As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the Maghreb, the measures taken by governments will have far-reaching consequences on their already struggling economies and volatile political dynamics.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the Maghreb in March 2020, governments in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia sought to slow its progression though drastic steps, including suspending all travel, partially demobilizing the workforce, closing mosques, using military and police forces to impose mandatory confinement, shutting down schools and businesses, and banning public gatherings. These measures will have far-reaching consequences on their already struggling economies and volatile political dynamics. In the medium term, Maghreb economies will contract as the outbreak and associated restrictions negatively impact key sectors and lead governments to increase public spending to protect citizens. The region’s political landscape will also shift as social movements re-direct their focus toward outbreak-related problems (such as weak welfare provision, social inequality, and/or poor healthcare), and as regimes increase their use of repression – either to enforce confinement (as is happening across the region) or to contain opposition actors (as has been happening this past year in Algeria and Morocco).
Interestingly, the pandemic has brought to light important revelations about state capacity across the Maghreb. While all three regimes have successfully used their coercive apparatus to impose lockdowns, Morocco has emerged as a stronger state than might have been expected. The kingdom successfully acquired and produced medical supplies (including protective masks and ventilators), while elites rallied behind the regime by donating over three billion dollars to an emergency fund to fight the outbreak. On the other hand, the military regime in Algeria, which ten years ago was able to survive and surpass Arab Spring-related shocks, is currently facing a crisis of legitimacy, and the military-imposed president struggles to deal with the crisis as oil prices continue to dip. In Tunisia, where parliament granted the government special powers for up to two months to deal with the outbreak, the government is unlikely to abuse these powers or resort to excessive force. Rather, what may threaten or strengthen the fledgling democracy is how the state deals with the economic fallout from the outbreak.
Tough economic conditions
The pandemic will negatively impact the Maghreb’s economic performance by disrupting trade flows, reducing tourism, and leading to increased public spending. These are significant consequences for a region that, despite some positive macroeconomic indicators, already faces deeply-rooted structural economic issues (ranging from overdependence on a low-performing agricultural sector in Morocco, unsustainable levels of public spending in Tunisia, and reliance on hydrocarbon exports in Algeria).
Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—which have medium-to-low GDPs—all struggle with high inequality (the inequality index score was 40.9 in Morocco, 40 in Tunisia, and 35.3 in Algeria in 2019), high unemployment rates, especially among young people (30.8% of the labor force in Algeria, 21.9% in Morocco, and 34.8% in Tunisia), and high public spending (around 38% of GDP in Algeria, 30% in Morocco, and 30% in Tunisia).
Hydrocarbon-importing Morocco and Tunisia have towering public debts (65.2% of GDP for Morocco in 2018, and71.4% in Tunisia), while Algeria’s economy is highly dependent on hydrocarbon exports and is currently suffering from the recent drop in oil prices which are unlikely to recover soon (in fact, the situation is made worse as oil companies consider the possibility of oil prices falling to 10 dollars per barrel). Furthermore, the ongoing political instability triggered by anti-regime Hirak protests (which will restart as soon as the outbreak is under control) will impact the country’s economy due to investment uncertainty, an adverse business environment, and the re-distribution of revenues from public spending toward social measures.
Disruptions to trade with China as a result of the outbreak will negatively impact Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. In 2017, 2.5 % of Moroccan exports went to China, compared to 1.1% from Tunisia, and 1.8% in Algeria. That same year, Moroccan imports from China reached 3.14 billion dollars, compared to 1.85 billion in Tunisia, and a record 7.8 billion in Algeria.
As Europe heads towards a recession (which the EU commission expects will be deeper than the 2008 crisis), key economic partners in the Maghreb will suffer. European markets will likely fall as concerns over the rising numbers of confirmed cases persist. The EU estimates that one million citizens in EU states have already lost their jobs in recent weeks. A prolonged European crisis will be particularly difficult for Morocco, which is Europe’s largest trade partner in the Mediterranean.
Travel restrictions imposed by Maghreb governments to slow the pandemic’s spread will harm key sectors for Morocco and Tunisia’s GDP growth, namely tourism, air and sea transport, agricultural exports, and— in Morocco’s case—phosphate exports.
Finally, the informal sector in all three countries will take a hit during the mandatory confinement period, especially given the partial demobilization of the workforce. All three governments have addressed the ensuing loss of income of informal workers by pledging emergency stipends over the coming months. However, workers who have already lost their jobs are struggling as the stipends (some of which are yet to be released) only partially cover their basic expenses.
On the political front, the outbreak comes at a challenging time for the Maghreb countries, and it will likely lead to new developments in terms of popular contestation and the use of repression by regimes. Indeed, protest movements will recur across the Maghreb once the pandemic has ended, and, in the medium term, citizens and opposition actors will re-focus on healthcare needs, social inequality, and welfare benefits. Furthermore, the freedom which Maghreb regimes currently enjoy in terms of pandemic response may lead to increased repression in the long-term, especially in Morocco and Algeria where authorities show a recent pattern of imprisoning critics and activists.
