Opportunities Taken in Mali: Ethnic Dimensions & Additional Explanations on the Emergence of MUJWA

Readers should check the TMND Twitter account for news updates on the situation in Mali, Algeria and Mauritania, where links are posted, along with occasional analysis or comments. The feed is hosted on the sidebar on this blog and also here, on Twitter.

New Armed Groups and Changing Ethnic Politics

A new militia in northern Mali, the Front de libération nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA) has emerged, opposed to both shari’ah (promoted by AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJWA) and independence for the Azawad in northern Mali (promoted by the MNLA); the group is being described as an Arab armed group, drawn from members of the Arab militia that fled Timbuktu following the advance of the MNLA, Ansar Eddine and associated forces; the group is led by a Mohamed Lamine Sidad (also transliterated as Mohamed Laime Sidat). The Arab ethnic focus speaks to distrust between Arab and Tuareg residents in the Timbuktu region especially. Historically, smuggling groups were often run by Arabs and Tuaregs separately and many Arabs in Timbuktu have feared being dominated by Tuaregs, and losing access to trade routes, during the course of the uprising. This highlights an increasingly important ethnic dimension to the evolving situation in northern Mali which has been ignored in some reporting that takes a macro-level view of the MNLA-led rebellion, although this is becoming less and less the case: Tuaregs are one of several ethnic groups in northern Mali and themselves are divided along tribal and caste lines; not all ethnic groups in the “Azawad” support the MNLA or Ansar Eddine; not all ethnic groups or castes support the rebellion at all. Individual members of one ethnic, tribal or caste group may support secession whilst others may not. The Songhay, Arab, Tuareg and other ethnic groups in northern Mali have not all rallied around the rebellion or any one faction. Many things remain in play.

An article worth reading, or summarising, from Al Jazeera by Mohamed Mahmud Abu al-Ma’ali, a Mauritanian journalist who also has worked with ANI sheds some light on this. “A Salafist Emirate in Azawad….Has the hour of its birth come?” the article discusses the relationships between the main armed groups in the area and the possibility of a “Salafi emirate” being established in northern Mali. The article provides interesting details on the relationship between AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJWA, and fits with some other reports about these groups working closely together, overlapping in objectives, personnel and even leadership. The recent announcement that Iyad Ag Ghali, who leads Ansar Eddine was naming Yahya Abu el Hammam (an AQIM man) as the leader of the Timbuktu region also fits into the basic narrative provided by Abu al-Ma’ali. Because there is suspicion of Ag Ghali and Ansar Eddine among many Arabs in Timbutuku, the group has probably allowed AQIM to take a leadership role, since the group has stronger commercial and tribal links there and its membership is more heavily Arab. Other reports have AQIM or MUJWA taking a leadership role in Gao as well.

Abu al-Ma’ali’s article begins with an overview of three of the main armed groups operating in northern Mali: The MNLA, Ansar Eddine (or Harakat Ansar ed-Din al-Salafiya) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The essay analyses the social and ideological background of each group, as well as its ideology.

The article describes the MNLA as a grouping of “secularists and independents” whose ideological orientation is not well understood among the general population of the Azawad. Although the MNLA claims to represent all tribal and ethnic groups in the Azawad its recruits and leadership are limited to the Idnan Tuareg.

The writer describes Ansar Eddine as a “popular Salafi-jihadi movement” (without commenting on its size), and describing Iyad Ag Ghali’s transformation from a secular leader of the 1990s Tuareg rebellion and nobleman of the Ifoghass Tuareg  into a Salafi-jihadi leader after spending time as the Malian Consul General in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. It does not mention specific religious scholars, leaders or movements associated with Ansar Eddine or Ag Ghali. “Under the eyes of the al-Qa’ida and with blessings from it, Ag Ghali founded the new organization ‘the Ansar Eddine Movement’. The writer claims that the new movement attracted “hundreds of people from the Ifogass tribe [. . .] and other Tuareg tribes’. Further, “it has become clear that Iyad Ag Ghali took advantage of his social status and the intellectual direction of Salafism to reap the fruits of ten years of work done by al-Qa’ida in this region, who have clearly been spreading the call of  Salafism among the population during that period”. Although the writer believes that al-Qa’ida “planted the seeds of Salafism in the virgin soil” of the Azawad, h writes that Ag Ghali has successfully made the population “respond to [his] call by meeting the dismensions of tribal separatism, Tuareg nationalism, and brining it harmony with the call to jihad”. The article goes on to describe the attacks on  Agelhok and Tassilit, saying that Ansar Eddine established shari’ah in these areas, “preventing women from going out unveiled…making men wear beards in the streets and with people started to talking about life there as they did about life in Kandahar on the eve of the Taliban’s victory.”

