How many countries are in North Africa? From Egypt to Western Sahara, here’s how to define this cultural, geographical and geopolitical region.

Traditionally defined by the Sahara Desert that sweeps south towards the tropics that lie at the heart of the African continent, North Africa is a distinct region encompassing countless religions, ethnicities, languages, cultures and histories. This is the home of the Egyptian pyramids, the Nile River, the ruins of Carthage, Mediterranean entrepots like Algiers and Atlantic cities like Agadir and Nouakchott.

But where does North Africa truly begin and where does it end? This is a region that can seemingly be defined in many terms, from its Arab language to its Berber heritage, but look a little closer, and Coptic Christianity runs deep, while everything from French to Wolof can be heard from Tunisia to Mauretania. Can we define North Africa as a purely geographic region, or do we need to factor in the cultural and historical ties that cross these boundaries?

Ultimately, determining how many countries there are in North Africa depends on who you ask. Not least because of the difficulties of defining geographic borders, but because politics ensures that North Africa is also home to Western Sahara, a country that only has partial recognition amongst the international community. In this article, I attempt to put my experiences travelling across Africa to the test, as I explain how many countries there are in North Africa.

How many countries are in North Africa?

North Africa is typically delineated as a distinct region separated from the rest of the African continent by the Sahara Desert. Within this geographical demarcation, six UN-recognised countries are traditionally counted, and one partially recognised country can be counted. Depending on who you ask, then, there are either six or seven countries in Africa.

The six UN-recognised countries that are generally considered North African are Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. The partially recognised country is Western Sahara, which does not have full recognition at the United Nations as Morocco claims sovereignty over the region.

Indeed, the inclusion of Western Sahara in any list of North African ‘countries’ can be a point of huge contention. The territory is subject to a long-running dispute, primarily between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, backed by the Polisario Front. Because of this unresolved conflict, Moroccans will argue that the number of internationally recognised countries in North Africa is six, omitting Western Sahara from the count.

Regardless, the countries of North Africa share certain cultural, historical and geographical traits, yet they are also incredibly diverse. Arabic is widely spoken, and Islam is the dominant religion, but there are also strong influences from sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and even Asia. The region has been a crossroads of civilisations for millennia, each leaving its own imprint, from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Arabs and Ottomans.

The Sahara Desert, seen here in Algeria, defines North Africa’s southern boundary.

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List of countries in North Africa

Here’s a list of the six (or seven) countries that are in North Africa:

  1. Algeria
  2. Egypt
  3. Libya
  4. Mauritania
  5. Morocco
  6. Tunisia
  7. Western Sahara (Disputed territory)

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Where is North Africa?

North Africa is a distinct region in the northernmost part of the African continent, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Sahara Desert to the south. This geographical demarcation separates it from Sub-Saharan Africa to the south. To the east, the boundary is less universally defined, but it’s generally accepted that North Africa extends as far as the Egyptian-Sudanese border. In some contexts, the Red Sea and the Sinai Peninsula also form natural barriers that help define the region’s eastern extremities.

North Africa is typically delineated by a combination of geographical, cultural, and historical factors. One of the defining characteristics of North Africa is the presence of the Sahara, the world’s largest hot desert, which acts as a natural barrier that has historically isolated North Africa from the rest of the continent to some extent. Another significant geographical feature is the Nile River, particularly important to Egypt, which has been a cradle of civilisation for millennia.

Culturally, North Africa has been influenced by a plethora of peoples and civilisations over the years, including Berbers, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, and Ottomans, among others. The majority of the population in this region is Arab-Berber, and Arabic is the most widely spoken language. Islam is the dominant religion, having been introduced in the 7th century.

A United Nations map of Africa, from the UN Geospatial Department.

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A brief history of North Africa

To help you better understand North Africa, it’s important to understand the history of the region. Situated at the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa, North Africa’s history is one of both cooperation and conflict, influenced by its strategic position and abundant resources.

Ancient Period

North Africa has been inhabited for millennia, with evidence of early human settlements dating back to the Paleolithic period. The region was home to some of the world’s earliest civilisations, including the Phoenicians, who established the city of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia. Carthage soon became a maritime power, competing fiercely with Rome until its eventual destruction in 146 BCE during the Punic Wars.

Roman and Byzantine Rule

After the fall of Carthage, most of North Africa became part of the Roman Empire. The region was an important source of grain for Rome and saw the construction of many cities, roads, and aqueducts. With the decline of Rome, the Byzantine Empire took control, holding sway until the Islamic conquests.

