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The Jihadists in Africa’s Sahel Zone: Expect More of the Same Despite Cleanup in Mali

frenchmalitroops_660504642By Arezki Daoud | Many observers of the military intervention in Mali are praising the Franco-African troops for what they already consider a guaranteed victory. Although a military win is assured given the superiority of the French army, it may be more difficult to ascertain, that as a result, the Jihadists are defeated. Indeed, as we look at the months ahead and beyond, the possibility of a conflict spillover is the most likely scenario. If such scenario does not happen, then we can salute this intervention in Mali as a victorious one.

Neighboring Algeria is where the first implications of the French intervention in Mali were felt. It took a handful of terrorists to take over a gas site on the Libya border to realize that the war in Mali will undoubtedly impact the rest of the region. Although Algeria managed to eliminate the terrorists who perpetrated the attack, the implications on that country’s critical hydrocarbons infrastructure were felt immidiatly as many leading oil and gas companies scaled back their activities there. Among oil and insurance executives there is a greater degree of reluctance to return to Algeria for the time being.

But Algeria, with its relatively large military capabilities, is the least potential hot spot as we look at the Sahel in the mid term. Pushed by the French toward the northeast Mali, the Jihadists have been holding their positions in a mountain formation called Adrad des Ifoghas, where caves are being used as natural hideouts, just as it happened in remote and isolated Afghan regions. The Jihadists are said to have sufficient food, medicines, water and ammunition to remain there for an extended period of time. But naturally, there have been ongoing efforts to escape the north of Mali and several choices are available to the Jihadists. The most sought after solution is a movement toward southern Libya via Niger’s northern desert, along the border with Algeria. Southern Libya is a region that the Muamar Gaddafi toppling has turned into a land of lawlessness. It is there where the Jihadists can procure arms and ammunition to dispatch them to whatever hotspot du-jour would be. They do that without fearing any military reaction since the authorities in Tripoli are too weak to control or impose effective enforcement. In some sense, Southern Libya has become the big ammunition depot of the Jihadists in the Sahara.

En route to Libya, the Jihadists coming from Mali pass through the poorly controlled Aïr Mountains in Niger. It is there that Al-Qaeda operatives sought to set up a base in 2012 from which they would link with their connections in Southern Libyan. But local tribal chiefs stood against Al-Qaeda settlement efforts fearing that it would bring unwanted scrutiny that would inevitably lead to conflicts. But as the French military continues on its hunt, Al-Qaeda elements could easily seek refuge there once again, imposing themselves on poorly protected tribes and seeking to attack Niger and French interests in the south.

The Air Mountains eventually lead eastbound toward what is called the Salvador Pass, a crossing point into Libya, and where actually the borders of Libya, Algeria and Niger meet. Until February 2013, this route was reportedly used by heavily armed Jihadists moving on pickup trucks from Libya into Mali. And Niger is most likely in the minds of these armed gangs. France, which is chasing them out of Mali has important mining interests in Niger. The French are providing support to a military protection of the Arlit uranium mines in Niger, owned by French corporation Areva. The Americans have also been invited to get their Predator drones to operate out of Agades, in the north of the country, with the purpose of monitoring Libya and northern Mali, as well as the Niger territory. The Jihadists themselves have recognized an increase in drone activity. For them, in particular the West African branch known as MUJAO, Niger may very well be the next country to destabilize. Niger is fully aware of the looming risk. Its President, Mahamadou Issoufou was among the first regional leaders to call for a military intervention in Mali. Fearing a Jihadist movement toward Niger, he dispatched 700 soldiers within Mali to secure its border with his country.

To the west of Mali is Senegal, a country that could easily be dragged into the crisis given that many of the issues that led to the collapse of Mali can be found there. Indeed the Senegalese, and the French, have real reasons to worry, starting with the many Senegalese nationals who have joined the ranks of the West African Jihadists of the MUJAO. Among those MUJAO Senegalese are the many who have failed to immigrate to Europe, and joined the MUJAO as an alternative solution. There are others, so-called Talibes, young religious students who have more militant goals in mind, having been ideologically trained in a network of religious schools in Senegal. These individuals come from abject poverty where the opportunity to improve one’s social and economic profile is non existent and where the religious teachings have shifted from peaceful Sufism teachings and practices to the more militant and aggressive Wahabist and Salafist leaning, with religious Madrasas funded by Gulf monarchies.

As is the case of Mali, which suffered for decades due to an internal conflict pitting the central government in Bamako against the ethnic Touaregs in the north, Senegal has a similar conflict down in the southwest in the Casamance region. There, the Jola ethnic group has been calling for greater autonomy, some even calling for an independent state because of economic neglect from Dakar. In 1982 the separatist movement “the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance” was formed, and an armed branch was established three years later to confront the Senegalese government. Violence has been relatively under control and sporadic, although tensions flare up occasionally as the region’s grievances have not been solved. Foreign meddling in this affair has become evident after Senegal interdicted a ship with arms moving into the region and allegedly funded by Iran.

And so the very same environment of illegal arms dealing that is financed by drug trafficking and other criminal activity is seen in both Mali and Senegal, and certainly elsewhere in the Sahel. Like in northern Mali, military officers and soldiers in the Casamance are poorly paid. Long established civil and religious authorities have no power to influence and solve crises. Others, essentially extremist voices tend to fill the gap. Like in Mali, the state-funded education system in Casamance is dysfunctional and increasingly surpassed by a more religious leaning curriculum.

For analysts who have been covering the Casamance conflict, the Jihadist fear is not necessarily one that involves foreigners, but more likely a home grown phenomena. But it’s only a matter of time before MUJAO and Al-Qaeda turn this region into another land for Jihad.

The targets in the Sahel for the Jihadists are many. The proximity to Mali make Niger and Senegal and by extension Libya, potentially Mauritania as prime targets. But other nations with poor economic resources and weak militaries could very well be on the radar screen. Nigeria, already struggling with Boko Haram and splinter groups, Burkina Faso, Chad and many others should be concerned about what can happen in the mid term. Coordinating their efforts to face greater danger will be required.

