The French intervention in Mali and the subsequent hostage crisis in Algeria are brutal reminders that Northern Africa as a whole has become more fragile since the Arab Spring of 2011. This unpleasant reality may surprise anyone who chose to ignore politics and history. But investor panic tomorrow would be as foolish as insouciance was yesterday.
Ever since the brutal Algerian civil war, which pitted the military against Islamist movements two decades ago, the country’s government has clamped down hard on the most radical Islamist formations. It has also been especially careful to ensure the safety of its oil and gas infrastructure.
The army’s attack on radical hostage-takers in the sands of In Amenas isn’t, from the Algerian perspective, a blunder. The toughness is meant as an example. But this crisis also shows the country cannot ignore the challenges at its borders. It will now become clear to all that “contagion” is a living reality. The three Islamist-inspired movements that France is fighting in Northern Mali are heavily armed, thanks to the rich arsenals Muammar Gaddafi had built in Libya, emptied after his fall. The fighters can clearly move without trouble around the Sahara desert, including southern Algeria.
François Hollande, the reluctant warrior, might feel lonely in Mali and wish for European support. But the French president and any allies should learn from the last Western military intervention in the region — precisely in Libya — that it’s not enough to beat the bad guys. Serious political work is needed to ensure the failed regimes are not succeeded by weak states.
In North Africa, Libya is split along regional and tribal lines, Tunisia’s government is under pressure from radical Salafi movements, Algeria is fragile and cannot forever spend its oil money on avoiding food riots. The Moroccan monarchy is the only North African country that can still be deemed business-friendly, although the pace of reforms there is slow. But nothing has changed with the hostage crisis. Investors who choose to leave now should never have been there in the first place.