Islamic Conquest and Rule

In the 7th century, Arab armies rapidly conquered North Africa, introducing Islam and the Arabic language. The region became part of successive Islamic caliphates, and later independent Islamic kingdoms, each leaving its mark through architecture, scholarship, and governance. Cities like Fes in Morocco and Kairouan in Tunisia became centres of Islamic learning.

Berber Kingdoms

Throughout these periods, indigenous Berber communities maintained their distinct cultures and often established their own kingdoms, such as the Almoravid and Almohad empires, which ruled parts of Spain and North Africa.

Ottoman Influence

From the late 16th century, parts of North Africa became vassals or provinces of the Ottoman Empire, most notably Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria. During this period, piracy in the Mediterranean became a significant issue, leading to international conflict.

Colonial Era

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, European powers colonised much of North Africa. France took control of Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1881, and Morocco became a French and Spanish protectorate in 1912. Italy colonised Libya in 1911, and Egypt was effectively a British protectorate from 1882 until its independence.

Post-War Independence Movements

After World War II, the winds of change blew across North Africa as nationalist movements gained momentum. Egypt was the first to gain full sovereignty in 1952, followed by Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, Mauritania in 1960, and Algeria in 1962 after a brutal war of independence.

Contemporary Period

Modern North Africa has seen a range of political systems, from monarchies in Morocco and constitutional governments in Tunisia to military regimes in Algeria and Egypt. The region has not been immune to conflict, most notably the Libyan civil war and the ongoing Western Sahara dispute.

Arab Spring and Beyond

The Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia in 2010, had a profound impact, leading to regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The outcomes have been varied, with Tunisia generally considered a success in terms of its transition to democracy, while Libya and Egypt have faced ongoing challenges.

El Jem in Tunisia was built by the Romans to emulate the Coliseum.

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Is Western Sahara a country?

Okay, so let’s address the elephant in the room. Is Western Sahara a country? The answer, of course, depends on who you ask, but the answer also determines the total number of countries that form the North African region.

The status of Western Sahara is a subject of international debate and dispute. It is not universally recognised as an independent country. Instead, it’s a territory located in North Africa that is primarily claimed by Morocco, which administers the majority of the land. A pro-independence group, the Polisario Front, declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 and claims to represent the indigenous Sahrawi people. The SADR is a full member of the African Union but is not a member of the United Nations.

The territory was a Spanish colony until 1975, known as Spanish Sahara. When Spain withdrew, both Morocco and Mauritania laid claims to Western Sahara, leading to conflict. Mauritania eventually relinquished its claim, but the struggle between the Polisario Front and Morocco continues to this day.

Multiple rounds of negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations have aimed to resolve the conflict but have so far been unsuccessful. A ceasefire was implemented in 1991, monitored by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), but the promised referendum on self-determination has not yet taken place.

The designation of Western Sahara as a country remains contentious. In international law, it is considered a non-self-governing territory, and its final status is yet to be determined.

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Western Sahara is defined by its desert location.

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How many languages are spoken in North Africa?

The linguistic landscape of North Africa is quite diverse, reflecting the region’s complex history of settlement, trade, and colonization. Here are some of the languages you’ll find:

  1. Arabic: The dominant language, spoken in various dialects across all North African countries. Modern Standard Arabic is used in formal settings such as media and education.
  2. Berber Languages: These include several varieties like Kabyle, Tamasheq, and Tarifit, and are mainly spoken in Morocco, Algeria, and parts of Tunisia and Libya.
  3. French: Particularly prevalent in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco due to colonial history. It is often used in business, government, and education.
  4. Spanish: Spoken in parts of northern Morocco due to proximity to Spain, but not widely used.
  5. Italian: Understood by some, especially older generations in Libya, due to Italian colonization, but not commonly spoken.
  6. Saharan Languages: Such as Tamasheq, spoken by the Tuareg people in southern Algeria, western Libya, and northern Mali.
  7. Hassaniya Arabic: A dialect of Arabic spoken mainly in Mauritania and the Western Sahara.
  8. Nubian: Spoken in southern Egypt and northern Sudan.
  9. Beja: Spoken in eastern Sudan and parts of Egypt.
  10. Coptic: The liturgical language of the Egyptian Christian community, though it is not commonly spoken day-to-day.
  11. Wolof and Fula: These languages are spoken among small communities in Mauritania.
  12. Hebrew: Spoken among the Jewish communities, primarily in Morocco and Tunisia, though these communities are now very small.
  13. Domari and Nafusi: Spoken by minority groups in Libya.
The Arabic language is seen outside a date shop in Algiers, Algeria.

