During the Cold War, American interests in the Maghreb were guided by strict geostrategic calculations. There was little effort to define North Africa beyond narrow economic and military concerns. Other areas of interests were realistically relegated to France and its historic role in the region. In the decade or so since the end of the Cold War, however, America’s interests have been reduced to a series of negatives or “stops”–stop drug production and trafficking, stop illegal immigration, stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, stop terrorism, stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and stop the struggle against Israel. Economic, commercial, and financial interests remain what they have always been–narrowly focused on sector-specific industries with oil and gas dominating bilateral trade. “Market Democracy” has come to define American foreign policy in the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton, applied to virtually every part of the globe save one–the Arab-Islamic world. In that world democracy, freedom, liberty, and human rights are relegated to secondary consideration, usually stuck at the level of rhetoric as required by law and published in the State Department’s annual review of human rights conditions worldwide.
The installation of an unrepresentative, military-backed party hack as president in Algeria in April 1999, the monarchical succession to absolutist rule in Morocco in July 1999, and the uncontested reelection of Ben Ali to the Tunisian presidency in October 1999 have found full support from the Clinton Administration since in each instance all the newly-installed leaders give formal approval to America’s six “stops” even while they continue to engage in drug trafficking (Morocco), work to acquire the nuclear technology that could be used for the development of weapons of mass destruction (Algeria), and pursue a policy of state “terrorism” against their own people (Tunisia).
Explanation for this transparently hypocritical policy is complex and multifaceted. Yet, in its most recent incarnation, two issues dominate the overall decision making process–the primacy of Israel’s safety and security and the opposition to political Islam. Unlike Europe, the United States does not depend on Maghrebi economic resources for its own development and security although the United States is among Algeria’s three largest gas customers. As a result, economic security and strategy do not compel American action in the region. Likewise, with no credible regional military threat any longer existing, there are no geostrategic calculations that dictate American involvement. It would appear, therefore, that with limited risk it would be both politically appropriate and symbolically advantageous for Market Democracy to be applied across the whole of the North African region. Why in fact this has not the case can only be understood in the context of the Israel-centered nature of United States-Middle East-North Africa relations and the congenital fear and distaste for political Islam or Islamism notwithstanding the repeated but unconvincing assertions by the whole range of Administration officials that the United States “has no quarrel” with Islam and considers it “one of the world’s great religions.”
“The Islamic Threat”
In other regions experiencing similar conditions of social dislocation, political upheaval, and economic decay, a Market Democracy approach has been promoted to highlight the intimate and interactive nature of political and economic change; that without progress in one area (democracy) it would be difficult to advance in the other (market) and vice versa. This has not been the approach used in the Maghreb, however. Here a unilinear and monocausal model is employed–install market economies that foster foreign direct investment, privatization, and capital accumulation, improve social conditions incrementally, and then, inshallah, begin to think about instituting real political change including pluralism, democracy, and genuine personal freedoms. Ironically, the peoples of the Maghreb themselves reject the Americanist paradigm but are powerless to affect its imposition as mediated through authoritarian indigenous elites.
Adding to the confrontational character of the Americanist vision is the emergence of an Islamist discourse whose populist legitimacy is rooted in democratic procedures if not beliefs. In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, for example, if Abdesalam Yassine (released from house arrest in May 2000), Abassi Madani (still under close police surveillance), and Rachid Ghannouchi (in self-imposed exile in Great Britain) were permitted full political freedoms to articulate their messages, aggregate their interests, and organize their supporters in free and fair multiparty elections, Islamism would emerge as a powerful if not majority voice in each country. Yet such an outcome, democratic or otherwise, is feared by Washington. Using the radicalism of the most extremist Islamic tendencies–often catalyzed into action by the repressive policies of the incumbent regimes themselves–as the political template of Islamism, Washington has been quick to reject the Islamist alternative preferring instead, to hitch its wagon to the status quo elites in power. One inevitable result has been the protection and promotion of a coterie of unrepresentative and menacing elites in the name of broader objectives that provide more compelling policy justification than the tepid one of “promoting democracy.”
