Populist parties in Europe: From the margins to the mainstream


In a climate of lacklustre economic growth, unemployment and growing Islamophobia, populist and radical parties have been surging in popularity in many European nations, gaining legislative seats, enjoying the legitimacy endowed by ministerial offices, and striding the corridors of government power. Meanwhile, centre-left social democrats and centre-right traditional parties who have dominated national politics for many years are struggling to win elections. This trend has left Europe’s traditional parties and their more centrist leaders scrambling to survive — and in some cases tacking toward people they once considered extremists in order to do so.

© Lander Daniëls
© Lander Daniëls

1. Introduction

As the European leaders came together in Bratislava mid-September 2016 at an informal summit intended to map a new path for the EU in the wake of Brexit, the mood was sombre. At issue was the future of the EU’s so-called four freedoms – the free movement of goods, labour, services and capital. Meeting in the Slovak capital with the British conspicuously absent, the 27 other EU members unveiled a six-month “road map” of measures designed to restore public confidence in Europe’s ailing common project. But with anti-establishment sentiment rising, politicians do not regard trade as a vote winner. Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, shattered the facade of unity as soon as the meeting ended, underscoring how divided the bloc remains after years of economic crisis, a record influx of migrants and a series of deadly terrorist attacks.

Against this background, it is not a surprise that after decades at the margins of political life, European populist and radical parties are making a political comeback across the continent. These parties have steadily filled an electoral vacuum left open by social democratic and centre-right parties, who ignored voters’ growing anger over immigration – some of it legitimate, some of it bigoted – or simply waited too long to address it.[1]

As a result, parties such as France’s Front National and Germany’s anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland have established a clear presence in a diverse array of established democracies and entered coalition governments.

This development has occurred in both predominately Catholic and Protestant societies, in Nordic and Mediterranean Europe, as well as in liberal Norway and conservative Switzerland, in Western Europe and in Anglo-American democracies.[2]

In other countries – particularly the nations of southern Europe, which, with memories of fascism and dictatorship still very much alive, have proved reluctant to flirt with right-wing extremism – it is the far left that is advancing. While populists on the far right rail against migrants, their cousins on the far left join them in blaming globalisation for economic ills.

2. Populism

The agrarian Populist (or People’s) Party in the 1890s in the United States is often mentioned as the origin of what we call populism today. The party challenged the established two party system with its critique of the moneyed interests and ended up merging with, and somewhat transforming, the Democratic Party.[3]

In modern Europe, populist movements stoke public anxieties and resurgent nationalism by lashing out against the surge in refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, while portraying Brussels, the capital of Europe, as a bastion of the political establishment out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. These parties are poised to transform the European political landscape – either by winning elections or simply by pulling a besieged political centre so far in its direction that its ideas become the new normal.

According to Jagers and Walgrave populism always refers to the people and justifies its actions by appealing to and identifying with the people.
It is rooted in anti-elite feelings; and it considers the people as a monolithic group without internal differences except for some very specific categories who are subject to an exclusion strategy. Together, these three elements define populism”.[4]

Positions of mainstream and radical populist parties can vary substantially, especially on the nationalist side: from anti-establishment to neo-fascist, nationalist to anti-austerity, authoritarian to populist, libertarian to Catholic ultra-conservative. They are so varied that they cannot feasibly be grouped under the same label.

As Krastev has noted, “(t)he result is a new type of politics where the main structural conflict is not between the Left and the Right or between reformers and conservatives. The real clash is between elites that are becoming more suspicious of democracy and the angry publics that are becoming more hostile to liberalism.”[5]

Populism is seen as both a reaction to, and a product of, the growing distance between citizens and their institutions of governance, whether that is at state or European level. The frustration and disillusionment of ever-growing groups of Europeans is mostly caused by the behaviour of the European political elites, who, when their lofty ideals are confronted with concrete problems, quickly abandon their moral high ground and hide behind the alleged preferences of the populations.[6]

As a result, the EU’s compromise machine is increasingly perceived as an institutionalised grand coalition between the centre-left and the centre-right that routinely ignores opposing voices.

In a bid to shore up European support amid populist gains, Mario Draghi, Donald Tusk and Christine Lagarde, three leading EU voices of economic liberalism, issued late September 2016 separate pleas to address the plight of those “left behind” by globalisation or risk a political backslash that could roll back competition and open markets. These interventions underline the degree of worry among EU policymakers about protectionism, populism and anti-establishment currents coursing through democratic politics.[7]

Populist parties share a distrust of those they perceive as elite policy-makers and a desire to reclaim national sovereignty from international institutions.

The rise of populism could have far-reaching consequences for trade and economic policy-making and the existing trade and broader economic architectures, as illustrated by the on-off talks over the European Union’s comprehensive economic and trade agreement (Ceta) with Canada. Some critics argue that the dominant Socialists in the Wallonian government used the issue to reinforce their position against hard-left rivals.

At member state level, populists blame the politicians of traditional parties of catering to unknown interests at the expense of their own people, and of inefficacy in a rapidly changing world.

Populists play on fear and demagoguery instead of engaging in constructive dialogue to help improve public life. They try to claim the mantle of democratic participation, while posing a most pressing and difficult challenge to democratic institutions.[8]

Added to these factors are rising fears of insecurity and less tangible threats from non-state actors, such as terrorist attacks, organised crime and uncontrolled immigration. Furthermore, the economic crisis, the constraints of Eurozone membership and economic fears about the cost of globalisation have opened up space for anti-establishment parties, mainly on the conservative nationalist right, to eat deeply into social democracy’s core electorate.


In Western Europe, there are several new right-wing populist actors who have begun to change the political landscapes and who, while in opposition and with limited electoral support, have influenced sitting governments’ policies.


The Austrian presidential election opened a new chapter in the story of European populism. There, Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green party candidate who ran as an independent, prevented Austria from becoming the first EU country to elect a far right head of state by narrowly defeating Norbert Hofer, the leader of Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), one of Europe’s longest-established nationalist movements.[9] The centre-right and centre-left parties barely polled 10% each.

A rerun of the presidential election was postponed after the adhesive seals on postal votes were found to have come unstuck. The rerun, which was ordered after complaints of anomalies in the counting of postal votes from the FPÖ, had been due to take place on 2 October. It will now be held on 4 December.[10]


In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National is experiencing steadily rising popularity as the country prepares for national elections next year. Ms Le Pen is expected to pull strongly in 2017, pushing socialist incumbent François Hollande out of the race. The party regularly issues statements lambasting the Élysée for its “huge disinterest” in France’s “industrial jewels”.

© Lander Daniëls
© Lander Daniëls

The FN has built much of its success over the past two years on an effort to win over working class voters. Nationwide, about 45% of blue-collar workers and 38% of unemployed people or youngsters looking for their first job say they are planning to vote for Ms Le Pen. These voters are disillusioned by the traditional left but attracted by others offering a break with the status quo.[11]

In an effort to create more jobs, Mr Hollande shifted towards the political centre over the past years by embracing supply side reform. But this has incurred the anger of the left.

