Rumsfeld's Pet Tyrants
Tom Porteous is a freelance writer and analyst who was formerly with BBC and served as conflict management adviser for Africa with the British Foreign Office.
When it comes to "the war on terror," North African governments can teach even U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a thing or two. And Rumsfeld seems to have been in a mood to listen on his sweep through Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco earlier this week. "Each country has been, in its way, providing moderate leadership and been constructive in...the struggle against violent extremism," he said at the outset of his trip. "It's something we value and want to strengthen."
But a closer look at how North African regimes have dealt with Islamic fundamentalism gives pause for thought. Long before the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 alerted the Bush administration to the political advantages of declaring a global war on terrorism, North African governments had discovered that they could use the struggle against terrorism and Islamic extremism as a pretext to justify cancelling elections, neutering opposition, locking up political opponents, closing down political debate, and securing Western economic and military assistance.
The U.S. declaration of a global war on terror in the aftermath of 9/11 has merely underwritten and lent international legitimacy to this well-tested strategy by which undemocratic and repressive regimes have stayed in power and secured their interests.
Since the late 1980s, citing the threat of terrorism, Tunisia has tolerated no political dissent or freedom of expression whatsoever, whether from the Islamist opposition or any other quarter. President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, the former army intelligence chief who seized power in 1987 in a nonviolent coup, has imposed a deal on Tunisian society. It goes like this: Don't get involved in opposition politics and I will ensure political and economic stability for all.
Algeria's military rulers may, in Rumsfeld's view, provide "moderate leadership." But within Algeria they have become known as the "eradicators" and with good reason. In 1992 the oligarchs who have long held power behind the scenes cancelled an electoral process which looked likely to bring an Islamist party, theFront Islamique de Salut (FIS), to power. As justification they warned Algerians and the world that an FIS victory would have brought about a disaster in the form of civil war, terrorism and religious extremism.
The coup led quickly to exactly what it was ostensibly designed to prevent: a catastrophic civil war and an horrendous spike in Islamist extremism. The FIS was banned and its supporters turned to an insurgency in which the most extreme elements, such as the Groupes Islamiques Armés (GIA)—later to become associated with Al Qaeda—soon came to the forefront.
Throughout the 1990s, the "eradicators" fought the Islamist insurgency with a ferocity and determination that might have made even Washington's eradicators blush. More than 6,000 people are known to have been abducted by agents of the state, their fate still unknown to their grieving families. But there are also unsettling and persistent allegations that Algeria's strongmen cynically manipulated the 1991-92 electoral process and engineered the civil war itself as a ruthless means not of eradicating terror and extremism, but of consolidating their power, suppressing the emergence of genuine political pluralism, and continuing to reap the benefits of Algeria's massive hydrocarbon wealth.
Did the regime manipulate and provoke the violence of the 1991 election campaign in order to scare Algerians and the world into accepting the coup? Did the intelligence services promote and pull the strings of some of the most extreme elements in the civil war in order to exclude the option of a negotiated political settlement? Such questions remain unanswered. But what is clear is that after 10 years of civil war, behind the stucco facade of a revived democratic process, the oligarchs remain firmly in control of everything. And the problems of Algeria—poverty, unemployment, corruption, lack of accountability and political stagnation—remain as stark as ever.
The regime in Morocco, too, has turned the war on terror to its own advantage. Since the early 1990s, it has used its reputation as a bastion of opposition to Islamic fundamentalism to resist international pressure to compromise over the disputed Western Sahara (which Morocco invaded in 1975) and to resist anything more than cosmetic political reform. Throughout his reign, King Hassan II made it quite clear to Moroccans that "l'état, c'est moi ," and responded to any serious challenge to his authority with violent repression. Since he acceded to the throne in 1999, his son, Mohammed VI, has introduced gradual and limited political opening.
However, since a spate of terrorist attacks in Casablanca in 2003, the brakes have been put even on that limited progress, as much because of the success of the legal Islamist party in converting widespread frustration over pervasive corruption and poverty into votes, as because of the regime's fears of terrorism. In recognition of Morocco's role in the war on terror, the U.S. has doubled military aid to the country, signed a free trade deal and granted it "major non-NATO ally" status (which makes Morocco eligible for enhanced U.S. military cooperation).
Last year in a much publicized "Road to Damascus" moment, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged the short-sightedness of a U.S. foreign policy that had prioritized stability and short term interests over political freedom, especially in the Arab world. "The "freedom deficit" in the broader Middle East provides fertile ground for the growth of an ideology of hatred so vicious and virulent that it leads people to strap suicide bombs to their bodies and fly airplanes into buildings," she wrote in the Washington Post.
Last month she followed this up with an apparent reorientation of U.S. foreign policy around the notion of "transformational diplomacy"—using American diplomacy to nudge violent, corrupt and repressive states towards political reform as a means of undercutting the threats that such states now pose to global security and U.S. interests.
But Rumsfeld's visit to North Africa demonstrates the selective nature of "transformational diplomacy" as practiced by Washington. Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco provide "moderate leadership," Rumsfeld said, and had created "an environment that's inhospitable for terrorism." The message from the Bush administration's chief enforcer of "transformational warfare" was loud and clear: No need for Rice's "transformational diplomacy" in this region. On the contrary, these countries provide a model of the kind of state the U.S. administration would like to see other Muslim countries transformed into: tightly controlled, pro-American bastions in the struggle against violent Islamic extremism.
Within the narrow logic of "the war on terror," the Rumsfeldian vision may be the one which best serves Washington's interests right now. And Rice's idealistic vision may be just that: idealistic and impractical. But to try to square the one with the other ends up in a mash of hypocrisy which fools no one in the Arab world.
Copyright © 2006 Tom Porteous