North African leaders have worked with the West against Islamists and migrants – becoming more repressive as a result, reports Yasmine Ryan of Aljazeera.
The string of uprisings in North Africa have laid bare Western governments’ relationships with regimes in the region, which pro-democracy activists argue have long been fixated on anti-terrorism, immigration and oil.
Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, appears to be on the brink of joining Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – both ousted by their own people. In Algeria, meanwhile, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s government is holding firm, clamping down on protests and carrying out limited reforms in a bid to lull anti-regime rage.
The four men have co-operated to varying degrees with the West in the post 9/11 era, offering their services against the perceived twin menaces of political Islam and migration from the African continent to Europe.
Salima Ghezali, a well-known Algerian journalist and rights activist, says that politicians have used these supposed threats to justify state violence. Elites in the West, she argues, have attempted to distract voters by playing up threats to security, whilst sidestepping debate on their economies. Their counterparts in the developing world have used the same arguments to draw attention away from “institutional chaos”. “It is this chaos which is provoking and fuelling the anger of the people,” she says.
By focusing on security, leaders have found a means to legitimise state violence, withhold rights and freedoms, and neglect governance, Ghezali says. “Violence has even become a means of social and political advancement. Murderers have become heroes and hold power in public institutions.”
Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, agrees that the uprisings are, in some way, related to the prevalence of anti-terrorist policy.
“I think that whole ‘war on terror’ syndrome has had a potentially significant role in what we’re seeing today,” Keenan says. “These states have become more repressive in the knowledge that they have the backing of the West.”
Many youthful protesters are no longer willing to swallow their leaders’ use of anti-colonialist ideology to justify their political power.
Far from fighting imperialism, these leaders, their opponents say, have been complicit with the West: Acting as its torturers, buying its arms and patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to stem the tides of young people desperate to flee their homelands. All were partners in the CIA’s controversial ‘extraordinary rendition programme’ and Libya has been a pro-active partner in a secretive Rome-Tripoli deal, signed in 2009, to intercept boats carrying migrants. In return for the sea patrols, Italy pledged to pay Libya $7bn over 20 years.
“The young generation of Algerians, and the not-so-young, don’t have any illusions about the convictions of their leaders,” Ghezali explains.
Despite being sceptical of their leaders’ ideological leanings, Ghezali says the youth do still respect authentic symbols of the Algerian War of Independence. Anti-government protesters in Libya have taken to waving the pre-Gaddafi, post-independence flag – a reference to the country’s struggle against colonial rule.
With the exception of Ben Ali, all of these leaders have been in government since before most of their people were born. Bouteflika, for example, first became a minister in 1962, yet rules over a country where the average age is 27, according to the CIA World Factbook. Gaddafi took power in 1969, while the average Libyan is just 24.
Playing the ‘Islamist card’
The region’s leaders have repeatedly tried to portray the current wave of uprisings as somehow terrorist-related.
In a recently released report, Martin Scheinin, the UN special rapporteur on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism, details how Tunisia’s counterterrorism laws and policies played a central part in the former government’s crushing of political opposition.
And, as Scheinin notes in an interview with Al Jazeera, this was the very language Ben Ali turned to when he responded to the Tunisian uprising.
“I think it is important that when the people started to revolt in Tunisia, the initial reaction by the president and by the government was to say this is terrorists,” the UN Rapporteur says.
Ben Ali accused demonstrators in the centre of the country of “unpardonable terrorist acts” on 10 January, two days after Tunisian security forces had begun deliberately killing protesters in the centre of the country. The Libyan leader’s son, Saadi Gaddafi, told the Financial Times on Wednesday that bombing in the east of Libya was necessary because “thousands” of al-Qaeda fighters were taking control of the region. His father elaborated on these allegations in a speech on Thursday night, accusing Osama bin Laden of brainwashing, and even drugging, the country’s youth.
Ghezali points to Gaddafi’s most recent threats to end his co-operation on immigration, as well as his attempts to blame protests on al-Qaeda, as a particularly “ludicrous” example of what has become a standard form of blackmail.
Tunisian activists interviewed by Al Jazeera cite ending corruption and tyranny and the right to employment, democracy and freedom of expression as the motivations that drove their uprising, while Libyans dismiss Gaddafi’s assertion that Osama bin Laden was working to incite dissent against his rule.
Keenan says that the absence of Islamist ideology in the protest movements has underlined the extent to which the “Islamist card” has been overplayed by politicians and the media. “These revolts have nothing much to do with Islamism, they are to do with young people fighting for their rights.
“All of these countries, to varying degrees, have exaggerated the menace of terrorism,” says the author of The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa.