The United States approach toward Islamists is beset with ambiguities, tensions, and contradictions. American decision makers seem reluctant to take a strong and decisive position on Islamic revivalism. This reluctance stems from Washington’s inability to predict and assess the foreign policy implications of Islamists if they come to power.
Three concerns underlie the United States stance on political Islam. First, the United States does not want to appear explicitly hostile toward Islamists so as not to add fuel to their flame. American officials do not want to repeat mistakes committed in dealing with the Islamic revolution in Iran. Second, the United States hesitates to support openly any Islamist group lest its regional interests and those of its allies be compromised. Administration officials at all levels of decision-making evince deep suspicions about the foreign policy orientation and agenda of Islamist activists. This explains Washington’s rapid turnabout on relations with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and with Rachid Ghannouchi of Ennahdah in Tunisia–both instances in which an initial policy of dialogue and cooperation was quickly replaced by one of outright hostility most dramatically illustrated with the imprisonment in the United States (Virginia) on trumped-up charges of Anwar Haddam, the FIS representative in the United States. Finally, a strain of skepticism bordering on complete rejection exists within United States foreign policy making circles regarding the compatibility between political Islam and democracy.
Whatever else public officials may say, United States conduct towards Islamist movements and states is inconsistent if not hypocritical. A wide gap exists between American officials’ rhetoric and action. United States decision makers appear to be extremely reluctant to apply their liberal pronouncements when formulating policy toward Islamists, standing solidly on the side of authoritarian regimes in North Africa. Although American leaders reject the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis, American post-Cold War policy towards both the Maghreb and the Machrek seems deeply influenced by the fear of an “Islamic threat.”
The Israel Factor
Intimately associated with the Islamic “threat” is the safety and security of Israel. Virtually every relationship that the United States has with Arab countries is a function of that relationship’s impact on Israel. Save for Saudi Arabia and the other microstates of the Persian Gulf whose sole raisons d’tre is the production and export of hydrocarbons, no Arab state including those of the Maghreb warrant individual attention to and resolution of the deep structural problems facing their economies or the immense obstacles preventing their successful democratic transformation. Both Arab elites and masses find it insulting and patronizing to be described as demonstrating “aspects” of democracy or exhibiting democratic “tendencies” implying that they are neither prepared for nor predisposed towards “full” democracy as if the majority of Afro-Asian, Latin American, and East European countries that underwent virtual overnight transitions from authoritarianism were imbued with some sort of deep political culture of democracy.
That such distinctions are made in the first instance, Arab analysts believe, results from the American preoccupation with the political and economic survival and prosperity of Israel for whom a genuinely democratic Arab world would constitute the gravest “threat” of all–a source of real and possibly “fatal attraction” in virtually all areas of modern social, economic, political, and cultural endeavor. A truly democratic and free Arab world would reduce Israel to a backwater islet in a sea of “Market Democracy.” Given this apocalyptic vision, it is no wonder that Israel encourages America’s alarmist view of Islamism and supports an instrumentalist approach to Arab political-economic development. Peace with Israel in which the Jewish state remains the centerpiece of democracy, development, and domination while the Arab world languishes in political backwardness which ensures a limited socioeconomic future is one subscribed to by the United States although never so crudely or explicitly stated.
The fusion of these dual dimensions of American-Maghrebi relations in the post-Cold War era was most vividly demonstrated at the time of the death of King Hassan II on 23 July 1999, whose funeral was attended by President Clinton along with 30 other heads of state on 25 July. It was an occasion for the United States to reiterate and reinforce its existing ties with Morocco along the very lines described and critically analyzed above. Dennis Ross, the Administration’s special coordinator for Middle East negotiations, who attended the funeral ceremonies, for example, said that “the most noteworthy aspect of today’s gathering was that it brought the Israeli Prime Minister [Ehud Barak] in contact with Arab leaders in an atmosphere lacking in the tension that has long marked Israel’s relations with its neighbors.” The fact that Barak “mingled easily” with all Arab leaders, he concluded, “is in no small part a tribute to King Hassan and what he represented.”