And so the question remains is whether the French intervention in Mali was only about rooting out the Jihadists from the north of the country or to have a more lasting effect on cleaning up the region. If the end-game was to clean Northern Mali, then mission accomplished. If eliminating the Jihadist threat in the Sahel is France’s end goal, then one has to ask the question whether Monsieur Holland will have enough political capital and resources to wage a long war. With France facing economic challenges of its own, getting French voters’ support for a long-term campaign in the Sahel is guaranteed to be a difficult task for Holland.

Revenge in Timbuktu

The fabled city of Timbuktu, in north-western Mali, was occupied by armed Islamist groups for almost a year. At the end of January, French and Malian soldiers retook control of the city. Since then, its people have been enjoying the taste of freedom again. But the light-skinned Arab and Tuareg communities are accused of complicity with the extremists and have already suffered revenge attacks. France24′s reporters Alexandra Renard, Eve Irvine and Chady Chlela went to Timbuktu.

 

 

 

revenge

Mali & Sahel Crisis

Below are some of the latest analyses, aticles and news items related to the crisis in Mali and beyond:


January 13, 2013
Mali Crisis Expanding: Mass Kidnapping of Westerners in a Saharan Oil Base

The North Africa Journal: The French military intervention against Islamist militants in northern Mali has added greatly to the insecurity in the region. In addition to the casualties of the conflict proper, Western interests, in particular French are being targeted wherever Al-Qaeda affiliated militants are present.

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January 9, 2013
Franco-African Military Offensive Begins in Mali

The North Africa Journal | Aided by West African and French troops, Mali’s government soldiers have began a long-awaited offensive against Islamist rebels in Northern Mali.  …  Full story

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A North Africa Journal AudioCast:  Understanding the Mali Crisis (Youtube)
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The North Africa Journal | By Arezki Daoud |  Algeria’s diplomacy has scored a victory of sort following the statement made by US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns describing Algeria as the “leader” in the Mali crisis. The move provides Algeria with additional breathing room to get some factions in Northern Mali who have been pushing for independence to revert their position without resorting to force. It may also frustrate those who have been seeking to sideline Algeria fearing that in the eyes of the US, the UN and other global players Algeria could be seen as a regional power broker with growing responsibilities and oversight on economic and security issues….  Full story

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The North Africa Journal | Algiers has long been reluctant to participate in a military offensive in neighboring Mali to root out Islamist militants. Some of these militants are either seeking to create a separate state, and/or intend on imposing Sharia law. Already the northern part of Mali has fallen in the hands of a trio of organizations, namely the Mujao, Ansar Eddine and Al-Qaeda North Africa….   Full story

Rise and Struggles of the Islamist Movements in North Africa

The popular movements that have toppled dictatorial regimes in North Africa have unwillingly paved the way for Islamists and conservative factions to take over governance. With the Islamists front and center, divisions and differences in ideas have emerged among them, dominated by four distinct factions:  those in governments tend to be moderate Islamists. But they are surrounded by factions that are pushing for more conservative policies through constitutional reforms.  Outside of these two groups are the Salafists who have shown willingness to use violent methods to reach their goals. Outside of these three, are the extremists terrorist groups that may be or not coordinated at the regional or international level to inflict greater damage to existing governments and Western interests. In this context, those who took part to the Arab Spring, from students and youth to labor unions and rights organizations, although initially felt sidelined, they continue to work hard to insure that their voices are not drowned.

The following is a series of articles focusing on the rise of the Islamists and the issues they currently face among themselves and in relations to the secular movement

With the Rise of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and Tunisia, Al Qaeda Starts New Offensive in North Africa

The assassination of American diplomats in Libya has brought to the forefront a new Salafist group with Jihadist tendencies called Ansar al-Sharia. Although the attack against the American consular office was seemingly carried out as a retaliation for an amateur movie insulting to Islam and its Prophet Mohamed, all fingers point to Ansar al-Sharia as being behind the killings for reasons that are not necessarily related to the film in question.

 

The War Within: Salafists vs. Moderates

In the aftermath of the toppling of many Arab dictators, Islamist politicians have come into the forefront of governance and are now seemingly in control. But as they move into halls of power in Tunis, Cairo, Rabat and elsewhere, we discover that Political Islam is not as homogenous as many thought. Philosophical differences and ideological gaps exist between the various stakeholders that are likely to make the transition to a stable region a difficult and bumpy road.

 

 Tunisia and the Salafist Threat

The general security climate in Tunisia has deteriorated and government response has been timid and inefficient. Given the Islamist offensive appears well organized, it is likely part of an effort to destabilize Tunisia and derail its efforts to recover from a disastrous 2011. The recent call made by Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri for the Tunisian people to rise up against the Ennahda Islamist ruling party was followed immediately by a series of actions that took place in Tunisia, demonstrating that Al-Qaeda and its remaining leaders have the ability to strike. Relaying Al-Zawahiri’s call, young clerics in Tunisia followed up with their own local calls for action. Among them is the extremist figure Abu Ayoub Ettounsi who called on the Tunisians to revolt after the prayer session of June 15, 2012. The same man called for the destruction of the studios of the TV channels Nessma. And so Tunisia may now very well be in the eye of the storm.

How to Secure the Sahel

Thursday night, the northern Mali region of Kidal witnessed the first wave of serious clashes between the Touaregs and so-called Islamist group Ansar Dine, a group under the influence of Al-Qaeda. The event is critically important in that it confirms that the two groups, the Touaregs organized under the independence movement of the MNLA and the Al-Qaeda operatives in the region (Ansar Dine) have different agendas. As their key leaders have often stated, the Touaregs have not pledged allegiance to foreign Jihadist influences and will not do any time soon. That in itself is not only encouraging, but a major opportunity for those fighting the Jihadists and seeking to root them out. A fresh approach to the Sahel is needed and without an active participation of the Touaregs, the Sahel will remain a dangerous zone. Here’s why.