The horrific Bastille Day attack on Nice, in which a Tunisian delivery driver killed 84 people when he drove a heavy lorry at full-speed into a crowd watching fireworks, will be a defining concern in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The Front National, which has accused the political class of failing to protect France, has already seen an increase in membership applications since the attack. Its key issues of security, immigration and national identity will dominate the debate.


In Germany, populist forces shook Europe’s pillar of stability, as an unprecedented defeat for Ms Merkel’s conservatives signalled more political tumult across Europe. For the first time in post-war history, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) finished behind a populist challenger to their political right in a regional election.

In the immediate aftermath, she urged politicians across the house to rein in the hostile tone of the debate over refugees and said traditional parties have a joint responsibility to tackle the rise of the right. Later that month, Ms Merkel was forced to change tack over her open-door approach to refugees after the CDU suffered another defeat in the Berlin regional elections.[12]

Although Ms Merkel successfully weathered crisis after crisis and contained conflicts by pragmatic compromise rather than dramatic intervention, the recent German election shows that that even in a state like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, largely insulated from the refugee crisis, many European voters do not at present have sufficient confidence in the government’s ability to resolve the current issues.

Feeding off widespread discontent over immigration, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was founded in 2013 at the height of Greek debt crisis. Frauke Petry and co-founder Bernd Lucke, an academic, transformed it from a small Eurosceptic party into the country’s most powerful anti-immigrant force. Its performance in the regional elections mid-March 2016 was the best by any populist right-wing movement since 1945. That said, the AfD attracted only 24 per cent of the vote, which is far less than France’s Front National gets in its strongholds.


In Italy, recession, austerity and the migration crisis have strained Rome’s ties with Brussels, triggering criticism from the government of Matteo Renzi, the centre-left prime minister, and forcing him to adopt a much more confrontational tone in his dealings with Brussels.

Like many other Mediterranean countries, Italy is on the frontline of the migration crisis and Mr Renzi has faced political heat from the right-wing opposition, such as the Northern League party, which says he is not being aggressive enough in attempts to stop the flow of migration or deport undocumented migrants. Led by Matteo Salvini, the party is now challenging Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party for dominance of Italy’s right.

While Italy’s youth unemployment dropped under Mr Renzi’s government, many Italian youngsters channel their discontent by supporting the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which holds softer positions on immigration and the euro. The party adopts hard-line Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant positions designed to appeal to a right-wing audience across Italy. In the summer of 2016, the party scored major victories by winning mayoral elections in Turin and, more important, in the capital, Rome.

For the government of Mr Renzi, the landslide victory of M5S could not come at a worse time. Italy has been grappling with its troubled banks, whose problems have dominated the news all summer and have provoked worries of a major bank failure.

Another dominant issue in Italian politics will be the high-stakes referendum on constitutional reform set for 4 December, which could determine the fate of Mr Renzi.

The purpose of the referendum is to make the country more stable and easier to govern. The measures proposed by Mr Renzi would slash the power of the Senate, reduce the number of lawmakers and give the central government greater control over infrastructure projects than regional bodies.

Much like Brexit in the UK, this referendum is increasingly being seen as a way for Italians to air their general discontent with the establishment, in large part because Mr Renzi swore that he would leave politics if the referendum did not go his way. If he loses his gamble, the results of the referendum could have vast consequences for Italy and the whole of Europe. A defeat could potentially open the door to a new national election that could see the M5S push the ruling party out of power.[13]

The fear is that a No vote could plunge Italy back into a period of instability and embolden the country’s growing Eurosceptic parties. In such a scenario, it is not out of the question that Italy could end up exiting the EU or the euro.[14]

Central and Eastern Europe

In this part of Europe, people by and large do not feel represented by political parties. First of all, substantial parts of the leadership of post-communist political parties have participated in institutionalised corruption. Secondly, all of the parties have advocated the neoliberal capitalism most people have come to see as a political and economic system that makes their lives worse.[15]

In these post-communist EU member states a vulgar version of populism emerged, represented by new political leaders such as the Czech president Miloš Zeman, Hungary’s Victor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. In Slovakia, a neo-Nazi party made an electoral breakthrough by gaining 14 seats in the 150-strong parliament. These right-wing leaders are hostile to immigrants, while critics say the governments of these countries are also rewriting national laws to undermine democratic checks and balances.[16]

Early October 2016, almost all Hungarians who voted in the referendum rejected EU quotas for the resettlement of refugees. Mr Orbán’s aim in the referendum was to demonstrate that his brand of nationalism commands the enthusiastic support of Hungarian society. However, only forty per cent of those eligible voted, well below the fifty per cent threshold required to make the result legally valid, frustrating Mr Orbán’s hopes of a clear victory with which to challenge Brussels.

Academic criticism

High profile intellectuals, like Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, have already sounded the alarm on Europe’s post-democratic mutation, highlighting the need for European politics to return to the rough grounds of ‘the people’. While other authors claim to believe that the success and threat of radical right parties is exaggerated in the mass media, there is no doubt that far right parties have become a (and perhaps the) main political actor in some European countries.

“The success of populist parties in Europe is very problematic”, says Stefaan Rummens, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the KU LEUVEN. “These political groups indicate a deeper problem within our democracy. Both the symptom itself as the root causes are very serious and both (the symptom and the cause) must be addressed”

“I’m convinced that the root causes of populism is the rapid rise of the (neoliberal) technocracy which has gradually shrunk the power of traditional politics. As a result, traditional politicians at the national level lack the necessary tools for political decision-making. Basically, today’s socio-economic policies are determined on the European level rather than at the national level. European policymaking has become the preserve of technocrats and, also, it does not offer the possibility of a democratic opposition that could voice a different European policy. As such, public discontent against traditional political parties has risen, and at the same time there is a growing consensus for anti-establishment protest movements with populist undertone.”

Rummens also argues that populism as a ‘symptom’ should be dealt with by imposing a ‘cordon sanitaire’ policy. “These groups often defend extremist (and undemocratic) ideas and should therefore be excluded from power. Meanwhile, the populist voter itself must indeed be taken seriously and must be addressed respectively. Our response should not be based on the (often) extremist proposals of the parties, but rather by reforming our democratic system so that once again it can truly meet the demands and the needs of the voter. This is, however, not an easy task. First of all, the extent of technocracy has to be reduced. Also, our elected politicians must regain some power over the socio-economic policy decision-making. As mentioned in my book, this will only be possible if we democratise the European Union itself. Europe is still primarily an economic project that, by liberalising the market, has severely put pressure on a number of social benefits. A strong, democratic Europe should be able to give its citizens the feeling that they can rely on the EU for social and economic protection.”