For his part, President Clinton, in remarks to staff members at the American Embassy in Rabat, applauded Hassan’s efforts to “build ties with other Arab nations and with Israel.” In speaking about future American-Moroccan relations, the American leader spoke not of the need to improve social conditions, advance significant additional aid to overcome structural problems in the economy, accelerate and deepen the democratization process, or safeguard basic human rights for ordinary men and women but, rather, he expressed optimism that King Hassan’s successor “would continue the king’s legacy of moderation and recognition of Israel.” An editorial in the influential New York Times stressed these same points when it wrote that while it was still “too early” too judge the new king, at Hassan’s funeral Mohammed VI “impressed Israelis by welcoming Mr. Barak” (2 August 199, p. A14).
That this so-called American support for Morocco’s “Hassanian strategy” does not go beyond rhetoric was confirmed by both diplomats in Rabat and United States businessmen in Casablanca within days of the King’s burial. A New York Times article reported, for example, that the new king, Mohamed VI, following in the model of King Abdullah in Jordan who assumed the throne on the death of his father King Hussein in February 1999, was trying to convert the good will demonstrated by the United States and others at the time of his father’s funeral into more tangible dividends especially significant increases in much-needed economic assistance and financial aid. Both United States government officials and others in the foreign business community in Morocco, however, doubted very much that America and its allies were ready to welcome King Mohamed VI with new aid despite the country’s supposedly important role in facilitating Arab-Israeli peace. The Times reported on these widely-shared sentiments when he wrote: “For one factor [of why new aid is most likely not forthcoming from the United States], Morocco is more than 2,000 miles removed from the epicenter of Arab-Israeli struggles. Despite its important role in the past as a broker of a wider peace, it is seen in Washington as a less important strategic partner than Jordan” (29 July 1999, p. A10).
These most recent public declarations by high United States government officials regarding America’s approach to Morocco reinforces the pattern of political indifference that has long characterized Washington’s relationship with the Maghreb. It also reflects a development within public policy and private analyst circles concerning the viability or even desirability of promoting democratic change in countries that have no historic experience with democracy or a cultural tradition conducive to its emergence. This less sanguine view about democracy’s prospects in such regions stems from the obvious difficulties that countries in the Balkans and the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, for example, have experienced in recent years in trying to apply and consolidate democratic norms, practices, and institutions.
Additionally, a new wave of “neo-realist” thinking has emerged expressing skepticism about the desirability of democratic transitions in areas considered geostrategically significant for American national and global interests. The logic of this argument is that efforts at promoting democracy may actually weaken the power of the state thereby fostering political instability. One result, therefore, has been that stability rather than democracy has become the more important goal of United States foreign policy makers. In the Arab world in general and the Maghreb in particular this neo-realist approach has never been challenged nor have any Arab countries been given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to taking risks for democracy. Washington’s concern now, as in the past, is that, left “unguided,” democratic systems might elect anti-American, Islamist regimes to power which might replace durably autocratic but pro-American governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and many Persian Gulf states–governments which explicitly or implicitly support United States efforts at promoting an Arab peace with Israel. This explains, for example, Washington’s virtual silence when the Algerian military staged a coup d’tat on 11 January 1992 to prevent a democratically-elected parliament dominated by the FIS from assuming its functions since the latter was viewed as hostile to the West and opposed to peace with Israel.
America’s first and possibly last opportunity to apply a coherent policy of “market democracy” in the Arab world existed in Algeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Virtually all the ingredients associated with a successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy were in place following the convulsive “events” of October 1988. The country possessed an inchoate but dynamically participant civil society considered essential for liberalization to take hold. A liberal constitution creating a multiparty system which excluded direct military involvement in politics was unanimously approved in 1989. The first ever contested local and regional elections took place in June 1990 providing further testimony to the validity of Algeria’s democratic experience. Within this broad landscape of participatory politics Islamists and secularists alike contested for the hearts and minds of Algerian citizens–through the ballot boxes, not with bullets.
The Arab world had never before experienced such a genuinely populist expression of democratic aspirations. Yet, like similar movements in other authoritarian situations ranging from the USSR, Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa, the United States was caught unprepared and off-guard. Nonetheless, in all these cases when the democratic outcomes were achieved they were widely acclaimed and applauded in Washington however minor or nonexistent its own contribution to those outcomes.
