How Middle East and North Africa governments and political leaders reacted to the Charlie Hebdo attacks

The brutal terrorist attacks in Paris which targeted the headquarters of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, as well as a kosher grocery store, left 17 people dead. An outpouring of international support for the French government and people has been heard in the days since.

Laura Danielle and Kevin Moore break down how some governments and political leaders in the Middle East and North Africa responded to the events.

Charlie Hebdo Unity March
World leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, French President François Hollande and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, take part in a Unity rally Marche Republicaine in Paris on 11 January 2015 (via PATRICK KOVARIKPATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)

Algeria

The Algerian foreign ministry cautioned against indiscriminately accusing Muslims after the terrorist attack on the headquarters French weekly Charlie Hebdo. In a statement, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that islam is innocent of the perpetrators of the attack, whatever their motives. The statement confirmed Algeria’s strong condemnation of this unjustifiable attack and that Algeria expresses its solidarity with the people and government of France, as well as the families of the victims. The statement also mentioned that Algeria has itself “paid a heavy price because of terrorism and extremism.”

One minute analysis: Algeria and France have a long and tumultuous relationship, including over 100 years of colonial rule and a brutal 8-year war of independence. Despite this, economic ties between the two countries have remained strong until the present day. Approximately 8.5 percent of Algerian exports are destined for France (5th highest) and more imports to Algeria come from France than any other country (12.8 percent). However, for Algerians who have emigrated to France (or in the case of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, French nationals of Algerian descent), social conditions and government policies have often made integration into French society a difficult process. Is is the case with most Algerian statements regarding terrorist attacks at home or abroad, mention is made of Algeria’s own history of combatting terrorism, referring to the Algerian civil war of the 1990s between the Algerian military and Islamist militants. Algeria continues to face Islamist insurgents to this day, with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in various regions of the country and an Islamic State affiliate, Jund al-Khilafah making itself known in September 2014 with the kidnapping and murder of a French citizen.

Egypt

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry condemned the 7 January attack and highlighted that Egypt stands with France. Shoukry noted that defeating terrorism, which “targets security and stability worldwide” requires “joint efforts by the international community.” Shoukry also contacted French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on 8 February and, in addition to offering condolences, called for coordinated efforts in combating terrorism. Shoukry participated in the 11 January solidarity march in Paris. It also appears that Sisi himself made a speech at al-Azhar University, during which he seemingly blatantly chastised Muslim clerics for creating an association of the umma with “anxiety, killing, danger and destruction for the rest of the world.” Sisi also sent condolences to French President François Hollande and called for joint international efforts to face terrorism.

One minute analysis: Sisi and Hollande have held a relatively strong relationship, largely focused on containing the spread of terrorism (particularly in Libya). Sisi’s last visit to France gained the country a Franco-Egyptian Partnership Accord, while an agreement has already been made over a contract in which France will supply Egypt with French warships. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Egypt has taken the opportunity not only to reassert its partnership with France (while France in return turns a blind eye to human rights abuses in the country) as well as to strengthen its own position as an ally, and perhaps a necessity, in the battle against terrorism.

Israel

Israel denounced the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered “condolences to the President of France, the bereaved families and the French people. Netanyahu stated the the world has seen a “great intensification of international terrorism and terror that originates from radical Islam.” He said that “radical Islamic terrorism knows no bounds” and therefore the struggle against it must be international.” The prime minister called on “free societies and all civilized people” to “unite and combat this terrorism.” After a third gunmen attacked a kosher grocery store in a related event, Netanyahu appealed to the Jewish population of France and all of Europe to consider migrating to Israel, saying that “Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.” Netanyahu traveled to Paris on 11 January to participate in an anti-terrorism and solidarity march with other world leaders.

One minute analysis: A rise of anti-Semitism in Europe from parts of the right wing, as well as some of the Muslim community has created a heightened sense of unease among Europe’s Jewish population. The Jewish Agency estimates that more than 7,000 Jews left France for Israel in 2014, almost doubling the 3,400 immigrants from 2013. An attack in May 2014 at the Jewish Museum in Brussels by a French national of Algerian origin, who had travelled to Syria to fight with radical Islamists, greatly contributed to fears among Jews in Europe. At the time, Netanyahu criticised European hypocrisy for rushing to condemn Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank but only offering weak condemnation of the murder of Jews in Israel and Europe. The combination of Israel’s recent “Jewish state bill” with open calls for Jewish migration to their “home” in Israel appears to be a concerted effort by Netanyahu to portray Israel as the only place to freely  be a Jew. In response, French Prime Minister Manuel Vals said that if France’s Jews were to leave, “France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” This could become a source of tension between France and Israel in the coming months, and Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders will look for France to ensure the safety and security of its Jewish population, Jewish homes, stores, schools and synagogues.

