The last fifteen years have witnessed the growth of a virtual cottage industry on security in the Mediterranean, primarily and hardly surprisingly, in Western Europe. What, then, distinguishes this slim volume of conference papers from its many predecessors? Very little, other than the fact that it adds another title to the list of English-language works on the region.
One cannot help but be somewhat schematic when confined to a book chapter; clearly, space constraints direct what and how much is presented, and it is inevitable that contributions may not be as empirically rich or analytically developed as one might hope. This tendency, however, becomes a serious problem in many chapters, while others are more focused, developed and informative. More endemic problems are inconsistencies, oversimplifications and biases that one would not expect in an edited collection of academic contributors.
The first set of chapters deals with different political challenges to Mediterranean security, and not surprisingly, the book's first two contributions tackle political Islam. Michael Willis provides a comprehensive, generally accurate and balanced overview of Islamist movements throughout North Africa (except Libya), arguing that Islamists are unlikely to come power in the southern Mediterranean. The next chapter, by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, is a short case study of Egypt's Islamists. While empirically rich (with tables providing data on political unrest and profiling Islamist activists), Ibrahim unfortunately devotes relatively little attention to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main movement.
The next two chapters treat themes of cooperation. Abdelwahab Biad offers a surprisingly brief, six-page "southern viewpoint," in which he advocates support for "democratic forces," cultural dialogue and greater Euro-Maghreb cooperation. The author's call for dialogue is hardly new, and his contention that "there have been no such opportunities" (p. 43) seemingly ignores countless governmental and nongovernmental European initiatives and the European Union's increasing role in promoting cultural exchange. Moreover, the impact of such endeavors has been limited to certain elite segments of populations on both sides of the Mediterranean, yet some (European and Arab alike) still treat this as something of a panacea for better relations.
Biad's suggestion that Europe support democratic forces and "political pluralism" excludes the Islamists, who "can only propose a new form of totalitarianism" (p. 43). In addition to reducing all Islamists to extremist fanatics (never mind distinctions between Shaykh Mahfoud Nahna and Algeria's HAMAS, political wings of the FIS represented by Ali Abassi al-Madani and Ali Belhadj and the GIA), the author's proposal assumes no difficulty in official European support for other opposition forces. This, of course, is largely unrealistic, given considerable French and, to a lesser extent, Western European support for regimes in North Africa.
Roberto Aliboni's chapter on political cooperation offers a somewhat more focused but still schematic discussion. He argues that because of regional subdivisions Mediterranean cooperation should focus on the more "vulnerable" North Africa. Aliboni highlights the importance of the ways in which relations are institutionalized, a theme that merits, but does not receive , sustained analysis considering the myriad actual and proposed experiments.
The last chapter in this section (Khalifa Chater) claims to represent "the Tunisian viewpoint" on the Mediterranean and focuses on official and to a lesser extent popular perceptions. The author's discussion of Islamism is riddled with contradictions and bias. For example, she rightly points out that former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua distorted Islam but then goes on to support the official Tunisian claim of the "existence of an international network of Islamism" (p. 76), which amounted to an arms-smuggling ring in a French town. Given the widespread perception of an "Islamist international," the issue of inter-Islamist cooperation requires particularly careful treatment.
Chater also distorts popular support for Islamism, claiming that socioeconomic deprivations "weaken people's sense of responsibility" (p. 76). The author seems to imply that poverty somehow makes people civically irresponsible because they end up backing Islamists (and somehow would be more responsible if they supported the state). That the reasons may be more complex (e.g., Islamists as better representatives of cultural authenticity) does not seem to occur to the author.
Perhaps some Western analysts are eager to see political Islam in the best possible light. However, many North African secularists, alarmed by Islamism, have tacitly and overtly supported the repression of Islamists, which has only contributed to the political polarization and virtual civil war that have racked Algeria ·since 1992. This is not to dismiss the brutal and often mass violence of the most radical Islamists (the GIA), but Algeria's recent elections show the staying power of political Islam as a force that cannot be repressed or simply wished away.
The next section, on economics, is the book's strongest. Michel Chatelus presents a thorough overview of the failures of inter-Arab economic relations and then discusses economic possibilities and prescriptions in the post-Oslo Middle East. Chatelus underscores the fact that the state of the peace process will heavily influence (though not solely determine) regional economic prospects; structural economic inequalities, technical issues and financing, he maintains, are problems in and of themselves. However, Chatelus also argues that progress on joint economic projects could help improve political conditions. However, the evidence to support this contention to date is particularly thin.
Tim Niblock's chapter on north-south economic relations complements the preceding one in quality. Niblock maintains that the southern Mediterranean is relatively unimportant in European trade but that the inverse is true for Arab countries - a point made all too clear by his extensive tables on trade flows. Niblock also provides background sections on the development of European economic policies toward the south.
The third and final section deals with military challenges to Mediterranean security. Like the economics chapters, these contributions are better organized, more focused and hence more informative. George Joffe writes on terrorism and political violence in the region, covering Iranian influences, the Palestinians and Israel, and Islamist groups in Egypt and the Maghreb. He concludes that problems of violence will persist in the south because of continuing socioeconomic pressures but that they will not spread to Europe.
Jed Snyder writes on arms issues in the region. Snyder is at his best when writing on proliferation and obstacles to hard multilateral cooperation. His discussion of soft security issues (e.g., political Islam) is somewhat repetitive, considering the book's first chapters. Also, Snyder could have explored the timely issue of the role of NATO in the post-Cold War period in more detail.
Security Challenges in the Mediterranean Region is like many works on the region - highly descriptive and analytically thin - though it can hardly be blamed for the deficient "state of the art." To its credit, it does provide an English-language overview of the salient issues -- better in some chapters than others -- that could be of possible use to the reader unfamiliar with the Mediterranean. However, it does not contribute anything new to our understanding of the myriad aspects of relations bounding the Mare Nostrum.