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Archives for Conflicts

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.





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.


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

A North Africa Journal AudioCast:  Understanding the Mali Crisis (Youtube)

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


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

Book: The Arab Uprisings: the people want the fall of the regime

By Karen Dabrowska:

Jeremy Bowen focused on his experiences in Libya when he discussed his latest book:  The Arab Uprisings: the people want the fall of the regime,  during a lecture at  the London School of Economics.

Bowen,  who was an undergraduate at the LSE during the late 70s, said that one of the privileges of being a news reporter for the BBC is that at times you find yourself in a place in the world where everybody wants to know what is happening that day.

“I was very conscious of that in February last year when I was in the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, the five star golden cage where the Gaddafi regime had installed journalists they had let in. Saif Al Islam thought he could manipulate the media. He turned up in fine knit wear and said ‘while you are here you may hear bangs and crashes in the night but let me assure you they are fireworks as people will be celebrating the triumph of my father and his regime. What we have is a local difficulty’.”

Jeremy Bowen's Book The Arab Uprisings: the people want the fall of the regime

Jeremy Bowen's Book The Arab Uprisings: the people want the fall of the regime

Bowen admitted that as a journalist you give up a certain amount of autonomy and freedom for the chance to pull back the curtain and peak inside the dark kingdom. In Libya that involved  quite a bit of sneaking around.  To get up and about in Libya required a rat like cunning to get to places like Tajoura the satellite town of Tripoli, a hot bed of revolutionary activity.

He described his interview with Colonel Gaddafi – like so many things in Gaddafi’s Libya it happened at the last minute. The interview was secured by the son of Libya’s head of intelligence Abdullah Al  Senussi dressed as a designer urban guerrilla.

“One of the strange things about the inside of the Gaddafi regime was that they were very star-conscious. He had on a green combat style designer jacket of beautiful fabric and a black Kashmir hat.”

Bowen recalled wanting to change into a suit but Senussi told him he looked fine.  Surprisingly the interview was held in a  very trendy glass and steel Italian restaurant overlooking Tripoli docks. Gaddafi conformed to  his image  and was dressed in beautiful robes. That was before the call by the Arab League for a no-fly zone and the vote in the United Nations for all necessary measures to be taken against Gaddafi’s Libya to protect civilians.  That phrase is what NATO interpreted as a  charter for regime change.

“At the time the international constellation of forces had not coalesced against Gaddafi and he was self confident. Gaddafi was where he wanted to be – taking on the world. A few years later I was at the UN General Assembly where Gaddafi gave an extraordinary rambling speech, complete with the yellow pad which he held up. During the interview he was very willing to talk. I managed to irritate him enough to switch into English. He said :”My people love me, they will die for me.”  For the Libyans seeing the brother Leader being asked direct questions was a totally new experience. I didn’t think Gaddafi was mad. He was bad. He lived in quite a bubble. He was surrounded by cheering crowds wherever he went. He had spilt a lot of blood, he felt his power was pretty secure. He quite liked being what Ronald Reagan described as the ‘mad dog’ of the Middle East, feeling it is me against the world.”

Bowen also described Mousa Ibrahim, Gaddafi’s spokesman who was humble at first but later became more confident as he got closer to the regime. He asked Bowen to get him on the BBC Hard Talk programme. “I think he was someone who thought he was living the dream.  He said:’ it is incredible, a year ago I was a student in London now I am on hard talk’.”

The BBC correspondent admitted that he was taken by surprise by the Arab  uprisings – but so were Messrs Gaddafi, Assad, Mubarak and Ben Ali. He was in Cairo at the beginning of the protests and believed he would be home for the weekend. There were many fires smouldering . The organiser of one of the protests in Cairo admitted that he was surprised as well.  There was a proud history of protests in Cairo but the protesters chanted and were then in the back of police vans getting a kicking.

“I saw old men, some of them practically dressed in rags throwing themselves against the police. I thought to myself Mubarak has got a big problem. This thing could get a critical mass. I was in Iran after the Green Movement protested about the outcome of the elections but after a week the protesters were down to the people from North Tehran and  students. Against  the thugs the regimes put against them they did not have a chance.”

