant to Arab readers. But I’ll let them buy the book and discover what they are.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.



Research Papers & Reports

The Moroccan Monarchy’s Political Agenda for Reviving Sufi Orders

By Intissar Fakir, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 07 June 2021

Morocco’s regime has revived Sufism, in part as a diplomatic tool for convincing Western and African governments alike that the country can be a counterweight to extremist religious expressions. But the balance sheet of this state-led intervention is mixed.


Historically, Sufism’s heterodox set of Islamic beliefs and practices have been key political and social features of Morocco’s religious landscape. The often inextricable and fluid relationship between Morocco’s sultans and Sufi leadership has run the gamut from key political partnerships to outright antagonism and open conflict. The political and societal influence of Sufi orders and zawaya (singular zawiya; referring to religious schools, lodges, or orders that play an important social role in their surrounding communities) has ebbed and flowed over time.

Since the country’s independence, Morocco’s monarchy has played an active role in managing the country’s religious sphere, including its Sufi orders. Building on its historical role, Morocco’s monarchy has asserted itself as the institutional embodiment of national religious authority based on its claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. This religious authority is an important element of the king’s political authority as embodied in cultural customs and codified by the country’s constitutional design.

Inherent to these efforts is the goal of building a strong political basis for the monarchy. While the appropriation of religious authority to serve political purposes is a common theme in the Middle East and North Africa, the Moroccan monarchy’s claims about its lineage, together with its long history, grant it a concrete reason to insert itself in religious affairs. The monarchy’s self-touted claims of religious authority tend to garner broad popular acceptance, and the monarchy’s management of religious affairs tends to be largely viewed as part of its function.

Still, the character of the Moroccan monarchy’s religious management has evolved over time. Before the period of French colonialism, Moroccan sultans often formed mutually beneficial and constantly changing alliances with politically influential Sufi zawaya. In the decades after Morocco gained independence, however, the political fortunes of many Sufi orders waned for various reasons as competing religious traditions including fundamentalist Salafist strains of Islam grew in popularity. At times, the monarchy even actively encouraged and abetted this erosion of Sufi influence in Moroccan society.

But the specter of Salafist-inspired religious extremism and terrorism since the turn of the century has prompted the Moroccan monarchy to shift gears again. Since the mid-2000s, the Moroccan government has undertaken a series of religious reforms to curb the appeal of Salafist religious extremism as part of the global war on terror. Counterterrorism became a pressing domestic issue as well in the aftermath of a prominent 2003 domestic terrorist attack in Morocco.

A central aim of these reforms has been to invoke a consolidated, shared vision of the country’s historical Sufi tradition for counterterrorism purposes.1 Consequently, the government since has been pushing a revival of Sufism as a supposedly less rigid, more moderate, and more inward-focused approach to spiritual life that is seen as being less prone to radicalization and violent extremism than Salafist traditions. The Moroccan monarch has sought to send a strong message that it sees Sufism as the true indigenous character of Moroccan Islam over foreign, more radical, strains of Salafism.

The Moroccan monarchy’s religious authority also confers broader political benefits. Reforms meant to promote and instrumentalize Sufism also augment the monarchy’s religious authority by emphasizing and strengthening the king’s links to Sufi orders. An important collateral benefit of popularizing Sufi networks is that the king can mobilize Sufi adherents to advance his domestic political agenda when needed.

The king’s religious reform agenda has taken important societal, institutional, and diplomatic forms. In societal terms, the state has sought to repopularize previously marginalized Sufi beliefs and practices in different aspects of Moroccan social and political life. In everyday communal life, the state has sought to destigmatize Sufi practices and interpretations, while rebuilding the monarchy’s links to prominent Sufi zawaya and communities of adherents.

A major institutional prong of these reforms has been a long process of bringing zawaya more effectively under state control. To expand its oversight of Morocco’s religious sphere, the monarchy has tasked the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior with supervising Sufi orders and zawaya more closely.2 The king seeks to empower key zawaya and consolidate or reestablish the monarchy’s ties with Sufi orders and Sufism more broadly. Some of the zawaya and Sufi orders that have benefited most from this revival are forging or rebuilding patronage networks that support, promote, and increase the legitimacy of the monarchy’s religious and political authority.

Morocco’s revived Sufi traditions are also affecting the foreign policy arena, as the Moroccan monarchy has been wielding rejuvenated zawaya and Sufi orders as a diplomatic tool abroad, especially in parts of West Africa and the Sahel where these orders are also prevalent.3 This outreach is aimed at bolstering the Moroccan monarchy’s religious authority by granting it an influential leadership role in global efforts to combat religious extremism. Successfully solidifying such a role would help the Moroccan government market itself as a key partner for Western countries on deradicalization and counterterrorism endeavors, while driving engagement particularly in West Africa and the Sahel.

Sufi Orders and Zawaya in Morocco, Past and Present

Sufism made inroads in Morocco in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as Sufi practices gained prevalence throughout North Africa and elsewhere. Sufism does not constitute its own sect or school of Islam; rather, it is a way of viewing and practicing religion that focuses on individuals’ relationships to God. Sufism highlights the spiritual aspects of religion and encourages people to find a path to God through love and devotion.4

As in other parts of the Islamic world, Sufism was established as a powerful tradition in Morocco, and zawaya and Sufi orders became centers not only of learning and community but of substantial political influence at certain times.5 Zawaya and shrines, with their long history in the country, are often the physical representations of Sufism and Sufi orders (or tariqas).6 In addition to general Islamic tenets and practices, Sufi adherents also employ meditation and isolation, chanting, and other mystical practices that emphasize seeking a direct path to God. Sufi orders form as groups of adherents adopt the ideas and practices of certain religious scholars.7

The Social Functions of Sufi Institutions

In 2019, Morocco’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs reported a headcount of the 7,090 Sufi organizations throughout the country, including 1,588 zawaya, 5,471 complexes that combine zawaya and shrines, and thirty-one standalone shrines.8 The number of zawaya and shrines has increased as the ministry has updated its records each year.

Zawaya provide spiritual, religious, and social services for their adherents and constituents. Sufi orders created these institutions as places of learning and meditation for disciples (or seekers) to gather, though they also can provide lodging, food, financial relief, emotional and spiritual support, or even healing to those in need.9 They are considered places of refuge, solace, and contemplation. Zawaya can provide leadership training, spiritual guidance, and educational instruction both in terms of literacy or more religious teaching, such as memorizing the Quran.10 For hundreds of years, then, zawaya have served as community centers and the nodes of social, spiritual, economic, and even political networks.

Zawaya often also host the tomb of a notable scholar from their respective orders who has become a saint and whose proximity is believed to provide a baraka (blessing) and a closer connection to God. Some zawaya may offer general blessings from the saint’s shrine and his descendants or family (who often tend to manage zawaya or shrines), while others offer educational instruction or some degree of social support. Larger zawaya with state support hold monthly and annual events, including mawasim (festivals), which serve important spiritual, social, and often commercial roles. The Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, in its 2019 report, explained the importance of gathering and updating information on zawaya and shrines as a way to formulate strategies for managing them.11

The Early Political Evolution of Moroccan Zawaya

Throughout Moroccan history, Sufism and zawaya have evolved as important social and political actors. Looking back at particular historical junctures, it is difficult to separate religious actors from political ones or differentiate their respective roles. Over the course of the country’s history, the political functions of certain zawaya have ebbed and flowed.

Through the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the political influence of certain zawaya grew as Sufism prospered. Zawaya were also an important dimension of tribal politics and political contestation in Morocco at this time. Certain zawaya shared an important and strong tribal affiliation and were therefore crucial to certain political positions or events.12 Zawaya could bestow legitimacy through temporary or permanent alliances with ruling powers, and more importantly they could help mobilize supporters for one political claimant over another.13 Zawaya would often become the foundation of power especially during periods when Sufism gained significant political influence through their tribal affiliations and religious legitimacy.14

An important example in Moroccan history of a Sufi order that played a prominent political role is the Zawiya Nasiriya. This Sufi order had a mutually beneficial relationship with the Alaouite dynasty, which has claimed control of Morocco since the 1600s and to which the current monarchy still belongs. The Zawiya Nasiriya facilitated trade and, by supporting the dynasty’s territorial and political expansion, carved out a lucrative arrangement for itself. In these ways, Sufi orders became part of the contest for both temporal and religious leadership in Morocco.15 The power of Sufi leaders, through their community leadership roles and their religious credentials, became a source of great influence in shaping popular perceptions of political legitimacy.16

In various instances, they provided an additional religious foundation for the political and religious rule of particular sultans. During this period, the support of zawaya was particularly key in areas where the power of central authorities was limited or where allegiances were tenuous.17 For various ruling powers over the years, certain zawaya served as a tool for proxy control in remote areas where the sultan’s armies did not have access or support, and in exchange these zawaya were able to accumulate financial gains.18

Financial and monetary ambitions were (and continue to be) important aspects of various zawaya’s relationships with Moroccan ruling powers. Many relied on the state’s largesse—including gifts from the sultan and tax exemptions from the palace—to supplement donations of their adherents and their own assets and to extend their reach, influence, and political involvement.19 As zawaya provided religious legitimacy to political actors, in turn these political alliances allowed certain zawaya to expand their own influence. Some orders even harbored broader political ambitions that drove them to maneuver beyond domestic politics, at times engaging with foreign colonial powers.20

During Morocco’s colonial period from the early 1900s until the country’s independence in 1956, the French administration mostly sought to establish similar dynamics with zawaya as the sultans had before them. The colonial administration utilized certain Sufi orders to their own political goals and benefits. In areas where the French administration faced resistance to its presence, French officials either co-opted zawaya and Sufi orders; played them off each other to ensure their acquiescence to the French protectorate; or otherwise fought, punished, and marginalized those who opposed French rule.

A Period of Diminished Sufi Influence

As the push for Moroccan independence intensified in the early 1950s and in the early years of independent rule in the 1960s, the societal and political roles of Sufism faced a conversion of sorts as both the Moroccan monarchy and the nationalist movement sought to diminish its influence.21 Within the nationalist movement, rising intellectuals and pro-independence political leaders in Morroco, striving to create an image of modernity and progress, veered away from Sufi practices that were viewed as archaic and even heretical, given the Sufi custom of venerating saints as intermediaries between worshipers and God.22 The Moroccan monarchy, for its part, was in the process of consolidating its rule and facing down sources of opposition that cropped up around the newly independent country; the monarchy also wanted to neutralize Sufi orders that could threaten its supremacy. Similarly, some Sufi orders supported French colonial rule and thus came to be marginalized in the aftermath of independence.23

In terms of religious beliefs too, zawaya began to face greater competition, as budding alternative and competing religious and political movements drew support away from Sufism in Morocco. Furthermore, in the 1960s and 1970s, the monarchy allowed the spread of Salafist Wahhabi ideology to drive support away from various far-left opposition currents by introducing competition among the working classes supporting them. Taking a page from the playbook of other regimes, the Moroccan monarchy used Salafist dogma to undermine the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters in Morocco in the late 1970s and 1980s.24 The spread of Salafism and even Muslim Brotherhood–style political Islam further diminished the appeal of Sufism during this period, and Sufi orders’ influence withered. In response, some Sufi orders found little alternative but to coalesce around the throne.25

For this variety of reasons, Sufi orders and zawaya lost ground after Morocco gained independence. Sufi practitioners had to contend with competing religious currents and ideologies, the rise of an urbanized modern class less receptive to traditional practices, and the consolidation of the monarchy’s religious leadership role alongside its political role. These trends also coincided with the monarch’s efforts to build a centralized religious management apparatus in Morocco. Since independence, Morocco’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs has gradually assumed and codified an oversight role over zawaya and shrines. In an earlier time, some zawaya had operated independently by providing blessings or spiritual relief and guidance to local populations.

However, this changed gradually as the ministry began to take over the management of zawaya. That effort was driven in part by a growing push for a modern administrative state and by efforts to confine zawaya to handling spiritual and social matters.26 As the process played out over decades, the ministry came to manage zawaya’s income, appoint administrators, and specify which activities, religious or social, that zawaya may hold. More recently, government oversight of zawaya has also been motivated by efforts to ensure any religious teachings or practices align with the streamlined official version of Islam that the government uses to promote tolerance and counter extremism.27

The Moroccan monarchy’s drive to consolidate its power, including over the religious establishment, has played out in multiple ways over the years. These have included establishing tight control on the country’s party politics, neutralizing potential opposition by weakening political parties, curtailing political engagement, and limiting freedom of speech. The ascendance of a supreme monarch with the highest political and religious authority in the country has subordinated all other religious and political entities. Extending and streamlining control over these entities has become crucial, particularly for those that straddle the political and religious spheres.

An important element of the Moroccan monarchy’s oversight is also to ensure that religious engagement eschews politics. This dimension of overseeing zawaya is particularly important in that it allows the monarchy to ensure that it remains the country’s main political player with a religious mandate. The country’s constitution bans any political parties that are based on religion. The exception to this is the Justice and Development Party, the country’s main Islamist party, which has what it refers to as an “Islamic reference,” meaning that while the party does not advocate the creation of an Islamic theocracy it does adopt some Islamic principles.28 In 1992, the monarchy allowed the party to register and operate as a sort of monarchy-approved religious party that wouldn’t compete with or deny the king’s religious and political authority, while siphoning popular support away from other and potentially more potent religious political actors.

As the party has become more entrenched in national politics, its religious character has been secondary to and separated from its leading members’ political function, as it has served alternately as an opposition party and then as the leader of Morocco’s governing coalition (since 2011). The party maintains fluid ties to its religious (Daawa) wing that it plays up or plays down in turn depending on the political needs of the moment. Furthermore, the party’s religious beliefs initially provided some credibility with the electorate, but this political role does not give its leading members any religious authority. In that sense, the monarchy remains the only actor whose religious and political roles bolster one another.

The other main religious political actor in Morocco is a group known as al-Adl wal-Ihsan, whose name often is translated as Justice and Charity. The group, which rejects the king’s dual role (as king and commander of the faithful), is banned from registering as a political party, but its members continue to operate as an important spiritual and social grassroots opposition group. The group has a powerful ability to mobilize its members, which drives the monarchy’s pushback against it.

For a long time, the state’s control over zawaya was meant to dissuade them from dabbling in political engagement. For example, some of the politically active zawaya sought to field electoral candidates in 1984 but were prevented from doing so.29 Likewise, some zawaya sought to field candidates in 1997, but they were again rebuffed as the country formally moved toward banning political engagement by religious groups. During this period, zawaya continued to provide largely ceremonial and nonpolitical community-oriented support for the monarchy. This state of affairs, however, gradually began to change during the war on terror, as the Moroccan monarchy began to see a more active role for zawaya as part of the country’s religious overhaul.

The Monarchy Instrumentalizes Sufi Orders and Zawaya Again

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Morocco (like most Muslim-majority countries) was confronted with the challenge of stemming the extremist religious ideologies that had driven the rise of groups like al-Qaeda who were behind these attacks and other subsequent ones in Europe. The Moroccan monarchy responded with a series of religious reforms and took part in the war on terror under U.S. pressure. Domestically, the Casablanca bombings of May 2003 injected the issue of religious extremism with a strong sense of urgency. An important part of Morocco’s religious reforms to recentralize and tighten official oversight over the religious sphere—and perhaps more so religious discourse—was finding a clear religious and more active political function for Sufism following years of stagnation.

Seeking an alternative to some of the more conservative and rigid Salafist interpretations of Islam that had taken root in Morocco, the king gave a notable speech roughly a year after the Casablanca bombings. In it, he emphasized the “Sufi” character of Islam in Morocco. He highlighted the “unique character” of what he called “Moroccan Islam”—a sort of three-pronged foundation that includes the Maliki jurisprudence that Morocco follows, Ash‘ari doctrine, and a Sufi tariqa known as the Junaidi path.30 The rationale behind the king’s clarifying reminder was to emphasize that Morocco’s religious tradition has been (and remains) tolerant, open, and separate from more exclusionary and extreme visions of Islam. Regardless of whether Sufism in Morocco was (and is) as tolerant as the monarchy sought to portray it, emphasizing the traditional character of Sufism as a more indigenous and more characteristically Moroccan form of the faith had a certain domestic appeal.

Internationally, too, Sufism, which is widely viewed as less rigid and less prone to extremist tendencies, gained traction as a potential antidote within Islam itself to extremist ideology. In that sense, the Moroccan monarchy was seeking to disempower rigid Salafist religious currents that had found their way into Morocco and that had become associated with extremist ideology and even violent extremism. Incidentally, these are the very currents that the monarchy itself had previously used as tools to weaken other political actors. As Moroccan history has shown, the monarchy tacitly, and at times actively, has embraced various religious trends, currents, and interpretations over time for specific political purposes.

Reviving Sufism

Promoting a more tolerant vision of Islam infused with traditional Sufism became a key element of the Moroccan monarchy’s religious reform agenda in the early 2000s. Zawaya and Sufi orders ensure that Islamic teachings and practices reflect a tolerant and open version of Islam that can counter radical interpretations of Islam associated with violent extremism.

This reform agenda has included sophisticated and multilayered efforts to centralize and streamline religious authority, guidance, and decisionmaking.31 In addition to structural and educational reforms, the monarchy sought to raise awareness of and repopularize various forms of Sufism. Reorienting populations toward Sufi practices and traditions is now once again a mainstream endeavor intended to blunt the appeal of extremist ideologies.

The Moroccan government has strived to elevate the cultural significance of the country’s Sufi heritage. Since the early 2000s, Sufi orders have been highlighted as an important part of Morocco’s patrimonial legacy and the country’s understanding and practice of Islam. To that end, the king himself has participated in Sufi rituals, has visited different zawaya, and continues to provide royal patronage to festivals and other Sufi events. The patronage and support that certain zawaya receive allows the monarchy to maintain links that ensure the monarchy’s message and ideals reach some of the country’s most remote populations.32 Morocco’s dedicated religious television channel has promoted Sufi rituals as well, including by broadcasting traditional Sufi music and more contemporary Sufi-inspired artists.33

The monarchy’s revival of zawaya and Sufi practices is not just about countering violent extremism. More recently, zawaya have been mobilized for very clear political purposes and continue to support the monarchy’s political initiatives and agenda—on matters beyond ideology and security. Furthermore, externally, the revival of Sufism has become an important foreign policy tool for Morocco. In other words, the monarchy’s Sufi ties and patronage have provided an additional foundation for religious leadership that the Moroccan king has been using heavily in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. This type of religious ideological leadership is particularly appealing to Morocco’s Western allies, as it provides a definitive type of religious leadership that is often difficult to assert given the decentralized leadership structures of Sunni Islam.

Managing Zawaya and Sufi Orders

The Moroccan government, through the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, oversees zawaya and shrines and allocates an annual budget for their upkeep and management. This budget is supplemented by direct donations and gifts from the king. While zawaya have long garnered outside financial support to one degree or another, the government now considers these funds a key element of the fight against extremism.34 Spending on zawaya in 2017 was reported to exceed $16 million.35 Zawaya generate income through donations and alms from supporters, hosted events, and land holdings.

The question of how much financial support a given zawiya has at its disposal is dependent on the zawiya’s resources, reach, and its sociopolitical usefulness—including by virtue of its location. The funding process remains opaque, and there are no clear parameters for which zawaya receive which funding. Some zawaya receive little or no financial support and become either rundown or even abandoned. These zawaya struggle to maintain a steady income, and eventually some face closures and the services they provide—modest as they may be—are lost to the local population. Meanwhile some of the zawaya that benefit most from government support have transformed into even more powerful social institutions.

The Elite Patronage Network of Zawiya Boutchichi

On the domestic front, the Quadiri Boutchichi order is a case in point. The Zawiya Boutchichi is one of the most powerful in Morroco today—its members are long-time supporters of the monarchy, and their role has grown in recent years. This zawiya represents an example of how the monarchy can instrumentalize an order domestically to actively mobilize adherents for clear political purposes.

The Boutchichi order’s zawiya is located in Madagh near Berkane in eastern Morocco.36 Since the 1970s, the order has gained a strong following among Morocco’s educated middle class, due to the efforts of its leader, Sheikh Sidi Hamza, who sought to broaden the order’s following especially among young educated Moroccans.37 While the order may have been created without the state’s direct involvement, state support has facilitated its popularity and growth.38 The order has grown rapidly in recent decades; in 2000, it was estimated to have about 25,000 followers, but by 2009 this number had risen to 100,000.39 The order has a wide range of adherents, including members of the Moroccan diaspora.40 The order’s openness even to non-Muslims showcases its pragmatism and to some extent a novel and somewhat elite-driven approach.41

The Boutchichi order has been touted as a Sufi vessel of sorts that exemplifies the very message Morocco wants to broadcast about Islam: traditional and indigenous, yet moderate and tolerant. To that end, the order currently has a semi-formal educational system that includes a summer program focused on religious and spiritual education. The program emphasizes Sufi tenets that support openness and eschew radicalization and extremism. The events that the order organizes appeal to elites, particularly the youth.42 The Boutchichi order also organizes an annual conference dubbed “The World Meeting of Sufism,” which is held at the same zawiya where the summer program takes place.43

The Boutchichi order has created a sophisticated internal structure with branches across the country and an international presence. The order plays an important political and diplomatic role on behalf of the monarch’s interest, and in exchange it has benefited from significant state support (through aid and tax exemptions) in addition to the usual donations.44 Unlike more traditional zawaya—which rely largely on their respective legacies in their given communities—the Boutchichi order is very much a twenty-first-century zawiya—complete with sophisticated communications platforms, including a magazine, a website, an official spokesperson, and dedicated youth engagement and outreach efforts.45 The order also benefits from significant exposure through state media, which promotes activities either organized by the order or by foundations close to the order. One foundation, Espirit de Fez, organizes the Fez World Music Festival—supported by the king directly—and the Sufi Culture Festival.46 These activities emphasize Morocco’s Sufi heritage, giving Sufism greater appeal and reorienting domestic and international audiences to Sufi Islam as an open, tolerant, and spiritually fulfilling alternative to rigid religious interpretations.

State support has improved and bolstered the order’s organization and even shaped some of its practices. For example, the Boutchichi order downplays Sufi practices that are seen as outdated. For instance, it does not encourage adherents to visit the graves of saints—a common practice for seeking a saint’s blessing.47 Sheikh Sidi Hamza effectively has done away with many conditions for adherence, limiting many of the religious strictures that modern and professional supporters may find cumbersome, such as ascetic retreats, daily readings, and limiting one’s material possessions.48 The leader has emphasized the need to “enjoy life as you see fit and sometimes, when you want, come and visit the zawiya, because proximity eliminates defilement.”49

As a result, the order has gained national renown. Its utility to the state has been shaped by its proximity to power, its pragmatism, its capacity to organize, and the extent and power of its adherents’ network. The order’s rise is also the result of the opportunities it provides its members in the sense that membership is increasingly seen as a way to gain professional and social advancement.50 The order’s growing reputation as an “ascenseur social” or “social elevator” that seeks out adherents beyond the middle class in elite circles.51 The order essentially provides an exclusive patronage network that is ripe with opportunities for advancement. Some of the most notable members of the Boutchichi order include the minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Toufiq; his chief of cabinet, Ahmad Qustas, and Ahmed Abaddi, the secretary general of the Council of Religious Scholars, a religious research body.52 Several royal councilors are said to be members of the order.53

This religious, and particularly social, identity is bolstered by the Boutchichi order’s relationship with the state—the order is currently the most influential in the country.54 Sheikh Sidi Hamza once explained: “We could intervene in Moroccan politics only in three cases: when the Islamic religion, Moroccan territory, or the king are threatened.”55 This definitive statement makes clear the order’s political purpose: to amplify the monarchy’s message and purpose.56 The Boutchichi order also has supported the monarchy by reaching out to hundreds of young Moroccan Salafists to highlight the merits of Sufism.57

One clear example of the Boutchichi order’s political involvement was its support for Morocco’s 2011 constitutional revisions and its efforts to mobilize the order’s adherents to support this proposal and promote a vote in the monarchy’s favor.58 The order’s position aligned with the overarching efforts of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs to encourage a yes vote by promoting it during Friday sermons across the country.59 This was an example of a very public, official, and organized effort to mobilize the order’s adherents politically on behalf of the state and the monarchy.

The Diplomatic Influence of Zawiya Tijania

Beyond domestic politics, the Moroccan monarchy has also drawn upon another notable Sufi order to bolster its foreign policy agenda: the Zawiya Tijania. The Tijani order—which extends across the North Africa, the Sahel, and West Africa—has played a role in rejuvenating ties between Morocco and its Francophone West African neighbors. Morocco’s foreign policy, over the past ten years, has sought to rebuild and reclaim connections to the rest of Africa by using (among other tools) shared religious practices and highlighting the shared history of the Zawiya Tijania.

Morocco’s efforts to rebuild its foreign policy outreach into sub-Saharan Africa are tied, in part, to one of the country’s top foreign policy priorities: the Western Saharan conflict. The conflict pits Morocco against the Polisario liberation movement, supported by Algeria, in a long dispute over who should rightfully rule the Western Saharan territory. When several African nations supported the Polisario’s claims to sovereignty and Western Saharan independence, Morocco left the African Union in 1983 in protest. Morocco then decided to focus its foreign policy efforts for a time on the Western nations that controlled the relevant international dispute negotiation mechanisms.

In doing so, for years, the Moroccan government overlooked many African neighbors and partners. However, over the past decade or so, Morocco’s outreach to its African neighbors has taken on greater focus and importance, and the king has spearheaded several initiatives to reboot and bolster ties to various African nations. The bulk of these initiatives have focused on investment and economic cooperation—with what Rabat refers to as religious or “spiritual diplomacy” bolstering these efforts.60

In this religious diplomacy realm, Morocco’s spiritual outreach relies on the king’s religious authority and his ties to the Tijani order, which is widely followed in West Africa. Although the order itself and its zawaya had long diminished in influence in Morocco, they have recently been revived for this particular purpose.61 During the Gathering of Tijanis Adepts in Fez, the king emphasized “you can count on Morocco’s support in your effort to disseminate [the Tijani] radiant message and expand its scope for the sake of Islamic, Maghrebian and African solidarity. We want the Tariqa Tijania to emerge as a pillar of African unity.”62

This outreach—through the order and other means—aims to grant Morocco a key role in countering violent extremism as the country’s leaders strive to build an alternative religious narrative with a cross-border dimension. In addition to supporting the Zawiya Tijania, the king of Morocco has built mosques in West African countries and helped support Sufi events and gatherings, while promoting exchanges on this shared spiritual and religious basis.63 The king’s role relies on the monarchy’s religious authority, which has historically reached what is now Senegal and Mali.

Through these historical links and the shared spiritual heritage embodied by the Tijani order (whose founder is entombed in Fez), Morocco has undertaken several initiatives to broader religious cooperation. These efforts have included training imams in Morocco’s newly built Imam Training Center, which includes many applicants from West African countries who are either connected to or followers of the Tijani order. 64


Even as Morocco has made some headway in reshaping Islamic religious discourse both locally and regionally, the results of its efforts have been mixed. The state’s promotion of Sufism as a moderate religious force and as an indigenous and more legitimate ideology are evident in the government’s broader effort to create a consistent brand of Moroccan Islam. What is less clear, however, is whether this policy has succeeded in curbing the appeal of extremist religious ideology. For example, while it is difficult to precisely measure the spread of extremism ideology, Moroccans were among the highest number of foreign fighters who joined the ranks of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria.65

Domestically, in the rehabilitation and use of zawaya, the Moroccan state has expended significant financial resources to streamline and centralize their management. These efforts are particularly visible in the country’s promotion of its Sufi heritage locally and internationally through television programming and support for gatherings of Sufi orders and Sufi music festivals. However, the role of zawaya in providing education and social services to local Moroccans is largely dependent on the extent to which the Moroccan state can offer support and prop them up. Many zawaya are not able to fulfill these social and religious functions to the extent that they can influence the population’s understanding of Islam without significant state support.

A small but telling example of this took place during the coronavirus pandemic, which brought Morocco’s religious institutions to a halt for the better part of 2020. Morocco’s decision to close worship spaces affected zawaya due to social distancing policies. The zawaya supported the state’s decision to close these spaces, but they could have been used to provide much-needed social support while complying with national public health guidelines. Zawaya could have served as networks for the distribution of goods to the needy, and they could have played a more grassroots role in supporting and amplifying the state’s messaging on public health guidelines. Instead, those functions were assumed entirely by the state, with support from some nongovernmental organizations.

In terms of its international engagement, and particularly its support for deradicalization initiatives, the Moroccan monarchy has sought to fulfill its role as the country’s religious leader and supporter of education in the ways its international partners have wanted. International partners engaged in countering violent extremism in North Africa and the Sahel rely on Morocco to play a leadership role in teaching and retraining imams and preachers in a more tolerant version of Islam that fits in with these regions’ history and traditions. Through institutions such as the Mohammed VI Foundation of African Oulema (founded in 2015) and the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines and Morchidates, Morocco has been able to reach hundreds of religious leaders in Africa and Europe with its own brand of spiritual leadership. Similarly, Morocco has signed multiple conventions on “religious cooperation” with some African nations to provide religious education, training, and capacity building for the management of religious institutions.66

Morocco’s work, especially supporting other Sahel countries, is supported and praised by Western partners and gives Rabat more regional prestige and influence. On the ground, however, the situation might be more complex. It remains unclear how much of the monarchy’s religious authority is truly and readily accepted and how much the king’s message of a more moderate and tolerant interpretation of Islam is genuinely embraced by populations throughout the region.

