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Archives for Governance

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

Reputational Risk: Troubles when Doing Business with Dictators

If your company has conducted business with Libya during the Muamar Gaddafi era, chances are your senior management and corporate lawyers are probing deep to find out if the company has been involved in anything that Western authorities or international media could question. The bigger the company, the more probing and no one is safe. In neighboring Algeria, there are ongoing probes in the questionnable dealings involving international companies who worked with state-oil giant Sonatrach or took part to the East-West motoway project.

Consider some of the names that are on the radar screens of investigators and legal authorities around the world: Italian and French energy giants ENI and Total, which have also received formal requests from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The American enforcer of securities laws is checking whether these companies have broken any law when they delt with the Gaddafi regime under the U.S. Foreign Corruption Practice Act. Interinstingly, recent Libya’s oil minister Abdurahman Benyezza in the government of Abdurrahim El-Keib, used to be an executive at ENI.  There is no proof of wrongdoing yet, but these companies, like many others are on the defensive, just like Yara International in Norway and SNC Lavalin in Canada, two companies that are facing a major damage to their reputation.

In Algeria, corruption probes are moving at slow pace but pressure from the press and investigations abroad are prompting judges to try to do something. Their hands are often tied because these cases involve very powerful men like ex-oil Minister Chakib Khelil and relatives of former Foreign Minister Mohamed Bedjaoui.  Here’s a sample of cases we’ve been following:

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Algerian Government Ministers Implicated in Corruption Cases: All Eyes on Chakib Khelil and Others

The murky nature of Algerian politics and lack of transparency mean that the country is suffering from a major credibility and accountability deficit that is allowing many of its top leaders to abuse their power. As we approach the Presidential elections, more political and financial scandals are making it to the public, dragging with them names of politicians who used to be seen internationally as credible. Foreign justice systems in countries like Italy, Switzerland, Canada and elsewhere are probing cases of illegal payments made by companies to Algerian officials, investigations that are turning out to be a PR nightmare for the Algerian government. Continue here

 

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ENI-Saipem Hit by Corruption Scandal on Algeria Business 

The North Africa Journal | Italian oil and gas industry contractor Saipem is embroiled in a corruption scandal in its Algeria operation that forced the resignation of its veteran CEO Pietro Franco Tali. The company’s engineering and construction Chief, Pietro Varone was suspended pending the ongoing investigation. Energy giant ENI, which owns 40% of Saipem announced the resignation of its own CFO Alessandro Bernini. …   Continue here

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SNC-Lavalin: Collateral Damage of Dealing with Dictatorships

Damage control and reputational risk are a few things the Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin is currently experiencing firsthand. As the company celebrates one hundred years of business, it is facing unprecedented scrutiny related to its dealings with the Gaddafi family of Libya. Key senior executives have already lost their jobs as the company is going through damage control, and construction contracts in other parts of the world are being questioned. Now, a former Canadian ambassador to Tripoli could be dragged down into this affair, as the press continues to dig deep into corporate dealings that have gone bad like a Hollywood movie plot. The cost of doing business in Libya has suddenly increased rapidly for the company and its troubles may not be over…

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Another Deal Gone Wrong in Libya: Yara in the Limelight

In the immediate aftermath of the end of the Gaddafi regime, scandals of all sorts involving alleged corruption, improper payments and bad business practices have began to surface. One of them involves Yara International, the Norwegian company that owns half of the Libyan Norwegian Fertilizer firm (Lifeco), which has been charged in its home country with “aggravated corruption” in connection with its Libyan joint venture.

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Selling the Good and the Evil: Unit of Bull Supplied Internet Interception System to Gaddafi

 Although SNC-Lavalin’s case of dealing with the Gaddafi regime may be the most troublesome to emerge to date, the Canadian company is not only one being scrutinized for exercising bad judgment. Other companies and Western politicians are beginning to show on the radar screens of the media and independent observers, and we suspect many more to come. Among the latest to deal with the hot topic of the Gaddafi liability is France’s Amesys, which has sold spy technology to the Libyan regime at the heights of its dictatorship.

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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.

Potential Pitfalls in the EU’s “More for More” Approach to Democratization in North Africa

5+5 Nations
President Chirac’s address at the closing of the 5+5 Dialogue Summit in 2003, with disgraced Ben Ali and now defunct Gaddafi there. Will Europe change its views of North Africa?

Since June of last year, the European Union has been touting its new reform plan for its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which calls for a complete revamping of the Union’s political and economic relations with the ‘Southern Mediterranean’ countries, most notably North Africa.  Among the central tenets of the new ENP is the “more for more” approach, which stipulates greater rewards in economic assistance and EU market access for partner countries in exchange for substantive and far-reaching political reforms.  While at first this seems to be a welcome change in rhetoric, and hopefully policy, from the EU, questions remain as to whether this really represents a true policy shift that will help strengthen reform and democratization in North Africa, or if such an approach will simply perpetuate a cycle of mismanaged EU-North Africa relations.

One of the glaring failures of the pre-Arab Spring ENP is that despite democratization rhetoric, the policy was largely aimed at promoting stability and the status quo.  The Neighborhood Policy itself was borne out of the European Security Strategy, and was initially intended to build a ‘ring of friends’ around Europe.  Over the years, rather than promoting democratic governance, the ENP simply reinforced “firm” governance.  Part of the failure of the ENP to illicit democratization in countries like Morocco or Tunisia stemmed from miscalculations over incentives.  What the EU was willing to offer the countries of the Maghreb in terms of economic cooperation was not sufficient to move these regimes to make any real changes to their government structure or practices.  However, an equally important part of the ENP’s failure also stems from the EU’s rush to offer the Moroccan and Tunisian governments “Advanced Status” negotiating terms despite little to no progress on the reform front, thus removing remaining incentives for change.  On the whole, for the pre-Arab Spring era, it would appear that the EU greatly overestimated its influence and miscalculated its way into insignificance.