“As long as the root causes of populism (the ‘symptom’) have not been removed, its success will only continue to increase. The problem and the danger of populist parties have been underestimated for many years”.[17]

Also Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics at Princeton University, argues that the tragedy of European politics today is a polarisation between technocracy and populism.“Populists, when in power, will always pretend that they are merely implementing what the people have told them to do, rendering any opposition by definition. Technocrats claim that they merely bow to necessities; hence any opposition is plainly irrational. Neither really takes responsibility for political decisions.”[18]

In short, populism and technocracy are two sides of the current crisis of European democracy. The separation between the forum of political decision‐making (reduced to mere administration) and the place of mobilisation causes populist and ideological turbulence.

Social scientists Giorgos Katsambeki and Yannis Stavrakakis argue that, ultimately, it would be more beneficial to critically engage with both populism and the current post-democratic and increasingly anti-democratic malaise in an effort to re-activate the pluralist and egalitarian imaginaries lying at the heart of political modernity.


Two core issues lie at the root of today’s rising populism in Europe: the challenge of migration and the lingering euro crisis. Identifying the problem, however, is not the same as overcoming it. And here, Europe faces a dilemma. The continent’s problems can only be addressed through increased cooperation, but European electorates refuse to authorise any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.

Too many commentators have underestimated the depth of discontent, as happened in Britain before the EU referendum. The task ahead, in terms of research (and, why not, political) strategies, would be to register the development in Europe of inclusionary populisms, reclaiming ‘the people’ from extreme right-wing associations and re-activating its potential not as a threat but as a corrective to the post-democratic mutations of the democratic legacy of political modernity.

[1] Sasha Polakow-Suransky (01.11.2016). “The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right”, (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/the-ruthlessly-effective-rebranding-of-europes-new-far-right).

[2] Pippa Norris (2006). “Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market”, Massachusetts: Harvard University.

[3] Thomas Greven (05.2016). “The Rise of Right-wing Populism in Europe and the United States: A Comparative Perspective”, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[4] Jan Jagers and Stefaan Walgrave (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium. European Journal of Political Research, 46 (3), pp. 319-346.

[5] Krastev, I. (2007). “The populist movement”

[6] Mudde, C. (2016). “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe”. Routledge.

[7] Claire Jones and Alex Barker (14.09.2016). “Draghi makes appeal for those ‘left behind’”. Financial Times, p. 2.

[8]Hedwig Giusto, David Kitching and Stefano Rizzo (2013). The Changing Faces of Populism. Systemic Challengers in Europe and the U.S. Lexington Books.

[9] Ralph Atkins (23.04.2016). “Austria’s main parties face electoral rout”, Financial Times, p. 4.

[10] Kate Connolly (12.09.2016). “Austrian presidential election postponed due to faulty glue”, (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/12/austria-presidential-election-rerun-to-be-postponed-faulty-glue-ballot-papers).

[11] Gérard Courtois and Jean-Baptiste de Montvalon (26.09.2016). “Sarkozy rattrape Juppé, Macron bouscule le paysage politique avant la présidentielle”, (Le Monde: http://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/article/2016/09/26/sarkozy-rattrape-juppe-macron-bouscule-le-paysage-politique_5003430_4854003.html#kAoq9JQdvQLcgcfi.99).

[12] Philip Oltermann (05.09.2016). “Angela Merkel’s crown slips after party’s local election defeat” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/05/angela-merkel-germany-mecklenberg-vorpommern-election-analysis).

[13] Stephanie Kirchgaessner (6.08.2016). “Will Italy be Europe’s next casualty as Renzi risks all on referendum?” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/06/matteo-renzi-italy-referendum-banks-brexit).

[14] James Politi (17.03.2016). “How Italy fell out of love with the EU”, Financial Times, p. 7.

[15] Jakub Patočka (15.09.2016). “Miloš Zeman makes Nigel Farage look like a nice guy. It’s even worse than that” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/15/milos-zeman-czech-republic-president-populists-post-communist).

[16] Jim Yardley (24.06.2016). “Populist Anger Upends Politics on Both Sides of the Atlantic” (New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/25/world/europe/brexit-eu-politics.html).

[17] Stefan Rummens, (personal communication, 12.09.2016).

[18] Jan-Werner Müller (05.10.2016). “Genuine political choice provides the best antidote to populism”. Financial Times: p. 15.


With Syria in turmoil, little Lebanon remains in limbo

Five years into the Syrian crisis and with an all-out war on its doorstep, Lebanon is experiencing ever-worsening repercussions of its neighbour’s collapse. Yet the small country remains resilient, despite the influx of a million Syrian refugees, the regional turmoil, current tensions over a vacant presidency, and the fact that its institutions are barely functioning. It is therefore a small miracle that Lebanon’s relative peace in a turbulent Middle East has so far been maintained amid its near-total dysfunction, or that large-scale protests did not erupt sooner to lament the country’s many farces and absurdities. This article assesses how Lebanon has been able to contain and deter some of the deep-rooted problems that the Syrian war has made worse.

Lebanon’s existence is based on a sensitive balance of ethno-sectarian ambitions, which have clashed on several occasions, most famously during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (1975-1990). Decades of conflicts and political paralysis have created a ripe environment for violence to spread. Existing security apparatuses – namely the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – were stretched to the limit prior to the conflict and are still outmatched against the Hezbollah movement. [1]

Sides and factions changed numerous times; intra-sectarian violence was as common as inter-sectarian violence, as sectarian leaders attempted to consolidate power over their communities. Sectarian groups also changed allegiances due to foreign interventions, by the Syrians, Israelis and the US at points.

The 1989 Taef Agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, addressed some of these deep-seated sectarian challenges and brought an end to the fighting. Violence abated after 1990, but never disappeared and for years has been on a steady increase. Syria, whose troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 to control Palestinian forces and remained there until their withdrawal in 2005, remained in the country and de facto controlled Beirut in the post-war period. During this time, the conflict between Lebanon and Israel continued until the withdrawal of the latter in 2000, which was largely credited to the resistance military activities of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This transformed Hezbollah into the primary political party for Lebanon’s Shia community.

Meanwhile, the businessman who had helped broker the Taef Agreement, Rafik Hariri, rose to become Lebanon’s Prime Minister and led a process of reconstruction in the country as well as creating the first major Sunni political party in Lebanon, the Future Movement. Hariri’s vision for Lebanon as a country that would be sovereign and open to economic engagement with foreign countries on an equal basis led to tension with the Syrian regime, which regarded Hariri’s strategy as a threat to its interests in Lebanon.

The Cedar Revolution

On February 14, 2005 a bomb attack on a convoy carrying the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, killed him, his former economy minister, and twenty others. Popular outrage at the murders – in effect a regicide against the man synonymous with the reconstruction of post-war Beirut – unleashed the “Cedar Revolution”, forcing the involuntary withdrawal of Syrian troops after 29 years of occupation.[2]


Two weeks later, on February 28, 2005 the pro-Syrian Lebanese government resigned and called for new elections. After Syria announced an end to its military presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for a pro-Syrian rally to be held in Beirut on March 8. Six days later, on March 14, the anti-Syrian opposition organised a large rally, which marked a month after Hariri’s assassination. From this point, a battle for control of the Lebanese state began between the Sunni-dominated March 14 alliance and the Shia-dominated March 8 alliance and their regional and international allies.