The author describes MUJWA as a dissident faction of AQIM, which emerged when leaders refused to take advice from sub-commander about setting up a separate katiba made up “especially from the sons of the Arab tribes in the Azawad”.  The writer says that AQIM’s leaders, “having learned from their experience with internal fighting in Algeria” decided to led the MUJWA men leave the organization while continuing “coordination with them, as a separate movement, allied in direction and goals.” In addition to former AQIM subcommanders Mohamed Ould Lamine Ould Kheirou (Abu Qaqa) and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, the writer claims MUJWA has “attracted dozens” fighters from the tribes in northern Mali and “the interface between jihadi groups and the Arabs of the Azawad just as Ansar Eddine has become the interface of jihadist groups and the Tuareg.”

A previous post on this blog, speculating about varied explanations for the emergence of MUJWA look at only three ways of thinking about the group. Abu al-Ma’ali’s is somewhere in between two of the three (see here). These developments also recall some of the arguments about AQIM’s appeal among Moors, Saharan Arabs, in Mauritania and northern Mali some time ago. This writer and others have speculated that Ansar Eddine would probably seek to use AQIM as a means of making headway in Timbuktu for these ethnic and tribal reasons (see this post) and Andrew Lebovich (see here) have speculated that Ansar Eddine and AQIM would seek to leverage AQIM’s links to the Arab Berabiche communities in Timbuktu and Abu al-Ma’ali’s analysis points in this direction as well.

The next section in Abu al-Ma’ali’s article, “Al-Qa’ida: ‘The Official Sponsor of the Emirate of Azawad’”, describes the evolution of AQIM and its predecessor groups in northern Mali and the Sahel from 2003 onward in terms of changes in strategy in waging jihad against the governments of the region. It describes how members of the organization’s affiliate groups in Mauritania made truces with the government there, setbacks for AQIM in northern Algeria and how it “enhanced its military arsenal and organization” in Libya in 2011. The author then declares that the group has prepared with MUJWA and Ansar Eddine to “announce” the establishment of an emirate in the Azawad.

This is followed by “Preparation for Military Control,” which describes how the the three Salafi-jihadi groups in northern Mali have plotted to control the three main cities in the Azawad. It describes how the group took towns by besieging them or by negotiating with local leaders. Ansar Eddine “waited to pounce” on the Tuareg majority city of Kidal, the author writes. Meanwhile MUJWA and AQIM moved on Gao and Timbuktu, because the groups’ connections to Arab tribes would help allay tensions between Arabs and Tuaregs that might arise “as a result of the chaos that defined Mali after the coup” of Captain Sanogo.

Opportunities — Presented and Seized

This writer has repeatedly stressed that AQIM is not fated, destined or predetermined to be the key actor in northern Mali or the Sahel generally. A particular set of relationships and power relationships between the MNLA, Ansar Eddine, their tribal and ethnic support bases and  the decaying Malian state and its leaders, agents and constituents offered AQIM and MUJWA the opportunity to engage in a new kind of activity and to assume a degree of direct they had not previously in northern Mali.

The MNLA, reportedly the largest of the armed groups in the north (and according to some accounts the better armed) was played by Ag Ghali’s faction, which kept its cards and intentions close to its chest before springing once events began to move more rapidly. They were out politicked and in the course of this phase of the struggle in northern Mali, they have been set back. AQIM, by far, is the winner at this stage in the rebellion. It leaders now stand poised to enter governing positions as opposed to marginal, criminal ones. AQIM is in a different position as a result of the rebellion, perhaps stronger than ever in northern Mali, more deliberately provocative and confident than ever — and surely more visible. This also makes its leaders more vulnerable and open to perhaps the kind of arrogant mistakes that make some men resentful, jealous or wrathful. There are still other armed factions forming and operating in northern Mali; the equation has not been worked out and already regional forces, whose capacity to roll these problems back is unclear, are prepared to enter the fray, adding new variables and uncertainties. If the men speaking confidently with the chests puffed out on Al Jazeera were targets before their “conquest” in Azawad, they surely remain so and offer ever more incentives to their enemies.

