The Maghreb countries' nuanced positions are shown in their varying positions on the French military intervention in Mali — a necessary military step, but not sufficient to stop and roll back the advance of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other radical groups into south Mali. Their positions can be explained through the following points.
First, those countries are currently undergoing the early wave of different forms of Islamism — whether in power, connected to power or pushing for power — as the entire Arab world undergoes a time of Islamist awakening.
Second, some fear that the military operations could radicalize an already radical Salafist constituency engaged in a permanent, all-out clash against the West. This clash could allow that constituency to gain support from moderate Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to settle, gain and share its power through political means. Meanwhile, much of its political core continues to rally under ideological slogans and principles that oppose any form of Western incursion into the land of Islam.
Interestingly, many who profited from the West's military operations in toppling Moammar Gadhafi in Libya strongly oppose — and even fight against — those same Western forces as they intervene in Mali.
Third, some fear that a political stalemate in Mali and a war of attrition between France, backed by some African states, and AQIM with its allies would lead to radicalization and mobilization in the Maghreb countries. This mobilization would involve calling upon Salafist jihadists in these countries to join the fight and to consider Mali a land of jihad, a new Afghanistan.
The latter could be a first step to construct a Sahelistan, with its core in Mali but extending into the Sahara in Mauritania, Niger and Algeria. This would reshuffle the entire game, and force new priorities on countries which have other, very serious challenges in the economic, social and political realms.
The French are aware of the necessity of Africanizing and internationalizing their intervention under the UN aegis. France wants to focus on creating a peacekeeping force while rebuilding a fragmented, divided army. An African peacekeeping force is considered premature by the regime in Mali, preferring instead — without saying it directly — a peace-making force that would fight radical Islamists.
There is a wide agreement that the issue of Mali can only be solved by political means, since the regime is weak and its legitimacy is questioned by many. This will be a hard task to pursue in a failed state with the dysfunctional institutions and a high level of underdevelopment, and it would necessitate significant aid as part of a comprehensive long-term package.
Mali immediately needs a process to begin, that unfortunately took many years to begin in Afghanistan, on the eve of the planned 2014 withdrawal from the country.
Stabilization can't wait for an endless and complex fight to end. It should accompany and be part of that fight. That's the view — but also the fear — generally shared by countries in the Maghreb, who want to avoid the creation of a new Afghanistan on their borders.
Ambassador Nassif Hitti is head of the Arab League Mission in Paris, a permanent observer at UNESCO and a member of the Al-Monitor board of directors.
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