Please Reopen North Africa’s Borders

Predating the Arab Spring, North Africa has been embodied in border disputes that continue until this day. In this article, Osama Filali Naji argues that North African nations should reopen their borders.

Current Border Closures

Case Study I: Morocco and Algeria

The Moroccan and Algerian border closure is essentially a response to a long history of conflict over the political status of the Western Sahara. Morocco and Algeria nonetheless claim to be closing their borders due to terror-related security concerns. During the late 19th century, European colonial powers divided a resource-rich Africa between themselves in near disregard of local culture, politics and heritage. Whilst Morocco and Algeria did not gain independence as postcolonial nations from France until 1956 and 1962, respectively, Spanish forces did not leave the Western Sahara until 1975. Morocco has now assumed sovereignty over the phosphate-rich region, pointing to the 17th century Saadian Dynasty. This nation from which the modern Moroccan state has evolved expanded across parts of modern-day Algeria, Mauritania and Western Sahara.

Case Study II: Tunisia and Libya

Unlike the Moroccan and Algerian case, Libya and Tunisia had thriving trade relations before the Arab Spring, particularly during Ben Ali’s reign in Tunisia. Most notably, the Tunisian government traded with Libya during extensive UN sanctions imposed on Libya in response to the Lockerbie Bombings. Like Morocco and Algeria, the two countries have a largely shared history, language and culture that date back to centuries. Sadly, following the Arab Spring and the regional rise of Daesh, a growing sense of hostility has emerged between the new Tunisian and Libyan governments as each nation accuses the other of exporting terrorism across the shared border. Borders between the two nations are now closed.

Axel Drainville / Creative Commons License

Axel Drainville / Creative Commons License

Effects of Open Borders

Business Development

To begin my recommendation to reopen borders, I want to stress that North African countries are already trading with European and Chinese partners, so reopening borders wouldn’t hold a huge impact on domestic businesses that are already competing with foreign firms. Whats more, North African countries have comparative advantages in natural resources determined by nothing more than geography. For Morocco and Tunisia, their main natural resources are iron ore and phosphate; for Algeria and Libya, their main natural resource is crude oil. These countries should not therefore feel threatened by foreign competition. The fall of the Berlin Wall was not problem-free, but came with high rates of trade and increases in aggregate demand that continue to exceed the overall rate of subsequent inflation. Border liberalisation in North Africa would be even less dramatic and risky.

Tourism & Migration

Another primary source of income for Morocco is tourism, and opening borders with Algeria would likely enhance the tourism economy in Morocco as many Algerians seek to visit the country. Open borders may also present themselves as porous ‘targets’ for refugees and migrants seeking to leave the crisis in Libya. This would ease the refugee ‘burden’ (for want of a better expression) off Europe, Jordan and Lebanon. We cannot expect North African nations to open borders to ease this burden off Europe, but we can expect them to do so in order to develop a sense of regional unity during very turbulent times.


There is the other particular concern of terror movement, especially in the case of extremists moving from Tunisia to Libya to join Daesh. Libyan and Tunisian officials claim that they have to keep their borders closed in order to minimise such movement. However, it may be worth re-establishing legal, open migration between the countries in order to reduce demand for black-market smugglers and to allow officials to obtain identification for a greater number of individuals now using lower cost, legitimate migration routes. Under this regional approach, some citizens may feel that Big Brother is watching them, but it is already the case in their home countries that secret services closely monitor their behaviour. That said, a regional solution to counterterrorism may end up allowing weapons to move more freely across borders.

Regime Change

Some argue that North African regimes using an open border policy would also end up integrating their militaries – as in the case of the GCC – thereby producing an undesirable environment for its subjects. It is in this respect that a regional approach could prove problematic. Whilst some North African citizens express approval with their current regimes as they seek to avoid civil war, opening borders, it is argued, may undermine even healthy and gradual democratic transition as regimes share military resources in a way that ‘ensures public order’. Despite this, it is also possible that reopening borders could promote regionalism at the expense of nationalism. Nationalists tend to believe that their nations are different from others, and tend not to want their respective countries to change their regimes as this comes at the risk of civil war. Therefore, it is equally possible that reopening borders could undermine nationalism and actually allow more natural transitions towards democracy to occur.

Henrik Berger Jørgensen / Creative Commons License

Henrik Berger Jørgensen / Creative Commons License

Way Ahead

It is clear that North African border closures have not yet provided the diplomatic pressure required to mobilise Morocco or Algeria into resolving the Western Sahara dispute. Furthermore, if governments truly want to crack-down on movement of extreme individuals, as in Tunisia and Libya’s case, they would reopen their borders to allow governments to pool resources and acquire more identification documents to intercept ‘problematic migrants’. Though, this does not yet answer the question of arms trade in an open border region. It is also not clear what border liberalisation would mean for healthy regime change, although I do understand that Tunisia is in a reasonably healthy position and that the King of Morocco is already invoking gradual constitutional reforms. What is clear is that border liberalisation would boost Morocco’s tourist industry and would stimulate trade in a region already motivated by foreign competition. The question however remains: can we prevent border liberalisation from resulting in renewed conflict among North African nations seeking regional leadership?

With thanks to Asma Shebani, Adam Gamaz and Yomn Al-Kaisi for their input and guidance.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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