Where this group had been a parasite, feeding on state corruption and weak will. There is a view that was held and is probably still held by many that regardless of what name armed or criminal elements in northern Mali went by they were all seeking to exploit the security vacuum in the region; in the autumn of 2011 and winter of 2012 the MNLA seize the opportunity to pursue political objectives, profiting from an arms windfall, desperate socio-economic conditions and crumbling legitimacy in Bamako. This also presented other opportunities for the armed groups, in the way of exposing tribal and ethnic differences and creating a crisis scenario that also produced a race for control, physically and ideationally. Ansar Eddine and AQIM and MUJWA have been the main victors in this phase of the rebellion. AQIM’s Salafi-jihadi ideological framework was given an opportunity — as a result of Ansar Eddine’s need to fill ethnic and military priorities as it moved south and as it competed with the MNLA — to become manifest at a political level. The first step in that direction has been their active participation in taking populated areas during the advance south. This was a group whose origins had largely been as a financing operation for AQIM’s northern operations; it is now in a position to apply a political program. As their relationship with Ansar Eddine is clarified by means of deeds — the application of shari’ah, their dealings with local elites and the MNLA, the handling of the hostage situation with Algeria and so on — the area will become a target for regional militaries and their allies. As things stand there is probably no going back to the way things were before the rebellion, particularly the tolerance allowed to AQIM’s operations (and other groups involved in illicit trade, particularly those linked to the extremely lucrative drug trade) from by the Malian state which allowed the group to fester and grow. Things might have been different if at various points Malian or external actors made different decisions about AQIM, about the Tuareg file, about how to address “root causes” and in which contexts they addressed them. Such things do not just happen, they are made to happen.

A Few Good Articles

Some articles worth looking at given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Mali, from the last couple of years (not intended as an exhaustive or complete list in any way; readers are welcome to share but, please do not post such things as “this list needs to include…” or “this list is incomplete because it does not have such and so”; yes, it is short and incomplete — please share good articles, though!).

Merret. “Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb: A ‘Glocal’ Organization,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 31, No. 6, 2008.

Filliu. “Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?” Carnegie Middle East Program Working Paper No. 112, June 2010.

Taje. “Vulnerabilities and factors of insecurity in the Sahel,” Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD), No. 1, August 2010.

Guidere. “Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique: Le tourant des revolutions arabes,” Maghreb-Machrek, No. 208. 2011.

Lohmann. “Who Owns the Sahara?: Old Conflicts, New Menaces: Mali and the Central Sahara between the Tuareg, Al Qaida and Organized Crime,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, June 2011.

European Parliament  Committee on Political Affairs. “Working Document on the impact of the Libyan conflict on neighbouring ACP and EU states,” 24 October 2011.

Marret. “Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI),” 11 January 2011.

Fabiani. “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Implications for Algeria’s Regional and International Relations,” IAI Working Papers 11/07, April 2011.

Oris and Arenas-Garcia. “AQIM and Mauritania: Local Paradoxes, Regional Dynamics and Global Challenges,”  IECAH, 2012.

Guest Post: Byrne in Tunisia

The pictures and text below are contributed by Eileen Byrne, a Tunis-based journalist whose writing has appeared in the Sunday Times, the GuardianFinancial Times, and the Economist – placed here with permission. They were first published on the Tunisian news website Kapitalis. Readers will recall that last year she contributed to this blog a video on Tunisia and a guest post on a short trip across the border into Libya. In February she traveled to rural western Tunisia, which has had a hard time since last year’s revolution economically and socially, with unemployment and poverty (not to mention some terrible weather). In the town of Kasserine she found wide-scale corruption around a government jobs scheme, which she wrote about the Guardian in February. All pictures copyright Eileen Byrne.  ebyrne202@yahoo.com

There is a lot of good news that comes out of Tunisia and into English; the country has done much better than some of the other “Arab Spring” countries that are now engaged in muddled transitions and the leftover rivalries and troubles that come out of armed conflict. But there is still a lot of suffering in Tunisia, a lot of hunger, a lot of people that need somebody to pay attention to them.

Western Tunisia: At the Grassroots  Continue reading

Who Misses Saddam?: These guys

Readers will recall this blogger’s interest in the Ba’thist trend in Mauritania, which is mainly dominated by the Iraqi/Saddamist strain. Mauritanian Ba’this (as well as a few of the other, small Arab nationalist or nationalist-Islamist parties) had gravitated toward the Qadhafite trend while Libya spreading largesse in the country, in the last few years mainly after the 2008 coup. CRIDEM has a very short summary report of a conference on 29 December where Ba’thists and other fans of Saddam commemorated the fifth anniversary of the death of Saddam Hussein with discussions on the state of the Arab ummah (community) and Arabic poetry readings; portraits of Saddam Hussein were distributed to attendees. The CRIDEM link is also interesting for reader comments, whose tone shows the kind of sentiments Saddam’s image calls up for some Mauritanians (especially non-Arab Mauritanians) given the country’s diversity and history in the last twenty or twenty five years as it relates to race and ethnic politics. At the same it shows the extent to which Mauritanian Arabs are integrated into pan-Arab trends and political discourses,¹ how Mauritanian political culture in general has been de-territorialised over the last few decades in terms of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic and Islamist narratives and ideologies (the difference between the latter two is especially important; and in terms of ethnic differences, the way ‘Moors’ and ‘Afro-Mauritanians associate and disassociate religion from identity politics is also important (Mauritanian Ba’thists include many religious references in their propaganda and programmes; the same is true for some of the other Arab nationalist parties; also among some of the Haratine movements Arabism and Islamic identity have been used to legitimise anti-slavery and anti-discrimination efforts for the descendants of slaves), while also keeping in mind that Islam is an important part of official or semi-official Mauritanian nationalist narratives in any case — the place is called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania on purpose not by coincidence; a similar trend can also be seen in black Mauritanian ethnic politics, too, where ‘African’ as opposed to ‘Arab’ identity and pan-politics have been somewhat prominent, especially in exile). In any case an interesting event that coincides with similar such commemorations elsewhere in the Arab countries.