Bowen pointed out that the aging leaders were grooming their sons to succeed them. That was one of the factors that pushed people towards the edge and made them take the risks that they took. Simple statistics show that 60 percent of the population across the region is under 30. The new generation is one of the strong factors driving the uprising. For their parents generation the share of the cake was enough to have a bit of a social contract. Politics and opposing the regime was not allowed but they had jobs. Now they were struggling to get jobs and get married. Once the Ben Ali regime fell the Egyptians were confident they could rid of Mubarak.

Bowen believes that the social media was an effective organising tool but it was satellite tv that spread the word.  Al Jazeera became a  chief cheer leader for the rebellion. He agrees with an Israeli journalist who accused the Western media of focusing too much on the Arab-Israeli conflict and ignoring Arab politics.

“If this is a five act play we are at the end of the second act. There is a lot more to come. In the beginning a lot of people outside the region thought it would be like 1989 in Europe  – a domino effect. There was a counter revolution. Gaddafi and Assad concluded that it was not an inevitable process but Mubarak and Ben Ali made the mistake of not using enough force. The army in Egypt and Tunisia was prepared to park itself between the regime and the people.

“If you want to track the ways things will go in the next few years it is quite a good idea to track the Sunni Shia divide. The fault line that runs across the region is becoming sharper. This is a force which can be used to manipulate and motivate people. The rebellion in Bahrain has become more sectarian.”

Bowen concluded there is now an engrained habit of protest. People took to the streets to get rid of their leaders and if there are attempts to postpone the elections they will go out onto the streets again. The experience of holding office will certainly change the complexion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Egyptians feel they need an economy that works rather than religious ideology.

“Voting does not bring democracy but it does bring change and I think that change will  continue.”

Jeremy Bowen has been the BBC’s Middle East correspondent for twelve years and has been on the ground for them as the recent revolutions  swept through the region.  His latest book looks at the world the demonstrators rejected and its Arab dictators. The author examines  brutal police states, tribal loyalty and foreign help. The West’s response and Israel’s  forms part of the narrative. This is an authoritative account of the seismic political changes rocking the Middle East, from one of the foremost reporters of our time.

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.






Egypt under Morsi

Egypt—a transcontinental country, having African-Middle Eastern border, and a deep geo-strategic significance in the Middle East, Africa, Mediterranean Basin and the Muslim world suffered 60 years of dictatorship until an Arab Spring starting in 2011 led to an overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Muhammed Morsi became Egyptian President defeating his rival, ex-Mubarak premier Ahmed Shafiq with 51.7% of votes. The trailblazing elections brought sweet delight and a first of many things for Egypt-he is the first democratically elected President, the first Islamist to rule the nation and the first President who is not from the military.

Although Morsi, member of the once scrutinized Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Freedom and Justice party, was sworn in as Egypt’s first civil President, his victory was anything but a sweeping win and  the revolutionary battle is far from over, as among the earlier challenges that Morsi has to coup up with included, national reconciliation and engagement with liberal opposition, to deal with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in context to the dissolution of parliament and the SCAF’s constitutional declaration that limited much of his powers, had undercut state budget and granted the military power to arrest protestors and civilians, then drafting a new constitution and election of a new Parliament,the rehabilitation of state economy and defunct security apparatus.

While on the external front, to review Cairo’s relations with Turkey, US, Saudi Arabia and Iran, must convince and reasssure the paranoid Western world, terrfied of an Islamist government and the Shariah Rule that this loyal old Western ally would remain an open and tolerant society, and this new regime does not mark ‘ the beginning of Islamization’ in Egypt. Howere the real concern here was the  impact of the 180 degree change in goverence on the Arab-Isreal issue but the fiercely pro-Palestinian leader has pledged to honour Egypt’s international treaties, which include a 1979 peace treaty with Israel and take control of Sinai after recent attacks at Israeli border. He also paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia, met Hamas leader, khaled Meeshal, and attended African Union Summit to improve his diplomatic relations with foreign countries.

Under the recent developments in Egypt, Morsi not only ordered to reconvene the Parliament, announced the release of political war detainees, many of which are from Islamist groups, and the appointment of a woman and a Christian to a vice president positions in the government but also appointed Hesham Kandil, a religious Muslim- a technocrat rather than a hardliner and not member of Muslim brotherhood as his Prime Minister. His newly elected cabinet comprises figures of the Egyptian financial elite with representatives from the Egyptian military, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB), former ministers of the interim government of Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, and various technocrats.  He made no move to antagonize Egypt’s military and the Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, kept his post.Two of the 35 ministers are women, and only one is a Coptic Christian. All this has raised skepticism about Morsi’s administration which has shown little luck in placating secular and other liberal opponents but the Egypt’s current leader understands well that his country not only needs a political reform but a practical socio-economic uplifting as the future of the democracy and stability in the region depends on what would happen in Egypt. Mr. Morsi put it himself ‘“The revolution goes on, carries on until all the objectives of the revolution are achieved and together we will complete this march.”