Jordan

King Abdullah II sent a cable to French President François Hollande on 8 January with condolences for the “victims of the terrorist attack that targeted the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and killed and injured many innocent people.” The King condemned the attacks and stated that “Jordan stands beside France in overcoming the effects of the attack.” King Abdullah and Queen Rania travelled to France on 11 January to participate in the anti-terrorism march in Paris called for by French President François Hollande.

One minute analysis: Jordan finds itself on the frontlines of confronting radical Islamists in the Middle East, having joined the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition in September 2014. A Jordanian pilot was captured by Islamic State militants in December 2014 after his plane went down during a bombing run over the Syrian city of al-Raqqa. Jordan has seen an increase in support for radical groups in recent years, with Salafist groups in the southern city of Ma’an drawing support for the Islamic State and rejecting the legitimacy of the Hashemite monarchy. Thus, Jordan’s own threat from radical Islamists, despite its border with both Iraqi and Syrian territory under Islamic State control, is mainly internal. Subsequently, the government has made amendments in the past year to its anti-terrorism law, increasing penalties and expanding the definition of terrorism. Jordan maintains strong relations with Western states and is seen as an integral part of counterterrorism operations in the Middle East region as an Arab/Muslim state. France provides regular financial assistance to Jordan and is the largest non-Arab investor in the kingdom. French-Jordanian relations can be expected to remain strong as the two unite in the fight against radical ideologies emanating from Islamist groups in the region.

Lebanon

Following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Prime Minister Tammam Salam spoke to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to extend his condolences and express Lebanon’s solidarity with the French people. He condemned the crime, “adding that Islam was innocent of the violent atrocities carried out in its name.” Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil joined world leaders in the solidarity march in Paris on 11 January. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that “terrorist takfiri groups” harmed Islam more than the books, drawings and films that have distorted the Prophet Muhammad. Nasrallah did not reference the French satirical weekly directly. Nasrallah stated that through their shameful words, deeds and practices, as well as violent and inhuman brutality, these groups have harmed the image of the Prophet, Islam and the ummah even more than the enemies of Islam who have attacked the Prophet Muhammad through books, movies and cartoons.

One minute analysis: All sides of Lebanon’s diverse social and political spectrum joined together in their denunciation of the Paris attacks, a rare showing of unity from a country whose politicians are unable to come together in order to elect a head of state. Nasrallah’s speech mimics regular rhetoric put forth by Hezbollah’s allies, Iran and the Syrian government, who claim to be fighting (Sunni) terrorism in the region. His reference to takfiri groups implies Sunni militants fighting in the Syrian civil war, who label Shi’ah Muslims as murtadeen (apostates). This is made possible by the fact that the attackers appear to have had ties to either al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or possibly the Islamic State. Nasrallah’s statement is significant in that it acknowledges internal issues with the ummah (Muslim community) based around sectarian differences and their negative impact on external impressions of Islam. It is worth noting that only a day after the dramatic events in France came to a close, a duel suicide bomb attack in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli killed at least seven people, with the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra claiming responsibility.

Libya

Both the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli condemned the terrorist attack in Paris. The unrecognised GNC, supported by the Libya Dawn militia coalition condemned the attack, while the internationally recognised HoR described the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office as “a heinous crime.”

One minute analysis: Libya remains divided between two rival governments backed by powerful militias. The level of violence in the country has increased markedly since May 2014 and in addition to al-Qaeda linked groups like Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, Islamic State militants have established a presence in the eastern town of Derna. Libya is a conduit for both weapons and fighters traveling to fight alongside radical Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria and there are reports that extremist groups have established training camps in the country’s southern desert regions. In response, France has declared it is ready to launch airstrikes in the area. France fears a further destabilisation along Libya’s southern border as it depends on Niger’s uranium reserves. The HoR has rejected foreign intervention to this point. Instability in Libya threatens its Arab neighbours — Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia — and it has also become a major route for refugees from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa seeking asylum in Europe, raising fears along Europe’s southern border. Until a legitimate government can be established in Libya and a ceasefire reached, coordination with authorities in the security and counterterrorism sectors will lack effectiveness.

