Another Take on ‘The Malian Crisis as seen from Algeria’

The Malian crisis seen from Algeria,’ by Thomas Seres (19 April 2012) presents an analysis of Algerian perceptions of the upheaval in northern Mali. This analysis is insufficient in explaining Algerian behaviour in response to the rebellion in northern Mali or to the March coup d’etat and misidentifies Algerian priorities in relation to the ‘Sahelo-Saharan Space’ and Algeria’s relationships with extra-regional actors in the west.  Additionally, its underlying assumptions about Algerian foreign policy in the Sahel and the west do not match with observations of Algerian behaviour in the past or at the present time. Seres’s analysis also highlights some of the problems facing those seeking to analyse Algeria’s foreign policy and the relationship between its internal politics and external behaviour.

This post does not cover all parts of Seres’s analysis. Instead, it looks at the assumptions Seres starts with upfront, examines some of the claims made and thinks out-loud about some of the problems it shows in popular thinking about Algeria’s relationships with its neighbours. Many of these issues have been raised or discussed on this blog at various times on this blog and so this post proceeds casually; it will be followed by a series of posts looking at problems in analysing Algerian politics and foreign policy in the next several weeks.

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Zelin on Maaroufi

The Salafi and Salafi-jihadi trends in Tunisia will be of increasing interest, especially as en-Nahdhah moderates its positions in hopes of governing together with secular and left-wing parties. The party’s moves to the center open space for more conservative and more “radical” elements to rally supporters in the name of a more pure Islamist cause. As was seen after the incidents at Bir Ben Khalifa and Sfax (and in Jendouba) earlier this year where Salafis clashed with local authorities and some were arrested suggest Tunisia’s Salafi trend, more or less peaceful if pushy, does still contain important confrontational and violent elements. Groups like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) have been covered well by Aaron Zelin on his blog and recently on Tunisia Live. AST is active on jihadist forums and identifies itself with jihadist causes explicitly on Facebook and elsewhere, and its leadership includes experienced jihadists who fought in Afghanistan and are well connected with militant networks in North Africa and Europe. His latest profile is of Tarek Maaroufi who recently returned to Tunisia from Belgium, after spending time in prison there for his role in the Brussels Cell. Maaroufi was involved in the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) and spent time in Afghanistan. Zelin writes:

The main modus operandi of Maaroufi’s “Brussels cell” was facilitating document forgery and recruiting individuals to fight abroad. As such, based on Maaroufi’s background, one could surmise that he may be attempting to tap into the swell of Tunisian Salafi youth that are outraged by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of their Sunni brethren. Such speculation could be bolstered by Abu Ayyad’s remark in an interview with As-Sabah last week that “we have a large group of young people who want to go out to jihad in Syria.” Based on past relations between Abu Ayyad and Maaroufi, and the fact that Abu Ayyad leads AST, it is possible that Maaroufi may be recruiting individuals to go fight in Syria—or that he may end up doing so if he remains in Tunisia. During the height of the Iraq war, Tunisia was a key staging area where fighters from Europe and North Africans West of Libya would go prior to making their trip to Syria and then later into Iraq. These networks may be re-established for the jihad in Syria, and Maaroufi could ultimately play a role in their regeneration.

The flow of fighters into Syria could be a future issue for Tunisia. Unlike many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia was unaffected by major violence following the Soviet jihad of the 1980s following the return of foreign fighters. One of the main reasons for this was a lack of promotion on the part of the former Tunisian regime to send unwanted individuals abroad. Though the current government is not promoting jihad abroad, the access to information through the internet has changed the game. There are already reports of Lebanese, Palestinians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Europeans joining the Syrian jihad. The last thing Tunisia needs though is a group of hardened fighters returning in a few years while the country is still transitioning to a better future leading to potential instability, especially if the economy continues to sputter. This is why although Maaroufi may only be in Tunisia for ten days, more should be paying attention, or at least determining his true intentions.

