Center for Strategic Communication

A few minutes ago I asked Twitter: should the Middle East Channel cover the events in Mali?  The first wave of responses was sharply negative: "Muslim =/= Middle East. Struggling to believe that this is a real question" (@lindsayiversen); "Sure, it’s right next to Afriganistan" (@jimmysky); "Don’t think I’ve ever seen a definition of "Middle East" that includes Mali"(@drjoyner) ; and a coveted "#headdesk" from Africa expert Laura Seay (@texasinafrica).  But not everyone agreed: Andrew Exum asked whether the Sahara should be seen as a natural boundary or as a highway;  Issander el-Amrani mused that "it is an issue on the periphery of the ME that can affect it, so yes."

When I asked the question, it wasn’t because I misread my maps (see above, where Mali isn’t part of the Middle East) or because I hoped to steal an exciting new conflict from my Africanist colleagues.  Nor was it because I think that "the Middle East" should be expanded to include anyplace where jihadist movements pop up, or where Western countries intervene militarily (hence FP‘s AfPak Channel, which is different from the Middle East Channel).  It was mainly because I’ve been receiving some excellent article submissions focused on the Mali policies of Arab states — mostly, but not exclusively,  Algeria.  I’m still undecided as to whether that merits inclusion on the Channel — right now, I’m leaning towards "Algerian foreign policy, yes; French realization that they are trapped in a quagmire they didn’t think through, no."

But the Mali discussion then led to an ancillary, arguably more interesting one:  should Algeria be counted in the Middle East?  On what grounds?  Now, I think there’s a very strong case for inclusion of North Africa in our conception of the Middle East.  If nothing else, the widespread regional impact of the Tunisian revolution should have settled that question.  I believe that Algeria’s aborted democratic experiment of 1988-91, where the army’s decision to step in to prevent Islamists from winning Parliamentary elections helped spark an exceptionally gruesome five year civil war, remains one of the least appreciated and most central events in the modern evolution of Islamist politics.  (See my POMEPS Conversation with Oxford University North Africa expert Michael Willis for more discussion of this). And of course, Morocco was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council…. just kidding. 

But just for fun, could there be a case for excluding North Africa from "the Middle East"?  It wouldn’t be unprecedented. I recall some serious intellectual debates in the 1980s about Maghrebi exceptionalism.  North Africa had an entirely different experience of colonialism than did the states of the Levant or the Gulf (people tend to forget that Algeria was actually part of France for more than 100 years).  The EU’s "Euro-Mediterranian" project and Barcelona process launched in 1995 offered an alternative institutional framework for these states which some thought might spark the evolution of a distinct Mediterranean identity (that didn’t really pan out though).  Its economies, particularly its vast labor migration and remittance economies, connecting North African states to Europe far more than with the rest of the Arab world. 

What about realist definitions based on security complexes?  East of Egypt, the Maghreb doesn’t really share the same security
environment as the Levant or the Gulf, with little at stake in the great
regional conflicts surrounding Israel, Iran, Iraq or Syria.  Political definitions? Tunisia may have hosted the PLO in exile, but it would be a stretch to argue that any North African country has really been central to the great political issues of the Middle East.  Sure, the Maghreb states are members of the Arab League, but so is
Djibouti (and the exclusion of non-Arab Israel, Iran or Turkey rarely
makes people define them out of the "Middle East").  And then there’s the general incomprehensibility (to non-Maghrebis) of the local dialect despite the formal "Arabic is the mother tongue" thing (not to mention the Berbers, plus the political implications of the large Francophone communities). 

The Middle East Channel is going to keep covering all the countries of
North Africa, no worries.  To me, the similar political institutions and dynamics of authoritarianism and opposition, the common language and membership in regional organizations, and the manifest belief on all
sides that it is part of the Middle East are enough.   But it’s an interesting thought experiment — one which applies not only to Algeria or Mali but to other potential candidates:  South Sudan, after the secession?  Afghanistan?  Cyprus?   How does this fit with those intense political battles to refuse the "normalization" of Israel, and by implication its full membership within the "Middle East"?  Or with Gulf Arab campaigns to define Iran as Shi’a rather than as an authentic part of a "Muslim" (i.e. Sunni) Middle East? 

So no, Mali isn’t part of the Middle East.  But thinking about it can be fun for the whole family!  And the discussion did produce one broad consensus which I whole-heartedly endorse:  FP should find somebody to run an Africa Channel.