While it remains unclear how effective the promotion of Sufism has been in countering religious extremism, the Moroccan monarchy’s use of Sufism for domestic political purposes has been more successful, as the example of the Boutchichi order demonstrates. The monarchy’s patronage and sponsorship of zawaya, and its ability to wield them nationally and internationally, will likely continue to bolster the monarchy’s religious and, by extension, its political authority.


The author would like to thank Ann Wainscott for comments on this paper as well as Abigail O’Keefe and James C. Gaither Junior Fellow Jaqueline Stomski for research assistance.

About the Author

Intissar Fakir was a fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focused on political, security, and economic change in Morocco and other North African countries. Her research examines political Islam trends, local governance, social mobilization, and foreign policy.


1 Salim Hmimnat, “Recalibrating Morocco’s Approach to Salafism,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sada (blog), January 14, 2016,

2 Haim Malka, “Morocco: Islam as the Foundation of Power,” in Faith in the Balance: Regulating Religious Affairs in Africa (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2019),

3 Sarah Alaoui, “Morocco, Commander of the (African) Faithful?” Brookings Institute, Order From Chaos (blog), April, 8, 2019,

4 L. Massington, B. Radtke, and W.C. Chittick et. al, “Taṣawwuf,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, second edition, P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, and C.E. Bosworth (eds.), et. al, 2012,

5 Ibid.

6 Abdelilah Bouasria, Sufism and Politics in Morocco: Activism and Dissent (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015).

7 L. Massington, B. Radtke, and W.C. Chittick et. al, “Taṣawwuf,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, second edition, P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, and C.E. Bosworth (eds.), et. al, 2012,

8 “2019 Accomplishments 2019 in Islamic Affairs” (Rabat, Morocco: Moroccan Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, 2019), 24,الشؤون_الإسلامية/منجزات_2019/affaires_islamique_2019_-170820.pdf.

9 Bashti Nude, “Zawiyas and Their Roles and Functions in Society,” al Awan, April 23, 2015,

10 Nude, “Zawiyas and Their Roles and Functions in Society.”

11 “2019 Accomplishments in Islamic Affairs” (Rabat, Morocco: Moroccan Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, 2019), 24.

12 Idriss El Kanbouri, “Zawiyas in Morocco: From a Source of Legitimacy at Home to a Tool for Religious Conflict,” Maghress, January 20, 2014,

13 Lahouari Addi, “Islam Re-Observed: Sanctity, Salafism and Islamism,” Journal of North African Studies 14, no. 3 (2009): 331–345,

14 Mohammed Darif, “Sufism Between the Educational and the Political,” al Masae, November 25, 2009,

15 Rashid Alarco, “Moroccan Zawiyas in the Modern Moroccan Context and Their Relationship With the State: Boutchichiya Zawiya as a Case Study,” Journal of the Generation of Humanity and Social Sciences no. 54 (2017): 129–140.

16 Žilvinas Švedkauskas, “Facilitating Political Stability: Cohabitation of Non-Legalistic Islam and the Moroccan Monarchy,” Studia Orientalia Electronica, no. 5, 2017.

17 Švedkauskas, “Facilitating Political Stability.”

18 Nina ter Laan, Dissonant Voices: Islam-Inspired Music in Morocco and the Politics of Religious Sentiments (presentation at New York University, New York City, November 9, 2017).

19 Bouasria, Sufism and Politics in Morocco.

20 Meriem El Haitami, “Women and Sufism: Religious Expression and the Political Sphere in Contemporary Morocco,” Mediterranean Studies 22, no. 2 (2014): 190–212,

21 El Haitami, “Women and Sufism.”

22 Švedkauskas, “Facilitating Political Stability.”

23 Alarco, “Moroccan Zawiyas in the Modern Moroccan Context and Their Relationship With the State.”

24 Ali Anuzla, “Sufism Against Political Islam in Arab Regimes,” Al Araby, October 10, 2014

25 El Kanbouri, “Zawiyas in Morocco.”

26 Fait Muedini, “Morocco: King Mohamed VI, Sufism, and the Islamist Challengers,” in Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote ‘Mystical Islam’ in Their Domestic and Foreign Policies (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), 67–95.

27 Phone interview with a member of the Casablanca Council of Religious Scholars, February 4, 2021.

28 Ashraf Nabih El Sherif, “Institutional and Ideological Re-Construction of the Justice and Development Party: The Question of Democratic Islamism in Morocco,” Middle East Journal 66, no. 4 (Autumn 2021): 660–682,

29 Darif, “Sufism Between the Educational and the Political.”

30 Abdelilah Bouasria “The Second Coming of Morocco’s ‘Commander of the Faithful’: Mohammed VI and Morocco’s Religious Policy,” in Contemporary Morocco: State, Politics and Society Under Mohammed VI, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Daniel Zisenwine (eds.) (London, England: Routledge, 2017), 37–56.

31 Malka, “Morocco: Islam as the Foundation of Power.”

32 Švedkauskas, “Facilitating Political Stability.”

33 Ter Laan, Dissonant Voices.

34 “Morocco Takes Care of Shrines and Zawiyas to Ensure Spiritual Security,” al Araby al Jdid [the New Arab], February 14, 2018,

35 Ibid.

36 Mohamed Chtatou, “Is Sufism Truly the Magical Antidote to Islamism in Morocco?” Morocco World News, June 9, 2016,

37 Rachida Chih, “Sufism, Education, and Politics in Contemporary Morocco,” Journal for Islamic Studies 32 (2012): 24–36.

38 Švedkauskas, “Facilitating Political Stability.”

39 Aziz el Kobaiti Idrissi, “The Political Participation of Sufi and Salafi Movements in Modern Morocco: Between the ‘2003 Casablanca Terrorist Attack’ and the ‘Moroccan Spring,’ in Sufis and Salafis in the Contemporary Age, Lloyd Ridgeon (ed.) (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) 91–103.

40 El Kanbouri, “Zawyias in Morocco.”

41 Idrissi, “The Political Participation of Sufi and Salafi Movements in Modern Morocco.”

42 Švedkauskas, “Facilitating Political Stability.”

43 Kahlid Bekkaoui and Ricardo René Larémont, “Morocco Youth Go Sufi,” Journal of the Middle East and Africa 2, no. 3 (2011): 31–46,

44 Zakya Daoud, “The Boutchichiyya Brotherhood: An Essential Ally of Moroccan Power,” Orientxxi, December 20, 2017,,2184.

45 El Kanbouri, “Zawyias in Morocco.”

46 Švedkauskas, “Facilitating Political Stability.”

47 Švedkauskas, “Facilitating Political Stability.”

48 Daoud, “The Boutchichiyya Brotherhood.”

49 Ibid.

50 Isabelle Werenfels, “Beyond Authoritarian Upgrading: The Re-Emergence of Sufi Orders in Maghrebi Politics,” Journal of North African Studies 19, no. 3 (2013): 275–295,

51 Ibid.

52 Ter Laan, Dissonant Voices.

53 Bouasria, Sufism and Politics in Morocco.

54 Bouasria, Sufism and Politics in Morocco.

55 Idrissi, “The Political Participation of Sufi and Salafi Movements in Modern Morocco.”

56 Bouasria, Sufism and Politics in Morocco.

57 El Kanbouri, “Zawiyas in Morocco.”

58 Badraldine El-Khamali, “Sufism in the Midst of the Arab Spring: Morocco as a Model,” Al Watan Voice, December 19, 2011,

59 Souhail Karam, “Rival Groups March Over King’s Reforms in Morocco,” Reuters, June 26, 2011,

60 Salim Hmimnat, “Morocco’s Religious ‘Soft Power’ in Africa: As a Strategy Supporting Morocco’s Stretching in Africa,” Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, June 6, 2018,

61 Ibid.

62 Ann Marie Wainscott, Bureacratizing Islam: Morocco and the War on Terror (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

63 Salim Hmimnat, “‘Spiritual Security’ as a (Meta-)Political Strategy to Compete Over Regional Leadership: Formation of Morocco’s Transnational Religious Policy Towards Africa,” Journal of North African Studies 25, no. 3 (2018): 189–227,

64 Žilvinas Švedkauskas, “Streamlining Moroccan ‘Soft’ Security in Sub-Saharan Africa: Inclusion Is Key,” Socio-Economic Development and Violent Extremism in Morocco: Morocco’s Regional Policy, Migration and (De-)Radicalization, Laura Lale Kabis Kechrid (ed.) (Berlin: German Council on Foreign Relations, July 2019) 57–67.

65 Tariq Ben Larbi, “Le Maroc Face a la ‘Daesh Connection’” [Morocco Faces the ‘Daesh Connection’], Jeune Afrique, November 24, 2014,

66 Hmimnat, “‘Spiritual Security’ as a (Meta-)Political Strategy to Compete Over Regional Leadership.”


Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


Algeria’s Sufis Balance State Patronage and Political Entanglement

By Anouar Boukhars, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 07 June 2021

In Algeria, the regime has used economic, political, and media tools to elevate Sufi orders that further its agenda. Sufi institutions and figures must balance the reputational trade-offs that accompany this cooperation.




“He who boycotts the December 2019 election is a disbeliever and enemy of the nation and the people,” proclaimed the Algerian National Syndicate of Zawaya on Facebook.1 The fatwa, or legal opinion on a point of Islamic law, issued in the run-up to the presidential contest sparked widespread online uproar in an election cycle already marred by protests and shunned by most Algerians. This was not the first time that some Sufi zawaya (singular zawiya, or religious schools, lodges, or orders that play an important social role in their surrounding communities) stirred up indignation and controversy.

In 2016, disgraced former minister of energy and mines Chakib Khelil, who left Algeria in 2013 embroiled in a corruption scandal that led to an international arrest warrant being issued against him, kicked off his return to the country with a highly controversial tour of several zawaya in different parts of Algeria.2 But not all Sufi orders or their followers are aligned with unpopular political causes or tarnished politicians. The Khelil case, in particular, was met with deep consternation even among zawaya that view bargains with men of power transactionally.

The reality is that Sufi orders are not monolithic in their viewpoints, interests, and agendas. Throughout Algerian history, some Sufi orders have resisted political co-option while others have struck Faustian bargains with the powers that be. Zawaya’s societal reach and influence in politics also vary and tend to ebb and flow according to historical events, situational constraints, and political opportunity structures. This analysis illustrates how the structural environment determines the weight and political visibility of Sufi leaders and Sufi orders. It also shows how context-dependent constraints, incentives, and pressures shape Sufi preferences and define their engagement in politics. In so doing, it highlights how the roles, interests, and significance of Sufi orders in Algerian politics are intricately intertwined with the interests, policies, and motivations of the regime in both the national and international arenas.

Sufism in the Colonial Era

For ages, Sufi orders and temporal political powers in Algeria have been in constant interaction, interwoven with periods of integration, connivance, and conflict. The kinds of interactions that arose depended on the circumstances. In times of crisis, Sufi orders tended to come to prominence, either as grand legitimators of the status quo or challengers to authority that they perceived as undermining their distinctiveness or credibility among their adherents. As pillars of power, they were responsible for integrating and regulating differing interests in society. During the reign of the Zayyanid dynasty (from 1235 to 1556), they were recognized as special actors who helped structure relations between political authority and local populations.3 The Ottoman Empire also employed their ability to mediate and organize social and political interactions during the empire’s 300 years of presence in Algeria.

The onset of French colonialism after 1830 ignited insurgent consciousness in some Sufi orders who feared political and social obsolescence by a new colonial regime that exhibited deep suspicion and distrust toward what it considered occult and subversive political-religious organizations. This sense of danger was a driving force behind some orders’ transformation into the main locus of resistance to the French conquest of Algeria.

In many ways, Sufi orders were the best equipped of any social group to take on this insurgent role given that they were the only ones with enough organizing capacity, resources, and deep social connections.4 It came as no surprise, then, that for the better part of the nineteenth century, the so-called prophets of military resistance all belonged to Sufi brotherhoods. Emir Abd el-Kader (who lived from 1808 to 1883) of the Qadiriyya Brotherhood, who led the war of liberation at the age of twenty-five, embodied the preeminent political-military role that some zawaya came to play.5 During the 1830s, he exerted control over large swaths of territory in central and western Algeria thanks to both military victories and skilled negotiation with the French. At the same time, he managed to organize and build the essential trappings of a functioning state and army. Abd el-Kader’s experiment of statehood came to an end with his defeat by the French in 1847.

The insurgent mantle was taken on by other Sufi brotherhoods such as the Ouled Sidi Cheikh, which in 1864 directed its military struggle toward subverting the French presence in the south of the port city Oran.6 The most notable act of revolt, however, transpired in eastern Algeria and was led by Mohamed Al Hadj al-Mokrani (who lived from 1815 to 1871), the leader of the Kabyle revolt of 1871–1872.7 He did not initially oppose French colonization, but that changed when his local power and administrative prerogatives were curtailed. After the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), al-Mokrani saw an opportunity to challenge the colonial dominance in his region. In March 1871, he assembled a war council and sought to rally the support of local chiefs, notables, and religious figures.

The endorsement of Cheikh al-Haddad (who lived from 1790 to 1873) of the Rahmaniyya Sufi brotherhood was key to al-Mokrani’s war efforts, leading several Kabyle tribes to join his revolt. Al-Mokrani amassed significant manpower (150,000 warriors), allowing his insurrection to sweep eastern Algeria and extend to different regions of the country. His revolt, however, largely dissipated after he was killed in battle on May 5, 1871.8 The 1870s saw other insurrections erupt in the mountainous area of the Aurès range in eastern Algeria and at the gates of the Sahara Desert, but they failed to garner the tribal support and buy-in of the influential Sufi orders that had fueled al-Mokrani and el-Kader’s rebellions.

By the 1880s, however, the Sufi-led revolts against French rule had lost momentum and petered out. The French managed to consolidate their power and neutralize the resistance that emanated mostly from recalcitrant Sufi orders. The colonial administration had honed its divide-and-rule tactics and policies, thanks in part to the development of a more fine-grained understanding of how zawaya functioned, including their distinctions and internal dissensions.9 Each individual zawiya had its particular position and strategy for dealing with colonial machinations. Some had quickly adapted to colonial rule, preferring collaboration, even if on unequal terms, to hedge against French abuse and arbitrary expropriation of their land.

This pursuit of self-interest and expediency created rifts between and within zawaya. There were some instances in which Sufi orders were internally divided between those who fiercely resisted co-option and those who facilitated colonial penetration. Even within major orders like the Tidjaniyya, which was considered more amenable to accommodation and collaboration with the French than the Rahmaniyya or the Qadiriyya were, there were some adherents that refused to facilitate French incursion into the south of Algeria.10

In the end, the French strategies of repression and divide and rule ended up vexing, co-opting, and exhausting Sufi orders. By the end of the nineteenth century, zawaya had come to terms with colonial domination, even if most of them continued to resist France’s aggressive attempts to supplant Algeria’s cultural identity.11

The early twentieth century brought a different kind of intellectual, cultural, and religious challenge to the zawaya. The reformist Salafiyya intellectual movement—whose prominent spokesmen, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (who lived from 1838 to 1897), Muhammad Abduh (who lived from 1849 to 1905), and Rashid Rida (who lived from 1865 to 1935), militated for religious revival and reform—began to take root in Algeria. The movement exhibited hostility to the doctrines and practices of Sufi orders. Between the two world wars, Sheikh ‘Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis (who lived from 1889 to 1940) became the leader of the Islamic Reform Movement in Algeria.

Initially, he was open to collaboration with Sufi orders as long as they pursued a program of moral and religious renewal. To run this renewal, the Ulama Association was created in 1931, with Ben Badis as its head. Soon after, however, this cooperative relationship soured as differences over strategies and agendas became irreconcilable. Toward the end of the colonial era, the Islam of the reformers had supplanted that of the Sufi orders as the main determinant of Algerian national consciousness.12

The emergence of the movement for independence during World War I (lasting from 1914 to 1918) posed another major challenge to the zawaya. As the struggle for liberation intensified, the zawaya came under immense pressure by both the liberation movement, which demanded support for the Algerian War of Independence (lasting from 1954 to 1962), and French colonial rulers, who sought their collaboration in blunting the momentum for independence. An appreciable number of zawaya, however, adopted a neutral position, limiting their role to the realms of education and religion. This proved highly unpopular, instigating the wrath of the liberation movement and discrediting Sufi orders.13

Trials and Tribulations of Sufi Orders

The Algerian liberation movement was robust but by no means a unified resistance movement. Yet, groups that were reticent or did not adhere to the movement found themselves on the wrong side of history and paid a steep price once independence was achieved in 1962. In the first two decades after the end of 132 years of colonial French rule in Algeria, the Algerian government marginalized zawaya and imposed severe restrictions on their activities.14 To be sure, the new rulers of independent Algeria were wary of all religious actors and were intent on controlling a religious field whose societal role could be conducive to resisting central power. Under the brief reign of Algeria’s first prime minister and later first president Ahmed Ben Bella (who ruled from 1962 to 1965), the government’s strategy was to manage religious conservatives, co-opt their cultural agenda, and tighten control over the apparatus of worship and education.15 The goal was to make the zawaya irrelevant.

When Houari Boumédiène became president of Algeria in June 1965 following a coup d’etat, his regime pursued the co-option strategy of his predecessor, amplifying the reformist religious agenda of the heirs of Ben Badis while aggressively combating recalcitrant religious voices. Boumédiène became even more intolerant of Sufi orders, whom he equated with superstition, obscurantism, and perfidy.16 Major zawaya like the Tidjaniyya and the Alawiyya bore the brunt of his administration’s religious policies, which confiscated their lands, excluded them from all religious programs, and prohibited their leaders from leaving the national territory. The Algerian government, for example, harassed Sheikh Mehdi Bentounes (who lived from 1928 to 1975) of the Alawiyya order, whom the authorities suspected of disloyalty. Similar to the French preoccupation with the zawiya’s transnational networks of Sufi adherents, the Algerian authorities were suspicious of the number of international visitors to this Sufi order. What the French feared as potential insurgents Boumédiène considered as spies. As such, Bentounes was viewed with intense scrutiny and suspicion. On February 18, 1970, he was arrested after a months-long investigation and a vehement media campaign that accused him of conspiracy with foreign forces. Even after his release on November 10, 1970, he remained for several years under the close watch of the authorities.17

The death of Boumédiène in 1978 brought the zawaya respite from years of state-led ostracism and marginalization. His successor, Chadli Bendjedid, displayed tolerance to Sufi orders thanks in part to the president’s own purported spiritual affinity to Sufism; his association with Zawiya Sheikh Belahoual in Mostaganem, which he frequented; and his own wife’s kinship ties to the zawiya of the Bourokba in Mazouna.18

There were also political and strategic reasons for relieving the siege on the zawaya. The late 1970s saw the emergence of political Islam as a formidable opposition force, as exemplified by the dramatic events that shook the greater Middle East in 1979, namely the Iranian Revolution, the siege of the Grand Mosque at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan that provoked an Islamist rebellion supported by widespread Islamic international solidarity. During this time, Algeria began to witness the resurgence of the politicization of religious conservatism as well as cultural, linguistic, and ethnic identities that had been repressed during the first decades of independence as Ben Bella and Boumédiène strove to construct a unitary and unified state.

This context facilitated the gradual rehabilitation of Sufi orders. In office, Bendjedid publicly visited the Zawiya Belkadia in Tlemcen and Sidi Mohamed Belkebir’s zawiya in Adrar in the Sahara Desert.19 In 1984, he authorized a large international conference devoted to the Tidjaniyya order, which boasted millions of followers in West Africa alone. The goal of the gathering was to revitalize the Tidjaniyya zawiya as an instrument of Algerian foreign policy, particularly against its neighboring rival, Morocco. Indeed, the idea behind the event was to amass support in West Africa for Polisario Front guerrillas who were fighting Morocco over control of the Western Sahara.

Morocco—which quit the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) in 1984 over its admission of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1982—had secured the support of the most important African Tidjani leaders for its sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Bendjedid also contributed to financing one of the largest Quranic schools that was affiliated with the Niassene branch of Tidjaniyya in Senegal and that, at the time, served hundreds of students, mainly from Ghana, Niger, and Nigeria.20

The evidence of a state-led push for a revival of zawaya became notable as public confidence in government plunged and the political and security threats emanating from Islamist groups became more pronounced. Indeed, exactly one year after the Algerian Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), swept provincial and municipal elections in June 1990, the Algerian government sponsored a national conference that brought together nearly 300 Sufi sheikhs.21 This was the clearest demonstration yet of the gradual rehabilitation of Sufi orders.

Historically, at times of crisis, Sufi orders rose to the occasion to resist colonial rule and safeguard and valorize Algerians’ cultural and religious identity. So, Bendjedid banked on the revival of Sufi orders to serve as counterweights to revolutionary Islamism. Sufi orders also hoped to seize the moment, creating in the process the National Union of Algerian Zawaya and vowing to “fight all those who, in the name of Wahhabism and Shiism and all other imported rites, have tried to introduce deviations in the Maliki rite, the common denominator of the majority of our people.”22

The subsequent electoral triumph of the FIS in the first round of parliamentary elections on December 26, 1991, dashed Bendjedid’s hopes, leading to his forced resignation and a military takeover. The coup triggered a devastating decade-long civil war where Islamist insurgents targeted Sufi orders, forcing their adherents to keep a low profile. But even under siege, Sufi orders did not fade away into irrelevance.23 The military regime needed to shore up its authority and weaken and delegitimize the insurgents. In 1997, the general Liamine Zéroual, who had been elected president in November 1995, appointed Sheikh Bouabdallah Ghlamallah of the Zawiya Chaldoulia of Sidi ‘Adda in Tiaret as the minister of religious affairs.24 This was the first time since Algeria’s independence that such a strategic ministry was entrusted to someone not steeped in the reformist tradition of Ben Badis’s Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama. The move marked yet another signal in the government’s determination to elevate the status of Sufi orders.

The Renaissance of Sufism

Sufi orders’ path back to rehabilitation blossomed into prominence under the reign of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (who ruled from 1999 to 2019). Unlike his mentor, Boumédiène, who combated Sufi orders, Bouteflika had a personal affinity to Sufism.25 His father worked in a zawiya and his family had always been connected to this kind of Islam. When he was sidelined by the military after the death of Boumédiène in 1978, he reportedly frequented a number of zawaya like those in Adrar in the Algerian desert. Strategically, Bouteflika embraced Sufi orders for their potential mobilizing effects in their roles as purveyors of Algerian religious authenticity; mitigators of societal conflict; galvanizers of votes, especially in rural areas; and force-multipliers for Algeria’s diplomatic influence internationally.26

To cultivate his relationship with Sufi orders, Bouteflika poured state money into shoring up popular mausoleums, refurbishing shrines and tombs of Sufi saints, and propping up Sufi schools and educational centers. His allies in the business community helped bankroll some of these financial initiatives to revive Sufi networks and in the process advance the former president’s political objectives. Notable politicians such as former prime minister and current President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, former minister of foreign affairs Abdelaziz Belkhadem, and other senior military officers enthusiastically and publicly jumped on Bouteflika’s Sufi bandwagon.27

This significant turnaround in the fortunes of Sufi orders was captured best in 2003 by Omar Mahmoud Chaalal, who helped found in June of that year the National Union of Algerian Zawaya. “Now that our zawaya have recovered their ancestral religious and spiritual legitimacy,” he said, the union can “finally call on those self-proclaimed modernists and those who wrongly call themselves reformists [Salafists] to rectify their approach” and acknowledge “the harmonious and ancestral tandem relationship between Zawiya and Algerian society.”28

Bouteflika’s push to elevate the status of Sufi orders and acquaint the public with their positive social and cultural history became more pronounced with the mushrooming of Sufi cultural events and seasonal festivals. The Ministry of Culture sponsored dozens of international cultural events that brought together Sufi actors and notable Algerian and foreign experts in Sufism.29 The goal, according to culture minister Khalida Toumi (who held office from 2002 to 2014), was to revive Algerians’ historical memory and the values of their ancestors, both critical components to safeguard the public against the “external dangers of religious extremism.”30 For anthropologist Zaim Khenchelaoui, who played an important role in the organization of such events, the Algerian public had to be reintroduced to Sufism as “the bearer of a theology of liberation.”31

After 2014, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqf assumed a more prominent role in the promotion of Sufism. Under the tenure of Mohamed Aïssa (who was minister from 2014 to 2019), the ministry accelerated its support of cultural meetings and commemorations that encouraged a “return to [Sufi] ancestral Islam.”32 During a national meeting on the Rahmaniyya brotherhood organized by local zawaya and held in Tizi Ouzou in 2015, Aïssa extolled Sufism as an “Islam of tolerance and peace” and the “only remedy for religious extremism,” urging the faithful to favor Sufism and the Rahmaniyya brotherhood in particular which, he specified, “played an important role in the fight against French colonialism.”33 In 2016, he sponsored the organization of an international Sufism conference in Mostaganem whose goal was the creation of a world body of Sufism “to strengthen it in the fight against radical Islam.”34 He also founded an observatory against sectarian aberrations and religious extremism.

Aïssa also intensified efforts to rectify the distorted historical record that denigrated the role that zawaya played in fighting colonialism. Several conferences were organized to brandish the historical contributions of Sufism to thwarting the colonial machinations that undermined national identity. Speaking at the opening of an international seminar in Ouargla Province in 2019 on “Sufism and its role in the preservation of religious references and national identity,” the minister praised the patriotism of Sufi orders and their critical role in the preservation of national identity. He also applauded the “African dimension of the Sufi brotherhoods in Algeria and their role in spreading Islam in Africa.”35

Unlike Toumi, wrote Thierry Zarcone, Aïssa’s actions were “more political than cultural.”36 Aïssa worked to prop up the role of the Union of Zawaya, which was an ardent supporter of Bouteflika. The latter understood early in his tenure that courting Sufi orders could help him consolidate his electoral base as well as counter accusations “that he was too lenient towards Islamists.”37 In presidential elections often marked by low turnout, influential Sufi sheikhs had the potential to shore up support for the president from their constituencies, especially in the non-metropolitan hinterland of Algeria where Sufi adherents still represent a non-negligible electoral mass.

Indeed, Sufi orders ardently supported Bouteflika’s presidential campaigns and promoted his major national reconciliation initiatives and general amnesty for militant Islamists who agreed to lay down their weapons. Chaalal, the president of the National Union of Algerian Zawaya, gave Sufi orders the credit for facilitating the government’s conflict mitigation activities and reconciliation processes. Chaalal also claimed credit for Bouteflika’s electoral successes.38
Sufism as a Foreign Policy Resource

Bouteflika re-activated Sufi orders for external reasons, as well. A few notable studies have already demonstrated how his regime has incorporated the Algerian branch of the Tidjaniyya order into Algeria’s foreign policy conduct in the Sahel and West Africa.39 Bouteflika saw in this Sufi order a means to upgrade Algeria’s soft sources of power and contest Morocco’s decades-long dominance of the transnational networks of Tidjaniyya. Under his reign, efforts were made to challenge the dominance of the ancient Moroccan city of Fes—which houses the tomb of the founder of the Tidjaniyya order—through transforming Aïn Mâdî (the birthplace of the founder of Tidjaniyya) in the Algerian desert into a major learning center and pilgrimage site for the followers of Tidjaniyya in West Africa and beyond.

In 2006, exactly twenty-two years after Bendjedid organized an international conference about the Tidjaniyya, Bouteflika reinvigorated the African significance of Aïn Mâdî through the organization of an important gathering of intellectuals, notable personalities, and disciples of Tidjaniyya from Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan. The Bouteflika regime also tried to expand its Tidjaniyya network into the West African diaspora of France.40

Less studied, however, is how Bouteflika came to rely on the Alawiyya Sufi order to bolster Algeria’s influence on the international stage as an exporter of a tolerant and modernist version of Islam.41 Like Tidjaniyya, Alawiyya boasts a significant following outside of Algeria. The school is well established in the Algerian diasporas of Europe and enjoys a reputation for promoting “interreligious dialogue, gender equality, environmental protection and peace.”42 Its spiritual leader, Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, is “the initiator of the International Day of Living Together in Peace, unanimously adopted by the 193 member states of the United Nations, celebrated every year on May 16.”43

In 2005, Alawiyya came to be tightly interwoven with the Algerian regime’s diplomatic calculus. The impressive celebration that the order organized in November in Mostaganem in northwest Algeria to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Mehdi Bentounes was notable for the high-profile attendees. The presence of the wali (prefect) of Mostaganem and the minister of religious affairs Bouabdallah Ghlamallah—who likened Mehdi’s travails and trajectory to that of the great revolutionaries Ben Bella and key independence organizer Abane Ramdane—was a strong indication of the full official rehabilitation of the Alawiyya Sufi order.44

The 2009 centennial commemoration of the founding of the Alawiyya was another occasion to showcase the growing visibility and influence of the Alawiyya order. Before the event officially began in July, the Association Cheikh Alawi embarked on an itinerant project entitled “Caravan of Hope” that crisscrossed several towns of Algeria and organized several cultural, artistic, and spiritual activities.45 In parallel to the Caravan of Hope, the Muslim Scouts of France that Khaled Bentounes founded in 1990 made their way throughout Algiers, Paris, Rome, Tripoli, and Tunis. This was part of their project, called “Flame of Hope,” that was intended to connect scout movements on the two shores of the Mediterranean as well as garner the support of state representatives.