The birth of an ideology
While it became most pronounced post-9/11, the West’s fear of the rise of political Islam in North Africa predates the ‘war on terror’ by a decade.
When Algeria embarked on its first democratic elections in the early 1990s, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was heading towards a likely victory.
Many commentators in the West feared Algeria would become the next Iran, and that political Islam might then become an unstoppable force, spreading to neighbouring countries.
The Algerian military staged a coup d’état and embarked on a”dirty war” to purge the country of the “Green Peril”. During the decade-long civil war that followed, 200,000 Algerians were killed, many by the security forces, and approximately 15,000 were forcibly disappeared.
Western governments were largely silent. In the case of France, in particular, support for the “eradication” campaign was explicit, with Charles Pasqua, France’s interior minister, working closely with the Algerian generals to clamp down on Algerian dissidents in France.
The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and other leading intellectuals – many of whom had been outspoken opponents of Communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and Asia – warned of the rise of what they termed “Islamofacism” in North Africa and the Middle East.
François Gèze, head of the leftwing publishing house Éditions La Découverte, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, a leading historian who has since passed away, addressed what they argued was a double standard in their compatriots’ response to the Algerian conflict.
“How can famous intellectuals, who were willing to stand up when it was necessary against other barbarities, take the side so resolutely of a torturing, corrupt army which has based its power on widespread usage of blowtorches [to torture] and napalm on a scale rarely seen in the last half century. The answer, alas, is summed up in one word: Islam,” they wrote in Le Monde (‘Algeria and French Intellectuals’, 4 February 1998).
By early 2001, pressure for an investigation into the role of the security forces in fostering the violence was increasing, after a series of allegations that the Algerian security establishment had deliberately falsified terrorism to justify its own violence.
Then came the 9/11 attacks, and the ‘war on terror,’ and Algerian dissidents once again found themselves sidelined.
“After twenty years of security policy – including 10 years of war – Algerian society has been seriously traumatised,” Ghezali says, adding that the lack of justice or reconciliation has prevented many from being able to move on.
In contrast, post-14 January, Tunisia has opened a commission to investigate the human rights abuses committed by the security forces during the uprising and is seeking Ben Ali’s extradition from Saudi Arabia.
Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, meanwhile, is calling for the International Criminal Court to investigate Gaddafi for war crimes, while Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, is urging an international investigation into the violence against protesters.
The first suggestion that Western leaders may be moving to untangle themselves from the increasingly awkward baggage of their ‘war on terror’ ties to North Africa came during William Hague’s visit to Tunisia, on 8 February, as the uprising in Egypt was well underway.
In response to a question from Al Jazeera, the British foreign secretary acknowledged that it was time to move beyond the anti-terrorism framework. “I think now there is an opportunity for a much broader relationship than a security relationship,” he said.
Bolstering his comments came the announcement of an $8.1m fund to support economic and political reform in North Africa and the Middle East.
Hague also distanced his government from Tunisia’s controversial anti-terrorism law, which has long drawn criticism from rights activists who argued that it was used to imprison political dissidents.
“We hope that legislation will comply with international laws on human rights, will respect freedom of expression, and of course we hope in any country that anti-terror laws are not used to stifle legitimate political debate and activity,” Hague said.
Yet even as the death toll in Libya continues to rise – possibly to over 1,000 – the anti-terrorist ideology is far from dismantled, as Gaddafi’s attempts to bring al-Qaeda into the equation suggest.
On Tuesday, Algeria lifted its controversial state of emergency, which had been in force since 1992 and which the government had argued was necessary to facilitate its fight against “terrorists”.
Activists had long criticised the law, arguing that its real goal was to quell dissent and to extinguish the political freedoms that had been won by protesters in the wake of the October 1988 anti-government riots.
But the state of emergency is being replaced by new anti-terrorist legislation, meaning little genuine change. Protest marches will remain forbidden and the military will retain its contested right to intervene in domestic security enforcement.
A spokesperson for Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth office said by telephone on Wednesday that Hague’s comments in Tunis also applied to any anti-terrorist legislation in Algeria. The US president Barack Obama welcomed the change as a “positive sign” in a statement on Thursday.
However, Keenan points to Algeria’s role as an “absolutely critical ally” for the US during the ‘war on terror’. The country has strong historic ties to France and, in the past two years, has grown closer to Britain.
