The West should focus on North Africa
Making the Maghreb a development partner would promote human rights and reform.
For North Africa, 2009 is a year of elections. Regrettably, these elections – this week's presidential elections in Algeria, Tunisia's presidential and legislative elections in October, and Morocco's local council elections in June – attest not to the vibrancy of democracy in the region, but rather to its lingering authoritarianism.Skip to next paragraph
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Although Washington has found solid counter terrorism partners in North Africa, a short-term focus on security is potentially harmful. These countries face myriad challenges which necessitate a broad, long-term focus on reform. Doing so will serve not only the people of North Africa, but also the strategic interests of the US and its allies.
This week, Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, will compete for a third term in office. Unlike in 2004, Mr. Bouteflika will run virtually uncontested. The opposition is boycotting because, according to two-time presidential contender Said Saadi, the elections are a "nihilistic folly." Indeed, Bouteflika is only able to run because he engineered a constitutional amendment abolishing term limits.
Of course, for Algerians, these elections are just a formality. As Algerians know, elections are predetermined not by the people, but by "le pouvoir" – the power of the shadowy tripartite of the army, the intelligence services, and Bouteflika's clan.
Algeria's political stagnation is combined with high unemployment rates, a burgeoning population of young people, rises in the cost of living, and rampant corruption. This has contributed to a volatile cocktail of instability and fomented resentment among the younger sectors of the population. A bitter frustration with the system has resulted in mass illegal immigration to Europe, increasing clashes between rioters and government forces, and the presence of local jihadis linked to Al Qaeda, namely Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Disturbingly, the Algerian experience appears to be echoing across North Africa.
In Tunisia, where elections are slated for the fall, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's political style remains highly authoritarian. The US State Department 2008 Human Rights Report, for example, expressed dismay at the "severe restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association" reflected in Mr. Ben Ali's approval ratings.