Continue reading

More on Comparing Islamists & Gradualism

This blog does not generally or usually deal with Morocco. It is worth looking at James Asfa’s article on the Justice and Development Party’s recent performance in Morocco’s parliamentary elections. These were less momentous and exciting than the ones in Tunisia and Egypt given the tightly managed nature of the reform process there and the enduring strength of the monarchy; but they do fit into general trend in the region and point to interesting trends in the Maghreb. The piece can be looked at as a jumping point to think about some recent developments elsewhere in North Africa; in Algeria — where the regime’s efforts to lumber through this past year through managed reforms resemble Morocco’s to a certain degree — and in transitional Tunisia and Egypt, where change has obviously been more radical and where political polarization is more intense when it comes to religion than in Morocco. Asfa’s summary of the lessons the PJD has drawn from the Algerian experience are notable and worth reading. Indeed, as Paul Pillar writes, there is some danger in ‘sloppy thinking in failing to distinguish radical Islamists (who of course have represented the most salient and worrisome form of transnational extremist violence in recent years) from all other political Islamists.’ Asfa’s piece is worth reading in these terms. Continue reading

Lacher on the Social Bases of Activity in the Libyan Revolution

Wolfram Lacher has an interesting article (‘Families, Tribes and Cities in the Libyan Revolution,’ at the Middle East Policy Council) on the role of families and tribes in the Libyan revolution, during the struggle against Qadhafi and after. Long and very interesting portions are posted below. Do read the whole thing.  Continue reading

More Links

Some worthwhile links:

An excellent series from The Atlantic on Libya’s Berbers in the wake of the revolution there. Installment one and two are here and here; a third is due Friday.

A backgrounder on AQIM from Cross the Green Mountain.

Lyes Laribi’s history of the Algerian secret services, Du MALG au DRS (in French).

Marc Lynch on ‘The Big Think Behind the Arab Spring,’ where he argues ‘the Arab peoples’ have returned to regional politics and that the Arab uprisings:

generated a marvelous range of innovative tactics (uploading mobile-camera videos to social media like Facebook and Twitter, seizing and holding public squares), they did not introduce any particularly new ideas. The relentless critique of the status quo, the generational desire for political change, the yearning for democratic freedoms, the intense pan-Arab identification — these had all been in circulation for more than a decade. What changed with the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was the recognition that even the worst tyrants could be toppled. It shattered the wall of fear.

Emily Parker on ‘Tunisia’s Election Results and the Question of Minorities,’ focused on Christians and Jews there.

The minority question is important; both in terms of non-Muslim sects and atheists (who are often neglected in questions of minorities in both predominantly Muslim and Christian society, it should be noted) and non-Sunni Muslim sects — which do exist in North Africa, especially in Tunisia (at Djerba), Libya (in Jebel Nafusa) and in Algeria (in Ghardaia). Most of these are Ibadhites though there are smaller numbers of converts to Shi’ism. This sometimes overlaps with rights for ethnic minorities, as North African Ibadhites are usually also Berbers. It will be interesting to see how minority rights issues are resolved in the countries which have recently had uprisings, especially because religious minorities are generally smaler in the Maghreb than in Egypt and the Levant (where there are very large numbers of Christians of multiple denominations), especially as Islamist parties come to the fore in government (and how secular or other non-Islamist parties treat these questions, too).