With such drastic and unprecedented change in the leadership of Egypt, the world is watching, fingers are crossed that would this middle-eastern power under Morsi actually succeed in achieving the democratic freedom for which it has fought for nearly 17 months, for which it sacrificed nearly 850 lives or would this country relapse and slip back into the hands of the more experienced and established military autocracy?

 The writer, Aymen Ijaz works for the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.

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.

Salafists youth in Tunisia responding to Zawahiri's call for actionAfter labor unions somewhat eased tension following their earlier confrontations with the business sector and the government, now Islamist militants have come to the forefront, making the security issue Tunisia’s number one problem today.

Cases of extremist Salafists spreading fear across Tunisia have accelerated over the past week, courtesy of Al-Zawahiri and his followers. The purpose is essentially to scare the interim government and the administration headed by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda in an effort to imposed Sharia style law.

Confrontations between police and Salafists have taken place this week in the western suburbs of the capital Tunis.  The neighborhoods of Cité Intilaka, M’nihla, and Ennogra were invaded by black flags and large crowds of young Islamist militants taking over local cafes. Similar confrontations took place in areas like Carthage, Kram and La Marsa, where militants attacked the arts house Abdellia Palace. A police station in Carthage Byrsa was also targeted.  In Sousse, the Fine Arts Institute was attacked with a cocktail Molotov. Arts and culture are prime targets for the Salafists, so much so that calls for the killing of politicians who support arts were made and posted on social networks.

The situation has gotten so bad that the military has expanded security around the Presidential palace in Carthage.

In this confrontation between the Salafists and the fragile interim government, criminals are playing a significant role in spreading terror. Indeed police have arrested some 90 perpetrators of attacks against a variety of establishments, including liquor stores, who are confirmed to already have criminal records.

This escalation of events does not bode well for Tunisia in the short and mid term. This is likely to distract the central government from dealing with real structural issues and focus on enforcement.

The Salafist movement is often driven by inexperience and highly emotional youth that are often manipulated by outside forces, including Iran. Their insistence on making unrealistic changes based on the Sharia law in countries like Tunisia where the population has always been liberal, often leads to a protracted period of confrontation with the military, with the silent support of the majority as we have seen that in neighboring Algeria. If such insistence continues, the intervention of the military will be inevitable and Tunisia will become another red dot in Al-Zawahiri’s theater of operations’ map.

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.

UN Peacekeepers, Election Postponement Needed in Libya

Since February, over 250 people have been killed in tribal and militia clashes in Libya’s southern and western regions. A fundamental breakdown of law and order has now reached all corners of the country.  These flare-ups are becoming increasingly common and deadlier the closer the scheduled June election nears.  Libya’s internal instability continues to have dire consequence for the region as a whole, most notably in Mali’s continuing crisis.  The latest reports indicate that Somali pirates have now acquired Libyan weapons as well.

The National Transition Council (NTC) remains unable to do much beside send “brigades” to negotiate ceasefires between warring parties.  Dangerously, the NTC is pushing ahead with its planned national assembly elections, regardless of whether the country’s internal security situation seems stable enough to handle it.  An unsuccessful election marred by militia and tribal clashes could lead to a collapse of what remains of the Libyan state, a collapse that would further destabilize the region with increasing outflows of migrants and weapons.

The US and EU have chosen to focus solely on weapons proliferation and migrant flows, rather than attempt to deal with either problem’s root cause,  Libya’s internal instability.  The current stance of Western nations is an unfortunate wait-and-see approach.  Political and economic constraints will continue to restrain the West from robust engagement on internal Libyan political issues, despite the necessity of outside mediators to bring the various armed factions of the emerging Libyan political scene together.  How can Libya can sustain a legitimate political transition under the shadow of armed militias that are increasingly willing to use their weapons for political leverage?

