MOSCOW - The Kremlin has defended Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian navy ships off the coast of Crimea, saying the move was lawful and in strict accordance with international and domestic regulations.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday described the actions of the Ukrainian navy as "an invasion of Russian territorial waters," and accused the Ukrainian vessels of illegally crossing Russia's sea border and ignoring warnings made by Russian border guards.

"The Russian side acted in strict accordance with the law, both domestic and international. This is a case of trespassing into territorial waters of the Russian Federation by foreign military vessels," Peskov said.

"These foreign military vessels entered Russian territorial waters not answering any queries from our coast guard, ignoring proposals to use piloting services, and so on and so forth," he added.

Peskov also said a criminal case has been opened over the violation of Russia's border, without providing further details.

Earlier in the day, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the incident in the Kerch Strait near Crimea had been organized at the highest political level in Ukraine.

Blaming Kiev for the incident, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of a "planned" provocation and of using "dangerous methods" that would put ships in the area at risk.

The ministry statement said the Ukrainian navy had "violated the rules of passage through Russian territorial waters," adding that Kiev had deliberately provoked the clash in order to create a pretext for new sanctions to be imposed on Moscow.

"Russia has repeatedly warned the Kiev regime and its Western supporters that fanning up the hysteria over the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait was dangerous. It's obvious that there was a provocation, carefully planned in terms of location and form, which is aimed at flaring up yet another point of conflict in the region and creating a new pretext to impose more sanctions against Russia," the statement noted.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also said in the statement that such incidents may have "serious consequences," and it would "strongly counter" any attempts to undermine the country's sovereignty and security.

Russia's RIA news agency reported that a Ukrainian diplomat had been seen entering the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday, hours after Moscow promised to summon a Ukrainian representative to discuss an incident in the Kerch Strait.

Two Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat on Sunday tried to pass through the Kerch Strait in the Azov Sea apparently without prior warning, but were ordered to stop by Russian border guards. A confrontation took place after the Ukrainian navy ships ignored the calls while maneuvering dangerously, ending with the three ships being seized by the Russian side and the injury of six Ukrainian seamen.

Kiev has accused Moscow of blocking access for Ukrainian ships though the strait, the only way in and out of the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.

The Sea of Azov is a strategic ocean route linked to the Black Sea by the narrow Strait of Kerch where Russia has built a bridge to link the Crimean Peninsula with the mainland.

Tensions escalated earlier this year after Ukraine detained two Russian ships for port calls on Crimea, which rejoined Russia in a 2014 referendum.

Moscow described the move as "maritime terrorism" and increased patrols off its Azov coast to guarantee free navigation by Russian ships.

Ukraine reserves right for defense against Russia: FM

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Kiev reserved the right to defend itself against Russia, warning that it was likely "Russia plans further acts of aggression at seas or on the ground."

"But (Ukraine) certainly reserves the right for self-defense as it is prescribed by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. It is very important that the whole civilized world goes beyond formal and informal statements, no matter how strong or very strong they are, and takes certain measures against Russia," Klimkin noted.

Following the Kerch Strait incident, a group of Ukrainian radicals and extremists gathered in front of Russia's diplomatic facilities, throwing flares and eggs at the Russian embassy in the Ukrainian capital.

Moscow announced on Monday that it has summoned an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss the incident.



NATO calls emergency meeting with Ukraine



NATO said it would hold an emergency meeting later in the day with Ukrainian officials at the US-led alliance's headquarters in Brussels over the naval standoff off the coast of Crimea.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was reported to have held phone talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and other officials from the two sides over the issue.

"The Secretary General expressed NATO's full support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law," NATO said of Stoltenberg's call.



EU declares stance on Azov Sea clash



The European Union warned on Sunday that tensions in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait had "increased dangerously," calling on Russia to restore freedom of passage.

EU President Donald Tusk criticized "Russian use of force" in clashes with Ukraine ships off the coast of Crimea and pledged European support for Kiev in the standoff.

"I condemn Russian use of force in Azov Sea. Russian authorities must return Ukrainian sailors, vessels & refrain from further provocations," Tusk said in a tweet, adding that "Europe will stay united in support of Ukraine."

A German Foreign Ministry spokesman said senior officials from Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France were holding a meeting in Berlin on Monday, seeking to come up with a common solution to renewed tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

"Today, by chance - it was planned long in advance - political directors are meeting here in Berlin in the Normandy format to discuss the situation in Ukraine and progress in the Minsk process," the ministry spokesman said, referring to the format under which the four countries meet.

"Of course, this forum will be used to discuss the weekend's events and to find a collective solution," he added.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter on Monday that Russian blockade of the Sea of Azov was unacceptable and developments in Ukraine were alarming.

Maas called on both sides of the Kerch incident to de-escalate the conflict.

France on Monday also urged Moscow to release the three Ukrainian naval ships seized near Crimea over the weekend.

"Nothing appears to have justified the use of force by Russia," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We urge Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and hand back the seized naval vessels as soon as possible."

Britain pointed the finger of blame at Russia for "destabilizing behavior" in the region after the weekend incident in the Sea of Azov, calling for restraint from both sides involved in the conflict.

"The UK position is clear; ships must be allowed free passage to Ukrainian ports in the sea of Azov. We urge all parties to act with restraint. Russia must not be allowed to use force to exert greater pressure on Ukraine," Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman told reporters.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also accused Moscow in a tweet of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ukraine president decrees martial law, calls for release of navy officers

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree on Monday to introduce martial law for 60 days, following a sharp escalation in tensions between the two countries.

The decree needs parliamentary approval to come into force throughout the country as of Wednesday, November 28.

Ukraine's parliament is expected to debate the decree later on Monday.

The Ukrainian president also demanded the release of the seized vessels and their crew following the Sunday incident, as Russia is resisting international calls to release the Ukrainian naval ships.

"I appeal to the leadership of the Russian Federation with a demand to immediately release the Ukrainian servicemen who were brutally detained in violation of international law, and whose fate is unknown. We demand to immediately hand them over to the Ukrainian side together with the ships and to de-escalate the situation in the Azov Sea immediately as a first step and to de-escalate tensions in other areas. I would like to ask for a quick reaction," Poroshenko said.

Additionally, Ukraine has called on its Western allies to step up existing sanctions implemented against Russia over Crimea and its role in the ongoing military conflict in eastern Ukraine between government troops and pro-Russia forces.

Ties between Russia and the rest of Europe have deteriorated since February 2014, when Crimea rejoined Russia following a referendum.

In siding with Ukraine, the European Union has leveled several rounds of sanctions against the Russian government. The NATO military alliance has also joined the pressure campaign, amassing troops and equipment on Russia's borders.

The West brands the reunification as annexation of the territory by Russia but Moscow denies any involvement in the conflict.

Armed confrontation between the pro-Russia forces and the Ukrainian military has killed more than 10,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Main News

Europe

The Minsk Conundrum: Western Policy and Russia’s War in Eastern Ukraine

By Duncan Allan, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, 22 May 2020


The Minsk agreements rest on two irreconcilable interpretations of Ukraine’s sovereignty: is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia demands? Instead of trying to resolve an unresolvable contradiction, Western policymakers should acknowledge the starkness of the Minsk conundrum.


Summary


- The Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, which sought to end Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, rest on two irreconcilable interpretations of Ukraine’s sovereignty – what could be called the ‘Minsk conundrum’: is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia demands?

Ukraine sees the agreements as instruments with which to re-establish its sovereignty in line with the following sequence: a ceasefire; a Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine; return of the Russia/Ukraine border to Ukrainian control; free and fair elections in the Donbas region; and a limited devolution of power to Russia’s proxy regimes, which would be reintegrated and resubordinated to the authorities in Kyiv. Ukraine would be able to make its own domestic and foreign policy choices.

- Russia sees the Minsk agreements as tools with which to break Ukraine’s sovereignty. Its interpretation reverses key elements in the sequence of actions: elections in occupied Donbas would take place before Ukraine had reclaimed control of the border; this would be followed by comprehensive autonomy for Russia’s proxy regimes, crippling the central authorities in Kyiv. Ukraine would be unable to govern itself effectively or orient itself towards the West.

- These contradictory provisions are testimony to a stunning failure of Russian foreign policy. In 2014 Russia launched a campaign of violent subversion to compel Ukraine to ‘federalize’ its political system. Belying Russian expectations, Ukrainians fought back en masse, forcing Russia to resort to increasingly open military intervention. Russia inflicted crushing defeats on Ukrainian forces, yet was unwilling to pay the price that further high-intensity war would have exacted.

- Western views on how to implement the Minsk agreements are imprecise and inconsistent. One prevalent view is that implementation means finding a mid-point between the Russian and Ukrainian positions. However, attempts to do so have failed – heaping pressure on Ukraine, risking political instability in Kyiv, and not leading to any discernible change in Russian policy. Instead of trying to resolve an unresolvable contradiction, Western policymakers should acknowledge the starkness of the Minsk conundrum.

- An alternative approach would make the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty the unambiguous premise of Western policy. It would view the Minsk and Normandy processes mainly as conflict management tools. In line with the priority attached to upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, Western governments would meanwhile maintain support for long-term political and economic reform in Ukraine, using the EU/Ukraine Association Agreement as the anchor.

- This approach would also encourage the authorities in Kyiv to engage more inclusively with those living in occupied Donbas. Yet it would proceed from the assumption that the region should not be legally reincorporated into Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Finally, this approach would logically entail a lengthy stand-off with Russia over Ukraine – a prospect that many decision-makers in the West would find troubling and unnerving.

For the full report. visit: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/2020-05-22-minsk-conundrum-allan.pdf

 

Turkey’s Looming Gordian Knot

By MARC PIERINI, Carnegie Middle East Center, 06 May 2020


Ankara is pushing problematic policies as its president’s political survival is hitting up against economic imperatives.

 

Turkey is fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and is helping other countries do the same. However, the health crisis has exposed the country’s vulnerabilities because of its political, economic, and foreign policy choices. Maintaining these choices in the midst of a global recession will be a tall order.

From a sanitary standpoint, and political scuffles apart, Turkey’s health system seems to be coping well with the pandemic. Ankara is also helping a number of countries, ranging from Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to countries in the western Balkans and Africa. Its carefully choreographed delivery of a consignment of six pallets of medical supplies to Washington, D.C. on April 28 was accompanied by a letter from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan telling President Donald Trump that he was “a reliable and strong partner of the United States.”

The not so subliminal message was that Turkey expects to avoid anticipated U.S. sanctions for its S-400 missile deal with Russia and wants to benefit from a “swap scheme” implemented by the U.S. Federal Reserve for countries most affected by Covid-19.

However, this “Covid-19 diplomacy” will hardly hide the more problematic realities that Turkey faces in its political, economic, and foreign affairs. For starters, the country presents all the trappings of a full autocracy. Freedom of speech and freedom of media are severely limited. The judiciary is politicized. Opposition leaders are verbally assaulted on a regular basis, when not harassed or even dismissed. Prisoners of opinion are kept in jail while organized crime figures have been freed under special Covid-19 legislation.

On the financial front, the reserves of the Turkish central bank are dramatically low and are being used to endlessly defend the Turkish lira against all odds, given the monetary policy that is currently in place. At the same time, Ankara refuses to take advantage of the International Monetary Fund’s special Covid-19 facilities, essentially for reasons of principle, despite their low cost and conditionality. This will make ulterior adjustments more painful.

Meanwhile, the military intervention in northern Syria has ended up illustrating the profound divergences of views with Russia when it comes to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Elsewhere, the Turkish intervention in favor of Libya’s Government of National Accord has also created tensions with several Arab countries, and more importantly with Russia. Unilateral decisions in the eastern Mediterranean, such as the redefinition of maritime boundaries and gas drilling operations in contested waters around Cyprus, have exacerbated relations with Cyprus, Greece, the European Union, and the United States. Making matters worse, the government-organized assault on the Greek border in early March—the first ever by a NATO member against another—using refugees as pawns, ended in failure and added to their suffering.

Finally, Turkey’s deployment of the Russian S-400 air defense system, accompanied by Russian specialists, constituted alignment with Moscow and upset NATO’s missile defense architecture. The U.S. Congress will not be mollified by a shipment of face masks as it considers its response to this.

From a theoretical standpoint, and with a dose of hubris, it could be argued that Turkey has reached such a degree of economic development and military power that it doesn’t need to belong exclusively to the Western alliance anymore. In this vein, it would be legitimate for Ankara to seek a place on the world stage equidistant from all big powers, pursuing an economic policy free of prevailing rules and institutions. However, its leadership’s artificial and hostile narratives, or well-choreographed diplomatic actions, do not represent a policy for two main reasons.

First, becoming a “power in the middle” and acting on par with China, the European Union, Russia, and the United States requires a steady hand and a consistent foreign policy. Assaulting the Greek border with riot police in order to conceal the heavy blow dealt by Russian forces to a Turkish battalion in Saraqeb in Syria’s Idlib Governorate doesn’t buy respect or fear. It just wrecks Turkey’s diplomatic standing. The same goes for the so-called agreement with Libya over maritime boundaries.

Second, hubris notwithstanding, one can’t ignore economic fundamentals. Turkey is a deficit country and relies heavily on the West, primarily Europe, for its export of manufactured goods, its import of technology, and its financial needs, both in terms of short-term and direct investment. China, Russia, and the Gulf countries are not alternatives to Turkey’s European anchor. Even when Qatar or China is willing to help Turkey economically, this is not commensurate with the country’s current financial gap. Besides, beyond hopes, a functioning European economic anchor requires two features that Ankara cannot currently provide—the rule of law as well as respect and dialogue.

Turkey is facing a quandary. The political survival of its president, whose party has lost its electoral hegemony, seems to require an ever-increasing nationalistic narrative as well as a full-fledged authoritarian system. At least, this is what the leadership has decided. At the same time, Turkey’s economic salvation requires cooperation with Europe and international financial institutions. But, here too miscalculations resulting from a one-man power system have sent the country in the other direction. Given the pandemic-induced recession in Turkey, this quandary is bound to become a Gordian knot. That is unless permanent chaos is Erdoğan’s preferred option.

 

When the Fog Lifts: A Changed Landscape Revealed

By the Rt Hon the Lord Howell of Guildford, Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Of ce (2010-2012), Chairman of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee (2016-2019) and GSF Advisory Board member; London, May 2020


After Brexit and after the COVID-19 crisis, as the fog of uncertainty clears and the dust settles, there on the new international landscape, as viewed from the island of Great Britain, we shall see two markedly new and different features.
One of these will be labelled ‘Japan’ and the other will be marked ‘Commonwealth network’.


Why these two? Take Japan first. This will feature because as the UK develops a new pattern of alliances and bilateral links it will look to its natural friends in Asia (by far the fastest growing and most successful post-Covid region) to build a new international position. To those who say ‘well, why not China?’, the answer is that we are heading for an age of cooperation between middle powers, not superpowers.


The two giant economies, China and the USA, are going to be so preoccupied rivalling each other that they will t uneasily into the fascinating global network pattern of nations now emerging. Neither giant will make comfortable companions, although both will have to be carefully and gingerly handled. Their constant bickering and squabbling belong to a past era of international conduct – more deserving of the epithet childrenpower than superpower behaviour.


It is the medium-sized economies and societies of the world which are going to nd themselves naturally pulled together by the ever-busy networking processes which carry on connecting night and day at every level, governmental and (even more) non-governmental, commercial, and through every thread of civil society.


Britain will need urgently to gain a stronger foothold in Asia – where the greatest market growth and innovation (both technical and social) are going to occur over the coming decades, and Japan makes the obvious link point. This is a nation which despite the dark days of the past has grown in recent decades into having an exceptional warmth towards the UK, and was slightly puzzled, and a little hurt, by the over-the-top wooing of China that went on during the Cameron era.


It stands very ready to welcome us into the great new Asian trading networks that are going to dominate world markets, besides having a formidable defence force which is quietly linking up with our own.


Unfortunately the penny has not quite dropped in the higher reaches of British diplomacy, although it soon will. Too many foreign policy experts in London are still musing over the old ‘special relationship’ with the USA, without understanding that in the network age an entirely new kind of relationship has to be forged – still friendly but very different from the old trans-Atlantic dependency and protection with which former British governments have been used to living. Trump himself is merely a reflection of this changed world, which has been brought about over the last three or four decades by the far more impelling and enduring powers of technology and the altered web of world power and influence.

As for the other new feature with which British diplomatic expertise has got to come to terms, the Commonwealth network of fty four nations, this is part of the same transformed pattern tugging our interests in new directions. Deep and instinctive understanding in Britain of the enormous Commonwealth potential has of course always been there all along, but for the past forty years it has been submerged by the fashionable view of the European Union as Britain’s immediate, next-door, salvation. Continental Europe remains a wonderfully diverse and dynamic neighbourhood, with which Britain now has to build a new variety of links both bilateral and multilateral, in line with the potential of modern connectivity.

But its very character precludes the kind of standardised bloc-building about which the founders of European unity dreamed back in the 20th century. A new, much cleverer and more exible pattern throughout Europe must now be created, as many of the more far-seeing European leaders and commentators are now arguing as well. Looking beyond Brexit on the assumption of an unchanged EU leads straight into a brick wall. For a seagoing and trading nation like Britain it is in the great new markets of Asia, east and central, Africa north and south, and most of Latin America, where business must be done and new links established.


By luck rather than good judgement the British have inherited this vast and exceptional new global network of common af nities to which the digital age has given a kind of blood transfusion.


At the moment, it is indeed hard to peer ahead beyond the virus crisis, and the bewildering statistics and opinions which swirl round it, into this changed world of opportunities. But if there is any doubt in British minds about the Japanese linkage then a quiet exercise visit a few weeks back to one of London’s great parks, Battersea, might help - one such visit per day, along with a trip to the shops for food or to the pharmacy, being fully permitted by current lockdown regulations.


This year the avenues of blossoms, now fading, have been breath-taking and quite exceptional. Thousands more cherry trees from Japan are being planted in parks and public places round Britain. Perhaps the trees, being a little taller, at least when fully grown, than humans, can see a little further ahead than people through the present clouds.
If so, they will be revealing a changed landscape ahead, both at home and across the world. And it is a landscape which is going to offer some most interesting and fruitful alliances.

 

By Lou Stoppard

PARIS - While face coverings are fast becoming the norm to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, visible on city streets and public transportation everywhere, the global politics that surround them are more complicated than ever — a reflection not just of this current crisis, but also of broader values and stereotypes.

This is especially true in the European Union, where the laws informally known as “burqa bans” that forbid full-face coverings, often on the basis of public safety, are being called into question.

Suddenly the niqab, or full-face veil, has a whole set of new, more communal, associations; and various legal establishments are gearing up to challenge the current status quo.

“It’s a big contradiction,” said Alia Jafar, a British schoolteacher in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of the many face covering laws, which differ by country — especially because, to avoid charges of discrimination, the legal wording of most burqa bans is often framed more neutrally to apply to both men and women hiding their faces.

Recently, inspired by the global surge of face coverings, Ms. Jafar posted a picture on social media, which she shared with The New York Times, of two women in the street during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Both wore wide-brimmed hats, pulled low, with scarfs tied across their faces. Only their eyes peeked through.

“It looks like the burqa,” Ms. Jafar said, by telephone. The implication being that things are not that different today. In the street, many wear baseball caps with bandannas across their faces.

Yet this week France stood firm on its ban, which prohibits the wearing of clothing intended to hide the face in public spaces, despite the fact that masks are now being required on public transportation and in high schools. The French interior ministry confirmed to The Times that the face coverings rule of 2010 would stay in place. (A separate 2004 ban prohibits head scarves in public schools, referring to the religious neutrality of state institutions.)

The result is a Catch-22. Those who do not wear a mask can be fined, as can those who violate the face-covering law.

While some European countries, such as France, have exceptions to their bans that allow for face coverings for “health” reasons, confusion remains about what counts as an acceptable coronavirus face mask.

France has offered no formal specification. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior said, in an email, “it is common sense without legal definition.” The situation is further complicated by a worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment (P.P.E.), which has many people turning to existing items found at home for coverings.

When contacted, multiple human rights lawyers referred to the situation in France as “ridiculous.” Yet it is not unique. Many European countries are now requiring the wearing of face masks despite their concurrent bans on face coverings.

In Belgium, a law passed in 2011 bans the wearing of clothing in the street that obscures one’s identity. Yet now, because of the coronavirus, masks are compulsory on public transportation and “strongly encouraged” in other places.

In the Netherlands, citizens are now required to wear masks on trains and buses. Yet last year, a law came into effect banning face coverings on public transportation, in hospitals and in schools.

In Austria, face masks are now compulsory in shops and on public transportation, yet in 2017 a bill was passed prohibiting face coverings in public spaces. There are similar situations in Denmark, Bulgaria and certain parts of Italy, Spain and Germany.

“Face masks are now seen as a social measure for protecting people, yet still niqabs are treated as an antisocial act,” said Asima Majid, a British Muslim, who currently wears a hijab (the Muslim head scarf), but has worn a face veil in the past. She reached out to other Muslim women via WhatsApp to ask about their experiences.

One, Maryam (she asked that only her first name be used), told The Times that she felt “personally attacked” by the bans. The spread of face coverings during the pandemic has made her feel “victorious.”

“There you go — you were objecting to this last year, and now you are joining in with me,” she said. “You can see that the supposed security threat all of a sudden has ceased.”

Indeed, the justifications for face-covering bans — that there is safety in being able to see people’s faces — are now unsettled. When contacted, several lawyers in Europe argued that the current situation makes such burqa bans unenforceable. “Given circumstances we live in now, the law is de facto not applicable,” said Rupert Wolff, the president of the Austrian Bar.

Satvinder Juss, a lawyer in London and a human rights expert, said that Europe’s burqa wearers are now, legally, on much “firmer ground” given the newly publicized health guidance around face coverings.

Mr. Juss said that if a French police officer were to single out and challenge a woman for wearing a burqa or niqab in public, since she would potentially be surrounded by others wearing home-sourced face coverings, the officer would “clearly be engaging in religious discrimination and sex discrimination,” which is forbidden under the European Convention of Human Rights.

In 2014, Mr. Juss represented a 24-year-old French Muslim who appealed France’s face-covering ban at the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S.A.S. v. France. While the court rejected France’s arguments for the ban for public safety reasons (as well as the protection of human dignity and gender equality), it ultimately upheld the ban, accepting the vaguer aim of “vivre ensemble” (living together). This justification holds that a concealed face inhibits the right of citizens to easily socialize and coexist.

Given that many people in France are rapidly becoming used to seeing people from all walks of life covering their noses and mouths, however, Mr. Juss believes the “living together” justification no longer stands.

Belgium finds itself in a somewhat different position. Its face-coverings ban, which involves punishments of up to seven days in prison, makes no allowances for someone wearing a covering for health reasons, unlike most other European bans. The only exceptions are work, “festive events” or other, overriding laws, like those related to motorcycle helmets.

The country is currently in a state of emergency, which has given the government special powers to pass decrees, and it has made wearing a mask (or an alternative, such as a scarf) mandatory on public transportation.

Yet, no such allowances exist for those wearing masks in the street or other public spaces — a legal situation that Isabelle Rorive, a founder of the Equality Law Clinic at the University of Brussels, described as “bizarre.”

In the Netherlands, Tom Zwart, a professor of cross-cultural law at Utrecht University, used the word “hypocrisy” to characterize his country’s situation. The Dutch government bans face coverings, except for “health and safety,” but Mr. Zwart believes it is on shaky footing.

“Masks are not available,” Mr. Zwart said. “The prime minister even said to make one yourself, use a shawl or something else. So, if you have a burqa or a face veil, why not use that to protect yourself and others against the coronavirus? You are doing exactly what you’ve been told to do.”

In simultaneously enforcing masks for safety while also banning other face coverings, he said, with a laugh, huge swaths of the population are currently unwittingly breaking the law despite following the government’s new advice.

It is “very ironic,” said Karima Rahmani, the chair of group of more than 70 niqab-wearing women in the Netherlands called Blijf van mijn Niqaab (“Don’t touch my niqab”), who believe the burqa ban has fostered divisions and oppresses women.

The government, she said, was “talking about my niqab for years and years and making it a problem, coming with all kinds of arguments about how I’m dangerous, and disconnected from society, but they are all wearing masks now.”

Now, she said, she has noticed a slight public shift as others cover their faces. “Since the outbreak, there haven’t been people swearing at me in the street,” Ms. Rahmani said. “And I was used to being sworn at every day. People normally look at me angrily, but I have seen a change in their eyes. I can only hope that after all of this we can come together, and speak about their experience with face veils being everywhere now.”

E. Tendayi Achiume, the United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, said she hopes that as wearing masks for the sake of good will becomes normal, people will pause to think about how fear helped justify the passage of burqa bans.

“The political construction of the idea that face veils are something that are threatening to a nation, to a culture, to a society, has now been confronted,” she said.

 

 

Mediterranean

BY ARAM NERGUIZIAN, Carnegie Middle East Center, 05 May 2020


The Lebanese armed forces’ Covid-19 response has been a success, but potential problems remain.

 

For more than a month, Lebanon’s national security institutions have been enforcing a March 21 government stay-at-home order to limit, contain, and reverse the spread of the novel coronavirus. On the day of the announcement, the government’s Disaster Risk Management Unit reported 206 confirmed cases in Lebanon. More than a month later, on May 4, Lebanon’s official cumulative number of cases was 740, including 205 recoveries and 25 deaths.

It would be easy to characterize the country’s reaction to the coronavirus and the military’s public order mission as relative successes. Official data show a tentative slowdown and flattening of the national Covid-19 caseload, while the Lebanese military and military families had recorded less than 30 cases by April 28.

Nonetheless, the mitigation challenges of Lebanon’s initial lockdown may pale by comparison to the real mix of risks and critical uncertainties with which the military may have to contend in the future. In the short to medium term, these include the uncertain effects of a breakdown in social and physical distancing and the need to prepare for the possible effects of a second wave of infections and associated public order missions. In the longer term, the challenge will shift to how the military will plan and resource for public health crises in 2021 and beyond, without compromising its preference to remain focused on traditional priorities tied to national defense.

The “general mobilization” directive to maintain public order was rolled out with minimal prior coordination with the armed forces. Senior officers described being issued an order from the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab with little meaningful preplanning tied to Covid-19 risk mitigation and containment protocols. They were given only limited visibility on the availability of personal protection equipment for troops tasked with maintaining order.

The military needed to quickly pivot to dealing with the crisis. Given the importance of silo-breaking and cross-departmental cooperation, senior military decisionmakers were presented with several options to structure internal coordination. The military established a focused Covid-19 crisis response committee, composed of four officers from each of the military’s personnel, operations, military intelligence, and medical services branches.

Rather than opting for senior officers, the committee is composed of mid-level officers ranging from the ranks of major to colonel. They are empowered to deconflict as a team, coordinate quickly up the chain of command to the Office of the Commander, and communicate vertically within their discreet military lines of effort. The sourcing of medical supplies and donations is directed through the military’s medical services branch, not its logistics branch.

No less than 40,000 troops—half of Lebanon’s total national military manpower—took part in the public order mission. To mitigate community spread and preserve force readiness, a “fourteen days duty, fourteen days off duty” rotation system was adopted. Nonessential personnel at Lebanese military headquarters were scaled back, with 70 percent of officers and 50 percent of noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel reporting for duty. A floor of the military hospital was reserved solely for Covid-19 cases and currently counts 20 intensive care unit beds.

To offset the limited supply of facemasks and other types of personal protection equipment, no less than two major units were tasked with producing masks at an initial rate of 200 to 250 units per day. By April 4, the armed forces’ senior officers felt more confident that the force possessed the basics of short-term protection for approximately 20,000 active duty personnel.

The net result of these measures, combined with a civilian stay-at-home compliance rate that the military estimated at 80 percent, was that as of May 3 the military reported no more than six Covid-19 cases within its active duty ranks and no more than 20 cases among military families and retired personnel. Meanwhile, some 700 members of the armed forces remain on fourteen days of mandatory leave to protect their units due to exposure to potentially at-risk communities, or because they appeared to be symptomatic.

Although these results seem encouraging, military planners and decisionmakers fear that the lockdown through the end of April might have been the easy part. The loss of economic activity during confinement, the continued decline of vital socioeconomic metrics, and the resumption of popular protests seem to herald the collapse of social distancing. In parallel, a noticeable number of personnel have shown increasing lapses in enforcing social distancing within the armed forces. As a result, military planners are asking themselves not if but when a second wave of infections might hit Lebanon.

In the short term the military will have to take two risk-mitigating actions. It will have to consolidate, strengthen, and properly integrate protocols and standard operating procedures to contain future infections from the level of small units up to headquarters. It will also have to build up a stockpile of protective medical equipment to deal with a possible second wave of infections. This will include coordinating donations and additional deliveries of equipment from Lebanon’s military partners, including the United States.

The Covid-19 pandemic also has longer-term implications. Like militaries in the West and NATO, past and current Lebanese military planning guidance under the 2013–2017 and the 2018–2022 Capabilities Development Plans has prioritized the continued development of highly specialized units to counter chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. However, it has not focused on an effort to maximize protection of the bulk of the Lebanese military under pandemic conditions, while enforcing a nationwide public order mission.

The military has shown significant agility in its Covid-19 response. However, it has not been relieved of its pre-pandemic national security missions. These include maintaining stability along the border with Syria, living up to international commitments in the south of the country tied to United Nations resolutions, and maintaining adequate force readiness to defend Lebanon’s territorial integrity. That the Lebanese government may also see the armed forces as an instrument to maintain public order at a time of social and economic unrest in the country is a poisoned chalice that could undermine a military that has fought hard to be taken seriously as Lebanon’s sole legitimate national security institution.

 

 

MENA: Living off the Books


BY HAMZA MEDDEB, Carnegie Middle East Center, 29 April 2020


Economies in the Middle East and North Africa are suffering from supply chain problems due to the coronavirus.

 

As coronavirus-related lockdowns are implemented worldwide, they are posing serious problems for supply chains and increasing the vulnerability of Middle Eastern and North African economies.

Supply chains in many sectors throughout the region have been severely impacted by the closure of ports and delayed shipments. The departure of goods and shipping volumes from Chinese ports have plummeted since the implementation of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and the activity of many ports throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East has slowed.

A good example of this situation is Tunisia and its supply chains. The new Tunisian government has announced the doubling of strategic stocks of basic food, medicines, and fuel. It has done so because it aims to prevent panic buying generated by the long confinement. Because of the risk of food shortages, given the limited number of operating suppliers and the slowdown in transportation, governments are under pressure to secure a variety of basic necessities.

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t only impacted formal economic exchanges but also invisible supply chains providing for markets across the region. Informal economies in the region don’t exist as separate entities. They are inextricably linked to domestic and international formal economies. Many goods supplying formal economies make their way through complex global commodity chains that are linked in one way or another to informal economies. In North Africa, these supply chains are usually diverted toward illicit cross-border trade through border markets, such as the one in Ben Gardan in Tunisia or Souq Dubai in Al-‘Aulma in Algeria.

Unregistered and misevaluated because of corrupt arrangements, these flows transit through ports and border posts. All across the region informal operators trade products through illicit distribution mechanisms as this means they don’t have to comply with registration, tax, and licensing regulations. Similarly, transnational economic actors use the informal economy and border markets to reach low-income segments of the population whom large formal retailers cannot supply.

Since the 1990s, border markets in North Africa have been energized by extended supply chains importing Asian-made consumer goods and low-cost products. With globalization there has been a restructuring of production and distribution in many industries, characterized by outsourcing and subcontracting through global commodity chains. Border markets and small retailers sell items that are made in Asia before being shipped to North and sub-Saharan African through Dubai. That’s how the Tunisian economy ended up being supplied with Asian goods transiting through Libya or Algeria.

