This blog is no longer active, but I continue to post at the group blog MAGHREB POLITICS REVIEW.

Mar 13, 2009

Mauritania, Qadhafi, and the Arab world

[Cross-posted to Maghreb Politics Review] -- At The Moor Next Door, MPR's fearsome strongman, Kal, adds up the results of Muammar el-Qadhafi's recent visit to Nouakchott, where he tried to mediate the Mauritanian crisis by unreservedly siding with the putschists. This didn't quite pan out, and his blatant partisanship surprised those who had seen Libya's previously intensive and consistent effort to come across as a possible bridge-builder -- the deposed president Abdellahi was given a head-of-state welcome in Sirte, and so on, to signify that Qadhafi was on good terms with both sides.

As Kal argues -- and I agree -- the end result of Libya's move from the middle to the fringe seems to be that the US/European position is strengthened. Washington has been militantly against the coup, while Europe under French leadership was equally vocal, but also hinted openly at a search for whatever pragmatic exit existed. If they would pool their resources to push hard for a solution alongside those local players that agree, they could probably make a real difference.

The Arab world, with a couple of prominent exceptions, remains negative or indifferent to the junta. Mauritania has gained some rare popular acclaim among Arabs for cutting ties with Israel, but on balance it didn't help to swing Arab states. Among the so-called 'radical' Arab states, Algeria (not terribly radical, under Bouteflika) was already firmly invested in the anti-coup camp, while Syria and Sudan have been too preoccupied with their own troubles to notice, and are unable to extend any help anyhow. (Yemen is also habitually railing against Israel, but I don't think Mauritania can expect any financial contributions from there...) It gained some limited applause from Qatar, and now there is this with Libya, although it's not obvious that the cut ties with Israel were behind Qadhafi's swing to full-blown partisanship. Among the so-called 'moderate' Arab states, the non-Qatari Gulf crowd, where the money is, all viewed this radical grandstanding very negatively, since they are presently under KSA leadership engaged in promoting a compromise line on Israel. For Egypt and Jordan, it's an absolute embarrassment -- it increases pressure on them to break their own ties with Israel. In Morocco, the government must have been quietly upset about the cut ties with Israel, given the back-breaking acrobatics that Rabat is presently performing to please Riyadh & Washington. But the government is, like Algeria's, much too invested in the situation to change sides or even punish the junta for the move.

Summing the Arab scene up, it's possible that Mauritania's Israel move was designed only to gain Qadhafi's total backing. If so, it seems to have succeeded (for what it's worth). If the embassy closure was designed to break its larger isolation, it's a failure, since it further alienated the West and a couple of Arab heavyweights, and didn't bring about change anywhere else. Finally, however, one shouldn't ignore the domestic factor: the Mauritanian public has opposed Israel's embassy since the day it opened, and despite the segmented nature of the Mauritanian polity, there's still a good political buck in wielding the Israel card.

At any rate, Qadhafi's first international action as head of the African Union ended in a serious anti-climax for him, depriving Libya of the swing role it had hoped for but adding a semi-powerful -- if double-edged -- support for the junta. With Qadhafi at the head of the AU, its previously stiff legalistic stand on the coup could also be in danger, given the flimsyness of its institutions and the Brother Leader's general disregard for, precisely, institutions. This could prove important, since the AU has so far been used as the international community's sanction canary, moving one step ahead of the rest. (About the AU, see also Ibn Kafka on MPR detaling the world of difference between a coup and a coup.)

Now, the ball is in the court of the US and Europe, and the quest to find another mediator is on. Let me guess that someone will sooner or later call on either Qatar, the UN or some African country to step in and work something out. It's either that or to wait for another coup, which given today's logjam would risk seriously destabilising the country, and also spoil the slim but intriguing chance that there could actually be a day when an African/Arab coup is overturned peacefully by foreign and internal pressure.

To read: great, long, and detailed sum-up of the whole Mauritanian coup story by Mohamed Lemine ould Bah at the Arab Reform Initiative.

Mar 10, 2009

Angry Berbers & Loony Libyans

That is what i discuss in one, two posts at Maghreb Politics Review.

