North Africans Debate Ties to West

SHORTLY after the Gulf war, a well-known theater troupe in Tunis presented a series of sketches that poked fun at every aspect of a war that was taken very seriously throughout North Africa. The show was a huge success, proving to many here that a conflict that had been resented as a Western plot against Arab progress and culture was quickly being put into perspective.

``That humor was possible proved that people could put the war in the broader context of our existence, that they could analyze it without losing their heads,'' says Moncer Rouissi, Tunisia's minister of culture. ``There was much about this war that left us deeply disappointed in the West, but given our place in the Mediterranean, we are accustomed to handling confrontations between our cultures.''

Across North Africa, opinions vary as to why the Maghreb was the most vocal and demonstrative in its opposition to the Gulf war. But from Tunis to Casablanca, Morocco, officials, intellectuals, and political observers say part of the explanation lies in the proximity of Arab North Africa to Western Europe.

The thousands of satellite dishes on Algiers' rooftops receiving European television stations, the economic dependence on Europe, the goal of an American university education, or the drive for Western-style democracy, all attest to a fascination with the West. Given these links, the onset of the Gulf war bred a sense of shock and rejection, especially among youth. Western news reports, once closely followed, were discredited as propaganda, and Western values were suspected as tools of domination.

The question now is how the conflict will affect relations with the West, and how broadly the Western model of development has been tarnished. Few speak of long-term rejection, but wariness is a word on everyone's tongue.

``This is the first war the United States has waged in the Arab World, and that will not be easily forgotten,'' says Ali El-Kenz, an Algerian social economist and director of the Center for Applied Economics Studies in Algiers. ``That fact has contributed to an estrangement, notably of Maghreb countries, from the West and the Western model.''

``The view of the West is much more critical now,'' says Rachid Driss, a former ambassador and president of the Association of International Studies in Tunis. ``At the same time, we know we can't do without the West for our scientific and technological progress.''

The criticism is sharpest in discussions of Western values and perceptions of their selective application. ``Our youth especially reject a West that is seen throwing aside its own values in favor of force,'' says Abdelaziz Bennani, vice-president of the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights. ``We want to continue the struggle for the foundations established by the West, but it's more difficult when something like this war leaves people associating human rights with injustice.''

Others say the Maghreb populations' response now to Western values is less universal - evidence for some that the Gulf war helped deepen domestic divisions, especially along religious lines. ``For the more fervently religious, such values as democracy and human rights are now attacked as Western and foreign to our culture,'' says Mr. El-Kenz. ``For the more secular elements, the conclusion is: `The principles are still good, but not as applied by the West.'''

This tendency to draw a distinction between the validity of Western values and their application is widespread across the Maghreb. ``The image of the West and its values suffered heavy damage, but not the systems,'' says Mustapha Benjaafar, general secretary of Tunisia's Movement of Social Democrats. While no one knows how the experience will color long-term relations with the West, some conclusions are forming. The goal of a unified Maghreb region is reinforced, especially to carry out relations wit h Europe from a position of strength. ``The former distances between the Maghreb countries were reduced,'' says El-Kenz. ``People saw their similar reactions and almost feel like they fought this war together.''

The Palestinian issue remains a test of Western sincerity. ``We hear President Bush say `land for peace' one day and that gives us hope,'' says Mr. Bennani. ``But the next a spokesman says `We won't pressure anybody,' and we wonder about consistency.''

Others say Europe especially will be watched for signs of intentions to form a partnership with the Maghreb that goes beyond bilateral trade. ``The reactions on both shores of the Mediterranean put a brake on our relations, but given our geography, the brake cannot stay on,'' says Nour-edine Mejdoub, Tunisia's secretary of state for foreign affairs.

As the Tunisian legal scholar Yadh Ben Achour says, ``During the Gulf war our countries lived a dream that consists of very old quarrels for us, the first of which is the conflicting sentiments of attraction and revulsion towards the West. But we're going to wake up very quickly to the reality'' of interdependence, he adds. ``It's not the dream we lived in January and February that can replace the reality of the Mediterranean.''

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