Algeria afforded the United States a similar opportunity involving little to no risk but with enormous potential advantages for political stability, economic development, and social coherence in the most important country in the Maghreb. Yet when the army overturned the whole democratic experiment in January 1992, the United States willingly accepted the results. This should have come as no surprise in the context of the “Islam-Israel” foreign policy framework. In short, a democratically elected Islamist government hostile to American hegemonic aspirations in the region and opposed to a “pseudo-peace” with Israel was considered unacceptable in Washington.
More important was the army government’s willingness to collaborate with American regional ambitions regarding stopping Islamic “terrorism” and collaborating with Israel in establishing a Pax Americana in the Middle East and North Africa–this in the face of incontrovertible evidence of Chinese assistance to Algeria in expanding the latter’s nuclear capabilities as prelude to developing weapons of mass destruction. If anything, US-Algerian military ties have been deepening as the navies from both countries, for example, have successfully conducted joint marine rescue exercises in the Mediterranean Sea while senior American naval officers have paid high profile visits to the country, the most recent being in September 1999 when U.S. Sixth Fleet Admiral Daniel Murphy met with President Bouteflika and army chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Mohamed Lamari in Algiers. Although no substantive agreements were reached, it is clear that such visits serve to advance diplomatic ties and strengthen military links between the two countries. At an Algiers press conference Murphy lauded US-Algerian military ties and the possibility of “cementing a permanent military program of Algerian and United States interaction.” He concluded his upbeat appraisal by looking forward to the day “when conditions will allow regular U.S. Navy port visits to Algeria and inclusion of the Algerian navy in multilateral operations and training programs.” Such overt U.S. demonstration of political-military support for a regime universally accused of massive human rights violations in which security forces, military units, and armed militias have been implicated in the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Algerian men and women seems not to have bothered at all American foreign policy decision-makers.
Nearly a decade of civil strife and the deaths of over 100,000 people have not altered America’s basic indifference to the Algerian tragedy brought on in part by the unwillingness of influential outside parties to assert the moral authority and democratic vision that they so repeatedly advocate for all countries save those in the Arab-Islamic world. The controversial election of the army-backed FLN candidate to the presidency in April 1999 does not offer much hope that United States policy towards Algeria will change anytime soon.
For decades Tunisia has been valued by the United States and Europe as an oasis of moderation in the Maghreb and the Middle East. Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has been viewed as a useful ally on NATO’s southern flank, a firm supporter of the Middle East process, a militant opponent of Islamic fundamentalism, and an important collaborator in regional security arrangements intended to suppress illegal immigration, terrorism, and drug trafficking. In other words, Tunis has received grades of A+ on each of the six “stops.”
Washington has been particularly supportive of President Ben Ali’s economic reform policies which it sees as the ones most likely to increase Tunisia’s prosperity thereby minimizing the appeal of Islamist political parties. For Europe, market-oriented reforms have served to expand economic opportunities for the European Union while limiting Tunisian immigration into Europe.
This functionalist approach towards the region now serves as the guiding light to America’s continuing and future behavior as was illustrated by the remarks made by Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Stuart E. Eizenstat at the second annual ministerial meeting of the U.S.-North Africa Economic Partnership held in Washington, D.C. on April 18, 2000. Human rights, democracy, justice, and freedom were never once uttered as Eizenstat lauded expanded economic ties with Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. As he described it, America’s goal in the region is “to enhance the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and the three member countries [and] to break down the barriers to intra-regional trade and maximize the growth potential that private sector-led development will help to achieve.”
To be sure, both the United States and Europe would prefer the authoritarian government of President Ben Ali to be less repressive and more democratic but neither has applied serious pressure–such as threats to cut aid, trade, or economic ties–to get Tunisia to mend its ways. Neither Ben Ali’s reelection to the Tunisian presidency in October 1999 by the ludicrous margin of 99 percent nor his stifling of all forms of political dissent, the complete elimination of press freedoms, and consistent violations of basic human rights have sufficiently aroused the ire of Washington, although for its part the EU has begun to react to the regime’s more extreme human rights abuses.