Finally there is an El Khabar article from yesterday on recent kidnappings in Mali and the Sahel, citing Algerian security sources as it warns of immanent kidnappings and describes AQIM units responsible for kidnapping foreigners and some of the politics between and within them. Below is a short listing of some of the interesting points: Continue reading

Party Hopping Again

DZCalling’s comment on the previous post on Abdallah Djaballah pointed to the ongoing power struggles and divisions in the FLN, Algeria’s former single party until 1989. It brought these points to mind which would have been a comment on that post but were not strictly related to the original point and have thus been placed here. The reference to the FLN brought to mind two things primarily: (1) generational tensions and conflicts in institutions of the political establishment; and (2) attitudes toward political change and violence as they related to some of the experiences (especially the civil war) that created those generational rifts. These are general thoughts.  Continue reading

More North African Readings

A new Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik report on the Tunisian elections (‘Tunesien: Einmal mehr Vorreiter‘ (‘Tunisia: Once Again a Pioneer’), SWP-Comments 2011, No. 49, November 2011 by Isabelle Werenfels; in German) offers positive comments on Tunisia’s election results and notes some of the economic and structural problems facing the country. It argues for European support for the country’s continued democratization; and it represents a nice break from some of the (widespread) writing in French about the Islamist element. It is worth noting that optimism is easily dashed — even if nowadays Tunisia looks quite good compared to all of its neighbors and Egypt (where transitional problems are being dealt with differently). Certainly worth reading. Continue reading

Two more articles to read

Another Jeune Afrique article on happenings in northern Mali, specifically the attitude of many Malian Arabs (Moors) toward the government in Bamako in light of recent events in Gao and Kidal on the Tuareg file. An interesting read.

Also, see this fine piece by Jihadology‘s Aaron Zelin on en-Nahdah’s recent rhetoric and its relationships with secular parties:

[. . . ] Ennahda has been in talks over the past several weeks with two secular parties, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, to form a coalition government for the new Constituent Assembly. As one can see from the above comments by Ettakatol, the two secular parties will no doubt play a productive role and provide a check on any potential Ennahda overreach.

One should be cognizant, though, that the transition will not be perfect. Moreover, with every potential accommodation Ennahda makes now that they are in power, it could erode potential grassroots support. More radical youth elements may believe that after years of suffering under the yoke of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali it is time to finally implement the oft-quoted phrase “al-Islam huwa al-Hal”; or “Islam is the Solution.” By not living up to these words one could foresee a scenario where some support is shifted to the less mainstream Salafi movement, fomenting a potential culture war in Tunisia in the medium future.

Ennahda’s pledge to respect women’s rights and not regulate social issues, such as wearing a bikini at the beach or the sale of alcohol, could become contentious issues in future elections that could pull Ennahda further to the right. Even if they do not, as more time passes since the fall of the Ben Ali regime and there are more freedoms and openness in Tunisian society, the contestation of the role of religion, its meaning, and interpretation will become a heated debate. In the near-term, though, with Ghannouchi stewarding Ennahda through the transition, such potential drift or confrontation is less likely.

Ennahda’s transition from banned opposition party to a leading voice of reform for civic Islamism is still playing out. There will be ups and downs over the next year, but its political discipline and maturity will rise over time. If there is one political party in the Middle East and North Africa that can navigate the tough challenge ahead on debating the contentious issue of the role of religion in society, Tunisia’s Ennahda party is best situated for the task. Although talk of the Caliphate is a head-turning event for many in Tunisia and in the West, since last January, Ennahda’s actual actions to date should be speaking louder than some of their ill-conceived words.

Exceptions, Agency, Structure

Richard Phelps argues that Algeria has not seen a popular uprising this year on broad structural lines (‘An Algerian Exception?‘ CMEC Blog): ‘the Algerian regime does not have an identifiable leader with whom political power truly lies’.

In Algeria, the incumbent president Abdulaziz Bouteflika is not the ultimate repository of power in the country. Instead, the military and security forces are and always have been. Indeed, the generals have consistently worked to limit his authority and power, and as a result people know that protesting against his rule may uproot him but will not uproot a more shadowy architecture behind him. Municipal elections in 1990 and parliamentary elections in 1991 offered the Algerian people the prospect for a major overhaul, when they voted in the Islamist party the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) across the board, ejecting the long-incumbent National Liberation Front (FLN).  But the military stepped in and took over, banned the FIS, and years of brutal civil war ensued after many took part in an uprising against the regime. The trauma of this experience formally confirmed to Algerians what many had always known – that it is the military that is in charge, not the politicians – and it instructed the regime that popular dissent can be successfully crushed through overwhelming and brutal force.  Thus the overwhelming security presence at the demonstrations seen to date.