In Europe, the authorities have welcomed the order’s emphasis on the construction of a European Islam and its efforts to inculcate a nonideological, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian teaching of religion to the thousands of girls and boys in Europe who are part of the Muslim Scouts movement. This was evidenced when the Flame of Hope that made the rounds from Paris to Berlin was “welcomed by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.”46

In Algeria, Khaled Bentounes also saw his status elevated, as demonstrated in the July centennial celebrations in Mostaganem, which mobilized six thousand people, including two thousand foreign participants from Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, several countries in Europe, Indonesia, Japan, Morocco, and Palestine. In the first two decades after Algeria’s independence, the transnational and dynamic nature of the Alawiyya order unnerved the authorities, who feared the political implications of the order’s mobilization capacity. As seen earlier, Boumédiène distrusted the order, suspecting it of acting as a likely vector for foreign spying. So, it did not go unnoticed that such an international gathering was allowed to take place, and most importantly, it was held under the high patronage of Bouteflika, who according to Khaled Bentounes, insisted that the centenary be celebrated in Algeria, and precisely in Mostaganem, the birthplace of the founder of Alawiyya.47

Importantly, the president’s sponsorship of the event came on the heels of a heated controversy over Khaled Bentounes’s book, Sufism, A Common Inheritance.48 The book’s content, and especially its cover, which features a picture of the Prophet Muhammad, infuriated Islamists, Salafists, and even some Sufi orders, who called for the book to be banned and the president to withdraw his patronage of the event.49 Reportedly, Bouteflika intervened to put an end to the firestorm over the book and the order’s centennial festivities by summoning Sheikh Bouamrane of the High Islamic Council and Sheikh Chibane, head of the Association of Algerian Muslim Scholars and former minister of religious affairs, and instructing them to cease their virulent attacks on Bentounes. The fact that Bouteflika, who also sought to accommodate and co-opt socially conservative forces, stood by Bentounes spoke volumes about the importance he accorded to this Sufi order.

In 2014, it was again under the patronage of Bouteflika that the L’Association Internationale Soufie Alawiyya (AISA) organized the International Women’s Congress for a Culture of Peace in Oran. During that same year, AISA became an officially accredited partner of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council. In 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization organized a special conference to pay tribute to the Alawi Sufi order, “a school for tolerance and interreligious social interaction.”50 In the meeting, Aïssa portrayed Alawi “as a humanist reformer whose prospective vision continues to arouse the interest of new generations and is a valuable contribution to meeting our common challenge: to restore confidence in Islam in the face of religious extremism.”51

Losing Ground

Bouteflika’s strategy toward Sufi orders was designed to be a win-win situation.52 The most influential Sufi orders had been buoyed by the amenable environment that Bouteflika created for their spiritual, social, and financial development. Under his reign, Sufi orders enjoyed more freedom to operate and gained appreciable political influence to advance their priorities and their policy agenda. The zawaya, for example, acquired for their students the right of access to higher education, which facilitated their entry into the civil service as imams of mosques.53 For a zawiya such as that of Adrar in Algeria’s south, where the number of students trained is estimated at 1,000 students per year, such a strategic alliance with the state not only secured jobs for its school graduates but provided a critical avenue for the school to extend its social influence and exercise indirect powers from within state-controlled institutions.

For the Bouteflika regime, the appointment of Sufi imams in state institutions helped advance its goal of institutionalizing the function and training of imams as well as limiting the presence of Salafist preachers in places of worship. The proliferation of Sufi welfare associations also served state interests as they help to “fill vacuums in the state’s provision of welfare and educational services” as well as reduce the advantage that Islamist social welfare institutions had in expanding their base.54

This close-knit relationship between Sufism and politics, however, carries risks for the credibility and reputation of Sufi orders. In the scramble for access to the regimes’ patronage networks and distribution schemes, Sufi orders compete with each other over the pie of patronage. Indeed, the regime’s privileging of one order over another created resentment between Sufi orders, prompting some to organize collectively to contest the influence that Bouteflika’s favored Sufi orders and associations, such as the National Union of Zawaya, enjoyed. Some Sufi orders took advantage of Algeria’s competing power centers and clientelist networks to advance their own interests.

Playing the political game can also end up discrediting the orders, particularly those who unabashedly pursue the privileges that accrue from developing cozy—and at times corrupting—relations with ministers, politicians, and businessmen.55 There are a number of cases where Sufi sheikhs lobbied for appointments into positions as senators, High Islamic Council members, and other lucrative state positions. Some, like Kaddour Gouaïche, president of an association of zawaya who was appointed as counselor to Bouteflika, even became entangled in corruption cases. Some zawaya also served as convenient platforms to whitewash politicians, such as Khelil, who were tainted by corruption allegations.56

Toward the end of Bouteflika’s era, there was a noticeable disconnect between Algeria’s increasingly young and urban population and the zawaya, especially those close to the regime.57 The zawaya’s decline in influence could also be seen in Algeria’s peripheral regions, where they are nonetheless still well-established. In 2013, for example, the regime enlisted influential Sufi sheikhs in southern Algeria to help de-escalate tensions stemming from protests against worsening unemployment in that vast region. In 2018, state energy firm Sonatrach began “courting Sunni Muslim Sufi masters from communities in areas near prospective southern gas fields to win over locals worried about possible disruption from exploration work.”58 In both cases, Sufi orders had little impact on reducing street tensions or resistance to shale exploration. The support of several Sufi orders was also not enough when Bouteflika sought a fifth term in office despite the fact that he was paralyzed after having suffered a stroke in 2013.


Sufi orders still have influence in Algerian politics, but the challenges to their moral credibility are mounting and will only deepen. Under Bouteflika, an appreciable number of zawaya have seen their footprint expand in the political and cultural square. Influential Sufi sheikhs found in the former president a reliable partner in advancing their spiritual activities, social agendas, and economic activities. But their braided political relationships and alignments, at times with unpopular causes, have alienated an increasingly young and urban population. They have also caused angst within some Sufi orders whose adherents found it troubling that their zawaya strayed from their religious vocation and charitable and social functions.

To be fair, some Sufi sheikhs have resisted placing their zawaya at the service of politicians. Thus, in 2016, for example, the zawiya of Sidi Bahloul refused, amid mounting citizen pressure, a visit from Khelil, the former minister involved in the corruption scandal.59 Citizen mobilization also disrupted Khelil’s tour of zawaya in Chlef and Annaba.60 In 2019, some zawaya resisted supporting an ailing and nearly incapacitated Bouteflika to run for a fifth term.

The onset of the pro-democracy movement known as the Hirak, which led to Bouteflika’s fall, was a warning to Sufi orders that too close of an association with politicians and unpopular causes was self-defeating. The challenge for zawaya today is how to balance their religious, cultural, and social activities with political engagement. In many ways, zawaya are faced with the same dilemma that other religious and social actors confront. In an authoritarian context where the material incentives for promoting top-down regime policies is significant and the risks for resisting the state is high, several Sufi orders feel they have no choice but to toe the line to advance their priorities and agendas.

The 2019 presidential election showed how difficult it is to withdraw from political controversies or resist being co-opted by political agendas. For the first time in the history of Algerian elections, four out of the five candidates contesting the presidency decided to launch their electoral campaign from the south of the country in Adrar, which houses the influential Zawiya of Sheikh Belkhebir. The candidates attributed this choice of location to the importance and influence of zawaya in Algeria’s Sahara. Tebboune, who won the contested and unpopular election, has also enlisted supportive zawaya to back his political initiatives while continuing his predecessor’s selective financial support for Sufism.61 Tebboune’s gestures of selective patronage will likely continue to constitute part of the regime’s strategy to hobble the persistent protest movement and prevent the emergence of credible social forces that can threaten its hold on power.

Correction: This piece has been amended to correct the date of Boumédiène’s coup to June 19, 1965 (not July).


The author would like to thank Andrew Lebovich, Intissar Fakir, and Dalia Ghanem for their feedback on this paper.

About the Author

Anouar Boukhars is a nonresident fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program and a professor of countering violent extremism and counterterrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University. He is also an associate professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.


1 Nassim B., “Someone Who Denies the Elections Is a Disbeliever, According to Algerian Zawaya” (French), Dzair Daily, November 12, 2019,

2 “The Brotherhoods at the Center of Political Solicitations” (French), El Watan, June 3, 2018,

3 “The Zawaya and the Legislators” (French), El Watan, April 29, 2012,

4 Aboul Kassem Saadallah, The Rise of Algerian Nationalism (French) (Algiers: Enterprise nationale du livre, 1983), 27–41.

5 Ahmed Bouyerdene, Abd el-Kader: The Harmony of Opposites (Paris: Seuil, 2008).

6 Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer, The Royal Arab: The Algerian Politics of Napolean III, 1861–1870 (French) (Alger, Société nationale d’édition et de diffusion, 1977).

7 Foad Khatir, “The Changing of Algerian Politics Regarding Sufi Brotherhoods: From Persecution to Rehabilitation, the Case of the Alawiyya Brotherhood, 1909–2009” (French) (doctoral thesis), Université Toulouse le Mirail - Toulouse II, 2016,

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Xavier Coppolani et Octave Depont (eds.), Sufi Brotherhoods (French) (Paris: Hachette Livre–BNF, 2019, first published in 1897).

11 Fanny Colonna, The Verses of Invincibility: Religious Permanence and Change in Contemporary Algeria (French) (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1995).

12 Charlotte Courreye, The Algeria of the Ulema: A History of Contemporary Algeria (1931–1991) (French) (Paris, Editions de la Sorbonne, 2020); and Hugh Roberts, “Radical Islamism and the Dilemma of Algerian Nationalism: The Embattled Arians of Algiers,” Third World Quarterly 10, no. 2 (April 1988): 556–589,

13 See Mahfoud Kaddache, History of Algerian Nationalism: National Question and Algerian Politics, 1919–1951 (French) (Algiers: Société nationale d'édition et de diffusion, 1981); and James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

14 Ali Merad, Muslim Reform in Algeria From 1925 to 1940: Essay on Religious and Social History (French) (Paris: Mouton, 1967).

15 Franck Fregosi, “Islam and the Algerian State: From Gallicanism to State Fundamentalism” (French), Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée 65, 1992, 61–76; Ernest Geller and Jean Claude Vatin (eds.), Islam and Politics in the Maghreb (French) (Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1981), 253–257; and Mohammed Harbi, The FLN: Mirage and Reality (French) (Paris: Éditions J.A., 1980).

16 Michael Willis, The Islamists Challenge in Algeria: A Political History (New York: New York University Press, 1999); and Khalfa Mameri, Citations From the President Boumediene (French) (Algiers: Société Nationale d’Edition et de Diffusion, 1975).

17 Khatir, “The Changing of Algerian Politics Regarding Sufi Brotherhoods: From Persecution to Rehabilitation, The Case of the Alawiyya Brotherhood, 1909–2009.”

18 Sossie Andezian, “Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia” in Alexandre Popovic and Gilles Veinstein, The Voices of God: Mystic Orders in the Muslim World From the Origins to Today (French) (Paris: Fayard, 1996); and Mohamed Benchicou, Bouteflika: An Algerian Imposter (French) (Algeris: Picollec, 2004).

19 “Why the Power Relies on Zawaya” (French), El Watan, June 3, 2018,

20 Bakary Sambe, “Morocco South of the Sahara: A Strategy of Influence Proving Geopolitical Mutations” (French) in Mansouria Mokhefti and Alain Antil, Morocco and Its South: Toward Renewed Relations (French) (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2019), 173–191,

21 Sossie Andezian, Experiences of the Divine in Contemporary Algeria: Adepts of the Saints in Tlemcen Region (French) (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2001), 237.

22 Baya Gacemi, “Networks in Algeria” (French), El Watan, December 13, 2009,

23 Sossie Andezian, “Faces of Algerian Mysticism” (French) in Naaman Kessous, Christine Margerrison, Andy Stafford, and Guy Dugas, Algeria: Toward the Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence in Algeria (French) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009), 201, 261.

24 Achour Cheurfi, Biographical Dictionary: The Algerian Political Class From 1900 to Today (French) (Algiers: Casbah Editions, 2006), 38.

25 Benchicou, Bouteflika: An Algerian Imposter, 156–159.

26 See Ghania Oukazi, “Sufism and Political Islam” (French), Quotidien d’Oran, August 12, 2009,; and Rachid Grim, “The Political Game of Zawaya” (French), El Watan, July 12,2004,

27 “The Brotherhoods at the Center of Political Solicitations” (French), El Watan, June 3, 2018,

28 Dr. Mahmoud Chaallal, “Algerian Zawaya: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” (French), Boullion de culture (blog),

29 Thierry Zarcone, “A Rampart Against Salafism? The Political Usage of Sufism by Algerian Elites” (French), Sciences Po, April 2018,

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Dalia Ghanem, “State-Owned Islam in Algeria Faces Stiff Competition,” Carnegie Middle East Center, March 13, 2018,

33 “Mohamed Aïssa at Tizi Ouzou: ‘Authentic Islam Rejects Religious Extremism,’” (French), El Watan, March 10, 2015,

34 Zarcone, “A Rampart Against Salafism? The Political Usage of Sufism by Algerian Elites.”

35 Hana Saada, “Sufism Has Always Been Safety Value for Nation Against Extremism, Violence,” DZBreaking, February 2, 2019,

36 Zarcone, “A Rampart Against Salafism? The Political Usage of Sufism by Algerian Elites.”

37 Isabelle Werenfels, “Beyond Authoritarian Upgrading: The Re-emergence of Sufi Orders in Maghrebi Politics,” Journal of North African Studies 19, no. 3 (2014): 275–295.

38 Ibid.

39 Sambe, “Morocco South of the Sahara: A Strategy of Influence Proving Geopolitical Mutations”; Jean-Louis Triaud, “Tidjaniyya: A Transnational Muslim Brotherhood” (French), Politique Étrangère 4, 2010; and Isabelle Werenfels, “Maghrebi Rivalries Over Sub-Saharan Africa Algeria and Tunisia Seeking to Keep Up With Morocco,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, November 2020,

40 Sambe, “Morocco South of the Sahara: A Strategy of Influence Proving Geopolitical Mutations.”

41 Patrick Haenni, “The Hundred Year Anniversairy of the Alawiyya Brotherhood: Is a Postmodern Reform of Islam Possible?” (French), Institut Religioscope, études et analyses 23, November 2009, 7, 14,

42 “Cheikh Khaled Bentounes,” Cheikh Bentounes,

43 Ibid.

44 Khatir, “The Changing of Algerian Politics Regarding Sufi Brotherhoods.”

45 “At the Hundred Year Anniversary of the Tarîqa ‘Alawiyya, Bentounes Accuses the Press of ‘Stirring Up Controversy’” (French), Quotidien National Liberté, July 30, 2009,

46 Chiara Pellegrino, “Muslim Boy Scouts,” Oasis, September 3, 2017,

47 “The Hundred Year Anniversary of the Tarîqa ‘Alawiyya: A Celebration and a Message of Peace” (French), Journal Quotidien Liberté, July 16, 2009,

48 Lamine Chikhi, “Interview: Algerian Wants Reformist Sufi Role in Arab Spring,” Reuters, September 9, 2011,

49 Khatir, “The Changing of Algerian Politics Regarding Sufi Brotherhoods.”

50 Badreddine Yousfi, “Brotherhood Networks and Religious Mobility in the Western Algerian Sahara” (French) in Nicole Lemaitre (ed.), Religious and Spiritual Networks: From the Middle Ages to Today (French) (Paris: Éditions du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 2016), 147–160,

51 “Spiritual Islam and Contemporary Challenges,” UNESCO House–Paris and AISA International NGO, September 28–29, 2015,

52 Author interview with an Algerian Diplomat, WhatsApp, February 2021.

53 Yousfi, “Brotherhood Networks and Religious Mobility in the Western Algerian Sahara.”

54 Author interview with senior security counterterrorism officer, WhatsApp, February 2021.

55 Werenfels, “Beyond Authoritarian Upgrading: The Re-emergence of Sufi Orders in Maghrebi Politics.”

56 “Early Departure of the Attorney General Near the Algiers Court” (French), El Watan, July 26, 2007,

57 Nourredine Bessadi, “Algeria: Zawaya and Politics, Dangerous Liaisons” (French), Middle East Eye, January 3, 2018,

58 Lamine Chikhi, “Algeria’s Sonatrach Appeals to Sufi Preachers to Give Gas Plans a Lift,” Reuters, November 8, 2018,

59 “Mobilizing to Hurry the Zawiya Cheurfa’s Visit” (French), El Watan, May 2, 2016,

60 Bessadi, “Algeria: Zawaya and Politics, Dangerous Liaisons.”

61 Rédaction AE, “Tebboune Orders the Restitution of All of Algeria’s Old Mosques” (French), Algerie Eco, April 15, 2020,
End of document

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.




Russia in the Mediterranean: Here to Stay

By Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 27 May 2021

Russia is in the Mediterranean to stay. As long as the Kremlin remains locked in a tense standoff with NATO, it will aim to prevent the alliance from dominating the region.



Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean is an integral part of its strategy for the wider European theater, which has long been the principal arena of its foreign policy triumphs and setbacks. Europe’s dominant position on Russia’s foreign policy agenda is a product of its strategic culture, which is in turn shaped by geography, historical legacy, and an elite worldview that considers the West a threat to the domestic political order. It is impossible to understand Russia’s current posture in the Mediterranean without viewing it within this larger context and against the backdrop of the country’s centuries-old involvement in the region and retreat from it during the quarter century that followed the end of the Cold War.

Since Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, alarms have been sounded about the Kremlin’s ambitions and military capabilities in the Mediterranean. These alarms have been unfounded.; Russian capabilities in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region are modest, and the Kremlin’s ambitions there are constrained by geography and geopolitics, limited resources, a transactional approach to relationships, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) formidable force posture on its southern flank. As much as Russia may aspire to regional domination, it lacks the means to achieve this goal.

That said, the Russian military is now a presence to be reckoned with in the Eastern Mediterranean. It has complicated U.S./NATO planning and operations, and Moscow has developed good relationships with important regional powers. Given Russia’s limited means, its re-emergence in the region can be considered a success, but its effects should not be exaggerated. Moscow’s posture in the Mediterranean has been largely designed to protect its gains in Syria and defend against the threat that Russian leaders see from NATO land, air, and naval capabilities to the Russian heartland. The importance of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) “bubble” over Syria has at times been exaggerated. The systems that make up the bubble are limited in range and in a conflict with NATO would be vulnerable to countermeasures.

Contrary to a widespread perception, Moscow’s ambitions in the Mediterranean are more than a matter of its vague pursuit to regain great power status—they are a product of enduring Russian national security requirements. The principal rationale for Russia’s return to the region has been the prospect of a military confrontation in the European theater and concerns about the vulnerability of its southern flank in a conflict with NATO. While Russia has sought, in fact, to regain its old Cold War footing—and has been skillful and opportunistic in exploiting openings to expand its footprint—it has acted with caution, avoiding undue risks and, most of all, an outright confrontation with the United States.

The Kremlin may aspire to dominate the Mediterranean one day, but for now its aim is to deny this option to NATO. Russia is in the Mediterranean to stay, and its push for a greater naval, air, and land presence and increased political influence will continue as long as it remains locked in a tense standoff with NATO in Europe. This warrants heightened vigilance but not, as has often been the case, fears that Russia has replaced the United States/NATO as the key power broker in the region.;


Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean is an integral part of its strategy for the wider European theater, which has long been the principal arena of its foreign policy triumphs and setbacks. Europe’s dominant position on the country’s foreign policy agenda is a product of its strategic culture, which is in turn shaped by geography, historical legacy, and an elite worldview that considers the West a threat to the domestic political order.1 It is impossible to understand Russia’s current posture in the Mediterranean without putting it in this context and the long history of the country’s involvement in the region and retreat from it during the quarter century that followed the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s push into the Mediterranean, which has intensified since its military deployment to Syria in 2015, is more than a matter of the ambition to be recognized as a global player but a product of enduring national security requirements, threat perceptions, and economic interests. The period from the end of the Cold War to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, during which Russia was largely absent from the Mediterranean, was a departure from a centuries-old involvement there. The relatively peaceful post–Cold War interlude is over and the adversarial relationship between Russia and the West has resumed, with the Mediterranean as an important sphere of competition in the European theater. Russia’s presence in the region after 2014 shows a great deal of continuity with Soviet and pre-Soviet times, when developments in Europe were the principal drivers of policy.

At the same time, the post-2014 dynamic is hardly a replay of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War competition in the Mediterranean, which was the dominant feature of the region’s political and security environment. While Russia and the United States and its NATO allies are bound to remain significant actors in the Mediterranean, the dominant dynamics in it are likely to be a product of its indigenous political, economic, and societal forces, which, as recent experience has demonstrated, none of these outside powers have the means or apparently the will to shape.

This paper is the first of a series that will offer a comprehensive examination of Russia’s return to the Mediterranean.2 The first section examines Russia’s historical legacy of involvement in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and identifies the key enduring drivers of its policy there. The second section reviews the record of Soviet policy in the Mediterranean during the Cold War. The third section provides an overview of Russia’s return to the Mediterranean after its post–Cold War retreat and a broad assessment of its policy, capabilities, and results to date. The paper concludes with implications for the interests and policies of the United States and its allies in the Mediterranean.

Geography Is Almost Destiny


The origins of Russia’s engagement with the Mediterranean region are impossible to establish precisely, but by the tenth century AD, merchants from Kievan Rus were trading with Constantinople. The conversion of Kievan Rus to Christianity in 988 during the reign of Prince Vladimir, who also married the Byzantine emperor’s sister, created the foundation for the religious ties between the nascent Russian state and Byzantium. These have endured to the present day, and more than once throughout the history of the Russian empire they served as a basis for the geopolitical ambitions of its rulers.3

Those ambitions can be traced to an uninterrupted chain of military and diplomatic pursuits in the late seventeenth century, as Russia expanded and emerged as a full-fledged participant in European politics. For the next two centuries, its push toward the Mediterranean, necessitated by the lack of access to warm water ports, driven by both its geopolitical ambitions and commercial interests, took the form of successive military campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. From the time of Peter the Great’s seizure of the town of Azov (which was returned to Turkey in 1711), each new conquest created the rationale and the springboard for the next, even if separated by decades. Gaining access to the Sea of Azov made it imperative for Russia to gain control of the Kerch Strait to secure access to the Black Sea.4

Whereas the bulk of Peter the Great’s conquests were on the shores of the Baltic, the next great Russian ruler—Catherine—focused her geopolitical ambitions and conquests on the south. She secured access to the Black Sea in a series of wars with Turkey that resulted in Russia annexing Crimea and gaining the territories along the sea’s northern littoral in the late eighteenth century. These new lands were christened Novorossiya (New Russia). However, access to the Black Sea was not an end in itself, for Catherine’s sights were set on the Mediterranean. The wars with Turkey that she launched and that were continued by her successors throughout the nineteenth century were part of European geopolitics practiced by evolving coalitions of great powers.

With the conquest of Novorossiya and the founding of Odessa, Sevastopol, and other cities in the newly conquered lands, the springboard for seeking access to the Mediterranean was established. The first of Catherine the Great’s wars with Turkey in 1768–1774 saw the first deployment of a Russian naval squadron to the Mediterranean. After an almost year-long voyage from Kronstadt around Europe, the fleet arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean in June 1770 and won a major victory against the Turkish fleet in the Battle of Chesme.5

This victory underscored the importance of securing naval access to the Mediterranean as the rivalry with Turkey remained a major preoccupation of Russian foreign policy. Although the right of passage through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits remained a distant goal, the quest for a foothold in the Mediterranean became the embodiment of Russian geopolitical objectives. This was also often indistinguishable from spiritual and religious motives. One of Catherine the Great’s ambitious geopolitical schemes entailed support for the independence of fellow Orthodox Greeks from Turkey and the establishment of a Greek state ruled by her grandson Konstantin, with Constantinople as its capital.6 In addition to its territorial gains, Russia won a major concession at the conclusion of the war of 1774—the right to intervene on behalf of sizable Christian populations of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans to Georgia, which planted the seeds of more conflicts between the two empires.7

For well over the century and a half that followed, Russian-Turkish relations were punctuated by wars and diplomatic maneuvering, with Russia mostly on the offensive and the Ottoman Empire on the defensive. These wars were fought from the Caucasus to the Balkans. They were driven by a mix of geopolitics and religion as Russia continued its quest for new territory and insisted on its right to intervene on behalf of fellow Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman lands.

The ultimate prize—control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to ensure uninhibited passage for Russian commercial and naval ships and keep hostile European powers out of the Black Sea to avoid the repeat of the disastrous Crimean War of 1853–1856—proved elusive (and remains so to the present day). It was partly achieved in 1936 with the signing of the Montreux Convention. This allowed for the passage of warships to and from the Black Sea, but established strict limits on the size, number, timing, and duration of stay in the Black Sea of nonlittoral nations’ warships, as well as some limits on the passage of the latter’s ships. Turkey remained in control of the straits, enforced these limits, and kept the authority to close the straits to all foreign warships in wartime.8 Throughout almost the entire duration of the Second World War, Turkey remained neutral, and the straits were closed to warships of both warring coalitions.9

Old Challenges Remain Post-1945

With the fall of European colonial empires after the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, the Mediterranean witnessed an unprecedented expansion of Soviet presence—military, naval, diplomatic, and economic. The Soviet Navy took its first steps toward establishing a continuous presence there in the late 1950s, which it maintained throughout the Cold War.10 The list of Soviet client states or partners around the Mediterranean included at one time or another Albania, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

The race between the United States and the Soviet Union to secure partners and clients among the postcolonial states of North Africa and the Middle East attracted a great deal of attention during the 1960s and 1970s, as did the two superpowers’ tensions during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. Often overlooked, however, was the Soviet leadership’s motive for seeking a foothold in the Mediterranean in the context of the Cold War standoff in the European theater: U.S. carrier-based aircraft and nuclear-armed submarines (SSBNs) on patrol in the Mediterranean posed a direct threat to the Soviet heartland.11

The Soviet presence in the Mediterranean was hampered by many of the same limitations that had proved so frustrating to military leaders and diplomats of the Russian empire. By virtue of geography and politics, the Soviet Navy was limited in its ability to deploy and sustain a significant permanent presence there. Turkey, now a member of the hostile NATO, controlled the straits while Moscow’s regional partners proved to be not very reliable in supporting the Soviet presence.

As a result of ideological differences between the Soviet Union and Albania in 1961, the Soviet Navy had to leave the base in Vlore to which it had gained access in the 1950s.12 Egypt was for a time considered a close ally and client of the Soviet Union, but in 1972 its president at the time, Anwar Sadat, ordered the Soviet military to leave the country out of frustration with what he perceived as insufficient support from Moscow.13 Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi proved an erratic and difficult client, though he allowed the Soviet Union to use the former U.S. Wheelus Air Base (and U.S. officials judged he would permit Soviet warplanes to use airfields in Libya in the event of a conflict between NATO and the Soviet Union); he was also an avid buyer of Soviet weapons and accepted Soviet military advisers.14 That left Syria as the only reliable Soviet partner in the Mediterranean—hardly enough to support a major naval or military presence throughout a vast region dominated by the United States with its massive military and naval presence as well as a web of allies and partners from Spain to Turkey.

The combination of difficult geography—access to the Mediterranean controlled by two NATO allies (Spain in the west and Turkey in the east) and one U.S. partner (Egypt in the south)—and a shortage of adequate basing facilities meant that such limited Soviet military, in particular naval, presence as could be sustained had to prioritize the essential mission: the possibility of war with NATO and an attack against the homeland.15

The Soviet Union also deployed its vast tool kit—diplomatic presence, political penetration, economic aid, arms sales and military advisers, and so on—in an effort to expand its web of relationships throughout the Mediterranean. It provided economic assistance and large amounts of military hardware to actual and prospective clients, often on favorable terms with loans that had little chance of being repaid. Moscow dispatched advisers and at times combat personnel, backed its partners diplomatically and militarily in times of crises and conflicts, and educated their scientists, engineers, and doctors at Soviet universities. Wherever and whenever possible, the Soviet pursuit of influence in the Mediterranean relied on friendly leftist movements and communist parties (or any government or movement that was friendly to the Soviet Union regardless of its ideological leanings), front organizations promoting peaceful policies intended to undermine U.S. military presence and NATO cohesion, and support for terrorist organizations and assassinations.16

The postcolonial countries of North Africa initially welcomed support from the Soviet Union and seemed like promising candidates for building a web of clients in the Mediterranean that would enable a presence to counter the dominant position of the United States. But over time they proved to be less than reliable partners and clients. Some, like Egypt’s Sadat and Libya’s Qaddafi, grew frustrated with Russian support; Algeria, while securing large purchases of arms and other forms of assistance from the Soviet Union, proved reluctant to join its camp and embraced the Non-Aligned Movement, benefiting from the courtship by Moscow and Washington, which were both eager to have it as a client; Tunisia, while nominally non-aligned, favoured closer ties to the West.17 The situation along the Mediterranean’s northern rim was even more problematic. From Spain to Turkey the entire coastline was NATO territory except for Yugoslavia and Albania, neither of which the Soviet Union could count upon as an ally in a confrontation with NATO.

Overall, despite great ambitions and investments, and even occasional successes, the results of the Soviet Union’s pursuit of a sphere of influence in the Mediterranean were modest at best and frequently disappointing. Throughout the Cold War its ambitions were contained by a combination of the country’s geography and East-West competition. What had been an established and constant naval presence came to an end in 1993.

A Pause Before Business as Usual

The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a major strategic realignment in Europe and the Mediterranean. Russia withdrew from its outer and inner empires to focus on its domestic problems, which kept it preoccupied throughout the 1990s. With its resources depleted and its defense establishment crumbling, Russia effectively disappeared from the Mediterranean as a naval, military, and geopolitical actor. The remnants of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet were divided with Ukraine, and Russia all but ceased to exist as an effective naval force.

