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Central Asia/North Africa: Both Regions Face Growing Islamism, Strongmen

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The five nations of the Maghreb region of North Africa and the five republics of Central Asia have much in common. They are Muslim nations threatened with, or actually facing, religious extremism. They also share a brand of authoritarian rule that is often careless of human rights. In addition, they are generally suffering from poorly aligned economies that are not delivering wealth to their citizens. Ahead of next week's planned Arab Maghreb Union summit in Algiers, RFE/RL speaks to two regional experts on some of the similarities and differences between the two regions.

Prague, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Maghreb is the collective name for the Muslim Arab countries strung across the northern coast of Africa -- from Mauritania and Morocco in the west, through Algeria and Tunisia, to Libya in the east. They emerged from French or Italian domination mostly in the second half of the last century.

None could be described as a proper democracy, each having a different degree of authoritarian rule, ranging from the reform-minded young King Mohammad VI of Morocco, to the eccentric populist ruler of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi.

One nation, Algeria, knows the horrors of religious strife, with some 150,000 people killed in the government's struggle against Islamic extremists, which peaked in the mid-1990s. In varying degrees, the other Maghreb nations live in fear of extremism.

And economically, things are pretty bad, with the possible exception of Tunisia. Regional analyst Jeremy Binnie, of the Jane's military publishing group, singles out Algeria.

"The situation in Algeria is pretty bleak all around because what they have is just a facade of democracy for a bunch of generals who actually run the show. And the social-economic situation in Algeria is absolutely dreadful, really. And until some sort of political and -- probably more importantly -- economic reform process is initiated, I think there is going to be some degree of opposition to the people in power," Binnie said.

For its part, Binnie says, Morocco has tried to present itself as a center for cheap manufacturing for the European market. That strategy has not really worked, however, if judged by the few factories that have actually been established there.

There is a certain similarity of problems across the Maghreb.

"They are all facing those same kind of challenges where you have a very state-dominated economic system," says Binnie. "And as populations have grown, the state's ability to support the population in a centralized economic model has become increasingly reduced, and now they are facing real strains into the future."

The region has a special relationship to the European Union, through the Euro-Med dialogue, and EU economic programs aimed at breaking down trade barriers and reforming the Maghreb economies. But progress is slow -- not least, says Binnie, because the ruling elites who benefit from the present economic systems in North Africa are not eager for change.

The EU is making renewed overtures to isolated Libya to develop closer ties, with European Commission President Romano Prodi saying that "Europe extends its hand."

Maghreb heads of state, meanwhile, are due to meet next week in Algiers to discuss a possible free-trade zone.

In the broader picture of foreign relations, the United States has a clear interest in maintaining stability in the Maghreb and preventing a slide toward extremism, which would complicate the war on terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a swing through Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco earlier this month, praising cooperation on the antiterrorism front but encouraging rulers not to lose sight of the need for human rights.

The United States has a similar preoccupation in Central Asia -- how to prevent the spread of terrorism while encouraging democracy. The Central Asian republics -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan -- live in a much more dangerous neighborhood than the Maghreb nations. Afghanistan, with all its troubles, is an immediate neighbor. There is also Pakistan, with its volatility, and Iran, with its unsolved struggle between religious conservatives and reformists.

Nevertheless, as another Jane's expert, Alexander Vatanka, sees it, Central Asia is not doing too badly in terms of the threat of religious extremism.

"The ground is fertile for these extremist, Islamist-type movements to take hold, but it is not as bad as Morocco or Algeria, particularly Algeria a few years ago. And I also think you have to make a distinction when you talk of Central Asia -- when it comes to the appeal of Islamist groups and movements, it really does vary quite a lot. You could take the Ferghana Valley [mostly inside Uzbekistan], you could take the southeastern border areas of Kazakhstan, you could take Kyrgyzstan and parts of Tajikistan and say these places really would attract quite a lot of interest among the people for radical Islamist ideals," Vatanka said.

Vatanka says that while both the Maghreb and Central Asia are historically Muslim, he says the longer-established Islam of North Africa is more deeply rooted. And he says that, like everywhere else, interest in extremism in Central Asia seems to decline with improving economic conditions.

"Kazakhstan is a country that has a [gross domestic product] which grew, I think, by 11 percent last year. It has grown by two-digit figures for the last couple of years. Sure, it started from a very low point, but it is growing fast, and it is primarily as a result of investment in its oil and gas sectors. So a country like Kazakhstan, which is doing relatively well, has not seen so much interest expressed among the general public for Islamist kind of ideas. So it is a question of how to achieve progress economically," Vatanka said.

But most of the countries of the region are failing to make themselves attractive for foreign, particularly Western, investment. Turkmenistan, as Vatanka sees it, has turned away from Western investment and is instead implementing a "paranoid" foreign policy that drives it back toward Russia and Ukraine, where the prices it obtains for its energy resources are often below world market levels.

Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, is turning toward China as a regional "savior" and is trying to develop its trade links eastward, rather than westward. The region, like the Maghreb, places store on developing economic ties with the European Union, but -- also like the Maghreb -- these will take time to bear fruit.

On the political front, Central Asia also suffers from a deficit of democracy. As Vatanka puts it, "In Central Asia's case, you have got all the former communist leaders who then suddenly turned around and said, 'Oh, we're democrats.' But the only thing that they have done as far as democracy goes is that they have managed to get themselves invited to a number of forums here and there during the last 12 years, only to be criticized when they show up, because they have to listen to individuals from the West."

Central Asia is a region of vast potential, with a number of economic opportunities waiting to be developed. Like the Maghreb, it is geographically huge and sparsely populated, and with largely homogeneous populations.

But like the Maghreb -- only more so -- it has failed to show the necessary will and foresight to move forward. So far, at any rate.
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