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Is North Africa Islamic?

Islam is the dominant religion in North Africa, playing a significant role in shaping the region’s cultural, social, and political landscape. The religion was introduced to North Africa in the 7th century through the Islamic conquests, and over time, it has become deeply ingrained in the region’s identity. Most countries in North Africa – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia – are predominantly Islamic, with the majority of the population identifying as Muslim.

Islamic law, known as Sharia, influences various aspects of life, from legal frameworks to social customs. However, the extent to which Islamic law is implemented varies from country to country. For example, Tunisia has a more secular form of governance, while Mauritania declares itself as an Islamic Republic and applies Sharia law more stringently.

The majority of North Africans follow Sunni Islam, although there are also Shia communities, particularly in Egypt. Sufism, a mystical Islamic belief system, is also prevalent in some regions. Islam’s influence is evident in the architecture, literature, and arts of North Africa. Cities like Cairo in Egypt, Fes in Morocco, and Kairouan in Tunisia are known for their historic mosques, Islamic universities, and rich Islamic heritage.

However, it’s worth noting that North Africa is also home to religious minorities, including Christians and Jews, though these communities are much smaller in number. For example, Egypt has a significant Coptic Christian community, and Morocco and Tunisia have small Jewish communities.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia.

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What ethnicities are found in North Africa?

North Africa is home to a diverse range of ethnic groups, shaped by millennia of migration, trade, and conquest. Here are some of the main ethnic groups found in the region:

  1. Arabs: The most widespread ethnic group, especially in Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, and parts of Algeria and Tunisia. Arabs arrived in North Africa during the Islamic conquests of the 7th century and have since become a dominant ethnic group in many parts of the region.
  2. Berbers: Also known as Amazigh, they are indigenous to North Africa and primarily found in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. There are several Berber subgroups, including the Kabyle in Algeria, the Riffians in Morocco, and the Tuareg in southern Algeria and Libya.
  3. Nubians: Primarily residing in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, Nubians have a distinct language and culture. They have lived along the Nile for centuries and have their own set of traditions and customs.
  4. Beja: Residing mainly in eastern Sudan and parts of Egypt, the Beja people are pastoralists who have maintained their own language and cultural practices.
  5. Copts: Primarily found in Egypt, Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. They have their own church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and their own liturgical language, Coptic.
  6. Sahrawis: Indigenous to the Western Sahara, they are primarily of Berber and Arab descent. The region is disputed, and primarily controlled by Morocco, but Sahrawis have their own distinct identity and political aspirations.
  7. Tuareg: A Berber subgroup primarily found in the Saharan regions of Algeria, Libya, and also further south in countries like Niger and Mali. They are nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists.
  8. Dom: A minority group found in Libya, the Dom are traditionally itinerant and are culturally distinct from the majority Arab and Berber populations.
  9. Jews: Once a significant minority in countries like Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, the Jewish community has dwindled due to emigration, primarily to Israel and France. However, small communities still exist, especially in Morocco and Tunisia.
  10. Afro-Mauritanians: In Mauritania, there is a significant population of sub-Saharan African descent, including ethnic groups like the Wolof, Soninke, and Fula.
Nomadic dress in the Sahara Desert, Taghit, Algeria.

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Is North Africa also part of the Mediterranean region?

North Africa is generally considered a part of the broader Mediterranean region, owing to its geographical, historical, and cultural ties with countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The northern coasts of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt all lie along the Mediterranean, making the sea a significant geographical feature that has profoundly influenced these nations.

Geographically, the Mediterranean Sea serves as a natural boundary to the north and also acts as a corridor for migration, trade, and cultural exchange. Cities like Alexandria in Egypt, Algiers in Algeria, and Tunis in Tunisia have historically been significant Mediterranean ports.

Historically, North Africa has been a crossroads of civilisations and empires that were centred around the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans were among those who established their presence in North Africa, utilising its ports for trade and military endeavours.

Culturally, the Mediterranean diet, featuring olives, wheat, and seafood, is prevalent in North Africa. Architectural styles, such as the use of courtyards and fountains, also demonstrate Mediterranean influences. Furthermore, the region shares religious and linguistic ties with other Mediterranean countries, particularly through Islam and the Arabic language.

