Extremism and political instability in North and West Africa

Written evidence from Dr Oz Hassan & Dr Elizabeth Iskander Monier, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick


1. The Arab Partnership, the UK government’s long-term strategic response to the Arab Spring, is problematic in its conception and programme activity, and is both unlikely to secure UK interests or have a lasting impact on the region if it is not enhanced.

2. Democracy promotion initiatives must be credible by being seen as unbiased and as tailored to the needs of each specific state. Any initiatives that are perceived as serving external interests will be counter-productive. The UK position should be strong and clear in order to achieve respect and therefore impact.

3. The Arab Partnership needs to connect multilaterally beyond the G8 Deauville Partnership and supplement it with a digitized strategy. This would allow it to better follow lessons learned over the last decade of US democracy promotion through initiatives such as the Forum for the Future and web 2.0 movemnets.org.

4. Religious extremism is first and foremost a domestic challenge for Middle Eastern states but as diasporas grow and electronic media develops and becomes more accessible, the influence of extremism is becoming less and less tied to borders or even to formal networks.

5. Adopting a more multilateral and digital strategy would not only align UK policy more closely with the "smart power" of our transatlantic partners, but would offer the UK better value for money, allow a more sustainable strategy to emerge, prove to be more effective at the regional and domestic level, and therefore allow UK policy to secure its goals of promoting long-term positive change in the region.

About the Authors

6. Dr Oz Hassan is an Assistant Professor in The University of Warwick’s Politics and International Studies Department. He is author of the monograph America’s Freedom Agenda for the Middle East and North Africa, and numerous articles of US and EU policy towards the MENA region. He is currently working on the ESRC funded Future Research Leaders project Transatlantic Interests and Democratic Possibilty in a Transforming Middle East, and is part of the Compagnia di San Paolo funded EUSPRING project looking at how US and EU democracy promotion strategies address differing conceptions of citizenship in North Africa. He has interviewed hundreds of NGOs about receiving foreign programme assistance and witnessed first hand events in Tahrir Square 2011. He is also a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a British Council Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

7. Dr Elizabeth Iskander Monier is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at Warwick University where she researches Middle East politics and society and an Associate Research Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies. She specialises in Egyptian affairs and identity politics in the Middle East. She writes for political risk organisations, the media and academic journals and has published a book on sectarianism in Egypt.

Information for the Committee

8. Religious extremism does not emerge only from contemporary socio-political circumstances or from a single set of causes. Factors which influence the development of the succession of extremist movements include religious, social, political and economic factors, intersected by local, regional and international events. All of this contributes to the complexity of the problem and belies the development of a one-size-fits-all solution. Solutions must be locally developed and implemented.

9. Religious extremism is an entrenched problem because religion has been a tool of, and a motivation for, political movements and conflicts for centuries. The involvement of social and religious reform movements in political change have a strong tradition, for example the Wahhabi movement that originated in Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century began as a revivalist movement with a specific vision for reforming religious practices. It became a movement that shaped the development of a state and an ideology that affects the region, and indeed the world. In the absence of a strong and authentic secular framework for social and political activism, religious symbolism and ideology is the go-to language for movements that seek to address local social and political problems.

10. Regardless of whether these movements adopt violent methods to pursue their cause, conservative and extreme religious movements are by their nature exclusive; they clearly define an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. Such simplification of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and an ‘us’ and ‘them’, as well as the potentially strong sense of belonging to a community and to a cause imbibed with religious legitimacy, can all become attractive in times of political upheaval and socio-economic difficulty.

11. The power of religious extremism then comes from three sources. First the strength of religious symbolism, which holds out both legitimate purpose and strong belonging to a community not limited to the local but linked to a transnational network. Both of these aspects offer an individual a clear identity and security in belonging.

