Gulf Crisis Is Catalyst for Change in North Africa

MOROCCO has experienced mass demonstrations before. But when workers and pro-democracy marchers filled the streets of several Moroccan cities in December, demanding better living conditions, they carried something new: portraits of Saddam Hussein. Heartened and emboldened by the example of a defiant Arab leader, frustrated populations across North Africa are seizing the moment to pressure governments for political and economic change.

In Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, political, social, and religious groups are pushing old causes with a new vigor, which experts in the region attribute at least in part to the surge of energy that the Gulf crisis is sending through the Arab world.

``The Gulf crisis has sent an emotional charge through the region's masses that has exacerbated the tendencies that were already present,'' says Mohamed Sayah, a minister under former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba.

North Africa's instability is rooted in the region's sputtering economies, lack of institutional preparation for democracy, and racing population growth, experts say, problems that do not date from Aug. 2.

Given the intertwining of the region's problems, it is difficult to measure the impact of events in the Gulf. Yet the ``Saddam effect,'' as some observers call it, has reinvigorated movements - and to some extent, general populations. And no matter how the Gulf crisis is resolved, most observers believe pressure for change will pick up steam because of it.

``These countries were having trouble digesting the democratization process, much of the food for which was already coming from the exterior,'' says Mohsen Toumi, a Tunisian economic development expert and Maghreb specialist.

Within the past month, important events have highlighted the region's agitation:

In Tunisia, more than 100 Islamic fundamentalists were jailed, including two prominent leaders of Ennahdha, the outlawed fundamentalist political party, after the government uncovered what it says was a terrorist organization within Ennahdha to destabilize the country.

In Algeria, the National Assembly approved a tightening of requirements for using Arabic in public affairs. In response, thousands of intellectuals, pro-democracy activists, and some of the country's principal minorities mounted mass demonstrations.

In Morocco, the monarchy of King Hassan II was shaken in mid-December when a general strike called by the country's two main unions degenerated into antigovernment riots which left dozens dead and hundreds jailed.

In addition to Saddam's five-month domination of the world stage, observers of the region say there is another important ``catalyst'': the democratic experimentation taking place in Algeria, the Maghreb's largest and most influential country.

``There is a growing fluidity of ideas between these [the Maghreb] countries, and the chaotic political process that has taken hold of Algeria is being carried over to its neighbors,'' says Ali El-Kenz, an Algerian political sociologist. ``Added in to this situation, the Gulf crisis has acted as an accelerator.''

The growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists has itself been influenced by events in the Gulf. On the one hand, fundamentalists were embarrassed by Iraq's confrontation with Saudi Arabia, since the Saudis have long been their major source of funding. In Algeria, where the fundamentalists constitute the single-largest political movement, leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) have tried to play down the conflict's intra-Muslim aspect.

On the other hand, Saddam has aided them by striking Muslim sensitivities over a Western presence in Islam's holy lands.

In Tunisia, the pro-Iraqi tone the government originally adopted toward the Gulf crisis has recently been moderated, observers say, largely because the government saw the possibility that the country's fundamentalists would take advantage of an agitated population.

``Tunisia's response to the Gulf has been dictated by the Islamic file,'' says Raja Farhat, a communications adviser with the Arab World Institute in Paris.

``Algeria is a very big neighbor, and in Islam there are no national borders,'' Mr. Farhat says.

``The [Tunisian] government can imagine a situation where the FIS comes to power next door and doesn't like the way its little neighbor is treating its fundamentalist brothers.... Suddenly you're not far from another Kuwaiti scenario.''

What the whole region needs, says Mr. Toumi, is ``a sort of plan for political restructuring'' to accompany the economic restructuring programs.

``The period before us is now all the more rife with risks of sliding backwards,'' says Mr. Sayah. ``But the only sensible answer is to open the dialogue and accept further reforms.''

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