By JEFF DAVIS email@example.comPosted Thursday, March 3 2011 at 18:06
History teaches us that during times of momentous social upheaval, the founding desires of a revolution can be overtaken by the agendas of small, determined groups of opportunists.
Muslim Africa appears to be at just such an historic juncture, as a wave of popular revolt shakes and sweeps away oppressive dictatorships.
In place of megalomaniacal despots will be power vacuums, which stand to be filled with the long-bottled-up democratic aspirations of millions.
But competing for space within these Mubarak (Egypt) and Ben Ali-shaped (Tunisia) vacuums are the continent’s Islamist militant factions.
For them, the ongoing revolutions represent both a curse and a blessing: While pushing Muslim Africa further into the liberal modernity they despise, they present an opportunity to expand Islamist influence.
Under the sponsorship of al-Qaeda, Africa’s violent Islamists grow stronger and more united. But despite their gathering strength and expanding area of operations, they are unlikely to succeed in seizing power in the post-revolutionary aftermath.
With public aspirations for freedom and democracy boiling over, the ‘Arab Street’ will reject the draconian lifestyle Islamists tend to enforce.
If anything, Africa’s Islamist axis will play the same role played in Iraq and Afghanistan: That of spoiler.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – the leading Jihadist organisation in North Africa – fights on the African front of the global conflict between Islamic extremists and the armies of Western and modernising states.
In this simmering global conflict, veteran jihadists travel from one war zone to the next, fighting for a particular set of conservative religious values.
From the 1980s till today, warriors from across North Africa travelled to Afghanistan to fight in defence of their fellow Muslims, earning the moniker “Afghan Arabs.”
These troops also fought in Iraq, alongside others from Arab nations, Chechnya, Central Asia, Pakistan and beyond. They could well flock to North Africa too, if a breakthrough is made towards taking power amidst one of the revolutions.
Having already laid their lives on the line in the grand battle between secular modernity and Islamic fundamentalism, these Afghan Arabs are among the most hardened ideologues in the game having fought the armies of the US and Nato and many less sophisticated military forces.
Skilled in the production and use of improvised explosive devices and hit-and-run ambush tactics, these veterans could pose a serious threat to the conventional armies.
Most of the region’s armies, having been absent from the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, have not gained recent tactical experience against such asymmetric threats. They consequently do not possess the technology and training to counter them effectively.
And while al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has enjoyed some popularity and success amongst the rural poor and in the un-governed spaces of the Sahara, they will struggle to expand their power base.
The North African states live in comparative wealth and human development, and are a far cry from the impoverished hamlets of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only there, amongst uneducated and desperate peoples, have Islamists enjoyed significant recruitment success in recent years.
And even in places where extremist Islamist forces are strongest, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we have seen a chronic inability to set up or administer governments with a modicum of stability or longevity.
In North Africa, for the most part, a more moderate Islamic perspective reigns. Even Egypt’s once-feared Muslim Brotherhood appears rather meek and temperate in 2011.
In recent weeks, Mohamed ElBaradei, a strong contender to be Egypt’s next president, appealed for understanding on their behalf.
“We should stop demonising the Muslim Brotherhood,” the diplomat said. “They have not committed any acts of violence in five decades. They too want change. If we want democracy and freedom, we have to include them instead of marginalising them.”
While Africa’s Islamist extremists have some sly tricks up their sleeves, the forces opposing them will offer stern resistance.
Last year saw a major escalation of anti-terrorist war in the Sahara. Security officials from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad strengthened cooperation, putting in place extradition agreements and agreeing to withhold ransom payments.
Soon afterwards, in the remote desert outpost of Tamanrasset in Algeria, a joint command centre for Algerian, Malian, Mauritanian and Nigerien troops began operations. The command now has 25,000 troops and will have 75,000 troops by 2012.
And while these armies have not faced the latest additions to al-Qaeda’s arsenal, they have a long history of fighting Islamist extremism.
The Algerian army in the 1990s, for instance, was engaged in a broad shooting war with Islamists. But perhaps more potent than arms is the strength of ideas.
The revolutionaries in the streets appear to be calling for more freedom, not less, to fulfil their individual and collective potential.
Joining the people in this push for liberalisation are a range of Islamic organisations, which after a period of enforced silence, have rediscovered their voices. And, so far at least, their tones are quite soothing.
After 22 years in exile, and the fall of the tyrant Ben Ali, the historic head of the Islamic Ennahda (‘Renaissance’) Party returned to Tunisia.
“Our ideology espouses pluralism and moderation,” Rached Ghannouchi told Al Jazeera, describing his group as a “moderate and democratic Islamic movement”.
After years of enforced silence, moderate Islam will soon retake its place within the body politic of North Africa. It was repressed, as were all other challengers to dictatorial control, and it is high time political Islam retook it’s rightful and healthy place in the management of state affairs.
In the North African states, populations are tired of and reject the violent ideology of Islamist terror. With little enthusiastic public support, al-Qaeda and its minions will fail to seize power, just like they have in other theatres in this global conflict.
But Islamists do play the spoiler card brilliantly, and could cause major – if not fatal – problems for young and unstable revolutionary administrations.
And while they will lack the potency to seize power, the task of chasing Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from its desert hideouts will be a long and arduous one.