Is North Africa choosing competence over ideology?

The region still faces huge challenges, but these difficulties might be the catalyst for better governance

Morocco's recent election has delivered much-needed change. "You deserve better" was the campaign slogan of the victorious National Rally of Independents (RNI), led by fuel tycoon Aziz Akhannouch, the new Prime Minister. The now-ousted Justice and Development Party (PJD) had been heading a ruling coalition for 10 years, with an underwhelming record. Last year, the country's economy shrank by 7.1 per cent, while poverty rose to 11.7 per cent. Covid-19 bears some of the blame, but many issues preceded the pandemic and voters punished the PJD at the polls.

Now, the next question is how Mr Akhannouch will deliver. His policy agenda is based on implementing a "new model of development", unveiled by King Mohammed VI, which aims to reduce the country's wealth gap and double per-capita output by 2035. The agenda includes measurable targets for, among other aims, ensuring more than 90 per cent of children learn elementary skills in primary school, as well as bringing the informal unemployment rate below 20 per cent, all by 2035. The PJD, on the other hand, preferred to base its legitimacy on populism and Islamist ideology. As many voters understand, the long-term health of society demands a competence-based approach to governance.

Similar sentiments are felt in nearby Tunisia, where President Kais Saied is attempting to push for change by amending his country’s political system. Mr Saied is himself a constitutional lawyer as well as a politician, and is confident he can make overdue improvements without losing the democratic tenets of the constitution. His proposed reforms would be more just and have "more defined responsibilities", according to one of his advisers, Walid Hajjem.

One of the great virtues of Tunisia’s political culture is its pluralism, including its labour unions, some of whom view Mr Saied’s motives with suspicion. In a country suffering from a teetering economy and shaky politics, he must prove to them as quickly as possible that his path forward would boost participation in an increasingly dejected society.

Even with competent leadership, the scale of the challenges ahead is great. Protests over low Covid-19 vaccination rates in Tunisia were severe enough to oust former prime minister Hichem Mechichi in July. They were aggravated further by the country's economic crisis. Youth unemployment is dangerously high, and national debt is more than 80 per cent. It will also need to manage its relations with the US, a crucial aid donor, where some in Congress are pushing for a cut in response to Mr Saied's actions.

Similar issues are emerging in Morocco, where Covid-19 has hurt a tourism-dependent society with high poverty rates. In 2020, the country experienced its first recession since 1995. Mr Akhannouch faces another challenge: getting Moroccans engaged in politics again. The Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis reports that of the 1,400 people surveyed in an annual trust index, 70 per cent did not trust Parliament.

Both countries are capable of addressing the challenges, even if total solutions are not possible in the short-term. Morocco's problem with disenfranchised voters has now shown that it can be improved if candidates are convincing enough. This time around, voter turnout was up seven per cent, albeit still low at 50 per cent. On the issue of vaccination in Tunisia, rates are finally picking up and daily new cases have dropped significantly since July. As the world opens up after Covid-19, Morocco and Tunisia can be confident that their vital tourism sectors will experience growth.

Restrained political realism will be important for both countries in the coming months. It might be a bitter pill to swallow, but at least it is an honest one. As Morocco and Tunisia have shown, words need to be backed up by action. If both leaders bring change in a constructive manner, competence and practicality will deliver much-needed results.

Published: September 15th 2021, 3:00 AM