Debt Crisis in the Moroccan Subsidy System: Undesirable Gift for Islamist PM

There is a bumpy road ahead for the new government leader in Rabat. As he enters his offices, both excited and energized by a fresh electoral victory with the prospect of governing a nation, Prime Minister Benkirane has to deal with the country’s accounting books, and what he sees does not please him. The ledger looks dangerous and could force him to chose between making unpopular decisions or maintain a financially unsustainable status quo.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Secure the Sahel

Thursday night, the northern Mali region of Kidal witnessed the first serious clashes between the Touaregs and so-called Islamist group Ansar Dine, a group under the influence of Al-Qaeda Maghreb. The event is critically important it that it confirms that the two groups, the Touaregs organized under the Touareg independence movement of the MNLA and the Al-Qaeda operatives in the region (Ansar Dine) have different agendas. As their key leaders have often stated, the Touaregs have not pledged allegiance to foreign Jihadist influences and will not do any time soon. That in itself is not only encouraging, but a major opportunity for those fighting the Jihadists and seeking to root them out. A fresh approach to the Sahel is needed and without an active participation of the Touaregs, the Sahel will remain a dangerous zone. Here’s why.

Touareg fighters | (c) MNLA

Touareg fighters | (c) MNLA

As predicted, the Sahel is in a state of chaos and a power vacuum is magnified by lack of leadership on all fronts. The crisis in the Sahel has expanded in particular following the violent toppling of Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi, a man who had a substantial influence in the region. The Sahel has no economy to speak of, although the region undoubtedly abounds of natural resources global corporations cannot wait to grab. That goes from uranium, minerals and oil and gas, to fisheries along the Atlantic coast. But Sahel nations are too bankrupt to improve their economies. On the human level, the situation is no better. Racial tension in almost all nations from Mauritania to Mali and beyond, feed into the religious frenzy pitting Muslims, Christians, Animists and others against one another.

In this sorry state of affairs, it is no surprise that the divisions and crises affecting the Sahel are providing unique openings for all sorts of opportunists. First are the legal ones in form of highly organized and resourceful mining and oil companies, aided by their very own governments. Many Western firms that have been active for a long time in uranium, metals and oil and gas exploration and production have taken advantage of the weaknesses of the regimes in place, often even propelling and protecting them at time, or destroying them some other time based on their “shareholder interests.” This breed of capitalists are finding themselves facing unusual competition, in particular China which has proven to be able to turn a blind eye to the crises in the region and beyond. On the African theater, Capitalist entrepreneurs and Communist China make no difference. They are the two sides of the same coin, a coin used to perpetuate problems albeit with different styles but with the same goals.

Alongside these perfectly legal “economic” operators, value creators and captains of industry, are the shadowy criminal gangs that roam the Sahel. They are gangs because apparently, and on the surface, no government controls them. But they are also involved in less glamorous activities. Human smuggling, drug trafficking, arms dealing, illegal trans-border movement of commodities are among the actions that are making these gangs and their mafia bosses, wherever they are, thrive amid widespread misery. And, by the way, these bosses don’t have to be in the Sahel or anywhere in Africa. In the narcotics business, they are thousands of miles away in places like Colombia and elsewhere. From their headquarters and with their billions, these drug dealers remote-control the movement of their deadly cargos moving north and into Europe. And only occasionally do we hear about them. For example the airplanes full of drugs originating from Colombia that have crashed in the Sahel.

In addition to these criminals, who are in it for the money, there are also ideologically motivated gangs roaming around as well. Al-Qaeda’s North Africa franchise has been on everyone’s mind as the enemy number one to beat these days.  AQIM or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as it is known here has become central in furthering the destabilization of an already destabilized Sahel. AQIM is certainly a force to reckon with. Not because they have strong manpower or an effective strategy, but because no one can police the region effectively to neutralize them, therefore allowing them to strike in poorly controlled vast territories. Although AQIM is what the French like to refer to as “la bête noire,” they are not necessarily the biggest threat as a single force. In fact, AQIM is a divided organization with a faction seemingly more ideological than the other, each of which has its own leader. Although all of these factions are said to be reporting to the same man, ultimately what happens in one corner of the vast desert, stays in that corner. Eventually, these gangs have one thing in common and that is to engage in the lucrative kidnapping business.  Many locals and European travelers have particularly suffered on the hands of these groups, often with deadly consequences. The most ideological factions of AQIM seem to enjoy rather brutal endings of their kidnappings, with the killings of their victims publicized in the world media. Others seem to be willing to negotiate the terms of the ransoms, willing to even compromise on the ideological front as long as nations are willing to spend a few millions of dollars to save their citizens.

While it is possible that the AQIM risk is often overblown by the various governments and their intelligence services, the risk is no less real for the Sahel as long as no one has ownership of the security of the region.  And as of now, no one does. So the question we have asked ourselves is what strategy would we recommend as an approach to securing the Sahel?  The answer might surprise you.

The Touareg Card:

The State of Mali is the latest to showcase a series of dramas that originate from its deeply dysfunctional political system. As stated above, problems include poverty, racial tension, religious divisions and an incapable government with the now-deposed President known for cozying up to criminal elements, including an un-publicized peace treaty with AQIM. The country is battling what is clearly a civil war, one that may be the result of a government policy aimed at further impoverishing the country’s Touareg populations based in the north.

The Touareg uprising in Mali, which culminated with the recent takeover by Touareg rebels of towns like Gao and Timbuktu, is not an overnight event. Touareg grievances started decades ago as segregation, economic despair and social misery have been Bamako’s central policy toward them, planned or not. Yet, northern Mali has always been the Touaregs’ home. It is a vast territory that is part of larger territorial expanse that covers at least parts of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso and other nations, and extending further into troubled nations like Chad, Sudan, Mauritania, etc. The Sahel and the Sahara desert have been home to the Touaregs for centuries, so much so that their knowledge of the terrain is unsurpassed. No other ethnic group can match their skills and capabilities when it comes to handling the Sahelian landscape. And because of this fact, pacifying the Sahel, securing it and taking it away from the likes of AQIM and criminal gangs will not happen without the Touaregs’ agreeing and taking an active part to it.

While it is difficult to obtain reliable statistics on the Touareg population, best estimates put them at some 6 million, with most of them concentrated in Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya and Burkina, or what represents the bulk of the Sahel.  The Touaregs of Niger amounted to nearly 1.8 million strong, based on a 1998 count. The Azawad of Mali were 1.5 million in 1991.  Algeria, which has its own Touaregs, counted them as less than a million but that was back in the late 1980s.  In all, it is conceivable that the Touaregs could exceed the 6 million mark.

With such a population in a vast deserted region, how can one expect to secure the Sahel without an active and direct Touareg involvement? Such as position would be tantamount to lunacy.

