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contain the Barbary Pirates at the
turn of the 19th century, faded
as Europeans colonized North
Independence and the Cold
War brought the U.S. back to the
region, leading to close relations
with Morocco and Tunisia and
frosty relations with Algeria and
(after the 1969 coup that brought
Qadhafi to power) Libya. Other
than those in the hydrocarbon
sector, American companies have
generally found the Maghreb market inhospitable or in-
In political terms, most Maghreb countries have re-
mained stable but authoritarian. The one serious chal-
lenge to the established political order, in Algeria during
the late 1980s and early 1990s, briefly shook Washington
(and many European capitals). Algeria’s return to a sem-
blance of civil order, however, coincided with the rise of
global jihadism that earlier conflict had heralded — a
threat that came to dominate post-9/11 Washington’s ap-
proach to the region. Improved counterterrorist coop-
eration was central to the rapprochement with Libya, as
well as with Algeria. It also largely explained U.S. toler-
ance, however reluctant, of the generally poor human
rights records in all four countries.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visits to
the region over the year since Ben Ali’s fall, which in Feb-
ruary finally included her first visit as Secretary to Algiers,
have underscored the fact that the Maghreb is now en-
joying more than benign neglect. Here is an overview of
the situation and key issues in the four countries:
. The country that launched the Arab Spring
has the greatest promise of the four to get the transition
right, but the socioeconomic factors that triggered the
uprising may actually become more intractable. In ret-
rospect, toppling the Ben Ali regime was the easy part.
(See “Tunisia’s Identity Crisis” by Victoria Taylor, p. 27.)
. Unlike Tunisia, whose hollow governmental
institutions survived enough to facilitate transition,
Libya’s revolution completely shattered what passed for
a nation-state. Indeed, the country is now dealing with
the consequences of Qadhafi’s folly in creating a state that
putatively conferred authority to the masses, but arro-
gated to himself the role of “guide of the revolution.”
Libya’s reconstitution as a uni-
tary state could be contested and
protracted. So far, tribal leaders
have not asserted themselves, so
whatever power exists, including
over the oilfields, is in the hands
of revolutionary leaders with di-
verse agendas. The prevailing in-
security and the adamant refusal
of armed militias to give up their
weapons are both fueled by a
widespread desire for revenge
after 42 years of repression and
This propensity is aggravated among Libyans from
Benghazi and eastern Libya following years of neglect
and bloody suppression by a regime centered in Tripoli.
Recent calls from Benghazi for some sort of partition or
regional autonomy suggest a tough battle ahead for those
hoping to retain a unitary state.
The media and Western analysts have likely exagger-
ated the significance of the proclamation of sharia as the
basis of law in Libya, since it was already more or less en-
shrined there, at least in respect to personal status. But
there is legitimate cause for concern about the rights of
women, as well as the presence in any regime of jihadists
who not only opposed Qadhafi, but received training and
inspiration from al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
In this context, the flow of weapons out of Libya into
the surrounding Sahel is a very real threat to the country’s
neighbors, as well as to the United States and Europe.
Most observers attribute the dramatic seizure by Taureg
rebels of most of northern Mali in recent weeks to the
weaponry those rebels brought home after fighting
alongside Qadhafi loyalists.
Tripoli’s concentration on re-establishing domestic
order, moreover, means ending its international commit-
ments, which will have profound, if currently little un-
derstood, ramifications for the African Union. It will also
seriously affect several African states that have depended
heavily on Libyan largesse and willingness to employ im-
migrant laborers.
. Except for a few tense days in early Janu-
ary 2011, when a spike in food prices led to loosely coor-
dinated riots across its north, the memory of the bloody
1990s kept Algeria from emulating what was happening
in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. Other factors likely include
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A Y 2 0 1 2
The flow of weapons
out of Libya into the
surrounding Sahel is a very
real threat to the country’s
neighbors, as well as the
United States and Europe.