The continuing presence of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, based on a treaty negotiated with Ukraine in 1997, faced an uncertain future considering the latter’s aspirations to join NATO.18 With the 2008 commitment by NATO to admit Ukraine and Georgia as members at some unspecified future, Russia’s Mediterranean ambitions not only seemed to fade into the past, but its Black Sea presence also came into question. That commitment held out the possibility that Russia would lose access to Sevastopol, leaving it with only one major port in Novorossiysk and presenting Moscow with the prospect of the Black Sea becoming a NATO lake with grave consequences for its security.19 Bulgaria and Romania had joined NATO in 2004. In 2011, the United States and Romania agreed to deploy one missile defense site in Romania, which Russian officials claim could pose a threat to Russian security.20

These were important considerations in the Kremlin’s decisions to wage war in 2008 against Georgia and invade Ukraine six years later. Their prospects of NATO membership and until then closer partnership with the alliance promised a major transformation of the Black Sea region, new threats to Russia’s ability to project power into the Mediterranean and defend its position in the Black Sea, and a shift in the overall NATO-Russia balance on Europe’s southern edge. Crimea and Sevastopol, in President Vladimir Putin’s words, could become another platform for U.S. missile defense components and launch pads for missile strikes against Russia.21

In the context of the Black Sea and Mediterranean, the conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine assumed much greater significance than the Kremlin’s ambitious but vague declarations about a sphere of “privileged interests.”22 Waged to keep both countries from joining NATO, they have achieved more than their intended purpose. In the eyes of foreign observers, the conflicts have created two hostile states on Russia’s southwestern border. But from Moscow’s perspective they prevented the penetration of a hostile alliance in this critical region, the shrinking of its presence in the Black Sea with ensuing new challenges for its access from the Mediterranean, and a significant deterioration of the correlation of forces on Europe’s southern flank and consequently the entire European theater. The two wars also restored Russia’s possession of Crimea—a critical focal point for the defense of southern Russia and a platform for projecting power and influence in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

However, the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts—and the massive military reform and modernization of the armed forces, including naval capabilities, launched after the 2008 war with Georgia—could not compensate for the challenge that geography and European geopolitics have posed to Russia for centuries.23 Its warships still have to transit the straits controlled by Turkey or sail around Europe, as they did in the days of Catherine the Great, past the shores of NATO allies and partners from the Gulf of Finland to the strait of Gibraltar. Russian warplanes must fly through unfriendly airspace if they are to reach the Mediterranean. Both have become more problematic as a result of the two conflicts.

The Syrian Pivot

Many explanations for the decision to intervene militarily in Syria in 2015—the first such deployment in the post-Soviet era—have focused on the desire to restore Russia to its former position as a major force in Middle Eastern geopolitics. There is no doubt that this goal played a major role in a decision that transformed Russia from a has-been in the region into a major actor once again. Other explanations have focused on the Kremlin’s concern about the terrorist threat spreading from Syria to the North Caucasus and beyond.24 But another, no less important driver, even if not one that immediately drew a great deal of attention, was the balance of power on Europe’s southern flank and the NATO-Russia dynamics in the wider European theater.

Russia’s military success in Syria has proved highly consequential for its position in the Mediterranean. Syria was Russia’s oldest and last remaining client in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and one where its navy still had a presence. Not much more than a toehold, it was the Kremlin’s only outpost in the region. With its military intervention, Russia has reestablished itself as a significant military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean with a long-term base agreement with Syria that secures its presence at the Tartus naval facility and Hmeimim air base, both of which are undergoing major expansion in order to accommodate a greater naval and air presence.25

No less important has been the positioning of the Russian military in a theater that Turkey considers critical for its security and domestic stability. With its military presence in Syria now secured for the long term, Moscow has gained a major source of leverage in its relations with Ankara—not unlike Ankara’s position in relation to Russia during the war in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s. This is an important gain for Russia in its standoff with NATO, in which Turkey is potentially the pivotal actor in the context of Europe’s southern flank and of the Mediterranean.

Russia has engaged in a balancing act with Turkey in a transparent effort to drive a wedge between it and the rest of NATO. While its Syrian deployment has positioned Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara, both militarily and by holding out the threat of forcing more refugees to flee to Turkey, it supported President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the wake of the attempted 2016 coup while the United States and European countries hesitated.26

Success in Syria has brought even more benefits for Russia in its pursuit of expanded influence in the Mediterranean. As U.S.-Egyptian relations cooled off in the wake of the 2013 coup against former president Mohamed Morsi, the new Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi found a partner in Putin, whose embrace of President Bashar al-Assad in a moment of peril signaled to the region’s autocrats that, unlike Washington, Moscow would stand by its friends. The improvement in relations with Egypt for the first time since the expulsion of Soviet advisers in 1972 paved the way for the resumption of arms trade and even discussions of Russian access to the country’s military facilities. Egypt and Russia have signed several major arms deals for purchases of Russian fighter jets, helicopters, and other weapons systems worth billions of dollars (the exact amount is not publicly available).27

Still, this burgeoning arms trade is probably not enough to outweigh the effect of the annual $1.3 billion U.S. defense subsidy to Egypt. Russia apparently has yet to gain extensive access to Egypt’s military facilities, even though its military personnel and equipment have reportedly deployed to bases in the west of the country in support of the Libyan National Army (LNA) they both back. Russian and Egyptian units have conducted joint maneuvers, Russian warships have made port calls to Egypt, and the two navies have conducted joint drills in the Black Sea.28

The expansion of Russia’s presence in Syria, while significant, has offered Russia only a relatively modest capability for power projection in the Mediterranean. Elsewhere in the region, persistent attempts to rebuild ties to former clients and secure ties with new partners have proved only moderately successful. As in the Soviet era, arms sales have been a useful door-opener, but hardly sufficient to secure the kind of access that diplomats and military leaders have been after in order to establish Russia as a major actor in the geopolitics of the region with diplomatic heft and military capabilities to counter the combined weight of the United States, its NATO allies, and the European Union. Russia’s economic tool kit is a pale copy of the resources the Soviet Union was able to deploy during the Cold War, and it does not compare with the resources the United States and the European Union (EU) can muster.29

After Syria, Libya presented the next major opportunity to expand the web of Russian influence in the Mediterranean. As the country’s civil war escalated, Russia emerged as a key backer of the LNA, headed by General Khalifa Haftar. Support for him has included arms deliveries, deployment of mercenaries and Russian-piloted aircraft from Syria, and financial assistance in the form of counterfeit currency.30 At the same time, the Kremlin has hedged its bets and maintained ties to the UN-recognized government in Tripoli.31 Its posture in the Libyan civil war suggests that it is prepared for the long game regardless of how the conflict is settled and plans to remain involved in the country’s affairs.

The risk to Russian interests in this situation is minimal, if any at all, while the upside—a diplomatic, economic, arms sales, and potentially defense and security relationship with a country strategically situated in the middle of the Mediterranean’s southern coastline—is potentially a major prize with far-reaching consequences for Russia’s position in the region. Still, a secure foothold in Libya, while an attractive possibility, is only a distant prospect considering the unsettled state of affairs there.

Elsewhere in North Africa, Russia’s attempts to expand its relationships are unlikely to be successful. If measured by the number of memorandums of understanding (MOU) and agreements signed, its pursuit of partnerships in the region looks impressive. But if judged by the number of MOUs implemented, trade volumes, and flows of foreign direct investment, as shown in the tables below, the picture is disappointing.

The much-heralded deal to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt was reportedly signed after multiple delays in 2015, and again in 2017, but construction apparently has yet to begin.32 Simply put, Russia’s commercial and economic relationships in North Africa, and throughout the Mediterranean, are unimpressive. It is not a significant source of support for countries in the region looking to develop their economies and boost growth (see table 1).

Russia has also used both its oil and gas assets and expertise in exploration and development to attempt to influence governments around the Mediterranean. These efforts have been most successful in Turkey, which wants to position itself as an energy distribution hub for Europe but have fallen short in other countries, particularly those whose indigenous producers compete with Russian companies.33 Russian energy companies have invested in projects in several countries around the Mediterranean (Egypt, Algeria) and are pursuing more opportunities (Libya), but for these countries Russia is also a rival in the increasingly competitive European energy market.34 Russia’s biggest calling card has been arms sales, especially in relations with Algeria, where there is a substantial arsenal of legacy systems from the Soviet era. However, Algeria’s trade with Russia is a fraction of that with the EU—$3.6 billion and $28 billion, respectively, in 2019.35

It’s the Capability that Counts

Having re-established its naval presence in the Mediterranean in 2012 and officially constituted its naval task force in 2014, Russia has had limited success in expanding its access to reliable, consistent basing arrangements for its task force beyond Syria. This is due to the same enduring factors—geography and politics.

The task force has numbered some ten to fifteen surface combatants and submarines supported by the Tartus naval facility. Most of these deploy to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea Fleet, but some deploy from the Baltic and Northern Fleets, and they use their maintenance and repair facilities.36 A new maintenance facility at Tartus is expected to ease the operational and logistical strains of sustaining naval operations in the region.37 Russia has signed agreements with Cyprus and Malta for limited port access. However, both countries are EU members, maintain robust defense cooperation with the United States and NATO, and have kept Russia at arm’s length.38

The Russian task force is hardly a match for the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet, NATO’s Standing Force in the Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED), and the air and naval forces of the alliance’s southern members. Although there are only four destroyers (homeported in Rota, Spain) and one command ship permanently assigned to the Sixth Fleet, its actual order of battle varies throughout the year, when it assumes operational control over carrier battle groups, amphibious ready groups, and independent surface combatants as they either transit its area of responsibility or are assigned there for short periods for exercises and operations. Over the past few years, ships under the command of the Sixth Fleet have routinely made port visits throughout the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, including in Algeria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Israel, France, Romania, and Spain.39 They have been far more active in engaging with regional navies than their Russian counterparts.40 In addition, the United States maintains significant air assets in Italy and Turkey. And in the event of a major crisis in the European theater, the fleet’s order of battle would be augmented with reinforcements from other regions.

The naval and air capabilities of alliance members on the southern flank also need to be factored into the military balance between NATO and Russia in the Mediterranean. NATO’s STANAVFORMED typically consists of eight destroyers and frigates from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and several other allies on the southern flank.41 More importantly, NATO’s six southern members have close to ninety principal surface combatants and over 1,300 air combat capable aircraft including naval aviation.42 Russian air-power assets in the Mediterranean are modest in comparison with these forces. Russia has no air base outside of Syria, and its air power in the region consists of fewer than four dozen fighter, bomber, and attack aircraft.43

A great deal of attention in recent years has been accorded to Russian A2/AD bubbles deployed around Crimea and in Syria.44 These capabilities include the most advanced S-400 air and missile defense systems with ranges of up to 400 kilometers, as well as shorter-range and coastal defense missile systems.45 The Russian military has used Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and the Kalibr family of ship-based cruise missiles in the war in Syria, demonstrating its strike capabilities against land- and sea-based targets.46 The Kalibrs, which are reportedly capable of carrying nuclear warheads, could pose a significant threat to U.S. and allied land- and sea-based assets. But when considered in the overall context of Russian capabilities in the Mediterranean, their likely mission is to hold NATO ships at risk in the event of a contingency in the European theater or deter any attempts to challenge Russian presence in Syria.47

Notwithstanding widespread concerns about Russian A2/AD bubbles, some studies suggest that their capabilities and the challenge they may pose to NATO may be considerably less formidable than initially feared.48 Impressive as they may be, these sea-, air-, and land-based assets amount to a relatively modest capability for power projection in the Mediterranean; they can complicate the ability of NATO navies and air forces to operate within their range and thus offer a measure of protection to Russian bases in Crimea and Syria. In the absence, however, of significant air and naval assets beyond these bubbles, Russia appears to be outmatched by NATO’s far superior naval and air presence throughout the region. Given NATO’s capabilities and the availability of countermeasures, the more pertinent question is not whether but how the alliance can overcome Russia’s A2/AD bubbles.

Conclusion and Implications for U.S. Interests and Policies

A great deal has been written about Russia’s expansive ambitions and “great power exertions” in the Mediterranean.49 However, its limited capabilities and reach in the region suggest that, as much as Russia may want to become the dominant geopolitical and military presence there, it does not have the means to do so. These capabilities point to a more limited goal: denying NATO the ability to dominate the Mediterranean as it did after Russia withdrew from it at the end of the Cold War, rather than attempting to dominate it.

Given its limited means, Russia’s return to the Mediterranean should be seen as a success. The Kremlin has been determined, patient, skillful, and opportunistic in seeking and seizing openings created by developments indigenous to the region, such as the upheavals triggered by the Arab Spring, and by policies of the United States and its allies, in particular the desire to reduce commitments in the region and avoid deeper entanglements in Syria or Libya. Russia has taken calculated risks but avoided overcommitting its resources, prestige, and credibility to the pursuit of unrealistic objectives and, most importantly, provoking an outright confrontation with the United States.50 Russia has re-emerged as a military presence to be reckoned with in the Eastern Mediterranean. It has complicated U.S. and NATO planning and operations, laid a powerful claim to restore its position in the Black Sea, established itself as a major presence in Syria and Libya, fashioned a good relationship with Israel and a reasonably good if sometimes uneasy one with Turkey, reconnected with Algeria and Egypt, and burnished its great power credentials. These are important Russian gains.

However, the threat that Russia’s return to the Mediterranean poses to U.S. core interests should not be exaggerated. The United States is still uniquely positioned in the region to prevent terrorist attacks against its homeland; Russian-Israeli relations do not undercut the U.S. commitment to the security of Israel; and Russia’s naval presence has not posed a threat to freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean. The importance of Russia’s A2/AD “bubble” over Syria has at times been exaggerated—these assets are limited in range, and in a conflict with the United States and its NATO allies they would be vulnerable to long-range weapons launched from a variety of land-, air-, and sea-based platforms.

Russia faces considerable long-term constraints in sustaining its influence and capacity for power projection in the Mediterranean. It has no interest or ability to partner with countries there to resolve the myriad challenges they face to their security, stability, and prosperity, which would require a major commitment of resources and deeper involvement in the region’s conflicts, with all the risks that would entail. There are no signs that Russia is prepared to make these kinds of investments. Its transactional approach to relationships with other countries simultaneously facilitates and limits its reach and staying power. And, for all the rhetoric about Russia being daring and reckless, it has acted with caution and restraint in the region, and shown a healthy intolerance for risk.

This assessment of Russia in the Mediterranean has drawn three central conclusions: First, Russia’s capabilities in the region are modest, and it faces formidable obstacles in realizing its ambitions. Second, the principal rationale for Russia’s return to the Mediterranean has been the prospect of a military confrontation in the European theater rather than the desire to regain great power status; the region is therefore a subordinate arena to the principal confrontation between Russia and the West. Finally, Russia’s return to the Mediterranean is intended to regain, albeit with diminished resources, its old Cold War footing, driven by enduring objectives of its confrontation with the West.

Russia’s return to the Mediterranean continues a long legacy of involvement there, driven by ambitions, interests, and threat perceptions that have endured for centuries. There is no reason to expect this posture to change in the near or distant future. Russia is in the Mediterranean to stay, and its determination to expand its naval, air, and land presence there will continue.


The authors are grateful to George Fedoroff, Marc Pierini, Joanna Pritchett, Paul Stronski, Sinan Ülgen, and Andrew Weiss for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Grace Kier provided outstanding research assistance. The authors bear sole responsibility for any remaining errors of fact or judgment.

About the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is a unique global network of policy research centers in Russia, China, Europe, the Middle East, India, and the United States. Our mission, dating back more than a century, is to advance peace through analysis and development of fresh policy ideas and direct engagement and collaboration with decisionmakers in government, business, and civil society. Working together, our centers bring the inestimable benefit of multiple national viewpoints to bilateral, regional, and global issues.


About the Russia Strategic Initiative

The Russia Strategic Initiative (RSI) is a U.S. Department of Defense organization that works with structures throughout the U.S. Government and with public and private think tanks around the world to develop a common understanding of Russian decision-making and way of war that supports the Coordinating Authority’s integration that leads to integrated planning, assessments, and action recommendations.


1 For more on this see Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky, “Etched in Stone: Russian Strategic Culture and the Future of Transatlantic Security,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 8, 2020,

2 The other papers in the series will assess Russia’s policies toward Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and the Balkans, and evaluate Russian policy toward Syria, Israel, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria.

3 Gregory L. Freeze, ed., Russia: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 6; John Patrick Douglas Balfour, Lord Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1976), 262.

4 Freeze, ed., Russia: A History, 135; Balfour, The Ottoman Centuries, 403–405.

5 Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House, 2012), 375–378, 483-84.

6 Massie, Catherine the Great, 486; Balfour, The Ottoman Centuries, 400, 406–407.

7 Balfour, The Ottoman Centuries, 404–405.

8 Permanent Delegate of Turkey to the League of Nations, “Traduction – Translation Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits Signed at Montreaux, July 20th 1936,” Permanent Delegate of Turkey to the League of Nations, December 11, 1936,

9 A.L. Macfie, “The Turkish straits in the second world war, 1939–45,” Middle Eastern Studies 25, no. 2 (1989): 238–248.

10 Gordon H. McCormick, “The Soviet Presence in the Mediterranean,” The RAND Corporation, October 1987,

11 Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1971), 546.

12 Michael MccGwire, “The Mediterranean and Soviet Naval Interests,” International Journal 27, no. 4 (Autumn 1972): 511–527.

13 Edward F. Sheehan, “Why Sadat packed off the Russian,” New York Times, August 6, 1972,

14 Federica Saini Fasanotti, “Russia and Libya: A brief history of an on-again-off-again friendship,” Brookings, September 1, 2016,; Drew Middleton, “A Soviet Peril: Bases in Libya,” New York Times, March 1, 1981,; Yehudit Ronen, “Vestiges of the Cold War in Libya’s “Arab Spring”: Revisiting Libya’s Relations with the Soviet Union,” Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia) 8, no. 2 (2014): 66–95.

15 MccGwire, “The Mediterranean and Soviet Naval Interests.”

16 Ronen Bergman, “The KGB’s Middle East Files: Palestinians in the service of Mother Russia,” Ynet News, April 11, 2016,,7340,L-4874089,00.html; Galia Golan, “The Soviet Union and the PLO since the War in Lebanon,” Middle East Journal 40, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 285–305; Julia Gurganus and Eugene Rumer, “Russia’s Global Ambitions in Perspective,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 20, 2019,; Eugene Rumer, “Russia in the Middle East: Jack of All Trades, Master of None,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 31, 2019,; Thomas Rid, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020); Ronald Bruce St. John, “The Soviet Penetration of Libya,” The World Today 38, no. 4 (April 1982): 131–138.

17 Yahia Zoubir, “Soviet Policy in the Maghreb,” Arab Studies Quarterly 9, no. 4 (Fall 1987): 399–421.;

18 Spencer Kimball, “Bound by treaty: Russia, Ukraine and Crimea,” Deutsche Welle, March 11, 2014,

19 Forbes Staff, “Putin ob"yasnil vozmozhnyye posledstviya poyavleniya bazy SSHA v Sevastopole,” [Putin explained the possible consequences of the appearance of the US base in Sevastopol], Forbes, November 21, 2016,; Dmitry Pavlenko, “S Pritselom na Krym. Zachem Ssha Stroyat Bazu v Yuzhnorusskikh Stepyakh?” [With Sight on the Crimea. Why Is the US Building a Base on the South Russian Steps?], Tsargrad TV, August 14, 2017,; TASS, “Western powers regret not building NATO naval base in Crimea — Russian foreign minister,” TASS, November 28, 2018,

20 Michaela Dodge, “A Decade of U.S.-Romanian Missile Defense Cooperation: Alliance Success,” Real Clear Defense, March 19, 2021,; Andrew E. Kramer, “Russia Calls New U.S. Missile Defense System a ‘Direct Threat’,” New York Times, May 12, 2016,

21 Forbes Staff, “Putin ob"yasnil vozmozhnyye posledstviya poyavleniya bazy SSHA v Sevastopole,” [Putin explained the possible consequences of the appearance of the US base in Sevastopol].

22 Andrew E. Kramer, “Russia Claims Its Sphere of Influence in the World,” New York Times, August 31, 2008,

23 Anton Lavrov, “Russian Military Reforms from Georgia to Syria,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2018,; “Russian Military Forces Dazzle After a Decade of Reform,” Economist, November 7, 2020,

24 Jakob Hedenskog, “Russia and International Cooperation on Counter-Terrorism,” March 2020, Swedish Defence Research Agency,; Maria Tsvetkova, “How Russia allowed homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria,” Reuters, May 13, 2016,

25 Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth, “Syria agrees to let Russia expand Hmeimim air base,” Reuters, August 19, 2020,; Rob Nordland, “Russia Signs Deal for Syria Bases; Turkey Appears to Accept Assad,” New York Times, January 20, 2017,

26 Neil MacFarquhar and Tim Arango, “Putin and Erdogan, Both Isolated, Reach Out to Each Other,” New York Times, August 8, 2016,; Marc Pierini, “Could Russia Play Turkey Off Against the West?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 3, 2016,

27 Middle East Monitor, “Egypt signs $2bn deal for 50 fighter jets from Russia,” Middle East Monitor, August 27, 2019,; Moscow Times, “Russia Secures $2Bln Fighter Jet Contract With Egypt — Reports,” Moscow Times, March 18, 2019,

28 Nataliya Bugayova and Jack Ulses, “The Kremlin’s Campaign in Egypt,” Institute for the Study of War, June 19, 2018,; ;Defence Web, “Russian;frigate Admiral Kasatanov visits Egypt,” Defence Web, February 18, 2021,; J.E. Dyer, “Russian navy: First port visit to Egypt (among others) in 21 years,” The Optimistic Conservative, November 13, 2013,; David D. Kirkpatrick, “In Snub to U.S., Russia and Egypt Move Toward Deal on Air Bases,” New York Times, November 30, 2017,; Muhammed Magdy, “Are Egypt-Russia Naval Drills in Black Sea Message to Ankara?,” Al-Monitor, October 16, 2020,; Jonathan Marcus, “Sisi in Russia: Moscow's Egyptian Gambit,” BBC, February 13, 2014,; MEE and Agencies, “Egypt's Sisi to Visit Russia for Third Time as President,” Middle East Eye, August 21, 2015,;MEE Staff, “Russian Troops in Egypt for Joint Military Exercises,” Middle East Eye, October 17, 2016,; Middle East Monitor, “Egypt Signs $2bn Deal for 50 Fighter Jets From Russia; Mil.Today, “Russia, Egypt Simplified Port Call Procedures for Each Other,” Mil.Today, January 28, 2016,; Tom Perry and Maggie Fick, “Egypt's Sisi Sees New Defense Cooperation With Russia,” Reuters, November 14, 2013, TASS, “Russia, Egypt plan to sign agreement of simplified port visits procedure by yearend,” TASS, June 14, 2015,

29 Rumer, “Russia in the Middle East: Jack of All Trades, Master of None.”

30 Diana Stancy Correll, “AFRICOM: Russian fighter jets flown by mercenaries are conducting combat activities in Libya,” Military Times, September 11, 2020,;; Edith M. Lederer, “Experts: Libya rivals UAE, Russia, Turkey Violate UN Embargo,” Washington Post, September 9, 2020,; Middle East Monitor, “Billions in Fake Libya Currency 'Printed in Russia' to Support Haftar,” Middle East Monitor, July 15, 2020,; RFE/RL, “Russia Denies Involvement As UN Slams Arms Shipments, Foreign Mercenaries in Libya,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 3, 2020,; Rumer, “Russia in the Middle East: Jack of All Trades, Master of None.”

31 Kirill Semenov, “Russia Seeks to Outplay the US in Libya,” Al-Monitor, February 9, 2021,

32 Luke Baxter, “Egypt, Russia Sign Deal to Build a Nuclear Power Plant,” Reuters, November 19, 2015,; Deutsche Welle, “Russia, Egypt sign deal to construct nuclear power plant,” Deutsche Welle, December 11, 2017,

33 We are grateful to Joanna Pritchett for this point.

34 May Barth, “The Algeria-Russia Strategic Partnership: An Assertive Geopolitical Move?,” Brussels International Center, March 22, 2019,; Vladimir Soldatkin, “Rosneft starts production at Zohr gas field in Egypt,” Reuters, December 20, 2017,

35 European Commission, “Algeria,” European Commission, April 22, 2021,'s%20biggest,amounted%20to%20%E2%82%AC11.4%20billion; Trading Economics, “Russia Exports to Algeria,” Trading Economics, May 2021,

36 Dmitry Gorenburg, Russia’s Naval Strategy in the Mediterranean, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, July 2019,; H. I. Sutton, “New Intelligence Reveals Russian Submarine Heading Into English Channel,” Forbes, July 19, 2020,; H. I. Sutton, “Russian Black Sea Sub Deployments to Mediterranean Could Violate Treaty,” USNI News, July 8, 2020,,its%20Baltic%20and%20Northern%20Fleets.

37 TASS, “Istochnik: sudoremontnyy kompleks v Tartuse v 2022 godu poluchit novyye vozmozhnosti” [Source: Tartus shipyard will get new opportunities in 2022], TASS, April 29, 2021,

38 Luke Coffey, “Russia’s emerging naval presence in the Mediterranean,” Al-Jazeera, May 27, 2016,; The Moscow Times, “Malta Refuses to Refuel Russian Warships,” The Moscow Times, October 27, 2016,; National Herald, “Dangling Arms Embargo End, US Wants Russian Ships Barred from Cyprus,” National Herald, May 3, 2020,; Olga Razumovskaya, “Cyprus Signs Deal to Let Russian Navy Ships Stop at its Ports,” Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2015,

39 MC3 William Hardy, “USS Mcfaul Departs Limassol Cyprus,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa / U.S. Sixth Fleet Public Affairs, February 16, 2019,; ;Petty Officer 1st Class James Mullen, “USS Monterey Conducts Port Visit in Romania,” Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, March 24, 2021,; PA3 Sydney Phoenix, “U.S. Coast Guard Conducts Port Visit in Batumi, Georgia,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa / U.S. Sixth Fleet Public Affairs, May 4, 2021,; Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kyle Steckler, “USNS Carson City Departs Varna, Bulgaria,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet, August 29, 2018,; USS Mitscher (DDG 57) Public Affairs, “USS Mitscher Arrives in Haifa, Israel,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet, April 8, 2019,; U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa / U.S. Sixth Fleet Public Affairs, “U.S. Transport Ship visits Algiers,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet, March 23, 2021,; U.S. Sixth Fleet Public Affairs, “Greek Prime Minister Visits USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in Souda Bay,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa / U.S. Sixth Fleet Public Affairs, March 23, 2021,; U.S. Sixth Fleet Public Affairs, “USS Iwo Jima departs Naval Station Rota, Spain,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet, May 3, 2021,; Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams, “USS Donald Cook Departs Toulon, France,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet, February 3, 2019,

40 John Vandiver, “US and Greece Working on Deal to Expand Military Cooperation in the Mediterranean,” Stars and Stripes, May 14, 2021,

41 Global Security, “Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED / SNFM),” Global,

42 International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Chapter Four: Europe,” The Military Balance 120, no. 1 (2020): 64–165.

43 International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia,” The Military Balance 120, no. 1 (2020): 166–219.

44 Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Russians In Syria Building A2/AD ‘Bubble’ Over Region: Breedlove,” Breaking Defense, September 28, 2015,; Matti Suomenaro and Jennifer Cafarella, “Russia Expands Its Air Defense Network in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 30, 2018,

45 Joseph Trevithick, “It's Official, Russia and Syria Have Linked Their Air Defense Networks,” The Drive, August 25, 2017,

46 Matthew Bodner, “Russia Deploys Military Ships to Syria Armed With Kalibr Cruise Missiles,” Defense News, August 28, 2018,; Jeremy Chin, “Russian MoD Confirms Use of Iskander-M SRBM in Syria,”;Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 18, 2018, last modified April 9, 2019,;, “Kalibr SLCMs in Syrian Theater of Operations,”, October 26, 2016,; and Missile Defense Project, “SS-N-30A (3M-14 Kalibr),” Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 11, 2016, last modified June 15, 2018,

47 This assessment that their focus is on NATO and Europe is reinforced by the recent deployment to the Hmeimim air base of three TU-22M3 Backfire nuclear-capable long-range bombers. The announcement said nothing about nuclear munitions being deployed to the base. It is unlikely that the Russian leadership would stockpile such munitions in a country still torn by a civil war at a considerable distance from Russia. The deployment is much more likely intended as geopolitical signaling to NATO, and the United States in particular, as a counter to U.S. nuclear weapons reportedly still deployed in Turkey. In the absence of any plausible targets in the Middle East that Russia would conceivably strike with nuclear weapons, these bombers’ most likely potential targets would be on NATO’s southern flank. Moreover, considering the range of these aircraft, estimated at as much as 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) or even longer, they are capable of reaching targets anywhere in the European theater from well inside the Russian Federation, thus giving their deployment to Syria even more of a geopolitical—rather than operational—significance. See Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia Deploys Nuclear-Capable Bombers to Syria for Training,” Associated Press, May 25, 2021,; Missile Defense Project, “SS-N-30A (3M-14 Kalibr)”; Magnus Nordenman, “How Russia’s Sub-Launched Missiles Threaten NATO’s Wartime Strategy,” Defense One, October 9, 2018,; and Mark B. Schneider, “The Renewed Backfire Bomber Threat to the U.S. Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute, January 2019,

48 Swedish Defence Research Agency, “Russian A2/AD Capability Overrated,” FOI, March 4, 2019,,danger%20as%20exaggerated%20and%20analyzes%20several%20possible%20countermeasures.

