Washington, DC (Nov.10, 2011) — Foreign policy experts at Brookings and the Atlantic Council noted encouraging signs in changes sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, most notably reforms and elections in Morocco and Tunisia. But they also warned of looming threats from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), now strengthened by a flood of Libyan weapons and ties with other militant groups in the region, including the Polisario Front, whose members last month reportedly helped AQIM kidnap Western aid workers from a Polisario refugee camp in Algeria.
“Much of the news from the region is bad, but there are some glimmers of hope,” said Daniel Byman, Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution. At Brookings’ forum, “Elections and Reform in Morocco and Tunisia,” Byman said that for good news, “the first place to look is North Africa. In Tunisia, we just saw elections. In Morocco, the King initiated reforms, giving hope that even countries of the Arab world that have not experienced revolution may be in line for more peaceful reform and change.”
Moroccans go to the polls Nov. 25 to elect a Parliament under the new Constitution approved by voters July 1. “Morocco’s Constitution is both liberal and progressive,” said Anouar Boukars, Assistant Professor, International Relations, at McDaniel College. “It constitutionalizes important freedoms and equality.”
“The Arab Spring has created opportunities to achieve changes that will break down old barriers to cooperation and give the region the much needed chance at economic development and political reform,” said Ambassador Edward Gabriel, at the Atlantic Council forum, “Ripples Across The Sands: The Impact of the Fall of Qaddafi on Security in the Maghreb & Sahel.” Gabriel noted, however, “There is also an underside to the Arab Spring.”
Gabriel said lack of coordination “encourages tactics by terrorists and insurgents who are well aware of the soft spots” in each nation’s counterterrorism networks. “Nowhere is this more obvious than the recent abduction by AQIM of European aid workers from the Rabouni camp run by the Polisario in Algeria.” Gabriel noted that Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in a speech Sunday again called for greater regional cooperation, especially between Morocco and Algeria, to improve security and stability in the region.
Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Ansari Africa Center, warned of a “growing nexis between extremism and criminality” in West Africa and the Sahel. Pham cited “new reports of Libyan arms flooding into the Sahel, while AQIM, Boko Haram, the Polisario, and other militant groups are flexing their muscles.”
“There is a tremendous amount of weapons proliferation,” said Geoffrey Porter, President, North Africa Risk Consulting, Inc., adding that this is a serious internal issue for Libya’s new leadership and also “poses a threat” to Niger, Mali, and especially Algeria. “Algeria is once again a security story—that’s just a cold hard reality.”
Fadel Lamen, President, American Libyan Council, said as Libyans rebuild relations in the region “they will look at who supported Qaddafi.” He said “Libya will become very close with Morocco and Tunisia,” but its Algeria relations are “frozen.” “Libyans felt a lot of weapons and mercenaries came through Algeria” to support Qaddafi.
Atlantic Council panelists agreed that the “continuing impasse between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara” was a “major obstacle to cooperation” needed to overcome the rising security threat to the region.
Lamen said “Qaddafi’s departure creates an opportunity for change,” as Qaddafi was “a major contributor to failed Maghreb unity, and used the Polisario and Tuaregs to divide.” Lamen said this can change now, but the region could use America’s help. “Libya’s success creates an opportunity to improve security stability in the region,” he said, but noted “there is reluctance for engagement in the US.”
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