March 8 v March 14

The March 14 alliance is largely made up from centrist Sunni Muslims with a significant number of Christians, and until August 2009, the Druze under Jumblatt. While some members had previously cooperated with Syria, by 2005 all members came to oppose Syrian influence in Lebanon and blamed Syria and its allies in Lebanon for Hariri’s assassination. Up until the Arab uprisings that began in 2010 it was closely allied with so-called ‘moderate’ Arab states and most of the Gulf States, and to Western countries, particularly France and the US.

Meanwhile, the March 8 coalition represented forces that had benefited from the Syrian occupation and continued to align with Syrian interests. This bloc was led by Hezbollah (literally “The Party of God”), a Shia organisation composed of a military branch, sociocultural institutions, and a political party.

Hezbollah Troops

Since its foundation, the movement has continued to play a consequential role in Lebanese politics. The group brought down the government of Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, in 2011. And though Hezbollah helped usher in a replacement in Prime Minister Najib Mikati, it forced his departure from office and a collapse of the government in March 2013 in a dispute over the Lebanese security forces.

Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah

At this time of heightened rivalry and political deadlock, Hezbollah entered a war with Israel after kidnapping two IDF soldiers on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the summer of 2006. During the two-month war, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stated that he was going to have an open war with Israel, “whether the Lebanese wanted or not.” Nonetheless, Hezbollah managed to capitalise on the war to win hearts and minds not just all over Lebanon but also across the Arab world, as many came to regard it as the only Arab force able to stand up to Israeli aggression. After much negotiation a peace agreement came with UNSC Resolution 1701, drafted by the US, France and Israel on August 14, 2006. In the wake of the 2006 war Lebanon’s Hezbollah’s increased security role remained highly contested but it enabled Lebanon to effectively project power and influence outside its borders and against external threats.

The withdrawal of the Syrian troops and the 2005 elections disrupted the Syrian hegemony and created a new context for security politics in Lebanon. The victorious March 14 forces were able to lead a new government, but parliament was closely divided and the cabinet included representation from the March 8 opposition, including the Hezbollah movement.

Spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon

Although President Bashar al-Assad of Syria withdrew his military forces from Lebanon in 2005, Syria continued to heavily influence internal events within Lebanon. Assad was confident that the Arab uprising that began in Lebanon in March 2005 would not affect Syria. However, on March 15, 2011, just as pro-US regimes across the region were facing waves of demonstrations, a revolution erupted in Syria, this contrary to Assad’s prediction.

The peaceful phase of the revolution was brief, and soon the military crackdown by the Assad regime led to armed resistance by the opposition with the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Increasingly, non-Syrian militias were to join the fight, depicting the Assad regime in Damascus as heretical and ungodly. The Syrian uprising threatened to topple the Assad regime, which, for Hezbollah, would have carried the risk of losing this important lifeline. Iran therefore summoned Hezbollah to help Assad in an attempt at crushing the Syrian opposition.

In the first months of the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah’s leadership refrained from taking a clear and decisive stance, cautiously weighing its options. After summer 2011, however, following the uprising’s increasing militarisation and some individual calls by Syria’s fragmented opposition for international protection and military intervention, Hezbollah began to prop up the regime and gradually increased its support, with a view not only to keep it alive but also to provide it with an edge.[3]

Not only has Hezbollah provided the Syrian regime momentum, it also averted its military defeat; dislodged rebels from areas adjacent to the borders; stopped further outrages against Shia Muslims; and prevented a detrimental recalibration of the regional balance of power. In the process the group has evolved at the military and political level, ultimately impacting upon its strategic outlook, capabilities and role—both in Syria as well as back home in Lebanon.

By May 2013, Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged that Hezbollah was dispatching fighters to Syria, a clear violation of the Baabda Declaration, a document outlining Lebanon’s policy of ‘disassociation’ from the conflict.


By then, Hezbollah had gained unrivalled power within Lebanon and seemed to be securing a stable political order and security position. But these soon began to unravel as the result of Hezbollah’s expanding engagement in the civil war in Syria and of growing sense of insecurity within the Lebanese Sunni community.

Hezbollah’s involvement has also heightened its rivalries and created new enemies within Syria. Because of its military role supporting Assad, it is not surprising to note that Hezbollah is seen as a key enemy by anti-Assad opposition forces. In particular, Hezbollah is especially despised and targeted by groups operating within the “Salafi-jihadist” camp. This is certainly true when it comes to groups like al Qaeda-linked Jahbat al-Nusra (JN) or Islamic State (IS): both organisations have engaged in a number of bloody clashes against Hezbollah and in both cases their military rivalry is heightened by their belief that the group and the Shia community in general is “heretical” in its interpretation of Islam.

Similarly, within Lebanon, Hezbollah’s assistance of the Syrian regime has not only fuelled political and sectarian tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities, but it has also resulted in direct violence against Nasrallah’s group and the Shia community in general. Hezbollah responded by establishing its own checkpoints and visible security patrols around Shia populations and institutions. However, these checkpoints caused tensions with non-Shia communities and Hezbollah faced criticism for claiming public authority over security in areas far from the Israeli-Lebanese border.[4]

2014 Security Plan

In response, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) launched in April 2014 a new security plan to restore the rule of law by setting up their own checkpoints and increasing raids along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Soon elements of the Lebanese security apparatus, spanning the LAF, Hezbollah and others, found themselves cooperating, despite their political divisions and historic background.[5]

Yet, despite this arrangement, the underlying problems caused by the Syrian conflict have not been resolved. A number of direct attacks against Hezbollah occurred in the past few years, including rocket attacks against the “al-Dahiye” – Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut; suicide bombings against Shia, Hezbollah and Iranian targets and operations targeting the LAF. Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades bombed the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November 2013 and, more recently, IS itself took responsibility for a tragic suicide bomb attack in a densely populated street of Bourj al-Barajneh – a predominantly Shia neighbourhood in Hezbollah’s southern suburb stronghold in Beirut in November 2015.[6]

The Bourj al-Barajneh bombings, killing over 40 people and wounding 200 others have highlighted the security plan’s intrinsic limitations. Its major shortcoming consists in putting the onus solely on security measures, while ignoring root causes: Sunni and Shia radicalisation, fuelled by political parties and regional sponsors; deplorable living conditions for Syrian refugees; the deteriorating socio-economic situation of Lebanese themselves; and eroding state institutions and services.

Still, the margin of action of these militant groups remains limited. They may inflict damage on Lebanon and its people, but not in a systematic, strategically meaningful way. For instance, in August 2015, IS and JN, along with smaller armed groups, attempted to take over a town in north-eastern Lebanon, but their efforts were thwarted by the Lebanese Armed Forces. Moreover, hardly a week goes by without reports of security forces announcing the arrest of a jihadi activist or the dismantling of explosive devices.