Zelin mentions Libyans showing up in Syria; these reports have been somewhat murky but there is no secret about militia leaders in Libya encouraging men to head to Syria or arms from Libya reaching the Syrian rebel fighters. And there appears to be official tolerance for whatever flow of men and guns may be moving to Syria from Libya (as well as overt support for the Syrian National Council from Tripoli, diplomatically, financially and in humanitarian terms). Imam Shaykh ‘Aymad Drissi was reported to have confirmed that fighters from Benghazi had gone to fight the As’ad regime in Syria, while saying jihad in Syria was incumbent on all Muslims and calling on Libyans to support the fight in Syria financially, morally or through pray and praised Libyans electing to take up arms there. At present these are relatively minor variables, but nonetheless worth watching as things change in the region, and outside actors (in the Gulf especially, but elsewhere too) push for the continued militarisation of the Syrian crisis. It is of course also important to be wary of exaggerated and false claims by the Syrian regime and its supporters about hordes of Libyan and Jordanian Salafites massing at the country’s borders, poised to wage an epic jihad against the Damascus government, designed or deceive internal and external opinion of Syria’s rebels — and there are no shortage of such reports in Arabic coming out in the last few months.

General Thoughts on the Tuareg rebellion and AQIM

This post continues some of the questions raised in the post immediately preceding it, with respect to AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), the Tuareg rebellion in Mali (and the subsequent coup) and other similar problems. The proliferation of arms and  armed groups in northern Mali since the fall of the Qadhafi regime in Libya has created opportunities and probably the necessity for AQIM to move men and activity into southern Libya, and potentially Nigeria. The Mali safe haven, for the time being, looks less hospitable to the group and conditions there mean that AQIM will likely seek out space and links in Libya to compensate for short-term losses in northern Mali and may evolve its leadership to seek a more deliberate and longer lasting presence in Libya, which is likely to become a priority for AQIM in the future. This post explores this possibility in context of recent evens in the region as it relates to armed groups in northern Mali and instability in southern Libya. It does not claim to provide any answers or satisfy all readers but mainly to explore possibilities emerging in a fluid environment.  Continue reading

Just a Note on Mauritania

These are some general thoughts on the political situation in Mauritania as they stand now. The country is divided in significant ways and the economic situation leaves much to be desired for the average person, a situation many can attest to. The  Some of this is economic — owing to drought, mismanagement, unemployment, food insecurity and the like — some of it is the result of distinctly domestic or external factors. The violence related to the census protests (remember the ‘Don’t Touch My Nationality’ campaign) in September and October was notable in that the government’s response was to cancel the census, which also meant the legislative elections — which had already been pushed back to October from earlier dates — had to be postponed for the spring (also creating the potential for a constitutional crisis). The scheduling of the municipal and legislative elections will be a major point to watch in the next few months. Some of these problems were worked out during the dialogue between parts of the opposition (led mainly by the APP and a few smaller parties, El Wiam, Hammam, and Sawab; the RFD, UFP and the rest of the COD, boycotted the dialogue; the process left the opposition bitterly divided) and the UPR, especially the provision of an independent electoral commission. As interesting is the fact that there have been so many generalised and organised expressions of economic and political dissatisfaction in the last three to four months. Strikes, threats of strikes, sit-ins, youth and opposition demonstrations have gone on with some regularity. There was a rally for the ruling UPR at Nouadhibou not long ago where very few people showed up aside from functionaries and there are signs of cracks in the party (one commentator called it ‘a giant with feet of clay‘). The fall of Qadhafi deprived President Ould Abdel Aziz of an important source of largesse and external rent which helped him buy allies and build his political base; a number of big mining and energy deals came through this year which probably helped balance this off but this was probably (though not surely) the best performing part of the economy. There is an impression many of the mining deals that went through in the autumn and early winter were part of an effort to raise money, rent-seeking; and in the general sense there are reports of widespread nepotism from members of the president’s family, getting a stake in this company or that one, putting pressure on banks for their own benefit. Even at SNIM there have been reports about top level scrabbles where professional engineers have complained about family ties getting the way of work; earlier in the year there was a scandal over interns who never showed up to work but were give large stipends regardless. Agriculture and other critical areas were hard hit by bad weather; the Red Cross/Crescent recently said about a million Mauritanians will go hungry in 2012 unless something is done to avert it — that one million number is out of just under four million people. So things are hard in Mauritania and that is not new. How this will impact how things in Mauritania play out in 2012 is worth pondering. This blog has focused on the AQIM and security element but there are problems the country faces that are in some ways more serious and potentially more (or as) destabilising than terrorism or banditry; this should not be forgotten. The country continues to suffer from ‘rent-driven underdevelopment’, which Mamoun A. Ismaili discusses in a recent essay in the IPRIS Maghreb Bulletin (Autumn/Winter 2011). Ismaili’s essay is a good primer on Mauritania’s political economy and its background, and puts the current government into historical perspective. It also sums up some of the recent episodes described in this post.