49 Colin P. Clarke, William Courtney, Bradley Martin, and Bruce McClintock. “Russia Is Eyeing the Mediterranean. The U.S. and NATO Must Be Prepared; Douglas J. Feith and Shaul Chorev, “Russia’s Eastern Mediterranean Strategy—Implications for the United States and Israel,” Real Clear Defense, December 17, 2019,

50 Rumer, “Russia in the Middle East: Jack of All Trades, Master of None.”
End of document


Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


The Libyan Arab Armed Forces

By Tim Eaton, Chatham House, 02 June 2021

A network analysis of Haftar’s military alliance

In recent years, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), under the command of Khalifa Haftar, has dominated authorities in eastern Libya, expanded into southern Libya and sought to capture the capital, Tripoli. Unlike other armed groups, the LAAF has increased its territorial control and absorbed new, diverse forces into its structure.

However, the challenge of uniting and integrating this unwieldy alliance through a combination of narrative-building, coercion and external support has proven extremely difficult. This is mainly due to the contradictory political goals of the various factions that make up the LAAF.

The March 2021 selection of a new Government of National Unity (GNU) has broken the LAAF’s hold over the networks of power within civilian authorities in areas under its control. After once appearing on the cusp of dominating Libya’s political system, the LAAF and Haftar now face being isolated from government and political power.




* On the eve of its offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) of Khalifa Haftar appeared set to dominate the Libyan political system. Unlike other armed groups, which remained tethered to their social bases within communities, the LAAF expanded its territorial control and absorbed new, diverse forces into its structure. As it developed, early allies were sidelined and lost influence while opponents were treated with brutality.

* Although the LAAF has a formal chain of command, power lies in the hands of Haftar and his close associates. It is best understood as an alliance of networks of varying composition:

- The strongest parts of the LAAF are those integrated elements, or praetorian units, that operate under the direct control of Haftar and his circle.

- A significant proportion of the LAAF is formed of ‘parochial’ networks (with close ties to their local social bases) that operate as franchises; their leadership has limited collaboration with other network leaders beyond Haftar’s inner circle.

- Units inspired by the ultraconservative Madkhali-Salafi movement form a significant and growing component of the LAAF. They are currently prevalent in localized parochial groups, though they have the potential to develop into a national ‘vanguard’ network (with strong ties based on their ideological kinship).

- Since 2014, Haftar has sought to cohere and integrate this unwieldy alliance through a combination of narrative-building, coercion and external support. However, the LAAF has not evolved into an integrated organization owing to the contradictory political goals and motivations of its component parts and the predominant role of personal relationships.

- Haftar has penetrated and subverted the fragmented networks of the hollowed out eastern Libyan authorities, which are bereft of vertical ties to clearly distinguishable social bases, dominating the ‘state’ in eastern Libya with impunity from 2015 to 2021.

- The failure of the Tripoli offensive, and subsequent retreat, has imperilled LAAF gains. Internal tensions within the LAAF’s alliance have become increasingly apparent as security has deteriorated in the eastern city of Benghazi.

- The March 2021 creation of a new Government of National Unity, the first unified national government in Libya since 2014, endangers Haftar’s capture of institutions and resources in the east. The ongoing reformulation of alliances sets the stage for a potentially violent re-contestation of power that could see the unity of the LAAF crumble.

- External support has been critical to the development of the LAAF and is indispensable for its maintenance. Dependence on foreign mercenaries and external states is now greater than ever. Consequently, Haftar is highly vulnerable to shifts in the policies of his external backers.

For the entire research paper, visit:




Why the extent of intra-African trade is much higher than commonly believed—and what this means for the AfCFTA

By Andrew Mold and Samiha Chowdhury, Brookings, 19 May 2021

Intra-African trade is widely perceived as low compared to other regions of the world, an argument made ad nauseum in both academic and policymaking circles. Some observers are especially disparaging about its potential. One recent textbook on African economic development (Cramer et al., 2020:65) claims that: “Despite decades of negotiations and agreements within subregions and RECs in Africa, intra-African trade remains a tiny proportion of the continent’s overall trade. … [While] greater intra-African trade may be rhetorically appealing on grounds of economic nationalism or South–South solidarity, as a blueprint for accelerated development it is a fantasy.”

We beg to differ and argue that intra-African trade has much greater economic significance than is commonly believed. The orthodox narrative is driven by three errors: 1) The comparisons made with other regional blocks are frequently misleading and do not compare like with like; 2) the picture of intra-African trade is distorted by large-scale commodity exports to destinations outside the continent; and 3) there is a systematic failure to recognize the scale of informal cross-border trade.

Comparisons made with other regional blocks are frequently misleading and do not compare like with like

The African continent is often compared in a poor light vis-à-vis other continents in terms of the extent of intraregional trade. On a continental level, this argument, at first sight, seems true given the low percentage of intra-African trade of the region’s total trade (Figure 1). However, if we focus on subgroupings within these continental blocks, their intraregional trade figures are suddenly not so impressive. Compared to the Asian average, for instance, Central and Southern Asia are relatively less prosperous regions with less industrialized and diversified economies.

Likewise, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) grouping straddles countries with highly diverging levels of income and economic diversification—and with different types of economic integration into the global economy. For example, only 9 percent of Vietnam’s trade is currently with other ASEAN member states.

Conversely, in a similar breakdown of African trade figures, we find some subsets of African countries (particularly the landlocked ones) with significantly higher levels of dependence on intraregional trade than the continental average (Figure 2). In fact, what actually drags down the African average of intraregional trade are the continent’s larger economies—Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa—distorting the picture of the importance of intra-African trade for the rest of the continent.

For each of these countries, the reason for the low dependence on the African market varies: As a country with long-standing market access agreements with the European Union, Egypt has in the past prioritized the markets of its northern neighbors; for Nigeria, it reflects the country’s oil wealth; and for South Africa, there are historical reasons, related to its apartheid economy, that make its economy less dependent on its regional neighbors’ markets than would otherwise have been the case. The basic point is that many African countries have a higher dependence on the continental market than average figures denote.

The picture of intra-African trade is distorted by commodity exports to destinations outside the continent

The extreme dependence on commodity exports of a minority of African countries creates a misleading narrative around intra-African trade. This trend is a common characteristic of the patterns of trade in resource-rich regions: For example, after nearly three decades of existence, the share of MERCOSUR’s trade that is intraregional (see again Figure 1) is still lower than the African average. This outcome is largely because the bloc is dominated by one of the world’s largest commodity exporters—Brazil—and the principal demand for its commodities comes from outside the region. Africa finds itself in a similar situation: The region holds
a significant proportion of global mineral reserves (e.g., 60 percent of manganese, 75 percent of phosphates, 85 percent of platinum, 80 percent of chrome, 60 percent of cobalt, and 75 percent of diamonds) and is responsible for nearly 10 percent of global oil and gas production. Notably, the bulk of these commodities are destined for markets outside Africa, dragging down the share of intraregional exports.

This structural feature very much distorts our vision of the potential of the continental market. Angola is a case in point: Oil comprises more than 90 percent of its exports—nearly all of which is destined to the United States. But strip out those extraregional commodity exports, and suddenly, according to our calculations (based again on UNCTADStat data), the importance of intra-African exports for Angola jumps to around three-quarters of the country’s total exports. It also needs remembering that while the continent is rightly considered as “resource-rich,” this is not true for the average African country, more than half of which are net commodity importers, not exporters. As a corollary of this, most African countries tend to have a higher dependence on the continental market than the principal commodity exporters.

There is a systematic failure to recognize the scale of informal cross-border trade

A final reason why our perception of intra-African trade is so distorted is the prevalence of informal trade. A lot of African borders are extremely porous; indeed, simply the length of borders inhibits against tight controls. While informal cross-border trade is a global phenomenon, studies tend to concur that it is more widespread on the African continent vis-à-vis other developing regions (e.g.,
FAO, 2020, Afreximbank 2020). Almost by definition, all informal trade is intra-African, implying once again that the real extent of intraregional trade is much higher than can be gleaned from official trade statistics alone.

Table 1 provides some estimates of the scale of informal trade relative to formal sector exports. With the exception of Tunisia (which has low formal-sector, intra-African exports), the smaller landlocked countries are usually where informal sector trade is most intensive. Summarizing the available data, Harding (2019) concludes that intra-African trade is systematically underreported by anything between 11 percent and 40 percent.


Conclusions and policy implications


The stylized facts described above have a number of important implications for policy, especially at a time when trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) has begun:

1- Policies should be adopted to address the extensive barriers across the continent to informal cross-border trade (World Bank, 2020). Once fully implemented, the AfCFTA may see a sudden blooming of small-scale, cross-border trade, as the incentives for keeping informal sector trade off the record suddenly disappear.

2- The impression of sluggish intra-African trade is wrong: It represents a high share of total African trade and is usually the more dynamic—and certainly the more diversified—element of a typical African country’s exports. This disarms the excessively simplistic but widespread myth that African countries have nothing to trade with one another.

3- National trade strategies need to be consistent with these stylized facts—and prioritize intra-African trade rather than expend political capital in prolonged free trade agreement negotiations with extra-African trading partners.

For charts and diagrams, visit:


By Africa Insiders, June 1, 2021

Upcoming Africa elections: A list

Here are the upcoming elections in list form. The exact dates are liable to change.

June 2021

5: Ethiopia – Parliament
5: The Gambia – Referendum

July 2021

São Tomé and Príncipe – President

August 2021

12: Zambia – President + Parliament

Beyond/date unscheduled

17 October: Cabo Verde – President
24 October: Chad – Parliament
October: Morocco – Parliament
4 December: The Gambia – President
24 December: Libya – President + Parliament


What Do We Know About Chinese Lending in Africa?

By Zainab Usman, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 02, 2021

The volume of Chinese loans to the public sector in Africa is large but surprisingly decreasing. New data provide insights on the scale and terms around this massive lending portfolio but raise questions around transparency, access, and voice on Africa-China relations.


It is no doubt that China is a global power. Although it only crossed the $10,000 GDP per capita mark as an upper middle-income country recently, China is the world’s second-largest economy. For many countries, from Asia to Africa to parts of Europe, China has become the most important economic partner. In 2009, the country eclipsed the United States to become the biggest trade partner for African countries in aggregate. It is the largest bilateral lender for public sector loans across the African continent (see figure 1). Despite this large economic footprint, there is often very little information on the specifics of its lending and investments in the public domain.

However, two different data sets on Chinese lending for development projects recently became available. The first is the Chinese Loans to Africa (CLA) database by the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS-CARI), which is now managed by the Boston University Global Development Policy Center. This database covers a twenty-year period, from 2000 to 2019, during which “Chinese financiers signed 1,141 loan commitments . . . with African governments and their state-owned enterprises.”

In the second dataset, How China Lends, a team of researchers at Aid Data at the College of William and Mary studied one hundred loan agreements between Chinese government entities and twenty-four different low- and middle-income countries; 47 percent of the contracts in the sample are with African borrowers. Together, these two datasets shed light on the volume, distribution, terms, and entities involved in the relationship between Chinese financiers and sovereign jurisdictions in Africa.

Five Key Takeaways on Chinese Lending in Africa

1. China’s lending portfolio is large but declining. China provides the largest volume of loans, bilaterally to African countries, but the nature of these loans is changing. According to SAIS-CARI researchers, Chinese financiers have committed $153 billion to African public sector borrowers between 2000 and 2019. After rapid growth in the 2000s, annual lending commitments to Africa peaked in 2013, the year the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched. By 2019, though, new Chinese loan commitments amounted to only $7 billion to the continent, down 30 percent from $9.9 billion in 2018.

2. Chinese creditors are increasingly commercially oriented. There is a growing presence of commercial financiers from China in African countries. The SAIS-CARI researchers identified only three Chinese lenders in the year 2000, including the Export-Import Bank of China (China Eximbank), which offers government-subsidized concessional loans—which are loans that are extended at below-market interest rates or have long grace periods to offer better deals to borrowers.

But by 2019, there were over thirty creditors—most of which provided loans at commercial or non-concessional rates. These commercial lenders included the China Development Bank (which, despite its name, provides non-concessional loans), the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the Bank of China, and other, nonfinancial entities such as the state-owned hydropower engineering and construction company Sinohydro. China Eximbank and to a lesser extent the China Development Bank are still the largest creditors, accounting for eighty-four of the one hundred debt contracts analyzed by the team at Aid Data.

3. The controversial resource-backed lending model persists. The resource-backed lending model for financing infrastructure projects—in which the borrowing country commits future revenues to be earned from its natural resource exports to pay loans secured from Chinese creditors—still exists in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana, and Guinea. When the going is good, this model works. It helps a high-risk borrowing country secure needed financing; it assures the creditor of repayment since the export revenues are directly deposited in an escrow account with no risk of embezzlement by corrupt actors in the borrowing country; and it allows for the speedy completion of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects.

When the going gets tough—especially in the event of a collapse of volatile commodity prices, as so often happens—some borrowers then turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency assistance. A fine but crucial point here is that the range of commodity price fluctuations is calculated in the resource-backed loan, and thus, the lender bears the risk of debt default if collateral is not sufficient. Therefore, an oil price crash does not necessarily mean the borrower will run into debt distress unless other contingent factors come into play.

Angola, most prominently, experienced the full gamut of the highs and lows of resource-backed financing. In fact, this lending model was largely pioneered in that central African country when China became its lender of last resort: China thereby financed Angola’s postwar reconstruction projects from 2004 onward, including a $3.5 billion Kilamba Kiaxi satellite town in the outskirts of Luanda. Angola ran into problems when commodity prices crashed in 2015 and necessitated the negotiation of IMF stabilization assistance.

Despite this rocky start, the financing model persists in other countries. As the SAIS-CARI researchers note, in the DRC, loans backed by mineral exports continue to finance infrastructure projects under the Sicomines agreement. In 2017 Guinea entered into a bauxite-backed financing arrangement with ICBC and the China Eximbank for $587 million, from which two road projects are to be constructed. Since 2011, Ghana has signed a number of these resource-backed loans. One of these is a $550 million line of credit backed by bauxite arranged through Sinohydro to finance road projects.

4. Lending is mostly to infrastructure and other economic sectors. A sectoral decomposition of Chinese loans shows that more than 65 percent of lending goes to infrastructure sectors, in both the SAIS-CARI and Aid Data databases. In comparison, traditional lenders—mostly from Europe and North America as well as Japan in the OECD-Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) countries—focus more than half (55 percent) of their financial assistance—a mixture of grants and loans—on social sectors like health, population, education, and humanitarian aid (see figure 2). The infrastructure sectors include industry, mining, construction, energy, communication, transport and storage, and water supply and sanitation. For China, infrastructure is king.

5. Sophisticated contract terms are needed to manage high-risk borrowers. China has become a highly sophisticated lender to developing countries, building in large part on its experience with African countries. According to the authors of the How China Lends analysis, Chinese loan contracts contain “more elaborate repayment safeguards than their peers in the official credit market,” which basically guarantee repayment by the borrowing countries. These contracts also contain provisions that “give Chinese lenders an advantage over other creditors.”

These unique provisions include a commitment by the borrower to: keep contract terms undisclosed unless otherwise required by law, maintain an escrow account and other special bank accounts to secure debt repayment, exclude the debt from restructuring in the Paris Club of official bilateral creditors and other collective restructuring initiatives (such as the World Bank’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative), and allow the lender to terminate the agreement and demand immediate full repayment if the borrower defaults on its other lenders. These confidential contracts have only grown in importance over time.

Although these sophisticated contract terms guarantee repayment for Chinese lenders and allow otherwise high-risk countries access to needed finance, they can cause problems. Mainly, confidentiality clauses prevent citizens in both China and borrowing countries from having information about these loans and holding their governments to account.

Unaddressed Questions

Having examined these informative data sets and the accompanying publications, some pertinent questions come to mind. These questions center on areas where more information, data, and analyses are needed to meaningfully move the needle for effective public policy.

Is there a structural decline or a cyclical rebalancing of Chinese lending to Africa?

1- The decline in Chinese finance to African countries seems like more of a rebalancing. Chinese policymakers could be responding to pressure, including from within China, to make BRI investments more transparent and sustainable. Precisely such a commitment was made at the Belt and Road Forum in 2019, when Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to increase the transparency and fiscal sustainability of BRI projects. This may translate to less lending in high-risk jurisdictions where their exposure to defaults and other risks is already high (such as Angola or Zambia) in favor of more predictable, middle-income countries (like Ghana, Nigeria, or South Africa), as the SAIS-CARI researchers also note.

2- Apart from Chinese lending, how else can African countries meet their financing needs?

China’s investments in Africa have come under tremendous scrutiny from the United States and Europe. China is also frequently invoked in partisan politics in some African countries, like Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia. Yet China has made such headway in Africa precisely because it was, for a long time, the lender and investor of last resort when aid and other types of financing from OECD-DAC countries was not available. Africa has infrastructure financing needs that require between $130 and $170 billion per year, according to the African Development Bank. As figure 2 above shows, OECD-DAC lenders hardly finance the airports, railways, roads, bridges, pipelines, dams, ports, and other hard infrastructure projects needed in African countries.

And institutional investors in major economies are still very reluctant to venture into African countries. It is precisely to address this gap that several countries, including Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia, have tapped the Eurobond market, which has contributed to their indebtedness. In February 2021, the African Union announced plans to set up an infrastructure fund that will draw on sovereign wealth, insurance, and retirement funds from its large member states. Qatar is also setting up a $2 billion infrastructure fund for Sub-Saharan Africa to be housed in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

3- Are other creditors more transparent than Chinese lenders?

China’s institutional opacity around its government-to-government ties is well known. The confidentiality clauses that undermine domestic accountability should be done away with. But China is not the only creditor in many of these countries, where nearly half of their public sector debt is owed to private lenders (see figure 4). Information around financial flows to developing countries from other bilateral, multilateral, and private sector creditors in Europe, North America, Japan, and South Korea is available via the OECD-DAC database. However, the fine details and terms of the loan agreements between individual OECD-DAC donors and African countries are not easily and publicly available. Therefore, there needs to be more transparency from creditors across the board so that citizens can hold their governments to account.

4- What do Chinese scholars think?

Much of the analysis on Chinese lending practices in developing countries is generated by scholars in European and North American research institutes. But China also has several world-class universities and research institutes. What do scholars in China think about their country’s investments and loans abroad? What reforms to this arrangement are they pushing for? Despite perceived barriers to academic freedom, several Chinese scholars have sought to add much-needed nuance to this debate by explaining the diversity of public and private Chinese actors involved in economic engagements abroad, China’s distinct approach to development cooperation informed by its own experience, and even suggested reform proposals. Yet these nuances are not always reflected in the global debate. In a direct response to this new data trove published in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times, Song Wei, a deputy director of the International Development Cooperation Institute (part of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation) describes these loans data as unable to “tell the whole story” due to “inherent flaws of scattered sources which make up its database.”

5- What do African scholars think?

There are so few African voices in the global debate about Chinese lending in Africa. There is a fair amount of local media coverage of Chinese-financed rail lines, airports, and bridges in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria, in heated parliamentary debates on a country’s fiscal situation, or even in electioneering campaigns in Zambia. However, there is a conspicuous absence of African scholars’ analyses from a global debate that can only be enriched by their voices and lived experiences. The systemic exclusion of African voices in global centers of knowledge production persists, as evidenced by low and declining acceptance rates of scholarship by African researchers in prestigious journals.

But this exclusion persists in large part due to how some African leaders have undermined their own universities and research centers through lack of funding and political interference. Still recovering from these structural challenges, a few China-Africa research projects and work streams exist: at the Wits School of Journalism in South Africa, the Lagos Business School in Nigeria, and the Beijing-based African research consultancy Development Reimagined. More African scholarship and narratives are needed to contextualize this important debate playing out on the continent.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


By Joe Evans, The Week, 4 June 2021

WINDHOEK - Namibian ethnic leaders have rejected a €1.1bn (£945m) aid package offered by Germany to atone for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Herero and Nama people during colonial occupation.

Under an agreement finalised last week following six years of talks, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is to acknowledge that his country committed genocide during its rule over the southwest African nation and apologise to the Namibian parliament. The reparations payment will then be delivered over a 30-year period to fund reconstruction and development projects.

However, representatives from the Herero and Nama ethnic groups have dismissed the offer as “insulting” and are demanding that Germany hands over €480bn (£412bn).
Bad blood

An estimated 65,000 of a total population of 80,000 Herero people, and a further 10,000 of the 20,000-strong Nama community, were slaughtered in Namibia between 1904 and 1908, as German settlers “crushed an uprising” against colonial rule, The Times reports.

Many survivors of the violent raids in what was then known as German South West Africa were driven into the desert, “where thousands died of starvation or dehydration”, the paper continues. Others were “corralled into concentration camps, where at least half of the inmates died of disease, malnourishment, overwork, beatings and executions”.

Historians have described the mass killings as the first genocide of the 20th century. But while Germany has long accepted “moral responsibility” for the massacres, the European superpower has previously “avoided making an official apology, to ward off compensation claims”, Deutsche Welle says.

This refusal to formally apologise for what has been dubbed “the forgotten genocide” has “soured ties with the West African nation for decades”, the Bonn-based broadcaster adds.

Successive German governments have provided “development support” since Namibia became fully independent in 1990,notes the BBC, but “a half-hearted apology delivered by a German development minister in 2004” was “roundly criticised”.

However, says the broadcaster, resulting “clamour from the devastated communities for an unequivocal acknowledgement of the genocide, an apology and compensation” left Germany with “no choice but to address the elephant in the room”.
Truth and reconciliation

Following drawn-out negotiations, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said last week that Germany would “officially call these events what they were from today's perspective: a genocide”.

“In light of Germany's historical and moral responsibility, we will ask Namibia and the descendants of the victims for forgiveness,” Maas added in a statement.

In response, a spokesperson for Namibia's President Hame Geingob said that the “acceptance on the part of Germany that a genocide was committed is a step in the right direction”.

But while the Namibian government has “welcomed Germany’s acceptance of the atrocities as genocide”, descendants of the affected communities have argued that “true reconciliation could not be achieved without their inclusion in the negotiations”, Al Jazeera reports.

“We are worried that the social projects proposed by the German government won’t actually benefit us,” Laidlaw Peringanda, chair of the Namibian Genocide Association, told the broadcaster. “If they are not including us in the negotiations, how will they suddenly involve us when it comes to these projects?”

Calling for the German government to “give us our dignity back”, he added: “We have lost our ancestral land. A lot of us, of our community, live in poverty today. Some of us live in shacks and have to go without eating for a week. A lot of us inherited trans-generational trauma.”

The amount of money offered by Berlin “is much smaller than some had hoped”, says the BBC, and is also “very specifically meant for reconstruction and development projects” - so it is “still not clear who will benefit”.

That the payment is being described as “development aid” is also “problematic”, adds the broadcaster, which suggests that Germany “needs to come to terms with the origins of a racialised view of the world, placing Western authorities at the top and Africans at the bottom”.

Many Namibian politicians, including members of the governing Swapo party, are critical of the deal too. Former minister Kazenambo Kazenambo has described the Namibian negotiators as “clowns” and accused the government of being “a puppet of Germany”.

Meanwhile, Chief Manase Zeraeua of the Zeraeua Traditional Authority, a Herero association, has expressed his “surprise” at the outcome of the negotiations and dismissed the German offer as “insulting”, Bild reports.

Groups representing descendants of the victim communities have launched an online petition calling for Germany to pay reparations directly to these people rather than to the government.

We demand that Germany accepts its responsibility towards the genocide also according to international law,” write the petition organisers. “We want to get rid of this so-called ‘Reconciliation Agreement’- not REPARATION AGREEMENT, which we see as a Public Relations coup by Germany and an act of betrayal by the Namibian government”, they continue.

Despite the widespread criticism, however, the Namibian parliament is expected to approve the agreement next week. Foreign Minister Maas is then due to travel to the country’s capital, Windhoek, next Friday to sign the accord and seal the deal.



Jihadisme en Tunisie : éviter la recrudescence des violences

International Crisis Group, Brieing No 83, 04 Juin 2021

Malgré un net déclin de la violence jihadiste en Tunisie depuis 2016, le gouvernement maintient des mesures de lutte contre le terrorisme répressives et trop peu ciblées. Les autorités tunisiennes devraient opérer des réformes dans le domaine de la justice et de la sécurité afin d’éviter une recrudescence de la violence.


Que se passe-t-il ? Alors que la violence jihadiste décline en Tunisie, une partie des mesures antiterroristes mises en place depuis 2013 nuisent à la cohésion sociale et minent la confiance des citoyens à l’égard des institutions.

En quoi est-ce significatif ? Ces mesures pourraient entrainer une recrudescence des violences jihadistes, et, si le contexte économique et social se détériorait davantage, contribuer à l’augmentation des violences urbaines et de la criminalité.

Comment agir ? Pour réduire la crise de confiance et prévenir l’augmentation des violences, le gouvernement devrait promulguer une nouvelle loi sur l’état d’urgence, modifier la loi antiterroriste de 2015 et le code de procédure pénale, améliorer les conditions de détention et veiller à coordonner les efforts de prévention et de répression du terrorisme.

I. Synthèse

Depuis l’échec, en mars 2016, de l’attaque de la ville frontalière de Ben Guerdane par un commando de l’Etat islamique, l’engagement salafiste-jihadiste perd de son attrait et son expression violente décline en Tunisie. Néanmoins, les mesures de lutte contre le terrorisme prises depuis 2013 restent en place. Certaines de ces mesures, largement répressives, nuisent à la cohésion sociale et tendent à renforcer la crise de confiance des citoyens envers les institutions. Celles-ci pourraient conduire à un retour significatif des violences jihadistes et contribuer à accroitre les violences urbaines et la criminalité, surtout si la situation économique et sociale continue de se détériorer.

Pour éviter ces dommages collatéraux de la lutte contre le terrorisme, le gouvernement devrait entreprendre au plus vite une série de réformes dans le domaine juridique et sécuritaire. Il devrait promulguer une nouvelle loi sur l’état d’urgence, modifier la loi antiterroriste et le code de procédure pénale, améliorer les conditions de détention et assurer une meilleure complémentarité entre les activités de prévention et de répression du terrorisme.

La diminution des violences jihadistes sur le territoire tunisien entre 2016 et 2021 est manifeste. Elle est principalement liée à la déroute d’al-Qaeda et de l’Etat islamique à l’échelle régionale. Même si plusieurs milliers de Tunisiens sont partis combattre au Moyen-Orient et en Libye entre 2011 et 2016 et que des Tunisiens ont commis quatre attentats en France et en Allemagne en 2016 et 2021, le pays n’est pas menacé par un mouvement jihadiste armé de masse.

Le déclin idéologique du salafisme-jihadisme est également très net en Tunisie, y compris parmi les franges les plus vulnérables de la population, qui ont tendance à s’identifier désormais davantage au gangster qu’au héros se sacrifiant pour une cause.

Cependant, les mesures de lutte contre le terrorisme, mises en place dès 2013, pourraient avoir des effets pervers. La majorité des près de 2 200 détenus en lien avec des affaires de terrorisme quitteront les prisons tunisiennes au cours des trois années à venir. La plupart d’entre eux ont connu des conditions de détention propices à la récidive, et certains ont été victimes d’abus. Leurs perspectives de réinsertion socio-professionnelle sont très limitées. Pour toutes ces raisons, ils risquent de retomber dans la violence ou de se tourner vers la délinquance et le crime.

Par ailleurs, les mesures de contrôle administratif souvent très contraignantes auxquelles sont soumis nombre d’individus, en dehors des prisons, au nom de la lutte antiterroriste, pourraient aussi conduire certains d’entre eux, qui estiment les subir injustement, à se rapprocher des groupes jihadistes.

Enfin, si le jihadisme décline en Tunisie, il est loin d’avoir disparu à l’échelle du continent africain, notamment dans le Sahel, où une centaine de Tunisiens combattraient au sein de groupes affiliés à al-Qaeda et à l’Etat islamique et pourraient, un jour ou l’autre, envisager de prendre pour cible leur pays d’origine.

Pour limiter une éventuelle recrudescence des violences jihadistes et freiner le développement de la petite délinquance et du banditisme, les autorités devraient, en priorité, mener des réformes dans le domaine de la sécurité et de la justice pénale. Il s’agit de passer d’une logique répressive à une logique préventive qui renforcerait la cohésion sociale et la confiance des citoyens envers les institutions.

Les autorités devraient prendre plusieurs mesures. En matière de sécurité, le parlement devrait voter une nouvelle loi sur l’état d’urgence offrant davantage de garanties en termes de droits humains. Il devrait modifier la loi antiterroriste de 2015, notamment pour réduire au maximum le délai de garde à vue, propice aux abus, et modifier le code de procédure pénale, pour garantir sans exception l’accès à un avocat durant l’enquête préliminaire. Dans le domaine de la justice, les autorités devraient tenter de réduire la population carcérale, établir un suivi sécuritaire et socio-psychologique pénitentiaire et post-pénitentiaire personnalisé et augmenter le nombre de programmes de réinsertion et de réhabilitation socio-professionnels qui s’adressent à l’ensemble des détenus et anciens détenus. Enfin, le gouvernement devrait renforcer le travail commun entre les différents ministères afin de veiller à la complémentarité des actions de lutte contre le terrorisme et des activités de prévention dites de « l’extrémisme violent » coordonnées par la Commission nationale de lutte contre le terrorisme.

II. Le jihadisme : un phénomène en régression

Les violences jihadistes se sont multipliées entre 2010 et 2015, pour connaitre ensuite un déclin à partir de l’échec de l’attaque de Ben Guerdane en 2016. Bien que des combattants tunisiens soient présents dans les groupes jihadistes à l’étranger, leur nombre semble être surestimé, tout comme la menace de leur retour dans le pays. Chez les jeunes, qui semblaient voir dans le jihadisme une solution viable à leurs difficultés il y a quelques années, la mouvance salafiste-jihadiste semble avoir perdu son attrait.

