The politics of catastrophe: Morocco, Libya, and how Europeans should respond

Different disasters, converging challenges

On 8 September, Morocco saw its deadliest earthquake since 1960 hit the Atlas mountains and Marrakesh, with the death toll rising to more than 2,800. On 11 September, Storm Daniel tore through eastern Libya, flooding the regional capital Benghazi and the surrounding mountains, before breaching two dams to create a deluge that swept entire blocks of the city of Derna into the sea. The Red Cross estimates that up to 10,000 people are missing and predicts a death toll into the thousands.

In both cases, damaged mountain roads have hampered rescue efforts. Moreover, poor and militarised governance systems leave potential international aid untapped. These systems cannot absorb assistance and authorities are wary of allowing foreigners unfettered access. The situation in both countries could continue to deteriorate, and a failure to manage the significant casualties and offer clean, secure accommodation to those displaced could trigger the spread of infectious diseases.

A savvy yet urgent response

European expertise could prove vital in the immediate aftermath of these disasters, as well as helping secure survivors’ medium-term needs. The scale of the devastation demands a quick response, but political obstacles mean aid providers will need to be savvy until they have established working relationships with the relevant authorities. They should start with the following actions:

  • Morocco and Libya need specialised vehicles to access affected areas, as well as expertise to construct field hospitals and temporary survivors’ camps. Europeans can best accelerate the provision of these by bolstering the efforts of those already on the ground: Morocco has granted access only to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, and the United Kingdom; in Libya, the first responders were Turkey and Egypt.
  • The EU member states with closest ties to Rabat (such as Spain) or Benghazi (such as France) should initiate outreach to the relevant ministries and municipalities to explore how to improve absorption capacity. They should simultaneously conduct high-level outreach to assuage concerns over politicising support and ensure the swift establishment of coordination mechanisms.
  • Similarly, Europeans will have to work under the oversight of eastern Libya’s military dictator, Khalifa Haftar, to access the affected areas. Haftar will milk this for political gains, but it is the only way to prevent a larger disaster occurring, and create an opening to develop relationships with and pivot to civilian administrative networks over the medium-term.

A moral and strategic imperative

The populations of Morocco and Libya are suffering historic disasters. Despite this, Morocco’s king did not appear until Tuesday. Rabat’s subsequent refusal of aid offers from countries such as France and Algeria seemed political, which stoked sentiments of abandonment and neglect in Morocco’s worst hit regions. Authorities have since claimed the denials were due to difficulties coordinating a huge international response. Libyans are in shock and blame corrupt administrations who squabble over power instead of governing, as well as embezzling funds earmarked to rebuild Derna after the 2018 war, ignoring warnings over the dams, and putting citizens under curfew instead of evacuating them.

The mismanagement of the disasters is fuelling resentment against local authorities, which may generate instability. This could result in reputational costs for international actors that would harm Europeans’ strategic interests. Libyan social media, for example, is already rife with criticism of European governments. The narrative is that Europeans’ active interventions in Libyan politics helped create the corrupt Libyan politicians being blamed for the disaster, but those same Europeans vanish when they could really help.

Given the EU’s and member states’ tumultuous relationships with both Libya and Morocco over recent years, decisive support today can provide the aid so desperately needed and be the catalyst to more fruitful relations in the future.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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