  1. Ismaili, Mamoun A. ‘Power Devolution in Mauritania: The Chasse Gardée of a Rent-Seeking Elite,’ Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security, Maghreb Bulletin, No. 12 (Autumn/Winter, 2011), pp. 3-7.

AQIM Link Roundup

A short roundup of links related to al-Qa’idah in the Islamic Maghreb from the last few days. In the main these stories deal with relations between Mali and the Polisario (there were reports of a deterioration in relations and Bamako withdrawing from ties with the Polisario and then that Mali had agreed to allow the Polisario right of pursuit into its territory), the issuance of arrest warrants by the Mauritanians that includes alleged AQIM leaders but also an individual called Mustapha Ould Limam al-Shafe’i who is an important figure in regional politics and an opponent of the Ould Abdel Aziz government,¹ reports on developments within AQIM (leadership changes and divisions on national lines) and the breakaway MOJWA group (‘ ‘ on ethno-national divisions), the relationship between AQIM and Boko Haram and new reports of al-Qa’idah recruitment efforts and emplacement in Libya. As many have said recently, these are interesting times in northwest Africa. Additionally, the rift between Nouakchott and Rabat was a continued point of discussion in Mauritania in particular, where the Foreign Minister told parliament the expulsion of the MAP correspondent (see the last update) had contributed to improving Mauritania’s relations with Morocco. The Algeria angle also got attention in media. Also on the list is a piece this writer wrote for the great blog Al-Wasat (30 December) on the promotion of Gen. Bachir Tartag to head the DSI within the Algerian intelligence service (DRS), looking at the media coverage of the appointment and putting it in political context.

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The Coffin and Libya’s War in Chad

The Imtidad Blog has a translation of an excerpt from التابوت (The Coffin) Abdallah al-Ghazal’s 2003 novel on the Libya-Chad ‘Toyota War’. The conflict over the Azou Strip on the southern border between Libya and Chad was a major point in Libya foreign policy in the 1970s and 1980s, with several clashes and interventions from the Libyan side into Chad from 1978 through till 1987. The conflict was eventually settled at high costs for the Libyans especially who lost thousands and thousands of men and lots of materiel (although there are impressive descriptions of the Libyans troops and weapons from north to south over more than a thousand kilometres by air and ground the Libyans were melted in combat and suffered from trouble with their Chadian clients and their politics). The technical component in the war has aroused some interested, as the term ‘Toyota War’ suggests, though the role of air power has been another focus. The history is nowadays neglected, especially since Libya became closely tied to Chad’s leadership after the conflict ended. Academic books have been written on the subject and it features prominently in some works on African geopolitics or Libyan foreign policy in Africa; there do not seem to be many accounts of the fighting on the Libyan side that are easily accessible in general. It is not obscure to Africa or Libya watchers but does not always stand out in the way other African conflicts do.*

In any case, al-Ghazal’s novel is quite worth reading: this reader came across the Arabic version a couple of years ago and finished it in June or July of this year and not being a literary person he is not in a good place to judge its artistic quality. التابوت The Coffin holds attention and gives a sense of what an individual’s experience was like in one of these miserable and needless conflicts you read about in political and security literature or see caricatured in bad cinema (there is actually an awful Pauly Shore comedy (‘In the Army Now’) about a couple of dimwitted American reservists caught in the midsts of a Libyan invasion of Chad). It was worth going through in Arabic. The translated excerpt at Imtidad is decent but if the reader has a sense for Arabic the renderings that may come off as awkward or robotic do make sense and most of it does capture the style and feel of al-Ghazal’s narrative (that is not meant as criticism, given the blocky translations that go up on this site). Hopefully there will be more translations of the book at Imtidad as has been promised. Continue reading