The issue is obviously more complex than what we see on the surface. Demand for a Touareg autonomy will not likely to resonate and be accepted easily by the region’s governments. They have shown over and over again that they would resort to armed conflict before they would allow such autonomy. But not all is lost as we look at the long term horizons. In this context, what is happening in Libya with many calling for Federalism, albeit with an uncertain outcome may be worth considering in the case of the Touaregs. After all, Libya itself has nearly 700,000 Touaregs and they are keenly taking part to the debate on autonomy that is taking place post Gaddafi.

In Libya, tribes have been insisting on the establishment of a federation of states that would be linked and unified by a central government but autonomous in many areas, probably including security.  The topic is front and center in the ongoing debate about the political future of Libya. But this very same idea should be applied elsewhere in Africa and certainly in the Sahel. In the case of the Sahel, the AQIM risk and the proliferation of criminal gangs can only be countered by the 6+ million-strong Touareg people in an environment where they feel they are in control and in charge of their own destiny and not by authorities housed in capitals thousands of miles away. By doing so, the Touaregs must feel empowered and incentivized to rid of all elements that could bring trouble to their homeland and people. In the process, one has to anticipate the negative reactions to this idea from the likes of Mali, Niger and probably all North African governments. But without resources and manpower to monitor and secure their own territories, these governments ought to seriously consider decentralizing governance for the sake of inclusiveness and efficiency.

Playing with the Touaregs is a difficult political and security exercise. The world’s powers, in particular the United States and Europe must be very careful not to alienate the Touaregs and so far, despite calls for the territorial integrity of Mali, these powers have refrained from vilifying the Touaregs. Doing so would bring a very dangerous outcome, one that would force the Touaregs to ally themselves with the wrong side. With a handful of men, AQIM managed to wreck havoc in the Sahel. Imagine what they can do if they form a real alliance with the millions of Touaregs.

The Touaregs are a proud people. They must be part of the solution and not considered as the problem. Only with their full participation will we see a secure Sahel. Not less.

Legislative Elections: Algeria Takes Three-Steps Backward

The expression “the People Have Chosen” clearly does not apply to Algeria’s legislative elections held last week. And judging by the winners, it’s going to be business as usual for the incoming rubber-stamping assembly.

In reporting the results of this subdued and unexciting political event, a seemingly angry Interior Minister, Daho Ould Kablia lashed out at the foreign press for under-estimating the importance of the Algerian election. On Friday, May 11, 2012, as the results were announced, he stated “no foreign party has the right to dictate its laws to Algeria.” Along the way, he reminded his audience that Algeria had “a liberation war and suffered from a brutal terrorism campaign.” Regardless of what foreigners believe, the Algerians themselves are not buying Mr. Ould Kablia’s product. This is evidenced in the results he released which hinted at a nation that does not believe in the regime’s political system. How do we know that? You judge for yourself.

Algria's May 2012 Legislative Elections Results based on Interior Ministry Figures

Algria's May 2012 Legislative Elections Results based on Interior Ministry Figures

Of the nearly 22 million eligible voters, the Minister’s own statistics showed a turnout of 42.9%, a number which cannot be vetted or challenged because there is no independent election commission. According to the head of an opposition party, given the history of inflating numbers, one could assume that the turnout may have been as low at 18%. Mr. Ould Kablia remarked that the figure is an improvement from the 2007 elections, which had a 36.51% turnout, another number that could not be verified. The Minister also managed to share some revealing statistics which showed that while the turnout within the country reached 44.38%, Algerian nationals living abroad only had a turnout of 14%. In Canada, the only about 8% of the Algerian community there showed up. The complete lack of interest from the expatriate voters is symptomatic of a number of factors, starting with the inability of the Algerian authorities to control this community as they do rural Algeria. The other factor may be that Algerians abroad are a difficult voting block to convince because they are seeing the political changes that are occurring in the Arab world while there is complete freeze of political life in their own country. This is in contrast to rural Algeria where the media and the message are controlled. And so absenteeism is a pure byproduct of a population that thinks its votes mean nothing and will not bring about change. To paraphrase the thoughts of an Algerian Professor in New York, “why bother?”

The laws of numbers tell us that the 43% voter turnout does not represent a majority, 57% does. This means the majority of Algerians did not see a reason to vote and their arguments make sense. In their eyes, the legislative elections as a means to select people’s representatives are meaningless. The Algerian Parliament is not the independent body that the people could count on to counter-balance other government entities. Big policy issues escape the National Assembly, whose members are generally paid handsomely to endorse and not challenge. Within the regime, which controls the Assembly, there are often conflicting ideologies that define policy at any given time. For example, one year, there is economic openness with one championed by one faction of the regime (as was the case of former oil minister Chekib Khelil). Another year, conservative ideology takes over and championed by the like of the current FLN chief and former Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem. These senior Ministers tend to be the visible operatives of the regime and the Assembly is simply irrelevant or at best a toy to justify policies. And this is common knowledge among the Algerian voters.

Massive Control of Assembly by Ruling Parties

Massive Control of Assembly by Ruling Parties

Naturally, these views are generally held more in regions of high urban concentration and economic activity, as well as in regions where there is a permanent state of anti-government sentiment. In these elections, the turnout in the capital Algiers was reported by Ould Kablia at 30.95%, a number highly exaggerated as the youth of Algiers’, the middle classes, and the professionals simply abstained. In the Berber capital Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers, the turnout was a mere 19.84%. In Bejaia, also a Kabyle city, only 25% of the eligible voters are said to have voted. In the Kabylie region, the disastrous racist policies of the central government are the cause of such popular backlash and the abandonment of political participation.

What do these turnout numbers really mean for the incoming assembly? The best way to assess the impact would be to borrow the thoughts of the head of the moderate Islamist MSP party. For Mr. Bouguerra Soltani, a 45% minimum floor is the minimum required if the assembly wants to feel an acceptable level of legitimacy as its primary task will be to amend the constitution. But at below 43%, the assembly is headed into a zone of turbulence. Borrowing again Bouguerra’s analysis, the elections were mired with a series of questionable events. Voter participation was weak – even in rural areas that are traditionally in favor of the voting action – and Bouguerra and observers in Algeria are concerned about the military vote, which has exclusively favored the ruling FLN and RND parties.