Part of this post-intervention disengagement stems from the NTC’s early refusal to have outside assistance in the form of any peacekeeping or stabilization mission.  At that point in time, the NTC was flying high off of the euphoria of its victory over Qaddafi.  Vocal and robust US and European diplomatic support, most which has now since dissipated drastically, obfuscated the treacherous political path that the NTC now finds itself facing. Today the Council is well aware of its increasingly tenuous position and is desperately seeking more political engagement and support from the US and Europe.  The absence of major diplomatic displays of support for the NTC from Western capitals have left the Council feeling abandoned.

The US and Europe have gained a significant amount of currency with the NTC as a result of the NATO intervention.   Should the diplomatic silence continue, the credibility and influence of Western capitals will eventually evaporate.   Right now, the NTC will listen, but only if the US and Europe are once again willing to pursue aggressive public diplomacy initiatives to support the Council moving forward.  The Obama administration and its European allies should be working to bolster their influence with the NTC,  utilize it effectively, and push the Council toward more responsible and democratic decision making.

The first part of this approach to more responsible decision making is for the NTC to reverse its decision against allowing UN peacekeepers in Libya.  The US and EU should be working to convince the NTC that a greater UN role in helping maintain security would be the best way to ensure a successful election. The current UN presence, UNSMIL (United Nations Support Mission in Libya), has little added value in its present form.  A greater UN role, in the form of peacekeeping, would lift the security burden from the NTC’s shoulders.  A neutral UN presence might also be the catalyst needed to convince the various militias to lay down their weapons.  This would allow the NTC to take bolder action on political and economic reforms that are desperately needed and focus its resources on adequately preparing for what could be Libya’s first legitimate national election.

The second part of this approach would be postponing such elections.  Right now the NTC feels pressured to have elections as soon as possible to cement its flagging democratic legitimacy. But holding elections under a deeply flawed electoral framework, will most likely result in an election marred by claims of fraud and possible militia violence that would only further damage the democratic legitimacy the NTC desperately needs.  Constituent assembly elections were originally delayed in both Tunisia and Egypt for lack of preparedness.  Both transitional governments were able to adequately explain the reasons for delay and both nations went on to host free and fair elections, after proper preparations, for the first time in their respective histories.

The US and Europe should be advancing this argument with the NTC to convince them to allow the current spate of locally planned elections in cities like Benghazi, Darna, and others to take place first and revise and update the electoral framework with participation from the local elected councils.  While undertaking this political process as a practice run toward a national election, the NTC could allow the security situation to settle as a UN force takes on the security burden.  This would create the necessary conditions for Libya to truly begin to stabilize and transition into a functional nation-state.


Alec Simantov is from the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He is currently pursuing his Master of Public Policy degree from George Mason University specializing in International Governance and Institutions, with a focus on EU foreign and security policy in the Middle East. He earned his Bachelor’s degrees in History and Linguistics from the University of Maryland with concentrations in Middle Eastern history and Arabic language. Prior to the Atlantic Council, Alec interned at the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, in the Foreign & Security Policy/Transatlantic program and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) as a Legislative Assistant. He currently serves as an executive editor for TABLET, the International Affairs Journal of George Mason University and as an editorial assistant for Foreign Policy Bulletin.

Libya and the ICC: In the Pursuit of Justice?

The ongoing post-conflict reconstruction process in Libya is reigniting a crucial debate among transitional justice advocates as to the role the International Criminal Court (ICC) can play in delivering justice and redress to victims of grave crimes. In the midst of the February 2011 revolution, the ICC opened an investigation into crimes allegedly committed in Libya, based on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1970. The Court has to date issued three arrest warrants for Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, Abdullah Al-Senussi and Muammar Gaddafi. The warrant against Muammar Gaddafi was withdrawn following his death, while Al-Islam Gaddafi is currently detained in Libya and Al-Senussi in Mauritania. Neither has been turned over to the ICC. The Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) has asserted that it wishes to try these men in Libya, while France has declared its intention to purse Al-Senussi’s extradition for earlier alleged crimes. However, the ICC, along with many human rights groups nationally and internationally, question Libya’s capacity to conduct fair trials against these high profile individuals.

Key Justice Concerns in Libya

In my capacity as regional coordinator for the Coalition for the International Criminal Court Middle East and North Africa (MENA), I recently spoke with several Libyan legal and civil society stakeholders who expressed the view that existing Libyan laws do not always conform to human rights standards and need to be repealed or amended. Although the recent adoption by the NTC of a transitional justice law has been a step in the right direction, the capacity of the Libyan legal system to deliver justice remains weak.