For all its dissimilarities with Algeria, Lebanon is also an Arab republic with a long history of brutal political violence, and it too has been relatively unaffected by the Arab spring. In neither case is there a single identifiable leader in charge: one hears not of ‘Bouteflika’s Algeria’ as one does of ‘Asad’s Syria’, ‘Gaddafi’s Libya’, or ‘Mubarak’s Egypt’. In both cases – Algeria and Lebanon – there is widespread recognition that power does not lie with Presidents and prime ministers. In Lebanon, power is devolved along sectarian lines rather than concentrated in central government. There would therefore, be little sense in protesting against the rule of the government or a particular leader’s regime, since ultimate power does not lie with them. Continue reading

Khoury: ‘Winter or Spring for Syrian Christians?’

Doreen Khoury of Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Beirut has an interesting article titled ‘Is it Winter or Spring for Christians in Syria?’ It provides an interesting of institutions and political views and responses to Arab uprisings among Levantine Christians and in light of the Maspero atrocity. It manages to avoid the sectarian and communalist overtones of much of the western and politically vested commentary on the issue and is worth considering.

The abstract:

In recent months, there has been much debate on the future of minority Christians sects in the Arab world followingthe popular uprisings. The Maspero tragedy in Egypt, during which Coptic Christians were attacked and killed by thearmy, and the resurgence of Islamic parties in the region has led many Christians, especially in Syria and Lebanon,to question whether they will survive the Arab Spring. Many have also questioned the wisdom of regime change inSyria, arguing that the downfall of the Assad regime, long perceived as a protector of minorities, threatens the existence of Christians. But the question is to what extent is the Arab world hostile to Christians? And how wise is it forthem to support the Assad regime?

Read the whole thing here. What do readers think?

Translation: ‘In the Arab Maghreb’

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

Here is a brutish rendering of an excerpt from Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem ‘In the Arab Maghreb‘. The narrator is an Algerian independence fighter, looking at a headstone with him name written on it. It was indented as an anti-colonial version of ‘The Waste Land’. ‘Abraha’ is a reference to the Ethiopian king who led the attack against the Ka’abah and who, the story goes, was defeated through divine intervention. In the poem the narrator recalls numerous episodes from history, the fight with the Ethiopians, the Battle of Dhu Qar, ‘Abd el-Krim’s struggle in the Rif Mountains and so on, which are signs of hope as he reflects on his own situation; this passage comes as he links himself and his struggle to his ancestors’ struggles in the past. The poem is dedicated to Messali Hadj, founder of the Étoile Nord-Africaine (the first Algerian independence movement), Parti du Peuple Algérien and the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques. Continue reading

Hugh Roberts on Libya

This blog has written a little bit on some of the strange reactions and commentary about various countries’ responses to the Libya crisis (mainly Algeria because it fits into the overall focus of this blog, but also other countries). Your blogger does not have especially strong feelings about the Libya intervention as such; the way the Libyan uprising was reported and covered and talked about is more interesting and perhaps more disturbing (and a subject for some other piece of writing, somewhere else). Hugh Roberts, whose work on Algeria is of the highest quality in general and who was with the International Crisis Group until recently, has a long article in the London Review of Books explaining his skepticism of the Libya intervention, its process and the inconsistencies in media reporting and various government arguments in favor of the UN-sponsored NATO effort there. It is a respectable series of arguments and deserves serious consideration. Going beyond the usual complains about western imperialism and oil politics, Roberts argues that the intervention ‘tarnished every one of the principles the war party invoked to justify it. It occasioned the deaths of thousands of civilians, debased the idea of democracy, debased the idea of law and passed off a counterfeit revolution as the real thing.’ There many who argued against the intervention and came off as callus, wooly headed or out of touch (and there were also a great many who favored the intervention who came off as obtuse, hypocritical, out of touch and all that). Roberts comes at the issue a bit differently and his article reflects a genuine concern and consideration for political outcomes in Libya that has not been so clearly articulated by other westerners opposed to the intervention. He cannot be called impartial, as his organization (at the time), ICG, was involved in attempting to influence the course of events in Libya and so he comes with his own baggage, as he puts plainly in the piece. This background comes through in the tone and the diction of the piece but less strongly than it might if written by another analyst; readers should look through his excellent book on Algeria, The Battle Field, made up of vigorously analytical essays on that country’s civil war which are of high quality. In other words, it is hard to say that Roberts is overcome with rage or that he is writing in the interest of some obscure vested interest (aside from his own) or with ill intentions here.