And so as the elections campaign went on, the regime and leading political parties in power went on the offensive to mobilize anyone and everyone they could convince. In an extreme case, there are allegations of military voters having only two options: One, voting for the FLN, and two, the ruling party RND of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia. The outcome was a bit remarkable considering that the Islamist alliance between three parties was expected to take the lead, having been projected to take one third of the assembly. Instead, the old FLN party was back, controlling almost half of the assembly with 220 seats of the 462 contested seats, a boost from its position in the previous election. Its sister party RND grabbed 68 seats. These two parties now control over 62% of the Assembly, which means they will set the stage for Algeria’s next constitution. And with a cadre that has limited creative ideas, one wonders what they will bring to the table, other than a status quo.

Meanwhile, the newly formed coalition trio of Islamist parties called “Alliance de l’Algérie” emerged as the third winner and grabbed 48 seats, or just about 10.4%, instead of the 30% projected prior to the elections. The old FFS party (Front des Forces Socialistes) got 21 seats, followed by the Workers’ Party (Parti des Travailleurs) with 20 seats, then downgraded to 17. Others, in this highly fragmented assembly, include 19 seats for the independent candidates, the FNA with 19 seats, the Islamist party of the “Justice et le Développement” (PJD) with 7 seats, the Mouvement Populaire Algérien with 6 seats, “El-Fadjr El-Djadid” with 5 seats, the “Front du Changement” with 4 seats and a number of small formations. The RCD Berber party abstained.

Islamists Complain of Electoral Fraud:

While there is a certain sigh of relief among the moderate and middle classes that the ultra-conservative Islamists were blocked, their sympathizers and officials within their coalitions are infuriated by the results. Their alliance, called “L’Alliance de l’Algérie Verte” spoke of electoral fraud, highlighting the role of the military vote which “went massively to the FLN and RND,” according to Abderrezak Mokri, a member of the so-called Green coalition. A leading member of the MSP party himself, Mokri accused “administrations and national institutions” of massive fraud and falsifying the results. “The results do not project the realities in many Wilayas (regions) and that casts a serious doubt about the political reforms announced by the President.” In a press conference following the release of the results, Mokri read a statement announcing that “the President is the first and principal person responsible for what is happening, and that is perpetuating the fraud.”

Uninterested Population, a Chaotic Environment:

As Algerians absorbed the results of their “elections,” foreign observers asked why Algeria dodged the bullet of the Arab Spring. The high absenteeism and low turnout at elections are symptoms of a population that has no options, no choices, and no political ideas of how to fix the country’s problems. The regime is not only unable to come up with creative ideas, but it is extremely comfortable in the status quo, doing everything it can to freeze the political scene. The population is essentially taking a wait-and-see attitude because a brutal confrontation such as that of the 1990s is not an option. This is essentially as if there are two Algerias separated by an ocean of different realities. The first is the regime that pretends that the institutions are working perfectly which is what Interior Minister Ould Kablia, President Bouteflika, Prime Minister Ouyahia, and FLN chief Belkhadem want us to believe. Then there are the masses that live day-to-day, not believing anything coming from the “leadership” and observing, as passive spectators, the comedy that is the country’s political scene. And while the political comedy goes on, the business of running a nation faces turmoil.

A Nation in Crisis:

While a minority of Algerians went voting, the town of Saharidj, in the province of Bouira, east of the capital was rocked by riots and confrontations pitting the population against the police. Security forces used teargas, injuring dozens of the town’s already disgruntled youth who were displaying their anger against the political system by destroying voting sites.

The political backlash is mainly caused by a disconnect between the regime and the population on the economic front. For instance, authorities are faced with issues of resource allocation in ways not seen anywhere else. While the country continues to amass a fortune from the export of oil and gas, the nation lacks basic infrastructure. As voting went on, citizens of the Ath Yevrahim municipality and in Bouira forced city hall to shut down in protest against water shortages.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of workers in the university system are planning to stage work stoppage to demand improvements in their work conditions and wages. Medical Doctors from 30 provinces (Wilayas) are currently staging a sit-in in front of the health ministry demanding the resignation of the minister. The Doctors continue to complain about a disastrous environment for both patients and medical staffs. Court clerks have been also staging their protests, and a few of them recently went on a hunger strike. This socio-economic depression is widespread phenomena, in a nation where authorities seem to have vanished instead of facing their responsibilities. And with the FLN in parliament and no change in governance, the situation is not likely to improve, and that could spell troubles in the mid term.

France’s New President: Foreign Policy and Where North Africa Stands

President-elect François Hollande of France has his work cut out on the foreign policy front. His predecessor is leaving office with a sense of missed achievements and a series of policies blunders that need urgent fixing. In a five-year period, Sarkozy failed to leverage appropriately and responsibly his country’s global leadership position as a major economic and military power. That started with his failure to impose a more assertive France on the burning issues of the Euro-zone and the serious topic of the future of Europe. Instead, Sarkozy went along with Chancellor Angela Merkel and toed the line to the Germans who insisted on a miserable austerity approach to exorcize the mentality of excessive spending in the EU, not giving economic growth a chance. Hollande is likely to compensate for Sarkozy’s excesses but it remains to be seen how he will be able to convince the Germans to loosen up a bit.

Outside Europe, as Hollande takes office, there is no shortage of crises to dissolve and fires to put out. Problems for the new Hollande administration abound and they are everywhere. They are about reducing France’s involvement in Afghanistan and reclaiming its image in Africa. They are about dealing with the crisis in Syria and the never-ending Israeli-Arab conflict. Relevant to France’s stance in the Maghreb and Sub-Sahara Africa, Hollande will have to work on neutralizing the effects of Sarkozy’s disdain of minorities and immigrants, issues that have reduced France’s image in the southern Mediterranean region. They are about fixing the aggressive negative policies of a divisive President who heightened the divisions among the French people at a time when they needed shared objectives and common purposes. Sarkozy, just like his Italian friend Silvio Berlusconi, will not be missed. Both share common traits, including a complete abandonment of the Mediterranean zone of common interests.