Algeria has the third-largest oil reserves in Africa and is the sixth-largest producer of natural gas in the world, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
“The West is desperate that Algeria, the regime, can stay in place by making the necessary reforms,” Keenan says, adding that a cabinet shuffle could be on the horizon and that Bouteflika might eventually be replaced. But such reforms would be “purely cosmetic” and would serve only to maintain the present regime, he argues, noting that the lifting of the state of emergency should be interpreted in this context.
Arming the oppressors
And regardless of any change in tone, European governments seem unlikely to cut back on growing arms sales to North Africa and the Middle East.
Michele Alliot-Marie, the French foreign minister, is still suffering the political repercussions of her offer to support Tunisian and Algerian security forces with protest-suppressing “know-how” on 12 January, even as Tunisian protesters were being killed.
Western arms exports to the region have drawn particular attention in the light of the killing of protesters in Libya and Bahrain in recent days, leading the UK and France to halt arms sales to the two countries. But the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), a UK-based organisation, argues that the bans are temporary and unlikely to lead to any long-term changes in some European governments’ active promotion of its arms export sector.
“As soon as public attention has moved on, they’ll be back supplying them,” Sarah Waldron, a spokesperson for CAAT, says.
Arms exports from EU member countries to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have risen significantly over the past five years. Arms export licences from the EU to the four countries rose
from $1.3bn to $2.7bn in 2009, according to CAAT.
Coming in the context of co-operation on border control and anti-terrorism, the arms sales have risen for both strategic and economic reasons, Keenan says. “The equipment that is given to these countries in export arrangements in the name of counterterrorism is the same equipment that is used by these countries in the repression of their own people.”
Many North African activists are conscious of years of what they consider hypocrisy from the West and are sceptical about whether the uprisings will have a transformative effective on foreign policy.
For the past decade, only two things have mattered for Europeans and the US when it comes to Tunisia, Mokhtar Trifi, the president of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), says.
“The European Parliament and European governments were silent, and many of them were complicit. We never stopped drawing attention to the dictatorship. ‘Tunisia is good because Ben Ali was fighting terrorism and clandestine immigration.’ That was the argument [from Western governments],” Trifi says.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which works with governments to manage international migration flows, says that Gaddafi’s threats to open the floodgates has succeeded in worrying European governments. Yet he notes that in recent days, Europeans have been facing up to the reality of the role that migration has played in relations with Libya.
“I think there’s recognition, in Italy at least, that realpolitik really dictated Italy’s relationship with Libya,” Chauzy says.
In the wake of the regime changes in North Africa, combined with the rise in unemployment in Europe, he says that policymakers are likely to consider a new approach to migration management. Ideally, Chauzy would like it to be one that focuses more on tackling the socio-economic factors at the root of migration and relies less on policing the seas.
Keenan says that by focusing on terrorism and immigration, Western countries have damaged their own interests. Whether it is the French, the Americans or the British, he argues that the preoccupation with Islamists and terrorism has undermined Western intelligence services’ ability to understand political and social dynamics in the region.
“If one got rid of the intelligence services, and just listened to Twitter or Facebook, we have more of an idea what’s going on.”
Oil supplies from Libya are already being disrupted. The same could happen in Algeria if serious unrest were to spread, he notes.
“The West, as a whole, has been wrong footed. I think it’s desperately trying to play catch-up. We could be paying a very high price for the strategy of the West towards these countries,” Keenan says.
As North Africans progressively overcome the fear factor that, until recent weeks, kept them from voicing their discontent too loudly, Western leaders are scrambling to build relationships with civil society after years of downplaying such ties at the bequest of the region’s all-powerful leaders.
Yet members of the Tunisian Democratic Women’s Association are unlikely to forget that Rama Yade, as France’s secretary of human rights, cancelled her meeting with them for unexplained reasons during her visit to Tunisia in 2008. Nor will Trifi forget the fact that France’s last ambassador shunned the Tunisian Human Rights League, never once paying a visit.
Pro-democracy opposition parties such as Algeria’s Socialist Forces Front (FFS) are commonly called upon by Western diplomats and politicians behind closed doors, but rarely do private expressions of concern for trampled political rights translate into public support.
Likewise, the diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Tunis leaked by WikiLeaks revealed that though the US authorities understood the nature of Ben Ali’s regime, they chose to stay silent.
For Abed Charef, an Algerian writer and journalist, North African countries would be more democratic if Western countries stopped interfering.
“People aspire to freedom, and they haven’t been able to enjoy that freedom, partly thanks to the support of Western countries,” Charef says. “In Algeria, we are suffocated by a political system that stifles economic growth, that stifles political opposition, that stifles everything.”
“[Western countries] act out of their own interest, they support anti-democratic leaders, they support corruption. That isn’t help, it’s been destroying us.”