Special Report

Big Party in a Desert

The lurking reality of absurd borders and impossible ethno-sectarian configurations -- and the fun has just started.

By 5.24.12

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The war in Libya is over but its aftershocks keep shaking the region. A rebel Tuareg army swept across northern Mali, taking over the famous city of Timbuktu. Tuareg rebellions have long been a recurring phenomenon in Mali and Niger, but this time it was different. Ever since the regime of Gaddafi was overthrown, the governments of Mali and Niger were sounding alarm bells over the influx of heavily armed Tuareg fighters who used to serve in the army of the late dictator. Hundreds of these fighters, and the skills and the weaponry they have brought from Libya, have created a new and seemingly unstoppable type of Tuareg rebel army that has finally achieved what eluded the previous rebellions. Within a few weeks the rebels routed the minuscule Malian army and effectively partitioned the country in two. The Malian government has meanwhile collapsed altogether.

On 6 April, the veteran Tuareg national movement -- National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) -- declared a new independent state in Gao, the biggest of the three towns in the North. It was not very surprising that the MNLA's declaration of independence immediately hit a wall. The State Department, the EU, the African Union, Mali's neighbors and its government, all flatly rejected this idea out of hand. The surprising part was that the declaration was rejected from within the rebel ranks as well. For decades uprisings by Tuareg nationalists have been a major headache for local governments and their outside sponsors. Now a previously unknown rebel faction, which calls itself Ansar ed Dine, said it had no interest in independence whatsoever and its goal was instead to impose the Islamic law on the entire country of Mali

2006. Tuaregs having fun in Timbuktu.

It's a story familiar in the Middle East and North Africa -- if it's not nationalists, then it's Islamists. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where the former fail, the latter often step in. The capital of the de facto independent Iraqi Kurdistan has been transformed from a neglected backyard of Iraq into a sea of construction cranes. American flags are posted proudly on dashboards. Not one single American soldier had died here. But in South Yemen it's no longer the defeated nationalists who are fighting battles against the northern army, but instead Islamic fundamentalists are imposing Sharia law on towns and areas under their control.

Nevertheless, the emergence of Tuareg fundamentalists has amazed some observers. The Tuaregs are known as occasional providers of logistic services to radical Islamic groups, but until now the nomads were not usually known as naturally born fundamentalists. As a matter of fact, MNLA has repeatedly offered its services in fighting Al Qaeda in the strategically important Sahara region to the West and the international community in exchange for recognition of Tuareg independence.

The tradition of men covering their faces certainly gives the Tuareg men a rather sinister look.

In fact, in Roman times, their ancestors were called the Garamantes, and controlled lucrative caravan routes across the Sahara from Mali. They repeatedly clashed with the Romans on various occasions and the last proconsul to earn a triumphus -- Lucius Cornelius Balbus -- won this distinguished honor from Augustus in 19 BC for having defeated the Garamantes in a series of skirmishes in modern-day Fezzan. Yet, even though the poet Virgil prophesied the subjugation of these tribesmen in his renowned epic the Aeneid, the Garamantes always remained independent of Roman rule in the province of Africa.

Modern day Tuaregs do have a reputation for smuggling, raiding and providing ruthless mercenaries to regimes across the region, including the one of Muammar Gaddafi. But Tuaregs also have a less known soft side of the bon vivants of the Sahara desert, fans of booze, partying and a peculiar music style known as Tuareg rock or Tuareg blues. Other aspects of the Tuareg culture also make them unlikely converts to the Islamist cause. The Tuaregs are largely matrilineal. Though they are not matriarchal, traditionally, in the Tuareg society women were accorded higher social status compared to Arabs and other Berber peoples. Not a bunch of folks one would normally expect to submit themselves readily to the bleak and dry routine of a Sharia state.

The leader of the new faction himself is a perfect example of this dramatic change. A renowned rebel, who single-handedly kick-started a previous Tuareg uprising, as late as 2008, Iyad ag Ghali still appears in Wikileaks sharing intelligence about Al Qaeda with U.S. diplomats. Ag Ghali's transformation into an Islamic fundamentalist is even more surprising given the existence of personal accounts that indicate that not so long ago the man was still a big fan of smoking, drinking and partying. In this Ag Ghali was certainly not unlike many other Tuaregs of the region.

2009. The desert comes to party in Europe. Tinariwen performing live in Rubigen, Switzerland. 

 

The Tuareg uprising in Mali has received limited media coverage and was largely overshadowed by the ongoing battles of the Arab Spring. Syria, in particular, grabbed the attention of international audiences and produced an unholy amount of analyses and plain speculations. But behind the two uprisings in Mali and Syria, happening in different parts of the region and at the first glance unrelated to each other, is lurking the same reality of absurd borders and impossible ethno-sectarian configurations. It's a reality that hails back to decisions made by the former colonial ruler of these lands many years ago.

In 1959 on the eve of Mali's independence a group of Tuareg tribal chiefs wrote a letter to French President Charles de Gaulle:

Permit me, your honor Mr. President, to remind you that joining the Tuareg nation to the government of Mali is unjust and it is not what General Joffre agreed to. It's the opposite of those who ruled over us before the French government, and the Tuareg will never accept the present position of their country, which is divided between the government of Mali and the government of Niger. The principle, according to the French government when it decided to leave the Tuareg country, is that it should not disperse them between different peoples with whom the Tuareg people do not share the same ethnicity, religion, or language

More than two decades before this, 1936 to be precise, a group of Alawite notables in Syria wrote a letter to the French colonial master, begging him, admittedly in a rather grotesque form, that the Alawites should not be made part of the future Syria:

The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels....