A. Diminution des violences en Tunisie

En croissance régulière depuis le soulèvement de 2010-2011, les violences jihadistes en Tunisie ont culminé en 2015 avec trois attentats spectaculaires revendiqués par l’Etat islamique (EI) et, en mars 2016, avec la tentative de prise de contrôle de la ville frontalière de Ben Guerdane par un commando de cette même organisation.

La mise en échec de cette attaque par les forces armées et de sécurité intérieure a marqué un déclin notable de ces violences sur le sol tunisien.
Depuis lors, seize personnes ont été victimes du jihadisme en Tunisie, contre 214 entre 2011 et 2016. De mars 2016 à mars 2021, des jihadistes ou supposés jihadistes ont mené cinq opérations en milieu urbain, toutes limitées à Tunis et à une ville de la côte est. L’EI en a revendiqué trois. Seules trois personnes – membres de la police et de la garde nationale – ont été tuées dans ces attaques. En milieu rural, au cours de la même période, les violences ont eu lieu exclusivement dans les zones montagneuses et forestières de la frontière tuniso-algérienne, et conduit à la mort de onze militaires et gardes nationaux ainsi que de deux bergers. Celles-ci ont été perpétrées par deux groupuscules armés, Okba Ibn Nafaa (filiale d’al-Qaeda au Maghreb islamique) et Jund el Khilafa (filiale de l’EI).

Ces groupuscules auraient perdu les deux tiers de leurs effectifs depuis 2016. Ils sont passés de 250 combattants à environ une soixantaine. Les forces armées ont éliminé plusieurs de leurs chefs successifs.
Leur dernier communiqué remonte au 9 juillet 2018. Juges d’instruction, membres des forces de l’ordre et experts de la mouvance islamiste jihadiste décrivent de façon unanime leurs difficultés financières et logistiques, notamment en matière d’approvisionnement. Selon eux, la plupart de leurs opérations sont en partie motivées par une nécessité de ravitaillement. Les vols de bétail ou de réserves alimentaires dans des fermes isolées leur aliènent le soutien des populations locales.

Cette diminution des violences dans le pays est en grande partie liée aux revers militaires des grandes organisations jihadistes au Moyen-Orient et surtout en Libye. En Libye, plateforme logistique d’où les attaques meurtrières visant la Tunisie avaient été organisées en 2015-2016, l’EI est chassé de Derna en juin 2015 et de Syrte en décembre 2016. De 2016 à 2021, le nombre de ses combattants passe de 1 400 à quelques centaines. Le 19 février 2016, les Etats-Unis bombardent un camp d’entrainement contrôlé par l’EI à Sabratah, à une centaine de kilomètres de la frontière tunisienne. Cette intervention aérienne précipite l’attaque de Ben Guerdane sur le sol tunisien, mais explique, en partie, son manque de préparation et son échec.

En Syrie et en Irak, l’EI a perdu graduellement ses enclaves militarisées, jusqu’à la dernière, en 2019, à Baghouz dans l’est syrien.

La destruction de sa base territoriale a déstabilisé et dispersé son commandement. Les violences jihadistes déclinent au Moyen-Orient et en Afrique du Nord, contrairement au Sahel, où elles sont en pleine expansion.
Mais, comme l’affirme un diplomate européen, « c’est un jihadisme africain enraciné dans son terreau au Sahel et qui, jusqu’à aujourd’hui, n’a jamais débordé en Afrique du Nord ».


B. Les revenants tunisiens : une menace surestimée


Le nombre de volontaires tunisiens au sein des groupes jihadistes au Moyen-Orient et en Libye entre 2013 et 2016 a souvent été surestimé. Plusieurs avocats et journalistes affirment que leur nombre avoisine les 10 000, tandis que le gouvernement fait état de 2 929 combattants, une estimation probablement plus proche de la réalité.
Plus des deux tiers de ces 2 929 combattants semblent avoir été tués ou emprisonnés à l’étranger.

L’éventuel retour des jihadistes tunisiens suscite des inquiétudes exagérées, fondées sur le précédent du retour des volontaires algériens d’Afghanistan dans les années 1980. Contrairement à leurs prédécesseurs, accueillis en héros, les 800 jihadistes qui sont rentrés en Tunisie entre 2011 et 2016 ont été vaincus sur le plan militaire. Pour la plupart, l’engagement fut un échec. Certains d’entre eux auraient été refusés par les groupes islamistes présents au Moyen-Orient (l’Armée syrienne libre, le Front al-Nosra, une filiale d’al-Qaeda jusqu’en 2016, ou l’EI). Un juge d’instruction les surnomme « les jihadistes ratés ». D’autres auraient occupé des positions subalternes au sein de ces groupes, telles des tâches logistiques (financement, soins, transports, par exemple sur les champs de bataille). Par ailleurs, les volontaires algériens s’étaient greffés à leur retour à un mouvement jihadiste de masse.

Aucun mouvement de ce type n’existe actuellement en Tunisie.

Les jihadistes tunisiens de retour du Moyen-Orient ou d’ailleurs sont criminalisés et stigmatisés dans leur pays et en dehors.
La justice tunisienne a condamné une partie de ces 800 revenants à des peines de prison comprises entre trois et huit ans (cinq ans pour appartenance à une organisation terroriste, auxquels s’ajoutent deux à trois ans pour avoir suivi un entrainement militaire). Certains l’ont déjà purgée. Le ministère de l’Intérieur a assujetti l’autre partie à des mesures de contrôle administratif (dites « fichiers S »).

Depuis leur retour, aucun de ces combattants n’a commis d’attaque terroriste et les preuves manquent pour établir leur éventuelle implication dans l’organisation de violences.
Beaucoup seraient déçus par leur engagement jihadiste, voire traumatisés. L’un d’entre eux estime avoir été « arnaqué ». La réalité du terrain était, selon lui, bien différente de l’utopie présentée. Comme l’observe un avocat spécialisé dans la défense de ces combattants tunisiens à l’étranger, « une partie de ces revenants sont passés ou repassés à l’alcool et au hashish. Beaucoup considèrent avoir été victimes d’une propagande. En effet, l’Etat islamique est, pour eux, une création artificielle qui n’a rien à voir avec l’islam authentique ».

Selon la plupart des observateurs – y compris ceux qui soutiennent que le nombre réel de combattants tunisiens étrangers et de revenants est bien supérieur aux chiffres officiels – la grande majorité des jihadistes originaires de Tunisie ayant occupé des postes de responsabilité au sein des groupes liés à al-Qaeda ou à l’EI sont hors d’état de nuire. Ils auraient soit été tués lors de combats en Syrie, Irak et Libye, soit été emprisonnés à l’étranger ou poussés dans la clandestinité au Moyen-Orient et en Turquie.

De fait, très peu de jihadistes aguerris sont actuellement incarcérés sur le sol tunisien. Sur environ 2 200 personnes emprisonnées en vertu de la loi antiterroriste de 2015, on compte seulement une dizaine de combattants tunisiens étrangers, considérés comme très dangereux par les services de renseignement de différents pays et extradés vers la Tunisie, ainsi que 160 individus condamnés pour avoir commis des violences jihadistes sur le territoire tunisien, notamment pour avoir participé à l’attaque de Ben Guerdane.

Les membres d’al-Qaeda et de l’EI se déplacent en priorité vers les territoires où la vigilance sécuritaire est faible. Selon un juge d’instruction, « les “vrais” jihadistes ne veulent pas rentrer en Tunisie ». Comme le note un colonel de l’armée à la retraite, ils se rendent là « où des groupes armés ont besoin de leur compétence, sur une terre où ils pourront accomplir leur mission ». Ceci est « loin d’être le cas en Algérie et en Tunisie ».

A court terme, l’hypothèse du retour de ces « vrais » jihadistes demeure peu probable, car la Tunisie est un territoire où s’organiser reste difficile, et qui, de surcroit, reste stratégiquement secondaire, à leurs yeux, par rapport à l’Afrique subsaharienne.

D’après plusieurs experts, environ 200 de ces « vrais » jihadistes tunisiens combattraient encore au Moyen-Orient, et une centaine au Sahel. Près de 600 feraient toujours partie de groupes jihadistes en Libye, notamment dans le sud.

Néanmoins, l’accroissement régulier de leur nombre dans le Sahel est de nature à renforcer les connexions jihadistes tuniso-maliennes qui existent depuis plus d’une dizaine d’années.
Selon un jeune universitaire tunisien spécialisé dans les groupes islamistes violents, « tant qu’il y aura des Tunisiens dans les groupes jihadistes en Libye et au Sahel, ces connexions pourraient être réactivées dans leur pays d’origine »

. Pour l’heure, rien ne semble cependant indiquer que ce soit le cas.

C. Le jihadisme : un phénomène passé de mode au sein de la jeunesse ?

L’engagement salafiste-jihadiste a largement perdu de son attrait chez les jeunes, qui y étaient réceptifs il y a encore moins de cinq ans.
Dans les universités, tout d’abord, espace où le groupe Ansar Charia, principal collectif salafiste-jihadiste tunisien, était particulièrement implanté en 2012-2013, cette mouvance semble avoir disparu. Les protestations coordonnées par Ansar Charia, tels les mouvements d’étudiantes voulant conserver leur niqab lors des examens, ont cessé – le niqab a d’ailleurs été interdit dans l’enceinte universitaire – de même que les revendications d’étudiants demandant l’aménagement des cours en fonction des heures de prière. Enfin, le vigilantisme salafiste n’existe plus.

Depuis 2016, l’engagement au sein de la mouvance salafiste-jihadiste est devenu extrêmement risqué, contrairement à la période de début 2011 à 2013, ce qui a contribué à affaiblir son pouvoir d’attraction. Ce type d’activisme est, en effet, criminalisé depuis la classification d’Ansar Charia comme organisation terroriste, en août 2013, et a de fortes chances de conduire directement derrière les barreaux.

L’une des seules organisations politiques légales permettant de militer ouvertement, mais pacifiquement, pour le rétablissement d’un califat régi selon la stricte application de la loi islamique est le parti de la libération (Hizb Ut Tahrir). Issue de la mouvance des frères musulmans, cette formation politique est moins disposée au compromis que le parti d’inspiration islamiste An-Nahda, héritier du même courant.

En 2021, elle continue de tenir des réunions publiques et d’anciens sympathisants du groupe salafiste-jihadiste Ansar Charia l’auraient rejointe. Populaire dans certaines zones périurbaines de la capitale, elle reste, pour l’heure, très groupusculaire et « intellectuelle ». Par crainte des poursuites, certains jihadistes, en rupture de ban ou non, préfèrent se réfugier au sein de communautés et courants salafistes discrets et non organisés sur le plan politique. Ils se tournent vers la communauté salafiste-quiétiste « madkhaliste », qui revendique l’apolitisme et prône l’obéissance aux pouvoirs en place – à moins que ceux-ci n’entrent en guerre ouverte contre la religion musulmane.

D’autres rejoignent le courant salafiste-jihadiste « hazimiste », s’ils n’en faisaient pas déjà partie. Ce courant était très populaire parmi les combattants tunisiens au sein de l’EI en Syrie en 2014. Il pourrait représenter une importante menace à moyen terme, s’il parvenait à faire grossir ses rangs, mais ce scénario reste peu probable dans le contexte actuel. La direction de l’EI le considérait comme plus intransigeant qu’elle sur le plan doctrinal, parce qu’il défend la thèse selon laquelle les musulmans qui entretiendraient une conception erronée de l’islam ne peuvent pas être « excusés » – les tuer est donc licite.
Il connaitrait un succès grandissant parmi les milieux jihadistes en Tunisie, en raison notamment de son côté élitiste (discussions pointues sur le dogme) et individualiste (membres dispersés, peu de rencontres) qui lui permet de survivre dans la clandestinité la plus totale.

Ces types d’engagements sont néanmoins très marginaux dans la jeunesse. Les responsables d’associations qui travaillent avec de jeunes Tunisiens résidant dans des zones périurbaines affirment que l’attirance de ces jeunes pour le jihadisme est de l’histoire ancienne. L’un d’entre eux affirme que celui-ci « est passé de mode ». La plupart de ces jeunes sont profondément déçus, tant par la révolution de 2010-2011 que par le jihadisme. La religiosité est même en net recul parmi cette frange de la population. Ainsi, « même le jihadisme ne fait plus rêver », alors que nombre de jeunes Tunisiens le considéraient encore il y a quelques années comme « la dernière idéologie véritablement antisystème », note l’organisateur de tables rondes réunissant de jeunes habitants des zones périurbaines. Comme l’observe une psychosociologue, le héros se sacrifiant pour une cause, en particulier celle du « véritable islam », a cessé d’être un modèle d’identification positive.

Celui-ci n’a pu mettre fin aux injustices en Tunisie et paye le prix de son engagement par la prison et la stigmatisation sociale.

Plusieurs universitaires et associatifs notent que le nouveau modèle de certains jeunes célibataires issus des zones déshéritées est celui du gangster, tel que présenté dans certaines séries télévisées et vidéo-clips de musique hip-hop ; tatoué, violent, misogyne et « conservateur quand cela l’arrange », prêt à tout pour accroitre sa richesse matérielle, ici et maintenant.

En outre, les difficultés financières des organisations jihadistes ont contribué à diminuer leur attrait. Certains experts affirment, à juste titre, que l’attirance des jeunes Tunisiens pour le jihad au Moyen-Orient et en Libye, notamment entre 2014 et 2016, était, en partie, motivée par des considérations économiques. Al-Qaeda et l’EI offraient l’opportunité de quitter le pays, de gagner de l’argent, dans un contexte où le dynamisme économique de l’Europe avait diminué et que les risques de la traversée clandestine de la Méditerranée s’étaient accrus. En 2021, aux yeux des franges les plus vulnérables de la jeunesse, les groupes jihadistes offrent peu de perspectives d’enrichissement et la traversée clandestine de la Méditerranée demeure toujours aussi risquée. L’Europe de l’Ouest est même, selon certains, synonyme de « coronavirus » et de racisme. Elle a perdu de son magnétisme. Une alternative qui attirerait des franges de plus en plus importantes de la jeunesse serait de s’organiser en bandes délinquantes en Tunisie, de « prendre de l’argent aux riches par n’importe quel moyen » et de se lancer dans le trafic illégal, comme celui de drogue, si l’opportunité se présentait.

III. Des mesures antiterroristes largement répressives et leurs retombées

Depuis 2013, les autorités répondent à la menace jihadiste de manière largement répressive, ce qui, en dépit d’une certaine efficacité, produit des effets déstabilisateurs dans la société tunisienne. Une partie de ces mesures répressives, trop peu ciblées, nuisent en effet à la cohésion sociale et entrainent une perte de confiance envers les institutions, ce qui accroit les risques de violence.

A. Un arsenal réglementaire ouvrant la voie aux abus

Ainsi, en mai 2013, le ministère de l’Intérieur interdit le congrès annuel d’Ansar Charia et, en août, le classe comme organisation terroriste. A partir de 2014, les autorités se dotent d’un nouveau cadre légal et institutionnel face à la menace jihadiste. Le gouvernement crée, cette année-là, un pôle judiciaire de lutte contre le terrorisme. Il instaure l’état d’urgence en novembre 2015 et le reconduit régulièrement depuis lors.
En juillet 2015, le parlement promulgue une nouvelle loi antiterroriste, critiquée par les organisations de défense des droits humains en particulier pour sa définition « vague » et « ambiguë » du terrorisme et son extension des délais de garde à vue de six à quinze jours, et dans les faits, souvent sans représentant judiciaire pendant les premières 48 heures.

Les autorités ont aussi, depuis 2016, renforcé la coopération technique internationale, en mettant en place le dispositif G7+ élargi de coordination des initiatives de coopération bilatérales entre la Tunisie et ses partenaires en matière de lutte contre le terrorisme.

Entre septembre 2015 et juin 2018, le tribunal de Tunis a instruit plus de 5 000 procès et prononcé diverses condamnations en vertu de la loi antiterroriste de 2015. Entre juin 2018 et mars 2021, environ 400 individus supplémentaires ont été condamnés et incarcérés pour des affaires liées au terrorisme.

Les autorités ont aussi cherché à réduire l’influence idéologique du jihadisme et à tarir ses sources de financement. Depuis 2013, le gouvernement a fermé de nombreux lieux de culte et congédié leurs imams, et interdit plusieurs centaines d’associations caritatives et jardins d’enfants de tendance salafiste quiétiste ou jihadiste. En 2019, la Commission nationale de lutte contre le terrorisme, en partenariat avec la Commission tunisienne des analyses financières (CTAF), instance relevant de la Banque centrale, a gelé les activités et les avoirs de 157 associations et de 126 personnes suspectées de participation à des infractions terroristes.

L’arsenal législatif dont s’est doté le pays a sans doute dissuadé nombre de jihadistes de se livrer à de la propagande, mais les abus auxquels il a donné lieu ont créé un sentiment d’injustice chez ceux qui en ont été victimes, et renforcé leur défiance envers les forces de l’ordre et les institutions de l’Etat. Depuis la promulgation de la loi antiterroriste en 2015, une simple activité de propagande sur les réseaux sociaux ou la possession de littérature jihadiste suffit à justifier une garde à vue allant jusqu’à quinze jours, une détention préventive ou une condamnation.

Des milliers de personnes ont été interpellées pour des soupçons d’activités jihadistes, à la suite de dénonciations diverses, d’écoutes téléphoniques ou de prises de position considérées comme douteuses sur les réseaux sociaux, et certains ont été brutalisés lors de leur garde à vue. Début 2019, le rapporteur spécial du Conseil des droits de l’homme des Nations unies en visite en Tunisie a observé un recours abusif aux lois relatives à l’état d’urgence, aux détentions provisoires prolongées et noté des allégations de mauvais traitement et de torture.

Les mesures de contrôle administratif dites « fichiers S », pourraient, selon nombre d’experts, pousser à la récidive des jihadistes qui y ont été soumis ou favoriser la « radicalisation » de quelques individus fichés, ce qui, en chiffre absolu, représente une masse de personnes loin d’être négligeable.
En effet, plusieurs organisations de lutte contre la torture et de défense des droits humains s’inquiètent du recours massif et abusif à ces mesures fondées juridiquement sur le décret n°50-1078 réglementant l’état d’urgence en vigueur depuis 2015. Des socio-psychologues affirment que les conséquences socio-professionnelles et psychologiques de ces mesures sont particulièrement néfastes pour ceux qui les subissent (perte d’emploi, isolement, divorce), ce qui peut créer traumatisme ou désir de vengeance.

Comme l’observe un avocat spécialisé dans la défense des salafistes-jihadistes, « c’est du harcèlement ». Les individus fichés S « passent parfois quatorze heures assis sur une chaise dans un commissariat. Puis leur interlocuteur s’en va et un autre le remplace ». Le nombre de citoyens qui y auraient été ou y seraient assujettis s’élève à plusieurs dizaines de milliers, voire 100 000 selon les sources.

B. Manque d’accompagnement à la réinsertion

Les conditions de détention et l’absence d’aide à la réinsertion pour les individus condamnés pour terrorisme accroissent le risque de récidive. Environ trois quarts des près de 2 200 Tunisiens emprisonnés en vertu de la loi antiterroriste auront purgé leur peine au cours des trois prochaines années.
Au sein des prisons surpeuplées, leur droit de visite est restreint parce qu’ils ont été condamnés pour terrorisme, et à leur sortie, ils sont exclus des programmes de réinsertion dont peuvent bénéficier les prisonniers de droit commun.

L’absence de perspectives socio-professionnelles pourrait encourager les anciens détenus pour terrorisme à renouer avec la violence jihadiste ou à se tourner vers des activités criminelles. Comme le formule un expert d’une organisation internationale, ils sont « livrés à eux-mêmes et mis au ban de la société, ce qui peut les rendre très instables sur le plan psychologique, d’autant que beaucoup de ceux qui ont pris les armes au Moyen-Orient ont vécu de profonds traumatismes ».

Quelques-uns de ces condamnés pour terrorisme pourraient se lancer dans des actions violentes, sous l’effet du désespoir ou bien dans une optique militante (attaques au couteau, explosifs artisanaux, assassinats de responsables politiques, etc.) ou rejoindre des réseaux criminels, appelés à se multiplier si la situation économique et sociale continue de se dégrader. D’ailleurs, le 1er mai 2021, le ministère de l’Intérieur a annoncé avoir démantelé une cellule jihadiste qui préparait des attentats et incluant, notamment, un individu récemment libéré de prison après avoir été condamné en vertu de la loi antiterroriste.

Les difficultés de réinsertion concernent aussi les prisonniers de droit commun. Les mesures de liberté conditionnelle et de contrôle administratif sont très répandues, ce qui empêche certains anciens détenus de se réinsérer sur le plan social et professionnel. Selon un ancien prisonnier, ces obstacles peuvent les pousser à entrer en contact avec des réseaux de recrutement jihadistes, lesquels, même réduits à la clandestinité et affaiblis sur le plan financier, pourraient les aider à « monter une petite activité commerciale », afin de les recruter.

C. Une militarisation de la frontière aux effets déstabilisateurs

Sur le plan sécuritaire, les autorités ont, depuis 2016, renforcé les capacités des forces spéciales de l’armée et des patrouilles mixtes dans les zones frontalières.
Depuis 2015, l’armée a construit un système d’obstacles de plusieurs centaines de kilomètres sur la frontière tuniso-libyenne. La militarisation de la frontière avec la Libye, notamment à Remada au sud de Tataouine, a perturbé les échanges informels transfrontaliers ainsi que les activités pastorales. Les relations entre militaires, contrebandiers, éleveurs et agriculteurs se sont alors détériorées dans ces zones frontalières. Par conséquent, le risque s’accroit que d’éventuels jihadistes puissent pénétrer dans le territoire tunisien depuis la Libye, malgré la militarisation des frontières, sans que les populations limitrophes, indispensables pour un contrôle efficace dans certaines zones, ne signalent ces intrusions.

IV. L’importance de la prévention et des réformes

Le déclin du jihadisme en Tunisie s’explique davantage par la déroute militaire de l’Etat islamique et d’al-Qaeda au Moyen-Orient et en Libye que par les mesures répressives mises en œuvre au niveau national depuis 2013. La politique tunisienne de lutte contre le terrorisme a par ailleurs produit des dommages collatéraux. Il convient désormais de les corriger pour prévenir de nouvelles violences. Les autorités devraient atténuer la rigueur contre-productive des mesures sécuritaires et renforcer les mesures de prévention de la violence jihadiste.

Face au risque jihadiste, les autorités devraient passer à une approche plus préventive. Il importe en premier lieu d’améliorer la coopération et la coordination entre les ministères à vocation sécuritaire et antiterroriste (Intérieur et Défense) et ceux qui peuvent proposer des mesures de prévention (Jeunesse, Culture, Affaires sociales, etc.) limitant le nombre de jeunes Tunisiens susceptibles de se tourner vers le jihadisme. La Commission nationale de lutte contre le terrorisme devrait continuer de renforcer ses partenariats avec les acteurs nationaux et internationaux impliqués dans des activités de prévention, notamment les différents organismes des Nations unies, et poursuivre sa mise à jour de la stratégie antiterroriste nationale pour faire la part belle à la prévention et aux réformes dans le domaine judiciaire et sécuritaire.

Afin de limiter au maximum les actes violents de citoyens estimant, par exemple, être injustement traités par les forces de l’ordre, les autorités devraient rapidement mener ces réformes. Le parlement devrait voter la loi organique sur l’état d’urgence, tout en l’amendant pour qu’elle offre davantage de garanties en matière de droits humains.
La promulgation de cette loi rendrait caduc le décret n°50-1978 justifiant le recours massif et abusif aux mesures de contrôle administratif. Le parlement devrait également modifier la loi sur le terrorisme de 2015 afin de réduire au maximum le délai de garde à vue, moment où les principaux abus se produisent. Le gouvernement devrait, de même, abroger le dernier paragraphe de l’article 13ter du code de procédure pénale de manière à ce que l’accès à un avocat durant les 48 heures de l’enquête préliminaire soit garanti sans exception.

Les autorités devraient également prendre des mesures pour améliorer les conditions de détention et les perspectives d’insertion socio-professionnelle des anciens détenus. Le gouvernement devrait aussi faire de la lutte contre la surpopulation carcérale une priorité. A cette fin, la loi devrait limiter le recours à la détention provisoire et à l’emprisonnement, notamment dans le cas de la simple consommation de stupéfiants. Elle devrait prévoir davantage de peines de substitution à la privation de liberté.

Enfin, les ministères de l’Intérieur et de la Justice devraient mettre en place un suivi sécuritaire et socio-psychologique pénitentiaire et post-pénitentiaire personnalisé. Pour ce faire, les services de renseignement pénitentiaires et les forces de sécurité doivent collaborer plus étroitement.

Le gouvernement devrait aussi développer les programmes de réinsertion et de réhabilitation socio-professionnelles qui s’adressent à l’ensemble des détenus et anciens détenus dans leur totalité, et pas uniquement aux personnes incarcérées pour terrorisme.

V. Conclusion

Bien que le jihadisme décline en Tunisie, les mesures de lutte contre le terrorisme que les autorités mettent en œuvre depuis 2013 pourraient, parce qu’elles sont trop peu ciblées, entrainer un regain de violences. Si la situation économique et sociale continuait de se détériorer, elles pourraient également contribuer à accroitre les violences urbaines et la criminalité. Le gouvernement devrait limiter les effets pervers des mesures antiterroristes par une série de réformes dans le domaine juridique et sécuritaire.

Tunis/Bruxelles, 4 juin 2021


Pour le PDF et lea notes, visiter:



Niger : éviter l'aggravation des violences contre les civils à Tillabéri

International Crisis Group, 28 Mai 2021

Une série de massacres dans la région de Tillabéri, au Niger, fait craindre un conflit civil plus large. La connotationethnique de ces crimes est particulièrement inquiétante. Les autorités devraient privilégier la protection des civils avant que des groupes d’auto-défense ne se développent pour faire face à la situation.


Que se passe-t-il ? Dans la région de Tillabéri, au nord du Niger, le conflit opposant jihadistes et forces de sécurité pourrait avoir pris un nouveau tournant, suite aux récents massacres de villageois par des insurgés de la branche locale de l’Etat islamique. Les autorités craignent que le développement de groupes d’autodéfense anti-jihadistes aggrave encore plus les violences contre les civils.

En quoi est-ce significatif ? Les tensions entre jihadistes et groupes d’autodéfense, souvent source d’antagonismes entre communautés, mettent les civils en danger et imposent à l’Etat des défis nouveaux, comme observé au Mali et au Burkina Faso. Ces violences pourraient alimenter les frustrations locales et pousser de nouvelles recrues vers l’Etat islamique.

Comment agir ? Niamey devrait décourager la création de groupes d’autodéfense, qui aggravent les violences contre les civils, et arbitrer les conflits communautaires. Le gouvernement devrait intégrer plus de locaux dans les forces de sécurité pour stabiliser la région, chercher à négocier un cessez-le-feu avec les insurgés et intensifier les efforts pour protéger les civils.

I. Synthèse

Le nord de Tillabéri, région frontalière du Niger et théâtre d’attaques lancées par les jihadistes sur les forces de sécurité, risque aujourd’hui de basculer durablement dans les violences à base communautaire. Deux récents massacres de membres de la communauté zarma, perpétrés par des combattants d’une branche de l’Etat islamique, font même craindre une montée en puissance des violences à caractère ethnique. Des villageois zarma veulent prendre les armes pour lutter contre les jihadistes, qu’ils tiennent responsables d’une flambée de la criminalité et soupçonnent d’appartenir à la communauté peul dans leur majorité. A l’heure où elles envisagent différentes réponses, les autorités nigériennes devraient tenir compte des expériences malienne et burkinabé. Ces deux pays ont toléré l’émergence des milices communautaires, provoquant des violences qui ont incité les civils à se rapprocher des jihadistes ou des groupes d’autodéfense.

Niamey devrait continuer de décourager la création de telles milices, intensifier les efforts visant à protéger les villageois et apaiser les tensions intercommunautaires. Les autorités nigériennes devraient par ailleurs rester ouvertes à un dialogue avec les commandants jihadistes locaux et s’efforcer de remédier aux causes sous-jacentes de la crise, notamment les litiges fonciers et les rivalités politiques locales en partie liées à la décentralisation.

Les évènements récents indiquent que les troubles pourraient s’intensifier dans la région de Tillabéri, dans la zone frontalière entre le Mali et le Niger. Au cours des deux dernières années, une branche locale de l’Etat islamique – l’Etat islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS) – a organisé des attaques de grande ampleur contre les forces de sécurité et des bases situées le long de la frontière malienne, afin de garder sa mainmise sur la zone et ses habitants. Au lendemain des massacres du 2 janvier à Tchomabangou et Zaroumdareye, deux villages situés à proximité de la frontière, et d’une attaque perpétrée le 15 mars contre des civils revenant du marché hebdomadaire à Banibangou, dans la même zone, le risque que le conflit implique davantage les civils semble particulièrement élevé.

Les deux attaques sont survenues après que des habitants du nord de Tillabéri, principalement des Zarma, ont commencé à créer des groupes d’autodéfense pour lutter contre la prédation et l’extorsion des groupes armés.

Niamey craint qu’une multiplication de ces attaques n’attise les tensions communautaires. Des communautés issues des deux groupes ethniques (les Zarma, généralement des agriculteurs sédentaires, et les Peul, principalement des éleveurs semi-nomades) s’opposent de plus en plus régulièrement pour l’accès aux terres et aux ressources, et ce dans un contexte de détérioration des relations intercommunautaires depuis plusieurs décennies, lié notamment à l’expansion des zones de culture vers la frontière malienne. Après le massacre du 2 janvier, certains Zarma ont accusé des membres peul de l’EIGS d’avoir attaqué les villages pour régler des différends ethniques.

