Anti-terrorism and uprisings: North African leaders have worked with the West against Islamists and migrants - becoming more repressive as a result.
by Yasmine Ryan
The string of uprisings in North Africa have laid bare Western governments' relationships with regimes in the region, which pro-democracy activists argue have long been fixated on anti-terrorism, immigration and oil.
Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, appears to be on the brink of joining Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak - both ousted by their own people. In Algeria, meanwhile, Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government is holding firm, clamping down on protests and carrying out limited reforms in a bid to lull anti-regime rage.
The four men have co-operated to varying degrees with the West in the post 9/11 era, offering their services against the perceived twin menaces of political Islam and migration from the African continent to Europe.
Salima Ghezali, a well-known Algerian journalist and rights activist, says that politicians have used these supposed threats to justify state violence. Elites in the West, she argues, have attempted to distract voters by playing up threats to security, whilst sidestepping debate on their economies. Their counterparts in the developing world have used the same arguments to draw attention away from "institutional chaos".
"It is this chaos which is provoking and fuelling the anger of the people," she says.
By focusing on security, leaders have found a means to legitimise state violence, withhold rights and freedoms and neglect political and social management, Ghezali says. "Violence has even become a means of social and political advancement. Murderers have become heroes and hold power in public institutions."
Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, agrees that the uprisings are, in some way, related to the prevalence of anti-terrorist policy.
"I think that whole 'war on terror' syndrome has had a potentially significant role in what we're seeing today," Keenan says. "These states have become more repressive in the knowledge that they have the backing of the West."
Many youthful protesters are no longer willing to swallow their leaders’ use of anti-colonialist ideology to justify their political power.
Far from fighting imperialism, these leaders, their opponents say, have been complicit with the West: Acting as its torturers, buying its arms and patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to stem the tides of young people desperate to flee their homelands. All were partners in the CIA's controversial 'extraordinary rendition programme' and Libya has been a pro-active partner in a secretive Rome-Tripoli deal, signed in 2009, to intercept boats carrying migrants. In return for the sea patrols, Italy pledged to pay Libya $7bn over 20 years.
"The young generation of Algerians, and the not-so-young, don’t have any illusions about the convictions of their leaders," Ghezali explains.
Despite being sceptical of their leaders' ideological leanings, Ghezali says the youth do still respect authentic symbols of the Algerian War of Independence. Anti-government protesters in Libya have taken to waving the pre-Gaddafi, post-independence flag - a reference to the country's struggle against colonial rule.
With the exception of Ben Ali, all of these leaders have been in government since before most of their people were born. Bouteflika, for example, first became a minister in 1962, yet rules over a country where the average age is 27, according to the CIA World Factbook. Gaddafi took power in 1969, while the average Libyan is just 24.
Playing the 'Islamist card'
The region's leaders have repeatedly tried to portray the current wave of uprisings as somehow terrorist-related.
In a recently released report, Martin Scheinin, the UN special rapporteur on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism, details how Tunisia's counterterrorism laws and policies played a central part in the former government's crushing of political opposition.
And, as Scheinin notes in an interview with Al Jazeera, this was the very language Ben Ali turned to when he responded to the Tunisian uprising.
"I think it is important that when the people started to revolt in Tunisia, the initial reaction by the president and by the government was to say this is terrorists," the UN Rapporteur says.
Ben Ali accused demonstrators in the centre of the country of "unpardonable terrorist acts" on January 10, two days after Tunisian security forces had begun deliberately killing protesters in the centre of the country. The Libyan leader's son, Saadi Gaddafi, told the Financial Times on Wednesday that bombing in the east of Libya was necessary because "thousands" of al-Qaeda fighters were taking control of the region. His father elaborated on these allegations in a speech on Thursday night, accusing Osama bin Laden of brainwashing, and even drugging, the country's youth.
Ghezali points to Gaddafi's most recent threats to end his co-operation on immigration, as well as his attempts to blame protests on al-Qaeda, as a particularly "ludicrous" example of what has become a standard form of blackmail.
Tunisian activists interviewed by Al Jazeera cited ending corruption and tyranny and the right to employment, democracy and freedom of expression as the motivations that drove their uprising, while Libyans likewise dismissed Gaddafi's assertion that Osama bin Laden was working to incite dissent against his rule.
Keenan says that the absence of Islamist ideology in the protest movements has underlined the extent to which the "Islamist card" has been overplayed by politicians and the media. "These revolts have nothing much to do with Islamism, they are to do with young people fighting for their rights.
"All of these countries, to varying degrees, have exaggerated the menace of terrorism," says the author of The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa.
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