The Resistance Axis

The reasons behind Hezbollah’s ‘all-in’ approach with respect to the Syrian civil war are related to the historical strategic alliance between the Lebanese-Shia organisation and the Syrian regime; to the geo-strategic importance of preserving the so-called ‘Axis of Refusal/resistance’ as well as to the strength of the personal relationship between Nasrallah and the Assad regime. The term resistance axis (jabhat al muqawama) designates the alliance among the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria and the strongest Arab non-state actors, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

As Iran and Saudi Arabia jostle for power in the Middle East, Beirut has managed to maintain an uncomfortable balance between the two. However, the last few months the Saudis have grown understandably impatient with the fact that Lebanon, and especially its armed forces, remains under the hegemony of Hezbollah. For the first time, Riyadh is playing hardball in their dealings with Lebanon, deciding on February 19, 2016 to cancel about $4 billion worth of aid to the Lebanese army and internal forces. The aid had been offered in a bid to bolster the army and make it more able to hold its own and operate independently from Hezbollah.

Moreover, Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. These two developments, and other similar moves looming on the horizon, are likely to exert serious pressure on Lebanon’s economic and political stability. It may also make Lebanon less secure. Signalling its concern, the UN has called on other countries to make up the $4 billion.[7]

Political stalemate

The Syrian crisis also tore along political divides, with March 14 supporting the uprisings and their March 8 adversaries the Assad regime. Both sides view the Syrian conflict as potentially leading to a transformation in the domestic balance of power in Lebanon.

After Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his government’s resignation in March 2013, policymaking in Beirut halted and the economy nosedived as pro- and anti-Assad factions struggled to agree on a new cabinet. The appointment of a new interim cabinet in March 2014 was in part the result of foreign patrons putting pressure on Lebanese actors—pressure that was spurred by developments on the ground in Syria.

Also, Lebanon has been without an executive head of state – a position traditionally reserved for Maronite Christians – since President Michel Suleiman’s mandate ended in May 2014. Parliament has convened since then more than 35 times without electing a new president due to the lack of a two-thirds quorum.[8]

In the past few months, however, key Lebanese political players have switched partners, undermining the two main blocs. Late 2015, in an apparent breakthrough, Future Current (FC) leader Saad Hariri struck a counterintuitive deal with Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian politician and close friend of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.[9] This would have made Frangieh president and Hariri, reportedly, prime minister.

This gambit was soon countered by another: earlier this year, Samir Geagea, the head of the Christian political party Lebanese Forces, who had been a candidate for the post, endorsed the candidacy of his greatest rival, Michel Aoun, the 80-year-old leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. The surprise announcement marked a rare show of unity in a Christian community riven by divisions for decades.[10]

Both leaders continue to have deeply divergent political postures, both internally and concerning the region. Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah has grown stronger over the years; he has supported Assad in the Syrian conflict and built close ties with Iran; he is also a harsh critic of the Future Current (FC) and Saudi Arabia. On the other side, Geagea remains a visceral opponent of Hezbollah, Damascus and Iran, and has forged important ties with Riyadh.

Trash collection crisis

Meanwhile, Lebanese citizens have been mired in their own filth since July 2015, when the country’s main landfill closed its gates, without providing an alternative. The protest campaign “You Stink”, led by youth and civil society activists who, being opposed to politicians, claim to be ‘non-political’, pointed the finger at the politicians, who failed to find new disposal options despite nearly a year’s warning.[11]


These activists saw the piles of rubbish as symptomatic of the failure not only of the political class but also of the Lebanese political system. The peaceful protests turned violent by late September and continued throughout the following months amid enduring discontent over the internal political stalemate.

Removal of garbage from the Beirut suburbs began on March 19, 2016 after the goverment approved an emergency plan to temporarily reopen the Naameh landfill.


Lebanon has one of the weakest governments in the entire Middle East, yet it has managed to subvert popular demands for reform more effectively than virtually all of the surrounding Arab states. Nonetheless, a growing number of Lebanese are fed up with the rules of the game in their country: sectarian, patron-based politics and a culture of impunity for elite corruption have left little space for good governance.

In short, the current crisis is the product of the accelerating erosion of state structures, growing social dislocation and displacement, but also communal consolidation and de facto devolution of power to militias. These trends are profoundly reshaping the fragmented Lebanese society, economy and polities, the particular dynamics of which largely are eclipsed by political actors’ single-minded focus on the terrorist threat, the reflexive responses which are exacerbating, not alleviating, the underlying causes.

Although the Assad regime in Damascus is consolidating military gains on the ground, an outright regime victory remains unlikely. However, should the regime emerge victorious, the prospect of widespread renewed conflict in Lebanon could diminish, particularly if Hezbollah withdraws from Syria, removing a major impetus of sectarian violence in Lebanon.

From delayed parliamentary and presidential elections to protests about uncollected garbage, Lebanon remains in limbo. Fortunately for the Lebanese, the country has lost its status as the prime locus of proxy and sectarian wars in the region. In the meantime, Lebanon has no choice but to provide shelter for over one million Syrian refugees.


[1] YOUNG, W., STEBBINS, D., FREDERICK, B.A. & AL-SHAHERY, O. (2014). “Spillover from the Conflict in Syria: An Assessment of the Factors that Aid and Impede the Spread of Violence”. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, p. 29.

[2] GARDNER, D. “Ten years on, Hariri’s murder has reshaped Lebanon’s landscape”, Financial Times, February 16th, 2015, p. 4.

[3] MOHNS, E. & BANK, A. “Syrian Revolt Fallout: End of the Resistance Axis?”, Middle East Policy Council, Fall 2012, Vol. 19, No. 3.

[4] International Crisis Group. “Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria”. Retrieved March 25th, 2016 from International Crisis Group: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/syria-lebanon/lebanon/153-lebanon-s-hizbollah-turns-eastward-to-syria.aspx.

[5] “Lebanese Army launches Bekaa Valley security plan”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from The Daily Star Lebanon: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Apr-11/252980-lebanese-army-launches-bekaa-valley-security-plan.ashx#axzz33V7khACX & KHATIB, L. “Regional Spillover: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict”, Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Carnegie Middle East Center: http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=55829.

[6] BERTI, B. “The Syrian Civil War and its Consequences for Hezbollah”, Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from ISN ETH Zurich: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=195591.

[7] “When elephants battle”, Retrieved April 1st, 2016 from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21693898-little-guy-gets-hurt-saudi-arabia-and-iran-squabble-over-lebanon.

[8] SAAB, B.Y. “Back to Lebanon’s Future: The Political Revival of the Country’s Christians”, Retrieved April 1st, 2016 from Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/lebanon/2016-01-26/back-lebanons-future.

[9] PERRY, T. & BASSAM, L. “In unexpected twist, Assad ally may be Lebanon’s next president”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-lebanon-presidency-ins-idUSKBN0TJ26620151130.