In North African countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, informal economies represent between 35–40 percent of GDP. Informal employment has been massive in sub-Saharan Africa, with 85 percent of employment taking place in the informal sector. In Asia, the figure is 68.2 percent and in the Arab world 68.6 percent. In total, 93 percent of the world’s informal jobs are in emerging and developing countries, showing that globalization has gone hand in hand with informalization.

The current coronavirus lockdown underlines an interesting fact, namely that many informal economies have been globalized over the decades. This is notably the case of border markets. The border market of Ben Gardane, in southeastern Tunisia, has played an important role in supplying the Tunisian and Libyan economies with consumer goods and fuel. Since the 1990s, Ben Gardan has been an entrepôt in which informal cross-border trade between Tunisia and Libya has been concentrated. Cities in western Libya have connected southern Tunisian cities to the global illicit economy. After the fall of the Qaddafi regime, the border economy became a magnet for non-state armed groups seeking to control and profit from illegal flows of goods, people, and money.

The struggle for control over economic resources and illicit cross-border traffic has had a significant impact on Ben Gardan. This has been mainly due to fighting between Libyan militias over the control of border rent and the frequent disagreements between the Tunisian authorities and their Libyan counterparts over procedures at the Ras Jedir border crossing. The closure of the crossing has sparked massive protests, strikes in Ben Gardan, and anger directed against the Tunisian authorities for contributing to the marginalization of the border region. The Libyan conflict, the coronavirus lockdowns, and the slowdown in global supply chains, will drastically limit the flow of goods transiting through Ben Gardan.

Tunisia’s government has sought to cushion the impact of the new situation and has put in place an economic package to prevent job losses and assist poor families who have been severely hit by the economic crisis. Tensions rose recently as people struggled to cope with the unprecedented sanitary and economic crises, while the government still does not have accurate data about the poor in order to help them. That is why Tunisia’s political elites have to think strategically on how to integrate the informal economy and address the needs of all those living off the books.

 

 

 

CRISIS GROUP, 14 May 2020


With the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib paused, the time is now for a deal sparing the rebellion’s last stronghold the full wrath of reconquest. The parties should pursue an improved ceasefire including the regime, Russia, Turkey and the Islamist militants entrenched in the province.

 


What’s new? A Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive against rebel-held Idlib halted when Russia and Turkey negotiated a ceasefire in March. Turkey is sending reinforcements, signalling a military response to what it deems a national security threat. For now, this step may dissuade Russia from resuming the offensive, but the standoff appears untenable.

Why does it matter? Successive Russian-Turkish ceasefires in Idlib have collapsed over incompatible objectives, diverging interpretations and exclusion of the dominant rebel group, Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is UN-sanctioned and considered by Russia and others a terrorist organisation. A Russian-backed regime offensive to retake Idlib likely would result in humanitarian catastrophe.

What should be done? All actors should seek a more sustainable ceasefire – optimally including HTS, notwithstanding legitimate concerns about the group – that avoids the high military, political and humanitarian price of another offensive. Turkey should push HTS to continue distancing itself from transnational militancy and display greater tolerance for political and religious pluralism.


Executive Summary


Idlib, the last redoubt of Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, presents an international political conundrum that threatens to become a far greater humanitarian tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires have broken down time and again. The latest one, in March, while holding, bears all the flaws of its predecessors and may therefore also erode. To prevent further escalation, Moscow and Ankara should negotiate a more durable ceasefire that goes some way toward addressing both countries’ core concerns. This step is all the more urgent because of the possibly imminent spread of COVID-19 in Idlib, which can be contained only through concerted international action at a time of relative calm. Idlib’s health care sector is all but destroyed as a result of the latest offensive, and an outbreak in this densely populated province could prove disastrous.

The failure of successive Russia-Turkey ceasefires, which were rooted in the trilateral Astana process launched with Iran in 2017, partly derives from the two sides’ contradictory interpretations of their commitments. Those differences in turn reflect the two countries’ opposing positions on Idlib’s future. The latest deal suspends but does not address the differences: while Turkey seeks to keep the Syrian regime out of Idlib pending a comprehensive political settlement of the Syrian conflict, Russia supports Damascus in the objective of reclaiming all the country’s territory – through negotiated deals if possible, or by force if the regime deems it necessary.

The Russian-Turkish deals also have recurrently stumbled over the question of Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group that dominates the area and that is not covered by the ceasefires. Russia has made clear that it expects Turkey to contain, police and eventually eliminate the group. But Ankara may have concluded that HTS is too strong and locally rooted to eradicate militarily without incurring a large human toll and sending a new wave of refugees to the Turkish border. It may also be disinclined to weaken the most powerful armed group in Idlib, thereby enabling a regime offensive. Russia has pointed in particular to HTS’s inclusion in the UN Security Council’s sanctions list of entities affiliated with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, as well as its alleged drone attacks on Russia’s Hmeimim air base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, as reasons for backing repeated offensives in Idlib. Because Russia enjoys the upper hand militarily over the rebels and could give the regime the kind of military support it would need to press for total victory, it has repeatedly been tempted to push in that direction.

Yet the political and military price of such an offensive for both Moscow and Damascus could be high. In addition to significantly worsening a humanitarian crisis, it could trigger even greater Turkish involvement: in the last three months, Ankara has stepped up both its own military role and its support for the main rebel alliance it backs in Idlib, the National Liberation Front, signalling its willingness to invest in Idlib in order to block regime advances and its ability to raise the cost of a new regime offensive. Developments earlier this year suggest that while the Syrian army, reorganised, re-equipped and backed by Russian airpower, in theory could overwhelm Idlib’s rebels, it would face real obstacles now that Turkey has deployed advanced drones and surface-to-air missiles. Ankara has qualitatively enhanced its Idlib intervention to preserve what it perceives as its interests and its ability to counter-attack regime forces. Even if a regime offensive achieved significant territorial gains, it would therefore likely come at a high cost in manpower and materiel to forces already stretched thin.

Perhaps most important for Moscow, a Syrian offensive it backs could jeopardise its relationship with Ankara, particularly if regime forces push into densely populated areas such as Idlib city, fomenting mass civilian flight toward the Turkish border. Moreover, a violent takeover of Idlib could bring new security challenges. A large portion of the thousands of fighters now bottled up there would likely flee; many might shift focus toward a broader asymmetric insurgency against regime forces, while some foreign jihadists might seek their way home, including to countries in the post-Soviet space.

There is an alternative scenario. Although it may not return Idlib to regime control in the short to medium term, it would both address Russia’s interest in suppressing rebel capacity to strike Russian military assets from Idlib and preserve Moscow’s strategically important relationship with Ankara. This scenario would require Moscow and Ankara to reach a more sustainable ceasefire and in particular address the role of HTS – which controls Idlib and therefore is pivotal to the success of any agreement – in a realistic and pragmatic way.

Since 2016, there have been signs that HTS is in the process of morphing from an al-Qaeda affiliate with a Salafi-jihadist orientation and membership (calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra) into a Syrian-dominated force that, despite having a hardline Islamist orientation, being regarded by many as repressive and intolerant and continuing to fight the Assad regime, is shedding its transnational goals in favour of a local state-building project. Whether HTS can transform itself into a primarily political actor that becomes part of Syria’s post-conflict order in Idlib is far from clear.


Yet signs of pragmatism within the group, even if driven by tactical considerations deriving from military pressure, are worth testing. A shift by HTS away from transnational militancy would benefit foreign governments concerned about attacks emanating from Idlib, while the province’s long-suffering inhabitants would gain were the group more tolerant of pluralism and dissent. HTS’s transformation, however genuine, is unlikely to convince Russia or the regime, but its recent evolution does suggest that it may be ready to enter transactional ceasefire agreements that might at least address Moscow’s concern about alleged attacks on Hmeimim air base. Turkey, potentially together with other foreign powers, could set conditions for HTS that, if met by the group, could enable HTS’s inclusion in ceasefire agreements, even if indirectly.

The expected humanitarian catastrophe that would follow an all-out assault on Idlib, and the associated political costs, mean that exploring this alternative is the least bad option for all relevant actors. The additional threat that COVID-19 poses to Idlib’s over three million inhabitants, and in particular to the tens of thousands of displaced civilians living in makeshift camps, underlines the urgency for all parties to achieve a more durable ceasefire that could allow for a coordinated international humanitarian response.


Idlib/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 May 2020


For the full report, visit: https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/213-silencing-guns-syrias-idlib

 

 

 

When Measuring ISIS’s “Resurgence”, Use the Right Standard

By Sam Heller, Adviser, Non-state Armed Groups, CRISIS GROUP, 13 May 2020


Memories of the Islamic State’s 2014-2015 “caliphate” peak in Iraq and Syria colour views of its present capacity, leading officials and observers either to exaggerate or understate its threat. In Iraq, the group does pose a danger. Gauging it properly is key to containing it.

 


On the night of Friday, 1 May, the Islamic State (ISIS) launched one of its most ambitious operations in Iraq in recent memory. Several units of the jihadist group converged on Iraqi paramilitary forces securing a rural section of Salahuddin province, engaging them in an hours-long attack that ended with ten paramilitaries dead. The 1 May assault followed a month in which ISIS had become more direct and aggressive in its attacks on Iraqi security forces.

A military official in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the U.S.-led multilateral partnership that has supported Iraq’s fight against the group, noted the complexity of the Salahuddin attack and several others that weekend. He also confirmed that the preceding month had seen a postural shift from the group, even if there had not been a qualitative improvement in its equipment and tactics.

Yet he also emphasised how far ISIS remains from the height of its prowess in 2014, when it could marshal large motorised columns to roll across the desert, seize swathes of both Iraq and neighbouring Syria, and declare a “caliphate”. “Are they [ISIS] recruiting anybody?” asked the Coalition official. “No. Are they putting out a cool video that’s getting put on the front page of the Daily Mirror? No. Are they able to raise money from taxes, oil wells, foreign donations – a little bit, but mostly no. … So their strength has to be measured in those terms”.

All of which is true. In its recent flurry of activity, ISIS has demonstrated nothing close to its capability and reach circa 2014 or 2015 – or even its potency in the preceding years, during which the group laid the groundwork for its eventual seizure of territorial control.

But ISIS’s “caliphate” apex was also a unique, anomalous moment. And memories of that moment have distorted subsequent analysis of the group’s insurgency in Iraq, years later.

The result is that both hyperbolic claims that ISIS has returned to the sort of operations and capabilities that immediately preceded its 2014 “caliphate” and attempts like the Coalition official’s to tamp down that alarmism are often framed and argued in terms of that 2014-2015 “caliphate” peak. ISIS’s current capabilities end up being measured relative to a historical experience that was shocking and terrible, but also likely an outlier.

Crisis Group itself has warned of ISIS’s “resurgence”. But that resurgence, if it happens, probably will not look like 2014. Meanwhile, using this “caliphate” standard may make it harder to discern changes in the group’s operations that are incremental but still meaningful for assessing the threat posed by its insurgent campaign – changes like the shift over the course of April, which seems to have presaged the genuine and deadly qualitative escalation on 1 May.


ISIS Leans Forward


The 1 May operation was apparently planned and complex. ISIS first attacked local tribal auxiliaries belonging to Iraq’s paramilitary al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force south of the Salahuddin city of Tikrit. The jihadists assaulted and killed one group of six Hashd fighters, only to hit incoming reinforcements with an improvised explosive device (IED) the group claims it planted in advance, killing three more. Another Hashd fighter was killed in a separate, simultaneous attack. The ISIS units advanced along four axes, according to a Hashd official, who also said some militants approached on skiffs crossing the Tigris.

Throughout April, ISIS had seemingly been aiming more directly at Iraqi security forces. According to its own reporting, as well as diplomats and a military official who spoke to Crisis Group, the jihadist group initiated more head-on firefights with those security forces, as well as more daytime attacks. The new frequency of these direct engagements contrasted with the group’s previous preference for asymmetric attacks on Iraqi security personnel – relying more heavily on means like roadside bombs and sniper attacks – and the steady targeting of rural civilians.

As a Western diplomat from a Coalition member country put it: “They’re bolder, more aggressive. … They use IEDs, as usual. But more and more they engage in firefights, whether with the [Iraqi security forces] or [the Hashd] – and they kill”.

ISIS’s latest, more assertive attacks have been concentrated in a rural belt reaching across Iraq’s centre north, in Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. The stretch includes territories disputed between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region. Since ISIS’s 2017 territorial defeat in Iraq, its guerrillas have taken shelter in especially rugged terrain in these areas. Over April, the group also seemingly escalated attacks on the western edge of Anbar province, along the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian borders.

“You have some remnants of the organisation, cells, that try to carry out operations here and there – in desert areas, like western Anbar, or on plains, ravines and mountains”, Iraqi defence spokesman Brigadier General Yehia Rasool told Crisis Group. “Areas where the nature of the terrain is difficult, which are hard to totally control”. In Iraq’s disputed territories, the organisation also exploits the stretches of no-man’s land separating federal Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, as well as failures of coordination between them.

ISIS’s April attacks did not mark a qualitative escalation, insofar as they evinced no obvious improvement in the group’s underlying capabilities. The group’s dispersed units used the same uncomplicated tactics they have adopted since 2017 – small guerrilla bands executing one-off attacks with small arms and IEDs.

Still, even if the attacks were not qualitatively better or more complex, they did seem qualitatively different. Using the same means, ISIS units appeared to be making new choices in terms of target selection and timing.

On 28 April, ISIS attempted a suicide attack on an intelligence service headquarters in Kirkuk’s provincial capital – an operation with scant precedent since 2017, given how the group has avoided suicide bombings and conserved manpower after losing its territorial control. Security personnel engaged the lone attacker as he approached, and he detonated his explosives before reaching the building. Several men were wounded but none killed. Delivering a single attacker equipped with an explosive belt for a failed attack thus mostly showcased the group’s intentions, not its capabilities.

The group’s coordinated attack on 1 May, however, is different – a real qualitative escalation after the group’s attitudinal change the preceding month.


Unclear Causation


ISIS’s latest attacks are likely an attempt to force Iraqi security forces to retreat into fortified bases and cities, while intimidating local civilians into non-cooperation with the Iraqi state. Such motives would follow a standard insurgent logic, one the group has itself articulated in its publications. In effect, the group has written, government forces would be ceding the countryside by moving into cities and hardened facilities. Then, they “would become encircled in the urban areas they are attempting to secure, which would turn little by little into fortresses”. At that point, ISIS could transform its units from guerrilla bands carrying out limited attacks into “semi-conventional formations that can – with the permission of God Almighty – carry out coordinated, medium-size or even large operations, in terms of their range and the nature of their targets”. But if this logic is fairly clear, why the group has escalated now is less so.

The attacks come after months of tensions and tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iran-linked Hashd factions that have disrupted counter-ISIS cooperation between Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led Coalition. On 3 January, the U.S. killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Hashd chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike as the two men left Baghdad airport. Since then, Iraq has been beset by recurrent violence between the U.S. and Iran-linked Hashd factions. In addition, the country has been riven by controversy over whether to expel U.S. forces and end what Iraqi opponents of the U.S. presence call an “occupation”. Over March and April, U.S. and Coalition forces withdrew from a number of forward Iraqi bases, where they were exposed to attack, into a few safer compounds, claiming the move was “long-planned”.

Iraqi counter-ISIS operations have nonetheless continued, and, after an initial interruption in January, so has at least some Coalition support. “We never had a large number of troops [in those bases] anyway”, said the Coalition official. “And in the past week, the Coalition has provided support for Iraqi forces, including drones and airstrikes. We didn’t need infantry sitting in Kirkuk to do that”. Yet it is unclear how the Coalition forces’ withdrawal from these bases – where they worked alongside some of the Iraqi units most directly involved in fighting ISIS – has affected counter-ISIS cooperation and the Coalition’s situational awareness in insurgent hot-spots. Moreover, tensions between the U.S. and Iran’s Iraqi allies have had other effects. According to Western officials, for example, some U.S. surveillance assets that had been used for counter-ISIS operations have been diverted to “force protection” – keeping watch for paramilitary attacks on U.S. soldiers.

ISIS has evidently followed these developments, and in particular the base withdrawals, referencing them in its weekly newsletter for members and sympathisers. It is unclear what conclusions the group has drawn, however, or if they informed its field units’ operational thinking.

ISIS may also be seizing on Iraqi security forces’ distraction by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, ISIS enjoined its members and sympathisers worldwide to capitalise on their enemies’ preoccupation with coronavirus and to continue carrying out attacks. The withdrawal of foreign Coalition trainers from Iraq because of COVID-19 and a related halt to training Iraqi forces seems unlikely to have had an immediate effect on counter-ISIS efforts. But COVID-19 does seem to have some impact on Iraqi security forces’ readiness. Some have been tasked with enforcing curfews and other public health measures, according to military officials. A second security unit that had been based near the paramilitaries targeted on 1 May was reportedly redeployed to urban areas to help implement COVID-19 measures.

“The army has a number of missions; among them is this humanitarian effort”, said Iraqi defence spokesman Rasool about the security forces’ role in enforcing COVID-19 measures, though he emphasised that counter-ISIS efforts were also continuing.

Iraq has also suffered through a protracted political vacuum, going without a functioning government from December until a new government was formed earlier this month. The country has also faced a deepening economic crisis. ISIS may have also timed a surge of attacks to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The coincidence of these various factors in Iraq makes it hard to clearly identify a single cause for ISIS’s latest moves. As a Coalition member country diplomat said: “It’s too early to draw conclusions. But it’s clear something is happening”.


An Unlikely 2014 Redux


Still, ISIS’s current insurgent attacks do not compare to the outsized threat the group posed in the past.

As Rasool, the Iraqi defence spokesman, stressed, ISIS is no longer blowing up massive car bombs or seizing territory. Speaking before the 1 May attack, he said the organisation has reverted to its “old style – one-off attacks, here and there, to send a media message, and to raise the morale of the group’s members who may now be lying low. It wants to communicate that it still has this capability. But really, its capabilities are low; they don’t rise to the quality they were previously”.

Indeed, ISIS insurgent activity is limited mostly to the country’s rural periphery. Iraqis who lived through the group’s 2014 rampage, as well as, before that, its years-long campaign of mass-casualty bombings and mafia-style violence in places like Mosul, know that ISIS’s violence is much reduced.

In parts of the countryside, said a Kirkuk-area tribal sheikh, ISIS “is present, and it’s merciless”. But, he added, “It’s not in cities or urban areas. It’s out in the [rural] districts and subdistricts; in the bush, or in ravines and mountains”.

The impulse to discourage residual ISIS scaremongering is understandable, particularly as Iraq has worked to recover from the war to defeat the group and to address the country’s many, accumulated non-ISIS problems. It is all the more reasonable given the at-times melodramatic descriptions of the putative threat. Analysts have often couched warnings of ISIS’s possible resurgence in terms of the group’s imminent return to territorial control, or to the 2013 and 2014 periods that anticipated its “caliphate”.

In the most recent issue of ISIS’s newsletter, the group itself noted the alarmed media coverage of its escalating operations, as part of “the great shock [the group’s] latest attacks had yielded in enemy ranks”. ISIS’s enemies “are comparing the situation today to how things were before [Iraq’s] cities fell into the mujahideen’s hands” in 2014, the newsletter reported.

The awful spectacle of ISIS circa 2014 and 2015 has also helped frame discussions of jihadist insurgents far from Iraq. To take one example, U.S., French and West African officials recently told the Washington Post that “to avoid scrutiny from the West, [West African jihadist] groups are not declaring ‘caliphates’”.

But setting aside terminological issues – local ISIS affiliates would not announce a second “caliphate” to rival the one the main branch declared in 2014, which the group still insists is extant and valid – the proto-state that existed in Iraq and Syria is unlikely to reappear.

In 2014, ISIS seized on an exceptional historical circumstance. The Arab world was in epochal flux, as longstanding incumbent regimes had fallen, and national borders seemed suddenly subject to revision. Money, arms and thousands of foreign fighters had poured into Syria’s roiling insurgency, which by then had diminished the Syrian state’s writ to a fraction of the country. ISIS – whose origins lay in neighbouring Iraq – used the non-state void in Syria as an extensive, resource-rich rear base, from which it prepared an Iraqi surge. In Iraq, the group had already infiltrated a mass Sunni mobilisation against the central state, a movement that was encouraged publicly by Sunni states in the region. Too many people – not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in the West – were too slow to recognise ISIS’s threat. By the time the group had swept through large sections of Iraq and Syria in the summer, then doused local municipal buildings with its trademark black paint, it was too late.

Now, after the years-long, destructive battle to dislodge ISIS, both Iraqis and their international partners are alert to the group’s threat. ISIS maintains that its ultimate aim is a return to territorial control and administration, after an extended war of attrition. But while the organisation remains dangerous – in Iraq and elsewhere – it can no longer surprise its enemies in the same way.

All of which is to say that a redux of 2014 – that type of military blitz, the return of the “caliphate”, or renewed ISIS control of more than a handful of peripheral, rural areas – is hard to imagine. The group would evidently like to duplicate its 2014 surge. But the confluence of factors that permitted it is not there and arguably seems unlikely to be there any time soon. Gauging the organisation’s capabilities in those terms, therefore, is not useful.

In Iraq, ISIS’s “resurgence” seems likely to look less like 2014 and the “caliphate,” and more like the group’s 1 May attack in Salahuddin. That prospect might not animate an international audience, the way warnings of another 2014 would. But for Iraqis – particularly in the rural areas most vulnerable to the group’s attacks – that sort of resurgent ISIS would again be terrifying and lethal.

It is thus crucial to stay tuned to subtler shifts in ISIS’s activity, below the 2014 threshold – qualitative “change”, if not necessarily qualitative “escalation”. That is the sort of change that may alert Iraq and its international partners to the need for a course correction.

 

 

 

North Africa

By Nathan J. Brown and Mark Berlin,Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 May 2020

 

The Egyptian regime established a new academy to infuse its government ranks with a younger generation. But a key question remains: will the academy really be effective in modeling Egyptians into loyal servants of the regime and succeed where previous efforts fell short?


Egypt has a yawning generation gap and a regime that wants to reach youth. A new academy may help, but Egypt’s past is littered with similar, failed attempts.

 

The Egyptian regime is experimenting with a new approach to ensure that emerging leaders understand and are loyal to the state’s mission as the current, security-minded regime defines it. The National Training Academy (NTA) and affiliated youth conferences have been designed to identify and cultivate talented youth, train them, and inculcate its conception of national security. Most of the programs are modest, consisting of administrative development and education that take place far from the headlines and are seemingly technocratic. The most sensational elements involve public celebrations of pro-regime youth, perhaps cultivating an alternative to the role models who led a national uprising a decade ago. In a country with a yawning generation gap and a regime that has evinced fear about its inability to reach youth, the NTA offers an attractive set of tools.

Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, portrays himself as defending the country from foreign and domestic enemies, and he sees the state apparatus as intended to help him in those missions. While security-oriented bodies seem to have the upper hand in Egyptian politics at present—and indeed have given birth to the current regime, with their veterans staffing many of its most powerful positions—they do not always have an easy time steering the state in all its breadth, including the vast network of official bodies that manage everything from simple market transactions to charitable donations to marriage.

The effectiveness of the NTA effort—in terms of creating a bureaucracy at once capable and quiescent while harnessing the energies and loyalty of talented youth—is unclear so far. Egypt’s past is littered with similar attempts that have failed.
A Problem With a Past

Since the 1952 overthrow of the country’s monarchy, Egypt’s rulers have devised various techniques to help them control the vast state apparatus, and when those techniques have not given them what they needed, they have tinkered with them or have invented new ones. The post-1952 regime experimented with a series of political parties that were designed in part to bring various state and national bodies together.

Egypt’s single-party system culminated in the construction of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) in the 1960s. When that proved insufficient for state control, then president Gamal Abdel Nasser oversaw a “vanguard apparatus,” a mysterious body that itself became suspect in 1970 when Anwar al-Sadat succeeded Nasser. Sadat gradually dismantled the ASU and its vanguard and used different techniques—such as an empowerment of administrative courts, a carefully managed and tactical political liberalization, and a balancing among key institutions—to steer a set of administrative, security, religious, judicial, and social service structures.

Sisi has thus far eschewed political parties and evinces a deep disinterest in (and even hostility to) politics generally. Constitutional changes and new laws (especially those governing various judicial bodies) have greatly increased direct presidential control over much of the state. Loyal security services rather than politicians have managed parliamentary elections. That said, there are some suggestions that frustrations with the current parliament and legislative system may lead to an officially favored party in upcoming elections. Even loyal parliamentarians find the current arrangement too constricted, and some ambitious ones are beginning to advance their own initiatives.

Various islands of autonomy within the state apparatus have been placed under closer watch, as the judiciary has been brought to heel with a spate of legal and constitutional changes that increase the president’s appointment power over senior posts. Only the venerable Islamic institution of al-Azhar is now able to challenge the president (politely and indirectly, but still publicly).


Networks of Training Institutions


The centerpiece of the new effort is the NTA. While it has had some older entities folded under its wings, the academy itself was established on August 28, 2017, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 434. It quickly began operating an elite youth leadership program. Located in the city of 6 October (a suburb of Cairo), the NTA purports to emphasize “building the Egyptian citizen.”

In some ways, the NTA and associated initiatives resemble the ASU vanguard of the 1960s, an experiment that is by now only dimly remembered. The vanguard also focused on cultivating a cadre of ambitious, like-minded, and talented, often younger leaders, sprinkling them throughout critical Egyptian institutions—but with the NTA, they are united by clear links to the presidency rather than a political party.

Initially holding a supervisory role over the NTA, the president currently chairs the NTA’s board of trustees, which also includes Major General Abbas Kamel, who directs the General Intelligence Service, and Professor Hala El Saeed, Egypt’s minister of planning and economic development. El Saeed, who is a respected economist with experience in important institutions, such as the Central Bank, has emerged as a key player behind Egypt’s institutional and administrative reforms. The minister has actively participated in the NTA’s development and direction and is one of the figures most identified with the academy.

At a recent NTA event, El Saeed showed an ability to deploy the regime’s rhetoric when she argued that Egypt’s increasing population constituted a “national security” issue on par with terrorism.

Outside of the NTA’s board of trustees, Rascha Ragheb currently serves as the NTA’s executive director; her public profile is also significant. With a background in marketing, development, and finance, Ragheb oversees the NTA’s forty-three training programs that, to date, have trained more than 6,000 participants.

In addition to offering specialized instruction for individuals and organizations, the NTA’s youth training primarily revolves around the academy’s presidential leadership programs (PLPs). Ranging from five weeks to nine months in length, each program has its own specific eligibility requirements. For instance, the Advanced Presidential Leadership Program requires prospective trainees to have a postsecondary education, be an Egyptian national between twenty-three and thirty years of age, and engage in “good conduct and behavior.”

Through an emphasis on recent graduates and young professionals, the NTA seeks to inject competent youth into various government sectors through “transformative education” and the use of “world class methods and standards.” In December 2019, the NTA also introduced a new two-month intensive training initiative aimed at teaching public and local administrative skills to recently appointed deputy governors. Over the course of the initiative’s pilot program, various ministers, governors, and other political figures visited the NTA to meet with the new deputy governors.

Each year, a National Conference on Youth brings together PLP graduates with other promising youth in a showcase event under the president’s patronage: Sisi makes a personal appearance and an “Ask the President” session features among the highlights of the event.
Building International Ties

The NTA has a largely domestic agenda, but it has also included some international efforts, especially connected with Sisi’s focus on Africa. For example, the African Presidential Leadership Program (APLP) seeks to “bring . . . together African youth with different affiliations and beliefs under one umbrella aimed at development and peace, complementing Egypt’s role in effective participation with other African governments.”

Striving to influence Africa’s next generation of leaders, the APLP’s mission is clear: “Develop. Inspire. Empower. Lead.” In February 2020, the NTA held its graduation ceremony for the third APLP cohort, which included ninety-four graduates from thirty-seven African states.

Voicing the NTA’s position on Egypt’s regional relationships, Ragheb recently called for “no borders between African countries; the more diverse, the richer we are.” Reflecting this position, the NTA recently hosted delegations from the African Media and Cooperation Program and the African Women Leadership Program, which aims to enhance “the knowledge and skills of African women who hold important positions” in regional governments.

The geographic focus of the NTA has also expanded north. Plans to launch the NTA’s Euro-Mediterranean Presidential Leadership Program were announced at the 2019 World Youth Forum in Sharm El Sheikh. In January 2019, the NTA signed a memorandum of understanding with the French National School of Management at the Egyptian Presidential Palace during French President Emmanuel Macron’s official visit to Egypt. The NTA proudly announced ten months later: “In preparation for the second batch of the Executive Presidential Leadership Program (EPLP), [the] National Training Academy, in cooperation with the French Government provided an in-depth five day Training of Trainers . . . program with one of the prominent master trainers from France. The EPLP is one of the academy’s elite and exclusive programs which aims at developing the highest calibers and future executive leaders for the country.” The NTA boasts other partnerships with the Geneva Center for Security Policy and Google.
More Than One Purpose

This impressive set of training programs is certainly designed with the ostensible purpose in mind of developing a set of young people with the technical expertise and a sense of public purpose necessary to lead Egyptian state institutions in their difficult governing and administrative tasks.

But these programs do not simply confer technical skills and generic leadership training. There are three other apparent purposes as well.

Groom future leaders: The programs seek to identify influential individuals and probable youth leaders and prepare them for public service in state bodies (and likely away from the sorts of activities that the protesting youth of Tahrir Square of a decade ago pursued).

The PLP proclaims: “In the line with Egypt’s focus on creating a promising youth base qualified to carry the leadership torch within all areas on a political, administrative or community front, and possess profound national awareness with a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by the country, the decision to launch the presidential programs to train youth was born.” Other key state bureaucracies have their incoming cadres developed from the beginning through centrally managed training programs; in October 2019, the NTA suggested such a purpose when it announced on Facebook that it had just concluded its rigorous and meticulous selection process to choose “future elite Egyptian leaders.”

Plug young leaders into local and state bureaucracies: The programs seem not only designed to identify and train incoming officials but to place them in responsible positions, so as to form a network of younger, ambitious officials throughout the bureaucracy. In a 2019 round of appointments, NTA graduates were placed in deputy governor posts throughout the country (with the leadership of the governorates often treated as sensitive security positions entrusted to senior state officials chosen from among the ranks of internal security figures, military officers, and judges).

One has already ascended to the governorship of Beni Suef, south of Cairo. This not only places such individuals in local government but also ties them to the local activities of central ministries (such as the Ministry of Education). Key Egyptian ministries and other structures (such as the National Council for Women and the Council of State, a critical part of the Egyptian judicial apparatus) have formed training partnerships with the NTA. Even the Ministry of Religious Endowments has allowed its preachers to receive some NTA training.

Indoctrinate the country’s future leaders: The final purpose seems to be ideological, although that is difficult to document. The curriculum is not public, but sporadic accounts suggest that it has a national security component—generally taught by military officers. Anecdotal evidence—and the security rhetoric of the regime and of senior military officers—suggests that the national security doctrine emphasizes internal threats, subversion, unconventional conflict, and threats emanating from domestic terrorists aided by international actors seeking to subvert Egyptian strength as well corrupt youth with alien ideas. Sisi has publicly endorsed “fourth generation warfare,” a vague concept that appeared in a S. Marine Corps publication in the 1980s (referring to unconventional warfare that aims to “collapse the enemy’s combat forces [internally] rather than seeking to close with and destroy them” and targets “such things as the population’s support for the war and the enemy’s culture”). Sisi has identified events in Egypt since 2011 as fitting this pattern; other security officials echo similar themes. And this kind of rhetoric seeps through into some public presentations of the NTA’s work, such as when it described its participants as frontline soldiers, as it did on Facebook in December 2019: “A soldier on the front line can grow into a leader with the right motivation and tools.” In the 2019 youth conference, “fourth generation warfare” became a major theme, coupled with the idea of “fake news.”


