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North African countries improve relations and coordinate policies against Islamic movement

Crescent International

With a new king in Morocco, and a recently elected president in Algeria, relations between the two North African neighbours - frosty at the best of times, over the western Saharan issue - have suddenly thawed. Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi, until recently furious with his Arab neighbours because they, unlike sub-Saharan African states, complied with the international sanctions against Libya, has now visited both Algiers, for the July African summit, and Rabat, for King Hasans’s funeral. There’s even talk of reviving the dormant Maghreb Cooperation Council, with Qaddafi inviting Egypt to join.

But there are clear signs that the unfolding improvement in relations in the region is engineered to serve the special needs of its leaders, both new and old, who are engaged either in armed conflict with Islamic movements or in their repression politically. All the leaders support the African ‘anti-terrorism’ treaty adopted at the Organization of African Unity summit in Algiers last month, and back the Arab ‘anti-terrorism’ pact, which is essentially designed to combat Islamic activism rather than terrorism.

More specifically, the recent amnesties in Algeria and Morocco - the two countries most pivotal in any relaxation of regional tension - leave the leaders of Islamic groups in jail or under house arrest. And while these moves can in themselves only be an improvement upon existing human rights records, they leave the most serious political challenges facing the state largely unaddressed.

In Algeria, the recent amnesty, issued by president Abdul Aziz Bouteflika as part of a reconciliation package, leaves Shaikh Abbas Madani, the leader of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), wilting under house arrest, and his deputy, Ali bel Haj, in jail. The package also leaves the FIS still banned.

Questioned by journalists about the continued detention of the FIS leaders and the failure to lift the ban on the movement, despite his reconciliation gestures, he said that he sympathised with Bel Haj’s plight but it was up to him to ‘play-up’; that Medani lived under ‘excellent conditions’ and that the FIS would never be legalized.

According to the president, who came into office last April as the army’s candidate in a rigged poll - if FIS supporters wish to join the political process they should set up another political party in accordance with the Algerian constitution. But Bouteflika’s hypocrisy was most apparent in his reply to questions on the possible release of Shaikh Madani and Shaikh Bel Haj.

In an interview with the Al-Hayat Arabic daily on July 28, he praise on Shaikh Madani, hailing him as a ‘mujahid’ and as one of the first Algerians to join his country’s liberation struggle. He was not the one to deny the nationalist credentials of any citizen, but Shaikh Abbas was living under excellent conditions (and would remain under house arrest).

Bouteflika’s expressed sympathy for ‘the plight’ of Bel Haj is even more cosmetic. He said he felt “personally in all cases for the prisoner and for anyone deprived of liberty”. But the President surely does not like Bel Haj, who has pointedly refused to negotiate with him ‘while in prison’ and refuses to support the ceasefire with the FIS’s armed wing.

The amnesty issued by Morocco’s new king, Muhammad VI, at the end of July similarly leaves out members of the kingdom’s Islamic movement from benefiting. The amnesty covered 46, 212 prisoners, releasing 7, 988 while reducing the sentences of the rest. But, according to Islamic sources quoted in the Arabic daily Al-Hayat on August 2, some student activists of the banned ‘moderate’ al-Adl wal Ihsan appeared to have benefited from the reduction in sentences.

According to the Al-Hayat source, the students are serving 20 year sentences which are reduced by only 2 years each. The source also said that there were at least 36 Islamic activists serving long sentences for ‘crimes of violence’.

But leaders of different Moroccan groups, like Shaikh Yassin of the Adl wal Ihsan movement, who are held under house arrest are not benefiting from the amnesty. Shaikh Yassin’s movement has been restricted ever since he compared the late king Hasan with the late Shah of Iran.

But the treatment of Moroccan Islamic activists is mild compared to that meted out to their counterparts in Egypt and Libya, where president Husni Mubarak and Brother Leader of the Revolution Qaddafi blame them for unsuccessful attempts on his life in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1995, holding Sudan responsible for harbouring them. And Qaddafi, who still limps and uses a walking stick as aid as a result of an attack on his person early this year - accuses the Libyan Islamic movement of being responsible.

Any improvement in ties between the North African states will clearly results in the increase of concerted action against the region’s Islamic activists and, indeed, against members of the global Islamic movement.

By contrast, western and Israeli interests will gain from closer Maghrebi relations. Bouteflika has already established close personal ties with Ehud Barak, and there are media reports of planned commercial relations between Algeria and Israel. Egypt and Morocco already enjoy close ties with the Zionist state. Such regional rapprochement with the west and Israel will in turn promote punitive action against Islamic movements.

Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1999

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