Published: 11:00 GMT Daylight Time - Thursday 11 October 2012
Editorial: Islamist militants shift focus from South Asia to North Africa
This was the stark warning issued last week by Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki.
He said that Islamist militants were shifting their focus to North Africa and were stepping up violence in the region. Mr Marzouki said that they were mainly present in Libya and Algeria, especially in the remote Maghreb desert. His own nation, Tunisia, is also under threat; the president said that there were around 3,000 Salafists there who were potentially dangerous. He said:
We are dealing with a real danger, a threat. [Salafism] is like a cancer. The more we wait, the more it becomes extremely difficult to cure.
This “ideological cancer” has its roots in the Salafism of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar.
There is plenty of evidence to support President Marzouki’s assessment. Most recently, violent Islamist protests against the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims began in North Africa with the storming of official US buildings in Egypt and Libya, which led to a number of deaths, including that of US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.
The response to Innocence of Muslims in North Africa, which was followed by further protests around the globe, vividly demonstrated the extent to which Islamists there have become emboldened since the Arab Spring. They had been kept on a tight leash by the ousted secular dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt but now have much more freedom to push their agenda.
The success of Islamist political parties in post-Arab Spring elections has given them confidence, and security lapses created by the tumult of regime change has given them opportunity.
Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militant groups, which have been in control of the territory for the last six months, are imposing a harsh version of sharia law including executions, amputations and whippings. Last week, Johnnie Carson, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said that the militants are responsible for acts of terrorism, kidnapping and robbery.
The growth of Islamism in North Africa poses a threat to the security of the entire region and specifically to the vulnerable Christian minority there.
Christians were driven out of northern Mali during the Islamist takeover there, while the Christian community in Egypt, which is the largest in all the North African countries, is increasingly at risk. Egypt borders the Maghreb to the east.
One recent and on-going episode in Egypt highlights how Christians there are being singled out by Islamists. At the end of September militants distributed leaflets in the northern city of Rafah warning Christians to leave within 48 hours or be killed. Gunmen subsequently opened fire on a Christian-owned shop in the city, prompting Christian families to flee.
Islamist President Mohammad Morsi of Egypt visited Rafah on Saturday (6 October) in an effort to reassure Christians that they would not be targeted again. But hours after his departure, the home of Christian resident Magdi Niruz was fired on in a drive-by shooting.
This was no isolated incident. Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said it was another episode in a series of assaults on the lives and properties of Christian citizens.
What can be done to stem the Islamist tide that is crashing over the region and threatening to drown the Christian minority?
It is encouraging that Mr Marzouki, a secularist in a power-sharing deal with the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia, has taken a stand on this pressing matter. He called for a united response from all the countries in the Arab Maghreb, saying that talks with militants were futile and legal measures were required to address the threat that they posed.
But with Islamists in key positions of power in the region, it is doubtful that there will be the political will to combat the militants.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week called the situation in Mali “a powder keg that the international community cannot afford to ignore”. This assessment must surely be applied to the entire North Africa region, and it is time for the rest of the world to heed such calls to action.