Speaking in Algiers on February 12, at the beginning of a tour of North African countries designed to secure their support for the US's agendas in the Muslim world, US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld promised to strengthen military ties with North African countries. During a joint appearance with Algeria's president, Abdulaziz Bouteflika, he said: "We look forward to strengthening our military-to-military relationship and our cooperation in counter-terrorism." The visit, the first to Algeria by a US defence secretary, came at a time when Washington was claiming that it was committed to the extension of "democratic values and practices" to Arab countries. Rumsfeld made no reference whatsoever to political reforms, confining his attention to the development of military ties and cooperation against "terrorists" and "local extremists".
Rumsfeld had good reason for avoiding any reference to political reforms in the region. Algeria is ruled from behind the scenes by its army, which controls not only the politicians but also the police and members of the judiciary. The regime in Tunisia is also very repressive, while Morocco is relatively lightly ruled by King Muhammad VI, an absolute monarch if there ever was one. All three regimes have in common a hatred and fear of Islamic activists, who are harshly repressed; Algeria, being the most repressed, has suffered civil wars and military coups. But even the other two have experienced, in recent years, strong opposition to their rulers, led by Islamic groups.
But Rumsfeld did not succeed completely in his attempt to avoid all reference to political reforms during his three-day visit to the region. Some critics publicly argued that Washingtonshould not seek to establish military relations with such anti-democratic countries. It was after his audience with Morocco's king on February 13 that he was challenged to respond to these critics. His response was: "Obviously, I respond by visiting them and working with them and recognising the progress they have made and co-operating with them."
He later made his position even more absurd by praising the three countries not only for their successful control of terrorists and terrorism but also for their "moderate" treatment of opposition groups. "Each country in its way has provided moderate leadership and been constructive in the problems of the world and the struggle against violent extremism." To describe the brutal and often bloody suppression of Islamic activism and Islamic groups as "moderate" is not only ridiculous but also contradicts the judgements of these governments by local secular human-rights groups, which strongly resent Washington's attempts to develop relations with them.
In fact some of these groups organise public demonstrations against Rumsfeld's visit, particularly in Morocco, although the authorities usually succeeded in pushing them out of sight. But in Morocco the Moroccan Times reported that the demonstrations were organised by the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), and that the demonstrators sat outside the parliament building in Rabat to protest against Rumsfeld's arrival. The AMDH is loud in its criticism of the US's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the torture and other abuses of human rights that take place in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, for instance. It is also very critical of Morocco's military cooperation with Washington.
Rumsfeld's predictable response to the demonstration organised by the AMDH came in the shape of open praise for the governments of the three countries and their "moderate treatment of violent opposition groups": a clear, though indirect, reference to the human-rights groups as violent opponents to the royal despot of Morocco. This embarrassing criticism of human-rights groups, and support for dictatorial rulers, coincided with the revelation that Washington is helping Morocco to build a "terror prison" (as one British newspaper described it on February 12) near Rabat, the capital, for the detention and interrogation of people suspected of having links with al-Qa'ida. Rabat is already part of the US's "extraordinary rendition" programme, and holds and abuses suspects for Washington.
Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria are already partners in the US-led Trans-Subsaharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, which includes Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Nigeria. The three countries are also closely involved in the NATO-Mediterranean dialogue and attend meetings called for the purpose, such as the one held recently in Sicily (Italy). Tunisia andMorocco, which receive US military aid, have been Washington's allies for some time now. But Algeria – which was a member of the non-aligned movement during the cold war – has maintained lukewarm relations that, alas, are now developed into strong ties of friendship. As shown by the US defence secretary's recent visit to the region, all three are now firmly allied with Washington, and back its "long war" on terrorism (a euphemism for war on Islamic activism).
The US government's open abandonment of its propaganda platform of support for democratic rule in Arab countries is a direct and immediate result of the recent success of Islamic groups in electoral contests, notably Hamas in Palestine and the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen in Egypt. If such groups acquire power in their countries by the electoral process, then that process may end the US's dominance over these countries and its legalised theft of their wealth. The widespread anger about the US's occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and about its support for Israelhas also led to great resentment against the Muslim regimes that are allied with Washington. This in turn has alerted Washington and its allies to end their affected mutual hatred and unite openly to fight Islamic radicalism, which is branded as terrorism.
The more they cooperate, however, the more the Islamic groups will eventually benefit.