Vandewalle on Qadhafite Reform

On 15 December, Dirk Vandewalle, the great Libya scholar, wrote in the Guardian:

In an earlier article, weeks after Saif’s infamous speech in which he vowed to help crush all opposition, Barber exhorted us to “engage with Saif’s better instincts, for Libya’s sake” (Yes, he’s a Gaddafi. But there is still a real reformer inside, 13 April). Barber, like several other western public intellectuals and well-known academic figures that were brought to Libya to help provide a veneer of respectability to the regime, never really understood what they were up against. His support of Saif – a self-appointed reformer who argued for accountability but, without accountability, spent millions of dollars of his country’s money for his personal enjoyment – was a particularly egregious example.

But nowhere is his lack of understanding of Libya’s reality under Gaddafi so apparent as when he tries to parse Saif’s role in the uprising by asking whether he was “merely a cheerleader for the regime, or … giving orders?” Doesn’t he understand that in a brutal dictatorship like Libya’s, Saif’s privileged position in effect made that distinction purely academic?

Perhaps the point is simply that everyone should desist offering unsolicited advice, and let Libyans get on with the formidable tasks they face in rebuilding a country that, in part because of Saif Gaddafi’s actions, suffered so much. 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

Things written recently

Some superficial thoughts about goings on in the region in general based on some recent reports and articles.

This week’s issue of The Economist has two interesting articles: one on the Sahel countries (minus Mauritania and mostly interested in Tuaregs) and the aftermath of recent events in Libya and another optimistic piece on Libya’s relations with the NTC’s wartime allies (Qatar, it reports is the ‘worst offender’ in meddling in the country’s internal politics; many Tunisians angry about an-Nahdah say the same).

The big picture on Chad is also interesting: ICG put out a good report on Chad a few weeks ago, ‘Africa without Qaddafi: The Case of Chad‘. This is especially worth reading after looking at ICG’s March 2010 report on Libyan-Chad relations (‘Beyond Political Influence‘). 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.

Addendum on ‘Another take on Algeria’s Libya Policy’

This post is an addendum on the previous post on Abed Cheref’s piece on Algeria’s Libya policy. Cheref’s column did not focus on Libyan or regional public opinion insofar as Algeria’s Libya policy is concerned. Cheref does not directly ask How will Libyan and other views of Algeria’s policy during the war relate to its regional positioning? That Cheref does not broach this issue and directs his criticism at Bouteflika is generally unsurprising, for reasons the reader can likely glean for himself. The importance as far as Algerian foreign policy would be concerned is that new Libyan leaders at any level, like the Mubaraks during the World Cup fiasco, might be tempted to demagog Algeria’s ‘neutrality’ during the conflict for parochial gain harming Algerian interests, which the sacking of the Algerian embassy in Tripoli was a good example (it came mainly from the bottom rather than the top, of course, which shows a potential point for bating). Cheref appears to make the reasonable conclusion that this is relatively unlikely (probably) because of the material interests (high politics) between the two countries would probably secularize nationalistic tendencies (though the Algerian experience with Morocco might also point to a need to consider managing Algeria’s image in Libya). In any case, this brings to mind how Algeria has been written about in general as far as the uprisings have been concerned and how the Algerians seem to spend less time on public relations than many other Arab regimes. Continue reading

Another take on Algeria’s Libya policy

The elements and consequences of Algeria’s Libya policy during the recent war is a point of continuing interest for this blogger. Le Quotidien Oran ran Abed Cheref’s analysis of Algeria’s Libya policy on 27 October. Cheref begins by lamenting that although Algeria and Egypt ought to have had a ‘leading role’ in managing the Libyan crisis, neither government ventured to do so. He boils their basic interests down to national stability, describes some of the internal dynamics which defined Algeria’s posture  — such as the views of the President, the Army and the security services (DRS) — and then describes the ‘absence of institutional functioning’ in Algerian foreign policy which Cheref writes does not function well under normal circumstances let alone in a time of crisis. This dysfunction comes from excessive centralization of decision-making around the presidency which hinders Algerian diplomats from ‘taking the initiative and adapting’ to changing circumstances without going through President Bouteflika who, as Cheref and virtually everyone else notes, ‘still considers himself the foreign minister.’ Cheref thus chocks up Algeria’s poor showing during the Libya crisis up to ‘the presence of a man like Mr. Bouteflika at the summit of power.’