On the foreign policy front, Afghanistan may very well be one of Hollande’s first points of concern, a problem he will have to deal with immediately upon the beginning of his 5-year term. Although the French involvement at first took on the narrative of liberating a people, it has progressively shifted into an unsustainable anti-insurrection campaign, amid a war that most French consider lost anyway. Both Sarkozy and Hollande generally agreed that French troops must be withdrawn; the only difference between them on this issue has been on timing.

François Hollande’s approach to Afghanistan is reminiscent of US President Barak Obama’s own campaign promises of a speedy troop withdrawal from Iraq. Hollande’s campaign position on this issue has been to bring the French troops back before the end of 2012. This may be an aggressive schedule, but one that he plans to inform France’s partners during the upcoming NATO summit schedules to take place in Chicago, on May 21, 2012.

France’s relations with the world’s superpowers will likely evolve on the American front, with Hollande expected to be less accommodating that Sarkozy. And while Holland will certainly use a less aggressive tone than his predecessor vis-a-vis China and Russia, he will likely continue to uphold current French policies vis-à-vis these two nations, in particular on human rights and economic issues.

On the Persian front, while Hollande will keep France in the camps of those who worry about a nuclear Iran, he is expected to lessen the excessive anti-Iranian rhetoric that his predecessor has displayed over the past years. Sarkozy’s pronouncements on Iran made him even more radical than those lobbyists and media commentators who speak of a gloom-and-doom scenario of a nuclear Iran. Hollande is expected to move much closer to the position of most of his European counterparts, acknowledging the Iranian nuclear problem, yet without having to fall victim of the excessive anti-Iranian fear mongering.

On the crisis in Syria, Hollande and Sarkozy generally saw eye to eye on the need to solve the problem within a multilateral context, ruling out the use of force. Getting Russia to pressure the Assad regime is what the two men see as a desirable course of action.

On the Mediterranean front, a unified Mediterranean zone as proposed in his early years by Sarkozy is unlikely to be a priority for Hollande as long as the Israeli-Arab conflict persists. In contrast, Sarkozy’s anti-Islamic and anti-immigration proclamations and policies have degraded France’s stance in the Maghreb and in the countries that France used to exhort enormous influence. Yet, François Hollande is likely to leverage his predecessor’s disastrous record to attempt to recover lost ground, even as Islamists in North Africa gain more political power.

Interestingly, Nicolas Sarkozy’s own shining moment, his contribution to the “liberation” of Libya was a muted topic during the Presidential debate and his own campaigning. This is because Sarkozy’s gung-ho interventionist stance has been perceived by many Europeans as a bullying tactic from a man who was planning his own election campaign. Instead, the Libyan crisis has divided Europe, forcing a state of freeze in the subsequent handling of the Syria crisis today. In Libya itself, a sense of an unfinished business is felt by many observers, a situation essentially caused by the hasty jump to the gun of Sarkozy and his allies, including the British. What should have been a “popular revolution,” in the eyes of many Libyans, it turned into a hasty Western intervention instead and Sarkozy being in the middle of it.

Sarkozy and his foreign policy team have done a poor job understanding African issues in general and failed to anticipate what’s to come. The crisis in Mali, bringing that country of massive French influence into chaos is one example of such mismanagement of French foreign policy in Africa. So much so that French interests are the prime target of Al Qaeda in North and West Africa and the Sahel. Meanwhile, African governments remain suspicious of the French agenda as Sarkozy showed eagerness to intervene quickly as was the case in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. In their mind, they could be next.

What about North Africa? In Rabat, the Moroccan government showed no significant worries as François Hollande was declared the winner of the Presidential race. However, we picked up some signs of concerns as usually Morocco finds a more open-door policy among France’s right wing leaders and lot less accommodating Socialists. The Moroccans of a certain age remember vividly the cozy and personal relations that existed between the late Hassan II and former rightist President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Then in 1981, Giscard d’Estaing was swept away from office by Socialist rival François Mitterrand. The Mitterrand tenure was characterized by lack of trust between him and Hassan II, a period which saw France increased its criticism of the Moroccan monarchy over allegations of human rights abuses. With Jacques Chirac replacing Mitterrand, the honeymoon period between Rabat and Paris returned, and went on during the Sarkozy tenure.

Within the French Socialist world, Morocco initially hoped for a Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) victory. DSK was also a good friend of Morocco, even owning a luxury 19th century villa in Marrakech purchased more than a decade ago for a half million Euros. But Morocco’s lobbying efforts had to quickly refocus on other politicians as DSK faced a legal battle of his own.

With the Socialists back into the Élysée Palace, the Moroccans are minimizing any negative impact such political change could bring, supported by positive comments by Martine Aubry, a friend of Morocco and the current Secretary General of the French Socialist Party. A charm offensive was launched early this year by the Moroccans to seduce François Hollande to insure that France does not open up to the pro-Western Sahara independence movement. Seeking to appease the Moroccans, Martine Aubry held a press conference in Rabat during which she welcomed Morocco’s position on a so-called “reinforced autonomy” for the Sahara. But there is no certainty that France’s position on the Western Sahara front will remain rock solid. The Moroccans remember 2007 when the then Presidential Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal made pronouncements that were constantly in opposition to the Moroccan monarchy.

François Hollande will not only have to deal with various leftist currents that supported him and have more affinity to the aspirations of the independence movement, but he is also looking to fix the battered relations between France and Algeria, a country that is critical to France on both the security front and as an energy supplier amid a reduction of the nuclear power source in France. The French diplomacy will have to walk a fine line to keep both of these feuding nations from thinking that France is against them. But Rabat is bracing for a shift in French policy toward them anyway. Indeed, not only Hollande has extremely limited interaction with Morocco, he has been much closer to Algeria, having worked there for 8 months. Also a point of concern for the Moroccans is the people who surround François Hollande, in particular his high-powered political adviser Faouzi Lamdaoui, a native of the eastern Algerian city of Constantine. Read this associated analysis on the “Rise of North Africans in French Politics.”  Another person to watch in the Hollande circles is Kader Arif, a Member of the European Parliament for the south-west of France. He is a member of the Holland’s Socialist Party and sits on the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade. A third source of influence is the young Razzy Hammadi who presided over the Movement of Socialist Youth, before becoming a national secretary of the Socialist Party in November 2008. Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius is also an “Algerianist” who is likely to direct the new administration in favor of Algeria. The Moroccans are not left without their strong cards too. In addition to leveraging their friendship with Martine Aubry, the Moroccans will count on a bi-national, French Socialist militant Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to play a counter weight to the Algerianists.

