The scale of destruction in North Africa is staggering: In Morocco, a massive earthquake has left more than 2,900 dead and thousands more injured or homeless. In Libya, more than 5,300 are dead and 10,000 missing after a storm unleashed floodwaters and burst dams.
Devastated communities have waited days for help, often digging out and burying their dead with little to no assistance from their governments. Some of the delay can be blamed on destroyed infrastructure. But the bigger roadblock is politics.
Though other governments and aid groups swiftly offered assistance — including rescue and relief teams — help has been snarled by rivalries.
If there were a time when political differences could be set aside, the aftermath of a natural disaster might seem to qualify. But the responses in both Morocco and Libya — one a stable nation, the other torn by war and ruled by rival governments — show the difficulty of separating humanitarian aid from political considerations.
Outside Morocco, there’s bewilderment: Despite dozens of international teams ready to mobilize after Friday’s magnitude 6.8 earthquake, the government in Rabat has officially accepted assistance from only four nations it deems “friendly” — Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Spain and Britain — and that acceptance came two days after the earthquake.
In Morocco, where the 72-hour “golden period” for saving lives has already passed, thousands are complaining that authorities have all but abandoned them, furious at what they say is the government’s lackadaisical response.
The Interior Ministry on Sunday sought to justify its reticence in welcoming aid, saying a “lack of coordination would lead to counterproductive results.”
But observers point out that geopolitics appear to be its real concern.
Algeria, which two years ago severed ties with Morocco over sovereignty issues in Western Sahara, opened its airspace to facilitate aid flights’ access and scrambled 80 rescue workers to help. After two days of silence, Morocco said Tuesday that it did not need its neighbor’s assistance, according to the Algerian Foreign Ministry.
That attitude reflects the views of King Mohammed VI, who “made it clear that Western Sahara was the lens through which Morocco would view all foreign engagement,” said Geoff Porter, president of North Africa Risk Consulting and an expert on the Maghreb region.
“Thus, aid offers are still viewed as tools of foreign policy,” Porter said. “This means that aid and relief cannot be accepted from countries that do not unequivocally recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.”
That might explain why Germany had to stand down a 50-person team from its Technical Relief Agency that had assembled at Cologne airport to fly to Morocco.
“It is incomprehensible that Rabat has so far forgone German help,” said Carl-Julius Cronenberg, who chairs the German Parliament’s group on the Maghreb, in a statement to the German newspaper Tageespiegel.
“The current situation should not be about misunderstood national pride.”
France, which colonized Morocco until 1956 — and has seen relations chill after disagreements over visa and immigration issues as well as France’s outreach to Algeria — was also rebuffed, with a team from the French aid group Rescuers Without Borders unable to enter the country.
“Unfortunately, we still don’t have the go-ahead from the Moroccan government,” Arnaud Fraisse, the group’s founder, said Sunday in a statement to broadcaster France Inter.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna downplayed any rancor between the two countries, saying in an interview with BFM television on Monday that it was little more than a “misplaced controversy.”
“We are ready to help Morocco. It’s a sovereign Moroccan decision, and it’s up to them to decide,” she said, adding that Paris has prepared a $5.4-million fund for nongovernmental organizations operating in Morocco.
In Morocco, the response, troubled as it is, is at least being overseen by a stable government.
Libya has seen more than a decade of internecine conflict that has left the country with two rival governments, one in the capital, Tripoli, and another controlling the country’s east, based out of the city of Benghazi.
It is in the east where the coastal city of Derna was mostly destroyed after relentless rain burst nearby dams, unleashing floods that washed away homes, cars, people and whole neighborhoods. Authorities say that at least a quarter of the city no longer exists.
Officials from the eastern-based administration rushed to declare a response. Khalifa Haftar, the military leader who supports the eastern-based administration, urged Libya’s central bank to provide support.
“We have directed the government to form a specialized committee to assess the damage, instantly begin the reconstruction of roads to facilitate transportation, restore the electricity and take all immediate and needed measures,” Haftar said in a televised statement.