The Roman ruins of Tipaza line Algeria’s Mediterranean coast.

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Is North Africa also part of the Middle East region?

North Africa and the Middle East are often grouped together due to their shared linguistic, religious, and cultural traits. Both are predominantly Arab and Muslim regions, and Arabic serves as the primary language in most countries.

However, it’s crucial to distinguish between the two. Geographically, North Africa belongs to the African continent, covering nations from Egypt to Mauritania, including the disputed Western Sahara. In contrast, the Middle East mainly consists of Western Asian countries.

Historically, North Africa has its own unique pre-Islamic civilisations, such as ancient Egypt and Carthage, and experienced different colonial influences, primarily French and Italian. The Middle East has its own set of historical experiences, including Ottoman rule and British and French mandates.

Additionally, North Africa has a significant Berber population, differentiating it ethnically from the Middle East. While they share commonalities, these are two distinct regions, each with its own set of complexities and identities.

The Pyramids of Giza, one of North Africa’s greatest historic relics.

Is North Africa part of the Arab world?

North Africa is generally considered to be part of the Arab world, which is a cultural and political community of countries where Arabic is a dominant or official language and where the population is mainly Arab or identifies with Arab culture. This concept emerged in the 20th century, largely after the decolonisation of Arab states and the formation of the Arab League in 1945. The Arab League includes all the North African countries: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania, as well as the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Arabic is the official or one of the official languages in these North African countries, and the majority of the population in each of these states identifies as Arab or Arab-Berber. Furthermore, Islam, which originated in the Arabian Peninsula, is the dominant religion across North Africa. The shared religion and language create a set of common cultural practices and beliefs.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge the diversity within the Arab world and within North Africa itself. The region is home to substantial non-Arab populations, particularly the Berbers in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Berber languages and culture have experienced a resurgence in recent years, and the Berber language, Tamazight, has gained official status in Morocco and Algeria.

Cairo, one of the largest cities in North Africa.

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So, how many countries are there in North Africa?

Ultimately, defining the number of countries in North Africa depends on your perspective, especially when you consider the inclusion of the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Generally, the region comprises seven entities: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Western Sahara. However, the status of Western Sahara remains contentious, leading some lists to include only six recognised states.

However you choose to define it, North Africa is a region rich in history, culture and geographical diversity. It is not just a simple list of countries but a complex collection of societies that have been shaped by thousands of years of history, migration, and the influences of various empires and religions.

FAQ: How many countries are in North Africa?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘How many countries are in North Africa?’:

Q1: How many countries are there in North Africa?

A: Generally, North Africa is considered to have six recognised countries: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. The inclusion of Western Sahara is a matter of debate due to its disputed status.

Q2: Is Western Sahara a country?

A: The status of Western Sahara is contentious. It is not universally recognised as an independent country and is primarily administered by Morocco. Some entities, like the African Union, recognise it as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, but it is not a member of the United Nations.

Q3: What are the major languages spoken in North Africa?

A: Arabic is the most widely spoken language in the region. Berber languages are also spoken, particularly in Algeria and Morocco. French is commonly understood in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, while English is increasingly popular, especially in Egypt.

Q4: Is North Africa part of the Middle East?

A: While North Africa and the Middle East share cultural, religious, and linguistic ties, particularly through the Arabic language and Islam, they are generally considered to be distinct regions. Geographically, North Africa is part of the African continent, whereas the Middle East is primarily in Asia.

Q5: Is North Africa predominantly Islamic?

A: Yes, Islam is the major religion in all the countries of North Africa. However, there are also small Christian and Jewish communities in some countries like Egypt and Morocco.

Q6: Are the countries in North Africa politically stable?

A: The political climate varies widely from country to country. Some nations, such as Mauritania and Morocco, have been relatively stable, while others like Libya have experienced significant unrest and conflict.

Q7: Is the Sahara Desert part of North Africa?

A: Yes, the Sahara Desert covers much of North Africa, acting as a geographical barrier that separates the region from Sub-Saharan Africa. It spans multiple countries including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Western Sahara.

Q8: What currencies are used in North Africa?

A: Different countries have their own currencies. For example, Egypt uses the Egyptian pound, Algeria uses the Algerian dinar, and Morocco uses the Moroccan dirham.

Q9: What is the dominant ethnicity in North Africa?

A: The dominant ethnic groups are Arab and Berber, although each country has its own ethnic composition and history.