With Algeria, as issues abound, the Franco-Algerian relations are expected to undergo some corrective measures from Team Hollande. It is worth noting that the emergence of François Hollande in the Presidential race was not anticipated by the Algerians. As in Rabat, all eyes in Algiers focused on DSK. So much so that during a 2010 trip to Algiers, François Hollande was not even received by President Bouteflika, who was said to have had a light schedule and a free calendar that time. Yet, Algiers tried to play catch up during the most recent campaign, dispatching lobbyists in an effort to meet with the likes of Faouzi Lamdaoui. This last minute effort failed as the Hollande team was required to avoid such contacts for the obvious reasons.

Yet, Algeria wants to be recognized as a key regional player, a position that Sarkozy refused to recognize. But with an Algeria increasingly positioned as a critical player in regional affairs, Hollande will likely reduce the tension that exists between Paris and Algiers under the Sarkozy regime, starting with the possibility of the new French government recognizing, to a limited extent, its colonial past and role during the Algerian war of liberation. Hollande is said to be willing to make a gesture, albeit symbolic toward Algeria, but may not go as far as a full recognition.

In addition, Sarkozy has been lobbying hard to re-negotiate the Franco-Algerian 1968 treaty, creating heightened tension with Algiers. The treaty provided greater rights to Algerians in France compared to other nationals, a situation that Sarkozy insisted on reducing. Under his watch, Hollande is not likely to rush to revisit France’s political and human framework deal with Algeria.

But what France is facing in North Africa in a more dramatic way is the political upheaval that has occurred in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and the security problems extending into Mali, Niger and the rest of the Sahel. This is while there is a certain constancy in France’s relations with Algeria and Morocco. In the Tunisian case, outgoing President Sarkozy failed to anticipate the outcome of the crisis that has led to the ousting of Ben Ali. The same could be said about Egypt and the inability of Sarkozy to project. On Tunisia, some creative strategy has to be adopted with the stabilization of that nation and a bit of touch-and-go process dominating the approach. Hollande’s pronouncements regarding Tunisia and all other countries that had a revolution of sort focus largely on insuring that democracy is the chosen political path. In an interview, Hollande was clear that France’s views and policies will not change because of changes in regimes in the Élysée.

During a visit to Tunis in May 2011, Hollande suggested that the international community should transform Tunisia’s debt into donation so as to not burden Tunisia with financial liabilities. The Tunisians have been ecstatic that Hollande won, in part because Sarkozy was “booted out like his friend Ben Ali,” as commentators there noted.

But some contentions are likely to take place on ideological grounds. As a Westerner, Hollande has been insistent on democracy as the only ideology to adopt in nations that underwent their own popular revolts. While this sort of pronouncement might have been welcomed a while ago by the Islamists, it is possible that they have a different views now that they have a grab over governance in the region. Equally a point of difference between Hollande and the Islamists is the role of women and gender equality as conservative groups in North Africa are pushing for a dangerous reduction in women’s rights. But Hollande remains more conciliatory when he speaks of the right of Muslims in France to live in peace and without any fear of government.

Specific to Libya, Hollande recognizes that he approved of the French intervention to oust Muamar Gaddafi, but he says he regrets the lack of follow up that would have stabilized that nation. He also regretted the impact the Libyan crisis has had on the deterioration of security in the Sahel region, further heightened by a proliferation of weapons and fighters previously active in Libya and spreading into Mali and Niger. There in the Sahel, Hollande believes that stabilization will require foreign support on economic growth. Within the Sahel, Hollande appears to be concerned by an increase targeting of French interests there, in particular with nuclear giant Areva active in Niger.

As France engineered a smooth transition from Sarkozy to Hollande, we should expect also foreign policies to evolve, and hopefully this time, a Hollande pragmatism will supersede provocative Sarkozy rhetoric.

The Rise of North Africans in French Politics

New generation of French of North African origin impacting French politics
New generation of French of North African origin impacting French politics

Seeking to discredit his opponent during the Presidential race in France, outgoing President Nicholas Sarkozy stated on April 27, 2012 that François Hollande has received support from 700 Muslim clerics operating in France. Blinded by a bad attitude vis-a-vis North Africans and Sub-Sahara Africans in general, bordering xenophobia, Sarkozy may have lost precisely because he alienated a substantial minority block that is becoming key to French politics, somewhat akin to the Hispanic vote in US elections.

Sarkozy statements on the matter and his dirty politics eventually backfired. Largely because French of North Africans origin have been energized to place a Socialist in the Élysée Palace. Yet, North Africans come in various political persuasions. They can even be on the extreme as was the case of Farid Smahi, a politician of Algerian parents who was a member of the rightist radical extremist party of the National Front. Indeed there are many French of North African origin who are standing against a certain culture in their country of origin that force them to take extreme positions. Arabization, the dangerous rise of conservatism, the prominence of Islamic politics, lack of rights for the Berbers and other minorities, gender inequality and bad governments are among the factors that led to these extreme positions. Many of them also happen to be the children of what is known here as “Harkis,” Algerians who have fought alongside with the French against the independence of Algeria. During his campaign to regain his seat, Sarkozy went on a charm offensive to lure the Harki vote. He stated in many occasions that the Harkis have not been treated fairly for their services to France, a situation that needed to be corrected. It is unclear how the Harkis voted, but they represent a half million votes worth of a charm offensive from the right.

But most French of North African decent tend to support the Socialist Party. This is largely due to the fact that most of them tend to live in working class neighborhoods outside of the big cities that lean to the left. A media commentator suggested that it is the case in particular in the Paris region, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in southern France, and in the Rhône-Alpes in the east. These are regions that are heavily invested by labor unions, natural allies of the Socialists. And so over the years, the Socialist Party in France has become a sort of safe heaven for French-North Africans seeking political office or leadership positions in politics. The Moroccan Najet Vallaud-Belkacem has been François Hollande’s spokesperson. The Algerian Malek Boutih is another person to watch. He has held a senior-level position at the Socialist Party making him a key player in the Hollande offensive. Moroccan Mohamed Oussedik is also a rising star, starting as a laborer and now well positioned to lead the formidable CGT labor union.