Les autorités ont tenu à minimiser la ligne de fracture entre Zarma et Peul, soulignant que le chef de l’attaque serait lui-même zarma. Cependant, la possibilité d’une escalade de la violence à base ethnique demeure. Si le groupe jihadiste a récemment gagné du terrain auprès des Zarma afin de gonfler ses rangs, il demeure principalement composé de membres de communautés semi-nomades, majoritairement peul, mais aussi touareg et daosahak.

Les moyens dont dispose l’Etat pour améliorer la situation sont limités. Ses forces de sécurité sont sollicitées de toute part et semblent incapables de sécuriser de grandes parties de la région de Tillabéri. Les soldats se sont partiellement repliés et ont quitté la frontière après avoir essuyé des défaites lors de l’attaque des postes militaires d’Inatès et Chinegodrar, non loin de la frontière malienne, en décembre 2019 et janvier 2020. Ils ont par ailleurs été accusés de violences graves sur des civils, ce qui amène certaines communautés à redouter leur présence.

Niamey ne résoudra toutefois pas les problèmes de la région en soutenant les groupes d’autodéfense qui se mobilisent déjà pour lutter contre la violence jihadiste. Au Mali et au Burkina Faso, les alliances entre les forces de sécurité et ces milices n’ont fait que générer davantage de violences meurtrières. Au Niger, la formation de ces groupes semble avoir décidé les jihadistes locaux à prendre les civils pour cible. Au-delà de déterminer s’il est possible, ou même souhaitable, vu l’intensification des violences contre les civils, de déployer de nouvelles troupes pour contribuer à sécuriser la région, la meilleure option pour le gouvernement est d’adopter une stratégie visant à apaiser les tensions communautaires et à mieux protéger les habitants du banditisme croissant et, une fois de plus, de chercher à dialoguer avec les insurgés. Plus précisément :

Le gouvernement devrait intensifier ses efforts pour désamorcer les tensions entre communautés, notamment grâce à une communication à l’échelle locale axée sur l’idée que l’inclusion et la diversité sont depuis toujours des fondements de la société nigérienne.

Niamey devrait en outre renforcer les efforts déjà déployés pour régler les différends relatifs aux droits fonciers, aux ressources naturelles et aux politiques locales qui attisent les tensions communautaires et augmentent le risque de violence dans la région.

La police et la gendarmerie, qui ont été forcées de se convertir à la lutte contre les jihadistes, devraient essayer de convaincre les communautés qu’elles n’ont pas besoin de s’armer, en reprenant leur rôle traditionnel de maintien de la sécurité publique et en s’attelant à lutter contre le banditisme armé.

Les autorités étatiques devraient envisager de tendre la main aux commandants locaux de l’Etat islamique afin de négocier des cessez-le-feu, dans l’espoir qu’une telle avancée contribue, à moyen ou long terme, à les convaincre de s’éloigner de l’organisation, et peut-être même à attirer les hauts responsables à la table des négociations. Bien que les récents massacres puissent compliquer les efforts de dialogue, l’élection à la présidence de Bazoum Mohamed, l’un des rares responsables gouvernementaux à avoir été favorable au dialogue lorsqu’il était ministre de l’Intérieur, pourrait donner un nouvel élan à ces pourparlers.

II. Jihadistes, miliciens et massacres

La crise sécuritaire et de gouvernance qui frappe le nord de la région de Tillabéri, une zone d’activités importante de la branche locale de l’Etat islamique, l’EIGS, a pris une tournure inquiétante.

Le 2 janvier, des dizaines d’insurgés ont attaqué à moto les villages de Tchomabangou et Zaroumdareye dans la commune de Tondikiwindi, à la frontière avec le Mali. Selon les estimations officielles, ils ont tué plus de 100 personnes, des Zarma pour la plupart. Le 15 mars, des hommes armés masqués ont arrêté plusieurs véhicules revenant du marché hebdomadaire de Banibangou, également situé près de la frontière malienne, et ont tué près de 58 passagers zarma, tous des hommes. Quelques jours plus tard, le 21 mars, des insurgés ont tué plus d’une centaine de personnes dans une attaque dirigée contre des civils à Tilia, une commune rurale de la région de Tahoua, à l’est de Tillabéri. En mai 2021, l’Etat islamique, présent dans la région frontalière depuis 2015, a revendiqué les attaques à Tchomabangou, Zaroumdareye et Tillia. La récurrence de massacres de cette ampleur laisse craindre que la crise dans la région de Tillabéri ne soit entrée dans une nouvelle phase, encore plus dangereuse pour les civils.

Au début de leur implantation à Tillabéri, les groupes jihadistes locaux, y compris l’EIGS, devenu depuis lors la principale organisation jihadiste dans la zone frontalière, ont principalement attaqué les forces de sécurité et ont largement (mais pas non plus entièrement) épargné les civils, afin de les rallier à leur cause. Ces groupes ont surtout recruté au sein des communautés semi-pastorales peul, qui nourrissent des rancœurs grandissantes envers l’Etat et d’autres communautés des alentours depuis des décennies. Au début, les actes de violence des insurgés contre les civils étaient rares, mais leur fréquence a augmenté à mesure que les jihadistes se sont mis à s’en prendre aux responsables locaux pour les forcer à accepter leur présence dans la zone. L’EIGS a exercé une pression constante sur ces responsables dans l’ensemble de la zone frontalière, assassinant ou enlevant ceux qui refusaient de se conformer à ses diktats ou ceux que le groupe soupçonnait d’être des informateurs de l’Etat. Par exemple, en novembre 2019, l’EIGS a exécuté le chef zarma du village de Tchomabangou parce qu’il aurait refusé de payer la zakat (impôt islamique).

Dès le début de l’année 2020, l’EIGS s’était imposé comme une force prépondérante dans la zone frontalière après avoir infligé de lourdes pertes à l’armée nigérienne suite à des attaques de grande envergure sur les casernes d’Inatès et Chinegodrar à la fin de l’année 2019 et au début de 2020.

Toutefois, la situation a changé en 2020. Les combats contre les jihadistes rivaux et les frappes aériennes françaises ont fortement affaibli l’EIGS. Au centre du Mali et dans le nord du Burkina Faso, l’EIGS a perdu du terrain et des combattants au profit d’un groupe jihadiste affilié à al-Qaeda, Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin (Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans, ou GSIM). Au cours de l’année, au moins 400 de ses combattants ont été tués par les frappes françaises et dans les combats les opposant au GSIM.

Néanmoins, malgré ces pertes, aucun de ces trois Etats sahéliens n’a réellement redéployé de forces dans les zones qui étaient auparavant sous le contrôle de l’EIGS.

La frontière entre le Mali et le Niger demeure donc le bastion du groupe mais, même là, il semble inquiet que son assise soit contestée. Si autrefois l’EIGS a cherché à entretenir de bonnes relations avec les locaux, au fil du temps, le prélèvement de la zakat auprès des habitants s’est fait de manière moins disciplinée, plus agressive et plus chaotique.
Les bandits armés cherchant eux aussi de plus en plus à rançonner les locaux, le tribut à payer pour ces derniers s’alourdit. Affaibli dans les pays voisins, l’EIGS tente peut-être de rassembler davantage de fonds pour relancer ses activités. Il se peut également que les commandants locaux profitent du relâchement du contrôle, déjà souple, exercé par leurs supérieurs pour gérer leurs zones à leur manière.

Quelle qu’en soit la cause première, le prélèvement d’une zakat plus élevée et plusieurs fois par an a aggravé le ressentiment des populations locales. Ce système de prédation, couplé à l’impression que l’EIGS pourrait s’affaiblir, pousse certains membres des communautés locales à organiser la résistance. Selon des sources locales, à la fin de l’année 2020, les communautés rurales étaient de plus en plus enclines à se protéger elles-mêmes en créant des groupes d’autodéfense.
En 2020, dans un document formulant dix-huit recommandations pour stabiliser la région de Tillabéri, le Comité union Tillabéri pour la paix, la sécurité et la cohésion sociale, une organisation principalement zarma, a appelé à former des groupes d’autodéfense placés sous le commandement de responsables militaires à la retraite.

Dans les environs de Tchomabangou, les habitants de plusieurs villages se sont rassemblés pour créer un groupe de défense communautaire, supposément avec le soutien d’un commerçant prospère qui a également mobilisé et armé de jeunes orpailleurs issus de la zone de Téra. Des sources locales indiquent que le 15 décembre 2020, ces miliciens ont tué deux (ou trois, le chiffre varie selon les sources) représentants de l’EIGS venus au village pour prélever des impôts, voler du bétail ou acheter des provisions. Les villageois ont ensuite refusé de coopérer avec une délégation de l’EIGS, chargée d’enquêter sur ces décès. La première réponse des insurgés fut d’enlever le nouveau chef du village et de déclarer Tchomabangou village ennemi. Les attaquants à moto sont arrivés quelques jours plus tard et ont perpétré le massacre du 2 janvier 2021. Bien qu’ils aient initialement visé un groupe de miliciens peu armés et alors en formation, les jihadistes s’en sont également pris aux villageois. L’EIGS a déclaré que cette opération visait des groupes d’autodéfense villageois soutenus par l’Etat.

Dans le cas du massacre de Banibangou survenu en mars 2021, les récits divergent sur ce qui a déclenché la tuerie. Mais la plupart des sources consultées par Crisis Group ont mentionné un mouvement de résistance embryonnaire dans les villages autour de Chinegodrar et Darey-Daye.

Après que les chefs de village ou les responsables religieux ont encouragé les jeunes zarma à s’armer avec des arcs ou des armes à feu, les insurgés auraient décidé de punir le village de Darey-Daye, tuant ainsi sept personnes. Contraints de battre en retraite face à la résistance armée, les insurgés ont ensuite attaqué par surprise plusieurs véhicules transportant des passagers revenant d’un marché, en direction de Chinegodrar et Darey-Daye, et désigné des hommes zarma à exécuter.

L’escalade de la violence dans le nord de Tillabéri contraste avec d’autres région sous contrôle jihadiste, comme le Macina au centre du Mali, où l’insurrection jihadiste de la Katiba Macina a réussi à imposer son autorité et à réduire la violence infligée aux civils. Dans le nord de Tillabéri, à l’inverse, l’EIGS n’a actuellement ni la capacité ni même peut-être l’ambition de gouverner la région et sa population. Il se peut que le groupe en soit plutôt arrivé à recourir à la violence excessive pour étouffer l’opposition naissante et ainsi conserver sa position de groupe armé dominant dans la région.

III. Le risque d’ethnicisation de la violence

A l’instar des conflits au Mali et au Burkina Faso, la crise qui touche le nord de la région de Tillabéri prend une tournure de plus en plus ethnique. Même si les massacres survenus dans les communes de Tondikiwindi et Banibangou semblent davantage liés à la volonté des jihadistes de réprimer la résistance de villages bien précis et d’affirmer leur contrôle, leur présence dans la zone attise indéniablement les tensions intercommunautaires. Ces tensions risquent à leur tour d’alimenter un cycle inquiétant de représailles violentes et de querelles à base ethnique.

Deux sources de conflit historiques, au moins, accentuent le risque d’escalade entre les ethnies de la région. Premièrement, la croissance démographique des populations agricoles a intensifié la compétition autour des ressources avec les éleveurs nomades, dans une zone où les droits fonciers sont déjà précaires pour beaucoup. Ces droits ont en effet souvent été établis lors de la création de villages au cours de ces dernières décennies, et sont appliqués de manière inégale et souvent contestés. Deuxièmement, les efforts de décentralisation, comme la création de communes rurales en 2004 que le gouvernement a mises en place pour donner davantage de droits et de ressources aux villageois, ont paradoxalement exacerbé les rivalités politiques préexistantes, car les chefs traditionnels sont désormais souvent en compétition avec les élus et doivent gérer de nouvelles exigences émanant de groupes sociaux de bas statut. Les relations au sein des communautés se sont ensuite détériorées après la rébellion survenue en 2012 au Mali, laquelle a poussé divers groupes à prendre les armes dans la région de Tillabéri. La plupart de ces groupes étaient issus de communautés semi-nomades et beaucoup se sont mobilisés suivant des critères ethniques.

L’infiltration des jihadistes a empiré la situation. Avant leur arrivée dans la région, les communautés et les autorités parvenaient à apaiser les flambées de violence occasionnelles, bien qu’elles n’aient jamais pu apporter de solutions durables aux litiges locaux.

Depuis 2015, la présence des insurgés ainsi que les opérations de lutte contre le terrorisme, perçues localement comme ciblant des groupes ethniques spécifiques, ont attisé les tensions existantes et généré des formes de violence nettement plus létales.

Les messages qui circulent sur les réseaux sociaux risque d’exacerber ces divisions. Après l’attaque de Tchomabangou, des messages anonymes sur les réseaux sociaux blâmaient les Peul pour la tuerie et appelaient les Zarma à se venger.
Bien que beaucoup aient interprété le massacre comme une tentative de l’EIGS de décourager la résistance armée des villageois s’opposant au paiement de la zakat, d’autres ont blâmé spécifiquement les membres de la communauté peul, considérant que les conflits fonciers entre les Peul et les Zarma sont à l’origine des violences. Dans l’incident de Banibangou, il est plus que probable que l’EIGS ait surtout cherché à punir des villages qui avaient commencé à établir une résistance, et à épargner ceux qui ne rejoignaient aucun groupe d’autodéfense. Cependant, ce que la plupart des Nigériens ont observé et partagé sur les réseaux sociaux est le fait que les insurgés avaient uniquement tué les passagers zarma et épargné les autres.

Les autorités craignent à présent que le Niger ne continue à marcher sur les traces du Burkina Faso ou du Mali voisins. Dans ces pays, l’essor des jihadistes et des groupes d’autodéfense, lesquels recrutent souvent sur une base ethnique, a entraîné un cercle vicieux de tueries intercommunautaires. La violence s’auto-entretient, car chaque incident pousse davantage de locaux à rejoindre un groupe armé pour bénéficier d’une protection. Au Mali central, l’épicentre du conflit dans ce pays, les combats entre éleveurs peul et agriculteurs dogon ont fait des milliers de morts depuis 2016. Ils ont été en partie alimentés par l’enrôlement de nombreux Peul dans le GSIM et de Dogon dans le groupe d’autodéfense Dana Ambassagou. Dans le nord du Burkina Faso, l’émergence des Koglweogo, des groupes d’autodéfense recrutant principalement auprès des ethnies mossi, gourmantché, bisa et foulsé dans les années 2010, a donné lieu à davantage de tueries intercommunautaires dans un contexte de hausse des activités jihadistes.

Au Niger, les responsables du pays préfèrent éviter de parler ouvertement des tensions ethniques, une question extrêmement sensible. La Haute autorité à la consolidation de la paix (HACP), un conseil mandaté par le gouvernement nigérien pour traiter les causes de l’instabilité à Tillabéri, a réussi à minimiser le rôle des animosités communautaires dans les récentes tueries.
Le 9 janvier, le président de la HACP, le général Mahamadou Abou Tarka, a prononcé un discours près de Tondikiwindi, soulignant que les dirigeants de l’Etat islamique à Tillabéri, initialement tous des Peul, comptent désormais plusieurs commandants zarma, notamment Hamidou Hama, que les autorités soupçonnent d’avoir dirigé les assauts de Tchomabangou et Zaroumdareye.

Il voulait ainsi faire entendre que les racines du conflit n’étaient pas intercommunautaires.

Beaucoup ont toutefois l’impression que les Peul prédominent dans l’EIGS, et les commandants les plus connus sont peul. L’organisation ne recrute encore que peu parmi les Zarma, de loin le plus grand groupe ethnique de la région de Tillabéri.

L’affirmation communément acceptée qu’un Zarma était à l’origine des tueries de Tchomabangou et de Zaroumdareye suggère néanmoins que l’EIGS parvient désormais à recruter au sein de plusieurs communautés dans la région de Tillabéri et à exploiter les divisions intra-ethniques. Par exemple, Hamidou Hama, aussi connu sous le nom de « Maitouwo », a rejoint l’EIGS lorsque des tensions violentes opposaient deux communautés zarma rivales. Entre novembre 2018 et janvier 2019, alors qu’un conflit lié aux droits agricoles couvant depuis des décennies s’échauffait, des membres de la communauté d’Hamidou, connue sous le nom de Tingara 1, se sont affrontés avec leurs voisins de Tingara 2, faisant plusieurs morts et déplaçant des civils.
Il semble qu’à ce moment, Hamidou avait déjà établi des relations commerciales avec l’EIGS, mais il ne serait passé à un activisme actif qu’après que les habitants de Tingara 2 ont dénoncé ses liens avec les jihadistes et que les forces de sécurité ont essayé de l’arrêter. Entre 2019 et 2021, il est monté en grade, devenant commandant au sein du mouvement jihadiste. La supervision du recrutement et de la collecte de l’impôt dans les zones zarma lui aurait alors été confiée.

L’intégration et la promotion de recrues zarma dans les rangs de l’EIGS témoignent d’une stratégie permanente visant à étendre l’influence du groupe en attirant des combattants issues des différentes communautés.
Le groupe a par exemple exploité les conflits entre les nomades peul, touareg et daosahak afin d’attirer dans son giron les membres désabusés de ces trois groupes. Mais si le recrutement de nomades a aidé l’organisation à contrôler la zone frontalière peu peuplée entre le Mali et le Niger, l’intégration d’un plus grand nombre de Zarma pourrait permettre au groupe d’atteindre à l’avenir des zones plus densément occupées du centre du Niger. Bien que les tensions communautaires se répercutent parfois sur les jihadistes eux-mêmes, l’EIGS est parvenu, pour l’instant, à les maîtriser au moyen d’une diplomatie interne.

IV. Le bilan des autorités

La montée de violence observée depuis la fin 2020 à Tondikiwindi et Banibangou et autour de ces villes illustre clairement la double crise à laquelle les autorités nigériennes sont confrontées. Ces dernières cherchent à contrer l’Etat islamique et à protéger les civils, tout en gérant la détérioration des relations entre les communautés du nord de la région de Tillabéri.

Aujourd’hui, les forces de sécurité nigériennes ne sont simplement plus capables de protéger toutes les zones de cette région reculée. Elles se sont retirées de plusieurs avant-postes frontaliers importants à la suite d’attaques dévastatrices sur les casernes d’Inatès et de Chinegodrar survenues en décembre 2019 et janvier 2020, et les autorités restent peu enclines à procéder à un redéploiement complet le long de la frontière. Un responsable local a décrit toute la bande septentrionale de Tondikiwindi, où vivent des éleveurs et des agriculteurs, comme « inatteignable » en raison du danger que posent les insurgés de l’EIGS. Le personnel de sécurité chargé de patrouiller cette zone limite à quelques jours, voire quelques heures, ses passages dans les villages reculés. Le massacre du 2 janvier a eu lieu à peine un jour après le départ d’une unité militaire nigérienne qui patrouillait la zone alentour, ce qui tend à indiquer que les jihadistes surveillent de près les mouvements militaires et prévoient leurs attaques en conséquence.

Pour faire face au vide sécuritaire dans le nord de Tillabéri, la garde nationale a recruté l’an dernier 500 jeunes hommes issus des communautés locales afin de les déployer dans leur propre région dans le cadre d’unités mixtes.
L’Etat essaie également de mieux séparer les missions assignées aux militaires de celles de la police, ce qui permettrait aux forces de sécurité internes de disposer de plus de temps pour combattre le banditisme, plutôt que de lutter contre l’insurrection. Le président Bazoum Mohamed est conscient de la nécessité de cette différentiation. Dans son discours d’investiture prononcé le 2 avril, il a insisté sur la nécessité de mieux distinguer les deux forces. Il faudra cependant du temps pour que ces mesures portent leurs fruits. Les tentatives pour améliorer le recrutement et la formation des forces de sécurité internes risquent d’avoir des résultats mitigés tant qu’elles resteront sous commandement militaire dans le nord de Tillabéri, car cela restreint leurs capacités opérationnelles.

En outre, même lorsque les Etat sahéliens réussissent à mener des actions militaires, celles-ci ont parfois des conséquences désastreuses pour les civils. Des problèmes sont notamment apparus quand les forces de sécurité ont associé à leurs opérations des milices à base ethnique.
En 2017 et 2018, les autorités nigériennes ont ainsi autorisé des milices ethniques maliennes, principalement touareg et daosahak, à attaquer l’Etat islamique du côté nigérien de la frontière. Ces milices se sont ensuite livrées à des violences à l’encontre des civils peul, ce qui a poussé nombre d’entre eux à s’allier à l’EIGS ou à le rejoindre.

Les forces nigériennes sont elles aussi soupçonnées de commettre des violences. Les opérations de lutte contre les jihadistes qui ont suivi les attaques de décembre 2019 et de janvier 2020 ont mené à la mort ou à la disparition de 102 civils, dont les forces de sécurité seraient responsables. Surmenées et sous-équipées, les forces de sécurité du pays affichent un moral en berne ; elles ont en effet essuyé de grandes pertes dans cette zone, ce qui pourrait les conduire à utiliser des tactiques brutales. A l’aube du 30 avril, des soldats nigériens ont tué plus de vingt détenus d’ethnie daosahak qu’ils avaient arrêtés à proximité de Chinegodrar. Le ministre de la Défense a déclaré qu’ils préparaient une nouvelle attaque contre Banibangou et qu’ils sont morts dans une tentative d’évasion. Un groupe de Daosahak a toutefois déclaré qu’il s’agissait de citoyens ordinaires et a demandé l’ouverture d’une enquête, donnant les noms des victimes.

Les efforts que déploie l’Etat sur le plan politique pour apaiser les tensions ont également connu quelques revers. Les forums pilotés précédemment par le gouvernement pour répondre aux griefs et établir une relation de confiance entre les locaux et les forces de sécurité ne sont pas parvenus à juguler la violence dans la commune de Tondikiwindi ou ailleurs dans la région de Tillabéri. Un forum organisé à la fin 2019 afin de réconcilier les deux villages de Tingara a été interrompu par la reprise des combats entre les jihadistes et les forces sécurité qui a suivi les attaques d’Inatès et de Chinegodrar. Alors que les autorités ont pour objectif prioritaire de défaire militairement les jihadistes, les initiatives locales de médiation et de dialogue existent mais passent souvent au second plan. Nombre de ces initiatives, y compris celles qui tentaient de trouver ou de mettre en œuvre des solutions consensuelles pour la gestion et la répartition des ressources naturelles, ont souffert d’un manque d’investissement de la part de l’Etat.

Les autorités savent que la résolution de la crise qui secoue le Tillabéri dépend aussi de leur engagement politique, mais leurs tentatives ont jusqu’ici échoué. Le 4 janvier 2021, deux jours après le massacre de Tondikiwindi, de hauts responsables du Conseil national de sécurité du Niger se sont réunis, promettant de mieux protéger la zone frontalière et de soutenir les habitants qui ont perdu leurs réserves alimentaires dans les incendies déclenchés par les jihadistes. Le 9 janvier, la HACP a organisé un forum rassemblant un large panel de chefs communautaires et des élus à Ouallam, la capitale du département de Ouallam, où se trouve Tondikiwindi, afin d’aborder le risque de conflit intercommunautaire. Le forum semblait toutefois plus axé sur la prévention de la violence immédiate plutôt que sur la résolution des conflits profonds. Bien que ces efforts soient un pas dans la bonne direction, des actions plus concrètes et durables sont nécessaires.

V. Des pistes pour apaiser la crise

Compte tenu de l’ampleur du défi que représenterait une victoire militaire sur la branche locale de l’Etat islamique, au moins tant que les combattants de ce groupe sont en mesure de s’enfuir et se regrouper au Mali, les autorités nigériennes devraient se tourner vers des stratégies pluridimensionnelles pour contenir cette expansion, protéger les civils et stabiliser la région de Tillabéri. Différentes sources de violences s’entremêlent dangereusement, allant du banditisme armé aux conflits fonciers, en passant par les activités jihadistes. Les évènements récents sont particulièrement inquiétants, car ils montrent que la violence prend une tournure ethnique. Les civils courent un risque accru d’être tués en raison de leur appartenance à un groupe ethnique ou à un village spécifique.

Pour faire face au risque croissant de violence ethnique et éviter que celle-ci ne se développe davantage, Niamey devrait décourager la création de nouveaux groupes d’autodéfense visant à combattre les jihadistes, le banditisme et les violences à base communautaire. Ces groupes risquent en effet d’aggraver une situation déjà tendue. Une série de figures politiques locales, de chefs de village ou d’entrepreneurs encouragent quant à eux la création de tels groupes, avec ou sans soutien de l’Etat. Cependant, pour les autorités nigériennes, accepter cela reviendrait à ignorer les leçons durement apprises par les Etats voisins. La collaboration entre l’Etat et les groupes d’autodéfense Dana Ambassagou et koglweogo, respectivement au centre du Mali et dans le nord du Burkina Faso, ont accéléré les violences ethniques perpétrées contre les civils dans ces zones.

En outre, les récents massacres survenus dans le nord de Tillabéri indiquent que la création des groupes d’autodéfense pourrait finir par mettre les civils zarma encore plus en danger. A Tchomabangou et Darey-Daye, les villages ont été punis précisément parce qu’ils avaient formé des groupes d’autodéfense.

Jusqu’à présent, à l’exception de son alliance susmentionnée avec des groupes basés au Mali en 2017 et 2018, Niamey a judicieusement résisté à la tentation de compter sur les milices ethniques pour jouer un rôle dans la sécurisation du nord de Tillabéri, consciente qu’elles risquaient d’alimenter une violence communautaire plus large. Niamey devrait continuer à décourager la création de ces groupes en dissuadant les communautés de se mobiliser pour prendre les armes.

Par ailleurs, pour éviter que les tensions ethniques ne deviennent incontrôlables, les autorités devraient s’appuyer sur les récents messages émis par la HACP pour formuler un discours national convaincant, condamnant la violence communautaire. La diversité ethnique et l’inclusivité sont des valeurs centrales de l’identité nationale nigérienne, et beaucoup de Nigériens considèrent que cette particularité les distingue de leurs voisins. Aujourd’hui, cependant, des publications sur les réseaux sociaux diffusent une interprétation ethnique des récentes tueries, qui alimente l’hostilité entre les communautés. Pour contrer cette représentation des évènements, les autorités étatiques devraient souligner l’importance d’une réconciliation des différentes communautés et proposer une vision plus nuancée de la violence qui consume le nord de la région de Tillabéri.

Parallèlement, si le gouvernement veut persuader les villageois de ne pas prendre les armes pour se défendre, il devra déployer des efforts à court et à long termes pour montrer que l’Etat est capable de les protéger. Les autorités militaires pourraient, par exemple, envisager de réaffecter des troupes aux postes frontaliers, notamment à Inatès et Ikarfane, et de mener des opérations antiterroristes le long de la frontière malienne. Si elles choisissent cette option, elles devraient surveiller ses troupes de près, étant donné les risques désormais connus que des soldats commettent des abus contre des civils dans cette zone. La Commission nationale des droits humains (CNDH) a joué un rôle clé en enquêtant et en rendant publics les abus militaires contre les civils au cours de l’année dernière. Elle devrait continuer à mettre les abus en lumière et à faire pression pour que les coupables soient jugés.

Niamey devrait également encourager la police, la gendarmerie et la garde nationale à se reconcentrer sur la lutte contre le banditisme, en particulier lorsqu’il s’agit d’arrêter les criminels armés et de rendre le bétail et les biens volés. Non seulement cela contribuerait à rétablir la confiance entre les forces de sécurité et les communautés rurales, mais cela montrerait aussi que l’Etat veut protéger les habitants des zones rurales, leur fournir les services de base dont ils ont besoin et participer à enrayer la montée des tensions communautaires.

A plus long terme, les autorités nigériennes devraient tirer profit du possible affaiblissement de l’EIGS pour mener à bien des réformes sécuritaires. L’une de ces réformes pourrait consister à redéfinir les rôles respectifs de l’armée et des forces de sécurité internes. Si les deux forces ont des missions différentes, elles sont actuellement déployées le long de la frontière sous un seul commandement militaire. Les autorités civiles et militaires devraient également continuer d’œuvrer ensemble à améliorer la représentation des populations locales au sein des forces de sécurité, et contribuer ainsi à réduire durablement les tensions avec les populations locales. Les forces de sécurité nigériennes resteront la principale source de protection de ces communautés, aussi imparfaites soient-elles. Une force qui s’appuierait davantage sur des recrues locales gagnerait plus facilement la confiance de la population, aurait une connaissance précieuse du terrain et pourrait, dès lors, être dans une meilleure posture pour mener à bien sa mission de protection des civils. Bien que, comme Crisis Group l’a mentionné précédemment, cette approche comporte des risques qu’il ne faudra pas sous-estimer, elle reste une option préférable à celle consistant à se reposer uniquement sur des forces de sécurité extérieures.

Pour protéger les civils de la violence, Niamey pourrait aussi envisager de conclure des cessez-le-feu locaux par le biais du dialogue. Le président Bazoum pourrait, publiquement ou non, désigner un bureau spécial, rattaché à la présidence, chargé de contacter les commandants jihadistes locaux et d’entamer des pourparlers tenant compte de leur appartenance communautaire et de leurs intérêts socioéconomiques. Les autorités devront très probablement proposer une série de mesures incitatives similaires à celles offertes aux rebelles touareg du Niger dans les années 1990, telles que des engagements à intégrer les combattants dans les forces de sécurité, à associer les chefs rebelles à des postes d’influence régionaux, à protéger les minorités vulnérables et à investir dans le développement régional. Côté jihadiste, le cessez-le-feu devrait inclure la fin du prélèvement forcé de la zakat pour les personnes vivant dans les zones concernées.

