The (Sordid) Tale of Three Arab Countries

By Michael J. Economides

Editor’s Note: On January 31, 2011 just about two years ago to the day, I wrote the piece, reprinted below, in which I bunched Algeria with Egypt and Libya. Egypt was exploding then and Libya would self-destruct shortly thereafter. It was only time for the horrible events of last week to happen. The surprise, considering Algeria’s history that spans decades, is why the atrocity did not happen earlier: not just the terrorist act, the random killings to cause maximum mayhem but also the crudeness of the response where “all terrorists were killed,” (along with numerous hostages)

The recent regime change in Tunisia, but more to the point, the exploding unrest in Egypt has brought up again the sordid past of Arab regimes. Those two are certainly not isolated cases.

The dysfunctionalities of three large North African countries, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. are transparent. For decades they have been the real “root causes” of many of the region’s ailments: persistent inability to absorb modernity, total misunderstanding of democracy, corruption, and clearly, as a defensive crutch by a visibly dispirited population, more Islamic fundamentalism. In a way counter to what the West would expect, more women wear the veil today than 20 years ago.

The problems in these countries persist irrespective of these regimes’ stand with the West. Ally or foe, and they have been known to change, they seem unable to evolve into anything that one would consider as progress. And the problems of these countries affect the rest of the world because all of them sit atop some of the largest oil and gas deposits, made all the more important because of their proximity to Europe.

None of the three nurtures even a semblance of western-style representative democracy and any free elections would almost certainly bring to power fundamentalist Islamic movements. Islam is of course constantly hijacked also by those in power and is used as a justification of their rule or style of governing as in Libya’s “Islamic socialism.”

Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, taking over after Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 has run the country for 30 years and, until now, only his biological longevity (he is 83 years old), not any electoral decision, would have put an end to his rule. Nothing is more demonstrative of Mubarak’s era than Cairo, a city of glorious history of multiple civilizations but probably the worst example of a city mess in the entire world. With at least 25 million people, the beautiful remnants of past glories cannot balance the stench of open sewers, human fetid living conditions and the constant open-air burning of trash.

In Libya, Muammar Qadhafi has been the country’s “leader” for over 40 years as countless huge billboards carry that number all over the country, with him dressed in a variety of costumes, hats and shades, playing a number of roles in some kind of perverse Hollywood-in-the-desert. The Tripoli airport is in a state of permanent disrepair, trash is strewn everywhere, raw sewage is dumped straight in the sea, government bureaucracy is non-functioning but from all street lamp poles hang banners proclaiming the great leader’s presidency of the African Union.

Qhadhafi would have been a bemusing figure had he not been labeled at various times in his tenure as “lunatic” by Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, a “supporter of terrorism” by a number of US presidents and a host of other even less complimentary labels by others. His government was implicated directly with both the Lockerbie PanAm bombing in 1988 and the destruction and massive murder on a French passenger plane in flight in 1989. Of course all of this is tramped by the country’s known oil wealth and even bigger potential, if only the industry can work through a meandering and corrupt system.

Unpredictable and mercurial as ever, Qadhafi started a rehabilitation of sorts a few years ago by first endorsing the move against Saddam Hussein by the United States under George W. Bush, then by renouncing a questionable in the first place program of nuclear weapons, then by taking responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing (i.e., paying reparations to the victims’ families), and then he just about upended everything by later welcoming as a hero back to Libya the ailing man convicted for the terror.

The election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999 marked the end to a horrific decade and brought some new hope for Algeria. But, Bouteflika who won with 74 percent of the vote and was re-elected with 84 percent to a second five-year term in 2004 did not resist the “leadership” disease of the region. Although the Algerian Constitution had a two-term limit for the president, he spearheaded an “amendment” that led him run for a third and, in fact, an infinite number of five-year terms. He was re-elected in 2009.

The early post-colonial history

All three countries have common historical backgrounds and they were created in their present forms in the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist climate of the 1950s and 1960s, colored by the Cold War.

Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, starting in the mid-1950s pushed the British and their French cohorts out and became one of the shiniest international symbols of the post-colonial nationalist leader. He was even more. He became the face of pan-Arabism, an idealistic vision of an Arab world that would not only act as a counter-balancing presence to European powers but would also usher in a new era of Middle Eastern and Third World emancipation. Nasser became a key leader in the Non-aligned Movement.

At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union embraced Nasser with little hesitation and he accepted the courting eagerly. That led to the construction of the massive Aswan hydroelectric dam, cement factories, other examples of Soviet heavy industry and, of course, military assistance and promises of defending Egypt.  The euphoria of liberation and the leader’s personality cult made Nasser the lion of Egypt and the Arab people. They, not just Egyptians, wallowed and basked in his limelight.

The Six-day War of 1967 and the ignominious and swift defeat in Israel’s hands had a devastating impact on Egypt and Nasser personally, affected Arab psyche to this day and destroyed the notion that the Soviet Union would defend Nasser and what he represented. It was also the beginning of the rampant anti-Americanism in the region. For example, it could not have been the air force and the pilots of the then two-million people Israel that totally destroyed the air forces of three Arab neighbors, as a widely circulated story then insisted. It must have been American and British pilots manning jets with only Israeli insignia. But Nasser’s myth fell apart quickly and he died just three years later, replaced by Anwar Sadat in 1970.

A year earlier, a young colonel by the name Muammar Qadhafi, overthrew the hapless and ineffective Libyan King Idris and the fragile western-oriented establishment and made himself the leader, eventually the undisputed one, lasting for 40 years and counting. Qadhafi, like Nasser, played the Cold War card and received military assistance and hardware from The Soviet Union. In 1972 Libya, Egypt and Syria even formed a short-lived United Arab Republic.

Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria was also a classic figure of the times, effective in an era ready to shed colonialism and he became the darling of European and American liberals. He made the French look bad and their military ruthless and, after independence he became Algeria’s first elected President in 1962. But in a move that would be repeated over and over again in Algeria and the two other countries, he turned into empty socialist populism, alienating the educated middle class, instituting ill-fated land reforms and shunning any true development.

All three founding men, Nasser, Qadhafi and Ben Bella were secular, charismatic and rode the anti-colonial sentiment, endorsed by Western liberals and finding eager support by the Soviet Union. Those were heady times.

Their abysmal failures

None of those leaders bothered to establish any institutions of democracy, independent judiciary, any real people representation, economic liberalization or the rule of law. All, aided by long cultural affinity for life-long tribal leaders, got intoxicated in their personality cults, first with the pretensions of the anti-colonial struggle. Any opposition was tantamount to treason. How could one oppose such national heroes who among other accomplishments and virtues they booted the hated infidel foreigners?

Nasser’s 99 percent electoral victories were replaced by Sadat’s similar margins until he was assassinated by Islamic militants in 1981. Mubarak took over the mantle and the same margin of electoral victories. Sometime shortly after Sadat took over, Egypt in a swift swoop that stunned most of the world, went from stridently anti-American to pro-American and was rewarded with the Camp David accords (to solve the yet to be solved Palestinian-Israel conflict). Since then Egypt has been the recipient of some of the largest cumulative US aid of any country.

Qadhafi never even bothered to pretend the niceties of electoral victories. He was above them. But he was not above crushing the opposition to him, even in exile. In April 1980 he openly called for the assassination of Libyan dissidents abroad and dispatched squads to eliminate them.

Algeria went even more astray, becoming one of the most horrific examples of the struggle of post-liberation failures superimposed by cultural conflicts and identity. Ben Bella was overthrown by Col. Houari Boumédienne in 1965 who was succeeded by another Col. Chadli Bendjedid in 1978. The country went into an economic and civil tailspin in the 1980s following the plunge in oil prices and, in the first presumably free elections in 1991, the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (known as FIS by its French acronym) won majority. The army refused to accept the result in a move that is almost certain to be repeated if it ever comes to that point in all three countries.

Starting shortly thereafter, one of the most brutal chapters in the history of any country unfolded in Algeria. At least 100,000 people were massacred often by unspeakable methods in extent and savagery. Entire villages were destroyed and not just supporters of the government but anybody who was not considered a good or true Moslem, intellectuals, journalists, simple teachers became targets. Eventually, man’s inhumanity to man reached new lows of randomness and sadism. The Taliban in Afghanistan never fell to that level of brutality. The Algerian army retaliated in kind and by 1999 the country was quieted down.

The tragedy for all three countries, and there is no other way to describe it other than a bona fide tragedy with little parallel anywhere else, is that all three are endowed with formidable oil and gas resources. Libya is a superpower in oil, Algeria is a superpower in natural gas and Egypt, although, to a lesser degree, has considerable reservoirs of oil and far larger, recently discovered, natural gas deposits. Egypt had a direct line to another rich reservoir, the US Treasury. Yet, none of these societies has come remotely close to the level that they could have benefited from this bonanza if it was even marginally managed.

Today not much has changed

The causes of the unrest in Egypt are so predictable. What is not predictable is how the situation will evolve. Will Mubarak unleash the security police and the army for what is likely now to be a lengthy and bloody confrontation. Or will the army turn on him, in which case his 90 percent electoral victories will go out the window.

The signs for all three countries are dire. In the economic freedom index published by the Heritage Foundation, out of about 180 countries that are ranked, the three are pretty low: Egypt (94), Algeria (105) and Libya (173), the latter practically as low as it can be. It is hard for countries like these to attract investments and, even in the oil industry, some of the most reputable players would have difficulty justifying their involvement.

But corruption, graft and nepotism are even more blatant. In Transparency International’s corrupt perception index the three rank as some of the most corrupt countries in the world with Egypt at 98, Algeria at 105 and Libya languishing even further below, at 146 further below Nigeria and Uganda and the same as Haiti..

How worse can it get if the only discernible method of replacing the leader is through assassination, military coup or, now new, massive street protest? Of course that fear by the regimes has created the necessary counter-balancing measures, a massive and elaborate “security” apparatus, complete with informants and extra-legal forces whose only real purpose is the maintenance of the status quo, specifically the life of the leader and his immediate surroundings. One of the fixtures in Tripoli, Cairo and Algiers are the dark-shade-wearing young men, with no uniform of any kind, roaming the airports and other important venues, while locals nod and whisper to a foreigner’s ear, “security”.

Unavoidably in Egypt, in the style of hereditary monarchs, Hosni Mubarak’s groomed heir is his son Gamal while in Libya, Qadhafi’s heir apparent is his son Saif with the only possible question whether another of his brothers may challenge him. Not that such succession is unheard of in the Arab world. It was only in 2000 that after the death of Syria’s Hafez al-Assad after 30 years in power, the country’s constitution was amended immediately, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34. The move allowed Hafez’ son Bashir al-Assad to be elected president.

There used to be a time, especially during the Cold War, when remnants of European colonialism could be blamed for all ills afflicting these countries. Justification of all excesses and repression could be blamed on the struggle towards a national identity that had been emasculated and affected by decades of European exploitation. Then, Israel, thousands of miles away was a convenient bête noire. But 50 years later, countries that could be filthy rich from oil and gas have zero credibility to blame others for their problems.

The Arab people, taking literally their lives in their hands, are out in streets, demanding change.

Michael Economides is Editor-in-Chief of the Energy Tribune