Is It Working?


While the scale of the NTA training effort is clear, its effectiveness is not. In a sense, the initiative is based on an elision between training cadres to serve the state and the public interest, broadly defined, and to loyally follow the current regime. Egypt’s top leaders seem to accept no distinction between the two. But there are limited signs of pushback from parts of the state apparatus. The judiciary, for instance, insisted that it was quite capable of training its own personnel. That position led the president to suspend new appointments (which are formally made by the president after they are nominated by the judicial council) for a significant period. The administrative courts finally agreed to NTA training in 2019, but the regular judiciary continues to resist.

But such overt opposition is fading and likely to recede further. The impact of the NTA effort will probably be determined far more by the training’s effectiveness; the ability of those overseeing the program to satisfy the career ambitions they are generating in graduates; the willingness of graduates to embrace the ideas that they are taught; and the capacity of the regime to guide the administrative cadres it is developing. Whether the result will be a set of ambitious and capable civil servants (the initiative’s ostensible purpose) or a tool for regime control (as the heavy presence of security bodies in its activities suggest) is not yet clear.

The ASU vanguard, an uncertain analogue, was abandoned when it proved to be more of a tool for the ambitions of its leaders and graduates than a loyal pillar of the regime—and indeed, it was identified as one of the centers of power that Sadat moved against in 1971 when he consolidated his position. The new training initiative does not seem to have the kind of autonomy and secrecy that would make it evolve into a similar threat, but it is too new to have proven its worth to more than a select group of ambitious and able young Egyptians.

Mark Berlin is a doctoral student at George Washington University.

 

 

 

By Air and Sea, Mercenaries Landed in Libya. Then the Plan Went South.

The New York Times, 26 May 2020

A short-lived mission uncovered by U.N. investigators offers a glimpse into the world of those who have thrived off Libya’s chaos.

By Declan WalshMay 


CAIRO — Two former British marines piloted their boats, a pair of military-grade inflatables, across the Mediterranean from Malta. Six helicopters were flown in from Botswana using falsified papers. The rest of the team — soldiers of fortune from South Africa, Britain, Australia and the United States — arrived from a staging area in Jordan.

To anyone who asked, the mercenaries who slipped into the war-pocked port of Benghazi, Libya, last summer said they had come to guard oil and gas facilities.

In fact, United Nations investigators later determined, their mission was to fight alongside the Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter in his all-out assault on the capital, Tripoli, for which they were to be paid $80 million.

It quickly went wrong. A dispute erupted with Mr. Hifter, a notoriously mercurial leader, over the quality of the aircraft. On July 2, after just four days in Libya, the mercenaries scrambled for their speedboats and roared out to sea, headed for the safety of Malta.

Although short-lived, the botched mission offers a telling illustration of the melee in Libya, where a war driven by powerful foreign sponsors — principally the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia and Egypt — has created a lucrative playground for smugglers, arms dealers, mercenaries and other profiteers who flout an international arms embargo with little fear of consequences.

Libya is a singular magnet for its combination of oil wealth and scrappy standards of combat. With Russian, Syrian, Sudanese, Chadian and now Western mercenaries drawn to the fight, it has the rare distinction of being a mercenary-on-mercenary war — sometimes, in the case of Syrians, with men from the same country fighting each other.

“It’s a free-for-all,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Everyone is bringing ever more absurd types of weapons and fighters into Libya, with Syrians on both sides, and nobody is stopping them.”

Foreign Guns, Money and Fighters

Libya, a sparsely populated oil-rich nation, has been mired in chaos since the ouster of its decades-long dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, by an American-backed coalition in 2011. Peace talks established a fragile United Nations-backed government in Tripoli that Mr. Hifter aims to overthrow.

Since his first offensive in 2014, Mr. Hifter has been backed by an array of foreign forces. In the past year, a powerful Kremlin-backed private army, the Wagner Group, turbocharged his flagging assault on Tripoli. But Turkey joined the fight on behalf of Tripoli in January and has thrown Mr. Hifter’s campaign into disarray.

A large contingent of Russian fighters and their weapons retreated from the front lines south of the capital over the weekend and were flown in three planes to a Hifter stronghold, Reuters reported. Mr. Hifter’s powerful foreign sponsors will likely determine his next move.

The abortive mercenary expedition last summer was organized and financed by a network of secretive companies in the United Arab Emirates, according to a confidential report submitted to the United Nations Security Council in February. The companies are controlled or part-owned by Christiaan Durrant, an Australian businessman and former fighter pilot who is a close associate of Erik Prince, America’s most famous mercenary entrepreneur.

Christiaan Durrant in a photograph taken from social media.

Mr. Prince, whose close ties to the Trump administration have come under Congressional scrutiny in recent years, has provided private militia forces for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates and the leading foreign sponsor of Mr. Hifter’s war in Libya.

United Nations investigators are examining whether Mr. Prince played any role in the failed mercenary operation. Through a spokesman, Mr. Prince said he had “nothing whatsoever to do with any alleged private military operation in Libya.”

“Libya is a case study of the changing character of war,” said Sean McFate, a former private military contractor and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “We think of war as a political activity, but in Libya it’s becoming a commercial one. You have these for-profit warriors of every stripe going in there, waging the kind of wars that Machiavelli discussed in the 16th century.”

 

‘Anything, Anytime, Anywhere’

 

The team of 20 mercenaries that deployed to Benghazi in June was led by Steve Lodge, a former South African Air Force officer who also served in the British military and worked as a private military contractor in Nigeria.

The others were also ex-military — 11 South Africans, five Britons, two Australians and one American, a trained pilot. Their mission was to prevent shipments of Turkish-supplied weapons from reaching the government in Tripoli by sea.

The plan, United Nations investigators say, was to create a marine strike force using speedboats and attack helicopters that would board and search merchant ships. Investigators believe the marine force was part of a larger operation that also involved commandos who would surveil and destroy enemy targets.

Three officials familiar with the United Nations investigation, which was first reported by Bloomberg, briefed The New York Times on its contents and provided copies of documents. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Six helicopters were bought in South Africa and trucked to the international airport in Gaborone, Botswana. Though clandestine, the operation left behind a long trail of evidence, starting with photographs published online by The Botswana Gazette of three Super Puma helicopters, strapped to trucks, being driven down a highway.

The helicopters were loaded into cargo planes, one of which was owned by SkyAviaTrans, a Ukrainian company whose motto, borrowed from a Vietnam-era C.I.A. airline, is “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, Professionally.” The airline was cited last year in a United Nations report for transporting military items into Libya.

Flight documents listed the planes’ destination as Jordan but they landed at Benghazi airport, near Mr. Hifter’s headquarters in eastern Libya.

Two speedboats — rigid hull inflatables, a kind often used by special forces — were leased from James Fenech, a licensed Maltese arms dealer.

Inflatable boats similar to the ones the mercenaries used to land on the Libyan coast.Adam Dean for The New York Times
Mr. Lodge, the commander, negotiated the deals, but they were contracted and paid for by several Dubai-based companies controlled or part-owned by Mr. Durrant.

One of the companies, Lancaster 6, is part of a network of similarly-named companies in Malta, the Emirates and the British Virgin Islands. “Prosperity breeds peace,” reads its website.

Another, Opus Capital Asset, is run by Amanda Kate Perry, a prominent British businesswoman in Dubai who promotes women entrepreneurs and was hailed by a local magazine, Emirates Woman, as one of its 2019 “visionaries.”

Reached by phone, Mr. Lodge, who has an address in Scotland, used an expletive to dismiss the accusations of violating the arms embargo, then hung up. Ms. Perry, reached by phone, declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Durrant dismissed the United Nations findings about the Libya mission as “simply not factual and misinformed,” and did not respond to further questions.

 

The Plan Hits a Snag

 

In Benghazi, Mr. Hifter was infuriated that the mercenaries had brought old aircraft — one official called them “clapped-out helicopters” — instead of the more powerful craft they had promised. A document obtained by the United Nations indicated that the promised aircraft included a Cobra attack helicopter and a LASA T-Bird, a crop duster adapted for reconnaissance and warfare.

Unable to come to terms with the Libyan commander, the mercenaries decided to pull back to Malta. But after leaving Benghazi on the night of July 2, one of their boats ran into trouble and had to be abandoned. All 20 men crammed onto a single boat and continued to Malta.

Weeks later, the abandoned boat was found by the Libyan Coast Guard and photographs of it appeared in local news media.

On his website, Mr. Durrant presents himself as an entrepreneur and a humanitarian worker, with a photo showing him holding a Kenyan baby. “To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” reads one blog post.

A good part of his recent career, however, has been linked to Mr. Prince, a self-vaunting organizer of private military ventures whose Blackwater firm became notorious for killing 17 civilians in Iraq in 2007. In recent years Mr. Prince has pitched or organized private military ventures in Somalia, Mali, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

From 2014 to 2016, Mr. Durrant worked under Mr. Prince at a company called Frontier Services Group, where he led a contentious project to convert Thrush crop duster airplanes into cheap warplanes. The project was later transferred to a Bulgarian company linked to Mr. Prince, which called it the LASA T-Bird — the same plane promised to Mr. Hifter.

In 2017, Mr. Durrant was linked to Mr. Prince’s proposal for a private air force to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan when Mr. Prince listed Lancaster 6 as a partner company in a submission to the Defense Department, The Military Times reported.

Mr. Durrant likes to flaunt his familiarity with Washington. His Facebook profile photo shows him wearing sunglasses at the podium of the press room at the Pentagon. An avid sailor, he co-owns a trimaran yacht with Mr. Prince, and last month posted photos of a catamaran emblazoned with the Blackwater logo on sale for $25,000. The same craft has been registered in Mr. Prince’s name.

Last July, as the mercenary operation in Libya was underway, Opus Capital, the Emirati firm, paid at least $60,000 to the Washington lobbyists Federal Associates to pitch the White House on what it called “geopolitical issues in Africa.”

Both Opus Capital and Lancaster 6 were cooperating with the United Nations investigators and had offered to meet them, said the spokeswoman for Mr. Durrant.

Mr. Prince had no role in the companies, she said. “He is not a shareholder, director or working in either company,” she said.

 

‘Joke’ of an Embargo

 

The international arms embargo on Libya is notoriously toothless. Anyone violating it faces a possible travel ban and an asset freeze yet only two non-Libyan nationals, both Eritrean people smugglers, have ever been sanctioned. Even senior United Nations officials call the embargo “a joke.”

Big powers cannot agree on who should be sanctioned, either because they are openly at odds over Libya, or, like the United States, have vacillating and contradictory policies.

While the United States officially supports the government in Tripoli, Mr. Trump has expressed support for Mr. Hifter, and last year his senior officials effectively greenlighted Mr. Hifter’s assault on Tripoli.

Khalifa Hifter, the military commander, on a billboard in Benghazi.Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
The mercenary operation came two months later.

The investigation into the mercenary operation is continuing. Officials say there is enough evidence already against some individuals to warrant sanctions.

But so far the only legal action has come from Malta, where the police last month charged the arms dealer, Mr. Fenech, and four of his employees with violating European Union sanctions for supplying the mercenaries with speedboats.

Mr. Fenech denied any wrongdoing. “We have just chartered 2 vessels on a bare boat agreement and have found ourselves in a very unbelievable situation,” he said in an email.

Mr. Fenech also has business ties with Mr. Prince. In 2018 they launched Blackwater Ammunition, which sells ammunition for assault rifles, knives and watches under the Blackwater brand.

Libya’s chaotic war is so freewheeling that some profiteers have even managed to work both sides of the front line. But it can be risky.

On Aug. 5, a drone operated by Mr. Hifter’s forces bombed a cargo plane on the runway at Misurata, in government-held territory. It was the same SkyAviaTrans cargo plane that had delivered a helicopter to Mr. Hifter a month earlier.

This time, officials said, it was carrying military supplies to Tripoli.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

 

 

 

Can Tunisia Shake Off “Business as Usual” Following Covid-19?


By Salma Houerbi, Arab Reform Initiative, 20 May 2020


The consequences of Covid-19 on Tunisia’s already fragile economy are bound to exacerbate existing social tensions. The government has rolled out a series of socio-economic measures to support individual entrepreneurs and businesses to maintain jobs and incomes across all sectors. This paper argues that the government’s support to the private sector represents a golden opportunity to rectify longstanding problems in state-business relations and institute a culture of corporate accountability. But to do so, the government should place the Covid-19 response within a broader effort to address the persistent and systemic challenges the country faces from corruption to rent-seeking to vulnerable workers’ conditions.

 


Almost a decade after Tunisia’s revolution, rampant inequalities and corruption continue to plague the country as it struggles to implement needed socio-economic measures to respond to aspirations for more social justice. This has caused disenchantment with the new political elite and a rise of populism that risks endangering the democratic gains achieved so far.1

The COVID-19 outbreak has further exposed the country’s systemic social inequalities,2 often manifested in different forms, including communities protesting persistent issues with access to water amid the sanitary crisis,3 doctors and patients denouncing the uneven and stretched resources in public hospitals,4 women agricultural workers whose priority throughout the crisis remained their struggle for economic subsistence.5

As the pandemic takes its toll on an already fragile economy, further weakening strategic sectors and increasing public debt and expenditures,6 foreseen economic losses seem bound to exacerbate existing social tensions.7 The government and its social partners have repeatedly maintained that protecting the economy and setting the stage for a post-COVID-19 recovery are their major priorities.8 To that end, the government rolled out a series of socio-economic measures to assist companies and self-employed individuals to maintain jobs and incomes across all economic sectors.9

Yet, amid the crisis, the role the private sector can and should play becomes crucial and must be discussed. Who should save who? Should the Tunisian government bail out companies in light of the crisis? Should the private sector mobilize efforts amid COVID-1910 and, if so, what kind of mobilization can it undertake? In his latest interview, the head of the Tunisian government, Elyes Fakhfakh, reiterated his faith in the deeply rooted tradition of social dialogue between Tunisian unions and employers’ organization. 11

This paper analyses the government and private sector responses to COVID-19 considering Tunisia’s economic and social challenges and existing state-business relations. It argues that, rather than going back to the “shady business as usual”, the Tunisian response to COVID-19 can be a golden opportunity to rectify state-business relations, institute a culture of corporate accountability that may partly address the root causes of inequalities in Tunisia, and promote the long-awaited agenda of social justice.

To do so, the government should place the COVID-19 response within a broader effort to address the persistent and systemic challenges the country faces from corruption to rent-seeking to vulnerable workers’ conditions. This can be done by setting an agenda of state-business accountability and ensuring that recovery measures adopted in response to the pandemic fulfil fundamental responsibilities towards the most vulnerable and provide them with long-neglected essential services.

If the measures taken by Tunisia’s government fail to address these systemic challenges and continue to ignore social justice, they risk perpetuating inequalities and maintaining the interests of a small business elite.


The business landscape in Tunisia: Fragility of workers and businesses


Years after the revolution, the fragile economy and the lack of economic opportunities and prospects of dignified work have impeded the quest for social justice.12 Despite state efforts in support of decentralization and private-sector development, inherent challenges hovering around state-business relations have limited the potential of creating a fair and sustainable economy.


Corruption and rent-seeking in the economy


Aspirations that democratization would dismantle corruption and rent-seeking in Tunisia and bring about a fairer economy have so far been unmet.13 Tunisia continues to suffer uneven economic development: in 2016, 85% of the enterprises that provide 92% of private-sector jobs were clustered in the coastal regions, with 44% in the Great Tunis area alone. Enterprises operating inland provide only 8% of private-sector jobs.14

While the regional clustering has been nurtured via a legacy of clientelism and corruption, the polarization of the private sector has amplified after the revolution. On one side, you have an established economic elite concentrated in the coastal areas with old political ties protected by and benefiting from existing regulations, and on the other, a disparate group of aspiring young formal entrepreneurs, new entrepreneurs confined to the informal sector, and small business owners.15

Although the family clan of former President Ben Ali has largely left the coun­try, other politically and internationally well-connected economic elites have remained active since reforms and expropriations of ill-gotten gains have so far fallen short with investigations largely limited to Ben Ali’s family and a few politically opportune and high-profile cases.16

As such, the patronage and economic choices that characterized the rule of Ben Ali did not end with his departure. Citizens continue to pay the price of favouring labour-intensive low-value adding sectors (such as construction and tourism) over innovation.17 The low growth registered in the past two years and the persistent unemployment rate has been associated with the persistence of cronyism after the revolution. Private firms have not increased their investments, rather they shifted to less growth-inducing rent-filled sectors, such as construction.18

A 2018 assessment of the Tunisian private sector led by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has further demonstrated the “missing middle” challenge of Tunisian companies: 10% of companies consist of big and inefficient state-owned companies while small firms – often unable to grow and create jobs – represent the remaining 90% .19

This can be explained by the persistence of networks in the Tunisian economy which tie together state officials, bankers and owners of big businesses and provide them with access to state resources, licenses and bank credits while keeping smaller companies “outside the loop.”20

A new pattern of rent-seeking has been the increasing direct connection between the post-2011 political sphere and the business elite as political parties seek funds from firms in exchange of economic privileges. While the direct representation of economic actors in the legislative and executive branches of the government was only anecdotal at the time of Ben Ali and studies mostly highlighted the dominance of the Ben Ali clan over the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Crafts (UTICA- Union Tunisienne de l'Industrie, du Commerce et de l'Artisanat) and the big entrepreneurs of the country,21 ) a social network analysis of Tunisia’s business elites post-2011 found that economic power remains in the hands of a few family groups who increasingly intervene directly in the political sphere to consolidate their resources and find new economic opportunities.22

For instance, prominent businessman Mohamed Frikha joined the Islamist Ennahdha party and became a member of the parliamentary assembly while others such as Faouzi Elloumi, Moncef Sellami or Zohra Driss were important members of the secular party Nidaa Tounes. The 2019 presidential elections saw Kalb Tounes political party leader, Nabil Karoui, a businessman and owner of a media company in Tunisia allegedly involved23 in the Panama Papers and SwissLeaks, finish in second place.

In light of the difficulty of separating the political from the economic in post-revolution Tunisia, absence of political will to effectively combat the roots of corruption and develop the economy have achieved very little. According to Transparency International, corruption has fallen for a few years after the revolution to rise a decade later to the same level as before the 2011 uprisings.24
Risks of corruption and mismanagement have also remained high in state-owned enterprises. The opaque hiring practices in the state-run phosphate production company have been used as a tool to control social movements and as political quick fixes to calm tensions.25 The cycle of corruption has led to protests over jobs in the phosphate industry and the consistent decline in productivity of a strategic sector, consequently sharpening the Tunisian economic crisis.

While the direct and indirect negative impacts of corruption on economic growth are widely documented and have been associated with the low economic growth during 2017-19, it also impeded the efforts of developing new private actors in Tunisia. The business climate has deteriorated with a perceived rise of corruption and an expansion of informal (and illegal) activities such as contraband. Entrepreneurs report that bribes remain necessary to get a license to start a small business, obtain a job in an employment programme, or receive social assistance from the state.


Fiscal evasion and the informal economy


Tax evasion is another persistent problem for state coffers. Studies quantifying fiscal evasion are notoriously scarce due to the challenge of data collection. In 2019, an advisor to the previous government, Faycel Derbel, declared that tax evasion amounted to 25 billion Tunisian Dinars (USD8,7 Billion), explaining that it has increased sharply since 2011 as a result of the explosion of the “parallel market” where 53% of the country's wealth circulates.26 While difficult to measure, informal activities are estimated to have risen from 30 to 40% GDP between 2010 and 2018.

The World Bank estimates that between 2002 and 2009 tax fraud by politically connected firms cost Tunisia approximately USD200 million per year.27 Experts believe that the situation worsened after the revolution.28
In its 2016 report, Parallel Economy in Tunisia, Tunisian think-tank Joussour Center for Public Policies has provided an estimation of the potential revenues lost from smuggling activities to almost 2 billion Tunisian Dinars (697 million USD) annually, distributed as follows: 750 million dinars from petrol (261 million USD), 300 million dinars from tobacco (104 million USD), 450 million (156 million USD) dinars from electrical appliances, spare parts, vehicle tires, and food commodities, 500 million dinars (173 million USD) from electronic devices, clothing, beauty products and perfume. Revenues from the smuggling of arms, gold, copper, expensive alcohol and stolen luxurious cars were not considered because their true magnitude is very difficult to estimate.29

Finally, a previous government led-policy to attract foreign investment and create jobs through creating offshore companies30 has arguably had disparate effects when it comes to promoting transparency and fair competition in Tunisia. The offshore system was set up as a series of time-bound fiscal incentives granted to companies with non-local operations.

While this policy has expanded sectors such as the garment industry and call centres, it was long criticized for promoting a dual economy that slows local value chain development and provides unfair tax advantages to purely exporting companies. Prompted by the European Union’s reprimand listing of Tunisia as a fiscal paradise in 2017, the government has, for instance, reduced the tax differential between onshore and offshore systems.31 Yet, a commonly reported misuse of this legislation is that companies often change denominations after the lapse of the grace period to continue to benefit from the advantageous fiscal regime.32


Labour vulnerability and weak protection of workers


While Tunisia’s economic model developed as an export-oriented and labour-intensive economy focused on tourism and low-cost outsourcing, incentives for attracting and retaining investors have led to tolerating low wages and disregarding the development of agriculture and rural areas.33 In light of the fragile economic context and the high unemployment rate, creating jobs have often been given priority over ensuring dignified work conditions. Even if Tunisia’s main labour union, the UGTT, plays a powerful role in setting policies, different reasons have led the union to limit its demands to sectoral wage negotiations and less to documenting repressive practices.34 Additionally, as half of the economy belongs to the informal sector, compliance with labour legislation is difficult to monitor.

In 2018, the ILO estimated that 53% of the Tunisian population are informal workers.35 As such, they and their families face insecurity as a result of the absence of health care and social security benefits, including retirement pensions and access to other benefits, such as family allowances, childcare and nursery allowances, severance pay or death benefits. Informal workers also often lack the ability to organize or participate in labour unions or access employer or state-sponsored remedies in cases of abuse.

Informality can also be found in the formal sector, for example, when people are hired to work in registered enterprises without an employment contract and/or social security payments by the employer. The Tunisian Centre for Research and Social Studies and the African Development Bank estimated that around 43% of Tunisian private-sector workers (about 1.2 million people) had informal jobs in 2015.36
Job informality is particularly widespread among young Tunisians: less than one in three young workers has a formal work contract and access to social protection. Only 15.3% of rural youth (ages 15 to 29) and 38.8% of urban youth have an open-ended contract with full social protection and extended job security.37

The contribution of the formal private sector to social protection remains low. Noureddine Taboubi, head of the UGTT, attributed the deficit in social security funds to the fact that 25% of private companies are not currently reversing social security contribution for their workers.38

Other jobs in the formal sector come mainly in the form of short fixed-term contracts and are also associated with job insecurity, high turn-over, fewer protections compared to permanent contracts, as well as exploitative treatment by employers. It is less likely for temporary contract labourers to complain about working conditions for fear of losing their jobs.39

Sectors which have been strategically prioritized by the government namely export-oriented textile industry, hotels, and construction, among others, carry particular human rights risks as most of their workforce consists of temporary or seasonal workers.

NGO led interviews with 230 workers have shed light on rights violations for women in the garment sector.40 Complaints concerned inadequate access to social protection, allegations of the excessive use of short-term contracts, illegal dismissals, suspensions, excessive overtime, and incomplete social security and income tax payments by the employer. Complaints concerning the lack of living wages and unsafe working conditions were also reported.

Despite improvements to Tunisia’s judicial system, obstacles to accessing remedy for employment-related abuse persist. Research shows that workers are reluctant to take cases to court. Contributing factors include the length of time to secure a judgment and the lack or weak enforcement of court decisions. The same research has shown that employment-related cases are the most prevalent and the most likely to remain unresolved.41

Women in the Tunisian labour market face additional challenges based on their gender. Despite progress in legislation, Tunisian women’s participation in the labour market is still lower and women’s unemployment rate higher than that of men. When women are partaking in the economy, they are more likely to be found in the informal sector and/or in the bottom of value chains occupying hazardous and vulnerable positions in sectors such as farming and textile. 70% of women in the agriculture sector are protected by social security.

The number of women falling under the social protection scheme does not exceed 93,500 compared to 377,000 men.42 According to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics,43 women are paid, on average, between 20 and 30% less than men. This figure reaches 40% in the private sector and a staggering 50% in agriculture.44

In a detailed overview of the gendered impact of Tunisia’s phosphate mining, The Natural Resource Governance Institute found that in the Gafsa region – home to much of Tunisia’s phosphate mines – 47% of women hold a university degree but are still mainly employed by the mining company as cleaners. Women also disproportionately suffer from the negative health impacts of mining, experiencing a high rate of miscarriages and neonatal problems. These impacts mostly go untreated because of the lack of appropriate medical services in this area. Water shortages and pollution caused by phosphate extraction and treatment aggravate mining-related health and livelihood issues.

Finally, a growing concern is an increasing reliance on migrant workers in the absence of adequate regulations to protect them. While there is still little information on the current socio-economic situation of migrant workers in Tunisia, particularly when they are employed as informal workers, initial research has shown that they are present in informal sectors such as construction and hotel services and often employed on a temporary basis.45

Civil society organizations have raised concerns about emerging patterns of racism against migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa as verbal violence and discrimination against them have become pervasive in everyday life and in the workplace, both in the informal and formal sector, and called for the implementation of inclusive migration policies in Tunisia.46

In the current socio-economic context, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Tunisia is likely to further weaken small businesses and those with less political connections and to have a severe impact on vulnerable workers in the formal and informal sector, particularly women and migrants. Companies “out of the network” and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may suffer disproportionately from the downturn because of their limited financial resources and dependence on bank lending – often at high-interest rates. In addition, their relative technological, managerial and human shortcomings may reduce their capacity to overcome the economic crisis.

Crucially, the current lockdown and its aftermath are expected to have a severe impact on the large portion of the population engaged in the informal economy, dependent on day labour, and working without social protections. The key question is whether and how the government can help without exacerbating inequalities.


Government socio-economic measures under COVID-19


With the outbreak of COVID-19, the head of the government announced a bold set of measures to safeguard the economy and people’s socio-economic situation that amounted to a total of around 2,5 billion Tunisian dinar (876 million USD).47
A central priority of the government has been to preserve jobs, guarantee the income of workers, employees and civil servants, and reduce financial pressure for businesses with activities impacted by the lockdown.

It announced the allocation of 300 million Tunisian Dinars of state-enabled unemployment compensation. The UGTT and UTICA signed an agreement on 14 April with the ministry of social affairs guaranteeing that the 1,5 million private-sector workers will get their full salaries for April.48 According to this agreement, the state pays 200 Dinars (63 Euros) of the salary of each employee and the employer pays the rest. Employees whose salaries are not declared to the social security funds may be declared within one month of the entry into force of the decree-law to benefit from the state support.

The agreement also made it possible for employers to register their workers to benefit from the government contribution. Another landmark step towards protecting workers is the issuance of government decree banning companies from firing workers or ending working contracts during the lockdown caused by the pandemic.49

Besides maintaining salaries, the government has announced an additional 150 million dinars (52 million USD) in the form of cash transfers for the benefit of registered vulnerable and low-income categories and people with special needs. According to the Minister of Social Affairs, 260,000 needy families will benefit from the aid in addition to 464,000 families with limited income, 382,000 families looking after children, 121,000 families looking after elderly people and 286 families looking after people with disabilities.50

Parallel to this, the government also announced measures to ease the impact of the crisis on businesses, in particular Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), self-employed, and the liberal professions affected by the cessation of their activities.51 These measures mostly included the deferral of taxes and social contributions for three months starting from April. For impacted sectors such as construction and hotel industry, measures to facilitate access to credit were introduced.

The government has also initiated several consultations with experts and social partners to discuss pathways to achieving prosperity after the crisis but has yet to announce any long-term measures.


Private sector response to the COVID-19 crisis: Resistance or solidarity


As soon as the pandemic broke, political tensions erupted regarding the role to be played by the private sector amid the crisis. In a TV appearance on 20 March 2020, the head of the UTICA, Samir Majoul, stood against the vilification of the private sector and recalled the role of businesses as the generator of value, employment and growth and warned they should not be made to “pay the cost”. This was in response to statements by Elyes Fakhfekh, the president and others calling for the private sector to play a stronger financial role in mitigating the impact of the crisis.

Conversely, representatives of the most impacted sectors have also warned about the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 calling on the state to develop a rescue plan for the most affected sectors.52

With reference to the literature on corporate social responsibility and business ethics, we distinguish in our analysis between two sets of possible actions that companies may undertake: (1) binding/enforceable actions related to the core of their activities and the recovery of their businesses following COVID-19; and (2) actions related to their broader societal role amid the crisis.


Mixed sectoral reaction to government-enforced measures


As soon as the main social dialogue partners UTICA and UGTT reached an agreement regarding the disbursement of wages for April, several sectoral employers’ federations manifested their resistance. The Tunisian Textile-Clothing Federation (FTTH), part of UTICA, for instance, raised concerns about their obligation to disburse wages for April, stating that this would only worsen the existing crisis in their sector. Another prominent employers’ association, CONECT (Confédération des Entreprises Citoyennes de Tunisie) issued a statement strongly condemning the consensus reached, also raising concerns that paying full wages is only going to negatively impact businesses whose economic situation is already fragile amid the crisis. Representatives of other sectors were also reticent about the agreement.[53]

Among the measures suggested by these employer federations, is the temporary weakening of certain acquired workers’ rights such as paid holidays, earning a 13th month of salary and allowing employers to recover worked hours beyond the current two-month limit.53


A rise of voluntary solidarity initiatives at the inception of the crisis


A report released by the UTICA in April 2020 highlights the contributions of the private sector during the pandemic.54 In a survey covering 230 private sector representatives of medium and large companies, the report showcased several ways companies have shown solidarity in response to the crisis. Initiatives ranged from financing a solidarity fund against COVID-19, purchasing medical equipment and supplies, supporting with digitalization efforts, and providing hotel rooms for confining quarantined individuals. While no further details on the identity of the companies surveyed were given beyond their sectoral repartition, the report estimates the contribution of surveyed companies to be worth 114,677 millions dinars – including the contribution of interviewed financial institutions.

The Tunisian Professional Association of Banks (APTBEF) also issued a statement re-iterating the social role that banks intend to play, confirming that the banking sector committed 112 million dinars in support measures for businesses and low-income families.55

In a joint press release published on 10 April 2020, the ministries of finance and health indicated that the total citizen and company donations into the national fund created to limit the economic and social impact of the pandemic (known as that 1818 Fund, in reference to the SMS number used to donate) amounted to 81.1 million dinars as of 8 April. Yet, the amount of the exact contributions from companies has not been made public.


Reconciling state-business relations amid the pandemic: The need for strengthened accountability of businesses


So far, little attention was drawn to how the government can effectively embed its response to COVID-19 within a broader approach to the systemic socio-economic challenges of Tunisia.

COVID-19 exposes first and foremost the precarity of the country’s labour and the difficulty of effectively implementing policies that protect workers. On the one hand, policies supporting businesses (and their workers) assume that state-business and employer-employee relations are well-functioning. On the other, policies supporting vulnerable individuals disregard the structural gaps in social protection.

It is important to point that for a country the size of Tunisia and with its challenges, the government and institutions have made remarkable efforts to protect citizens during the crisis. Yet, despite the goodwill behind the measures taken to support businesses, they only respond to a small fraction of the problem where the informal unregistered business are high, and where informality is persistent even within the formal private sector.

In the context of an economy where corruption is endemic56 and in the absence of effective enforcement and strong labour inspections – especially given the difficulty of conducting inspections during the pandemic adding to the structural challenges with inspection itself –, incentives are low for actors of the private sector to comply with the payment of wages consensus especially in light of the morose economic prospects.