Not only is his reading of events based on a grid from the middle of the last century, it is at odds with the full reality, and the operations of the centers of power are thereby paralyzed which does not allow the adjustments necessary to defend the best interests of the country.

Cheref argues that had the Algerians recognized the CNT earlier on and shown support for the Libyan rebels Algeria’s regional interests would have been better served by now. He writes that Algeria might have been able to mediate between the rebels and Qadhafi if Algiers had established earlier and firmer contacts with CNT, which could have helped ‘avoid mistakes that led to the irreparable Civil War’ in Libya. The reader is doubtful that after a certain point such mediation would have been useful: rebel forces rejected dialogue with the Qadhafi government rather early in the crisis and after that stage in the struggle accommodation with Qadhafi was totally rejected, even before the military situation turned drastically against the Qadhafites. Cheref views Algeria as more vulnerable after the Libyan crisis. Its borders are more exposed to ‘all kinds of threats’ including great power exploitation. Cheref believes the situation can be ameliorated through greater regional cooperation with Sahel countries and Tunisia and Libya; he points to economic solutions, calling for Algiers to rethink its regional posture, arguing that Algeria’s Libya policy has locked it in place while the rest of the region changes. Cheref concludes by asking ‘Can Algeria have influence on change in the region if she herself does not change?’ Cheref’s concluding question points to the need for political change in Algeria as a way of producing a more dynamic foreign policy. The country’s internal politics are not dynamic and this is reflected in its foreign policy and magnified in times of crisis. He points to Bouteflika as the heart of the problem but understandably offers no alternative. And while Cheref argues for a rethinking of Algeria’s regional posture he does not argue for a total restructuring of the basic principles of Algerian foreign policy. He argues that Algeria should have been pragmatic by taking a keener tone toward the NTC, not that Algiers should support Arab uprisings as a matter of principle, though he does mention Libya’s role in Algeria’s war of independence.

Qadhafi: Not Funny?

Your blogger is usually irritated by efforts to make humor out of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi’s clothes or speeches or whatever other superficialities he used to play the fool with foreigners (some of the ‘Zenga Zenga‘ videos were amusing in a brainless way). Such things are usually more vulgar than amusing, more profane than insightful. Saturday Night Live‘s effort at lampooninging his General Assembly speech, for instance, played into the distraction and offered virtually no satire or humor at all. An even more recent one, where Qadhafi appears on SNL’s fake news program and satirizes the rationale for the American intervention in Libya, manages to get lose its satire in a series 80s jokes and references to Qadhafi’s wardrobe (the jokes about the American domestic debate over the no-fly-zone and Hillary Clinton are so full of pained effort the viewer laughs in pity). These are objections both to the messaging (or absence of messaging) in a great deal of North American humor (supposedly) at Qadhafi’s expense and to its quality as political humor.

Political satire, like much art, is a kind of propaganda. It is best if its authors can recognize that much. When they attempt to do otherwise it damages their craft and the audience’s experience. But many of these attempts, especially SNL’s, are not merely poor pieces of political satire in their constitution; they are also unfunny and not clever as television comedy on their own, which is not a controversial thing to say about Saturday Night Live. ‘The Official Visit,’ an episode of Yes, Minister (ancient, sure)offers a fictionalized satire of western politicians hungry for African business and domestic plaudits bringing wrangling with an ideologically objectionable (though in the end pragmatic) dictator in a way that somewhat closely resembles the rehabilitation of Qadhafi. Characteristic of the series, ‘The Official Visit’ is direct in its invective and offers many laughs (some of them ethnocentric for sure) without losing sight of its political message. Too much contemporary late night political humor is aimless (or tries too hard to say a lot while communicating nothing) and pointless. In any case, unlike recent Qadhafi-humor, the clip above manages to be somewhat funny.

