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Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have had very different political trajectories since the Arab uprisings in 2011. Morocco and Algeria have seen relative stability. Tunisia’s former regime was overthrown, and it is still considered the only country that installed genuine democracy after 2011. Now it may now be drifting back towards authoritarianism and the personalisation of politics.

The Libyan and Egyptian regimes fell but this has not resulted in real democracy. Egypt’s government is running a repressive policy, particularly against the Muslim Brotherhood, severely violating human rights, according to rights groups. But while Egypt has very serious terrorism problems to deal with, it does seem to be bringing some order to the economy. Libya has become a failed state and there is no end in sight to the chaos, despite various initiatives sponsored by the international community.


Parts of North Africa have long been troubled by insecurity and unrest; those problems have become far worse in Libya and Egypt, according to one widely-used source. There are many terrorist cells in the region, some local and some linked to external groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has strong links through the Sahel on the southern edge of the Sahara, and ISIS/Daesh, with its connections in the Levant.

Lack of cooperation

North African neighbours share many bonds of culture and history, but their political relations with each other are marked by distrust. The Western Sahara dispute, where Algeria supports the Polisario liberation front and Morocco claims the territory as its own, is the most obvious point of contention. But other factors, including the lack of any central authority in Libya, exacerbate the weakness of regional collaboration, leaving both intra-regional trade and cooperation on security very limited.

Most North African countries have porous southern borders and a deep tradition of land-based trade routes; smuggling, including of small arms, is endemic and essential to the livelihoods of the small populations who live in border areas in the Sahara. This environment is fertile territory for radical groups to spread their ideologies and to make money, as commentators such as Jacques Rousselier have pointed out:

  1. The patchy and under-resourced nature of the Maghreb states’ security cooperation, marred by the Morocco–Algeria political rivalry and failed or weak governments in Libya and Tunisia, is particularly evident in the border regions’ glaring vulnerabilities to transnational crime, terrorist networks, and illegal migration.

Economic growth

The region has achieved strong growth in the last few years, although a lot of this growth was the result of a recovery in Libyan oil production; much of the region remains dependent on hydrocarbon revenues. Economic reform programmes have been welcomed; the African Development Bank predicts that the region’s economy will grow by 5% in 2018 and 4.6% in 2019, The region has also made strong progress reducing both poverty and inequality.

Nevertheless, unemployment remains high, particularly for young people, graduates and women, and there are many isolated rural areas that do not benefit much from economic growth.


North Africa is a source of migrants to Europe and several countries have sizeable North African diasporas. The region, particularly Libya, is also a transit route for migrants from Africa south of the Sahara, and there has been a lot of controversy about EU efforts to handle this, such as EU Navfor Med Operation Sophia.

UK action

The UK Department for International Development and Foreign and Commonwealth Office run the North Africa Regional Cooperation Fund and the North Africa Technical Assistance Facility. Together these funds aim to bolster stability:

  1. …designed to support the delivery of the North Africa [National Security Council] strategy, the objective of which is to achieve sustainable stability, security and prosperity in North Africa, including by tackling long-term structural issues.

The programmes receive Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) money from the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, overseen by the National Security Council. The North Africa Regional Cooperation Fund’s budget allocation for 2018/9 is £3 million, while the Technical Assistance Facility is spending £5 million.


UK policy towards the region has been shaped by EU initiatives for the region, such as the European Neighbourhood Policy. The outline of the political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK, published in November 2018, suggested that the EU and the UK would coordinate policy where possible. The document calls for: “Close, flexible and scalable cooperation on external action at the bilateral and international level, ensuring that the UK can combine efforts with the Union to the greatest effect…” That suggests that the UK’s approach to North Africa may not diverge too much from that of the EU after a withdrawal from the EU.

The UK Government wants to replicate the EU-negotiated free trade agreements with the North African countries. Asked how much progress there had been in replacing the existing trade agreement with Tunisia, for example, the Government’s answer was not time-specific:

  1. We have been in constant dialogue with all our trading partners to achieve continuity by replicating the effects of our existing EU trade agreements. They understand this must be primary objective, and securing continuity will be a strong foundation to build on our already successful trading relationship.

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