Experts Warn of Risk to US if ‘Arab Spring’ Turns to ‘Season of Discontent,’ Call for US to Partner with Reformers to Spur Growth, Positive Change
Resurgent al-Qaeda, returning mercenaries, will exploit Libya chaos and arms to spread violence
Washington DC (June 3)—Foreign policy experts at two forums this week examined the seismic changes of the ‘Arab Spring’ and focused on the importance of US and European engagement with progressive leaders in the Middle East and North Africa for determining whether the current unrest will lead to reform, repression, or violent revolution.
Well-armed mercenaries recruited by Col. Qadhafi from Mali, the Polisario Front in Algeria, and elsewhere, and resurgent terrorists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are stocking up on arms from Libya and are eager to exploit unrest in the region after Osama bin Laden’s death.
At an Atlantic Council symposium, “Preventing the ‘Arab Spring’ from Becoming the ‘Season of Discontent’,” policy experts discussed the uncertain forecast and how to promote positive change in this pivotal part of the world.
Analyst Geoffrey Porter said “every country in the Middle East and North Africa is different” and must be understood on its own terms. Dr. Anouar Boukhars of McDaniels College pointed to Morocco where “reform efforts have strengthened its legitimacy,” citing King Mohammed VI’s March 9 speech on constitutional reforms. Dr. J. Peter Pham, moderator of the panel, said Morocco’s reforms were “triggered by an inside reality and not imposed from the outside,” and successful reform in other countries must be “internally driven.”
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies emphasized the importance of understanding that the ‘Arab Spring’ unrest is being driven by demand for economic as well as political change. Long-term solutions will require strategic choices in an uncertain climate.
Ambassador Edward Gabriel said the US and Europe can play a key role in promoting positive change. He proposed a 3-part “long-term strategy with countries that have taken reform seriously,” such as Morocco and Jordan, to build partnerships for growth and “strategic dialogue” to better understand change shaping the region.
Prof. Yonah Alexander of the International Center for Terrorism Studies warned that al-Qaeda and state-sponsored terrorism are “alive and well” in the Maghreb and Sahel, where terrorist incidents have risen 500% since 9/11 and are a global as well as regional threat. He also noted the concerns expressed by NATO officials about mercenaries in Libya.
At the Association for the Study of the Middle East & Africa (ASMEA) forum, “Terrorism in North Africa After bin Laden,” investigative reporter Richard Miniter warned “AQIM is taking advantage of the ‘Arab Spring’ to expand and grow.” Professor Richard Rene Laremont of SUNY said AQIM’s “narrative was weakened because change came through mass civil demonstrations, not terrorism,” but that it would be reinvigorated if reforms aren’t realized.
Spanish journalist Jose Maria Gil Garre, noted that AQIM has succeeded in part because it can “depend on support of military elements of the Polisario,” a separatist group based in Algeria, as local guides to “carry out its arms trafficking, kidnapping, and drug-trafficking in the Sahel.”
Mohammed Benhammou, of the Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies, said that “600 members of the Polisario” answered the call for mercenaries in the Libyan conflict, because decades ago “Qadhafi was the father of the Polisario”—“now they are returning the favor.” Benhammou warned the “Libya civil war has provided an opportunity to transfer weapons into the Sahel and AQIM.”
He added that while “Morocco has been a model for the region” with its reforms, “Algeria has taken a wait and see attitude.” Benhammou cited the need for “economic integration” in the region, which currently has one of the lowest cross-border trade rates in the world. Larémont added that Algeria needs to “realize it is in its interest to stop bickering with Morocco and cooperate” to address economic and security challenges facing the region.
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