Mar 5, 2009

Libya calls for referendum in W. Sahara

[picture: muammar al-qadhafi, exiting the mos eisley cantina]
The Libyan General Popular Congress is the closest thing that country has to a parliament. It has just held its session, and out of the steaming heaps of praise for the Brother Leader, one can extract the following:

- "The GPC hopes that reason, logic, geographical unity and historical ties will prevail between the brothers in Algeria and Morocco. It calls for the return of normal brotherly relations between the two brotherly countries and to the consolidation of ties of fraternity which bond their people through the opening of borders to facilitate the movement of people and the flow of goods and services."

- "The GPC maintains that a referendum for the population of the Western Sahara is the only practical solution for this crisis which had a negative effect on the efforts of the region's countries to realize a broader integration."

Libya was one of POLISARIO's strongest backers until 1984, when it joined in a short-lived union with Morocco designed partially to extract itself from the whole Western Sahara affair. Since then, it has ambiguously wavered to and fro, and tailored its Sahara-related messages to the audience, but when now calling for a referendum -- as opposed to some vague exhortation of self-determination -- that effectively aligns the country with POLISARIO's and Algeria's position on how the process must work. On the other hand, the GPC also calls for open borders between Algeria and Morocco, which Algeria is presently refusing.

Of course, Libyan policy is always subject to the whims of Qadhafi, so this need not be taken as a firm and final decision in either direction.

Mar 3, 2009

Pax Algeriana

Read my post on the Touareg business in Mali, and Algeria's involvement with it, on Maghreb Policy Review.

Mar 1, 2009

The Sahrawi Republic turns 33

Front POLISARIO, the Western Saharan independence movement, has held its annual celebrations of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The SADR was announced on February 27, 1976, and so this is its 33rd anniversary; that most dangerous year. The celebrations seem to have been unremarkable, or in fact indistinguishable from earlier years -- a military parade in the "liberated territories", combined with some political and social stunts to make the yearly journalists' trek pay in pictures and headlines. But three things caught my eye:

1. Troop levels: "Bashir Mustapha Saeed, the deputy leader of the exiled Saharawi government, based in neighboring Algeria, said the Polisario Front had 12,000 to 18,000 regular troops and could mobilize many more reservists if needed." -- It is very rare to hear POLISARIO announce troop numbers for their armed wing, the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army. 12,000 to 18,000 seems too high to be credible, with most observers putting the figure closer to 6-7,000 active troops, but that figure is also guesswork. El Bashir's number was probably accurate during the 80s, but since the cease-fire in 1991, training has slipped, and is no longer universal in the camps. At the same time, POLISARIO claims to have stepped up preparations for war again, and training apparently continues to churn out hundreds of new fighters every year -- 500 graduated during the celebrations alone, some of them seen here.

2. El Bashir Mustafa El Seyyid ran the event. This is not significant in itself, if it were not for the fact that there's a line of argument in Morocco that this man -- El Ouali's brother, and a chef historique -- is in fact held as prisoner by the leadership of Mohammed Abdelaziz. Allegedly he wants to make up with Morocco, and is therefore held under strict surveillance by POLISARIO authorities. This may or may not be true, but there's very little or no evidence to back it up; even so, it's slowly becoming an established fact that "everybody knows". TelQuel, the Moroccan magazine, presented its interview with El Bashir in 2008 as a groundbreaking event with a virtual prisoner. In fact, and whatever the level of marginalization he may be suffering, he has been highly involved in politics in the movement both before and after that interview. He was among the top vote winners at the POLISARIO's congress in 2007, and now schmoozes with journalists on the Feb. 27 celebrations. I can't claim to know anything of POLISARIO's inner workings, but that's hardly behavior befitting a dissident in house arrest.

3. Repopulation of the "liberated territories": This strategy, begun discreetly a couple of years ago, is now fully public. POLISARIO wants to establish a permanent civilian settlement at Tifariti (pictured right) in its section of Western Sahara, to bolster its infrastructure there and make the semi-permanent division of the territory more of a political and psychological embarrassment for Morocco. (Until now, there have only been military camps and nomadic movement in the areas held by POLISARIO, while Morocco's part has all the settled population.) It's actually quite clever, since it pokes a hole in Morocco's propaganda to its population about these areas being a UN-patrolled "buffer zone", rather than territory legally -- if not in any way physically -- on par with Smara and El Aaiún (for this argument in more detail, a PDF document by Nick Brooks). On the other hand, it totally undermines the sabre-rattling that POLISARIO habitually engages in. If you think war is the least bit likely, you don't spend your precious resources building civilian housing on the front line.