[10] PERRY, T. “Geagea reshapes Lebanese politics, backs rival Aoun”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-lebanon-idUSKCN0UW24V.

[11] SOLOMON, E. “Lebanon rubbish crisis: a pungent symbol of political inaction”. Retrieved March 22nd, 2016 from Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/3aa1fc0c-3752-11e5-bdbb-35e55cbae175.html#axzz41lN4eDax.

At least 30 killed in Brussels terror attacks

A series of explosions ripped through the check-in area at Brussels Airport, killing at least eleven people shortly before rush hour on Tuesday morning. A third device at the airport failed to detonate and was later dismantled by the police. Then a little more than an hour after the initial attacks, another explosion struck Maalbeek metro station near the EU headquarters, leaving about twenty people dead and many more wounded. The bomb was apparently detonated in the middle carriage, which was running along the platform at the time. The driver immediately halted the train and evacuated the first and last carriages.

The apparently coordinated explosions occurred a day after Jan Jambon, interior minister, warned jihadis could be looking to counter-attack after Salah Abdeslam’s arrest in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, having apparently managed to hide out for more than four months in the Belgian capital. Mr Abdeslam is the prime surviving suspect in November’s attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, Stade de France and a string of cafes and restaurants in Paris.

Passengers and airport staff are evacuated from the terminal building after Tuesday morning’s explosions. Photograph: Laurent Dubrule/EPA

Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks, stating that “caliphate soldiers, strapped with suicide vests and carrying explosive devices and machine guns” struck Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station. IS also warned of “black days” for those fighting it in Syria and Iraq.

Immediately after the attacks, police conducted a series of house raids in and around Brussels. They found a bomb containing nails, chemical products and an IS flag in Schaarbeek, the Belgian prosecutor said. Earlier on Tuesday, police were reported to have found an unexploded suicide vest at Brussels airport as well as a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The following day, two of the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks were named as brothers Khalid and Brahim el-Bakraoui, Belgian nationals. The Bakraoui brothers, who died in the attacks, had been sought by the police since a 15 March raid in Brussels.

Both men had criminal records for armed robbery but investigators had not linked them to Islamist militants until Abdeslam’s arrest, when police began a race against time to track down his suspected accomplices.

The federal prosecutor said Brahim was part of the attack at Zaventem airport that killed at least 11 people. Khalid struck at Maalbeek metro, where 20 people died.

Two other attackers at the airport have not yet been identified. One of them died, another is on the run.

Brahim el-Bakraoui has been identified as the middle of three men in a CCTV image of the suspects of the airport attack. Unconfirmed reports in Belgian and French media suggest the man on the left is the wanted jihadist Najim Laachraoui.

635942484480561804-AFP-550281864-withborder© AFP/Getty Images

The attacks put the Belgian capital in a state of virtual lockdown. All flights were cancelled for the day. All metro, tram and bus travel was shut down. A further 225 soldiers were sent into the city and the Belgian Crisis Centre, clearly wary of a further incident, appealed to the population: “Stay where you are”.

The many injured were treated in 25 different hospitals in Brussels and beyond. About 150 people remained in hospital, 61 in intensive care. One medic at the Vilvoorde hospital, V., said staff were faced with a range of traumatic injuries. Patients taken there suffered fractures, burns and deep cuts thought to have been caused by bolts or nails.

“We have seen deep flesh wounds,” she said. “The bombs used in the Brussels airport attack contained nails to create more victims. Some victims have nails in their bodies. Others have had to have limbs amputated. Explosive devices packed with nails increase the severity of the bombs’ ability to wound targets. The nails act as additional shrapnel, leading to greater loss of life and injury in inhabited areas than an explosive alone.”

The medic described her colleagues’ response as ‘conscientious’ and ‘courageous’. There was no panic at all, everyone was very professional.

The Belgian government quickly raised the threat status to the maximum level. “What we feared has happened,” said the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, at a press conference. “There are many dead, many injured.” Mr Michel also asked residents to “avoid all movement” as the authorities braced for the possibility of additional violence.
France ordered 1,600 extra police officers to patrol the nation’s borders, including at train stations, airports and ports. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain called an emergency meeting of ministers.
Washington announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would visit Belgium on Friday to demonstrate support. President Obama, currently in Cuba, offered American assistance to Belgium and said the United States would do “whatever is necessary” to bring the attackers to justice. Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination to succeed Obama in November’s US election, suggested suspects could be tortured to avert such attacks.
Tuesday’s attacks on a city that is home to the European Union and NATO will sent shockwaves across Europe and around the world, with authorities racing to review security at airports and on public transport.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the plaza outside the Beurs/Bourse – the Belgian stock exchange – transformed into a giant message board for people to chalk tributes to the victims of the Brussels attacks and leave notes of defiance and solidarity.


2016 US elections: Trump and Sanders win New Hampshire primary

Thomas Thielemans
Lander Daniëls (illustration)

The first two tests of the 2016 presidential race, in Iowa and New Hampshire, demonstrate how polarised and volatile American politics has become. The electorate’s choices bear out early indications that they are rejecting the “establishment” on their respective sides. In the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist senator from Vermont, is against Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State. Mrs Clinton leads Mr Sanders among African-American and Hispanic voters but Mr Sanders is starting to make inroads among new groups of supporters.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Donald J. Trump, the bombastic billionaire, dominates the Republican race. His decisive win in the New Hampshire primary has underscored the extent to which the 2016 race for the White House has made a mockery of conventional wisdom. Beyond Mr Trump, four mainstream Republicans were clustered together, each receiving less than 20 per cent of the vote. Unless one or two of the establishment politicians abandon their presidential ambitions, Mr Trump, who has solidified his frontrunner status, will continue to benefit from a fractured opposition.


Meanwhile, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg lifted his head above the parapet as he confirmed plans to enter the race as a third-party candidate.

Every four years, presidential candidates compete in a series of state contests during the winter and spring before the general election to gain their party’s nomination. Many presidential candidates begin campaigning informally in early-voting states like Iowa, the 30th most populated state, and tiny New Hampshire more than a year before their primary events.

At stake in each contest – either a primary or caucus – is a certain number of delegates, or individuals who represent their states at national party conventions. The candidate who accumulates a majority of his or her party’s delegates during the months-long process wins the nomination.

Iowa caucuses

This year, the primary calendar kicked off on the first of February, when both the Republican and Democratic parties held their Iowa caucuses. Senator Ted Cruz, the maverick Texas senator, beat property tycoon Donald Trump into second place in the Republican race. Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, narrowly won the Democratic race over Bernie Sanders.

His success exposed a difficult and possibly intractable problem for the Democrats: their frontrunner and establishment favourite is an accomplished individual but a vulnerable candidate as a large share of the electorate find her untrustworthy and hard to relate to.

New Hampshire primary

The second major test of the 2016 presidential race, the New Hampshire primary, drew a huge turnout across the Granite state. Trump ran strongest among voters who were worried about illegal immigrants, increased economic turmoil and the threat of a terrorist attack in the US.