To be sure, the annual State Department report on the status of human rights worldwide identifies Tunisia as an egregious violator of those rights. Similarly, Harold Koh, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights and Labor in the Clinton Administration, has urged Tunisian authorities to ensure the respect of human rights and freedom of speech and set up transparent political and judicial systems, most recently in his forty-eight hour visit to the country on June 12-13, 2000. While encouraging, these efforts remain modest and little noticed footnotes operating within pro forma Congressional mandates although Koh’s more blunt talk to his Tunisian hosts represented a refreshing break from past American timidity on these issues.
Probably no country in the region best serves to illustrate the primacy of the “Islam-Israel” paradigm as does contemporary Tunisia. As currently constituted, there is no degree of political or human rights violation committed by Tunis that can serve to override US backing for the country as long as it remains determined to combat Islamism and provide support for the Middle East peace process. Yet these latter policies are little more than manipulative tactics and opportunistic efforts intended to buy Western support while Tunis keeps a stranglehold on civil society. Indeed, an inverse correlation can be observed between the level of domestic oppression and the degree of contact with Israel.
Since the revival of the Middle East peace process with the coming to power of Ehud Barak in Israel in 1999, there has been an improvement in Tunisian-Israeli relations. For example, the Israeli interests office in Tunis which had been shut down since July 1998 was reopened at the start of October 1999, with the arrival of an Israeli representative, Tarik Azouz. In the first example of direct cooperation between Tunis and Tel Aviv, an Israeli government representative was invited to a metrology conference in the Tunisian capital. More significantly, in February 2000, a senior diplomat from Tunis, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Tahar Sioud, met with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy in the first visit to Israel by a high-ranking Tunisian since the two countries established diplomatic (sub-ambassadorial) relations in 1994. Mr. Sioud said he and Mr. Levy, a native of Morocco who has stressed improving ties to North Africa, “discussed peace, and we are here for peace.” (The New York Times, 8 February 2000).
One cannot underestimate the importance of the Israeli factor in U.S. foreign policy calculations. In the campaigning leading up to the American presidential elections in November 2000, for example, there is absolutely no difference in the positions of the Republican and Democratic parties on the question of Israel. Indeed, “[s]upport for Israel is now so ingrained into American political discourse that the old debate about whether a [presidential] candidate is more or less positive towards Israel is almost redundant” (Middle East Economic Digest, 31 March 2000, p. 8). Even impoverished and politically marginal Mauritania received the hearty congratulations of the Clinton administration when it established full diplomatic relations with Israel in October 1999 prompted primarily by the desire for American financial and diplomatic support under conditions of state-society decline.
The Tunisian leadership, ever alert to expanding its circle of powerful friends abroad as its own popularity at home diminishes, has accelerated its ties with the United States. This has come at a time when relations with French civil society have almost reached rock bottom in the face of wide media exposure to Tunisian human rights abuses reported on French television, radio, newspapers, and in books like that of Notre Ami Ben Ali (Paris: La Dcouverte, 1999) which presents a scathing attack of Ben Ali’s dictatorial rule by two highly respected French journalists. In just the first three months of 2000, for example, Tunisia has hosted visits by two deputy secretaries (Robert Malley from the Department of Trade, and Edward Walker, responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the State Department), as well as three delegations two of whom from the Senate (including one led by Senator Ted Stevens from the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee) and one from the House of Representatives.
On the Tunisian side, defense minister Mohamed Jegham visited the U.S. in January 2000 for one of the twice-yearly meetings of the Tunisian-U.S. military committee. Each year the United States trains nearly 100 Tunisian officers while gifts, loans, and other transfers of equipment to the Tunisian army have grown strongly in recent years. Tunisia is also one of a select group of nations benefiting from the foreign military financing program which provides financing for the purchase of military equipment from American arms manufacturers.