Feb 26, 2009

US DoS human rights reports

The US State Department has issued its yearly human rights reports. Here's Senegal, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Niger. Don't read them immediately before going to bed.

Otherwise, I'm still mostly posting at Maghreb Politics Review, and at a splendid pace too.

Feb 21, 2009

Maghreb Politics Review

Is this the end? As I mentioned earlier, I'm transferring to the new Maghreb group blog, Maghreb Politics Review. It really seems like it's going to be a good one, so I recommend you follow it whether or not for my ramblings. As for WSI, I may continue to post stuff here, or I may not.

On MPR, I haven't quite figured out the wonderful complexities of WordPress, so layout is bound to be spartan for a while. But disregard that, and you can still read my first posts:

Tamed or Broken?, a long descriptive rant about today's Algerian politics, with a focus on Islamists and the system of governance that has emerged under Bouteflika. Faithful readers of WSI will recognize most arguments, and note a curious resemblance to this post.

Ross tours the region, a brief note to point out that Christopher Ross, the new UN envoy for W. Sahara, is making his first official rounds in the Maghreb.

Feb 18, 2009

WSI: the blog of record

Slow going, I know. But here: The New York Times runs a piece about Mauritania and tensions between U.S. anti-terror and pro-democracy commitments that perhaps you should read (h/t Justin). And, darn it, I do think that's my translation of an al-Qaida communiqué that they've used on page 4, even if slightly edited. Google agrees.

That's unfortunate. Because now, while checking if it was really my translation they'd swiped, I stumbled upon a claim in another al-Qaida statement, saying that the communiqué I translated was a fake, although there is of course no guarantee that it isn't that later statement that is in fact the fake one.

The truth of it I don't really care about, but it adds up to the doubly depressing realization that Jihadis suck at public diplomacy and that neither WSI nor NYT is careful enough about checking sources.

Previously on blog theft: Will turns into a Washington power broker, and the fake consultancy outfit Sahel Intelligence first lifts my Algeria posts and then, when caught red-handed, copies someone else instead.

Jan 29, 2009

Great moment in US-Algerian relations

Not quite the under cover operation he was hired for:

The CIA's station chief at its sensitive post in Algeria is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly raping at least two Muslim women who claim he laced their drinks with a knock-out drug, U.S. law enforcement sources tell ABC News.
Expect all hell to follow when this breaks in Algeria. Already before, many Algerians viewed their country's relationship with the US as being on precisely the terms here formulated my Mr. Date Rape:
The alleged victim said she remembers being in Warren's bed and asking him to stop, but that "Warren made a statement to the effect of 'nobody stays in my expensive sheets with clothes on.'"
For more sad and sensationalist detail, here's a search warrant affidavit as PDF document

Jan 25, 2009

No country for old men

He's an affable little fellow, but not everyone loves Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Here, for example, Rachid Benyelles lambasts the president in a long column in El Watan, one of Algeria's biggest French-language private dailies. Not only is the president a gangster and a corrupt police-state dictator, he's also old, sick and almost dead. Criticism of Bouteflika is of course par for the course in Algeria, but here, at the end, Benyelles breaks every conceivable taboo by essentially calling for a coup d'état:

The constitution and the political parties must be suspended, the parliament dissolved, and power be handed to a transitional government. During its six to twelve month mandate, it would be tasked with managing daily affairs and installing a National Council for the Installment of Democracy (CNID).
[picture: rachid benyelles]
This Benyelles, born 1935 and no youngster himself, is a retired general. In the mid-80s he briefly served as secretary-general of the Ministry of Defense under Chadli Bendjedid (meaning he was in effect the country's minister of defense, since he answered directly to the president). He was sidelined later on, by being moved to the post as minister of transport, and has not been of much importance since the end of the 1980s. Unless he's writing with backing from someone else, this should not be taken as anything other than an old man's angry rant. On the other hand, Benyelles's military background is interesting; not least because the article largely absolves the military of responsibility for the country's situation (and it doesn't even mention the DRS).

Even with the rather brutal tone of Algerian political commentary, this piece stands out for openly demanding total regime change. Such seems to be the mood as Bouteflika gears up for a third term, having eliminated all opposition and rewritten the constitution -- one of anger and desperation among his enemies, and raw bulldozer determination among his allies.