Without proper monitoring and given the challenges of accessing justice and remedies, there is a high risk of incomplete payment of wages, which are further amplified for vulnerable workers as these are often less likely to complain. Furthermore, despite the possibility of state support for paying salaries for unregistered workers on the condition of including them in social schemes, general evidence on previous formalization efforts suggests that for the new entrepreneurial class of operators, the issue is less whether they are able to comply with commercial and employment regulations and more about whether they are willing to comply.57

Anecdotal evidence from workers’ interviews,58 social media, and journalists’ reports already hint at cases of abusive dismissal occurring during the crisis as well as non-payment of wages among small businesses, hairdressers, waiters, and mechanics. It is also unlikely that temporary workers and workers without any contract will be protected by any scheme.

The plan for cash distribution to the vulnerable is also flawed as it requires people to register to access the benefits while in confinement and with limited access to the relevant authorities online or in rural areas. This is especially compounded by the fact that behavioural shifts and attitudes towards digitalization take time and require training and preparation.

As for cash payments and social aid, doubts arose about the effective targeting of these programmes as the national body for the fight against corruption (INLUCC) announced in a press release on 26 April 2020 that it has received several complaints concerning offences and suspicions of abuse of power.59

Despite the reactivity in the government’s measures, the crisis has been somehow tackled in isolation from the broader challenges caused by crony capitalism and corruption. While evidence suggests that at time of crises risks of corruption are potentially higher,60 in the Tunisian political lexicon, “the war against COVID-19” has supplemented the “war against corruption£ even though patterns of corruption continue to persist amid the crisis.

Recently, statements by the head of the government were criticized by media and civil society61 for trivializing corruption following suspicions regarding the award by the ministry of industry of a contract to manufacture 2 million masks to a deputy from the Al Badil party who is also a member of the parliamentary committee on industry and energy.62 Furthermore, suspicions of corruption committed by political regional delegates have caused recent shortages of semolina, a state-subsidized basic good essential for cheap bread production. Reports allege that the commodity is diverted for circulation to illicit traders, speculators and black markets. However, the government responded quickly by strengthening sanctions against speculators.63

Additionally, the measures laid out in support of businesses have also not fully accounted for the fragmentation of the private sector and the vulnerability of different categories of companies. For instance, companies operating call centres benefiting from the offshore fiscal policy will receive state support for wage payment. While this was conceived as a policy to ensure that workers do not pay the price of the pandemic, the government could have further ensured that this financial injection is not a gift to companies by seeking written commitments forbidding the distribution of dividends and ensuring that such injections are paid by the company.

Conversely, registered subsistence entrepreneurs – self-employed earning their income through market stands – were considered by the government as business owners. While they have received benefits consisting of a freeze of loans payment, for many daily entrepreneurs, the interruption of activities means the interruption of any income for them and their families. For example, taxi drivers organized a protest calling attention to their vulnerability as independent businesses soon after the measures were announced.64

Calling on companies’ benevolent and “patriotic” contribution to respond to COVID-19 can be an appropriate measure to make “fiscal space” for cases of force majeure like these. Voluntary corporate benevolent initiatives have been important in setting a “race to the top” among companies and bringing international attention to positive examples of workers’ engagement. However, in the Tunisian context, where state-business lack of transparency has been a persistent issue, extra scrutiny should be applied to ensure that corporate social responsibility is not used as a tool to boast about social achievements and restore tarnished image while avoiding regulations. Recalling the climate of rent-seeking and fiscal evasion, the government and legal institutions could have, for instance, disclosed the exact amounts of the contributions of companies.

International labour standards ratified by Tunisia as well as the labour code legislation recall that companies and investors have binding responsibilities vis-à-vis society, the countries in which they operate and the workers they employ. Initiatives taken in the context of Corporate Social Responsibility should not serve to wash away any negative impact the companies’ activities might have on their workers, their community and the environment.65


Pathways to accountability of the private sector


As COVID-19 exposed the vulnerability of individuals in the economy and the fragility of businesses in Tunisia, the priority is to build an economy that not only creates jobs and serves elites but also works for and protects people and the environment. Tunisia’s future of social cohesion lies in appropriate investments that set a fair and just economy ruled by effective state-business relations and strengthened social protection for all.66

While accountability efforts in Tunisia have so far focused on state behaviour, accountability redirected to both state and businesses as a “set of multiple reciprocal relations grounded in normative standards and directed toward general ends”67 would benefit individuals and pave the way to a fairer economy. Tunisian workers and citizens would benefit from a vision of businesses that not only prioritize economic growth but also provides answerability monitoring and transparency with accrued compliance with national and international standards.

Effective dialogues around the accountability of the private sector in Tunisia post-revolution remained so far embryonic.68 Nonetheless, current sectoral demands for state and economic recovery in the context of the pandemic is an excellent opportunity to set a clear agenda regarding the role of businesses in Tunisian society.

Because the economic challenges in Tunisia clearly go beyond job creation, the discussions should also focus on fiscal and social justice. This is of particular relevance to the Tunisian context as sectors which are impacted the most by the crisis (export-oriented garment sector, construction sectors and hotel industry) are those which carry particular human rights risks for workers in them.

Fair sanctions on businesses that do not respect rights and more answerability by businesses to different stakeholders can ease social tensions and serve as milestones in rethinking a fair and sustainable economy. However, to lead that conversation, the government should lead on exemplarity. There is, therefore, an urgent need for cutting ties with crony capitalism and corruption. It is somewhat reassuring that in laying out government’s measures to support businesses, the ministry of finance has reiterated the priority of fighting corruption and formalizing the economy.

The question of how it will achieve these is a crucial one, especially that these measures will require political determination as fierce resistance can be expected from those who are at risk of losing rents and privileges. A good approach in that regard is to boost efforts on promulgating legislation clarifying the conditions of legibility for the parliament and accelerating the voting of law setting rules for lobbying in Tunisia. It is also crucial to increase financial support and empowerment to instances (such as the INLUCC tasking with fighting corruption) to raise investigations regarding tax evasion and for this information to be made public.

 

Conversely, efforts should be made to empower individuals and protect vulnerable workers as COVID-19 has highlighted the need to strengthen the social protection of all citizens in Tunisia. A positive measure from the government is the recent launch of a single identifying number for all citizens which will allow a better monitoring of vulnerability in Tunisia.69 Concerted efforts should be made to strengthen social protection in light of a full diagnosis of workers’ vulnerability. Measures could include aligning maternity leave with international standards and extending protection to migrant workers. It is also essential to unify and strengthen labour inspection while addressing the systemic issues of social security deficit. The government can rely on the Corporate Social Responsibility law in Tunisia to get companies to strengthen their investments in social protection using binding as well as voluntary measures.

As the government will be negotiating and planning recovery plan following COVID-19, it is critical that discussions and measures to support businesses should come with transparent strings attached to end vulnerability and tackle corruption.

 

Footnotes

 

1. ↑ https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/02/19/tunisia-s-geography-of-anger-regional-inequalities-and-rise-of-populism-pub-81086
2. ↑ https://orientxxi.info/magazine/tunisie-qui-paie-le-prix-du-coronavirus,3784
3. ↑ Regional disparities in accessing water as well as the lack of access to clean healthy water for the rural population were cited as major persistent challenged in Tunisia and previously caused several rural social mobilizations. See World Bank report on WASH in Tunisia https://bit.ly/2XgGP8C and http://www.webdo.tn/2019/08/11/premier-jour-de-laid-plusieurs-regions-sans-eau-potable/; https://africanmanager.com/tunisie-coronavirus-les-oublies-confines-ont-soifune-bombe-a-retardement/
4. ↑ Underinvestment, lack of equipment’s and regional inequalities are commonly reported challenges in Tunisia’s health care system. See https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/overview/path-recovery-investments-are-aimed-overhauling-public-health-system Facing COVID, the health sector has reported the availability of 200 intensive care beds. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/proactive-tunisia-gears-battle-coronavirus-200316165511731.html
5. ↑ See https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=25&v=rjoEjkl76FI&feature=emb_title and https://ftdes.net/ar/femmes-agricole/?fbclid=IwAR1V2moTBslD65mpuO1QmlOMC73Pz71msDUT8nDxraB9FGWcqrMU_CSUpLQ
6. ↑ For an analysis of Tunisia’s economic challenges before COVID-19 see https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/tunisias-upcoming-challenge-fixing-the-economy-before-its-too-late/
7. ↑ Mitsuhiro Furusawa, Deputy Director of the IMF, said forecasts for the Tunisian economy expect GDP to shrink by 4.3% in 2020. https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/04/10/pr20144-tunisia-imf-executive-board-approves-a-us-745m-disbursement-address-covid19-pandemic. A recent study analyzing the economic and social consequences of COVID-19 conducted by Tunisian socio-economic rights group FTDES has estimated formal COVID-19 induced job losses in Tunisia at 63400. http://ftdes.net/rapports/COVID-AZ19.pdf
8. ↑ See interview of Elyes Fakhfekh, https://tunivisions.net/38463/discours-integral-du-chef-du-gouvernement-elyes-fakhfakh-prononce-jeudi-devant-le-parlement/
9. ↑ https://bit.ly/2Zpqb9F
10. ↑ https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/decryptages/face-au-covid-19-la-difficile-mobilisation-du-secteur-prive-tunisien-0
11. ↑ https://www.businessnews.com.tn/lessentiel-de-linterview-delyes-fakhfakh,520,97678,3
12. ↑ https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/opinion/tunisia-economy-essebsi-ennahda.html
13. ↑ https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2019C13/
14. ↑ Fayçal Zidi, Politiques économiques et disparités régionales en Tunisie: Une analyse en équilibre général micro-stimulé, Université Sorbonne nouvelle Paris III, 2013, (PhD Thesis), available at https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00965133/document.
15. ↑ Nucifora, A., Churchill, E., & Rijkers, B. (2015). Cronyism, corruption, and the Arab Spring: The case of Tunisia. 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, 47-56.
16. ↑ https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2019C13/
17. ↑ Hamza Meddeb, “Peripheral Vision: How Europe can help preserve Tunisia’s fragile democracy” 13 January 2017, ECFR, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/peripheral_vision_how_europe_can_preserve_tunisias_democracy_7215
18. ↑ https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/tunisias-upcoming-challenge-fixing-the-economy-before-its-too-late/
19. ↑ http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/795041468778188072/Tunisia-Private-sector-assessment
20. ↑ Hamza Meddeb, “Peripheral Vision: How Europe can help preserve Tunisia’s fragile democracy” 13 January 2017, ECFR, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/peripheral_vision_how_europe_can_preserve_tunisias_democracy_7215
21. ↑ (Bellin 1994 ; Cassarino 2004 ; Hibou 2006 ; 2008
22. ↑ https://erf.org.eg/publications/the-political-economy-of-business-elites-in-tunisia-actors-strategies-and-identities/
23. ↑ See Iwatch Investigation https://www.iwatch.tn/ar/article/61
24. ↑ Nabli, Moustapha Kamel. J'y Crois Toujours. Sud-Edition, 2019
25. ↑ See https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-economy-insight/ghost-workers-sap-tunisias-phosphate-wealth-idUSKCN1QO14H?il=0
26. ↑ See interview with the previous advisor Faycel Derbel here https://www.tunisienumerique.com/tunisie-levasion-fiscale-seleve-a-25-milliards-de-dinars/
27. ↑ http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/658461468312323813/pdf/861790DPR0P12800Box385314B00PUBLIC0.pdf
28. ↑ Rijkers, Bob, Leila Baghdadi and Gael Raballand. 2015. ‘Political Connections and Tariff Evasion Evidence from Tunisia’. World Bank Economic Review, 1-34
29. ↑ See https://www.conect.org.tn/sites/default/files/Pr%C2%82sentation%20visuelle.pdf
30. ↑ See the research of Observatoire Tunisien Economique
31. ↑ https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/dec/05/eu-blacklist-names-17-tax-havens-and-puts-caymans-and-jersey-on-notice
32. ↑ See here https://inkyfada.com/fr/2018/01/19/limites-systeme-offshore-tunisie/
33. ↑ See https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/peripheral_vision_how_europe_can_preserve_tunisias_democracy_7215
34. ↑ See Ben Hamza, Fatene. “UGTT and Tunisian Government: A Powerful (Dis)union?” Mimeo, Columbia University, 2019.
35. ↑ https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_626831.pdf
36. ↑ Protection sociale et économie informelle en Tunisie. Défis de la transition vers l’économie formelle, http://www.cres.tn/uploads/tx_wdbiblio/Secteur_informel_Tunisie.pdf
37. ↑ World Bank (2015): Breaking the barriers to youth inclusion, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/753151468312307987/pdf/892330WP0REVIS0Box385377B000PUBLIC0.pdf
38. ↑ https://lapresse.tn/33205/restructuration-des-caisses-sociales-maintenant-ou-jamais/
39. ↑ US Department of State (2018): Tunisia 2017 Human Rights Report, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265734.pdf 16/06/2018; Danish Trade Council for International Development Cooperation (2016): Labour Market Profile: Tunisia, http://www.ulandssekretariatet.dk/sites/default/files/uploads/public/PDF/LMP/lmp_tunisia_2016_final.pdf, 13/06/2018.
40. ↑ https://ftdes.net/rapports/textile.fr.pdf
41. ↑ https://www.hiil.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/HiiL-Tunisia-JNST-English-web.pdf
42. ↑ Interview with social security director Tunisia. https://www.webmanagercenter.com/2019/11/19/441491/tunisie-pres-de-70-des-travailleuses-agricoles-nont-pas-de-couverture-sociale/
43. ↑ Tunisian National Institute of Statistics
44. ↑ See https://www.equaltimes.org/tunisia-s-slow-but-steady-march?lang=en#.XsBnkRNKgdU
45. ↑ https://journals.openedition.org/remi/9244
46. ↑ https://ftdes.net/pour-une-politique-migratoire-tunisienne-inclusive-et-protectrice-des-droits/
47. ↑ https://ilacnet.org/2020/04/29/covid-19-and-tunisia-socio-economic-challenges-in-a-young-democracy/
48. ↑ http://www.industriall-union.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/2020/TUNISIA/tunisia_private_sector_agreement_april_2020.pdf
49. ↑ Decree-law n°2-2020 (14 April 2020) suspending some articles of the labour code
50. ↑ http://www.webdo.tn/2020/05/02/tunisie-les-modalites-pour-obtenir-la-2eme-tranche-daides-sociales/
51. ↑ http://www.finances.gov.tn/sites/default/files/2020-03/com_coronavirus_01.pdf
52. ↑ See statement of construction federation and tourism federation here https://www.webmanagercenter.com/2020/05/14/450237/tunisie-btp-nous-appelons-letat-a-assurer-son-role-dinvestisseur-locomotive-indique-jamel-ksibi/
53. ↑ https://www.espacemanager.com/la-conect-rejette-laccord-sur-le-versement-des-salaires-davril-pour-les-salaries-du-prive.html
54. ↑ http://www.utica.org.tn/upload/1586770728.pdf
55. ↑ https://www.apbt.org.tn/wp content/uploads/2020/03/90796437_3098652773486923_1892763504339845120_n.jpg
56. ↑ https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/10/25/tunisia-s-corruption-contagion-transition-at-risk-pub-73522
57. ↑ http://bit.ly/11P5PxR
58. ↑ Author conducted interviews with workers from hairdressers, cafe businesses in great Tunis. The author also spoke with the unions. More references here, see https://thd.tn/coronavirus-38-des-entreprises-tic-tunisiennes-pensent-a-licencier/
59. ↑ http://www.inlucc.tn/www.inlucc.tn/index.php?id=121&L=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=2234&cHash=dc34523fee9ae3edabb9f6b5bf057c6e
60. ↑ https://www.mondaq.com/turkey/crime/922492/thriving-corruption-under-crisis-where-and-how
61. ↑ http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2020/04/20/affaire-des-bavettes-elyes-fakhfakh-defend-fermement-le-ministre-de-lindustrie/ & https://www.facebook.com/I.WATCH.Organization/posts/2825147890873088?
62. ↑ https://www.lecourrierdelatlas.com/tunisie-la-guerre-anti-corruption-est-elle-passee-de-mode--23809
63. ↑ https://lapresse.tn/59516/speculation-et-augmentation-des-prix-la-lutte-continue/
64. ↑ https://www.realites.com.tn/2020/04/marche-de-protestation-des-affilies-de-lunion-tunisienne-des-taxis-individuels/
65. ↑ Critical perspectives on CSR Banarjee https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/6083/1/
66. ↑ I use social protection as opposite to social security as the concept implies a broader coverage which is relevant for the context of loosely defined and traced vulnerability of labour in Tunisia
67. ↑ https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3163242
68. ↑ See Kamal Nabli op-ed here. https://www.businessnews.com.tn/Le-temps-de-la-solidarit%C3%A9-plut%C3%B4t-que-celui-de-la-discorde,526,96899,3
69. ↑ http://www.webdo.tn/2020/05/13/tunisie-lancement-de-lidentifiant-unique-du-citoyen/

 

 

 

China’s Balancing Act in Libya

BY FREDERIC WEHREY AND SANDY ALKOUTAMI, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 10 May 2020

 

Among the bevy of great and middle powers involved in Libya, China is often neglected. It is not pouring in mercenaries or conducting airstrikes—like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Russia—but China is steadily investing and exerting influence in ways that promote Libya’s eventual integration into China’s global ambitions.

 

When Libyans erupted in protest against Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, China abstained from the U.N. Security Council vote to authorize military intervention and swiftly decried the NATO-led response of a no-fly zone and aerial attacks on government forces. Couched in fears of a “humanitarian disaster” and potentially countervailing U.S. influence, China’s vehement resistance reflected its calculated neutrality in Libya and the broader region at the time. This policy of neutrality has grown even more salient since.

Since the fall of Gadhafi’s regime, China’s involvement in Libya has focused on economic penetration—its most robust line of influence—and behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Underpinning these activities is China’s mercantilist ambitions and wariness about military entanglement. Yet despite Beijing’s strict adherence to its principles of cautious and limited engagement, China has shown an acute awareness of local realities, reconfiguring its approach to adapt to shifting conditions while maximizing its gains to account for the conflict’s unknown outcome.


The Origins of China’s Nonalignment Policy in Libya


China has maintained business interests in Libya since long before conflict in the country began in 2011. Under the Gadhafi regime, China engaged in various infrastructure activities, and Libya sent considerable capital to China in return. By 2011, China had 75 companies conducting roughly $18.8 billion worth of business in Libya. These activities involved 36,000 Chinese laborers working across 50 projects, ranging from residential and railway construction to telecommunications and hydropower ventures. Most notably, in the year leading up to Libya’s revolution, Libya was providing 3 percent of China’s crude oil supply—that is, 3 percent of the supply for the world’s second largest consumer, constituting roughly 150,000 barrels per day, or one-tenth of Libya’s crude exports. Chinese businesses were deeply involved in the Libyan oil industry, beyond imports. All of China’s top state oil firms—CNPC, Sinopec Group and CNOOC—had standing infrastructure projects in Libya.

When confronted with the outbreak of protests in 2011, China sought to preserve its economic ties to Libya while rejecting the NATO-led military intervention, a campaign that would impugn China’s long-held dogma of noninterference. China also had to contend with its relationship with the Arab League and African Union member states; both organizations resolutely supported the military intervention, and though China opposed the NATO-led campaign, Beijing also had an interest in maintaining its recently strengthened diplomatic and economic relations with countries in the Middle East and Africa. Even more, Beijing sought to protect its own domestic security and avoid endorsing the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, a global norm of intervention in sovereign countries on the basis of protecting human rights. This outlook was also shared by Russia, resulting in a convergence of Sino-Russian policies regarding not only Libya but also Syria and Iran, with China often following Moscow’s lead.

Such factors in 2011 help to explain China’s subsequent maneuvering in Libya. China’s abstention in the U.N. Security Council vote prevented it from being locked in a rigid position on Libya, leaving it space both to criticize airstrikes against the Gadhafi regime and eventually to recognize the opposition’s political body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), as the sole legitimate authority in Libya. The latter action could have been motivated by fears of growing criticism from the NTC, which singled out the refusal of countries such as Russia, China and Brazil to support rebels during the revolution. The opposition-run oil firm AGOCO told Reuters in 2011, “We don't have a problem with western countries like the Italians, French and UK companies. But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.” Yet by the end of the spring, China initiated contact with the NTC and soon established a steady working relationship with opposition leadership. In June 2011, China held its first meeting with then-chairman of the executive board of the NTC Mahmoud Jibril, and in the following month the director of the Department of West Asian and North African Affairs of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Chen Xiaodong, visited Benghazi.

Despite the growing closeness between the NTC and China, Beijing still maintained relations with the Gadhafi regime, even receiving the Libyan foreign minister and his representatives in Beijing. But in July 2011, reports began to surface accusing China of hosting Gadhafi officials to secure arms deals with Beijing in violation of the U.N. embargo, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry later denied, marking the lowest point in the China-NTC relationship. Jibril expressed alarm at dealing with China following these allegations, stating that the NTC could not cooperate with Beijing in the same way it had with the U.S., Italy and France. With a damaged reputation on the line, as well as its businesses interests, China exercised caution against complete partiality, instead leveraging its economic clout and relatively limited involvement in the conflict. What ensued was a series of dialogues with Libya’s new de facto government. From September 2011 until the outbreak of civil war in mid-2014, China and officials from the newly formed Libyan government held five more diplomatic meetings. To be sure, the declining security conditions after 2011 affected China’s economic footprint in the country. Though many Chinese projects were suspended in Libya and year-on-year bilateral trade between the two countries decreased by more than 57 percent, China’s careful neutrality paved the way for Beijing to stand in good stead with the later U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) for years to come.


How China Navigates a Fractured Libya


Throughout Tripoli’s passage of power from the NTC to the General National Congress (GNC) to, finally, the GNA, China focused its diplomatic attention on the mostly formal, mostly centralized government structures in Libya. But when the eastern-based renegade general Khalifa Haftar launched an unsanctioned military operation in eastern Libya in May 2014, the country entered a second civil war. The fighting split the country into two opposing and loosely construed political camps: an eastern administration aligned with Haftar and one in Tripoli representing his opponents. Once again, a disrupted and destabilized Libya complicated China’s approach to the country.

In late 2015, the GNA emerged as the new political authority, the product of negotiations brokered by the United Nations and backed by China. Although the GNA was supposed to bridge political divisions, it left key economic and security issues unresolved. The result was a reconfiguration of the conflict that went through several iterations in various parts of the country. The most severe and internationalized phase began on April 4, 2019, when Haftar launched a surprise attack on the GNA in Tripoli. Since then, foreign powers—namely the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and Russia—have shifted from working through local proxies to intervening directly with their own airstrikes and mercenaries.

Observing how Libya’s fractured landscape has thwarted outside attempts to pick sides, and learning from its experience in 2011, China has pursued a policy of cautious neutrality and diplomatic and economic diversification. Officially, it backs the GNA, and Chinese diplomats have met with GNA officials nine times between 2016 and 2020. The most significant meeting occurred in mid-2018, when GNA Minister for Foreign Affairs Mohamed Taha Siala attended the eighth ministerial meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in China and met with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The two signed a memorandum of understanding, committing to work together to bring to Libya China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy initiative that demonstrates China’s ambitions to play a larger role in the global order and deepen economic linkages through infrastructure, development, and other investments. Pulling this off, of course, will require China to secure reconstruction bids in the Middle East and North Africa, making Libya a fitting target for Beijing. Along with Libya’s induction into the BRI, the GNA welcomed Chinese businesses back to Libya in 2018. By the following year, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $6.21 billion, reflecting a 160.1 percent year-on-year increase, primarily due to rebounding Libyan oil exports to China.

For China, the GNA is an attractive partner, even if just for the time being. The GNA still controls the Central Bank of Libya, giving it the ability to deploy funds, sign contracts, and distribute capital to partners, all of which are necessary for any viable partner for Beijing. For its part, the GNA has welcomed Chinese engagement, especially on areas like the upgrading and rebuilding of Libya’s infrastructure—an essential long-term concern for the GNA, evidenced by its embrace of China’s telecommunications companies, including Huawei and ZTE.

Should the Haftar-aligned government in the east establish its own hard-currency accounts or prevail over the GNA in financial capacity, China would likely bolster its relationship with the eastern-based government as well. China has already begun eyeing deals with Haftar and has been keeping economic channels open. Chinese state-owned companies’ agreement to fund eastern-based Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s development projects in 2016 reflects Beijing’s inclination to adapt to changing realities on the ground. Unlike Russia, which has provided substantial, frontline military aid to the Haftar camp, China’s direct relationship with the east is strictly economic—though Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, purchased and piloted by the United Arab Emirates, have been an important part of Haftar’s multiple military campaigns. China is also uninterested in leading conflict mediation efforts, a role that has been of growing interest to Russia.

China’s neutrality and deep pockets make it an attractive prospect for both the GNA and the eastern administration. For now, it is unlikely that either side will push back on China’s nonalignment policy in Libya. And Libyans themselves, who have been roiled by the onslaught of foreign fighting and influence, may even view an impartial China as a partner for postconflict reconstruction. Indeed, China’s actions in 2011 have predisposed Libyans to negativity toward China, but the NTC has since left, and citizens are looking to see an end to the current phase of foreign military intervention. After all, China has consistently denounced foreign interference and repeatedly called for a political solution to the conflict, endorsing a cease-fire and settlement among warring parties under the auspices of the United Nations.


China Hedges Its Bets


Libya is not the first war-racked country in which China has pursued narrow economic gains instead of backing a particular faction or trying to end the conflict. In Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, China has avoided alignment with rival factions while maintaining its ability to compete for postconflict contracts. In more stable countries, China has also exerted its economic power, becoming the largest source of foreign investment in the Middle East and the region’s largest trading partner. While China’s BRI projects are declining worldwide, the Middle East and North Africa is the only region that is experiencing an increase in Chinese investment and construction projects. By 2019, the region had become the second-largest recipient, second only to Europe.

For the Chinese government, the BRI serves as the primary vehicle for fulfilling its objective of elevating its economic and geopolitical status worldwide. For many reasons—including opportunities in the realms of natural resources, energy, infrastructure and trade—China views the region as an obvious priority. To date, the BRI’s footprint is fairly extensive in the Arab world; 15 countries, including every country in North Africa, has signed either a partnership agreement or memoranda of understanding with China on the basis of mutually beneficial agreements. Central to these agreements are two vital considerations for China: stability and development. These tenets may not be the most compatible with countries engaged in conflict, but they reflect the circumstances that enable China to become involved in countries as they move toward postwar reconstruction. Libya, in particular, underscores how China is quite flexible in its engagement, adapting to local conditions rather than using the BRI to ruthlessly impose the “China model” on its countries of interest.

In Libya, China’s strategy reinforces its regional, and even global, approach. China has managed to avoid becoming entangled in the conflict and, instead, poised itself to reap benefits no matter the outcome. Recognizing a possible win-win situation, China has hedged its bets. As signatories of a BRI agreement, China and the GNA have ensured a future partnership when the conflict settles. At the same time, China’s CNPC and subsidiary oil corporations are poised to engage with an increasingly autonomous east, which comprises a large portion of the oil infrastructure in Libya. For other intervening states in Libya, such as Turkey and Russia, Libya is a vital gateway to sub-Saharan Africa. China, by contrast, has already contrived influence in the Horn, leaving Beijing in a far less desperate position than other external actors who are still trying to secure their position in Africa. Despite high levels of commercial risk in Libya, China can patiently strategize and prioritize gains there as Russia battles for influence.

China has also attempted to capitalize on global trends to elevate its superpower status worldwide. Against the backdrop of U.S. withdrawal from the international stage, China has stepped up its assistance, providing aid to 82 countries, including Libya, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But this “mask diplomacy” has ignited criticism over China’s handling of its domestic pandemic response—including its reported cover-ups, bureaucratic mismanagement, disputed information and treatment of Africans in the southern city of Guangzhou. These grievances aside, China’s financial and technical capabilities in times of crisis are appealing to countries that need to procure medical equipment and other goods and services. For now, some countries in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia have been pragmatically engaging in limited transactions with China. But countries that have already been predisposed to distrust China—such as Ghana, Kenya, India and Indonesia—are not going to throw open their doors to broader Chinese influence or give preferential treatment to Beijing. Libya is no exception.

While China’s nonalignment in Libya was motivated by an attempt to protect interests in 2011, China’s hesitation to take sides in 2020 points instead to a desire to maximize its diplomatic and economic gains no matter the conflict’s outcome. Part of China’s strategy in Libya has remained consistent: When balancing competing interests, the path of least resistance is most appealing and fruitful—and, often, this is the path of neutrality. Despite several multilateral attempts to reach a solution, Libya’s conflict will likely continue unabated. Among the major international players in Libya, China is moving from the background to increasing prominence, poised to advance its interests regardless of which Libyan faction triumphs on the ground.


This article was originally published in Lawfare.

 

Research Papers & Reports

STOCKHOLM - While the number of United Nations and non-UN multilateral peace operations increased slightly in 2019, the number of personnel deployed in them decreased, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Although sub-Saharan Africa maintained the highest number of operations and personnel, two new operations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) may signal a shift in regional focus. Meanwhile, the data indicates that fatality rates were low in all UN peace operations except for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Ahead of International Day of UN Peacekeepers on 29 May, the updated data on multilateral peace operations is now accessible at www.sipri.org.

There were 61 multilateral peace operations in 2019, one more than the previous year.
The data shows that the number of personnel in multilateral peace operations—including military, police and international civilian personnel—decreased by 4.8 per cent from 31 December 2018 to 31 December 2019. All of the 10 largest operations either kept a similar number of personnel or diminished in size during 2019.

‘The decreasing personnel numbers can be explained by reductions in and closures of a number of larger operations in recent years, while successor or newly established operations tend to be smaller and more political in character,’ says Dr Jaïr van der Lijn, Director of the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.

​​​Peace operations decreased in sub-Saharan Africa, increased in MENA
The number of personnel deployed in sub-Saharan Africa decreased by 5.8 per cent in 2019. However, sub-Saharan Africa still accounted for 71 per cent of all peace operation personnel. ‘The number of personnel in multilateral peace operations in sub-Saharan Africa peaked in 2015 and has been decreasing ever since; in 2019 it fell below 100 000 for the first time since early 2013,’ says Timo Smit, Researcher with the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme. ‘This has been offset by a notable increase in regional and international counterterrorism operations, particularly in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin regions.’

While sub-Saharan Africa maintained the highest number of peace operations and personnel overall, the data indicates a slight shift in attention towards MENA. With two new peace operations in 2019, MENA was the only region to see an increase in personnel (4.7 per cent).

The UN mission in Mali continues to be the deadliest
Since its establishment in 2013, MINUSMA has experienced a relatively high number of hostile deaths among its personnel. However, most other UN peace operations suffer relatively few hostile deaths.

‘Excluding MINUSMA, the picture changes significantly,’ says Dr van der Lijn. ‘In fact, MINUSMA stands out because of its close links to international counterterrorism strategies in the Sahel. Other operations remain closer to the traditional principles of peacekeeping—impartiality, consent of the parties and non-use of force except in self-defence—and, therefore, also meet less violent resistance.’

There were 28 personnel fatalities attributed to malicious acts in UN peace operations in 2019, one more than the previous year. Of these hostile deaths, 23 were uniformed personnel—of which all but one were deployed with MINUSMA.
Other notable developments

• Top troop-contributing countries to UN and non-UN multilateral peace operations: Ethiopia continued to be the top contributor of military personnel. The United States was the second-largest contributor and the only country in the Global North represented in the top 10 of troop-contributing countries. The USA contributed few military personnel to UN peace operations and participated primarily in non-UN operations. The remaining top 10 contributors were located in sub-Saharan Africa (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda) and South Asia
(Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan). Overall, the top 10 contributors accounted for half of all military personnel deployed as of 31 December 2019.