In its February 2012 report, the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on Libya stated that Libya was marred by widespread human rights abuses and brutal repression under Muammar Gaddafi’s decades of autocratic rule. It is against this background of impunity that the call for rule of law and reforms in the justice system needs to be assessed. Members of the legal and judicial sectors played a decisive role in the 17 February revolution, with the independence of the judiciary one of their main demands. Although the law under Gaddafi provided for an independent judiciary, this was not the case in practice. The government used summary judicial proceedings to suppress domestic dissent, interfered in the administration of justice by altering court judgments, replaced judges and manipulated the appeals system. A 2010 United States State Department report on human rights practices in Libya found that the judiciary also failed to incorporate international standards for fair trials, detention and imprisonment. It is therefore unsurprising that the judicial system in Libya collapsed in the aftermath of the 2011 conflict, and continues to suffer from a lack of trust on the part of victims seeking redress as well as the Libyan public at large.

Today, most international human rights organizations seem to acknowledge that the situation in Libya remains generally precarious. Reports of widespread abuse of internally displaced people, especially women and children, as well as violations of the rights of detainees, are particularly worrying to the human rights community. A February 2012 Amnesty International report detailed ongoing arbitrary detention, unauthorized interrogations, coerced confessions and torture. In the same month, the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya similarly declared that “[b]reaches of international human rights law continue to occur in a climate of impunity […] forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi carried out mass executions and tortured suspected regime opponents, amounting to crimes against humanity.”

Fighting Impunity: Domesticating the Rome Statute?

The process of enforcing justice is a complicated and often contentious one. The new Libyan leadership now faces the challenge of rebuilding a country that is, according to the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya, “devoid of independent institutions, a civil society, and a judiciary able to provide justice and redress.” At this critical juncture, the availability of the ICC— an internationally recognized body—to promulgate principles of global importance is vital to fostering universal justice principles and steering Libya away from victor’s justice. So how can the ICC inspire the criminal justice reform process within Libya?

Continued monitoring by international entities can be a catalyst for reforms of national justice systems, encouraging states to implement best practices from other national systems and ensure the continued capacity of its legal and judicial sectors. It is therefore difficult to negate the role of international justice has to play in accountability efforts in Libya. At a time when the ICC is expanding its important work to end impunity for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, Libya can take advantage of the Rome Statute—the Court’s founding treaty—for its own national legal framework and repeal the special laws in force during the reign of Gaddafi. The Libyan criminal justice system must meet new challenges based on a changed international environment. The police, prosecutors and legal framework must become scrupulous actors in observing evolving standards of human rights and accountability. In addition to the role that the ICC could play in upholding due process in the trial of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi and Abdullah Al-Senussi, once Libya’s new legislature is in place, ratification of international human rights law conventions—including accession to the Rome Statute—would lend legitimacy to the country’s commitment to universal human rights.

Dr. Cherif Bassiouni, an authoritative source on international criminal justice and chief architect of the ICC, stresses that “it is important that any kind of post-conflict justice be owned by the people affected.” The challenge he puts forth is how international criminal law, expanded in the Rome Statute, can be used to carry out effective prosecutions at the national level. In this context, the international community should assist Libya in its efforts to establish transitional justice and in fostering prosecutions within the national system, bearing in mind that some forms of justice mechanisms already exist in Libya.  As the country embarks on legislative reforms, the Rome Statute in particular should be instrumental to incorporating international crimes into the Libyan criminal code and repealing any statutory limitations applying to such crimes. Equally important is the establishment of an independent judiciary and capacity strengthening programs for the judiciary, police and prison service— in particular in the development of specialized investigative and prosecutorial skills, as well as the consideration of the rights of victims in all accountability mechanisms in accordance with ICC norms.

Libyan authorities are slowly responding to their citizens’ demands for accountability and justice and there is a growing interest in supporting human rights and adapting to international human rights law standards. These recent developments bolster the legitimacy of the ICC in its effort to relay a strong message that there can be no impunity for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In the words of a young Libyan human rights activist, Jamila Azar, “Libyans want to cultivate a culture against impunity to end the Gaddafi legacy and prevent a repetition of repressive practices.” Today, the country is one of the many examples of how societies in the MENA region grapple with balancing the ideals of traditional, national and international law with the imperative of making society more just for their people.

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