State Failure in North Africa

EILAT, Israel—Just after midnight last Thursday, a rocket fired from the Sinai Peninsula landed in a building site above the hotel where I was staying in this southern Israeli port and resort on the Red Sea. Eight hundred people anxiously called the emergency services but none were injured. This was not the first time Eilat has been hit by unguided Grad-type Katyusha rockets. In the past, Israel could count on Egyptian intelligence for preventive action or advance warning, but today Sinai is largely beyond the control of Egyptian state authorities. Thursday’s missile attack was probably the work of a local militant group in the pay of a radical Islamist faction.

Since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in February last year, the Sinai Peninsula has become a no-man’s-land, prey to arms and drug trafficking. The country’s military and intelligence services seem at best indifferent and at worst complicit in smuggling and terrorist activities there. After last week’s attack on Eilat, the Egyptian army made a show of cracking down on militants in northern Sinai on Saturday. But the next day a militant group blew up a gas pipeline. The Israeli government may be tempted to intervene but is wary of giving pretexts to those in Egypt wishing to renounce the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The abortive attack on Eilat is a reminder that the rule of law is far from assured in North Africa and the Middle East following the Arab Spring. In Libya, clan rivalry and the presence of militant groups is an obstacle to the emergence of a national government with effective control of the territory. Countries in the region today range along a continuum from proto-democracies with an Islamist tinge to failed states and repressive dictatorships.

Washington and Brussels seem at a loss as to how to craft an appropriate response and have instinctively fallen back on the policies and vocabulary used after the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. The countries of North Africa are said to be in “transition.” But a transition to what? There is nothing inevitable about a transition to regimes based on values prevalent in Europe or the United States. The experiences of East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall or Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution provide little guidance.

To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the governing Ennahda party in Tunisia include canny political actors who are pragmatic and will bend to the interests of their middle-class voters. But the Brotherhood has organic links to Hamas, which is on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations. Its main candidate for president of Egypt, Khairat Al-Shater, who has yet to make much impact on the electorate, has said that “every aspect of life is to be Islamicized.”

Some suggest that the Islamists will soon be replaced by secular and Western-oriented parties because of their economic failures. This is far from certain, however, and economic failure could mean a tilt to the Salafists who garnered more than a quarter of the vote in Egypt’s recent parliamentary election and are especially popular in Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood and Ennhada should be put to the test. If in practice they clamp down on terrorism, corruption, and organized crime, strengthen the rule of law, eschew clan warfare, permit freedom of expression, support women’s rights, and allow non-governmental organizations to function freely, they deserve European and U.S. support.

Western policies should be designed to nudge them in this direction. The EU in particular aims to provide incentives for concrete steps to strengthen civil society and democracy. But the most convincing incentives, such as easier travel rules for students and better conditions for farm exports, have run into resistance in the midst of Europe’s economic crisis.

Support for political reform in North Africa is necessary but not sufficient. European and U.S. leaders should also focus on the security implications of state failure in Libya, the Sinai, and elsewhere in the region. Without effective law enforcement, these areas are becoming a playground for organized crime and terrorist groups. This creates security risks for neighboring states and can destroy the business climate, bringing losses for Western companies. While the United States has leverage with Egypt’s military, given its $1.3 billion per year in military assistance, the EU’s current security strategy is almost a decade old and urgently needs revision. The risks in North Africa stemming from state failure should, in short, be given higher priority in Europe’s security strategy and in the transatlantic policy dialogue.

Sir Michael Leigh is a senior adviser to the German Marshall Fund of the United States.