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Thoughts on a Whig Approach to Qadhafi’s Death

Well meaning human rights groups and writers watched the humiliation of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi with horror. He faced no charges, stood at no trial and was dumped in a shipping container with a bullet in his head. Pity he could not have faced a trial before the Libyan people or some international authority rather than being ripped up and executed in the street. Your blogger feels this was fitting enough: Qadhafi allowed his own enemies nothing much better. It is reasonable to worry that this might set a precedent for more such revenge killings for his supporters, that this might inspire (or validate) a tendency toward arbitrary mob ‘justice’ in the new Libya. It also the case that in the course of the war there was much of this sort of revenge killing on the fly. Those and the ones which may happen now and in the future are quite significant. Qadhafi’s death itself is emotionally satisfying but politically somewhat beside the point. The ‘tide’ had turned in Libya no later than the capture of Tripoli; building institutions (which it is now commonplace to say Qadhafi left none) and monopolising the use of force is paramount now. As Paul Pillar notes, Qadhafi was not Napoleon and his elimination does not alter things for the new authorities in Libya any more than the capture of Saddam Hussein did for Americans in Iraq. Continue reading

Names and Strange Descriptions

[In reading this post the reader will find that it has no exact 'point' per se.]

Mu’amar al-Qadhafi called his fourth son Hannibal after the Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca who shocked Rome by marching with his men and war elephants across the Pyrenees and the Alps in the Second Punic War. Hannibal’s father Hamilcar commanded Carthaginian forces in the First Punic War and Hannibal grew up under the shadow of the harsh treaty Carthage was forced to sign after being defeated by Rome in that conflict; Hamilcar had a nasty reputation, perhaps exaggerated by Roman historians, for brutality against his enemies, Polybius called his war against the mercenary uprising in 240 BCE a ‘truceless war’ without comparison in terms of brutality and ruthlessness (the mercenaries, he wrote, castrated 700 Carthaginian prisoners, breaking their legs and chopping off their hands before dumping them in a mass grave; the Carthaginians tortured their Libyan prisoners to death). But his performance in the First Punic War and the Mercenary War, despite their complications (losing the first war and losing control of Sardinia to Rome without a fight in the second) won him and his line prestige in Carthage. He groomed Hannibal as his successor and passed to his son a burning hatred for the Roman enemy. Hannibal prepared his whole life for an epic confrontation with Rome. Hannibal was of course defeated by Scipio Africanus in battle at Zamma in 202 BCE. Hannibal remains a fixture in military and world history partly because the (three) wars fight between Rome and Carthage, and their political fallout, were so important in Roman identity and history that they wrote extensively on them we have many narratives about Hannibal as a menace in the face and psyche of a European imperial power (little is left of the Carthaginian side of the story) and (perhaps more so) because they cemented Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean.

One might assume that Mu’amar al-Qadhafi might name one of his sons after a character out of Carthage, given his anti-colonial mindset and obsession with defiant figures in North African military history, like the ‘Umar al-Mukhtar who led the Libyan resistance to Italian colonial occupation till his capture in 1932. Having named one of his sons Hannibal one wonders how closely Qadhafi identifies with Hamilcar; one considers this especially given his past treatment of Berbers and other non-Arabs in Libya (whom he treated with utterly aggressive contempt; note also that Hannibal and Hamilcar were Punics, from what is now Tunisia who conquered and ruled Libya from the outside). Certainly Mu’amar al-Qadhafi saw himself as an African Arab although one can easily see him admiring Hannibal’s siege of Rome, the ancient ancestor of Libya’s old brutal colonial occupiers in Italy. Looking at it this way an observer might find a theme of wrath and revenge in his sons’ names (one of them is called Seif al-Arab and another Seif al-Islam; the other sons’ names lend less support this assertion) and that this may reveal something to the layered complexes (they used to say he suffered from a hubris-nemesis complex) that help make up the psyche of a man like Qadhafi. A tragic figure like Hannibal fits well into an antagonistic nationalist myth, especially ones held by paranoid, ambitious and shameless men. Carthage had far greater geopolitical significance in its time than Qadhafi’s Jamahiriyyah ever did; Qadhafi’s death and the fall of his experimental regime is the end of a cruel invective against the human spirit running in a stream of consciousness over forty two years.  Continue reading

Mu’amar al-Qadhafi: Dead.