While Sarkozy continued to divide the French on religious and ethnic grounds, vilifying the North Africans in particular, he worked hard to muddy the water precisely to combat any allegation of racism. His cabinet has a handful of very vocal and media-savvy North Africans including former Justice Minister Rachida Dati, today a member of the European Parliament representing Sarkozy’s party the UMP. Another Sarkozy protégé was Fadela Amara, an Algerian who held the position of State Secretary (Junior Minister) in charge of urban issues. But many in France say that such appointments were simply meant to confuse and shield Sarkozy against accusations of ethnic and religious divisiveness. Such strategy continues even as Sarkozy is defeated. His party is fielding the daughter of an Algerian Harki, Salima Saa as a candidate for the legislative elections of June 2012. Ms. Saa is competing for a seat to represent Roubaix, a region in total control by the Socialists. Ms. Saa was almost hired as Sarkozy’s campaign spokesperson.

As Francois Hollande takes over the reign of power in France, he has surrounded himself with a number of politically aggressive French of North African origin. Generally young, being born in the 1960s and 70s, this group of political operatives are worth watching because they could become what will reignite France’s relations to North Africa. But just like Salima Saa, Rachida Dati, Fadela Amara and the flamboyant Farid Smahi, North Africans in France are given the chance to belong to whatever political persuasion they endorse, and that shows that diversity in France, a country often criticized precisely because of a perceived lack of diversity is on the right track.

Here are some of them:

Influencing Francois Hollande on the Socialist Front

Operatives on the right:

Funny Tabloid Politics

Asma Ben Kadda
Asma Ben Kadda

There are no tabloids in North Africa like you would see them in France, the UK or the US but that does not mean there are no topics worthy of tabloid journalism, so to speak. And that starts with North Africa’s own politicians.

Moments before the upcoming legislative elections, and Algeria’s historical nationalist party FLN (National Liberation Front) is in the midst of a crisis directly affecting its ultra-conservative, pro-Arabic and pro-religion leader Abdelaziz Belkhadem. The Secretary General has been battling an all-out rebellion against him for making highly questionable decisions in selecting the candidates that would run for the legislative elections. Among those selected to run for the capital Algiers is Mohamed Larbi Ould Khelifa, the man who heads the push to Arabize the nation within the High Council on the Arabic Language.

But consider the very bizarre case of the politician “wanna be” Asma Ben Kada. Ben Kada has never been an FLN member but she happened to be the ex-wife of fiery 85-year old Egyptian Preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi. According to press accounts, Al-Qaradawi met the young Asma during a 1989 visit to Algeria. She was some 40 years younger than him. Seduced by him through a series of letters, they got married in Lebanon in 1996 while she was studying political science in Jordan, only to divorce her a few months later through a simple dismissal letter. From her location in the Gulf, Ben Kada wants to represent the people of Algiers. Go figure!  Ah did I forget to say that Ben Kada worked at Al Jazeera too?

Now you may ask yourself… how important is Al-Qaradawi? He is almost like the Pope for the Catholics. Whatever he says is gospel. But the man does not trust the ladies. In fact, media sources say that the very Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak appointed a spy working as a senior executive at the Algeria unit of the Egyptian mobile phone company Orascom, specifically to monitor Al-Qaradawi’s future-bride to be’s movements. If that’s not tabloid materials, what is?

In French: Drôle d’Histoire

Il n’y a pas de journaux satiriques au Maghreb comme vous pouvez les voir en France, au Royaume-Uni ou aux États-Unis, mais cela ne veut pas dire qu’il n’y a pas de sujets dignes de ce genre de journalisme, pour ainsi dire. Et ce genre trouvera d’abord pas mal de sujets en provenance des politiciens de la region. Quelques semaines avant que les élections législatives à venir, et le partie historique Algérien, le FLN (Front de libération nationale) est au milieu d’une crise affectant directement son leader, l’ultra-conservateur, pro-Arabe et pro-religion Abdelaziz Belkhadem.

Abdelaziz Belkhadem

Le Secrétaire général a été aux prises avec une rébellion totalle contre lui par presque tous les membres du parti pour ses décisions bizares concerant la sélection des candidats pour les élections législatives de Mai 2012. Parmi ceux qui ont été sélectionnés pour representer la capitale Alger est Mohamed Larbi Ould Khelifa, l’homme qui dirige la strategie d’arabisation de l’algerie au sein du Haut Conseil de la Langue Arabe.

Mais considérez la très étrange affaire de Asma Ben Kada, celle qui desire devenir politicienne mais par distance. Ben Kada apparement n’a jamais été un membre du FLN et vit aux Emirates. Cependant, elle a eu le “privilege” d’avoir épouser le prédicateur égyptien de 85-ans, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, lui permettant de faire parti de l’elite Arabo-conservateurs de l’algerie, probablement a la solde des Emirs du Gulf. Selon des informations rapportées par la presse, Al-Qaradawi a rencontré la tres jeune Asma en 1989, durant une visite en Algérie. Elle était de quelque 40 ans de moins que lui.

Séduite par le theologien à travers une série de lettres et correspondences, ils se sont mariés au Liban en 1996 alors qu’elle étudiait les sciences politiques en Jordanie. Quelques mois plus tard, al-Qaradawi la divorce au moyen d’une simple lettre de “licenciement”. De sa residence dans un Emirat Arabe, Ben Kada veut représenter Alger dans les prochaines elections legislatives. De quoi faire rire!

Pour ceux qui n’ont jamais entendu parler du Sheikh Al-Qaradawi, Il est presque comme le Pape pour les catholiques. Ce qu’il dit est pratiquement parole d’évangile. Et aussi, il ne fait confiance a personne, meme pas a sa future epouse. En fait, selon les médias, le gouvernement égyptien de Hosni Moubarak, un tres bon ami du Sheikh, a nommé un espion travaillant comme un membre de la haute direction en l’Algérie de la societe Egyptienne de téléphonie mobile Orascom, spécialement pour surveiller la future epouse d’Al-Qaradawi, celle qui pense devenir un representant des Algerois et Algeroises. De la vrais comedie.

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