Meanwhile, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the prime minister of the Tripoli government, also weighed in, saying that the country was assessing aid offers from the international community.
“There were multiple offers of help and we will only accept aid that is necessary,” he said.
Videos on social media showed helicopters from the eastern army helping recover corpses from waterlogged boulevards. Volunteers with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have mounted rescues of entire families from vehicles about to be swept away by the torrent. Three volunteers died helping stranded families, the aid group said Tuesday.
Hisham Abu Shkeiwat, a minister with the eastern government, said the massive numbers of corpses strewn across the streets and on the coast make the city all but uninhabitable.
Local activists have been compiling lists of the dead, posting hastily scribbled notices on Facebook and other platforms. And in a sign of solidarity, the Tripoli government has dispatched aid convoys and planes carrying first responders and body bags.
But eastern administration officials denied there had been any direct contact with the Tripoli government. “If there has been any contact, I haven’t heard of it,” Ahmed Mismari, spokesperson for the self-styled Libyan National Army, the force that controls the eastern region, said in a TV interview, adding that now wasn’t the time for political jockeying.
Meanwhile, some international aid has begun to arrive, including 168 rescuers, two search-and-rescue vehicles, and two rescue boats that arrived from Turkey, which will also send tents, blankets, food and other supplies. Italy is also sending civil defense teams.
Egypt scrambled a military delegation along with medical supplies. The Emirates, Qatar, Iran and Algeria said they have sent aid.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, said in a statement Monday that it was coordinating with “U.N. partners and Libyan authorities on how we can assist the ongoing relief efforts.”
In his interview, Mismari said the eastern government was dealing directly with Egypt, the Emirates and Turkey. Turkey has long supported the Tripoli government, providing it with military assistance that saved it from Haftar’s assault in 2019. But since the fighting ended, Ankara has made inroads with the east.
In such a divided nation, coordination problems will inevitably arise, said Tim Eaton, Libya researcher at the Chatham House think tank in London.
“There are 140 state institutions divided between the east and west governments, so the logistics of a response are awful,” he said.
What that means, said Anas Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Tripoli think tank, is that “we don’t know what’s required.”
Visas issued by the Tripoli government don’t necessarily apply to the east; aid groups hoping to deploy can’t be sure they’ve reached the right point of contact; and since municipal elections didn’t take place this year because of tensions between the two governments, local officials would have little in the way of data, he added.
That the storm’s ferocity hits its apex in Derna adds another complication: Residents there have long had an unhappy relationship with both governments, especially the one under Haftar, who led a multi-year siege and then a destructive urban campaign to root out Islamist fighters that ended in 2019.
“The population of Derna is not treated the same way as in other municipalities, since they’re often seen as trouble,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based security think tank. “And with that comes this kind of condescension and antipathy.”
That mentality had already cemented a history of neglect when it came to Derna, said Gomati, who pointed out that competition between the two governments and their disdain of Derna meant infrastructure projects, including the two failed dams, had been largely neglected.
Whereas Morocco’s disaster came without warning, Libyan authorities had plenty of time to take preventive measures as they watched Storm Daniel bulldoze its way through Greece, Gomati added.
“They had days before the storm came, hours to watch the banks of the dams reach to a level that was critical, and they didn’t sound the alarm, they didn’t prepare an evacuation plan.”
Though he acknowledged the scale of the disaster was unprecedented for Libya, Gomati nevertheless blamed authorities for insisting residents stay in place.
“The fact of the matter is that Libyans would have preferred Derna city to be underwater, rather than the city plus its inhabitants,” he said.
“What led up to this were lethal errors, which will also sabotage the aid effort on the ground, because the people in charge are not responsible enough.”
Another issue facing the Libya response is a matter of attention.
“Everyone is familiar with and everyone adores Morocco, less as a country than a locale. Libya, and especially Derna, is toxic. It’s untouchable,” said Porter, the expert on the Maghreb region, who noted that people associate Derna with Islamic State militants after an earlier occupation.
“Besides, Derna is inaccessible. Journalists haven’t been able to get there for nearly a decade. It is cut off, unknown and unknowable.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.