The ‘Brother Leader’ is dead. Let us not say ‘Long live the Brother Leader.’

At The Economist (the greatest magazine there is):

He ruled unsparingly. In his Libya, dissent was punishable by death. A private press was forbidden, and political parties banned. Several dozen deaths a year of political opponents were attributed to his secret police, acting on tip-offs from the surveillance committees to which around 10% of Libyans belonged. In Abu Salim prison, on one night in 1996, 1,200 political prisoners died. If his enemies fled abroad, his hired assassins found these “scum” and killed them. The colonel’s writ, as recorded in his “Green Book” of rambling political philosophy, replaced the rule of law.

[. . .]

Around this figure the West, for four decades, prevaricated. The young colonel’s “Third Mystery of Socialism”, a middle way between capitalism and communism which, in his words, solved all the contradictions of either system, seemed unthreatening enough. His people’s communes were blatantly powerless, his own “brotherly” power absolute, but then absolutism was common enough in oil-producing states. He was not a Marxist, at least: Egypt’s nationalist hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was his model, rather than Lenin. And he had oil.

Eventually tolerance snapped. In the 1980s, as Colonel Qaddafi shopped round the Far East for nuclear bombs, sponsored terror groups, invaded Chad in the cause of a “Greater Libya” and sent agents to blow up a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland, he became a pariah: Ronald Reagan’s “mad dog”, to be bombed until he whimpered. But by the new century he was ingratiating himself. He said the right things about al-Qaeda; offered his nuclear programme for inspection, and in 2003 abandoned it; paid compensation for Lockerbie; and, apparently chastened by his own military incompetence, seemed to have forgotten his windy pan-Arab and pan-Islamist dreams. In a world suddenly teeming with dangerous Islamists, he was now far from the worst. At the G8 in 2009 he shook hands with Barack Obama. The same year he was allowed to speak for more than an hour at the UN, repaying its tolerance by tearing from the UN Charter the pages that talked about democracy.

[. . .]

Almost to the last, too, he tried to pose as one of his people. When protesters first erupted on the streets of Tripoli this year, he offered to protest along with them. Surely, after years of venomous pabulum from his “Green Book”, they would have learned to think as he did. But they were beginning to dare to think differently—about Libya, and about him.

‘Libya is in Africa’

After Michele Bachmann implied Libya was on some continent other than Africa during the Republican primary debate tonight, ‘Libya is in Africa’ has been trending on Twitter. Congresswoman Bachmann probably knows that Libya is in Africa; or at least one hopes she does. The live audience seemed not to notice the comment and as a marginal candidate one can doubt the general relevance of a comment such as this. Congresswoman Bachmann is a legislator with many defects (she also polls badly and can thus get away with saying Iraq should pay reparations to the United States for its ‘liberation'; how someone like her sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence is beyond your blogger). But Americans are not famous for their geographic intelligence; this blogger would not be surprised if a sizable number of Americans are unsure of which continent Libya sits on. Samia Ben Charqui dug up a screen capture of a CNN broadcast where Tripoli, Lebanon and a map of the Middle East stood in for Tripoli, Libya and a map of North Africa. Congresswoman Bachmann is not the only elite American who cannot place Libya.