He also argues that the arguments and charges made by supporters of the intervention ‘involved mystifications’ and hyperbole. There are parts of the article which this blogger finds strongly agreeable, especially on the Manichaeism which characterized so much media coverage of the war (‘good’ rebells and ‘bad’ Qadhafites, the irresponsible rhetoric on ‘black’ or ‘African’ mercenaries, the way non-western and non-Gulf positions on Libya were ‘dismissed with scorn by Western governments and press’) and in popular characterizations of the Qadhafite regime as especially different from those of the Gulf states and how easily many people bought into the regime’s public image (although Roberts is perhaps too keen on similarities between the Gulf countries and the Jamahiriyya as the latter was rather more arbitrary and capricious in its repression). He provides a well informed and generally clear-eyed analysis of the way the intervention unfolded in public. He is too light on Qadhafi’s Africa policy (he does not mention, for example, Libya’s impact on west Africa and conflicts there) but quite on the mark when he writes it ‘meant little to the many Libyans who wanted Libya to approximate to Dubai, or, worse, stirred virulent resentment against the regime and black Africans alike.’ The overt hatred expressed toward black people and dark skinned Libyans during the war does not receive enough attention from journalists. Concern about the welfare of migrants and refugees victimized by the war and accusations of being ‘mercenaries’ was treated with cynicism and indifference in western media, especially at the start of the conflict and atrocities against them are underreported (one can find equivocations and balancing, Well they really could be mercenaries!). But one must ask: What did Qadhafi’s regime itself have to do with the oppression and mistreatment of black people in Libya, which is well known and was widespread among average people and the Libyan security forces and police, before the war? If Qadhafi was such a sincere pan-Africanist, why was such bigotry tolerated before? The piece is quite good on media coverage of Qadhafite versus rebel atrocities and NTC misinformation, which has become a something in between a running joke and an irritation among some reporters. Roberts is generally correct when he writes: ‘The standards of proof underpinning Western judgments of Gaddafi’s Libya have not been high.’ This is especially true in popular media and even (if not especially at times) on Al Jazeera and other places praised for their coverage of the war; it was perhaps most obvious during the recent war. And then there is the problem of the Libyan Imazighen (Berbers): Roberts is too brief on them and their struggles (he is also quite correct in the way he discusses the Qadhafite view of Libyan society and enforced homogeneity on ‘legitimate’ forms of Libyan identity and how this has been carried over in rebel discourse, see here for an example). There was not only a problem of ‘recognition'; there was a concerted effort to erase them from public vocabulary, to do away with their language and to discourage its preservation; people were beaten and threatened and tortured to that end. Whether one agrees with Roberts’s view of the intervention or not (or with some of the assertions made about the Qadhafite regime), his account is worth reading and reflecting on. Readers can make their minds up about it for themselves.

Studies VIII: ‘Ethics’ & Performance

The translation below is an excerpt from the Tunisian Communist Workers Party pamphlet ‘On Secularism,’ (by Hamma Hammami) other sections of which has been translated elsewhere on this blog. This excerpt was posted on the PCOT’s website on 27 October, 2011. It is interesting that this was posted so close to the election; it appears to reinforce convictions in the rightness of the leftist perspective as non-communist forces gained on the party, especially in the Islamist tendency (who are mentioned explicitly; in PCOT literature الظلاميون ‘obscurantists’ is often a euphemism for Islamists). The re-publication of this excerpt on the site can be seen as a part of the party’s reaction to the electoral environment in general; communist tendencies in most Arab countries today are non-conformist in that they are the opposite of dominant opposition and political forces which are accommodating of political Islam and religious views (which are vastly more popular), the market liberal economic consensus (especially among non-Islamist factions) and the predominant view of religion in society which is usually conservative and comfortable with having religion used as a core pillar of collective (including national) identity. It focuses on the changing nature of socially acceptable behavior and political ideas. This translation was done quickly and without a dictionary and so edits will likely be made. Continue reading

The Public Portrait of a Gerontocrat

It is often said that the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is aging and suffering from a wide range of sicknesses. Algerians mock him as a Micky Mouse president; he is short and old and there are many videos and images on the Internet of his face pasted to a dancing baby or cartoon character. Some of his public comments have been put into satirical hip hop songs or techno jams. One is not surprised given the nature of Algerian humor and his popularity among young people (which is generally low). How has Bouteflika’s public persona as reflected in his speeches and rhetoric changed over the twelve years he has been in power? What is he like in public?

His speeches can have a goofy and demagogic feeling to them which can be amusing. Bouteflika used to complement his tiny voice with a wide range of gestures and fist pounding, which he occasionally uses nowadays. As a politician, Bouteflika was a very fine public speaker, particularly when compared to his predecessors with Colonel Chadhli Bendjedid being a good example of one of the sadder public speakers in the Maghreb (Bouteflika is not as eloquent as Morocco’s Hassan II, though, and their styles were/are drastically different for rather different audiences. He is easier to listen to in Arabic than General Gaid-Salah who sounds rather gruff and unpleasant even for a military man, no offense to military men.) He sometimes makes jokes for the camera or puts on an energetic and angry tone, waving his finger in the air, seeming to jump up and down in his seat if giving a speech form behind a desk rather than a podium.