• Largest multilateral peace operations: The three largest multilateral peace operations in 2019 were the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan. AMISOM continued to be the largest by a notable margin, consisting of 20 370 military, police and international civilian personnel as of 31 December 2019.

• Women’s representation in UN peace operations: While the number of personnel serving in all UN peace operations decreased in 2019, the number and proportion of women deployed in them increased. On 31 December 2019, women accounted for 5.3 per cent of military personnel and 15 per cent of police personnel, compared to 4.2 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively, in the previous year.

According to SIPRI’s definition, a multilateral peace operation must have the stated intention of: (a) serving as an instrument to facilitate the implementation of peace agreements already in place, (b) supporting a peace process or (c) assisting conflict prevention or peacebuilding efforts. Good offices, fact-finding or electoral assistance missions and missions comprising non-resident individuals or teams of negotiators are not included. Operations consisting of armed forces operating primarily within their national territory, such as the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram and the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel, are also not considered multilateral peace operations and, therefore, not included here.

 

 

 

By Giovanna De Maio, Brookings, May 2020


Editor's Note:

Italy's decision to endorse China's Belt and Road Initiative in 2019 was the result of years of growing Chinese presence in the country, previous difficulties in attracting foreign direct investment, intra-European competition for Chinese money, and Italy's history of openness to China, argues Giovanna De Maio in a report for the Brookings - Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI).

 

Executive Summary


The most significant event for Italian foreign policy in 2019 was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China endorsing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which marked a break in the ranks of G-7, raising important concerns from Washington that Italy would become an entry point for Chinese influence in Europe. In reality, Chinese investment in Italy’s key industries, including energy and telecommunications, has been growing since 2013.

Chinese foreign direct investment in Italy is also significantly lower than in other major European economies such as Germany and France, which have not endorsed the BRI but have secured important trade and investment deals with Beijing. Due to Italy’s difficulties in attracting investment because of high taxation and bureaucracy (among other factors), Italy’s decision to sign the MoU on the BRI is an attempt to gain advantages over its European competitors to attract Chinese investment and address longstanding economic stagnation.

On top of these existing issues, the devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (a 9.1% drop in GDP for 2020 is forecast by the International Monetary Fund) risks pushing Italy further into China’s arms. There are indeed mechanisms on both national and European levels to protect against foreign investment in strategic sectors, while different views on China in the Italian political landscape have led to more decisive actions to restrict the development of a 5G wireless network through Chinese technology. But, as Italy’s overall political instability and economic weaknesses prevent the development of a clear strategy vis-à-vis China, temporary economic gains can easily backfire.


To download the full paper, visit: https://www.brookings.edu/research/playing-with-fire/?utm_campaign=Foreign%20Policy&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=88367628

 

Turning back the Poverty Clock: How will COVID-19 impact the world’s poorest people?

By Homi Kharas and Kristofer Hamel, Brookings, May 6, 2020


The release of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook provides an initial country-by-country assessment of what might happen to the world economy in 2020 and 2021.


Using the methods described in the World Poverty Clock, we ask what will happen to the number of poor people in the world—those living in households with less than $1.90 per person per day in actual or imputed spending—given this new economic forecast.

We take the difference between the IMF’s April 2020 forecasts for GDP growth and their forecast from October 2019 as “the COVID effect,” a slight simplification because other things have also changed in the world that may have caused the IMF to alter its forecasts. However, the largest change is clearly caused by COVID-19 and the policy response around the world.

The summary result is that some 690 million people are likely to be in poor households in 2020, compared to our previous estimates of 640 million people. (A careful reader might note that the World Poverty Clock had been estimating about 600 million in poverty in 2020, but newly updated population estimates, new household expenditure data, and new household survey data have also been incorporated into the model. We don’t count those changes as part of the COVID effect, however.)

Our post-COVID-19 estimate is that extreme poverty in the world will rise this year by about 50 million people compared to the original 2020 forecast, and by 40 million people compared to our 2019 estimate. This is right in the middle of the range estimated by a
team of World Bank economists—40 million to 60 million more poor people. This is not surprising as we are using very similar methodologies and data. The number is, however, far smaller than the estimates put forward in one scenario by
Sumner and co-authors, who suggested that poverty could rise by 420 million to 580 million people, a figure that has been picked up by the media and
advocacy organizations as “half a billion.”

All these estimates have a high degree of uncertainty and yet COVID-19 has attacked relatively advanced economies where the absolute numbers of extreme poor are small. If we were looking at the impact of COVID-19 on poverty as defined by national poverty lines, the number would be far higher. We also have little real-time information on how lockdowns will affect income distribution, or about how effective government efforts to strengthen safety net programs are likely to be. COVID-19 may be less disruptive to subsistence farmers, who are heavily represented among the extreme poor than to urban workers who may be vulnerable to income losses but whose initial living conditions were better.

Bearing this in mind, if we accept the IMF scenario for 2020, it suggests that all the progress in reducing poverty since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 has been lost. We will enter the U.N. Decade of Action with the same distance to travel on poverty reduction, but only ten years in which to do it.

To put this into context, 2020 will be the first time this century that the number of poor people will rise, a fact which can be seen in real time as the World Poverty Clock ticks “backward.” This comes after a spell of poverty reduction averaging almost 100 million people per year between 2008 and 2013. And even though the escape rate out of poverty had fallen recently, with poverty becoming more concentrated in fragile states where progress has been harder to achieve, there was still movement in the right direction.

COVID-19 has seriously affected these trends in ways that are still not clear-cut. The figures below try to identify the most seriously affected countries. Figure 1 shows 12 countries that are likely to see an increase in poverty of over 1 million people in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. They are in Asia and Africa, with Brazil as the sole exception. India and Nigeria stand out as likely to add 10 million and 8 million to the poverty rolls in 2020. In all these countries, COVID-19 has demonstrated the vulnerability of people who have only recently been able to escape poverty.

An alternative way of looking at the impact of COVID-19 is to ask which countries are likely to have the largest increase in poverty rates after COVID-19. Countries with an increase in extreme poverty rates (defined as people living in poverty divided by the total population) greater than 3 percentage points are shown in Figure 2. There are several small island states in this group, including Timor Leste, Sao Tome and Principe, and the Solomon Islands. In fact, there are now 60 countries that are off-track to meet the SDG target of eradicating poverty, even using the less-demanding World Bank threshold of counting countries as off-track if they do not bring extreme poverty down to below 3 percent of their population.

So what can be done? While advanced economies are trying to balance the impact on public health and the impact on the economy by adjusting policy responses like the degree of social distancing, developing countries are faced with much harder policy choices. Most are commodity dependent (in two-thirds of developing countries, commodities account for over 60 percent of exports), and have seen
prices fall by 21 percent so far this year. Many rely on remittances,
projected to decline by double digits, and/or tourism, which has almost collapsed. They face substantial
non-resident portfolio outflows, estimated at almost $100 billion in March and April alone. Over 90 countries have already applied to access the IMF’s emergency credit facilities, and the G-20 have agreed to a moratorium on debt service payments owed by the poorest countries.

The health responses, in terms of lockdowns and social distancing, are also less compelling in most developing countries, sometimes as a matter of choice and sometimes as a matter of practicality. Although the number of cases in developing countries is still small, double digit (or close to) increases in active cases are now being recorded in India, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, and South Africa. Social distancing is hard to apply or enforce in the slums of many developing country cities, and the safety net is not sufficiently well developed to allow people to stay at home without working and still feed their families.

With limited fiscal space, developing countries are planning on some fiscal stimulus to expand national health services and protect households, and on fiscal or credit help to keep small businesses afloat and help pay workers’ salaries, but they are heavily constrained. Many have high debt and are being downgraded (Fitch has downgraded 33 countries since the crisis), and if they fund spending by issuing national currency, they will suffer currency depreciations and inflation. The multilateral development banks are helping to a degree, but front-loading and accelerated disbursements cannot match the scale of what is needed. Developing country economies will contract, but not as much as in advanced economies partly because they cannot enforce total lockdowns to the same degree.

For now, the worst fears of the pandemic raging through developing countries have not been realized. If the IMF growth forecasts are roughly correct, both in the size of the global downturn and the distribution across countries, then the impact will be to raise global poverty to a level last seen in 2015. The challenge then will be to accelerate inclusive growth in the recovery phase.

 

 

 

Can Tunisia Shake Off “Business as Usual” Following Covid-19?


By Salma Houerbi, Arab Reform Initiative, 20 May 2020


The consequences of Covid-19 on Tunisia’s already fragile economy are bound to exacerbate existing social tensions. The government has rolled out a series of socio-economic measures to support individual entrepreneurs and businesses to maintain jobs and incomes across all sectors. This paper argues that the government’s support to the private sector represents a golden opportunity to rectify longstanding problems in state-business relations and institute a culture of corporate accountability. But to do so, the government should place the Covid-19 response within a broader effort to address the persistent and systemic challenges the country faces from corruption to rent-seeking to vulnerable workers’ conditions.

 


Almost a decade after Tunisia’s revolution, rampant inequalities and corruption continue to plague the country as it struggles to implement needed socio-economic measures to respond to aspirations for more social justice. This has caused disenchantment with the new political elite and a rise of populism that risks endangering the democratic gains achieved so far.1

The COVID-19 outbreak has further exposed the country’s systemic social inequalities,2 often manifested in different forms, including communities protesting persistent issues with access to water amid the sanitary crisis,3 doctors and patients denouncing the uneven and stretched resources in public hospitals,4 women agricultural workers whose priority throughout the crisis remained their struggle for economic subsistence.5

As the pandemic takes its toll on an already fragile economy, further weakening strategic sectors and increasing public debt and expenditures,6 foreseen economic losses seem bound to exacerbate existing social tensions.7 The government and its social partners have repeatedly maintained that protecting the economy and setting the stage for a post-COVID-19 recovery are their major priorities.8 To that end, the government rolled out a series of socio-economic measures to assist companies and self-employed individuals to maintain jobs and incomes across all economic sectors.9

Yet, amid the crisis, the role the private sector can and should play becomes crucial and must be discussed. Who should save who? Should the Tunisian government bail out companies in light of the crisis? Should the private sector mobilize efforts amid COVID-1910 and, if so, what kind of mobilization can it undertake? In his latest interview, the head of the Tunisian government, Elyes Fakhfakh, reiterated his faith in the deeply rooted tradition of social dialogue between Tunisian unions and employers’ organization. 11

This paper analyses the government and private sector responses to COVID-19 considering Tunisia’s economic and social challenges and existing state-business relations. It argues that, rather than going back to the “shady business as usual”, the Tunisian response to COVID-19 can be a golden opportunity to rectify state-business relations, institute a culture of corporate accountability that may partly address the root causes of inequalities in Tunisia, and promote the long-awaited agenda of social justice.

To do so, the government should place the COVID-19 response within a broader effort to address the persistent and systemic challenges the country faces from corruption to rent-seeking to vulnerable workers’ conditions. This can be done by setting an agenda of state-business accountability and ensuring that recovery measures adopted in response to the pandemic fulfil fundamental responsibilities towards the most vulnerable and provide them with long-neglected essential services.

If the measures taken by Tunisia’s government fail to address these systemic challenges and continue to ignore social justice, they risk perpetuating inequalities and maintaining the interests of a small business elite.


The business landscape in Tunisia: Fragility of workers and businesses


Years after the revolution, the fragile economy and the lack of economic opportunities and prospects of dignified work have impeded the quest for social justice.12 Despite state efforts in support of decentralization and private-sector development, inherent challenges hovering around state-business relations have limited the potential of creating a fair and sustainable economy.


Corruption and rent-seeking in the economy


Aspirations that democratization would dismantle corruption and rent-seeking in Tunisia and bring about a fairer economy have so far been unmet.13 Tunisia continues to suffer uneven economic development: in 2016, 85% of the enterprises that provide 92% of private-sector jobs were clustered in the coastal regions, with 44% in the Great Tunis area alone. Enterprises operating inland provide only 8% of private-sector jobs.14

While the regional clustering has been nurtured via a legacy of clientelism and corruption, the polarization of the private sector has amplified after the revolution. On one side, you have an established economic elite concentrated in the coastal areas with old political ties protected by and benefiting from existing regulations, and on the other, a disparate group of aspiring young formal entrepreneurs, new entrepreneurs confined to the informal sector, and small business owners.15

Although the family clan of former President Ben Ali has largely left the coun­try, other politically and internationally well-connected economic elites have remained active since reforms and expropriations of ill-gotten gains have so far fallen short with investigations largely limited to Ben Ali’s family and a few politically opportune and high-profile cases.16

As such, the patronage and economic choices that characterized the rule of Ben Ali did not end with his departure. Citizens continue to pay the price of favouring labour-intensive low-value adding sectors (such as construction and tourism) over innovation.17 The low growth registered in the past two years and the persistent unemployment rate has been associated with the persistence of cronyism after the revolution. Private firms have not increased their investments, rather they shifted to less growth-inducing rent-filled sectors, such as construction.18

A 2018 assessment of the Tunisian private sector led by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has further demonstrated the “missing middle” challenge of Tunisian companies: 10% of companies consist of big and inefficient state-owned companies while small firms – often unable to grow and create jobs – represent the remaining 90% .19

This can be explained by the persistence of networks in the Tunisian economy which tie together state officials, bankers and owners of big businesses and provide them with access to state resources, licenses and bank credits while keeping smaller companies “outside the loop.”20

A new pattern of rent-seeking has been the increasing direct connection between the post-2011 political sphere and the business elite as political parties seek funds from firms in exchange of economic privileges. While the direct representation of economic actors in the legislative and executive branches of the government was only anecdotal at the time of Ben Ali and studies mostly highlighted the dominance of the Ben Ali clan over the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Crafts (UTICA- Union Tunisienne de l'Industrie, du Commerce et de l'Artisanat) and the big entrepreneurs of the country,21 ) a social network analysis of Tunisia’s business elites post-2011 found that economic power remains in the hands of a few family groups who increasingly intervene directly in the political sphere to consolidate their resources and find new economic opportunities.22

For instance, prominent businessman Mohamed Frikha joined the Islamist Ennahdha party and became a member of the parliamentary assembly while others such as Faouzi Elloumi, Moncef Sellami or Zohra Driss were important members of the secular party Nidaa Tounes. The 2019 presidential elections saw Kalb Tounes political party leader, Nabil Karoui, a businessman and owner of a media company in Tunisia allegedly involved23 in the Panama Papers and SwissLeaks, finish in second place.

In light of the difficulty of separating the political from the economic in post-revolution Tunisia, absence of political will to effectively combat the roots of corruption and develop the economy have achieved very little. According to Transparency International, corruption has fallen for a few years after the revolution to rise a decade later to the same level as before the 2011 uprisings.24
Risks of corruption and mismanagement have also remained high in state-owned enterprises. The opaque hiring practices in the state-run phosphate production company have been used as a tool to control social movements and as political quick fixes to calm tensions.25 The cycle of corruption has led to protests over jobs in the phosphate industry and the consistent decline in productivity of a strategic sector, consequently sharpening the Tunisian economic crisis.

While the direct and indirect negative impacts of corruption on economic growth are widely documented and have been associated with the low economic growth during 2017-19, it also impeded the efforts of developing new private actors in Tunisia. The business climate has deteriorated with a perceived rise of corruption and an expansion of informal (and illegal) activities such as contraband. Entrepreneurs report that bribes remain necessary to get a license to start a small business, obtain a job in an employment programme, or receive social assistance from the state.


Fiscal evasion and the informal economy


Tax evasion is another persistent problem for state coffers. Studies quantifying fiscal evasion are notoriously scarce due to the challenge of data collection. In 2019, an advisor to the previous government, Faycel Derbel, declared that tax evasion amounted to 25 billion Tunisian Dinars (USD8,7 Billion), explaining that it has increased sharply since 2011 as a result of the explosion of the “parallel market” where 53% of the country's wealth circulates.26 While difficult to measure, informal activities are estimated to have risen from 30 to 40% GDP between 2010 and 2018.

The World Bank estimates that between 2002 and 2009 tax fraud by politically connected firms cost Tunisia approximately USD200 million per year.27 Experts believe that the situation worsened after the revolution.28
In its 2016 report, Parallel Economy in Tunisia, Tunisian think-tank Joussour Center for Public Policies has provided an estimation of the potential revenues lost from smuggling activities to almost 2 billion Tunisian Dinars (697 million USD) annually, distributed as follows: 750 million dinars from petrol (261 million USD), 300 million dinars from tobacco (104 million USD), 450 million (156 million USD) dinars from electrical appliances, spare parts, vehicle tires, and food commodities, 500 million dinars (173 million USD) from electronic devices, clothing, beauty products and perfume. Revenues from the smuggling of arms, gold, copper, expensive alcohol and stolen luxurious cars were not considered because their true magnitude is very difficult to estimate.29

Finally, a previous government led-policy to attract foreign investment and create jobs through creating offshore companies30 has arguably had disparate effects when it comes to promoting transparency and fair competition in Tunisia. The offshore system was set up as a series of time-bound fiscal incentives granted to companies with non-local operations.

While this policy has expanded sectors such as the garment industry and call centres, it was long criticized for promoting a dual economy that slows local value chain development and provides unfair tax advantages to purely exporting companies. Prompted by the European Union’s reprimand listing of Tunisia as a fiscal paradise in 2017, the government has, for instance, reduced the tax differential between onshore and offshore systems.31 Yet, a commonly reported misuse of this legislation is that companies often change denominations after the lapse of the grace period to continue to benefit from the advantageous fiscal regime.32


Labour vulnerability and weak protection of workers


While Tunisia’s economic model developed as an export-oriented and labour-intensive economy focused on tourism and low-cost outsourcing, incentives for attracting and retaining investors have led to tolerating low wages and disregarding the development of agriculture and rural areas.33 In light of the fragile economic context and the high unemployment rate, creating jobs have often been given priority over ensuring dignified work conditions. Even if Tunisia’s main labour union, the UGTT, plays a powerful role in setting policies, different reasons have led the union to limit its demands to sectoral wage negotiations and less to documenting repressive practices.34 Additionally, as half of the economy belongs to the informal sector, compliance with labour legislation is difficult to monitor.

In 2018, the ILO estimated that 53% of the Tunisian population are informal workers.35 As such, they and their families face insecurity as a result of the absence of health care and social security benefits, including retirement pensions and access to other benefits, such as family allowances, childcare and nursery allowances, severance pay or death benefits. Informal workers also often lack the ability to organize or participate in labour unions or access employer or state-sponsored remedies in cases of abuse.

Informality can also be found in the formal sector, for example, when people are hired to work in registered enterprises without an employment contract and/or social security payments by the employer. The Tunisian Centre for Research and Social Studies and the African Development Bank estimated that around 43% of Tunisian private-sector workers (about 1.2 million people) had informal jobs in 2015.36
Job informality is particularly widespread among young Tunisians: less than one in three young workers has a formal work contract and access to social protection. Only 15.3% of rural youth (ages 15 to 29) and 38.8% of urban youth have an open-ended contract with full social protection and extended job security.37

The contribution of the formal private sector to social protection remains low. Noureddine Taboubi, head of the UGTT, attributed the deficit in social security funds to the fact that 25% of private companies are not currently reversing social security contribution for their workers.38

Other jobs in the formal sector come mainly in the form of short fixed-term contracts and are also associated with job insecurity, high turn-over, fewer protections compared to permanent contracts, as well as exploitative treatment by employers. It is less likely for temporary contract labourers to complain about working conditions for fear of losing their jobs.39

Sectors which have been strategically prioritized by the government namely export-oriented textile industry, hotels, and construction, among others, carry particular human rights risks as most of their workforce consists of temporary or seasonal workers.

NGO led interviews with 230 workers have shed light on rights violations for women in the garment sector.40 Complaints concerned inadequate access to social protection, allegations of the excessive use of short-term contracts, illegal dismissals, suspensions, excessive overtime, and incomplete social security and income tax payments by the employer. Complaints concerning the lack of living wages and unsafe working conditions were also reported.

Despite improvements to Tunisia’s judicial system, obstacles to accessing remedy for employment-related abuse persist. Research shows that workers are reluctant to take cases to court. Contributing factors include the length of time to secure a judgment and the lack or weak enforcement of court decisions. The same research has shown that employment-related cases are the most prevalent and the most likely to remain unresolved.41

Women in the Tunisian labour market face additional challenges based on their gender. Despite progress in legislation, Tunisian women’s participation in the labour market is still lower and women’s unemployment rate higher than that of men. When women are partaking in the economy, they are more likely to be found in the informal sector and/or in the bottom of value chains occupying hazardous and vulnerable positions in sectors such as farming and textile. 70% of women in the agriculture sector are protected by social security.

The number of women falling under the social protection scheme does not exceed 93,500 compared to 377,000 men.42 According to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics,43 women are paid, on average, between 20 and 30% less than men. This figure reaches 40% in the private sector and a staggering 50% in agriculture.44

In a detailed overview of the gendered impact of Tunisia’s phosphate mining, The Natural Resource Governance Institute found that in the Gafsa region – home to much of Tunisia’s phosphate mines – 47% of women hold a university degree but are still mainly employed by the mining company as cleaners. Women also disproportionately suffer from the negative health impacts of mining, experiencing a high rate of miscarriages and neonatal problems. These impacts mostly go untreated because of the lack of appropriate medical services in this area. Water shortages and pollution caused by phosphate extraction and treatment aggravate mining-related health and livelihood issues.

Finally, a growing concern is an increasing reliance on migrant workers in the absence of adequate regulations to protect them. While there is still little information on the current socio-economic situation of migrant workers in Tunisia, particularly when they are employed as informal workers, initial research has shown that they are present in informal sectors such as construction and hotel services and often employed on a temporary basis.45

Civil society organizations have raised concerns about emerging patterns of racism against migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa as verbal violence and discrimination against them have become pervasive in everyday life and in the workplace, both in the informal and formal sector, and called for the implementation of inclusive migration policies in Tunisia.46

In the current socio-economic context, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Tunisia is likely to further weaken small businesses and those with less political connections and to have a severe impact on vulnerable workers in the formal and informal sector, particularly women and migrants. Companies “out of the network” and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may suffer disproportionately from the downturn because of their limited financial resources and dependence on bank lending – often at high-interest rates. In addition, their relative technological, managerial and human shortcomings may reduce their capacity to overcome the economic crisis.

Crucially, the current lockdown and its aftermath are expected to have a severe impact on the large portion of the population engaged in the informal economy, dependent on day labour, and working without social protections. The key question is whether and how the government can help without exacerbating inequalities.


Government socio-economic measures under COVID-19


With the outbreak of COVID-19, the head of the government announced a bold set of measures to safeguard the economy and people’s socio-economic situation that amounted to a total of around 2,5 billion Tunisian dinar (876 million USD).47
A central priority of the government has been to preserve jobs, guarantee the income of workers, employees and civil servants, and reduce financial pressure for businesses with activities impacted by the lockdown.

It announced the allocation of 300 million Tunisian Dinars of state-enabled unemployment compensation. The UGTT and UTICA signed an agreement on 14 April with the ministry of social affairs guaranteeing that the 1,5 million private-sector workers will get their full salaries for April.48 According to this agreement, the state pays 200 Dinars (63 Euros) of the salary of each employee and the employer pays the rest. Employees whose salaries are not declared to the social security funds may be declared within one month of the entry into force of the decree-law to benefit from the state support.

The agreement also made it possible for employers to register their workers to benefit from the government contribution. Another landmark step towards protecting workers is the issuance of government decree banning companies from firing workers or ending working contracts during the lockdown caused by the pandemic.49

Besides maintaining salaries, the government has announced an additional 150 million dinars (52 million USD) in the form of cash transfers for the benefit of registered vulnerable and low-income categories and people with special needs. According to the Minister of Social Affairs, 260,000 needy families will benefit from the aid in addition to 464,000 families with limited income, 382,000 families looking after children, 121,000 families looking after elderly people and 286 families looking after people with disabilities.50

Parallel to this, the government also announced measures to ease the impact of the crisis on businesses, in particular Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), self-employed, and the liberal professions affected by the cessation of their activities.51 These measures mostly included the deferral of taxes and social contributions for three months starting from April. For impacted sectors such as construction and hotel industry, measures to facilitate access to credit were introduced.

The government has also initiated several consultations with experts and social partners to discuss pathways to achieving prosperity after the crisis but has yet to announce any long-term measures.


Private sector response to the COVID-19 crisis: Resistance or solidarity


As soon as the pandemic broke, political tensions erupted regarding the role to be played by the private sector amid the crisis. In a TV appearance on 20 March 2020, the head of the UTICA, Samir Majoul, stood against the vilification of the private sector and recalled the role of businesses as the generator of value, employment and growth and warned they should not be made to “pay the cost”. This was in response to statements by Elyes Fakhfekh, the president and others calling for the private sector to play a stronger financial role in mitigating the impact of the crisis.

Conversely, representatives of the most impacted sectors have also warned about the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 calling on the state to develop a rescue plan for the most affected sectors.52

With reference to the literature on corporate social responsibility and business ethics, we distinguish in our analysis between two sets of possible actions that companies may undertake: (1) binding/enforceable actions related to the core of their activities and the recovery of their businesses following COVID-19; and (2) actions related to their broader societal role amid the crisis.


Mixed sectoral reaction to government-enforced measures


As soon as the main social dialogue partners UTICA and UGTT reached an agreement regarding the disbursement of wages for April, several sectoral employers’ federations manifested their resistance. The Tunisian Textile-Clothing Federation (FTTH), part of UTICA, for instance, raised concerns about their obligation to disburse wages for April, stating that this would only worsen the existing crisis in their sector. Another prominent employers’ association, CONECT (Confédération des Entreprises Citoyennes de Tunisie) issued a statement strongly condemning the consensus reached, also raising concerns that paying full wages is only going to negatively impact businesses whose economic situation is already fragile amid the crisis. Representatives of other sectors were also reticent about the agreement.[53]

Among the measures suggested by these employer federations, is the temporary weakening of certain acquired workers’ rights such as paid holidays, earning a 13th month of salary and allowing employers to recover worked hours beyond the current two-month limit.53


A rise of voluntary solidarity initiatives at the inception of the crisis


A report released by the UTICA in April 2020 highlights the contributions of the private sector during the pandemic.54 In a survey covering 230 private sector representatives of medium and large companies, the report showcased several ways companies have shown solidarity in response to the crisis. Initiatives ranged from financing a solidarity fund against COVID-19, purchasing medical equipment and supplies, supporting with digitalization efforts, and providing hotel rooms for confining quarantined individuals. While no further details on the identity of the companies surveyed were given beyond their sectoral repartition, the report estimates the contribution of surveyed companies to be worth 114,677 millions dinars – including the contribution of interviewed financial institutions.

The Tunisian Professional Association of Banks (APTBEF) also issued a statement re-iterating the social role that banks intend to play, confirming that the banking sector committed 112 million dinars in support measures for businesses and low-income families.55

In a joint press release published on 10 April 2020, the ministries of finance and health indicated that the total citizen and company donations into the national fund created to limit the economic and social impact of the pandemic (known as that 1818 Fund, in reference to the SMS number used to donate) amounted to 81.1 million dinars as of 8 April. Yet, the amount of the exact contributions from companies has not been made public.


Reconciling state-business relations amid the pandemic: The need for strengthened accountability of businesses


So far, little attention was drawn to how the government can effectively embed its response to COVID-19 within a broader approach to the systemic socio-economic challenges of Tunisia.

COVID-19 exposes first and foremost the precarity of the country’s labour and the difficulty of effectively implementing policies that protect workers. On the one hand, policies supporting businesses (and their workers) assume that state-business and employer-employee relations are well-functioning. On the other, policies supporting vulnerable individuals disregard the structural gaps in social protection.

It is important to point that for a country the size of Tunisia and with its challenges, the government and institutions have made remarkable efforts to protect citizens during the crisis. Yet, despite the goodwill behind the measures taken to support businesses, they only respond to a small fraction of the problem where the informal unregistered business are high, and where informality is persistent even within the formal private sector.

In the context of an economy where corruption is endemic56 and in the absence of effective enforcement and strong labour inspections – especially given the difficulty of conducting inspections during the pandemic adding to the structural challenges with inspection itself –, incentives are low for actors of the private sector to comply with the payment of wages consensus especially in light of the morose economic prospects.

Without proper monitoring and given the challenges of accessing justice and remedies, there is a high risk of incomplete payment of wages, which are further amplified for vulnerable workers as these are often less likely to complain. Furthermore, despite the possibility of state support for paying salaries for unregistered workers on the condition of including them in social schemes, general evidence on previous formalization efforts suggests that for the new entrepreneurial class of operators, the issue is less whether they are able to comply with commercial and employment regulations and more about whether they are willing to comply.57

Anecdotal evidence from workers’ interviews,58 social media, and journalists’ reports already hint at cases of abusive dismissal occurring during the crisis as well as non-payment of wages among small businesses, hairdressers, waiters, and mechanics. It is also unlikely that temporary workers and workers without any contract will be protected by any scheme.

The plan for cash distribution to the vulnerable is also flawed as it requires people to register to access the benefits while in confinement and with limited access to the relevant authorities online or in rural areas. This is especially compounded by the fact that behavioural shifts and attitudes towards digitalization take time and require training and preparation.

As for cash payments and social aid, doubts arose about the effective targeting of these programmes as the national body for the fight against corruption (INLUCC) announced in a press release on 26 April 2020 that it has received several complaints concerning offences and suspicions of abuse of power.59

Despite the reactivity in the government’s measures, the crisis has been somehow tackled in isolation from the broader challenges caused by crony capitalism and corruption. While evidence suggests that at time of crises risks of corruption are potentially higher,60 in the Tunisian political lexicon, “the war against COVID-19” has supplemented the “war against corruption£ even though patterns of corruption continue to persist amid the crisis.

Recently, statements by the head of the government were criticized by media and civil society61 for trivializing corruption following suspicions regarding the award by the ministry of industry of a contract to manufacture 2 million masks to a deputy from the Al Badil party who is also a member of the parliamentary committee on industry and energy.62 Furthermore, suspicions of corruption committed by political regional delegates have caused recent shortages of semolina, a state-subsidized basic good essential for cheap bread production. Reports allege that the commodity is diverted for circulation to illicit traders, speculators and black markets. However, the government responded quickly by strengthening sanctions against speculators.63

Additionally, the measures laid out in support of businesses have also not fully accounted for the fragmentation of the private sector and the vulnerability of different categories of companies. For instance, companies operating call centres benefiting from the offshore fiscal policy will receive state support for wage payment. While this was conceived as a policy to ensure that workers do not pay the price of the pandemic, the government could have further ensured that this financial injection is not a gift to companies by seeking written commitments forbidding the distribution of dividends and ensuring that such injections are paid by the company.

Conversely, registered subsistence entrepreneurs – self-employed earning their income through market stands – were considered by the government as business owners. While they have received benefits consisting of a freeze of loans payment, for many daily entrepreneurs, the interruption of activities means the interruption of any income for them and their families. For example, taxi drivers organized a protest calling attention to their vulnerability as independent businesses soon after the measures were announced.64

Calling on companies’ benevolent and “patriotic” contribution to respond to COVID-19 can be an appropriate measure to make “fiscal space” for cases of force majeure like these. Voluntary corporate benevolent initiatives have been important in setting a “race to the top” among companies and bringing international attention to positive examples of workers’ engagement. However, in the Tunisian context, where state-business lack of transparency has been a persistent issue, extra scrutiny should be applied to ensure that corporate social responsibility is not used as a tool to boast about social achievements and restore tarnished image while avoiding regulations. Recalling the climate of rent-seeking and fiscal evasion, the government and legal institutions could have, for instance, disclosed the exact amounts of the contributions of companies.