Thoughts on Sameness

The Libyan intervention was considerably more controversial than media coverage often let on. The positions of countries aside from the United States and NATO countries were often caricatured or ignored from March through August. Opposition or skepticism of the NATO intervention was often interpreted as ‘support’ for the Qadhafi regime or a cynical attempt to avoid precedent-setting as it might relate to small states with ‘internal issues’ relative to big ones. It is often along these lines that the response of many medium-sized countries to the Libyan crisis (if not the Arab uprisings in general) has been a subject of curiosity for some commentators and observers in Europe and America. Much of this reflects the preconceptions and expectations of liberal writers as far as specific countries are concerned (here one can immediately point to patronizing and moralizing complaints about South Africa’s ‘dithering’ over Libya and the lack of a moral dimension to its foreign policy more generally; or, references to Algeria’s ‘revolutionary credentials’ when wondering about why it was so cool toward the rebel faction during the Libyan crisis). Other times it reflects ideological and political biases — efforts to tar or shame others for their behavior. One ought to step out of the picture and ask, as Imad Mansour does in MERIP: Continue reading

Fast Thoughts

There has been a flurry of commentary and analysis in recent weeks and days focusing on the implications of weapons scattered about the Sahel in the wake of the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in Libya. It ranges from the alarmist to the sensible. There highly technical pieces and more general ones; some have also focused on the out-migration of Nigerien, Malian and Libya Tuareg out of Libya since the conquest of Tripoli and the socio-politics this may lead to in the wider Sahel. These tend to focus on the Tuaregs as (foreign) mercenaries, infrequently mentioning the many Libyan Tuareg who fought on either side of the conflict or  who have been and are being drastically impacted by the conflict’s course. Given the very little attention Tuaregs receive from English speakers in general, one notices many problems in these articles, especially in the middle-brow magazines and newspapers that have recently discovered the Sahel. A more systematic attack on some of the assumptions and assertions guiding these would probably be done by some one like Tommy Miles, with the expertise to give a really strong break down. For sure, the return and/or migration of large numbers of Tuareg former fighters, refugees and others into countries like Niger and Mali, coupled with the political troubles that might to places like Burkina Faso and Chad as a result of the loss of Libya as a strong backer and/or patron will shake things up in the region. Sophisticated weapons in the hands of smugglers, “bandits,” rebel factions, terrorists (read: AQIM) and other criminal elements is a serious threat to everyone in the region; the Mauritanians have favored areal assaults in recent engagements with AQIM. Imagine if the group had surface to air misiles. The recent summit in Algiers was noted for its focus on the conflict in Libya, leaving the conventional conversations about AQIM in its shadow. It was also notable for the criticism offered up by the Nigeriens over the lack of “concrete” action in Algerian-led efforts. Tensions between the new government in Tripoli and Algiers could slow down any effort at successfully managing these problems.

For several years, analysts have looked at the Sahel as a potential “hot spot” for terrorism and other symptoms of weak states and poor/low capacity governance. A recent Time magazine piece reiterated this theme this week. A Twitterized version of this general debate took place this evening between Christopher Boucek and Clint Watts (of Selected Wisdom).

Later posts will look at the Sahel as a “hot spot”; having followed the region for a little while this blogger believes there are two things to consider: (1) that many assumptions and predictions are easily challenged and overturned, quickly; and (2) the traditional areas AQIM has targeted (northern Algeria and Mauritania) and AQIM (as an organization) have evolved in the last two years especially, in governmental approaches and AQIM’s composition and locality. Not having much time, one can argue that the Libyan episode has significantly changed the balance of power and the function of space in the region (though not necessarily fundamentally or in the long term). The region is different this summer than last summer; and last summer AQIM did not look especially threatening in macro-perspective for all sorts of reasons even if it was awash with ransom money and snatching up Europeans. The weapons factor is important and the solvency and levels of political risk facing some countries is higher. AQIM is not a strategic threat to global security. It remains a basically technical threat as opposed to a political one. The Mauritanian government’s approach to AQIM, if imperfect, looks more sensible in 2011 than it did in 2009-2010. The Malians and Nigeriens are somewhat more engaged though the Algerians’ posture seems to have remained constant throughout (which may or may not be in itself productive so far as the Sahel states are concerned; one sees the Algerians’ rigid commitment to principles like national sovereignty and non-intervention playing out in the Sahel as in Libya — such ideas have serious weight among Algerian military and diplomatic officials, more than many outsiders often give them credit, and their reluctance to bring western powers deeper into regional security arrangements are not necessarily evidence of a tangled conspiracy). In any case, the region is likely to get more interesting in coming months.