Ce dialogue sera risqué pour les médiateurs impliqués, et il sera essentiel que les autorités nigériennes rassurent les insurgés qui pourraient craindre que l’Etat ou ses partenaires étrangers profitent de ces contacts pour les localiser et les tuer.
Pour améliorer la coordination entre les initiatives militaires et politiques, et pour éviter un scénario dans lequel l’un agit au détriment des intérêts de l’autre, le président Bazoum devrait donner à ce bureau l’autorité de suspendre les opérations militaires dans certaines parties de la zone frontalière si une accalmie est nécessaire pour faire avancer les négociations, et si un pacte de non-agression se concrétise.

S’il est certainement prématuré d’essayer d’amener à la table des négociations le dirigeant de la faction de l’Etat islamique au Sahel, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, cela pourrait être l’objectif ultime d’une stratégie axée sur le dialogue.
Si Niamey peut commencer à éloigner les commandants des zones frontalières de l’EIGS, et stopper durablement l’essor du groupe, alors peut-être que les intentions de Sahraoui évolueront. Après tout, il avait entamé des négociations avec de hauts responsables en 2017, avant que celles-ci ne soient abandonnées. Si Abu Walid se montre un jour prêt à reprendre les négociations, les autorités devraient envisager de proposer le pacte de non-agression qui avait été envisagé avec lui en 2017.

Le moment peut sembler mal choisi pour engager un dialogue avec les insurgés de l’Etat islamique, au lendemain d’horribles massacres. Le partenaire extérieur le plus important du Niger, la France, reste fermement opposé à un tel dialogue. Lors d’un sommet organisé le 15 février dans la capitale du Tchad, N’Djamena, le président Emmanuel Macron, fervent défenseur de l’intervention militaire au Sahel, a réitéré cette opposition.
L’idée de parler aux insurgés reste également controversée dans d’autres Etats du Sahel.

Néanmoins, au Burkina Faso, où le Premier ministre Christophe Dabiré l’a publiquement exclu, des réunions secrètes entamées en octobre 2020 entre de hauts responsables et des jihadistes ont abouti à un cessez-le-feu certes fragile mais qui a considérablement réduit la violence dans les mois qui ont suivi. Au Mali, une partie de la population soutient les efforts visant à conclure un accord avec les jihadistes après des années de combats destructeurs entre les insurgés et les groupes d’autodéfense.

Le Niger, qui fut le premier Etat sahélien à envisager la voie du dialogue, lorsque Bazoum Mohamed était ministre de l’Intérieur en 2016-2017, devrait suivre ces exemples. Maintenant qu’il est président, Bazoum jouit de l’autorité nécessaire pour poursuivre le dialogue avec les jihadistes dans le cadre des efforts visant à éviter que la violence intercommunautaire dans la région de Tillabéri n’augmente encore.

Enfin, les autorités devraient également accorder une plus grande priorité aux mesures visant à résoudre les conflits au sein des communautés et entre elles, notamment en ce qui concerne l’accès aux ressources, afin de s’attaquer aux facteurs de violence et de montrer que l’Etat a un rôle utile à jouer au niveau de la gouvernance. La HACP pourrait, par exemple, avec le soutien de partenaires étrangers ou d’organisations non gouvernementales, déployer des efforts plus systématiques en matière de consolidation de la paix afin de résoudre les conflits et d’apaiser les tensions, qu’il s’agisse de griefs liés à l’utilisation des terres ou entre les autorités locales, les villages ou les communautés, en commençant par les villages où les tensions sont fortes et où les jihadistes ont déjà commencé à recruter activement des combattants.


VI. Conclusion


Le risque que le Niger soit le théâtre de nouveaux massacres semblables à ceux qui ont traumatisé les pays voisins, le Mali et le Burkina Faso, est très élevé. Alors que les jihadistes continuent de recruter et de s’en prendre aux communautés locales, la formation de groupes d’autodéfense peut sembler être une solution pour les civils qui vivent dans ces régions, mais cela risque aussi de déclencher de nouveaux cycles de violence qui renforceront finalement la position de l’Etat islamique. Si les autorités nigériennes, qui s’efforcent de vaincre militairement les jihadistes, ont jusqu’à présent donné un exemple positif dans le Sahel central en évitant d’utiliser des milices locales pour mener des opérations antiterroristes à la frontière avec le Mali, elles sont actuellement sous pression quant à la nécessité de protéger leur population.

Il n’y a pas de réponse simple ni facilement actionnable par les autorités de Niamey. Cependant, à travers un agencement de mesures de sécurité calibrées, de messages visant à apaiser les tensions ethniques, d’efforts de dialogue avec les groupes insurgés et d’initiatives visant à gérer les différends au niveau communautaire, les autorités nigériennes peuvent encore atteindre leurs objectifs en matière de sécurité tout en évitant que les terribles violences perpétrées contre les civils ne s’aggravent encore.

Dakar/Niamey/Nairobi/Bruxelles, 28 mai 2021



Mali, un coup dans le coup

By Jean-Hervé Jezequel, Director, Sahel Project International Crisis Group, 27 May 2021

Des militaires ont arrêté les chefs de l’Etat et du gouvernement de transition maliens installés suite au coup d'Etat militaire d’août 2020. Dans ce Q&A, l’expert de Crisis Group Jean-Hervé Jezequel détaille les retombées possibles de ce second putsch dans un pays déjà fragilisé par le conflit avec les jihadistes.


Que sait-on de ce coup d’Etat au Mali, le second en neuf mois ?

Le lundi 24 mai, le président de la transition Bah N’Daw, son Premier ministre Moctar Ouane et quelques autres responsables maliens ont été arrêtés et conduits au camp militaire de Kati, près de Bamako. Cette arrestation a été décidée peu après la nomination d’un nouveau gouvernement, dont la composition a été âprement négociée pendant plus d’une semaine mais dans lequel ne figuraient plus les colonels Sadio Camara et Modibo Koné, respectivement ministres de la Défense et de la Sécurité. Ces deux officiers de la garde nationale sont aussi membres dirigeants de l’ex-Comité National de Salut du Peuple (CNSP), le groupe à l’origine du coup d’État du 18 août 2020 et officiellement dissous en janvier 2021.

Le lendemain, le colonel Assimi Goïta, chef de l’ex-CNSP et actuel vice-président de la transition, a fait lire un communiqué à la télévision nationale dans lequel il annonce « placer hors de leurs prérogatives » le président et son Premier ministre. Il les accuse d’incompétence et surtout d’avoir constitué un nouveau gouvernement sans le consulter – ce qui est peu probable étant donné la durée des négociations pour former le gouvernement – violant ainsi la charte de la transition, un texte adopté en septembre 2020 qui lui donne des prérogatives en matière de défense et de sécurité. Cette même charte invoquée par le colonel Goïta ne lui donne pourtant aucun pouvoir de suspendre le président ou le Premier ministre. A ce titre, le coup de force des militaires de l’ex-CNSP est bien une tentative de coup d’Etat pour reprendre le contrôle d’une transition en train de leur échapper.

Ces derniers jours, les relations s’étaient tendues entre, d’une part, les anciens putschistes et, d’autre part, le président Bah N’Daw, lui-même ancien militaire à la retraite, et Moctar Ouane, son Premier ministre. Ces derniers avaient l’intention de mettre en place un gouvernement plus inclusif, pour construire une union plus forte autour de la transition sur fond de tensions sociales dans le pays, et notamment d’une grève générale décrétée par la principale union syndicale du pays. N’Daw et Ouane ont également saisi cette occasion pour tenter de réduire la forte influence que les militaires de l’ex-CNSP avaient établie sur les institutions de transition et qui, selon plusieurs sources consultées par Crisis Group, limitait considérablement les marges de manœuvre du chef de gouvernement.

Ces tensions entre autorités civiles de transition et ex-putschistes rappellent étrangement l’éviction forcée du Premier ministre Cheick Modibo Diarra en décembre 2012 par des putschistes quelques mois après leur coup d’Etat contre le président Touré. Les militaires de l’ex-CNSP, que des officiels occidentaux décrivaient il y a encore quelques mois comme des « officiers éclairés », ne se comportent finalement pas mieux que les sous-officiers ayant pris le pouvoir en 2012. Le Mali donne parfois l’impression d’un inquiétant retour à la case départ.

Quels sont les risques pour le Mali ?

En août 2020, la destitution du président élu Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) par le CNSP avait suscité très peu de violences, en grande partie parce que le régime était épuisé et que le départ d’IBK a été accueilli avec un certain soulagement par une large partie de la population après des semaines de manifestations populaires. Cette fois, il s’agit d’une confiscation du pouvoir par des militaires dont l’action bénéficie d’un bien moindre soutien populaire. Des rumeurs font état de tensions au sein de l’armée, où ce “coup dans le coup” ne fait pas l’unanimité. Jusqu’ici les casernes restent tranquilles, mais on ne peut écarter le risque de combats fratricides entre forces de sécurité, comme ce fut le cas après le coup d’Etat de mars 2012.

Par ailleurs, il n’y a pour le moment pas de mobilisation de la société civile dans la rue pour défendre les autorités suspendues, mais plusieurs associations, partis politiques et personnalités se sont publiquement prononcées pour exiger leur libération. A l’inverse, peu d’organisations maliennes ont exprimé un soutien en faveur de l’action des militaires. Beaucoup, comme la Coordination des mouvements, associations et sympathisant (CMAS) de l'influent imam Mahmoud Dicko, réservent encore leur jugement ou mènent d’intenses négociations avec les miliaires de l’ex-CNSP, sans doute dans l’espoir d’obtenir des positions d‘influence dans un éventuel prochain gouvernement.

En effet, si la démission forcée de N’Daw et Ouane le 26 mai se confirme, les militaires de l’ex-CNSP vont maintenant vouloir consolider leur coup en faisant nommer un nouveau Premier ministre et un nouveau président de la transition. Ils pourraient trouver un chef du gouvernement au sein du Mouvement du 5 juin-Rassemblement des forces patriotiques (M5-RFP), une coalition hétéroclite de partis et d’associations qui a joué un rôle clé dans le renversement du président Keita mais avait ensuite été divisé et marginalisé par le CNSP au moment de la création des institutions de transition.

Ils comptent sur une telle alliance avec des forces politiques maliennes pour convaincre les acteurs internationaux de les laisser poursuivre la transition. Le vice-président, dans une tentative d’amadouer les acteurs internationaux, a d’ailleurs annoncé après l’arrestation du président qu’il comptait toujours terminer la transition en respectant le calendrier négocié avec la Communauté économique des Etats d’Afrique de l’Ouest (Cedeao) en septembre 2020.

Les jours qui viennent vont donc être déterminants et une situation de blocage politique durable est l’un des scénarios envisageables. Mais quelle que soit l’issue des évènements actuels, cette nouvelle crise met à jour l’absence d’une coalition forte soutenant l’action de la transition et notamment son ambition déclarée de réformer le système politique malien. C’est là l’élément peut-être le plus inquiétant : après avoir traversé toutes ces crises, le Mali ne sait toujours pas quelles forces politiques sont capables de porter le changement dont le pays a besoin.

Quelles ont été les réactions internationales ?

La condamnation internationale est forte et jusqu’ici unanime. Les principaux partenaires de la transition du Mali, la Cedeao, l’Union africaine, la Mission des Nations unies au Mali (Minusma), la France, l’Union européenne et les États-Unis, ont rejeté cette tentative de coup d’Etat. Les militaires de l’ex-CNSP s’y attendaient sans doute mais ils ont pris le risque, estimant peut-être que les même acteurs internationaux qui ont laissé une junte militaire s’installer récemment au pouvoir au Tchad après la mort du président Idriss Déby, finiront également par composer avec eux comme ils l’ont d’ailleurs fait en août dernier.

Une mission de la Cedeao est déjà arrivée à Bamako pour rencontrer les différents protagonistes et tenter de dénouer cette crise. Les partenaires internationaux du Mali savent cependant que les outils de pression dont ils disposent sont à double tranchant. Comme en août 2020, la Cedeao pourrait suspendre le Mali de ses institutions et imposer des sanctions économiques qui pèsent sur les décideurs maliens. Mais ces mesures frappent aussi la population malienne, au risque d’aggraver les tensions internes et même de nourrir un sentiment de rejet des partenaires du Mali.

L’an passé, ces sanctions avaient permis d’arracher d’importants compromis aux militaires du CNSP, mais sans les écarter de l’exercice réel du pouvoir. Des sanctions internationales ciblées sur les responsables du coup d’Etat pourraient aussi être adoptées, mais elles sont peu susceptibles d’avoir un impact à court terme et pourraient même entrainer la suspension des programmes de collaboration avec les autorités maliennes si les personnalités sanctionnées se maintiennent au pouvoir. Cette suspension possible des programmes de collaboration était déjà la hantise de nombreux bailleurs de fonds suite au putsch d’août 2020.

Les acteurs internationaux devraient continuer à refuser la confiscation du pouvoir par les militaires de l’ex-CNSP et faire pression pour que le pays renoue avec un pouvoir civil qui n’en soit pas l’otage. Ils ne peuvent cependant peser que s’ils restent unis. En août 2020, certains partenaires du Mali avaient trop précocement envoyé aux militaires le signal qu’ils pourraient garder une influence déterminante sur la conduite des affaires du pays.

Les partenaires internationaux ont aujourd'hui deux options principales, dont aucune n’est sans risque : soit, ils restent fermes sur les principes et exigent le retour en fonction du président N'Daw et du Premier ministre Ouane, dont la démission a été obtenue manifestement sous la contrainte. Cette position de fermeté engendrera une situation de confrontation avec l'ex-CNSP et un blocage politique à l'issue incertaine, mais elle offrira plus de chance d'enrayer durablement la mainmise préjudiciable d'un groupe de militaires sur le pouvoir au Mali.

L'autre option est de condamner les arrestations et d'appeler au retour, dans les plus brefs délais, d'une transition civile mais sans exiger le retour en fonction du président et du premier ministre. Cela ouvre la porte à des négociations avec la junte pour réinstaller des autorités civiles. Mais, comme en août dernier, l'ex-CNSP pourrait en profiter pour mettre en place l'apparence d'une autorité civile tout en conservant la réalité du pouvoir, au risque de reproduire les mêmes effets dans un proche avenir.

C'est cette option que le Conseil de sécurité des Nations unies semble suivre dans son communiqué du 26 mai. Si le reste des partenaires, et notamment la Cedeao, suivent également cette option, il faudrait cette fois assortir les négociations avec les militaires de dispositions permettant de réduire plus efficacement la part d'influence politique qu'ils conserveront afin que les autorités civiles n'en soient plus l'otage. Dans les deux cas, l'efficacité des pressions internationales dépendra aussi de leur capacité à s’articuler à un mouvement intérieur de refus du coup de force qui pour l’instant tarde à prendre de l'ampleur.

Cette instabilité politique peut-elle peser sur le conflit avec les jihadistes ?

Ces crises à répétition entament la crédibilité de l’Etat malien, déjà confronté aux insurrections de plusieurs groupes armés sur son territoire. Pour les populations qui vivent dans des zones en état d’insurrection, le retour ou le déploiement d’un État englué dans des querelles intestines à Bamako est un scénario de plus en plus improbable. Cela donne de l’espace aux jihadistes et à d’autres groupes armés qui se présentent de fait comme des alternatives durables à l’autorités d’un Etat absent.

Par ailleurs, on ne peut écarter non plus que cette nouvelle crise entame la confiance déjà très fragile dans l’accord de paix inter-malien, signé en 2015 mais dont les principales dispositions en matière de sécurité et de décentralisation n’ont toujours pas été mises en place. Si on félicitait il y a quelques mois les autorités de transition pour avoir développé de meilleures relations que leurs prédécesseurs avec les groupes armés signataires, en particulier ceux de la Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad, la crise actuelle à Bamako pourrait convaincre certains de ces mêmes signataires que rester dans le giron d’un Etat malade et incapable d’honorer ses engagements n’est pas la meilleure solution. Ces tensions pourraient d’autant plus se développer que le M5-RFP, dont un des dirigeants pourrait former le prochain gouvernement à l’appel des militaires de l’ex-CNSP, intègre des personnalités connues pour leur hostilité à l’accord de paix de 2015.


République Démocratique du Congo : pas de délai de grâce pour le nouveau gouvernement

Par Onesphore Sematumba , International Crisis Group, 05 Mai 2021

Après des mois de manœuvres politiques, le président Félix Tshisekedi s’est affranchi de son prédécesseur, Joseph Kabila et, à la suite de l’investiture d’un nouveau gouvernement issu de sa nouvelle majorité, il détient désormais l’effectivité du pouvoir. Dans ce Q&A, l’expert de Crisis Group Onesphore Sematumba explique que les difficultés ne semblent pourtant pas écartées.


Dans quel contexte politique s’inscrit ce gouvernement ?

L'investiture le 26 avril du premier gouvernement de l'« Union sacrée », la nouvelle majorité parlementaire du président Félix Tshisekedi, met fin à la période prolongée de domination du système politique par son prédécesseur Joseph Kabila. Suite à la nomination le 12 avril de la nouvelle équipe gouvernementale dirigée par le Premier ministre Sama Lukonde, celui-ci a obtenu le vote de confiance d’une large majorité des députés – 410 votes favorables sur 412 députés présents – malgré les tensions survenues autour de la répartition des postes ministériels. Avec l’investiture de ce gouvernement, Tshisekedi a désormais les coudées plus franches pour mettre en œuvre ses réformes pour le reste de son quinquennat.

Après l'élection controversée de 2018 qui a donné à Tshisekedi la présidence malgré de forts soupçons de fraude en sa faveur émis par certains observateurs, dont ceux de la Conférence épiscopale nationale du Congo, le nouveau président a été forcé d'accepter l'emprise continue de Kabila sur la politique et le pouvoir. Le Front commun pour le Congo (FCC), coalition de Kabila, a gagné les législatives, raflant 342 sièges sur les 500 à l’Assemblée nationale. Dans les provinces, le FCC avait également remporté la quasi-totalité des gouvernements et des parlements provinciaux. Ces résultats ont permis à Kabila de négocier en faveur de ses propres alliés d'importantes institutions et ministères d'Etat aux niveaux national et provincial.

La coalition entre le FCC de Kabila et le Cap pour le Changement (CACH) de Tshisekedi, formée après ces élections, a connu des tensions depuis ses débuts, donnant lieu à une épreuve de force faite de négociations et de blocages interminables qui ont paralysé le fonctionnement des institutions. Cette coalition a permis au CACH de participer au gouvernement en dépit de son maigre score aux législatives – avec moins de 50 députés – mais elle a néanmoins empêché Tshisekedi de gouverner. Alors que ce dernier avait prêté serment le 24 janvier 2019, il fallut cinq mois pour que les deux partenaires conviennent de la nomination de Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba au poste de Premier ministre. Celui-ci a, par la suite, formé un gouvernement de 67 membres au sein duquel le FCC occupait les postes clés tels que la Défense, la Justice et les Mines.

Face à ce défi, Tshisekedi a entrepris de desserrer l’étau du FCC et de briser l’emprise de Kabila sur les institutions en débauchant les députés alliés de Kabila, usant de méthodes que les députés restés fidèles à l’ancien président ont jugées non démocratiques. En nommant trois nouveaux juges à la Cour constitutionnelle en octobre 2020, le président s’est assuré la loyauté de cette institution soupçonnée naguère d’avoir été au service de Kabila. En novembre, Tshisekedi a initié des consultations politiques élargies aux composantes de la société civile qui ont abouti, un mois plus tard, à la proclamation de la dissolution de la coalition. Il a entrepris de recréer une nouvelle majorité. La Cour constitutionnelle, en permettant aux membres du Parlement de sortir de leurs regroupements politiques précédents et d’entrer dans de nouvelles alliances, a offert aux députés l’opportunité de changer de camp sans risquer d’être exclus de leurs partis d’origine et, partant, de perdre leurs sièges de députés. Ainsi, Tshisekedi a convaincu un grand nombre de députés du FCC de rejoindre la nouvelle majorité de l’Union sacrée, aux côtés des partisans des deux poids lourds de l’opposition, Moïse Katumbi et Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Tshisekedi a ensuite enregistré une série d’autres victoires sur Kabila, renversant le rapport de forces en sa faveur. De décembre 2020 à janvier 2021, les députés de la nouvelle majorité ont destitué par motions successives les présidents de l’Assemblée nationale et du Sénat ainsi que le Premier ministre Ilunga et son gouvernement. Le 15 février, suite à des négociations entre les différentes composantes de l’Union sacrée, Tshisekedi a nommé Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde au poste de nouveau Premier ministre. Originaire du Grand Katanga et ancien directeur général de la principale compagnie minière du pays, la Gécamines, le jeune Premier ministre, 43 ans, est issu de l’Avenir du Congo (ACO), un petit parti politique sans assise nationale. Dépourvu d’une réelle stature et sans ambition affichée pour les élections prévues pour 2023, le nouveau chef de gouvernement devrait travailler dans l’ombre du président, ce qui permettrait à ce dernier de mettre en œuvre sa politique pour les deux dernières années du quinquennat.

La formation du gouvernement a été la première épreuve du nouveau Premier ministre. Dès sa nomination, celui-ci a promis de mettre rapidement en place une équipe gouvernementale resserrée et prête à prendre les problèmes du pays à bras-le-corps. Néanmoins, après deux mois de tractations autour des postes ministériels à l’intérieur de la nouvelle majorité, le gouvernement est à peine moins pléthorique que le précédent, avec 57 membres. Mais 80 pour cent de ses ministres sont de nouvelles figures, ce qui marque une certaine rupture par rapport à la précédente équipe gouvernementale, dont certains ministres étaient aux affaires depuis les régimes de Joseph Kabila, de son père et prédécesseur Laurent Kabila, et de l’ancien dictateur Joseph Mobutu.

À quels défis ce nouveau gouvernement est-il confronté ?

Le défi immédiat pour Tshisekedi sera de contrôler toutes les différentes forces au sein de sa nouvelle coalition. Les difficiles négociations qui ont abouti à la formation de ce nouveau gouvernement sont symptomatiques de la fragilité de sa nouvelle majorité, formée autour du consensus pour déboulonner Kabila mais sans projet politique commun à mettre en place.

À peine le gouvernement proclamé le 12 avril, la coalition a déjà commencé à montrer ses premières fissures. Près de 200 députés transfuges du FCC de Kabila se sont constitués en une « coalition des députés révolutionnaires » pour dénoncer les déséquilibres dans le nouveau gouvernement, certaines provinces ayant bénéficié de plusieurs ministères alors que d’autres n’en ont aucun. Ils ont accusé Sama Lukonde de n’avoir pas récompensé leur « traversée » par leur intégration au gouvernement. Le 14 avril, à travers un mémorandum adressé à Tshisekedi, ce groupe a menacé de bloquer l’investiture du gouvernement Sama Lukonde si les ajustements n’étaient pas faits pour répondre à leurs frustrations. Le 26 avril, après que le Premier ministre et Tshisekedi ont rencontré les députés, l’Assemblée nationale a cependant accordé sa confiance au nouveau gouvernement et entériné son ambitieux programme à une majorité écrasante. A l’issue d’une plénière chaotique, dans une salle envahie par les militants du parti présidentiel, les députés ont voté la confiance sans véritable débat.

La pluralité des espaces de décision, susceptible de reproduire les blocages au sein du gouvernement de coalition, constitue l’autre faiblesse de cette équipe. D’abord, la nomination de fortes personnalités issues de l’opposition aux postes de vice-Premiers ministres, notamment Eve Bazaiba, secrétaire générale du Mouvement pour la libération du Congo de Bemba, et Christophe Lutundula, haut cadre d’Ensemble pour la République de Katumbi, va diminuer sensiblement la marge de manœuvre de Tshisekedi au sein d’une Union sacrée dont il ne sera pas tout à fait le seul maître à bord. Les autres dirigeants des partis politiques qui ont intégré l'Union sacrée utiliseront également leurs positions pour faire pression afin que leurs intérêts soient respectés. Ils pousseront en permanence leurs alliés promus ministres à peser sur les choix du gouvernement, ce qui pourrait entraver toute velléité de Tshisekedi de développer un programme gouvernemental unique et non partisan.

En effet, la perspective des élections générales de décembre 2023, auxquelles tout porte à croire que les grands protagonistes du gouvernement Sama Lukonde vont concourir, pourrait bientôt devenir un point de fixation et provoquer des rivalités préjudiciables à la cohésion gouvernementale. Le président devra également tenir compte des manœuvres des deux principaux poids lourds de l'opposition, Bemba et Katumbi, mais aussi d'autres candidats potentiels, comme l'ancien allié et directeur de cabinet de Tshisekedi, Vital Kamerhe, emprisonné depuis 2020 pour actes de corruption. Le parti de Kamerhe a obtenu quatre ministères, où il a placé ses proches. Même si Kamerhe est exclu de toute élection pour les dix prochaines années, son parti va influencer les votes dans son fief du Sud-Kivu, qu'il se dispute avec Bahati Lukwebo, l'actuel président du Sénat. Si Bemba reste inéligible suite à sa condamnation pour corruption par la Cour pénale internationale, son retour dans l’arène à la faveur d’une décision politique de Tshisekedi demeure possible. Quant à Katumbi, il a déjà entrepris la structuration et l’implantation de son parti dans les 26 provinces du pays en prévision des prochains scrutins.

Ce gouvernement sera-t-il en mesure de lutter contre la violence à l'est ?

Comme l’a dit Tshisekedi lors de sa réception des députés le 24 avril, « la priorité des priorités » de ce gouvernement est de mettre fin à la violence à l’est du pays. Depuis le début du mois d’avril, les populations à l’est organisent des manifestations contre l’inefficacité de l’armée congolaise et des Casques bleus des Nations unies face aux tueries et autres exactions des groupes armés. Au Nord-Kivu, qui fait face à des massacres majoritairement imputés au groupe d’origine ougandaise Forces démocratiques alliées, les populations multiplient les actions de défiance envers le pouvoir central. En Ituri, les miliciens de la Coopérative pour le développement du Congo ont, après une relative accalmie, mené de nouvelles attaques contre les civils. Au Sud-Kivu, des groupes armés maï maï locaux et des rebelles d’origine étrangère comme les Burundais de la Résistance pour le droit au Burundi (RED-Tabara) mènent des attaques ciblées contre des civils dans les hauts plateaux d’Uvira. Au Katanga, le groupe sécessionniste Bakata-Katanga de Gédéon Kyungu et d’autres milices continuent à terroriser les populations, sur fond de revendications sécessionnistes.

Jusqu'à présent, Tshisekedi a eu tendance à mettre l’accent sur la réponse militaire aux défis sécuritaires de l’est du pays. Sa proclamation de l’état de siège dans les provinces du Nord-Kivu et de l’Ituri le 1er mai, qui prévoit le remplacement de l’administration civile par l’administration militaire, le prouve à nouveau. Pourtant, son armée n’a engrangé que de très maigres résultats sur le terrain. Au Nord-Kivu comme en Ituri, les groupes armés ont même souvent réoccupé avec une étonnante facilité les quelques positions conquises par l’armée régulière.

Compte tenu des mauvais résultats des campagnes militaires, le gouvernement devrait donc envisager d'autres formes de relations avec les groupes armés. Pour ce faire, il devrait accélérer la mise en œuvre du programme de désarmement, démobilisation et réintégration communautaire des anciens combattants (DDR) convenu avec les principaux bailleurs de fonds depuis novembre dernier et bloqué à cause des querelles politiques à Kinshasa. Organiser une grande campagne de démobilisation sera cependant un grand chantier, le gouvernement devra tirer les leçons de l’échec des programmes de DDR précédents, dû principalement au manque d’engagement politique des autorités congolaises et à leur incapacité à résoudre les questions qui sous-tendent la violence structurelle. Si la campagne de démobilisation ne suffisait pas, Tshisekedi et son gouvernement devraient encore avoir recours à la force militaire pour contrer certains miliciens.

La nouvelle donne politique à Kinshasa devrait faciliter la tâche à Tshisekedi ; il dispose désormais d’une nouvelle équipe en place et il n’est plus distrait par la bataille avec son prédécesseur. Mais il va devoir composer avec un gouvernement qui, de par les intérêts divergents et les rivalités individuelles et partisanes entre les parties prenantes, porte les germes des blocages à venir. Il devra également gérer les conditionnalités des bailleurs qui attendent qu’il tourne la page de l'ère Kabila pour débloquer leurs financements.

Il est donc crucial que Tshisekedi s’attelle à la question des groupes armés. « Il n’y a plus de temps à perdre », écrivait Katumbi sur Twitter le 26 avril, ajoutant que « l’investiture du gouvernement Sama Lukonde ouvre la voie de la paix à l’est ». Tshisekedi doit en effet se mettre au travail. Certains responsables politiques sont déjà soupçonnés de conclure des accords avec différents acteurs armés avant l’élection de 2023, afin d’exercer des pressions politiques à Kinshasa, ou éventuellement de provoquer des violences s'ils n'obtiennent pas ce qu'ils veulent. Tshisekedi, qui a désormais les coudées franches d’un point de vue institutionnel, devrait tout mettre en œuvre pour couper les liens entre les groupes armés et les responsables politiques qui, depuis les années 1990, les instrumentalisent à des fins politiques ou mercantiles. C’est la seule voie pour que le Congo bénéficie enfin des réformes qu’il a annoncées.