North Africa 2023

12 May 2023

This week, we’re on vacation celebrating college graduations. I pulled this North Africa article from January for its 6 month refresh, briefly updated for the Sudan war. Feel free to share this with others (we hope you’ll mention the Premium Roundup!).

The UN’s convention defines Northern Africa to include all of the countries along the northern coast of the African continent: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan (but not South Sudan).

Most of the people living in this region live near coasts or alongside the Nile. The land is generally a vast desert, with a few mountains scattered throughout. The Sahara Desert covers one fourth of Africa and the Sahel, stretching from west to east, serves as both its southern boundary and a political marker. In terms of population, however, the northern edge of the Sahara provides the functional boundary.

To successfully live in the region, people must solve the issues of water availability and farmable land. For example, in Egypt, the majority of people live on just 3% of the country’s land, around the Nile River. This problem is becoming ever more challenging, as even this small amount of usable area is being worn away by rising waters, seawater seeping into water sources as fresh water is removed, and deserts creeping in from the south.

Over 270 million people live in the region, struggling against these challenges. Over half live in Egypt, with another 40 to 50 million in each of Algeria, Sudan, and Morocco. Libya and Tunisia, despite many bad headlines, have much smaller populations. Only Egypt and Sudan’s populations are growing markedly. The UN’s population projections suggest by 2100, Sudan will almost triple from 49 million to 141 million, and Egypt will almost double from 115 million to 205 million. Altogether, the region will likely increase to over 480 million people by 2100—a large number, but fourth behind East Africa (1.5 billion), West Africa, and Middle Africa at that point.

This population is more young than old and more male than female, though this is changing. For the moment, there are 2 million more males than females, but by a combination of forces are raising the relative age of the population and by 2100 females are likely to outnumber males. Women are marrying later and families are having fewer children, but fewer are dying each year as health improves and life expectancies lengthen. As a result, the relatively young population is aging as population growth slows. The median age of 18 in 1950 has risen to 30 today; the median in Europe and Northern America is 40.

Across the region, there has been a strong move into the cities, most of which are on the northern coastline. Cities are concentrations of work and economic opportunity, but with so many arriving unemployment and economic frustration are significant and ongoing challenges. This, plus the desire to have more freedom, is in turn is driving a large number of North Africans to head to Europe to seek work. This diaspora maintains ties with family back home, and European cultural values are slowly flowing over these ties. Further, it has made North Africa a transit zone: people from other parts of Africa come here in hopes of flowing on to Europe or the Gulf. Emigration routes are mainly through Tunisia and Libya. Governments in the region have struggled to address the challenges posed by these migratory flows, and many have implemented stricter immigration policies and measures to manage the influx of migrants.

The economies of the North African countries themselves suffer from insecurity and instability (worsened by the Arab Spring), loss of livelihood and widespread poverty, and widespread displacement. Although there are many developed industries in the region, much of the wealth in the area comes from oil and gas reserves, with tourism serving as an additional force in some areas. Petroleum resources are controlled by the governments, and rarely does this wealth ‘trickle down’ to the people. While absolute poverty has been greatly reduced, few are wealthy. An informal economy and corruption are widespread throughout the region. Unemployment challenges stability everywhere. It is increasingly hard to feed, shelter, educate, employ, and provide health care for these populations. Significant levels of despair and frustration result.

Of all regions, North Africa was most dramatically affected by the Arab Spring. Driven in part by these frustrations, the movement began in the Maghreb, toppling the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Sudan and sparking thin changes in Algeria and Morocco. Ironically, the widely lauded reform efforts caused little improvement. Instead, the Spring resulted in instability, conflict, violence, deteriorating freedoms, and increasingly authoritarian government systems—and of course the civil war in Libya, resulting in significant loss of life, damage to infrastructure, and a humanitarian crisis.

The current Sudanese conflict of the April and May 2023–can it already be called a civil war?–has its roots in the Spring, and this latest iteration has had dramatic ripples. Over 700,000 Sudanese are internally displaced and many think over a million may become refugees in neighboring countries, including Egypt of North Africa as well as Chad, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Egypt and Libya both have some involvement in the war, the two backing opposite sides. The war seems unlikely to end in the short-term future; I think it more likely to grind on throughout the year than to end soon.

Women have had a greater degree of freedom and equality with men in the Maghreb states than anywhere else in the Arab world. They are better educated, better represented in the government, and have a greater participation in the work force. Yet women are watching the political changes with some fear and trepidation, uncertain about what it means for their future.

Mass communications (particularly satellite television and mobile phones, but also broadband access to the Internet) are generally widely available across the region. Libya and the rural regions of Algeria and Sudan have far less connectivity. This infrastructure enables interpersonal communication, but also brings new ideas and information from the outside world to the area. This has been a very influential way for the Gospel to be shared.

Islam is obviously the dominant religion in the area, and as with most regions the people have varying degrees of spiritual hunger and passion. Egypt is a center for Islamic theological thought and the birthplace of most major Islamist movements, while the Maghreb is a known source of Islamic fundamentalists who end up in conflict zones. Yet a significant portion of the population are more ‘secularized’ Muslims, with little interest in Islam when set in contrast with the daily toils of life. As the region in recent years has tilted more toward conservative Islam and as governments operate in the shadows to quash dissent, restrictions on the activity of Christians have been rising. A relative air of freedom remains in Tunisia. We can expect more reports of unjust accusations, mob actions, and the occasional martyr.

The roots of Christianity in the North African region go back to the very beginning of the church. In those days, it was mainly composed of native converts as well as immigrants from other places in the Mediterranean. During the first century, Christianity flourished in the Roman province that today comprises Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. Recognizable names like Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, Augustine, and Perpetua the martyr are all associated with the North African church of those years.

With the coming of Islam in the 7th century, Christianity was diminished into minority status. Many churches, monasteries, and other Christian expressions were destroyed. Despite public pressures, Christianity has managed to survive in a few places in North Africa to this day, albeit in relatively small numbers. The largest public Christian presence is the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, which makes up about 10% of the population and is one of the oldest denominations in the world. Other traditions, including Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, form smaller communities, and have faced challenges with freedom of worship and tolerance of minorities in some countries.

In recent decades, Christians have faced increasing marginalization, violence and persecution. Missionaries have worked for many decades in North Africa, but have been subject to ebbs and flows. In the past couple of decades, there have been several instances where foreign workers were ejected from countries in the region (Morocco 2010 and Sudan 2012 are glaring examples). While some eagerly anticipated the Arab Spring as a potential source of liberalization and religious freedom, this has not been the end result. Remote evangelism, in the form of satellite and radio broadcasts and Internet ministries via social media and the like have seen significant response.

Underground churches and movements have made advances in the area. Historically, Algeria is known to be home to tens of thousands of BMBs (Believers from a Muslim Background) out of conversion movements originating in the 1990s among the Kabyle Berbers. Today, we know of over dozens of small but rapidly-multiplying movements in the region. Together they account for less than a million disciples, and most of these individual movements have just a few thousand believers. Many of these movements are quite new. While they are making significant strides, they face challenges of persecution and continually shifting population flows. Certainly far more is likely happening “unseen” than has been documented to date.