Meanwhile, Sanders, the first Jewish American to win a presidential primary in US history, was able to draw support from a wide cross-section of voters despite being largely written off by both the media and Democratic leaders.[1]

© Veto

The American voters have delivered a rebuke to US political establishment in both Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Bart Kerremans, Associate-Professor of International Relations and American Politics at University of Leuven, Belgium.

Sanders appears to have won substantial backing from New Hampshire’s independent voters but also from the left-wing of the Democratic Party as he emerges as an alternative to Senator Elizabeth Warren.”

Young Democrats are hungry for a more left-wing, more ideologically rigorous Democratic Party, but after eight years of Barack Obama the general public is not. This is a problem, and one the Sanders campaign has not yet offered a particularly compelling or detailed response to.

Over the last few years more and more Americans have been losing faith in their government. Wages are stagnant, economic inequality is growing, student debt is growing and money in politics is at an all-time high.

Many young people in the US are worried about unemployment when they leave college,” Alex Gimbel, student of University of Florida, said. “We have seen our parents get poorer as the wealthiest people in the country get richer. Sanders represents a lot of hope, he’s held his positions for a really long time which makes him uniquely genuine among American politicians. Young Americans are worried about economic and social justice, and money in politics. Sanders has been talking about this issues not just his entire campaign but his entire career.”

The US presidential nominating process in the US is one of the most complex, lengthy, and expensive in the world. Like many good dramas, it is also episodic: the Iowa caucus; the New Hampshire primary; Super Tuesday; the conventions; the presidential debates; then, finally, the denouement of election night. For international spectators, it can seem freakish and bizarre: a long-running farce populated by demagogues and populists, which works as entertainment but is a poor advertisement for American democracy.

Modern-day campaigns in the US have become almost two-year marathons: Senator Ted Cruz, the first candidate to declare his candidacy, announced his intentions on 23 March 2015. As campaigns have become so elongated, money has become even more important.

Mr Obama and Mr Romney, as well as their respective allies, spent a record-breaking $2bn in the 2012 presidential contest. This year’s race could cost $5bn, much of that money coming from Super-Pacs (political action committees), which can raise unlimited funds.

The US presidential race will end at the national conventions in July, when party delegates officially select their nominee. However, since the parties made the process more transparent in the 1970s, presumptive nominees have often emerged much earlier, sometimes only after a few weeks of voting.[2]

New Hampshire’s failure to impose any clear resolution on this year’s nomination races means that South Carolina, Nevada and the Super Tuesday states will take on greater importance in choosing the nominee.

[1] Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin, “Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Win in New Hampshire Primary”, New York Times, 9 February 2016.

[2] “The U.S. Presidential Nominating Process”, Council on Foreign Relations.


West Africa: The War On Extremism Is Not Yet Won

WOUTER ELSEN (PHOTO) – Ouagadougou

While the world frets over the spread of violent extremism through the Middle East and the Gulf, there is a tendency to turn a blind eye to the menace of ongoing violence in more remote regions such as the Sahel or Lake Chad Basin. In Africa, the January 2016 Burkina Faso terror attack has come to symbolise the “new front” in Islamist militancy. Undoubtedly, the threat of violent extremism is rising on the continent, and not just on its Mediterranean coastline.

The influence of al Qaeda and similar movements has ebbed and flowed over the past two decades. But never has it looked as dangerous and forthcoming as today. Their impact, in terms of violence, of human dislocation, and of undermining the basic foundations of the state is severe and growing, as is their capacity to project violence from long-range, and in turn provoke dramatic response.

The Burkina Faso attack, claimed by militants of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Mourabitoune, an AQIM splinter group led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was at least the fifth time in recent weeks that armed militants had ambushed unprotected civilians in cities across three continents, hitting sites in Istanbul, Jakarta, Egypt, and Iraq with deadly assaults that underlined the vulnerabilities of soft targets that are difficult to defend.

Islamic State (IS) has consolidated its control over a large swath of Iraq and Syria, attracting tens of thousands of foreigners, establishing footholds in neighbouring states and perpetrating terrorist attacks across the Middle East and beyond. Since the group emerged on the scene in Syria in 2013, long before they reached Mosul in Iraq, the jihadis saw oil as a crutch for their vision for an Islamic state. Estimates by local traders and engineers put crude production in IS-held territory at about 34,000 – 40,000 bpd.[1]

Recuperation de petrole a la raffinerie d'Al Mansoura, controlee par les djihadistes de l'Etat Islamique
Islamic State (IS) has taken oil fields from Syrian rebels and the government in recent months. Photograph: DAVID ROSE/PANOS-REA/REDUX

However, aerial assaults by the American-led coalition on IS’s Raqqa headquarters in Syria and other strongholds have taken their toll. Last autumn, Russia and Britain joined in. On the ground, IS lost the key Iraqi city of Ramadi after the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga retook the city in a series of offensives late 2015.

Al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Syria and Yemen have grown more potent, controlling territory and deepening ties to the local communities. Both al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and IS emerged in Yemeni regions where they had not previously been present before Saudi Arabia entered the conflict and a Saudi-led coalition began bombing the Huthis in March 2015.

Meanwhile, further east in the Horn of Africa, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen militants claimed to have killed more than sixty Kenyan soldiers this month in an assault on an African Union (AU) base in remote western Somalia. The assault, confirmed by Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, came a day after Somali political leaders gathered to plan a road map for parliamentary and presidential elections due later this year. Somalia-based al-Shabaab has increasingly turned its attention to Kenyan targets as it has lost ground in its native Somalia.[2]

© AP

While Boko Haram (BK) attacks may have decreased somewhat in Niger, the Islamist insurgency seem to remain able to target both civilians and soldiers. In neighbouring Nigeria, military command repeatedly state they have diminished the BK threat, preventing the insurgents to launch attacks and seize territory. According to the US Council on Foreign Relations, Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria has killed around 27,000 people in the past six years.

On 12 and 13 December 2015, Nigerian government troops clashed with a relatively new organisation: Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). Their battle in the city of Zaria, in north central Kaduna state, reportedly killed more than one hundred people, including some senior movement members, and threatened wider violence.[3]

Late January 2016, at least eighty people were killed after fighters from the Islamist group razed the village of Dalori in the northern Nigeria, shooting people and setting fire to homes. The attack took place on Saturday in the village of Dalori, near the northern city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of BK.

While the peace process in Mali has made some progress, violent extremism and inter-communal conflict remain serious threats, as the multiplication of attacks on armed groups and Malian security forces (FAMA) has shown.

Northern Mali fell under control of al Qaeda-linked separatist groups in March-April 2012, which were driven out by a French-led operation in January 2013. A peace process and a deal in June 2015 has stumbled from the beginning, and agreements on ceasefires have been repeatedly broken.[4]

Against this background, some questions need to be answered. How has West Africa, and particularly, Burkina Faso, evolved in the context of the global counter-terror agenda? Is a wave of radicalisation sweeping through the region?

