Disasters in Morocco and Libya highlight their complex domestic and foreign politics

19 SEPTEMBER 2023

Disasters in Morocco and Libya highlight their complex domestic and foreign politics

Following the unprecedented recent natural disasters in the North African nations of Morocco and Libya the tragedy is compounded for their citizens by the complex domestic and foreign politics of these two countries.

By Professor Sally Totman (pictured, inset) a political scientist with expertise in North Africa and the Middle East and Head of the Charles Sturt School of Social Work and Arts.

In the space of a week, two North African countries, Morocco and Libya, have experienced unprecedented natural disasters that have left more than 14,000 dead (at time of publication) and thousands of people homeless and displaced.

The tragedy of both these situations is that the complex domestic and foreign politics of these countries means that the rescue and re-building efforts will be difficult, causing more human suffering in the coming months.

The 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Morocco on Friday 8 September has left at least 2,900 people dead (at time of publication) and thousands more homeless.

As the likelihood of finding survivors diminishes, the humanitarian aid effort turns towards the immense clean-up and the task of providing clean water, food, sanitation, and shelter for the survivors.

The complex foreign relations of Morocco

There has been much criticism of the Moroccan government’s decision to be selective in the offers of international assistance it has accepted. This choosiness in a time of great need offers a glimpse into the complex foreign relations of Morocco.

Morocco’s decision to not accept France’s offer of assistance has been attributed to France’s closeness to Morocco’s neighbour, Algeria, which severed diplomatic relations with Morocco in August 2021.

The rivalry between the two countries goes back decades, but the relationship had rapidly started to deteriorate again following US President Donald Trump’s decision in December 2020 to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, in exchange for Morocco normalising relations with Israel.

Algeria had been an ardent supporter of the Polisario, the nationalist liberation movement in Western Sahara fighting the Moroccan occupation and actively against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

Subsequently there were attacks in Algeria. The Algerian government laid the blame on their neighbour accusing Morocco of supporting a separatist group and carrying out hostile actions in Algeria.

Around the same time, in 2021, Morocco’s relations with France started to deteriorate when France cut the number of visas available to Moroccan citizens on the back of accusations by France that Morocco (and Algeria and Tunisia) were not doing enough to tackle illegal immigration.

Add into the mix that French President Emmanuel Macron has made two diplomatic visits to Algeria but has repeatedly postponed his planned visit to Morocco and declined to recognise Western Sahara as Moroccan territory in line with Algeria’s position on the issue.

The rumour of the close relations between France and Algeria being a factor in Morocco’s decision not to accept French assistance is clearly a political posture.

Things are no less politically complex in Libya

Two days after the earthquake in Morocco, Libya experienced unprecedented flooding that has left at least 11,300 people dead (at time of publication).

The 12 years of political turmoil in Libya following the overthrow of its dictatorial leader Colonel Qaddafi in October 2011 was a contributing factor in making the floods more deadly and the clean-up process chaotic.

With the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi as part of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, Libya descended into a violent civil war for nine years which saw more than 15,000 people killed and thousands more injured, displaced, and made homeless.

It ruined the economy and devastated the infrastructure and while the civil war wound down in 2020 the country ended up with two rival governments and ongoing violence and attacks from militias.

While the rival governments made for ineffective governance of the country, the crippling of the oil industry meant a lack of government revenue with which to rebuild, or even maintain, the functioning of the country.

The ramifications of this neglect became painfully clear during the recent storms when not just one but two dams upstream of the coastal city of Derna burst, sweeping away thousands of people and homes.

While this shocked that nation and the world, it is not surprising as a report on the dams in 2022 recommended that ‘ … immediate measures be taken ‘ … because in the event of a huge flood, the result will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city’.

Compounding this devastation, due to the neglect of the past decade there was not a single functioning hospital in the town.

What is more alarming is that this catastrophe is unlikely to see the coming together of Libya’s political players to focus on the needs of their people in their time of greatest need.


Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Professor Sally Totman, contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or news@csu.edu.au

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