12. Second, religious extremism comes from the lack of strong political alternatives. The idea that secularism is anti-Islamic is very strong and often leads to an automatic rejection of new political models. The challenge is to create an alternative political discourse that is authentic but at the same time inclusive. Many in the region point to the Turkish model and the enthusiasm for this model was evident in the reception received by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan from the Egyptian public on a visit to Cairo in September 2011. However, Erdogan’s subsequent emphasis on secularism as key to the Turkish model led to a lessening in enthusiasm among the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

13. Third, the power of religious extremists feeds on poverty, ignorance and illiteracy. While those in higher ranks in extremist movements can come from diverse backgrounds are often motivated by ideology and the desire to change society according to the specific vision espoused by that ideology, the ‘masses’ that support such movements, whether actively or passively, often do so for a combination of social and economic reasons and/or loyalty to a sense of religious belonging which appears to be threatened by ‘others’ or outsiders.

14. Although counter-intuitive, giving radical religious groups access to political spaces can expose and fragment them. However, given that it is often easier to oppose the political process, than be part of it, bringing them into the legitimate political system can be problematic. In cases where bringing them into the political system has been successful, dissatisfaction with Islamist groups has reduced their popular political support among the public. For example, in Egypt, the Salafist bloc and even the Muslim Brotherhood have faced increasing challenges from their former constituencies. Similarly, the July 2012 election results in Libya indicate that given the hope of a robust political system, religious groups will become less attractive and less trusted to provide the democratic reforms demanded by many revolutionaries.

15. Radical religious groups should be welcomed and assisted within the new political spaces to naturalise them within emerging democracies. However, extremist groups that resort to violence should not be, as without giving up arms they fail to play within the democratic "rules of the game". Within such a context disarmament and counter-radicalisation strategies should be adopted, whilst also seeking to construct a milieu where broader civil society organisations oppose and are willing to tackle such groups. Such a strategy proved effective in 1997, after the Luxor massacre of tourists. Egyptian society as a whole turned against the radical Islamist groups such as al-Jamiyah al-Islamiyah because of the devastating impact on tourism and therefore the livelihoods of a large number of Egyptians. This contributed to the state’s ability to eventually overcome these groups.

16. Trans-regional extremist organisations, such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), represent a more distinct threat than state based extremist groups. Such groups have taken advantage of weak states, and growing power vacuums left by the 2011 revolutions, and have the ability to cross ill-protected borders and target Western interests. Within such circumstances there is a direct need for the UK government to support regional security governance and regional command structures akin to those originally conceived under the 2009 Tamanrasset Framework between Algeria, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and, with the intent of expanding the agreement, Libya. This had the specific remit of tackling the growing threat of regional terrorism and specifically AQIM, by disrupting terrorist logistics, training and supply bases along borders. The 2011 revolutions have stymied such a strategy leaving a regional security vacuum that the UK government should seek to repair.

17. Whilst the 2011 revolutions represent a challenge to UK interests in North Africa, they also represent an opportunity that has been poorly seized by the establishment of the Arab Partnership fund. This fund was initially conceived to be a UK version of the United States initiated Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), but failed to be placed with in the same strategy adopted by the US, and shares many of the problems that MEPI has sort to overcome. Research with numerous foreign assistance fund recipients in the region have highlighted problems of access, problems with continuity of funds once projects have ended, and in many interviews with recipients there is a self-declared rejection of the aims that the fund is supposed to support and the activities being undertaken. As an example of a recurrent tend, when interviewing one recipient they were asked about the prospects of the grant aiding democracy and helping sustainable economic growth, and the interviewers were met with bafflement and a response of "that’s not really what we do here".

18. Evidently, the North African region is struggling with developing new solutions to regional and national conflict, create functioning economies that meet the needs of their young demographics, and develop authentic democratic cultures. However, with the UK government committing only £110 million to the Arab Partnership fund from 2011-2015, it is unlikely that this will have any significant and sustainable impact. Within such circumstances the UK should look to supplement this by helping to reinforce dialogue and interregional connections. Powerful examples of such practice already exist in the Forum for the Future.

19. In tandem with ensuring domestic stability and security against the possibility of violent tactics undertaken by extremists, the solution to extremism must be recognised as being long-term. Cultural and educational solutions are important in supporting any political and legal reforms that aim to establish social justice, the rule of law and equality. This can be achieved through supporting the education system, discourse transformation through the media and by supporting the growth of a strong civil society.