International labour standards ratified by Tunisia as well as the labour code legislation recall that companies and investors have binding responsibilities vis-à-vis society, the countries in which they operate and the workers they employ. Initiatives taken in the context of Corporate Social Responsibility should not serve to wash away any negative impact the companies’ activities might have on their workers, their community and the environment.65


Pathways to accountability of the private sector


As COVID-19 exposed the vulnerability of individuals in the economy and the fragility of businesses in Tunisia, the priority is to build an economy that not only creates jobs and serves elites but also works for and protects people and the environment. Tunisia’s future of social cohesion lies in appropriate investments that set a fair and just economy ruled by effective state-business relations and strengthened social protection for all.66

While accountability efforts in Tunisia have so far focused on state behaviour, accountability redirected to both state and businesses as a “set of multiple reciprocal relations grounded in normative standards and directed toward general ends”67 would benefit individuals and pave the way to a fairer economy. Tunisian workers and citizens would benefit from a vision of businesses that not only prioritize economic growth but also provides answerability monitoring and transparency with accrued compliance with national and international standards.

Effective dialogues around the accountability of the private sector in Tunisia post-revolution remained so far embryonic.68 Nonetheless, current sectoral demands for state and economic recovery in the context of the pandemic is an excellent opportunity to set a clear agenda regarding the role of businesses in Tunisian society.

Because the economic challenges in Tunisia clearly go beyond job creation, the discussions should also focus on fiscal and social justice. This is of particular relevance to the Tunisian context as sectors which are impacted the most by the crisis (export-oriented garment sector, construction sectors and hotel industry) are those which carry particular human rights risks for workers in them.

Fair sanctions on businesses that do not respect rights and more answerability by businesses to different stakeholders can ease social tensions and serve as milestones in rethinking a fair and sustainable economy. However, to lead that conversation, the government should lead on exemplarity. There is, therefore, an urgent need for cutting ties with crony capitalism and corruption. It is somewhat reassuring that in laying out government’s measures to support businesses, the ministry of finance has reiterated the priority of fighting corruption and formalizing the economy.

The question of how it will achieve these is a crucial one, especially that these measures will require political determination as fierce resistance can be expected from those who are at risk of losing rents and privileges. A good approach in that regard is to boost efforts on promulgating legislation clarifying the conditions of legibility for the parliament and accelerating the voting of law setting rules for lobbying in Tunisia. It is also crucial to increase financial support and empowerment to instances (such as the INLUCC tasking with fighting corruption) to raise investigations regarding tax evasion and for this information to be made public.

 

Conversely, efforts should be made to empower individuals and protect vulnerable workers as COVID-19 has highlighted the need to strengthen the social protection of all citizens in Tunisia. A positive measure from the government is the recent launch of a single identifying number for all citizens which will allow a better monitoring of vulnerability in Tunisia.69 Concerted efforts should be made to strengthen social protection in light of a full diagnosis of workers’ vulnerability. Measures could include aligning maternity leave with international standards and extending protection to migrant workers. It is also essential to unify and strengthen labour inspection while addressing the systemic issues of social security deficit. The government can rely on the Corporate Social Responsibility law in Tunisia to get companies to strengthen their investments in social protection using binding as well as voluntary measures.

As the government will be negotiating and planning recovery plan following COVID-19, it is critical that discussions and measures to support businesses should come with transparent strings attached to end vulnerability and tackle corruption.

 

Footnotes


1. ↑ https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/02/19/tunisia-s-geography-of-anger-regional-inequalities-and-rise-of-populism-pub-81086
2. ↑ https://orientxxi.info/magazine/tunisie-qui-paie-le-prix-du-coronavirus,3784
3. ↑ Regional disparities in accessing water as well as the lack of access to clean healthy water for the rural population were cited as major persistent challenged in Tunisia and previously caused several rural social mobilizations. See World Bank report on WASH in Tunisia https://bit.ly/2XgGP8C and http://www.webdo.tn/2019/08/11/premier-jour-de-laid-plusieurs-regions-sans-eau-potable/; https://africanmanager.com/tunisie-coronavirus-les-oublies-confines-ont-soifune-bombe-a-retardement/
4. ↑ Underinvestment, lack of equipment’s and regional inequalities are commonly reported challenges in Tunisia’s health care system. See https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/overview/path-recovery-investments-are-aimed-overhauling-public-health-system Facing COVID, the health sector has reported the availability of 200 intensive care beds. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/proactive-tunisia-gears-battle-coronavirus-200316165511731.html
5. ↑ See https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=25&v=rjoEjkl76FI&feature=emb_title and https://ftdes.net/ar/femmes-agricole/?fbclid=IwAR1V2moTBslD65mpuO1QmlOMC73Pz71msDUT8nDxraB9FGWcqrMU_CSUpLQ
6. ↑ For an analysis of Tunisia’s economic challenges before COVID-19 see https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/tunisias-upcoming-challenge-fixing-the-economy-before-its-too-late/
7. ↑ Mitsuhiro Furusawa, Deputy Director of the IMF, said forecasts for the Tunisian economy expect GDP to shrink by 4.3% in 2020. https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/04/10/pr20144-tunisia-imf-executive-board-approves-a-us-745m-disbursement-address-covid19-pandemic. A recent study analyzing the economic and social consequences of COVID-19 conducted by Tunisian socio-economic rights group FTDES has estimated formal COVID-19 induced job losses in Tunisia at 63400. http://ftdes.net/rapports/COVID-AZ19.pdf
8. ↑ See interview of Elyes Fakhfekh, https://tunivisions.net/38463/discours-integral-du-chef-du-gouvernement-elyes-fakhfakh-prononce-jeudi-devant-le-parlement/
9. ↑ https://bit.ly/2Zpqb9F
10. ↑ https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/decryptages/face-au-covid-19-la-difficile-mobilisation-du-secteur-prive-tunisien-0
11. ↑ https://www.businessnews.com.tn/lessentiel-de-linterview-delyes-fakhfakh,520,97678,3
12. ↑ https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/opinion/tunisia-economy-essebsi-ennahda.html
13. ↑ https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2019C13/
14. ↑ Fayçal Zidi, Politiques économiques et disparités régionales en Tunisie: Une analyse en équilibre général micro-stimulé, Université Sorbonne nouvelle Paris III, 2013, (PhD Thesis), available at https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00965133/document.
15. ↑ Nucifora, A., Churchill, E., & Rijkers, B. (2015). Cronyism, corruption, and the Arab Spring: The case of Tunisia. 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, 47-56.
16. ↑ https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2019C13/
17. ↑ Hamza Meddeb, “Peripheral Vision: How Europe can help preserve Tunisia’s fragile democracy” 13 January 2017, ECFR, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/peripheral_vision_how_europe_can_preserve_tunisias_democracy_7215
18. ↑ https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/tunisias-upcoming-challenge-fixing-the-economy-before-its-too-late/
19. ↑ http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/795041468778188072/Tunisia-Private-sector-assessment
20. ↑ Hamza Meddeb, “Peripheral Vision: How Europe can help preserve Tunisia’s fragile democracy” 13 January 2017, ECFR, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/peripheral_vision_how_europe_can_preserve_tunisias_democracy_7215
21. ↑ (Bellin 1994 ; Cassarino 2004 ; Hibou 2006 ; 2008
22. ↑ https://erf.org.eg/publications/the-political-economy-of-business-elites-in-tunisia-actors-strategies-and-identities/
23. ↑ See Iwatch Investigation https://www.iwatch.tn/ar/article/61
24. ↑ Nabli, Moustapha Kamel. J'y Crois Toujours. Sud-Edition, 2019
25. ↑ See https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-economy-insight/ghost-workers-sap-tunisias-phosphate-wealth-idUSKCN1QO14H?il=0
26. ↑ See interview with the previous advisor Faycel Derbel here https://www.tunisienumerique.com/tunisie-levasion-fiscale-seleve-a-25-milliards-de-dinars/
27. ↑ http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/658461468312323813/pdf/861790DPR0P12800Box385314B00PUBLIC0.pdf
28. ↑ Rijkers, Bob, Leila Baghdadi and Gael Raballand. 2015. ‘Political Connections and Tariff Evasion Evidence from Tunisia’. World Bank Economic Review, 1-34
29. ↑ See https://www.conect.org.tn/sites/default/files/Pr%C2%82sentation%20visuelle.pdf
30. ↑ See the research of Observatoire Tunisien Economique
31. ↑ https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/dec/05/eu-blacklist-names-17-tax-havens-and-puts-caymans-and-jersey-on-notice
32. ↑ See here https://inkyfada.com/fr/2018/01/19/limites-systeme-offshore-tunisie/
33. ↑ See https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/peripheral_vision_how_europe_can_preserve_tunisias_democracy_7215
34. ↑ See Ben Hamza, Fatene. “UGTT and Tunisian Government: A Powerful (Dis)union?” Mimeo, Columbia University, 2019.
35. ↑ https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_626831.pdf
36. ↑ Protection sociale et économie informelle en Tunisie. Défis de la transition vers l’économie formelle, http://www.cres.tn/uploads/tx_wdbiblio/Secteur_informel_Tunisie.pdf
37. ↑ World Bank (2015): Breaking the barriers to youth inclusion, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/753151468312307987/pdf/892330WP0REVIS0Box385377B000PUBLIC0.pdf
38. ↑ https://lapresse.tn/33205/restructuration-des-caisses-sociales-maintenant-ou-jamais/
39. ↑ US Department of State (2018): Tunisia 2017 Human Rights Report, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265734.pdf 16/06/2018; Danish Trade Council for International Development Cooperation (2016): Labour Market Profile: Tunisia, http://www.ulandssekretariatet.dk/sites/default/files/uploads/public/PDF/LMP/lmp_tunisia_2016_final.pdf, 13/06/2018.
40. ↑ https://ftdes.net/rapports/textile.fr.pdf
41. ↑ https://www.hiil.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/HiiL-Tunisia-JNST-English-web.pdf
42. ↑ Interview with social security director Tunisia. https://www.webmanagercenter.com/2019/11/19/441491/tunisie-pres-de-70-des-travailleuses-agricoles-nont-pas-de-couverture-sociale/
43. ↑ Tunisian National Institute of Statistics
44. ↑ See https://www.equaltimes.org/tunisia-s-slow-but-steady-march?lang=en#.XsBnkRNKgdU
45. ↑ https://journals.openedition.org/remi/9244
46. ↑ https://ftdes.net/pour-une-politique-migratoire-tunisienne-inclusive-et-protectrice-des-droits/
47. ↑ https://ilacnet.org/2020/04/29/covid-19-and-tunisia-socio-economic-challenges-in-a-young-democracy/
48. ↑ http://www.industriall-union.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/2020/TUNISIA/tunisia_private_sector_agreement_april_2020.pdf
49. ↑ Decree-law n°2-2020 (14 April 2020) suspending some articles of the labour code
50. ↑ http://www.webdo.tn/2020/05/02/tunisie-les-modalites-pour-obtenir-la-2eme-tranche-daides-sociales/
51. ↑ http://www.finances.gov.tn/sites/default/files/2020-03/com_coronavirus_01.pdf
52. ↑ See statement of construction federation and tourism federation here https://www.webmanagercenter.com/2020/05/14/450237/tunisie-btp-nous-appelons-letat-a-assurer-son-role-dinvestisseur-locomotive-indique-jamel-ksibi/
53. ↑ https://www.espacemanager.com/la-conect-rejette-laccord-sur-le-versement-des-salaires-davril-pour-les-salaries-du-prive.html
54. ↑ http://www.utica.org.tn/upload/1586770728.pdf
55. ↑ https://www.apbt.org.tn/wp content/uploads/2020/03/90796437_3098652773486923_1892763504339845120_n.jpg
56. ↑ https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/10/25/tunisia-s-corruption-contagion-transition-at-risk-pub-73522
57. ↑ http://bit.ly/11P5PxR
58. ↑ Author conducted interviews with workers from hairdressers, cafe businesses in great Tunis. The author also spoke with the unions. More references here, see https://thd.tn/coronavirus-38-des-entreprises-tic-tunisiennes-pensent-a-licencier/
59. ↑ http://www.inlucc.tn/www.inlucc.tn/index.php?id=121&L=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=2234&cHash=dc34523fee9ae3edabb9f6b5bf057c6e
60. ↑ https://www.mondaq.com/turkey/crime/922492/thriving-corruption-under-crisis-where-and-how
61. ↑ http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2020/04/20/affaire-des-bavettes-elyes-fakhfakh-defend-fermement-le-ministre-de-lindustrie/ & https://www.facebook.com/I.WATCH.Organization/posts/2825147890873088?
62. ↑ https://www.lecourrierdelatlas.com/tunisie-la-guerre-anti-corruption-est-elle-passee-de-mode--23809
63. ↑ https://lapresse.tn/59516/speculation-et-augmentation-des-prix-la-lutte-continue/
64. ↑ https://www.realites.com.tn/2020/04/marche-de-protestation-des-affilies-de-lunion-tunisienne-des-taxis-individuels/
65. ↑ Critical perspectives on CSR Banarjee https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/6083/1/
66. ↑ I use social protection as opposite to social security as the concept implies a broader coverage which is relevant for the context of loosely defined and traced vulnerability of labour in Tunisia
67. ↑ https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3163242
68. ↑ See Kamal Nabli op-ed here. https://www.businessnews.com.tn/Le-temps-de-la-solidarit%C3%A9-plut%C3%B4t-que-celui-de-la-discorde,526,96899,3
69. ↑ http://www.webdo.tn/2020/05/13/tunisie-lancement-de-lidentifiant-unique-du-citoyen/

 

Africa

STOCKHOLM - On the occasion of Africa Day—held annually on 25 May—SIPRI has released a Background Paper and a Policy Brief. This new research provides policymakers and researchers with critical insights into the African Union’s (AU) responses to climate-related security risks and presents entry points for better engagement with the topic.

Over half of the states in sub-Saharan Africa are among those most affected by the double burden of climate exposure and political fragility. As sub-Saharan Africa grapples with multiple climate-related security risks such as forced migration and displacement, livelihood insecurity, and rising levels of intercommunal conflict, the AU is becoming crucial for identifying, assessing, and ultimately mitigating climate-related security risks.


Policy Responses to Climate-related Security Risks: The African Union


To offer a better understanding of how the AU discusses and responds to security challenges arising from climate change, this Background Paper provides a comprehensive overview of the AU’s climate security policy landscape for interested policymakers in Africa and beyond. The main findings reflect that the AU is increasingly recognizing different security risks, and that its discourse is rapidly developing towards more integrated responses to climate-related security risks.


Climate-related Security Risks and the African Union

This Policy Brief outlines key strengths of the African Unions response, such as a rapidly evolving discourse around climate security and efforts to improve collaboration and coordination among different parts of the institution. But also, key weaknesses in the discourse around AU policy responses, such as the lack of tangible policy operationalization as well as financial unpreparedness and limited member state accountability.

Policy Recommendations

- Respond to climate-related security risks with an institutionalized and coordinated approach;

- Develop strong climate security leadership within the AU; and

- Change the narrative to focus on shared problems and therefore shared solutions—multilateralism rather than nationalism.

The impact of the Malian crisis on the Group of Five Sahel countries: Balancing security and development priorities

SIPRI May 2020

The so-called ‘Malian crisis’ has now become a regionally multidimensional crisis. Economic, social, political and human dimensions are fed by structural and continuing dissatisfaction of marginalized and vulnerable populations. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya (2011) and the subsequent destabilization of Mali (2012) have had protracted consequences throughout the Sahel region which was already affected by structural factors of fragility such as climatic, economic and development challenges.

States in the Sahel rank at the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2019 Human Development Index—respectively, ranking 161st (Mauritania), 182nd (Burkina Faso), 184th (Mali), 187th (Chad) and 189th (Niger) out of 189 countries. According to the World Bank, the poverty rates of these states vary between 30 and 40 per cent while their growth rates are around 3 per cent in Chad and Mauritania and more than 4 per cent in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

As part of regional research conducted between January and November 2019, SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme and its partners in the Sahel region documented the spillover effects of the Malian crisis in the neighbouring states that make up the Group of Five Sahel (G5 Sahel) countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder is the fourth and final research output on the impacts of the Malian crisis in these countries. The first output provided a general overview of the crisis on the Sahel region; the second analysed the consequences for transhumance and trade in the border region of Hodh el Gharbi in Mauritania; the third output commented on the consequences on communities and in particular the situation in the Malian refugee camp in Ayorou (Niger). This last output analyses regional and national policy responses that—with limited success so far and to the detriment of development policy—aim to address key security challenges.

Violent extremist groups’ strategy to fill the void: Threatening states


Violence has spread from Northern Mali to the regions of Ségou and Mopti and to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. These hostilities are mainly directed towards civilian populations and national security forces and affect local communities in peripheral regions and fuel pre-existing inter-communal tensions. As the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, pointed out to the UN Security Council on 8 January 2020: ‘In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, casualties from terrorist attacks have increased five-fold since 2016 with over 4000 deaths reported in 2019 as compared to an estimated 770 deaths in 2016’.

While geographical proximity is one main factor for the violence, other domestic causes have facilitated attacks from non-state actors and the establishment of armed groups. Since the abduction of a foreign security agent at a mine (4 April 2015) in the north of Burkina Faso, the country has regularly suffered attacks from non-state armed groups. Burkina Faso is now deeply affected by insecurity and human rights violations perpetrated against civilians, leading to massive displacement.

The deterioration of the security situation also coincided with the transitional phase that followed the resignation of Burkinan President Blaise Compaoré on 31 October 2014. During his 27-year presidency, traditional authorities played an important role at the security level to compensate for the lack of effective state control over the territory and the structural weaknesses of the defence forces.

The fall of Compaoré and the dissolution of the Presidential Guard Regiment (RSP) in 2015 after the failed coup d’état by the RSP on 16 September 2015, led to the breakdown of the security system. On 15 January 2016, an attack was launched against the restaurant ‘le Cappuccino’ in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Since then, insecurity has increased, mainly in the border areas, in the north and the Sahel regions.

The country’s geographical proximity to Mali—particularly the porous border between the two countries—has facilitated the spillover of insecurity from Mali to Burkina Faso and since then, the situation has continued to deteriorate in the Liptako–Gourma region (the border region between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger). Since April 2019, ‘armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have committed targeted attacks and summary executions that have killed over 250 civilians’.

In Niger, the crisis in Mali has had a strong impact on the border region of Tillabéri with increasing inter-communal tensions between the communities of Zarma and Fulani. These conflicts are a direct consequence of the conflicts observed in Mali. Armed groups target symbols of the Nigerien state by abducting and killing traditional authorities suspected state collaborators. This strategy aims to discourage local populations from cooperating with the state while at the same time coercing them to sympathize with armed groups.

The Malian crisis has disrupted authorities in the affected localities with most of the traditional chiefs fleeing to seek refuge in Niamey or in other parts of the region. However, having left their communities, local authorities now have little knowledge of the security situation in their localities. Thus, their authority is limited and superseded by armed groups who benefit from the weakness or the absence of the state and have entrenched themselves in local communities.

In the most exposed localities, military personnel have been appointed as interim traditional chiefs (chef de canton). This was the case in the border locality of Inates in the Tillabéri region of Niger, where two attacks against a military camp on 1 July and 10 December 2019 resulted in some 20 soldiers being killed in the first attack and more than 70 military personnel killed in the second. Since 2019, attacks claimed by Islamic State of the Great Sahara (ISGS) have killed more than 170 soldiers have been killed in Inates, Chinedogar and Sanam.

The proliferation of security initiatives at the regional level

 

To address the deteriorating situation in the Sahel, several initiatives have been undertaken at the regional level. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was established by Security Council Resolution 2100 on 25 April 2013 with the mandate to support the stabilization of the country. Of the 11 620 troops and 1723 police deployed in Mali (as of January 2020), G5 Sahel countries are the main contributors.

At the regional level, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger established the G5 Sahel in February 2014, with the objective of ensuring security and development in the Sahel region. Following the French-led Operation Serval—launched in January 2013 several months after the uprising in Mali’s northernmost regions—France launched Operation Barkhane on 1 August 2014 to support and strengthen the national security forces in the G5 Sahel countries and address terrorism-related threats in the region. Last, in 2015, the G5 Sahel announced the creation of a joint counterterrorism task force which became effective in 2017. Alongside these security-oriented initiatives, other missions focus on training Malian military forces such as the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) and programmes like EU Parsec conduct inclusive work to pave the way for the country’s long-term stabilization.

Despite the presence of international forces including the G5 Sahel, as reported by a military source in Burkina Faso, the situation has not improved: ‘In some localities, terrorists systematically kill everyone. In some areas, the only way to survive is to leave or cooperate with them. In other places, they look for men. Adults are killed and young boys are taken away to be indoctrinated. Women try to hide their children, so they are not taken away to be indoctrinated by terrorists. But sometimes they are betrayed by terrorists’ informants and they risk their lives.’ (Interview conducted by SIPRI’s partner in Burkina Faso, the Centre pour la Gouvernance Démocratique (CGD), Ouagadougou, August 2019)

The fight against terrorism at the regional level has also contributed to changing the political situation in these five countries and for some of them, such as Chad, overcoming their political isolation. After years of uneasy diplomatic relationships, the visit of the former French President, François Hollande, in July 2014 and the installation of the Barkhane Headquarters in N’Djamena marked the return of Chad’s President Idriss Deby into the international community’s favour. For example, in February 2013 Chadian troops were deployed more than 2000 km away to Northern Mali.

They have also been deployed alongside French troops in Operation Serval and participated in MINUSMA. The official reasons behind these deployments are among others, the common membership in regional organizations, the reputation of Chadian soldiers as ‘desert fighters’, and the fact that Chad was already fighting a jihadist group—Boko Haram—along their eastern border. Another reason could be Chad’s undeclared desire to play the role of regional hegemon, which could divert the attention of the international community from the country’s internal political problems.

National strategies: Prioritizing security over development


The G5 Sahel countries share common fragilities including increased tensions within the security apparatus, lack of means and equipment, and difficulties in controlling their territory. Other structural challenges include corruption, impunity and bad governance, but also poverty and unemployment, a high cost of living, regional disparities and a lack of basic social services.

Long before the deterioration of security in the Sahel region, Mauritania was heavily affected by terrorism with 17 terrorist attacks (including 6 attacks in the capital Nouakchott), abductions and kidnappings claimed by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (2005) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (2007). Under the former general Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in office 2009–19), the country created special intervention units, deployed mobile units and improved military intelligence capabilities.

It also revitalized its armed forces in terms of their equipment, pensions and the payment of soldiers’ salaries. Mauritania managed to dismantle local terrorist cells and the border region with Mali has been turned into a militarized zone with checkpoints established along the border. One of the most visible impacts in both the capital Nouakchott and Nouadhibou—the second-largest city—is the prevalence of private security companies, surveillance and guards for private houses or governmental institutions and diplomatic or consular representations, banks and restaurants. Although this can also be observed in all other capitals and major cities in Africa it comes with the inherent risk of further militarization and proliferation of small and light weapons.

Mauritania has regulated the private security sector and issued authorizations for companies to operate (law no. 2009-025 of 7 April 2009). Fifteen private security companies are currently operating and constitute an important source of employment. As a consequence, since 2011, security has improved and there have been no terrorist attacks, with the army becoming a respected institution. Moreover, the economy has benefited from gold and copper mining but the social situation remains worrying and future development is still at stake.

In order to face new threats, other G5 Sahel countries have revised their national defence policies: in Burkina Faso a commission has been mandated to formulate a new security policy and the new policy was adopted in 2018 (decree no. 2018-1161 of 19 December 2018) and military camps have been established in the north, Sahel and the east, the country’s most volatile areas. It has also increased patrols in insecure areas or launched antiterrorism operations such as Operation Doofu (11 May 2019) in the north and Sahel regions and Operation Otanpuanou (7 March 2019) in the eastern provinces. More recently, in January 2020, the national security policy was revised to be more inclusive and takes into account human security, e.g. food, health and education.

While extrajudicial executions and human rights violations have resulted in the rejection of the defence forces, non-state armed groups have become more accepted by populations with whom they share cultural codes and to whom they provide basic services that the state no longer provides. In some areas, the strengthening of the military presence has improved the situation. However, as a young man reported during an interview conducted by CGD, ‘Schools, prefectures and town halls have closed. Since the state is absent, we do not have access to health services; some of our relatives have been killed. Schools have closed. Students are mistaken for spies.’ (Commune of Banh, North Region, August 2019).

Like Burkina Faso, Chad has been very active in strengthening its military and legislative arsenal to face new and growing security threats. Following several attacks perpetrated in N’Djamena and in the Lake Chad region, an antiterrorism law has been adopted (law no. 034/PR/2015) in which terrorism is broadly defined to encompass all aspects of daily life. These measures can also be a major threat to the freedoms of Chadian citizens. In order to regulate public space, legislative measures have been adopted such as a ban on demonstrations, begging and the wearing of burkas and turbans. Several new security units have been created including a specialized response unit and a unit that patrols rivers and lakes. Police stations have also been converted into public security stations and authorities strongly rely on traditional and religious authorities as community liaison actors.

Above all, the Chadian state also has ambitions to control religious spaces. Similar to 1997 and 2006, several religious associations were dissolved in 2015 and human rights organizations have reported a limitation of rights and freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions. However, because of its commitment to combat Boko Haram and its participation in MINUSMA, the international community is turning a blind eye to the excesses of the Chadian regime, even following the disputed presidential election that took place in 2016. A constitutional reform in 2018 has increased the presidential power and, as reported by Amnesty International, the regime can ‘use national legislation to impose unlawful restrictions on the right to freedom of associations’.


Fighting violence: The need for differentiated and inclusive development strategies


The steps taken by the G5 Sahel countries, supported by the international community, essentially consist of security measures. However, drivers of conflict and instability, such as the weak presence of the state, the lack of basic social services including health and education still remain unaddressed. Based on SIPRI’s evidence-based research conducted in the G5 Sahel countries, the main findings indicate that the fight against extremism requires the implementation of targeted development strategies. The needs of communities are different across nomadic groups, sedentary groups and among men and women. These populations also suffer the consequences of their ‘peripheral’ geographical isolation (fewer public services and less security) and are extremely exposed to external shocks like drought. This situation increases their vulnerability and exposure not only to illegal trafficking, but also to recruitment by armed groups. However, SIPRI’s local research shows that, far from rejecting the state, communities are calling for a better state, namely a more inclusive state that provides public services.

About the author
Dr Virginie Baudais is a Senior Researcher and the Deputy Director of the SIPRI Sahel/West Africa Programme.

 

 

Bandits riding motorbikes killed 20 villagers in a string of attacks in Niger’s western region of Tillaberi, the governor there told AFP on Sunday. An unknown number of “armed bandits” attacked three villages on Sunday at around 5:30 pm local time (1630 GMT), said governor Tidjani Ibrahim Katiella. He said that the assailants “pillaged shops” and looted cereal as well as cattle before heading off towards the north. One local source named villages targeted as Gadabo, Zibane Koira-Zeno and Zibane-Tegui, all administered by Anzourou, a commune some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Tillaberi city, the main town in western Niger and some 100 kilometres from the border with Mali.

Last January, Niger authorities restricted motorcycle traffic by day as well as night in a bid to crack down on jihadists perating in the region. They also closed down a number of food markets they said were “supplying terrorists with fuel and cereals,” according to the governor. The government recently extended a state of emergency in the region first brought in in 2017. According to official statistics, 174 soldiers have been killed in three attacks in the zone since last December at Chinegodar, where 89 were killed on January 8, Inates (71 dead on December 10) and Sanam (14 dead on December 24). The Islamic State claimed all three attacks.

In March, Malian and Niger soldiers joined forces with French forces in the area for an operation which mobilised around 5,000 troops under the ongoing Operation Barkhane deployment. French general staff credited the counter-terrorism operation with eliminating “a large number of terrorists”. The French-led Operation Barkhane is leading counter-terror operations across Sahel states Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres warned last week that jihadist groups in the Sahel are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to step up attacks, according to documents seen by AFP. Guterres urged better coordination among anti-jihadist forces fighting an array of armed groups. “Terrorist groups are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify their attacks and to challenge state authority throughout the sub-region,” said Guterres, citing an area straddling Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso as a major concern. Guterres said terror groups were exploiting the virus spread for both propaganda and action purposes. The pandemic has seen the border between Mali and Mauritania being shut, forcing operations of the so-called G5-Sahel anti-jihadist force to be postponed.

The G5 is a 5,000-strong force with troops from Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Mauritania cooperating with French troops to combat a growing Islamist insurgency.

AFP, The North Africa Journal, 1162 issue: week ending 14 May 2020.

 

By Sergey Sukhankin, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 10, The Jamestown Foundation, May 15, 2020


Introduction


Through 2019 into early 2020, the G5 Sahel Group (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger) has suffered painful losses caused by the activities of regional terrorist organizations. In January, the United Nations’ envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, told the Security Council that since 2016, attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone (Al Jazeera, February 2). Aside from civilians, local armed forces (trained by France and the United States) continue to suffer major losses.

Nearly 300 Nigerien, more than 180 Malian, 30 Burkinabe and 20 Chadian soldiers have been killed (Africa News, January 14; France24, March 20). Having suffered the heaviest military losses since 1983 as a result of’ a ‘Tigre’ and ‘Cougar’ helicopters collision in Mali in November 2019, France—the region`s most influential external player—has decided to increase its ongoing fight against terrorism in the region (Lefigaro.fr, November 26, 2019). According to French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, stability and eradication of the terrorist threat in the Sahel is instrumental not only for local governments and France, but to the EU as a whole, because regional instability breeds terrorism and illegal migration (Opex360.com, March 28).


The Pau Summit: ‘Coalition for the Sahel’ and Further Steps


On January 13, the G5 Sahel member countries’ heads of state and the French President assembled in Pau, France. The meeting resulted in a new framework entitled ‘Coalition for the Sahel’ that identified complex measures aimed at confronting regional terrorism. First, targeting Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) as the main regional threat (to be enacted under the umbrella of the ongoing Operation Barkhane).

Second, strengthening the military capabilities of regional players via military and practical training, which is to include—aside from France—other regional players such as the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Third, strengthening the rule of law via reforms in penal and judicial systems. Importantly, this is to be done through the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel (P3S), promoted by France and Germany—an initiative concerned with the training and deployment of staff in civil administration, internal security, and justice. Fourth, the main role in the stabilization process is to be played by the Sahel Alliance (German-French initiative) and the G5 Sahel’s Priority Investment Programme (PIP) (Diplomatie.gouv.fr, January 13).

Following the meeting, between January and February 2020, France pledged to ramp up its current military presence (4,500 troops) in the border zone linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger with another 850 soldiers as a means to “increase the pressure against the ISIS-GS” via taking a direct part in anti-terrorist operations and “accompany them [governmental forces] in combat” (Al Jazeera, February 2). Furthermore, the AU has announced the temporary deployment of a 3,000-strong force in the Sahel. According to Smail Chergui, head of the AU’s Peace and Security Commission, this contingent is expected to work closely with the G5 Sahel armed forces and ECOWAS (Al Jazeera, February 27).

Arguably, the most decisive step was made on March 27 with the establishment of the Takuba (sabre in Tuareg) multi-national task force, consisting of European Special Operation Forces (SOF) coming from Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Mali, Niger, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. This task force is expected to confront terrorists in the Liptako-Gourma region (the Lake Chad basin) zone of activities of ISGS and the Group for the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). According to statements, Takuba will become a part of the “Coalition for the Sahel” (the first pillar of the Pau Agreement) and is to be placed under operation Barkhane’s command. Importantly, this mission is to harmonize its actions with the G5 Sahel partners, the UN mission (MINUSMA) and EU missions (EUTM Mali, EUCAP Mali and EUCAP Niger).

According to the statement, Task Force Takuba is planning to have an initial operational capability by the summer of 2020, and expected to become operational by early 2021 (Defense.gouv.fr, March 27).

