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