Stop stereotyping Northwest Africa

The events of recent weeks, in both Algeria and Mali, seems to have surprised many globe watchers. A militant Islamist force with somewhat inevitable links to Al-Qaeda suddenly began to threaten Bamako, the Malian capital, forcing the ex-colonialist power, France, to intervene and save the city from harsh sharia law. In retaliation to such an ‘invasion’, another force attacked a BP-run oil plant in Algeria, taking hostages and then killing many foreign workers. At a first glance, the continent seems to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. It took Western media about a day to dub the area ‘the new Middle East’.

But surely the threat was obvious before it became overt? This is a region with problems which hardly anywhere else has to deal with to such extremes – tribalism, vast ungovernable areas, debt, poverty and political instability. Any of these factors would be cause for alarm, taken together it is astounding that Britain’s government is only now focusing on intellegence gathering in the region. The realities which make life for many Africans so hard also breed religious fanaticism. We cannot just be noticing the relationship between cause and effect.

At best, certain recent events have made things worse and caught our attention. The Arab spring has turned countries which once acted the region’s police force (Egypt, particularly) into political quagmires. The Malian rebels grouped together in neighbouring Libya. At worst though, it is only the direct threat to Western lives and interests which has made us care about the world’s most vulnerable nations.

Leaving this debate over the reasons for the West’s unpreparedness for you to mull over, I want to examine why the press’s comparison of Northwest Africa to the Middle East is flawed. And flawed it is.

One of the central causes of Middle Eastern Islamism in recent years has been systematic repression and abuse by entrenched militarist regimes. This hasn’t been the case in Africa. Here, although political freedom has been scant, there has not been any stable regimes. If the Middle East has suffered from overbearing power, northwest Africa has suffered from a vacuum of it. The West would do well to remember this crucial difference as it attempts to help liberalise both regions. It should also keep in mind that its aim is not just fighting terrorism directed at its shores, but also securing the safety of its southern neighbours.

Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Sadness in Houla

All sorts has been going on. In the forefront of my mind recently has been the calamity in Houla, Syria, where dozens children were murdered by the army. The world is duly horrified and I believe The Times was right when it headlined the story ‘the tipping point’. The UN managed to get itself together enough to pass a resolution condemning the Syrian government, which is still claiming the violence was perpetrated by unspecified ‘terrorists’. There is a sense now that something will happen, but all the options carry considerable risk.

There is, as always, the daunting possibility of military intervention. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, the West is weary – especially of becoming involved in yet another Muslim country. It would also be legally dubious to go to war in order to achieve regime change in another country. But then one has to ask if it isn’t even more dubious to let a government murder its own people. However, I think direct feet-on-the-ground intervention is a long way off.
At the other end of the spectrum is doing absolutely nothing. Then it is possible – perhaps probable – that the country could decend into sectarian civil war. The country is not as tribal as Libya, but it is home to people of many different creeds. There are bitter divides between Shia and Sunni Muslims. To further complicate this, the ruling elite comes from the Alawite sect, members of which still support the President – as do the Christians, who fear an Islamic state. The capacity for fighting is huge. And yet, for reasons stated above, leaving the regime to do as it pleases doesn’t seem like a good idea

So a third way is needed. As I see it (and I’m not an expert, mind) there are two options. The first is the creation of ‘buffer zones’ in Turkey, where opponents of the regime can group together, train and plan without the risk of shelling. But the international community is rightly reluctant to rely on Turkey, whose own President is becoming more and more tyranical. He would also probably favour Islamists, when Syria desperately needs to remain secular

The second option is to carry on doing what we’re doing – i.e. allowing Qatar and its friends to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. This avoids all the problems of Western intervention and may eventually help to stop such massacres. But this doesn’t present civil war, which is looking more and more likely now that the violence has spread into neighbouring Lebanon, which is still wobbly decades after its own bloodshed supposedly ended.

The two options are clearly not perfect. But, for the children of Houla and the rest of Syria (perhaps Lebanon too), something has to be done. What you you think it should be done? Comment below.

Tunisia’s elections

The Arab spring has just witnessed its first true success in the country where the protests started in December last year – Tunisia has held its first elections after 23 years of dictatorship under the now-ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. There were worries that the elections would be mired by violence or vote-fixing, but the UN mission overseeing the process declared the elections had been ‘free and fair’.
The elections were held to appoint a constituent assembly, which will then be responsible for running the country whilst it writes a new constitution. This is an essential process as the constitution will provide a foundation on which to build the democratic institutions, like a justice system, which are so far lacking. It will also set out the rules that will govern future parliaments, which will allow fresh elections for Tunisia’s first MPs and lead to normal governance.
The result of the election was known before the people even went to the polls. Ennahdha (the Renaissance), an Islamist party, won with 41% of the vote. This was so predictable for two reasons. Firstly, Tunisians, although moderate in their views, are nearly all Muslims and so naturally vote for a party that supports their faith. The second reason that Ennahdha did so well is that they are the most organised and well funded party, having existed underground during the Ben Ali era and it had a strong history of fighting corruption. That means that people know who they are and what they stand for, which gives them a huge advantage over the new opposition.
However, the voters have not given Ennahdha a majority in the Assembly and the party has announced that it is seeking to enter a coalition with either the CPR or Ettakatol, the two most popular secular and left-leaning parties. An agreement is likely to emerge, which will give heart to those who worry about an Islamist party being in power as secularists are unlikely to relinquish new-found freedoms. And Ennahdha itself is desperate to present itself as a moderate party, proclaiming to be inspired by Turkey’s political situation – where a mildly Islamist party, the AK, rules a secular society. Turkey enjoys the benefits of a booming economy, partly because investors are keen to make money in the Middle East and want a stable political system in which to work. Many in the West are hoping Ennahdha keep to their professed ambition. At the moment they seem to be doing so – recently the party’s leaders announced a new push for equality for women at home and in the workplace. They have also pledged to safeguard democracy.
Despite all this some observers are worried. It is possible that these promises are being made to ensure the release of frozen government funds abroad or to keep Western governments on side during the times of uncertainty. What happens in Tunisia now is crucial to the future of the region as a whole – having been a trailblazer in throwing off its dictator, the country needs to create a safe path to democracy which its neighbours can follow. But even more importantly, events in this once-insignificant North African country could dictate foreign policy all over the world. A rise in Islamism will only increase Western-Arab tensions and possibly Islamist terrorism. The people of Tunisia have a lot of hopes to fulfil.