Walker's World: The North African brew

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Sept. 10, 2007 at 11:26 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- This weekend’s peaceful elections in Morocco and the al-Qaida bomb attacks in neighboring Algeria gave two sharply contrasting images of the realities of power and politics in North Africa.

But appearances can be deceiving. There is no simple contrast between calm and quietly prospering Morocco under the enlightened leadership of the powerful King Mohammed VI and the violence of Algeria under authoritarian and traditionally military rule. Nothing is ever quite so simple in the Middle East.

The big surprise in Morocco’s election was that the moderate Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (so moderate that they are welcome guests and interlocutors at the U.S. Embassy) did so badly. The opinion polls suggested they would double their representation in Parliament to around 80 seats. In fact, they gained only five seats, and did not as expected become the largest party in Parliament.

Compare that Islamic weakness in Morocco with al-Qaida’s bluntly brutal claim of responsibility for the bombs in Algeria that killed more than 50 people in two separate attacks last week. Algeria suffered something in excess of 150,000 deaths in the 1990s in a vicious civil war between the military and the militant Islamists of the Armed Islamic Group, or GAI, after the army intervened to block the 1991 elections that the Islamic Salvation Front seemed poised to win. Whole villages were massacred and torture and atrocities were commonplace on both sides.

It was a reminder that long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks the most passionate struggles against militant Islam were being waged by Arab governments. The militants were ruthlessly purged and persecuted in Egypt after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and in Syria in 1982 the government responded to the threat of armed insurgency by the Muslim Brotherhood with utter ruthlessness. The city of Hama was destroyed with massed artillery and tank fire, killing at least 30,000, and another 15,000 remain missing.

Incidents such as these are seared into the political memory of the Arab world. They underpin today’s political arguments and hang heavily over the question whether elections in the Arab world lead to democracy or to an undemocratic Islamic populism. And they define what little dialogue takes place between "moderate" and "extreme" Islam.

Morocco’s monarchy has kept such tensions under control, in part because as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, the king carries the formal title "commander of the faithful.” (It was because they refuse to acknowledge this title that the radical Islamism of the old Adl wan Ihsan Party was banned, paving the way for the pro-monarchy moderates of the Justice and Development Party.)

But terrorist violence is no stranger to Morocco. Local suicide bombers from the Casablanca slums of Sidi Moumen killed 26 in 2003 during attacks on tourist sites and a Jewish cemetery. Moroccans were prominent among the Madrid rail bombers the following year, and earlier this year two young suicide bombers blew themselves up when they were stopped from trying to log onto an extremist Islamic Web site at an Internet cafe, presumably to get targeting instructions. It was the anniversary of the Madrid bombings.

So if Morocco has shown that elections and moderate Islamist parties act as a safety valve to fend of extremism, it may not be good news that victory in Morocco’s election went to the conservative Istiqlal Party. It campaigned on its record of bringing 8 percent growth, foreign investment and jobs, from telemarketing centers to Renault-Nissan’s new $1 billion car plant. But with the real levers of power resting firmly in the palace and with the king’s carefully chosen technocrat advisers, the government can claim little credit for the economic growth.

Istiqlal’s success came in part from a very low turnout of just 37 percent of eligible voters, despite such modern tricks as voter registration by phone messaging, and in part from the old ways of influence peddling and vote-buying, at least if the disappointed Islamists are to be believed.

"Money was our first enemy," complained PJD leader Saad Eddine Othmani, alleging that the ruling secular parties had bought votes and launched last-minute public works projects to block the PJD. The Moroccan press, still one of the most free in the Arab world despite laws against criticizing Islam or the royal family, also reported votes being bought. And constraints against the press are being broken by technology, with one citizen journalist named Qannass becoming famous for putting videos of corrupt, rude or lazy policemen onto YouTube.

Morocco may not be the poster child for Arab democracy as some of its admirers in the Bush administration like to suggest. But it is one of the most agreeable, relaxed and hopeful of Arab societies, possibly because it has been spared the curse of oil wealth and thus has been forced to build a real and broad-based economy. Although one in seven of its 33 million people live on less than $2 a day, and it commands not much more than half of Algeria’s per capita gross domestic product, Morocco is defined more by hope and energy-rich Algeria more by fear.

This is not a situation the West can afford to ignore. Since 2004 the United States has named Morocco a “major non-NATO ally” and awarded it a free-trade agreement. For the European Union, relations with the Arab lands across the Mediterranean Sea are critical, with immigration, energy supplies, trade and terrorism -- and now al-Qaida and elections -- all complicating Europe’s connection to its near-abroad.

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