The bigger question is: will these actions suffice for the task of breaking the back of regional terrorist organizations, given the depth and complexity of the problem and growing uncertainties both within the G5 Sahel group and France itself?


Conclusion: Mission (Im)possible?


One of the main obstacles that could hinder the above-mentioned initiatives is growing aloofness among the G5 Sahel members themselves. Shockingly, Chadian President Idriss Deby declared that Chad’s army will no longer participate in military operations beyond its borders—a statement that he made during a visit to the Lake Chad zone, where Boko Haram is highly active (Africa News, April 11).

This decision was influenced by the loss of 152 Chadian soldiers over several weeks. Commenting on this decision, Deby stated that “Chad has felt alone in the fight against Boko Haram” (Newsverge.com, April 13). The main problem with Chad`s decision—whose security forces are the most powerful and respected in the region—is that it is likely to affect the resolve and determination of other G5 members. Meanwhile, Nigerien armed forces have also suffered losses as a result of the attack near Sanam, resulting in President Issoufou Mahamadou`s decision to fire Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ahmed Mohamed (Africa News, January 14). This suggests that the situation within the Nigerien armed forces is growing more tense.

On top of that, another serious issue is seemingly taking shape in France. As noted by Dominique Moisi, a founding member of the French Institute for International Relations, “the shadow of a doubt has emerged amongst the French elite about the sense of purpose of the operation in the Sahel region, given its lack of effectiveness” (DW, January 13).

Renewed efforts in 2020 are expected to bring about some positive results in counter-terrorist operations in the Sahel region. If the new measures are not successful, the resolve of local powers will be damaged, resulting in a fragmentation of efforts. Similarly, the lack of progress will increase doubts and further breed negative sentiment in France, to the exhilaration of third parties, such as Russia, whose cooperation with African countries is premised on the main pillar of a ‘security export.’

 

Francais

Crisis Group, 24 April 2020


Dans la région du Sahel central, les Etats se mobilisent pour lutter contre les effets du changement climatique sur les crises violentes. Cette préoccupation est légitime. Cependant, pour trouver des réponses adaptées à la montée de l'insécurité, il importe de sortir de l’équation simple entre réchauffement climatique, raréfaction des ressources et flambée des violences.

 

Que se passe-t-il ? Les Etats sahéliens et leurs partenaires se mobilisent pour lutter contre les effets du changement climatique, notamment parce qu’ils craignent son impact sur les conflits. La région du Sahel central est marquée par une montée de l’insécurité et une augmentation des violences armées liées en grande partie aux compétitions autour des ressources naturelles en zone rurale.

En quoi est-ce significatif ? Le changement climatique a certainement contribué à une mutation des systèmes agropastoraux régionaux. Néanmoins, le lien direct parfois établi entre réchauffement climatique, réduction des ressources et augmentation des violences ne constitue pas un cadre adéquat pour formuler des réponses adaptées.

Comment agir ? S’il est indispensable de tenir compte de l’impact du changement climatique au Sahel, cela ne peut se faire qu’en reliant le facteur climatique à un ensemble plus large de causalités, et en prenant en considération les choix politiques régissant l’accès aux ressources.


I. Synthèse


La région du Sahel central (Mali, Burkina Faso et Niger) est perçue, depuis les sécheresses des années 1970-1980, comme un espace écologiquement fragile et de grande pauvreté. Parallèlement, on assiste, dans cette région, à une montée de l’insécurité, et à une multiplication des groupes armés dans les zones rurales, dont certains se revendiquent du jihad. Pourtant, l’idée selon laquelle le réchauffement climatique entrainerait une réduction des ressources disponibles et, par conséquent, une augmentation des violences, ne semble pas se vérifier. La multiplication des conflits dans la région est moins liée à la diminution des ressources disponibles qu’à la transformation des systèmes de production qui génèrent des compétitions mal régulées autour de l’accès aux ressources – en particulier foncières – de plus en plus convoitées.

La lutte contre le changement climatique reste indispensable, tout comme reste indispensable la lutte contre ses effets, qui incluent l’accentuation de la pression foncière. Mais ce facteur n’est ni la seule explication de la montée de l’insécurité ni même la plus déterminante. Dans certains cas, les ressources sont présentes, voire en augmentation, mais les autorités traditionnelles ou centrales n’ont pas toujours la capacité ou la légitimité suffisante pour arbitrer les conflits relatifs à l’accès aux ressources en milieu rural.

Les politiques de développement, si elles partent du postulat que la raréfaction des ressources conduit automatiquement à une flambée des violences, risquent de formuler des réponses inadaptées à la mutation profonde des systèmes agropastoraux. Il importe donc de veiller à la mise en place d’outils capables d’assurer une répartition plus équitable et acceptée des ressources créées. En outre, les choix politiques des Etats jouent un rôle prépondérant dans les équilibres établis entre productions agricoles et pastorales. Au Sahel central, les politiques publiques tendent à favoriser depuis longtemps les agriculteurs sédentaires au détriment des éleveurs nomades. Il faudrait qu’elles corrigent ce déséquilibre et trouvent des solutions qui concilient les intérêts des différents systèmes de production.


II. Quand le climat chauffe, les esprits s’échauffent ?


Ces dernières années, la région du Sahel central (Mali, Burkina Faso et Niger) est devenue l’épicentre d’une zone d’insécurité mêlant repli des Etats sur les espaces urbains et multiplication des groupes armées, dont certains se revendiquent du jihad, dans les zones rurales. Cette insécurité se développe dans une région perçue depuis plusieurs décennies, et notamment depuis les sécheresses des années 1970-1980, comme un espace écologiquement fragile et de grande pauvreté. Un nombre croissant d’experts et de décideurs lient ces deux phénomènes en établissant un lien direct entre la violence et l’impact du changement climatique.

Pour ces acteurs, l’augmentation des températures au Sahel produirait davantage de sécheresses et d’inondations qui compromettraient la production agricole, augmenterait la pauvreté, et nourrirait les violences intercommunautaires. Les groupes armés, notamment jihadistes, exploiteraient ces tensions pour recruter et s’installer. Ce lien apparait si évident à certains observateurs qu’ils soulignent que dans les pays du Sahel central, « la carte de l’insécurité et celle de la faim se sont superposées ».

Cette manière de mettre en relation jihadisme et réchauffement climatique au Sahel est peut-être également un moyen d’attirer l’aide financière en liant deux problématiques qui mobilisent particulièrement les bailleurs internationaux. En février 2019, dix-sept pays du Sahel se sont réunis à Niamey, capitale du Niger, pour adopter un plan d’investissement de 400 milliards de dollars (plus de 350 milliards d’euros) sur la période 2019-2030 afin de lutter contre les effets du changement climatique. A cette occasion, les participants ont déploré l’impact du réchauffement climatique sur la réduction des surfaces arables, l’amenuisement des ressources et la montée de l’insécurité. Ils ont également souligné la nécessité pour les pays industrialisés, premiers responsables du réchauffement climatique, de soutenir financièrement les pays du Sahel qui en sont les premières victimes. Pour les dirigeants sahéliens, ce lien offre également l’avantage potentiel d’attribuer les causes des violences à des facteurs exogènes de grande ampleur dont on ne peut leur attribuer la responsabilité.

Ce plan de lutte contre le réchauffement climatique s’inscrit aussi dans une logique plus large d’initiatives misant sur le nexus « sécurité-développement ». Celles-ci unissent actions pour rompre le cycle de l’appauvrissement du Sahel et interventions pour prévenir l’extension des groupes armés, jihadistes en particulier. Il s’agit d’un côté de déployer l’outil militaire pour vaincre les groupes armés terroristes (GAT) et de l’autre d’investir dans le développement pour garantir l’accès des populations aux ressources. L’objectif est de sortir d’une situation de pauvreté dont on redoute qu’elle fasse le lit des groupes armés les plus violents. Les autorités du Sahel, leurs partenaires et même de nombreux experts répètent souvent que les groupes jihadistes prospèrent parce qu’ils offrent une alternative aux jeunes ruraux sahéliens privés d’un accès aux ressources.


III. Le rôle du changement climatique dans la transformation des systèmes agropastoraux


Il ne fait guère de doute que le changement climatique a une influence importante sur les conditions de production agropastorale. Cela dit, son impact sur les ressources et les violences ne peut être analysé isolément, sans tenir compte d’autres facteurs, et ne peut se résumer à une équation simple entre réchauffement climatique, réduction des ressources et augmentation des violences.

Le changement climatique a certainement contribué à une rupture d’équilibre entre les systèmes de production pastorale et agricole, au détriment des pasteurs. Les sécheresses qui ont affecté le Sahel dans les années 1970-1980 n’ont pas seulement fait baisser les niveaux de production pendant quelques années au Sahel, elles ont également modifié en profondeur les relations entre agriculteurs et pasteurs. Ces années de sécheresse ont décimé les cheptels du centre du Mali, appauvrissant ainsi les bergers peul qui dépendaient de la transhumance pour leur survie. De leur côté, les communautés d’agriculteurs ont certes eu de mauvaises récoltes pendant ces mêmes années, mais elles ont continué à produire et bientôt à générer de nouveaux surplus que beaucoup ont investis dans l’élevage. De nombreux Peul, ruinés lors de la sécheresse, sont devenus des bergers salariés pour le compte de ces propriétaires sédentaires. Cette période est à l’origine d’une crise du pastoralisme et d’une marginalisation des communautés pastorales qui expliquent en partie l’attrait que peut avoir le discours jihadiste après de nombreux Peul nomades.

Mais le changement climatique n’est bien sûr pas seul responsable de cette crise du pastoralisme. Celle-ci s’est aggravée sous l’effet d’autres facteurs, en particulier le rétrécissement de l’espace pastoral, grignoté par l’expansion des terres agricoles et la montée de certaines formes d’insécurité, comme le banditisme armé. L’avancée du front pionnier agricole, c’est-à-dire l’extension des terres utilisées pour l’agriculture, n’est en outre pas uniquement un phénomène démographique. Il est aussi lié aux rapports de pouvoir entre communautés agricoles et pastorales au niveau local ainsi qu’à certains choix politiques, notamment ceux faits par les Etats. Ainsi la priorité accordée par l’Etat malien à la modernisation de son économie agricole et à l’autosuffisance alimentaire a globalement avantagé les agriculteurs par rapport aux éleveurs.

En somme, les conflits locaux qui affectent le centre du Mali sont moins le résultat d’une diminution des ressources – en réalité, les ressources produites ont globalement augmenté au centre du Mali – que de la montée des tensions autour des différentes manières d’utiliser la terre. Le climat, en l’occurrence une sécheresse prolongée dans les années 1970-1980, a bien eu un impact important sur la région, mais ses répercussions sur le conflit ont été plutôt indirectes et ne peuvent être appréhendées qu’à travers l’analyse plus large des mutations des systèmes de production agropastoraux.


IV. Ressources accrues, tensions accrues


L’idée que les conflits qui affectent le Sahel sont liés directement à une raréfaction des ressources, elle-même en partie provoquée par le changement climatique, risque de déboucher sur des politiques de développement dont la raison d’être principale est d’augmenter les ressources disponibles. Si l’on suivait cette logique, la réponse aux sécheresses qui aggravent les relations entre communautés agricoles et pastorales serait, par exemple, de soutenir des projets de creusement de puits afin d’augmenter les ressources en eau disponibles. Et pourtant, l’expérience semble montrer que la création de nouvelles ressources peut elle aussi provoquer une recrudescence des tensions locales et parfois même des conflits violents dans plusieurs régions du Sahel.

Au centre du Mali, dans le cadre de l’ODEM (Opération de développement de l’élevage dans la région de Mopti) le creusement de puits pastoraux comme celui de Tolodjé, une importante réserve pastorale, a mis en valeur des espaces auparavant dépourvus d’eau. Les puits pastoraux ont alors attiré des populations d’agriculteurs dogon (une communauté du centre Mali) qui se sont installées initialement avec l’autorisation d’éleveurs peul, souvent reconnus par l’Etat comme détenteurs des droits d’usage de la terre. Avec le temps, le nombre d’agriculteurs a augmenté et ils ont commencé à faire prévaloir leurs droits sur les terres autour de ces puits, pourtant construits pour les éleveurs. Les tensions entre éleveurs et agriculteurs se sont exacerbées dans un contexte où ni l’Etat ni les autorités locales dites traditionnelles ne semblaient en mesure de réguler de manière pacifique et consensuelle les questions d’utilisation des ressources foncières. Dans cette zone, les violences récentes entre jihadistes et groupes d’autodéfense sont en partie liées à ces querelles autour de réserves d’eau devenues accessibles au cours des dernières décennies.

Autre exemple : au Burkina Faso, dans la province du Soum, le projet de développement Riz Pluvial a permis l’augmentation des volumes de production rizicole dans la commune de Béléhédé. Mais ce projet a simultanément affecté les équilibres démographiques et politiques locaux : l’installation de populations de paysans allochtones, surtout issus des groupes fulsé et mossi, a été facilitée par ce projet. A l’inverse, les propriétaires peul, souvent éleveurs nomades, estiment avoir été évincés de ces terres sans compensation satisfaisante. Les populations allochtones ont également cherché à contourner l’autorité traditionnelle autochtone, en l’occurrence l’Emir de Tongomayel, en nommant leurs propres chefs de village. Dans ce contexte de tensions locales, des éleveurs peul se sont rapprochés des groupes jihadistes, connus par ailleurs pour rejeter les décisions de l’Etat et faciliter l’accès à la terre des populations qui les soutiennent.

Dans ces deux cas, ce n’est pas la raréfaction des ressources qui a généré la violence, mais bien au contraire la création de nouvelles ressources qui a généré ou exacerbé les conflits portant sur l’usage de la terre et l’accès au foncier.


V. Mutations des systèmes agropastoraux et niveau de violence : l’exemple du centre du Mali


Si le changement climatique affecte bien les niveaux de production au Sahel, il n’y a pas de relation causale simple entre ce facteur et le niveau de violence, et particulièrement entre la réduction des ressources et la flambée de violence. La multiplication des conflits au Sahel est davantage liée à la transformation des systèmes de production qui génèrent des compétitions mal régulées autour de l’accès aux ressources – en particulier foncières – de plus en plus convoitées. Paradoxalement, alors que la surface des terres arables susceptibles d’être mises en valeur dans les pays sahéliens diminue chaque année sous l’effet du changement climatique, les surfaces effectivement cultivées et les niveaux de production continuent d’augmenter. Ce phénomène s’explique par l’expansion démographique, mais aussi par le développement des capacités de mise en valeur des territoires. Le changement climatique accentue la pression foncière, mais il n’est ni le seul facteur explicatif ni même le plus déterminant. La pression foncière est surtout liée au fait que la terre acquiert de plus en plus de valeur et devient de plus en plus la cible de convoitises.

Ainsi, dans la région de Mopti (centre du Mali), cœur de l’insurrection menée par le prédicateur Hamadoun Koufa, dirigeant de la Katiba Macina, les niveaux de production agricole sont en forte augmentation ces deux dernières décennies malgré des variations relativement importantes d’une année sur l’autre. Alors que la production céréalière était de 420 000 tonnes en 1999-2000, elle a triplé quinze ans après, atteignant un pic de 1,22 million de tonnes en 2015-2016. L’augmentation des volumes de production céréalière est en grande partie liée à celle des surfaces céréalières cultivées qui passent de 789 120 hectares en 2001-2002 à 991 554 hectares en 2016, soit une augmentation de 26 pour cent. Au Sud de la région de Mopti, théâtre de violents conflits locaux, une ruée mal régulée vers les terres de culture sur les plaines du Seeno-Gondo est à l’origine de tensions violentes entre communautés peul et dogon.

Alors que la forte demande foncière exacerbe les conflits, les mécanismes de régulation – qu’ils soient traditionnels ou mis en place par l’Etat central – n’ont pas toujours l’efficacité ou la légitimité suffisante pour permettre d’arbitrer les querelles. Un grand nombre de conflits sont liés aux tentatives d’accaparement de nouvelles terres, sources de tensions entre les populations que les autorités n’arrivent pas à gérer de manière pacifique. Sous les effets de la mécanisation de l’agriculture, de l’irrigation et de la migration des communautés dogon habitant les falaises de Bandiagara en direction des plaines, le besoin en terres agricoles a fortement augmenté, ce qui a fait grimper leur valeur. Davantage d’agriculteurs exploitent des terres réservées auparavant à l’élevage et s’approprient celles situées près des points d’eau et des puits pastoraux pour y pratiquer des cultures maraichères. Cette expansion des terres agricoles, en rendant difficile l’accès du bétail aux pâturages et aux points d’eau, provoque des incidents violents.


VI. Mieux réguler les conditions d’accès aux ressources naturelles


Les sociétés sahéliennes n’ont jamais été aussi nombreuses à se partager des territoires de plus en plus convoités, mais elles n’ont jamais produit autant de ressources. Certes, la pauvreté est un phénomène réel au Sahel, mais ce n’est pas parce qu’ils vivent sur des espaces de plus en plus pauvres que les ruraux du Sahel s’opposent les uns aux autres. C’est plutôt parce que la mise en valeur de plus en plus intense des espaces ruraux génère des compétitions inédites que les pouvoirs publics ne savent pas canaliser. Formuler des réponses basées avant tout sur le lien entre changement climatique, diminution des ressources et violences repose sur un diagnostic erroné de la situation et ne permettra pas d’y remédier. Bien sûr, il est urgent de répondre aux effets du changement climatique au Sahel comme ailleurs, vu la gravité du phénomène et la menace qu’il fait peser sur le monde entier. Mais il serait erroné de le faire au nom d’un lien direct entre violences actuelles et réchauffement climatique que les faits ne soutiennent pas.

D’autres facteurs peuvent expliquer cette flambée des violences. Au Sahel central, les politiques publiques favorisent depuis longtemps les agriculteurs sédentaires au détriment des éleveurs nomades, phénomène dont il faudrait se soucier. Cela étant, il serait dangereux d’appeler à un simple renversement à titre de compensation. Redonner de l’espace aux sociétés pastorales plus durablement touchées par les grandes sécheresses des années 1970-1980 est nécessaire, mais le faire en obligeant brutalement des dizaines de milliers d’agriculteurs installés sur des espaces pastoraux à déguerpir créerait immanquablement de nouvelles tensions et de nouveaux conflits. Encore une fois, le Sahel a autant besoin de produire des ressources pour ses populations que de disposer d’arbitres légitimes capables de réguler de manière pacifique la délicate question de l’accès et de la répartition des ressources en milieu rural.

Ce sont les outils d’interventions qu’il s’agit de réformer. Les projets de développement ne font pas que créer de la richesse ; ils contribuent en même temps à modifier en profondeur les conditions locales d’accès aux ressources dans un environnement déjà très concurrentiel. Les projets de développement devraient se préoccuper beaucoup plus des conséquences de leurs interventions, par exemple en veillant à la mise en place d’outils capables d’assurer une répartition équitable et acceptée des ressources créées. Beaucoup de professionnels du secteur du développement le savent très bien, mais, sommés d’agir dans l’urgence par les dirigeants politiques ou sécuritaires, sont souvent amenés à prendre moins de précautions avec le risque que les investissements d’aujourd’hui génèrent les conflits de demain.


VII. Conclusions


Les Etats sahéliens et leurs partenaires internationaux devraient définir de manière plus exacte et nuancée la relation entre changement climatique et violences, et plus largement entre amenuisement des ressources et violences. Comme le dit Tor Benjaminsen, géographe spécialiste du Sahel, attribuer les guerres du Sahel au changement climatique risque d’amener à sous-estimer le poids des dynamiques politiques qui sous-tendent les conflits. Le changement climatique et ses effets sont certes des préoccupations légitimes. Néanmoins, les acteurs impliqués dans ce combat gagneraient à mieux prendre en compte l’impact des différents choix politiques qui jouent un rôle prépondérant dans la distribution de l’accès aux ressources.


Dakar/Niamey/Bruxelles, 24 avril 2020

 

 

 

Crisis Group, 23 April 2020


Au Niger, alors que le ramadan va débuter dans la soirée du 23 avril, les tensions autour de la fermeture des mosquées dans le contexte de la pandémie de Covid-19 s’accentuent. Le gouvernement devrait autoriser la réouverture des mosquées en la conditionnant au respect strict des règles sanitaires préconisées par l’OMS.

 

Au Niger, le gouvernement continue de lutter contre le virus Covid-19 mais certaines mesures prises pour contenir sa propagation suscitent le mécontentement voire le rejet d’une frange de la population. Alors que les Nigériens semblent s’accommoder de la plupart des restrictions, celles liées à la fermeture des mosquées et à la suspension des prières collectives, au nom des règles de distanciation sociale, alimentent une contestation de plus en plus importante. Dans ce pays où 98 pour cent de la population est de confession musulmane, de violentes manifestations ont eu lieu dans plusieurs localités pour dénoncer ces mesures que certains jugent contraires à la doctrine islamique. Alors que le début du mois de ramadan (prévu pour le 23 avril) approche, le risque que ces contestations s’intensifient et se propagent est très élevé. Les jihadistes pourraient également se servir de la fermeture des mosquées pour discréditer davantage un Etat qu’ils décrivent comme hostile à l’islam.

Afin de réduire ces risques, le gouvernement devrait autoriser la réouverture des mosquées en la conditionnant au respect des règles sanitaires préconisées par l’Organisation mondiale de la santé dans le contexte du ramadan, notamment à l’intérieur des lieux de prières. Plus largement, le gouvernement devrait renforcer ses efforts de concertation pour associer les lieux de culte, mais aussi les principales organisations islamiques de la société civile à la lutte contre le Covid-19 plutôt que de risquer d’en faire des foyers de résistance.


Les mesures contre le virus


Près d’un mois après l’enregistrement de son premier cas de contamination, le Niger compte officiellement 662 personnes testées positives au 23 avril– dont vingt-deux sont décédées –, ce qui en fait le pays du Sahel le plus affecté par la pandémie et le huitième d’Afrique sub-saharienne. A l’instar d’autres pays du monde, le gouvernement a pris des mesures inédites afin de faire face à la pandémie. Dès le 17 mars, deux jours avant la confirmation du premier cas, le gouvernement a décrété une série de dix mesures visant à lutter contre le virus, dont notamment : fermeture des frontières, des écoles, des lieux de loisir ; interdiction des rassemblements ; et obligation de distanciation sociale. Deux jours plus tard, et à l’issue de longues discussions, le gouvernement a amené le Conseil islamique du Niger, élargi à d’autres associations islamiques, ainsi que les Eglises chrétiennes, à décider la suspension de la fréquentation des lieux du culte, invitant les fidèles à prier chez eux. Pour les musulmans, ces mesures impliquent l’interdiction des prières collectives dans les mosquées, y compris les cinq prières quotidiennes et la grande prière hebdomadaire du vendredi.

Cette mesure de restriction n’est pas l’apanage du Niger. A travers le monde musulman, les autorités de plusieurs pays ont conclu qu’il serait impossible de lutter efficacement contre la pandémie si des millions de croyants continuaient à fréquenter les mosquées selon les coutumes habituelles. En effet, lors des prières collectives, les fidèles sont tenus de se rapprocher les uns des autres et de serrer les rangs. La décision des autorités nigériennes de restreindre les rassemblements dans les mosquées n’est donc pas singulière. D’autres pays à large majorité musulmane dans la région comme le Sénégal, la Mauritanie et le Tchad ont pris des décisions similaires. De leur côté, les autorités saoudiennes ont fermé les deux mosquées les plus saintes de l’islam.


Prier à tout prix


Inédites dans l’histoire du Niger, les mesures de lutte contre le Covid-19 sont éprouvantes pour de nombreuses personnes, notamment parce qu’elles ralentissent les activités économiques, provoquent une hausse des prix, et obligent les populations à changer leurs habitudes sociales. Pourtant, alors que le pays est le plus pauvre au monde en termes d’indice de développement humain (IDH 2019), ce n’est ni la réduction des revenus ni l’inflation qui semble catalyser les mécontentements, mais plutôt l’interdiction des prières collectives. Les cinq prières quotidiennes et la prière hebdomadaire du vendredi sont perçues par nombre de musulmans comme un aspect fondamental de leur foi, et les effectuer dans une mosquée comme une obligation religieuse. Certains ont interprété la décision de suspendre les prières collectives comme une intrusion inacceptable des autorités dans la pratique de leur foi. Sur les réseaux sociaux, beaucoup de Nigériens doutent également de la sincérité des autorités dans cette lutte contre le Covid-19, y voyant soit un complot ourdi par l’Occident, soit un moyen pour l’Etat de soutirer des fonds auprès de la communauté internationale.

Si le Conseil islamique du Niger – censé représenter les principales autorités musulmanes du pays – soutient les décisions gouvernementales, de nombreux fidèles s’y opposent et tentent de défier les autorités en continuant d’organiser des prières collectives. Dans les zones rurales où l’Etat dispose d’une capacité moindre pour imposer ces mesures, de nombreuses mosquées sont restées ouvertes et les prières se poursuivent presque normalement. Dans les grandes villes, certains fidèles continuent de braver l’interdiction en tentant de rouvrir leur mosquée ou en se donnant rendez-vous dans des endroits de fortune, notamment dans les banlieues.

En réponse, le gouvernement a sévi contre les contrevenants, arrêtant les imams qui dirigent ces prières ou dispersant les fidèles qui y prennent part. Cette répression a provoqué des échauffourées entre fidèles et forces de l’ordre. Depuis la fin du mois de mars, des altercations se produisent régulièrement chaque vendredi dans des localités différentes à travers le pays, comme à Mirriah dans la région de Zinder, Tessaoua dans la région de Maradi et Illéla dans la région de Tahoua. A Niamey, la capitale du Niger, de sérieuses violences ont éclaté le vendredi 17 avril dans plusieurs quartiers suite à l’intervention des forces de l’ordre pour empêcher la tenue de la prière de vendredi. Ces incidents ont provoqué le blocage de plusieurs voies publiques et la destruction de propriétés publiques et privées. Le même jour à Sarkin Haoussa, une localité dans le département de Mayahi, région de Maradi, des manifestants contre l’intervention des forces de l’ordre cherchant à les empêcher de prier, ont saccagé les locaux de l’école primaire du village, le bâtiment de la mairie, et autres symboles de l’Etat dans le village, y compris du matériel d’enrôlement électoral.

Ces émeutes rappellent les grands épisodes de violences à dimension religieuse qui ont secoué le Niger ces dernières années. Elles témoignent du caractère éclaté de la société civile islamique du pays et de la difficulté des autorités politiques à la contrôler. En janvier 2015, à la suite des attentats qui ont ciblé le magazine Charlie Hebdo à Paris, et en réaction à une interview du président Mahamadou Issoufou dans laquelle il exprimait sa sympathie à l’égard des victimes de ces attaques, des manifestations meurtrières avaient éclaté, notamment à Zinder et Niamey, provoquant la mort d’au moins dix personnes et la destruction de plusieurs églises. Plus récemment, en juin 2019, l’adoption d’une loi destinée à réglementer le domaine du culte a généré de violentes émeutes dans la ville de Maradi (capitale économique du Niger, située à près de 600 km à l’est de Niamey). Ces épisodes témoignent d’une tendance chez les activistes à recourir aux manifestations souvent violentes pour exprimer leurs griefs vis-à-vis de l’Etat quand celui-ci empiète sur ce qui est considéré comme la sphère religieuse.


Argument pour les jihadistes


Au-delà de leur impopularité aux yeux d’une frange de la population, les mesures d’interdiction des prières pourraient servir la rhétorique des jihadistes contre l’Etat. La fermeture abrupte des mosquées et l’interdiction des prières collectives peuvent renforcer la perception d’un Etat sinon opposé à l’islam du moins peu soucieux de le respecter. A la frontière entre le Burkina Faso et le Niger, des jihadistes probablement affiliés à l’Etat islamique auraient interdit aux villageois de respecter les mesures de lutte contre le Covid-19, en particulier l’interdiction des prières collectives. Des sources locales contactées par Crisis Group ont indiqué que plusieurs imams et chefs coutumiers des villages frontaliers avec le Burkina Faso où les jihadistes ont une forte présence se seraient refugiés dans la ville de Téra au nord-ouest de la région de Tillabéry par peur d’être pris en étau entre la pression des autorités et les représailles des jihadistes.

Par ailleurs, dans un enregistrement audio attribué au leader du mouvement Boko Haram au Nigéria, dont les ramifications s’étendent au sud-est du Niger, Aboubacar Shekau se démarque des dirigeants de la sous-région et critique les mesures prises contre le virus : « Nous sommes ici, nous continuons de prier ensemble les cinq prières quotidiennes et la prière de vendredi… Être en mesure de faire cela dans le contexte du monde actuel… [fait partie] des acquis pour lesquels nous remercions Dieu. »


Rouvrir les mosquées


Non seulement les mesures des autorités nigériennes génèrent des protestations violentes, mais leur efficacité reste à prouver, tant de nombreux croyants les contournent pour prier collectivement, en ville comme dans les campagnes. Les autorités devraient prendre la mesure des dangers que pose la fermeture brutale des mosquées sur la stabilité du pays. Elles ne devraient pas pour autant céder sous la pression de la rue et rouvrir l’ensemble des lieux de culte en renonçant à y faire appliquer toute mesure de protection. En assumant leur responsabilité en matière de santé publique, elles devraient plutôt envisager d’assouplir leur politique concernant les lieux de culte.

Les autorités pourraient par exemple autoriser l’ouverture des mosquées en conditionnant celle-ci au respect par les fidèles des règles sanitaires strictes adaptées à la lutte contre le Covid-19. Elles pourraient s’inspirer des recommandations récemment émises par l’Organisation mondiale de la santé – notamment en matière de distanciation sociale et d’hygiène dans les lieux de culte pendant la période du ramadan. Pour éviter d’alimenter des rivalités sectaires entre différents courants religieux, les autorités devraient être transparentes dans la définition des critères permettant la réouverture des mosquées.

Le gouvernement a intérêt à agir vite. Alors qu’approche le mois de ramadan – habituellement un moment d’intense activité religieuse, dont une bonne partie se pratique dans les mosquées – les épisodes de contestations jusque-là localisés risquent de prendre plus d’ampleur. Sur les réseaux sociaux, des marabouts et des citoyens ont déjà commencé à hausser le ton, demandant au gouvernement d’alléger les mesures en prélude au mois saint.

Comme le suggère l’exemple d’épidémies récentes comme celle du virus Ebola, le combat sanitaire peut être gravement affaibli lorsque l’Etat impose des mesures sans explications suffisantes, sans concertation préalable avec les populations affectées, et sans pragmatisme. Tirant parti des expériences sous-régionales, les autorités nigériennes, qui savent par ailleurs maîtriser l’art de la concertation quand elles le souhaitent, devraient redoubler d’efforts pour gagner le soutien populaire dans la lutte contre le Covid-19. Dans ce cadre, les mosquées ne devraient pas devenir des lieux de résistance aux politiques de santé publique mais, au contraire, servir de points d’appui pour informer sur les mesures sanitaires adéquates et mieux diffuser les messages clés de prévention et de sauvegarde.

Le premier réflexe gouvernemental, justifiable, a été d’imposer des mesures très restrictives. Mais celles-ci seront nécessairement difficiles à maintenir si l’épidémie s’inscrit dans la durée ou si elles suscitent des résistances populaires farouches. L’Etat nigérien gagnerait à adopter une approche plus concertée et mieux à même de gagner la confiance de ses citoyens, associant pleinement les organisations de la société civile et visant à faire reposer l’efficacité des mesures de prévention sur la force de l’adhésion populaire.

 

 

 

 

CRISIS GROUP, 6 APRIL 2020

Des combattants jihadistes ont tué une centaine de soldats tchadiens au Lac Tchad dans l’attaque la plus meurtrière de l’histoire récente du Tchad. Alors que l’armée a lancé une contre-offensive, il est vital d’améliorer la coopération militaire dans la région et de protéger les civils.

