The North Africa Blame Game

There’s a dangerous blame game being played now among the pundits, laying the responsibility for the conflict in northern Mali and the recent terror attack on the In Amenas gas field in Algeria on the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. In the words of this recent New York Times story, “Qaddafi had mostly kept in check his country’s various ethnic and tribal factions … He acted as a lid … Once that lid was removed, … there was greater freedom for various groups—whether rebels, jihadists, or criminals—to join up and make common cause.”

This narrative is just wrong. On the simplest level, it’s a bad argument. The In Amenas attack was launched in Algeria and so far there is no indication Libyans were involved, though the country’s long desert border with Libya is close by. Algeria is a nasty police state ruled by a shadowy military junta that represses anything that smells of dissent, including peaceful protests. If the “lid” theory were right, the attack would have come in the Libyan oil fields. And Mali, while a titular democracy, was a very corrupt state under former President Touré, and an unstable state because of internal decisions about which tribes to include in power-sharing.

Interestingly enough, the situation of the Amazigh people—also known as Berbers, and including the Tuareg in their linguistic sphere—has been a running sore in Algeria, Libya, and Mali.

In Mali, it was the issue that brought down Touré’s government, as the neglected Tuareg minority in the north seceded as the state of “Azawad” last April. Far from keeping conflict in check, Touré had ignored the Tuareg, who were few and far between in the national army.

In Algeria, the Amazigh played a large role in the revolution against the French in the 1950s but were swiftly marginalized by the new independent state. Even the Tamazight language was banned from schools. The Amazigh homeland of the Kabylie has been in ferment on and off for decades, most notably during a “Berber Spring” in 1980, which was little noticed in the US.

In Libya, Qaddafi institutionalized hostility between the Amazigh of Zwara and their Arab neighbors, taking land from Zwara and giving it to neighboring towns. In the south, he both attempted to co-opt the Tuareg with positions in his army, and kept their area poor even by Libyan standards. On a visit to Sebha and Obari in early November 2011, I was shocked at the Afghan-like level of development—and this in an area with much oil drilling. In Libya, all oil belongs to the state, which used to mean the Qaddafi family and their cronies. Tuareg activists told me time and again that they wanted their share of the oil wealth under their own land. They complained that there were no Tuareg ministers in the Qaddafi government and, I was told, not even one Tuareg diplomat representing Libya abroad.

The ways this “Qaddafi kept the lid on” narrative is wrong aren’t only of interest to pundits and academics. They underlie mistakes that the US makes again and again in dealing with dictators—mistakes that, oddly enough, tend to be supported by self-styled liberals who otherwise are hypersensitive to issues of rights. In Egypt, in Pakistan, in Bahrain, and in many other places, we’ve heard that the brute we were propping up with our tax dollars is the only thing between order and chaos. But usually, the kind of  “order” these thugs provide destroys whatever vestiges remain of the rule of law, prevents the development of a civil society and mutual trust, infantilizes the population and renders them dependent on the state, and makes it harder to establish the pre-conditions for democracy with every passing year. We are able to recognize this in Cuba—why not in North Africa?

The lesson of these rough times is not that the US was better served by the dictators of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. It’s that decades of dictatorship do not create stability, prosperity, or economic growth. (The only exceptions may be China and Singapore.) American support for the revolution in Libya was by and large wise and appropriate—stopping well short of boots on the ground, which the Libyans themselves did not want. Expecting Libya to become a thriving democracy barely a year after the death of Qaddafi is unrealistic. And blaming any terror attacks in North Africa on the Arab Spring is foolish and likely to lead to more bad policy choices.


Photo Credit: Magharebia

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