What is particularly disturbing if not tragic in these military exchanges is the degree to which they are being used to further ensconce what is rapidly becoming a full-fledged police state. Clearly no amount of arms build-up could match the overwhelming military might of Algeria and Libya, Tunisia’s immediate neighbors who could potentially constitute military threats. Ben Ali’s predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, understood this reality quite well and made certain to keep his army small in size, modest in strength, and apolitical. With the help of the U.S., Tunisia under Ben Ali has now been transformed into another praetorian security state on the model of so many others in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ironically, these functionalist ties do not ensure a long term or harmonious relationship between the U.S. and Tunisia as recent history has shown. Tunisians distrust American foreign policy designs in the region based on its irregular behavior over the years. They are quick to recall, for example, that it was the United States, encouraged by the pro-American Wassila Bourguiba acting as her husband’s political surrogate, that “forced” Tunisia to accept the PLO in the country in 1983 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Also galling to many Tunisians was America’s unwillingness to condemn Israel’s air attack of PLO headquarters outside Tunis in October 1985 which caused the deaths of many people including innocent Tunisian civilians. This “insensitive” pattern is cited when recalling the Israeli assassination of PLO leader Abou Jihad in Sidi Bou Said in April 1988, the U.S. destruction of Libyan jets in January 1989, the termination of the PLO-USA dialogue in Tunis in 1990 following an aborted Palestinian commando attack in Israel, and, most seriously, the American-led allied coalition that annihilated Iraqi forces in a war in which the overwhelming majority of Tunisians favored Saddam Hussein. For its part, the Ben Ali regime exploited populist anti-American sentiment to further advance its weakened political credibility in the aftermath of repeated instances of democratic promises left unfulfilled.
From a cynical perspective, it could be argued that both sides exploit eachother for their own narrow political purposes as elites in the two countries reject democratic solutions to Tunisia’s developmental problems. While the strategic outcome of such a short-sighted policy in the post-Cold War era has limited significance for American national interests, the same cannot be said for Tunisia. A militarized, anti-democratic state cannot but lead to political retardation however impressive short-term economic performance may appear. For a country with such an impressive history of social development and economic accomplishment, ordinary Tunisians are deserving of a much more promising and progressive future.
The deaths in 1999 and 2000 of long-time absolute rulers in Jordan (King Hussein), Morocco (King Hassan II), and Syria (Hafez al-Assad) has given new thought about the future of the Middle East and North Africa under a younger and possibly less authoritarian leadership in the context of a region that soon may find itself at peace with Israel. Policymakers, analysts, and journalists who consider these possibilities do not necessarily reach similar conclusions however. Indeed, a new question has entered the calculations of those who plan for peace or war in the region: would democracies or dictatorships make the best neighbors and partners in the emerging peace with Israel? The answer is provided by one journalist expressing the majority view of the American foreign policy establishment (Jane Perlez, “A Middle East Choice: Peace or Democracy,” The New York Times, 28 November 1999):
In the West, it is common to assume that the answer is simple: democracies. But the Arab Middle East [and North Africa] is a vast area where Western-style democracy exists only in its infancy, if at all. Its countries are riven with tribal, religious and ethnic fault lines, and in many places extremes of wealth and poverty have left the mass of people young, ill-educated and disaffected.
So it is not a simple question whether opening the floodgates to free expression of the tensions in these societies would provide the quickest way to regional peace. These are places where anti-Israel sentiment is sometimes a passionate rallying cry for all kinds of opposition groups, and where a monarch or dictator can take a lead that a president who depends on consensus might not.
In no other region of the developing world has such a choice been so starkly posited and the answer so unequivocally stated: peace, however superficially arrived at, supersedes any thoughts of democracy, however beneficial this may be for the lives of ordinary Arab men and women. Curiously, the near public policy consensus surrounding the notion “that democracies don’t go to war against other democracies” thereby cementing the link between democracy and peace seems virtually absent when applied to the Arab world.
As experience elsewhere and throughout history has clearly shown, however, any regime maintained through repression risks, over the years, lapsing into tyranny and instability, which are among the worst long-run risks to peace. Yet, as we have seen in the case of North Africa, U.S. foreign policy is risk-averse, short-sighted, and reactive. As long as the Islamic “threat” seems real and Israel’s security remains paramount, the long-suffering peoples of the Maghreb will find little solace from the world’s only remaining “superpower” in their attempt to overcome decades of authoritarian rule, political mismanagement, and socioeconomic decay.