After a decade in power and the deterioration of his health (kidney troubles, ulcers and so on) Bouteflika is far less exciting though he still makes a fair amount of public appearances for someone in his condition. Bouteflika has had a long political career. It has been generally consistent over time though there are marked changes in the last few years and these are the result of natural causes rather than rhetorical strategy per se). He does not bang his fist as much these days and he is not capable on most days it seems of raising or inflecting his voice to the extent he did even three or four years ago. Readers can judge this for themselves: compare his speech on reform from earlier this year to his early campaign speeches or the speeches he made in his earliest ones as president. Or even compare his speeches from 2009 to those from this past year. He has aged (he is 74) though he still seems to favor dark three-piece suits almost year round and over time looks like he has taken to less and less busy ties (he always favored darker, more modest colors and even more so nowadays it seems). On occasion one will see Bouteflika in public wearing traditional clothes of whatever region he is visiting, a bournous here a djabellah there and so on. He dresses like an old man and has always embraced a public presentation that made him look grandfatherly or avuncular and he does not attempt to look younger than he is by dying his hair (like Mubarak and Ben Ali did for example) or the like. He embraces his age linking it to his revolutionary credentials and his association with Houari Boumediene. Of Algeria’s presidents, Bouteflika has built the closest thing to a personality cult without quite getting there in the proper sense (as seen here) and nothing quite on the order of the Moroccan monarchy or the As’ad or Mubarak or Qadhafite sort (Algerians react poorly to such things) and in the Arab context is not especially exceptional in this way.

Below are eleven videos. Most have years with them but some do not and readers are welcome to give their estimates or clarifications. All are in Arabic and/or French, some include remarks in Kabyle (by people who are not Bouteflika). No translations but non-Arabophone and Francophone readers will be able to make observations based on body language and inflection and tone and so on. Some are long and one can get a sense of them by clicking through the video. Your blogger realizes that this is a lot of Bouteflika and it is not meant as an endorsement but these are worth looking through given his health issues and that he has been in power for twelve years and the regime he heads up has thus far withstood the Arab uprisings. What is this very short man like in public? See for yourself.  Continue reading

El-Amrani & Lindsay on Tunisia

Issandr El-Amrani and Ursula Lindsay have an excellent and exciting overview of the Tunisian elections at MERIP. The pair describe the performance and background of Nahdah, the major secular parties and the overall atmospherics of the poll and campaign. Your blogger has stated on this blog and elsewhere that while the Islamist tendency is important in Tunisia and elsewhere, it is worthwhile to pay attention to political trends outside that file. Even though an-Nahdah won a plurality of seats in the constituent assembly, it did not win a majority and the parties which won the rest are still important: an-Nahdah will not be able to act unilaterally and will before into coalitions and politics with other, mainly secular, parties as many observers have noted. El-Amrani and Lindsay do a terrific job at describing the main secular tendencies in the constituent assembly and why they performed the way they did and their attitudes and relationships with an-Nahdah. The conclusion:

The first post-Ben Ali government resulting from an election — Tunisia’s first free and fair one, at that — is likely to be composed of an Ennahda-CPR-Ettakatol alliance. With over 62 percent of seats in the constituent assembly, this coalition should be stable enough to provide a centrist consensus for both the constitution and government policy. Yet, even within this alliance, there are significant divergences over how to proceed with regard to the constitution and the mechanisms by which it will be decided, what kind of policies the interim government should (or has the legitimacy to) carry out, as well as negotiations over the government’s formation (with many secularists, for instance, weary of Ennahda’s interest in the education portfolio). The question of who will be Tunisia’s next president and whether the political system will be parliamentary (as Ennahda prefers) or semi-presidential (as CPR, Ettakatol and most other parties advocate) will also loom large over the next year. Reconciling these differences will not be easy, but at least, for the first time in its post-independence history, Tunisia has genuine politics.

They do not discuss the Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT), which won just two seats, leaving market space open for others to cover that small party’s strategy and politics which are quite interesting if obscure (in fact, it seems most roundups omit the party because it won only two seats, which in some instances reflects writers’ ideological biases/ignorance (no names named) or, as is likely in this case, demands fo space and format and a careful consideration of the major power centers and what is most urgent for the reader; this blog has covered them as a matter of principle). Ettajdid (former communists; El-Amrani has written on some of their tendencies before) and PDM (mentioned in the piece) also deserve attention, having won seats and representing the left. Again, this blogger believe it is important to fill in the whole picture when it comes to the Arab countries that have seen uprisings. There are many more forces at work than just Islamist sects, as El-Amrani and Lindsay show here and others struggle to recognize.