In Algeria, anti-regime protests had been taking place for over a year and persisted despite unseating former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had ruled the country for twenty years. In Morocco, which over the last year has seen smaller-scale protests over socioeconomic conditions, heightened regime repression against critics and activists has led to significant criticism by domestic and foreign sources. Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, who was elected in the end of 2019, only named a cabinet in February 2020.
In the short-term, the Algerian regime will benefit from the Hirak movement’s decision to delay protests (for the first time since February 2019) to avoid exacerbating the number of infected cases. However, this delay will mark only a brief respite for the regime, as regular protests will almost certainly continue once the outbreak is controlled. In the meantime, the population will closely watch the recently and controversially elected President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, whose socioeconomic and security policies during the crisis will be scrutinized. His lofty promise to not cut wages or the education and health sectors will be undermined by the announced plans to drastically reduce spending (i.e., cutting the country’s energy import bill by 10 billion dollars, halving Sonatrach’s budget, freezing state-funded projects, and reducing the state’s operating budget by 30 percent). Politically, whatever Tebboune’s actions during the pandemic, the opaque military leadership will remain in power, most likely triggering further protests in the future. For now, the Hirakmovement will likely seek to organize on new platforms; hence, online activism will increase. The movement will have ample opportunity to re-direct its criticism during confinement toward the country’s poor healthcare system, regional inequality, and social benefits.
The Moroccan regime’s swift and firm reaction to the pandemic will likely increase the legitimacy of key actors in the eyes of the population, which has been mostly supportive of the government’s decisions. King Mohammed VI’s contribution to Morocco’s COVID-19 fund will pay off in terms of approval ratings, despite the lack of a royal speech to address the situation. However, the wide gap between the wealthy and poor will continue to be a source of popular discontent. Indeed, in the kingdom, which ranks lower than its neighbors in terms of healthcare, people are forced to pay high prices in private clinics. Furthermore, inequality is especially prevalent in rural areas; indeed, poverty rates amongst the rural population are twice as high as at the national level and the rural population accounts for 79.4% of the poor. Although the regime currently enjoys popular support, once the outbreak is controlled, small protests targeting inequality will likely take place. If different factions of the opposition come together, these fragmented protests may boil over to a full-blown movement demanding concrete and effective socioeconomic reforms.
The government of Tunisia, which has a better healthcare system than Morocco and Algeria, will face contestation triggered by economic hardship. Although the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave Tunisia $400 million to alleviate the outbreak’s impact on the population, and the government pledged an additional $850 million for the same cause, the economy is bound to suffer. First, the confinement will negatively impact the informal sector, which accounts for around 40% of the economy, and will leave some members of this workforce without wages and force others to choose between earning a living and staying at home. The current situation will therefore highlight informal workers’ lack of social security benefits, which may fuel further small-scale protests to those that took place on March 30, 2020.Although the government announced an aid plan to help close to 285,000 low-income, unemployed, or poor families,it is unclear whether this aid will be directed towards workers in the informal sector. These workers’ inherent vulnerability may discourage people from seeking employment in this sector in the future and may strengthen Tunisians’ preference for public sector jobs. This may lead to a higher demand for public sector jobs to fight unemployment, which would require more public spending. The latter—which Tunisia’s international lenders (such as the IMF) have repeatedly discouraged— is bound to increase due to the government’s aforementioned pledge. These factors will exacerbate Tunisia’s economic outlook and may lead the government to impose austerity measures once the outbreak is under control. This would result in further protests.
In the immediate future, the COID-19 pandemic will cause significant loss of human life across the Maghreb. In fact, as of April 13, 2020, the number of confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 has increased by a factor of 2.3 over the last eight days in Algeria, by a factor of 2 over the last eight days in Morocco, and by a factor of 2.4 over the last nine days in Tunisia. While the outbreak-triggered crisis will likely end in the medium term, it will leave Maghreb governments to deal with far-reaching economic and political impacts. Indeed, Maghreb economies are bound to contract as key sectors and trade flows are being disrupted while governments increase public spending. Furthermore, state repression may increase in Morocco and Algeria as regimes are granted even greater powers to control the pandemic. Increased repression in Morocco and Algeria, along with an outbreak-inspired focus on social inequality and poor welfare provision across the Maghreb will lead to protests seeking socioeconomic and political reform. These protests may be delayed in Morocco, whose strong state response to the pandemic will improve the regime’s approval ratings, but not in Algeria (whose military-controlled leadership will be weakened by the ongoing situation) nor in Tunisia (whose fledgling democracy may be threatened by the economic fallout from the outbreak).
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A visiting fellow at Brookings, Abouzzohour holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Oxford where she taught comparative politics, international relations, and economic governance. Her research focuses on authoritarian persistence and transition, strategic regime behavior and interactions with opposition movements, and mixed methods research. She is currently writing a book on regime survival in MENA monarchies and completing several projects on the politics and economy of North African states. Abouzzohour previously worked as a Political Risk Analyst at Oxford Analytica and holds a B.A. (Hons) in Political Science from Columbia University.