“Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows.”
This Jacobean plea for stability should be ringing in our ears as we watch the latest manifestation of instability in the Middle East/North Africa (Mena), this time in Algeria. And while much of the Arab Spring was self-generated, current troubles in the Sahel owe a great deal to the Nato “triumph” in assisting in the downfall of Gaddafi.
In autumn 2010 I visited Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt before my post in International Security Policy at the MoD was scrapped as “nothing ever happens in the Mena region” (I then moved to a newly formed cyber security post).
As I had found in a previous trip to Sudan, the greatest threat in the region came from the changing manifestation of Islamic observance, from locally attuned or Sufi to Salafism/Wahhabism. The cause was the spread of madrasahs built, staffed and indoctrinated by Saudi money and theology, a spread evident across Muslim North Africa and down the Indian Ocean coast from Somalia through Kenya to Tanzania.
In doing business with these regimes, the UK held its human rights nose, as the methods these states employed owed more to local than Western standards. And no surprise, for the challenges are horrendous. Algeria is now (since the split of Sudan) the largest country in Africa.
“Our man in Algiers” is closer to London than he is to the oil fields he is reporting on. The scale of the challenge of controlling the Sahel would defeat the US.
We should not wonder at the local methods of “control”. Gaddafi was a lynchpin in this informal Sahel security plan, in which all the above participants, opponents on so many other issues, were united – the suppression of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb and stability in the Sahel.
Gaddafi’s overthrow broke all kinds of local ethnic, tribal and commercial bargains and power-broking arrangements that we never understood.
We should not be surprised if the Algerian response again owes more to local than Western custom. And we should not rush to criticise, for there is no easy alternative.
Maj Gen Jonathan Shaw was Chief of Staff of UK Land Forces between 2007 and 2008. He joined the Parachute Regiment in 1981 and went on to serve in the Falklands, Kosovo and Iraq before joining the MoD