 


Une attaque meurtrière


L’attaque menée le 23 mars dernier par une faction de Boko Haram sur la presqu’île de Bohoma sur le Lac Tchad est la plus meurtrière attribuée à l’organisation hors du territoire nigérian ces dernières années. Une force estimée à environ 400 combattants serait arrivée au petit jour, à bord d’au moins cinq embarcations motorisées. Après sept heures de combat, les assaillants ont mis en déroute la garnison tchadienne avant de se replier en emportant de l’armement. Selon les autorités tchadiennes, près de cent soldats ont perdu la vie, une cinquantaine d’autres ont été blessés et quelques-uns auraient été faits prisonniers. Les jihadistes auraient également détruit vingt-quatre véhicules militaires qu’ils ne pouvaient pas ramener avec eux. Dès le lendemain est apparue sur l’application de messagerie Telegram une revendication crédible, au nom de l’une des deux factions de Boko Haram, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS).

La scission de Boko Haram remonte à 2016. A l’époque, sous l’effet de la contre-offensive déclenchée par le Nigéria et ses voisins, Boko Haram – devenu en 2015 une filiale de l’Etat islamique sous le nom d’Etat islamique en Afrique de l’Ouest (EIAO ou ISWAP en anglais) – s’est divisé en deux. Dirigé par Abu Musab al-Barnawi et Mamman Nur, un premier groupe a quitté le quartier-général de Boko Haram, dans la forêt de la Sambisa et gagné le Lac Tchad. Là, il a réussi à rallier le gros des combattants jihadistes et à obtenir la validation de l’Etat islamique, gardant ainsi l’appellation EIAO. Le second groupe, dirigé par Abubakar Shekau, ancien commandant suprême de Boko Haram, est revenu à une désignation ancienne, JAS, avec ses éléments restants.

Dans la zone du Lac, un petit groupe avait choisi de maintenir son allégeance à Shekau. Dirigé par un certain Bakura « Doron » (car il est originaire de la ville nigériane de Baga Doron, au bord du Lac), il s’est établi dans la partie nigérienne du Lac, en face de Nguigmi, vivant de pillages et menant des petites attaques, surtout au Niger, y compris contre l’EIAO. Ce groupe a visiblement gagné en puissance. A partir de 2018, il a commencé à frapper plus à l’est, menant des opérations contre des bases militaires et des convois au Cameroun et au Tchad. L’attaque de Bohoma est son opération la plus importante et la plus aboutie à ce jour.


Une menace grandissante dans la zone du Lac Tchad


Le fait que les groupes (JAS et EIAO) soient divisés ne rend pas la tâche des forces de sécurité de la région beaucoup plus facile. Des deux, l’EIAO est très certainement le plus dangereux, du fait de ses liens avec l’Etat islamique. L’EIAO jouit aussi d’une relation sous-régionale avec le groupe anciennement appelé Etat islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS), qui opère entre le Mali, le Niger et le Burkina Faso ; l’Etat islamique a d’ailleurs rangé l’EIGS sous le drapeau de l’EIAO, et même s’il s’agit pour le moment principalement d’une stratégie de communication, les liens entre les deux groupes ouest-africains semblent en train de se renforcer.

La montée en puissance du JAS sur le Nord du Lac Tchad doit sans doute quelque chose au fait que la réponse militaire du Nigéria s’est concentrée ces dernières années sur le Sud du Lac, dans sa partie nigériane, là où l’EIAO a son centre de gravité. Cela aura laissé du champ au groupe de Bakura. Ce groupe a probablement aussi bénéficié de tensions persistantes au sein de l’EIAO, lesquelles ont entraîné la mort violente de plusieurs de ses hauts responsables au cours des premiers mois de 2020. Selon certaines sources, des commandants de l’EIAO auraient rallié le camp du JAS ; ils ont peut-être accompagné Bakura dans l’attaque de Bohoma. En d’autres termes, un système de vases communicants permet vraisemblablement à certains commandants de changer d’allégeance au fil des luttes internes.

L’attaque de Bohoma confirme qu’en dépit de la rivalité entre l’EIAO et le JAS, les deux groupes sont résilients, agressifs, innovants et mobiles. Les deux factions jihadistes ont subi l’expérience de la défaite, du repli ; cela les aura contraints à repenser leur stratégie et à se professionnaliser. Ils ont appris sur le terrain et tous ont bénéficié en 2015-2016 de conseils et de l’entrainement fournis par l’Etat islamique même si, depuis la scission de 2016, seul l’EIAO en bénéficie toujours. Ils sont capables de changer de zone d’opérations, à la recherche de cibles plus fragiles et semblent bien renseignés. Les hommes de Bakura savaient ainsi sans doute que la garnison de Bohoma avait été relevée peu de temps auparavant par des troupes moins expérimentées et moins nombreuses.

L’attaque de Bohoma témoigne également de la dimension proprement sous-régionale des groupes jihadistes dans le pourtour du Lac Tchad. Né au Nigéria, Boko Haram a dès le début mobilisé des combattants dans les pays avoisinants. Une zone comme le Lac Tchad, difficile d’accès et à la fois peu et mal gouvernée, couverte de végétation, riche de ressources agricoles, située au croisement des frontières de quatre pays, est un terrain fertile pour les groupes jihadistes. Le mouvement s’est procuré une bonne partie de ses premiers armements au Tchad, achetant des armes qui circulaient largement dans ce pays, théâtre de plusieurs guerres civiles depuis 1965. Certains des premiers chefs militaires de l’organisation étaient d’ailleurs d’anciens rebelles tchadiens en quête de nouveaux combats. Aujourd’hui, tout comme l’EIAO, le JAS se joue des frontières et mène des attaques sur le territoire de plusieurs Etats.


Etendue et limites de la réponse tchadienne


Dès les premiers jours qui ont suivi l’attaque, les autorités de N’Djamena ont pris plusieurs décisions fortes. Elles ont revu le dispositif militaire sur le Lac ; lancé l’opération « colère de Bohoma » ; déclaré la région du Lac Tchad « zone de guerre » ; institué l’état d’urgence dans les départements de Fouli et de Kaya ; et ordonné aux populations de quitter les îles et villages de la cuvette Nord du Lac pour s’installer sur les rives, plus loin des zones sous emprise jihadiste. En outre, le décret présidentiel signé le 26 mars détaille un canevas de mesures – classiques en période d’état d’urgence au Tchad – dont des restrictions de mouvement et de rassemblement, des mesures légales pour faciliter les perquisitions et l’interdiction d’accès à certaines zones du Lac Tchad.

« Nous partons à la guerre, il y aura des morts et des blessés. C’est à ce prix que nous pourrons nous protéger et conserver notre stabilité », a déclaré le président Idriss Déby. En se rendant au Lac au lendemain de l’attaque, le 24 mars, et en prenant lui-même le commandement de la contre-offensive, il a cherché à montrer à quel point il mesurait la gravité de l’événement. Se présentant en chef de guerre – et, par extension, en garant de la stabilité du pays, Déby, officiellement ministre de la Défense et toujours général de l’armée, reprend un costume qu’il affectionne. Se montrer sur le terrain et à la tête des opérations lui permet d’envoyer un message de soutien aux soldats dans une période compliquée au cours de laquelle une partie de l’armée est traversée par des doutes et où certains soldats sont parfois démotivés.

En réaffirmant « son engagement à vaincre le péril terroriste », Déby tente également de mobiliser la population autour de son armée. Des bancs de l’assemblée nationale aux réseaux sociaux, de nombreux Tchadiens ont en effet exigé de lui qu’il lave l’affront. Tandis que les autorités ont très peu parlé des soldats récemment tués à Miski, au Nord du pays en 2018-2019 lors d’opérations largement impopulaires menées contre des groupes d’autodéfense, la lutte contre Boko Haram fait au contraire l’objet d’un large consensus au sein de la population. Les messages de soutien à l’armée affluent sur les réseaux sociaux. Le président cherche également à s’adresser à ses partenaires internationaux dont le soutien financier est plus vital que jamais en raison de la crise économique majeure qui se dessine au vu des effets désastreux de la pandémie de Covid-19 et de la chute des cours pétroliers.

L’annonce par Déby de la riposte militaire a très vite été suivie de consultations régionales et de mouvement de troupes. Le général nigérian Ibrahim Manu Youssouf, commandant de la Force multinationale mixte (FMM) – force régionale composée des quatre pays riverains du Lac Tchad et du Bénin qui lutte contre Boko Haram – s’est rendu dès mardi 24 mars dans la ville tchadienne de Baga Sola, sur les rives du Lac, pour un long entretien avec le président tchadien. Deux jours plus tard, Mahamat Abali Salah, ministre tchadien délégué à la Défense nationale, visitait son homologue à Niamey pour coordonner la riposte avec le Niger. Dans la foulée, Déby se rendait à Nguigmi, ville du Niger également riveraine du Lac Tchad, pour superviser le déploiement de la base logistique de la nouvelle campagne militaire tchadienne intitulée « Colère de Bohoma ».

Très rapidement, les soldats tchadiens ont commencé les opérations dans la zone du Lac. Le président s’est rendu plusieurs fois à Kaiga-Kindjiria, île de la cuvette nord du Lac située non loin des positions de Bakura, pour y tenir des « réunions de guerre ». Au même moment, les premières vidéos ont circulé sur les réseaux sociaux et sur Télé Tchad, la principale chaîne de télévision du pays, pour montrer les hélicoptères tchadiens survolant cette zone du Lac, les combats et les succès enregistrés contre les jihadistes sur les îles, ainsi que des images de cadavres et de prisonniers de Bakura. Après plusieurs jours de combats, Déby a déclaré avoir chassé les éléments jihadistes en territoire tchadien, repris les postes de commandement sur le Lac aux factions de Boko Haram et déployé ses hommes en territoire nigérien et nigérian afin de pourchasser les combattants qui ont fui et « nettoyer » les zones frontalières avec ces pays. Le 3 avril, le président tchadien, annonçant que l’opération allait se poursuivre dans les pays avoisinants, a appelé ces pays à engager leurs troupes sur place afin d’éviter que les éléments jihadistes ne regagnent le terrain perdu dans les marges des territoires nigérian et nigérien. Les autorités nigérianes ont depuis annoncé participer aux efforts militaires et mener des frappes aériennes sur le camp de Tumbun Fulani non loin des rives du Lac Tchad dans le Borno.

Si le Tchad a jusqu’ici enregistré des succès militaires, les autorités de N’Djamena sont conscientes des risques importants de représailles des mouvements jihadistes sur le sol national. Par ailleurs, au-delà de l’opération en cours, se pose la question du renforcement à moyen terme du dispositif militaire sur le Lac. Jusqu’à la récente attaque de Bakura, 6 000 soldats tchadiens étaient déployés sur le Lac dont 3 000 au sein de la FMM et 3 000 au sein de l’Armée nationale tchadienne (ANT). Les autorités tchadiennes ne bénéficient que de marges de manœuvre limitées pour renforcer ces effectifs. Bien que la mobilité de l’armée tchadienne soit forte, les défis sont multiples et ses capacités non extensibles. Elle est aujourd’hui déployée massivement sur toutes les frontières du pays pour faire face à différentes menaces de déstabilisation, ainsi qu’au Sahel central pour lutter contre les mouvements jihadistes. Elle sera aussi de plus en plus mobilisée par les autorités dans le cadre de la lutte contre le Covid-19. Enfin, alors qu’une nouvelle crise économique se profile, la soutenabilité budgétaire de l’effort de guerre est de plus en plus incertaine.

Face à ces défis, N’Djamena a d’ailleurs décidé de revenir sur les engagements pris au sommet de Pau en janvier 2020 – consacré à la situation sécuritaire et à la coopération militaire au Sahel – en suspendant temporairement l’envoi de soldats tchadiens dans la zone dite « des trois frontières » située entre le Mali, le Niger et le Burkina Faso, afin d’intégrer ces soldats à la contre-attaque tchadienne sur le Lac Tchad.

Au-delà des contraintes en termes d’effectifs, le moral des troupes n’est pas au plus haut. L’armée tchadienne a récemment souffert une série de revers sur son propre territoire. En février 2019, l’incursion d’un groupe de rebelles tchadiens, l’Union des forces de la résistance (UFR), depuis la Libye, et la demande de soutien aérien à la France exposaient au grand jour les fragilités de cette armée dont une partie des officiers avaient refusé de combattre leurs « parents rebelles ». Dans les méandres du Lac, le groupe de Bakura a également multiplié les attaques en 2019, provoquant le décès de dizaines de soldats tchadiens. Dans le Nord du pays, à Miski, une localité aurifère, l’armée tchadienne a également été tenue en échec par des groupes d’autodéfense, forçant l’exécutif tchadien à ouvrir des négociations fin 2019. La récente attaque contre Bohoma est un coup supplémentaire porté à l’armée que l’on présente comme la plus solide de la région et le gendarme d’un Sahel en crise.


Les risques et priorités immédiates de l’intervention tchadienne


Alors que la violence des groupes jihadistes ne diminue pas au Nigéria, l’attaque du 23 mars souligne de façon tragique la dimension régionale de la menace. La scission de Boko Haram en plusieurs factions rivales en 2016, loin d’avoir réduit leur potentiel de nuisance global, semble avoir produit l’effet inverse et stimulé une compétition de violence entre ces groupes. Alors que l’Etat de Borno, au nord-est du Nigéria, continue d’être l’épicentre de la violence, les groupes jihadistes sont très mobiles et investissent les zones frontalières pour tromper la vigilance des Etats et étendre leur contrôle territorial. Leurs attaques menées hors du Nigéria et notamment au Tchad constituent également un message envoyé aux gouvernements de la région, les avertissant que chaque action menée contre eux fera l’objet de représailles. Shekau n’a pas tardé à répondre à la décision de Déby de contre-attaquer en ces termes : « Ne croyez pas que parce que vous avez combattu dans plusieurs guerres “séculières”, vous puissiez combattre ceux d’entre nous qui ont décidé de lutter pour l’honneur de la religion ».

Depuis 2015, l’armée tchadienne est très souvent intervenue dans les pays voisins pour lutter contre Boko Haram. Cela a été le cas récemment dans le cadre de l’opération Yancin Tafki menée par la FMM, où les soldats tchadiens sont restés presque une année entière dans l’Etat de Borno, au nord-est du Nigéria. Les problèmes de coordination avec les troupes nigérianes peu réactives et mal préparées avaient alors nui aux opérations et frustré les soldats tchadiens.

Aujourd’hui, alors que l’armée tchadienne a lancé une nouvelle offensive contre les jihadistes sur le Lac déployant ses soldats en territoire nigérien et nigérian, des incertitudes demeurent sur le rôle que vont jouer ses voisins. Même si l’opération tchadienne « Colère de Bohoma » n’a pas été organisée dans le cadre de la FMM, Déby a de nouveau rencontré le commandant de la FMM début avril pour demander que la force mixte prenne le relais et que les pays voisins engagent leurs forces dans leurs territoires actuellement contrôlés par les troupes tchadiennes. Les autorités tchadiennes n’ont d’ailleurs pas caché leurs frustrations face à la lenteur de la contribution militaire apportée par ces Etats et ont appelé à une meilleure coordination pour éviter que les éléments jihadistes ne regagnent du terrain. Au moment où les Nigérians annoncent participer aux actions militaires en cours, les soldats des pays de la région doivent à tout prix distinguer les civils des combattants dans les zones où ils opèrent sous peine de favoriser les prochaines campagnes de recrutement jihadiste et de réduire la portée des réponses civiles à venir.

La lutte entamée il y a une décennie contre les groupes jihadistes dans le bassin du Lac Tchad est loin d’être terminée. Ces groupes agiles et mobiles, dorénavant fragmentés en factions rivales, constituent une très lourde menace pour les civils et les militaires dans les quatre pays riverains du Lac Tchad. Au cours des prochaines années, la réduction de la menace passera nécessairement par une meilleure coopération entre les Etats de la région.

 

CRISIS GROUP, 31 March 2020


Alors même que le bilan humain du Covid-19 augmente, le monde devrait se préparer aux attaques de l’EI, qui pense pouvoir exploiter le chaos causé par la propagation du virus. La coopération internationale, que l’EI espère amoindrie par le virus, devra être à la hauteur d’une menace jihadiste permanente.

 

Tandis que la pandémie de Covid-19 réorganise précipitamment les priorités des décideurs politiques et des populations du monde entier, des conflits qui occupaient jusqu’à récemment le devant de la scène politique et des débats médiatiques sont relégués au second plan. La lutte contre l’Etat islamique (EI) en Iraq, en Syrie et ailleurs ne fait pas exception.

Si le secrétaire général des Nations unies, António Guterres, a affirmé que l’humanité était confrontée à un ennemi commun, le Covid-19 et lancé un appel en faveur d’un « cessez-le-feu mondial », l’EI a, en revanche, clairement déclaré que ce n’était pas sa lecture de la situation. Dans un nouvel éditorial publié dans sa lettre d’information hebdomadaire, l’EI a annoncé à ses membres que la guerre menée à travers le monde continuait, même avec la propagation du virus. Par ailleurs, il leur a expliqué que les mécanismes de sécurité nationaux et internationaux qui maintiennent un contrôle sur le groupe allaient être débordés, et qu’ils devaient tirer parti de la situation autant que possible.

Dans un récent briefing de Crisis Group traitant des répercussions potentielles du Covid-19 sur les enjeux politiques et les conflits à l’échelle mondiale, nous avions averti que cette crise sanitaire pourrait permettre aux jihadistes de s’en prendre à des pays affaiblis par la pandémie et déjà aux prises avec des insurrections, et d’exploiter le chaos à leur avantage. C’est exactement ce que l’EI vient d’encourager ses membres à faire.

Même si l’ensemble des pays se focalisent naturellement sur la lutte contre la pandémie, ils devraient néanmoins prendre des mesures pour se protéger des menaces que représente l’EI. Certains membres de la coalition internationale contre l’EI, craignant la propagation du Covid-19, ont déjà annoncé le retrait de leurs troupes en Iraq, mais la coopération internationale de lutte contre l’EI devrait, autant que possible, être maintenue, car elle a été cruciale pour ralentir les opérations du groupe. Il s’agit notamment des contributions militaires de premier plan telles que celles des Etats-Unis en Iraq et de le France en Afrique de l’Ouest, mais également la coopération horizontale entre des pays de la même région amenés à combattre le groupe, qui s’est instaurée dans des régions telles que la frontière entre le Mali et le Niger, et qui a permis de pallier au mieux l’incapacité des Etats à se coordonner efficacement.

En outre, les adversaires de l’EI devraient entendre le message du secrétaire général de l’ONU, António Guterres, et mettre de côté leurs conflits et règlements de compte dans un contexte où ils sont confrontés non seulement à un ennemi commun, la pandémie de Covid-19, mais aussi à la menace jihadiste persistante. Pour ce faire, il faudrait – même si cela peut désormais paraître utopique – désamorcer les tensions, telles que celles entre les Etats-Unis et l’Iran, qui compromettent inévitablement le combat contre l’EI.


« Le pire cauchemar des croisés »


L’EI a publié son éditorial sur le Covid-19 dans l’édition de mars d’al-Naba (la Nouvelle), la lettre numérique hebdomadaire de l’organisation. Al-Naba est un des canaux de communication réguliers du groupe, elle comprend également des vidéos et de longs discours des chefs de l’organisation. Cette lettre d’information présente un aperçu des opérations de l’organisation dans le monde entier, un éditorial, des articles mettant en avant des « provinces » modèles, des essais religieux, un résumé des actualités mondiales et des graphiques. L’importance d’al-Naba pour l’organisation n’est pas tout à fait claire, mais la lettre d’informations semble avoir pour objectif d’informer les provinces les plus reculées sur la campagne de violence mondiale du groupe et de diffuser une ligne d’action commune aux groupes affiliés qui seraient, sans cela, dispersés et isolés. L’EI a employé d’autres canaux d’information pour promouvoir la distribution d’al-Naba aux combattants locaux et les armées nationales ont retrouvé des exemplaires de la lettre d’information au cours de raids menés contre des unités de l’EI.

L’éditorial intitulé « Le pire cauchemar des croisés » rend compte avec satisfaction des effets du Covid-19 sur les nombreux ennemis que l’EI regroupe sous le terme de « polythéistes ». « La peur de la contagion les a frappés plus que la contagion elle-même », peut-on lire dans al-Naba, qui décrit comment les populations du monde entier se sont enfermées chez elles tandis que le commerce s’interrompait. Les forces de sécurité sont déployées dans les rues pour arrêter la propagation du virus et une crise économique imminente pourrait engendrer la criminalité et l’agitation sociale.

Selon cet éditorial, les effets du Covid-19 paralysent en particulier les nations des « croisés » occidentaux. Ces pays, préoccupés par les questions de santé publique et de sécurité, « ne veulent surtout pas envoyer davantage de soldats dans des régions dans lesquelles le virus est susceptible de se propager, ou devoir regrouper physiquement leurs forces de sécurité et leurs soldats alors qu’ils tentent de minimiser les rassemblements et les contacts dans tous les secteurs professionnels ». Ces pays craignent, poursuit l’éditorial, que les combattants de l’EI « consolident leurs opérations militaires contre les apostats [occidentaux] qui apportent leur aide dans les pays musulmans » et organisent de nouveaux attentats terroristes tels que ceux de Paris, Londres et Bruxelles à une période où « les systèmes de sécurité et de santé [de ces pays] ont atteint les limites de leurs capacités dans certaines régions ». Les pays occidentaux n’ont pas besoin de nouvelles difficultés à surmonter alors qu’ils peinent déjà à prendre soin de leurs populations et à atténuer les effets de la récession économique. D’après l’éditorial, les puissances des « croisés » sont incapables de se coordonner avec leurs alliés, et craignent que « d’autres ennemis » – vraisemblablement la Russie et la Chine – ne tirent parti de la situation à leurs dépens.

Néanmoins, alors que l’Occident espère que les moudjahidin lui accorderont un répit, selon l’EI, il oublie que son agression contre les musulmans n’a pas cessé. Les prisonniers musulmans languissent encore dans des prisons surpeuplées et les femmes et les enfants souffrent dans des camps de détention inhumains. L’Occident oublie de quelle façon les derniers habitants des villes sous contrôle de l’EI – Baghouz (Syrie), Mossoul (Iraq) et Syrte (Libye) – ont été affamés, sont tombés malades, pour être finalement bombardés et enterrés vivants sous les décombres. Et il oublie qu’il continue d’intervenir militairement, notamment en Afghanistan et en Afrique de l’Ouest, et de soutenir les alliés locaux qui mènent une guerre contre les insurgés.

Al-Naba en conclut que les musulmans ont le devoir de se protéger et de protéger leurs proches de la propagation du Covid-19, mais également l’obligation d’agir. L’éditorial enjoint les partisans de l’EI à libérer les prisonniers musulmans des prisons et des camps ; à ne montrer aucune pitié envers les « infidèles » et les « apostats » en cette période de crise et à saisir plutôt cette occasion de les attaquer et de les affaiblir, pour limiter leur capacité à nuire aux musulmans ; et à garder à l’esprit que la catastrophe qui touche actuellement l’Occident et ses alliés « réduira de façon significative leur capacité à combattre les moudjahidin à l’avenir ». Dans sa conclusion, l’éditorial rappelle aux lecteurs que la meilleure façon d’échapper à la punition de Dieu – et notamment au coronavirus – est de Lui obéir, et que la preuve d’obéissance la plus appréciée de Dieu est le « jihad » et la guerre menée contre Ses ennemis.

La rhétorique de l’EI au sujet du Covid-19 a évolué au fur et à mesure que son étendue géographique et son bilan humain devenaient plus clairs. En janvier, al-Naba indiquait qu’« un nouveau virus répandait la mort et la panique » dans la « Chine communiste ». Quand un nouveau foyer de la maladie s’est déclaré en Iran, la lettre d’information s’est réjouie d’une contagion qui était une punition divine exemplaire de l’« idolatrie » musulmane chiite. Le groupe a alors saisi la portée mondiale du virus, même s’il espère que la colère de Dieu s’abattra spécifiquement sur les nations « polythéistes ».

Rien de tout cela n’est surprenant. La philosophie de l’EI est, finalement, l’antithèse des valeurs qui sous-tendent l’appel du secrétaire général de l’ONU, António Guterres, à faire preuve d’humanité. La doctrine de l’EI n’étend sa solidarité qu’à une communauté musulmane fermée, définie de façon très restrictive. L’humanitarisme universel ne cadre pas avec sa vision du monde.


Etats fragilisés et coopération internationale défaillante


Derrière la rhétorique belliqueuse et l’incitation à la violence de ce dernier éditorial, se cachent néanmoins certaines vérités : il est presque certain que le Covid-19 entravera les efforts en matière de sécurité et la coopération internationale contre l’EI, ce qui permettra aux jihadistes de mieux préparer des attentats de grande ampleur et de renforcer les campagnes guerrières des insurgés sur les différents théâtres d’opérations à travers le monde.

Evidemment, ce n’est pas comme si l’EI allait dévoiler aujourd’hui des capacités cachées. Comme l’avait déclaré Thomas Hegghammer après la mort du chef de l’EI, Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi et de son porte-parole Abou Hassan al-Mouhajir, l’organisation et les groupes similaires « ont déjà clairement annoncé leurs pires intentions ». Ils n’ont pas besoin d’une motivation supplémentaire pour commettre des actes de violence ; ce qui importe plutôt, ce sont leurs capacités et l’espace dans lequel on les laisse opérer. On peut d’ores et déjà être certain que ces groupes utiliseront leurs capacités au maximum, dans l’espace dont ils disposent. C’est ce qui explique que les opérations de l’EI n’ont pas été particulièrement renforcées par la soif de représailles qui a suivi la mort de son chef et de son porte-parole, même si le groupe a tenté de prétendre que les attaques classiques menées par les insurgés à cette période s’inscrivaient dans une campagne mondiale de « vengeance ». Bien que l’organisation ait été écimée, les capacités de ses unités les plus autonomes dans le monde n’ont pas été affectées. Elles poursuivent leurs activités mortelles.

Dans ce contexte, l’incitation à la violence contenue dans al-Naba n’est pas une nouveauté ; la violence est le quotidien de l’EI. Ce qui importe, c’est plutôt de savoir de quoi le groupe est capable et dans quelle situation opérationnelle il évolue. Si le contexte devient plus permissif – comme le prévoit cet éditorial – l’EI pourra mieux organiser et exécuter des attaques complexes, qui demandent plus de ressources, et dont le bilan humain pourrait être considérable.

Le rapport Crisis Group de 2016, « Exploiter le chaos : l’Etat islamique et al-Qaïda », l’annonçait déjà : la croissance des groupes jihadistes au cours des dernières années a plus souvent été le résultat de la guerre et du chaos que sa cause principale. Si l’EI, par exemple, est devenu une menace mondiale, c’est principalement parce que l’organisation a tiré parti du conflit local et de la faillite de l’Etat en Syrie, avant ensuite de dévaster l’Iraq et de tenter d’exporter son modèle dans le reste du monde.

En revanche, les forces syriennes et iraquiennes, ainsi que leurs partenaires internationaux, sont parvenues à repousser l’EI parce qu’ils ont joint leurs efforts et qu’ils avaient un objectif commun, même si la riposte s’est avérée incomplète et temporaire. Depuis lors, la résurgence du groupe dans les deux pays n’a pu être évitée que grâce à une coopération internationale constante et aux efforts menés pour éviter un nouveau conflit dévastateur qui risquerait d’alléger la pression exercée sur les derniers insurgés de l’EI.

Prenons le cas de l’Iraq, l’épicentre de ce qui est ensuite devenu la campagne transnationale de l’EI. Là, ce sont les forces locales qui ont mené la plupart des combats et qui sont tombées sous les attaques de l’EI sur le terrain. Mais ces forces iraquiennes se sont également reposées sur la coalition internationale menée par les Etats-Unis, qui a fourni des capacités techniques essentielles telles que le transport aérien et les activités de renseignements, de surveillance et de reconnaissance (RSR), pour mener leur lutte sans répit contre les insurgés de l’EI. Plus récemment, l’engrenage funeste – échange de tirs de roquette et de frappes aériennes – entre les Etats-Unis et des factions paramilitaires soutenant l’Iran a exacerbé les tensions entre ces deux pays et menacé le soutien qu’apportait la coalition aux opérations de lutte contre l’EI en Iraq. Cette violence a donné à certains groupes politiques iraquiens de nouvelles raisons de faire pression sur le gouvernement pour repousser les Etats-Unis et les autres forces étrangères en dehors du pays.

Ajoutons à cela le Covid-19. Les membres de la coalition, y compris le Royaume-Uni, la France et l’Espagne, ont tous annoncé le retrait de leurs troupes en Iraq, évoquant les risques de contagion et la suspension de la formation des forces iraquiennes. Si le soutien de la coalition internationale, déjà mis à mal par les tensions entre les Etats-Unis et l’Iran, venait à être davantage affecté par le coronavirus et par la tendance compréhensible des pays membres de la coalition à se retrancher chez eux, l’Etat iraquien, confronté à une flambée du virus, aura certainement également des difficultés à contenir une insurrection de l’EI.

Le Covid-19 menace désormais la solidarité et la coopération internationales qui ont joué un rôle essentiel dans la lutte contre l’EI dans d’autres régions, telles que le Sahel, le bassin du Lac Tchad et l’Afghanistan où les forces locales et leurs partenaires internationaux ont tenté de juguler les « provinces » de l’EI. En Afrique de l’Ouest, les opérations extrêmement mobiles de l’EI, de part et d’autre des frontières nationales du Sahel et autour du Lac Tchad, ont obligé les Etats de la région à mener des efforts conjoints de lutte contre les insurgés, avec le soutien de la France, des Etats-Unis et d’autres pays – même si ces efforts n’ont pas toujours été le fruit d’une stratégie politique coordonnée. Cette pandémie semble susceptible de rendre plus dangereux encore des insurgés déjà agiles, dans la mesure où elle ralentit et affaiblit davantage les gouvernements locaux et les forces militaires. Si la coopération se délite entre les pays d’une même région qui luttent contre la crise sanitaire à l’échelle locale, ou si le virus pousse certains partenaires internationaux à se désengager comme cela semble le cas en Iraq, les conséquences pourraient être très coûteuses.

L’EI est conscient de cette possibilité, comme le montre cet éditorial : il s’attend à ce que le Covid-19 inquiète ses ennemis, les désunisse et les divise et que cela affaiblisse par conséquent leurs capacités à « combattre les moudjahidin », individuellement et collectivement.

Au-delà de la coordination internationale en matière de santé publique visant à répondre à la flambée de Covid-19, Crisis Group a exhorté les gouvernements à maintenir les initiatives de paix et de prévention des conflits, ainsi qu’à préserver des canaux de communication permettant de faire face au risque d’escalade des conflits dans les zones de tension. Crisis Group a affirmé que le virus pouvait offrir des occasions de « désescalade humanitaire » notamment entre les Etats-Unis et l’Iran. A l’inverse, cependant, si la pandémie devait affaiblir la coopération internationale – ou déclencher de nouveaux conflits – l’EI serait prêt à réagir.

Il est probable que cette situation soit bénéfique pour l’EI, quoi qu’il advienne, car le Covid-19 porte atteinte à ses ennemis. Même si l’attention de tous les pays est tournée, à juste titre, vers la réponse à la pandémie, nous devrions également nous préparer à une aggravation de la violence des insurgés à l’échelle locale et à une recrudescence du terrorisme international. Pour atténuer les dommages collatéraux, il faudra maintenir une coopération internationale constante dans la lutte contre l’EI et soutenir les pays en première ligne qui subissent le plus durement les actes d’un ennemi dont l’idéologie chauviniste et intolérante est à l’opposé de l’humanitarisme qu’exige cette période.

 

 

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