While Tunisia is in the process of a real, if not completely smooth, transition, Morocco’s progress on reforms remains in flux.  The EU recently concluded an agricultural trade deal with Morocco, allowing it access to the EU market.  This is the trade agreement that Morocco has been desperately pursuing for years to little avail.  The deal came on the heels of a Constitutional referendum, changes to the enumerated powers of the Prime Minister, and a parliamentary election where the Islamist PJD won a majority, a first in a country where Islamists have been routinely imprisoned for political activity.  On the surface it would seem like the ‘more for more’ approach is working; substantive political reforms for greater economic benefits from the EU.  Yet, Morocco’s reforms over the last year aren’t nearly as substantive as they appear to be. 

The King still has de-facto full executive power, leaving the Prime Minister extremely weak, with a newly begun judicial reform process still dependent on the King’s executive privilege.  The constitutional reforms have come under scrutiny for the differences between the French and Arabic versions of the texts regarding the King’s title of “Commander of the Faithful,” meaning that it remains a crime to publicly criticize the monarchy or the state, and any of its institutions.  Mouad Belghouat, a 19 year old Moroccan rapper, better known as El Haqed (“the enraged”), knows this well.  He now sits in jail for a protest song “Dogs of the State,” where he blasted the country’s National Security Agency for its corruption and political oppression in subservience to the monarchy.  His defense team at his trial was not allowed to make a closing statement.  Additionally, the makhzen, or royal court, continues to maintain its grip over Morocco’s ‘private sector’ further enriching itself and the monarchy at the economic expense of ordinary Moroccans.  This hardly resembles the rosy facade of Morocco as, “a model for the region,” painted by European officials.

Additional concerns are now emerging over Algeria, with its recent election where the ruling party consolidated its hold on power and increased its share of seats in parliament.  Unlike Morocco, Algeria has an Association Agreement with the EU but not an Action Plan (AP).  Algeria expressed interest in beginning AP negotiations with EU in December 2011 and subsequently invited EU election observers to monitor the May legislative elections.  Beyond this, Algerian progress on reforms has been perfunctory.  Protests in the capital, Algiers, remain banned.  Although the government lifted the emergency law on the rest of the country, Amnesty International notes that protests still require authorization from the government which is routinely denied, amounting to a de facto ban on demonstrations.  Most recently, Algerian artists and intellectual launched a petition calling for true freedom of expression in the country.  The signatories heavily criticized the Ministry of Culture’s stranglehold over artistic expression citing its tendency to threaten and intimidate anyone who does not follow its strict directives and rules regarding cultural expression.

The goal of the Algerian government, based simply on the public rhetoric of its officials, has been to stave off the possibility of large-scale protest movements that would fundamentally challenge the government’s ruling authority.  The government has been fairly successful in preventing a Tunisia/Egypt/ Libya style revolt and even a Moroccan style youth protest movement.  Since it is relatively clear what the government’s intentions are and have been since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the recent election looks more like electoral theater aimed at placating European and Western criticism than substantive reform.  EU electoral monitors and high officials have already declared the election a success and are ready to offer Algeria the Action Plan it desires.  

The prospect of EU officials being naively unaware that these non-democratic governments are attempting to finesse favorable outcomes within the ENP at low political cost to themselves seems rather unlikely.  Behind the laudatory press releases and friendly diplomatic statements, EU diplomatic staff and Brussels bureaucrats must surely be aware of the blatant shortcomings of these countries’ respective reform processes.  Rather, the rush to provide rewards to these regimes for largely cosmetic reforms results from the belief that the EU can lure these governments into more genuine reforms if it can convince them it is offering the new ‘more for more’ approach in good faith.  While the EU has rightly calculated that it does indeed need to offer more, it has yet to recalibrate its tendency to offer too much too soon.  That Morocco has now achieved its long stated goal of an agricultural deal means that the EU has relatively little left to offer that is so highly desired by the government as to elicit further democratic reforms at a level and pace suitable to European sensibilities.  This leaves little optimism that as negotiations with Algeria begin, a new EU-Algeria Action Plan won’t look and feel dismally similar to previous sets of ENP Action Plans that failed to induce democratization and political reform.

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:

Salaries in the Maghreb: The Land of Equality?

While no one expects their government leaders to earn the same wage as the average guy, North Africa governments tend to pay generous salaries to ministers and the likes. However, compared to corporate executive jobs, or even mid-level managers in the West, the salaries in question are not that great. They generally do not exceed the $150,000 ceiling, but that does not inlcude the perks and bonuses that most of these officials benefit from. That includes allowances for housing, travel, cars, gasoline, etc. If you include all of that and more, government people in North Africa are rich.

In the region, the most humble officials are those of Tunisia. The Prime Minister there does not get more than $48,000 per year, when his Algerian and Moroccan colleagues get almost triple that amount. Interestingly, in the spirit of good governance, the Interim President of Tunisia, who was entitled to a wage equivalent of $240,000 per year, has downgraded his pay to a symbolic $20,000 per year instead. We salute Mr. Marzouki for doing so as the Tunisian people continue to struggle with their evolving Jasmine Revolution.

What do the others make compared to minimum or median wages? Judge by yourself.

Top Algerian Leaders' Salaries

Top Algerian Leaders' Salaries

 

Moroccan Ministers' Wages

Moroccan Ministers' Wages

 

Wages in Tunisia

Wages in Tunisia

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?

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