20. It is crucial to maintain comprehensive initiatives that prioritise democracy and the rule of law. Any initiatives or policies that seek to emphasise the importance of democratic principles must be seen as credible in order to have an impact and to enhance the soft power of the UK in the region. If a policy is seen as biased or as supporting the interests of the UK and not the local interests, this will have the opposite impact and not only de-legitimise the UK’s status but also weaken those working internally to promote authentic and inclusive democratic culture.

21. There is a strong case to be made for increasingly "digitizing" the UK strategy. This has been a strategy adopted, with some success, by the Obama administration as part of Secretary Clinton’s "smart power" strategy. Focusing on establishing virtual sites such as movements.org has proved effective because users regard it as a "less colonial approach" to foreign assistance, whilst it builds regional and global connections for promoting best practice. Moreover, there is a level of self-empowerment by spreading skills that promote open dialogue and independence. Such "How-to guides" include: How to Protect your Security in Cyber Cafes; How to use Facebook/Twitter App for your activism Campaign; Use Facebook to raise Money; How to Organise and Communicate a Non-Violent Protest Using the Protest4 App; How to Use Blackberry Messaging (BBM) to organize nonviolent Action; Creating Grassroots Movements for Change: A Field Manual and How to Bypass Internet Censorship amongst others. Movements.org currently has sponsorship from organizations such as Pepsi, MTV, YouTube and Facebook, not only making it more appealing but lowering the cost of running the site.

22. Part of this digital strategy should also be to promote the use of Mass Online Open Courses (MOOCs). A significant failure in North Africa is the lack of education and production of vital skills amongst the regions young demographic. Such a strategy, although not a substitute for university education and the benefits this provides, could help contribute to the cultivation of a more educated milieu in the region. This in turn could be supported by exchange programmes, which have proved a successful feature of MEPI. Such a strategy in and of itself does not solve the regions problems, but it should be aimed at cultivating an international class that the UK can engage with.

23. Within the context of any digitized strategy it must be recognized that religious extremism is first and foremost a local problem that must be tackled through the regions education system, the mosque and the media. However, with increasing numbers of extremists turning to sources online to feed their ideology, the UK can ill afford to leave cyber-space as a locale for radicalization in North Africa or domestically. As diasporas grow and electronic media develops and becomes more accessible, the influence of extremism is becoming less tied to borders or even to formal networks, which leads to the conclusion that extremism in North Africa today has the potential to challenge UK interests at home and abroad in the future.

24. Enhancing the Arab Partnership recognizes that tackling extremism is complex and requires long term solutions. While external actors can support local efforts, religious extremism within the region must be treated with solutions that emerge from the local contexts. As such, a more empowering approach needs to be adopted, which overcomes the problems local recipients of funds highlight and contributes to helping individuals strengthen their own civil societies in the region. In turn, regional governments need to be pushed to allow these political spaces to open up, encouraging a more inclusive political system that gives citizens a sense of agency, adopt laws that guarantee equality to all, regardless of religious faith, and enforce them justly. A litmus test for this is whether the inequalities on the basis of religion in legislation, as well as the unofficial ways that minorities suffer unequal treatment, can be eradicated and whether there is indeed the will to do this.


25. The issues of democracy, rule of law and tackling extremism are interconnected and the solutions must also be interconnected. Including civil society partners along with judicial and political actors from all parts of the political spectrum would help to ensure that solutions emerge from, and are directed to, society as a whole. The UK must be clear, firm and consistent in its policies on these issues if it is to secure soft power in the region. The UK can support these goals but they are only realistically achievable in the long term and by the regional states themselves.

26. The UK should seek to rebuild regional security governance structures that have been disrupted by the revolutions of 2011, if it is to tackle the growing threat of AQIM and disrupt terrorist logistics, training and supply bases along North African borders.

27. The UK needs to enhance the Arab Partnership to contribute to what funding recipients believe is a "less colonial approach" to foreign policy. Digital technology is proving to be one particular method of this, along with increasing space for open dialogue and partnership. Within such a context, the democracy assistance lessons, learned by the US over the past decade of engagement in the region provide an excellent platform that the UK government can appropriate and build upon. Such an approach may not only prove more effective on the ground at contributing to our long term aims, but represents a relatively low cost-high value approach in a time of austerity. 

30 April 2013

Prepared 29th May 2013