There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the Mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.…

…The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis-à-vis those who do not belong to Islam. These good Jews contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children.

… We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. We have previously seen this situation in the Anglo‑Iraqi treaty, which did not prevent the Iraqis from slaughtering the Assyrians and the Yezidis.

Ironically, among the signatories of the Alawite letter was nobody else but Sulayman al-Assad, the grandfather of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, currently denounced around the world for his bloody crackdown on a largely Sunni uprising against his rule.

These two letters were the beginning of two very different stories. But with all the difference between the two, the two stories also share two common denominators: namely, they began with letters and they both ended badly.

In Syria the Alawite minority has resigned itself to the French decision but not to its fate of a downtrodden minority. Al Assad's descendents have eventually taken over the whole country and established one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East hell bent on exporting instability all around. In 1982 this regime has set a new standard of oppression in the Middle East, summarized by Thomas Friedman in the term "Hama Rules," named after a big Syrian city reduced to a pile of rubble by the regime's artillery during crackdown on an Islamist led uprising. Come 2012 and the Hama Rules no longer help as violence in Syria is spiraling out of control.

In Africa, two of the poorest nations on Earth -- Mali and Niger -- were left to struggle with an impossible task of controlling vast expanses of Sahara populated by a hostile desert minority. Two hopeless landlocked basket cases, basically bankrolled by the international community. It's therefore no wonder that one of them has now collapsed under repeated assaults by rebellious Tuaregs, whose national struggle seems to have started mutating into a hardcore fundamentalist Islamic movement.

2008. Tauregs in Mali. Sitting in the sand, listening to music

 

On April 8, the president of CMA, a world organization representing all Berber peoples including Tuaregs, wrote an open letter to the candidates for the French presidential election. The letter restated the previous MNLA promise to establish a secular and democratic state and the intention to drive Islamist factions out of all the territories of Azawad. As its two predecessors more than half a century ago, the letter warned the, now former, colonial master about the dangers of arbitrary and unsustainable borders:

The Tuaregs like other oppressed peoples in the world do not want to live forever colonized. The international community has understood this by favoring the access to the independence of many countries in Europe during the last 20 years or even recently in Africa with the independence of the South-Sudan.

When the French Minister declares that "it is not possible to question the sovereignty of Mali," we remind him that it is not any more allowed for France to continue to draw the map of Africa as one pleases. The time of the colonialism is gone, it is the moment to make speak about the international law concerning the right of the peoples to their self-determination. Furthermore, as the ancient colonial power, France is placed well to know the arbitrary and artificial character of the borders which she drew in Africa, what is at the origin of the conflict of today.

If the history of letter writing in the region has any lesson to offer, it would be that this letter will fare no better than its predecessors. On the ground MNLA appears to be steadily losing to Ansar ed Dine, buoyed by the influx of hundreds of foreign fighters sent to ag Ghali by the likes of Al Qaeda in Maghreb and the Nigerian Boko Haram. The deal, MNLA was originally planning to offer to the international community, fell apart. If anything it's now MNLA itself who needs the international community to save it from the fundamentalists. But on the international scene MNLA and its declaration of independence have received no support whatsoever and the mood seems to be gradually shifting in support of military intervention.

These are bad days for the Tuareg nationalists. Yet, as they are watching their surprising victory to slip out of their hands, it's now their former colonial tormentors themselves, oh the irony of it, who are finding themselves slipping into the nightmare of another failed experiment in creative borders and wishful mixing of peoples and cultures. "Whoever speaks of Europe is wrong," wrote Bismarck in 1876. "Europe is a geographical expression." More than one hundreds years later the "geographical expression" is struggling to survive a utopia imposed on it by the well-meaning enthusiasts of togetherness.

The severe economic crisis has put to test both the viability of a single European currency and the sense of solidarity between its members. The anti-German sentiment is exploding along the Eurozone's southern periphery with an intensity unseen in Europe since the World War II. Unemployment hitting above 20% in Spain and Greece, the practice of burning German flags and chanting "Nazis out" pioneered by protesters in Greece may yet become a new habit in the Eurozone's Mediterranean belt.

Across Europe anti immigration and nationalist parties are rising. Scotland is likely to see an independence referendum in 2014. Belgium has recently smashed all world records for the longest period without a government amid constant infighting between the Flemish nationalists and their French-speaking opponents. Elevating the entire euro zone to the status of transfer union may sound like a good idea in theory, but right now this notion is threatening to split the very country which is home to the EU headquarters, no less.

France does not seem to be having it any better in the United States of Europe than other members. President Sarkozy spent his term vigorously deporting Roma migrants, threatening to strip foreign-born rioters of citizenship and plotting with the Germans to reestablish border controls within the Schengen area. To no avail. As the world of fantasy is crumbling in Europe, large chunks of the French electorate failed to get impressed and the voters turned even more massively towards the anti euro and anti immigration National Front. 

Ours is a world of absurd borders and impossible unions. But from Africa through the Maghreb and the Middle East, all the way to Scotland and Flanders in Northern Europe, they are rising: nationalists, separatists, regionalists. They are coming in all shapes and colors and they are legion. Ag Ghali and his fundamentalists may have spoiled the party in Mali, but the big party is far from over. If anything, it has barely started.

2010. Bombino aka Omar Mokhtar, also nicknamed the Jimmie Hendrix of the Tuaregs, firing up a rock party at the feet of an ancient adobe mosque in Agadez, Niger.

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About the Author

Oskar Svadkovsky is a computer networking professional based in Tel Aviv, and the owner of the Happy Arab News Service blog. He graduated in Indian and Chinese Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.