Islamic Radicalism in North Africa Force Works, for Now

By Lewis, William H.; Yaphe, Judith S. | Strategic Forum, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Islamic Radicalism in North Africa Force Works, for Now


Lewis, William H., Yaphe, Judith S., Strategic Forum


Conclusions

* Islamists in the Arab states of North Africa are having little success in gaining political power. This is due to repressive security measures and popular despair over the violence on both sides, especially in Algeria and Egypt. Islamists in Algeria lost the presidential election held in November 1995, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt bowed to government tactics of arrests and a ban on political activity in elections held last fall.

* The governments of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco have probably reached a plateau in their use of intimidation tactics against Islamist critics. They seem to lack the imagination or will to try new, less dire strategies for dealing with opponents. As long as coercion seems to work, they will have little incentive to reform.

* As the more violent Islamic radical movements lose momentum, the risk increases that they will carry their struggle abroad. Over the past year, Egyptian diplomats in Europe and South Asia have been the targets of terrorist attacks, and Algerian extremists have been responsible for terrorism in France.

* Except for Egypt, which receives nearly $2 billion in U.S. aid each year, the United States has little economic investment and minimal military or diplomatic commitments in the region. Governmental use of repression poses a longer-term challenge to U.S. interests, however, as it opposes a key traditional pillar of U.S. foreign policy: the global promotion of democracy and human rights.

Background

Islamic radicalism in North Africa has three faces-a religious one which seeks through personal piety, prayer, and preaching to make society more "just"; a reformist one which calls for legitimate political action using democratic, electoral means to change state and society from within; and an extremist face, which believes that only violent confrontation and destruction of the state can establish a new Islamic world order. Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Egypt tend to regard the latter two as equally dangerous to regional and regime stability. Their concerns about regional security, if radical Islamists were to gain power, grew in 1991 when an Islamist political party-the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)-scored a major election victory and appeared to be on the verge of gaining power in Algeria.

Over the subsequent four years, Algeria's neighbors watched in growing horror while the military-dominated Algerian government canceled elections, outlawed the FIS, and the country slipped into the chaos of urban terrorism and civil war. Determined not to repeat Algiers' mistake in allowing an Islamist party access to the political process, Tunis, Rabat, and Cairo sought to eliminate the opportunities for radical Islamist politicians to force a confrontation with the government, legally or illegally. Even Libya's Muamar Qadhafi, a long-time sponsor of Islamic "liberation" movements, was not immune from Islamist-inspired opposition riots in several towns. Their answer was similar to that of the Algerian government-exclusion from the political process and containment through intimidation and force.

The Project

Regional specialists from the government, the academic community, and the private sector met in March 1996 at National Defense University to discuss political, economic, and social trends in the Arab countries of North Africa and those governments' efforts to contain troublesome Islamist critics. The specialists focused on the situation in Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt, and the role security forces play in regime preservation and policy management.

Over the short term, regional governments have been successful in containing militant Islamist factions. The "silent majority" of North Africans, however, has not been won over by the Islamists or the government and in the longer term, will increasingly question the legitimacy of regimes unable to ameliorate their countries' problems or end the civil strife. …

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