Burkina Faso: The end of the ‘exception burkinabè’?

Despite some political upheaval, Burkina Faso has never experienced mass violence or civil war until mid-Jan 2016, when the poor, landlocked western African nation saw the worst terrorist attack in its history. On 15 January 2016, militants of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Mourabitoune, an AQIM splinter group led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar, attacked the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, opened fire on a restaurant and attacked another hotel nearby, killing over thirty people and wounding fifty others.

Burnt cars outside the Splendid Hotel. Photograph: Wouter Elsen

The assault followed a similar raid in November 2015 on a Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, which killed twenty people, including citizens of Russia, China and the US.

About 156 people inside the Splendid were held hostage, including Burkinabè government minister Clément Sawadogo, as a gun battle raged between the militants and the police for more than an hour. The battle moved on to a second hotel, the Yibi, before the hostages, many of them badly injured, were freed in a joint operation between French, local security forces, and according to some, US Special Forces.

Two days later, the prime ministers of Burkina Faso and Mali met and agreed to work together to counter the growing threat of Islamic militants in West Africa by sharing intelligence and conducting joint security patrols.

Ouagadougou Attack-14
The attack in and around Burkina Faso’s Splendid Hotel this week killed at least 28 people from at least seven countries. Photograph: Wouter Elsen

The exact details of the cooperation between Burkina Faso and Mali were not immediately clear, but patrols and intelligence-sharing mark an intent by both countries to prevent the spread of militancy as AQIM and others expand operations in the region beyond their usual reach.[5]

For years, Islamic militants have used northern Mali as a base, but over the past year they have staged a number of attacks in other parts of the country. Burkina Faso’s authorities are now concerned that its long desert border with Mali could become a transit point for militants.[6]

Security forces stand guard outside the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photograph: Wouter Elsen

The most recent attacks also reveal that al Mourabitoune has begun selecting different kinds of targets and has adjusted its tactics accordingly. So why did the group of the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar undergo a dramatic shift from complex attacks in Northern Africa to simple ones in the Sahel?

According to some, the attack seemed designed to achieve only one thing: to catapult Belmokhtar and his group onto the international stage after three years of inactivity, and signal that he was still allied with al Qaeda, just not with AQIM.[7]

Political transition and fragility

The attack comes at a moment of political fragility for the country, which is coming out of a fragile transition following Blaise Compaoré’s October 2014 downfall. After trying to engineer a constitutional amendment to stay in power, Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré, after 27 years in office, was ousted in October 2014 by a popular uprising.

A transitional government was put in place, but it did not have the support of Compaore’s elite presidential guard (RSP). The presidential guard staged a coup in September that lasted only a week and caused the election, originally scheduled for October, to be postponed

Late November 2015, millions of Burkinabè people lined up at the polling stations to cast their ballots in the presidential and legislative elections. The vote was considered by some to be the most democratic in Burkina Faso’s history, because no incumbent was on the ballot paper and the presidential guard (RSP) had been dissolved.

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s victory in the 29 November presidential election shows that Burkinabès aspire as much to change as to continuity. A former heir apparent to Blaise Compaoré and former banker, Kaboré, symbolises both the stability of the former regime and, given his split from Compaoré, the desire for change.

Despite the peaceful elections, the country, with a population of 18m, is not immune to future trouble as it opens a new chapter of its history, International Crisis Group reported one week before the 15 January terror attacks. The presence of violent extremist groups in neighbouring countries will remain a challenge. The October 2015 attack on a gendarmerie post in the west of the country, the first of its kind in Burkina Faso, is evidence of the worsening security environment.

Ouagadougou Attack-18
Photograph: Wouter Elsen

The government will now have to refrain from triumphalism, recognise the formidable challenges ahead and, most importantly, resist the temptation to recreate a Compaoré-like system of one-party hegemony. Without this, the Burkinabès will massively return to the streets, as in October 2014 and September 2015, which could plunge the country back into crisis.[8]


The January 2015 attacks in Istanbul, Jakarta and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, where over thirty people were killed in a series of assaults, have heightened fears over the rise of violent extremism not only in the world’s largest Muslim majority country but around the world. It underlines the apparent ubiquity of the menace that Islamic State, al Qaida and their affiliated organisations pose today.[9]

The international community is making some military efforts to counter these various factors. However, the emerging pattern of a strongly militarised response to radicalisation and violent extremism and its negative implications for the democratic control of the security forces is likely to spread and intensify. Analysts now fear this approach will undermine civil liberties, democratisation and the tenuous progress made in transforming the security sector.[10]

[1] “Isis Inc: how oil fuels the jihadi terrorists”, Financial Times, 14 October 2015.

[2] “Al-Shabaab attacks Kenyan soldiers in Somalia army base”, Financial Times, 15 January 2016.

[3] Nnamdi Obasi, “New Risks on Nigeria’s Shiite Fault Line”, In Pursuit of Peace, 16 December 2015.

[4] Jean-Hervé Jezequel, “What Could Be Behind the Bamako Attack?”, In Pursuit of Peace, 20 November 2015.

[5] “Mali and Burkina Faso to share counter-terror efforts after Islamist attacks”, Guardian, 17 January 2016.

[6] Christophe Châtelot, “L’attaque d’AQMI à Ouagadougou : la fin de l’exception burkinabé face au terrorisme”, Le Monde, 16 January 2016.

[7] Geoff D. Porter, “The Drone War Goes Awry in Africa”, Foreign Policy, 20 January 2016.

[8] International Crisis Group, “Burkina Faso: transition acte II”, Crisis Group Briefing No. 116, 7 January 2016.

[9] Jason Burke, “Burkina Faso attack signals spread of Islamist menace”, Guardian, 16 January 2016.

[10] [book] James Gow, Funmi Olonisakin and Ernst Dijxhoorn, “Militancy and Violence in West Africa: Religion, Politics and Radicalisation”, Routlegde, 2013.

The Arab Spring: Five Years Later

On 18 December 2010, a man in Tunisia burned himself to death in protest of police corruption and ill treament. The following months, uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt led to the overthrow of their heads of state and sparked a wave of protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa, now commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring”, “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Uprisings”.

Five years after the wave of uprisings, the Arab world is worse off than ever. Radical movements in the Arab world seem to have been even more invigorated by the Arab Spring than liberal ones. The Arab uprisings increased the innovation and entrepreneurship of radical groups in the Middle East, at the same time that it increased the opportunities for radicals to gain battlefield experience.

On 9 January 2016, The Economist published a chart illustrating that the Arab revolutions produced few leaders, few credible programmes for action, and few ideas. But they did produce much-needed clarity about such things as what political Islam actually means in practice, where the Arabs stand in the world and with each other, and what the weaknesses and strengths of Arab states and societies are. [1]

(c) The Economist

[1] “The Arab winter”The Economist, 9 January 2016.