Morocco

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation stated that Morocco has “strongly condemned the terrorist attack” on the Charlie Hebdo editorial office. The statement offered “sincere condolences to the families of the victims” and expressed Morocco’s solidarity with the French government and people. Morocco reaffirmed “its condemnation of terrorism whatever its motives, origins and forms.” The Moroccan government banned the publication of five French-language magazines on 10 September as they had chosen to re-publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. The Communications Directorate and Public Relations Department explained that these are not special circumstances following the attack in Paris, but the standard procedure whenever publications choose to depict the Prophet Muhammad.

One minute analysis: Bilateral relations between France and Morocco have traditionally been strong, despite a history of colonialism. The relationship is mainly one of Moroccan economic dependence. France is the main destination for Moroccan exports, as well as the top source of imports in Morocco. France also provides Morocco with diplomatic support for its stance regarding the disputed Western Sahara territory, which Morocco annexed following Spanish withdrawal in 1976. France has helped train and equip Morocco’s military, making it one of the strongest in the region. There are an estimated one million Moroccan nationals residing in France and Morocco is a leading tourist destination for French nationals. While generally safe, Morocco has had limited experiences with terrorism in its territory. A bombing in April 2011 in the southern city of Marrakech left 17 people dead, including eight French nationals. More recently, an estimated 1,000-1,500 Moroccans have traveled to Syria to fight in the Syrian civil war, most often with radical Islamist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. At least some of these foreign fighters were French residents (possibly second or third generation Moroccans), causing fears in both France and Morocco of terrorist attacks perpetrated by militants returning from the Middle East. Moroccan authorities will continue to work with their European counterparts (especially France and Spain) to break up terrorist recruitment cells and limit radicalised individuals’ ability to travel to Iraq and Syria. By keeping publications featuring Charlie Hebdo cartoons from entering the kingdom, Moroccan authorities are attempting to avoid possible backlash from more extreme members of society.

Palestine

From the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called French President François Hollande to “express condolences” and assured Hollande of “the solidarity of the Palestinian people and leadership with France after this terrorist attack.” President Abbas also traveled to France on 11 January to meet with Holland and take part in Paris march to protest the Charlie Hebdo attack and show solidarity with the French people. In Gaza, Hamas condemned the attack, noting that “differences of opinion and thought cannot justify murder.” The organisation also noted in its statement that it condemned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to compare what Hamas called “the resistance of our people” with the “global terrorism” that spawned the Charlie Hebdo attack.

One minute analysis: French support for Palestine appears to have reached an all-time high. On 2 December, French parliamentarians voted in favour of recognising a Palestinian state “when the time comes.” Then, on 30 December, France voted in favour of a Palestinian resolution at the UN Security Council calling for a peace and an end to Israeli occupation by the end of 2017. It is no surprise that Palestinian leadership has expressed its solidarity with a strong supporter of Palestinian statehood. Hamas’ statement reiterated its position that its military operations against Israel are a legitimate national struggle against an occupying power and should not be confused with terrorism inspired by ideology and religion.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s state news agency reported that the kingdom condemned and denounced “this cowardly terrorist act that is rejected by true Islamic religion as well as the rest of the religions and beliefs.” An official source said that the country is deeply saddened following the terrorist attack and expressed condolences to the families of the victims, wishing the injured a speedy recovery.

One minute analysis: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is no stranger to the Saudi’s. In fact, it is the product of a union between the al-Qaeda branch that operated in Saudi Arabia in the early/mid-2000s, and the one that operated in Yemen. In August 2009, AQAP claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt on Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Interestingly enough, not only has former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that the most significant source of funding for such Sunni terrorist groups is donors from Saudi Arabia, but she also noted at that time that “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.” Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia continues to come under attack from AQAP and occasionally extradites Saudi nationals arrested in Yemen for AQAP involvement. Saudi Arabia has recently extended its efforts to counter militant extremism within and outside of its borders, but in neighbouring Yemen lacks any real capability to counter militant activity across the border. Of course, many news sites have contrasted Saudi Arabia’s statement regarding the Charlie Hebdo attack to the sentencing of a Saudi blogger to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” However Saudi Arabia’s two-faced discourse regarding such attacks is nothing new, and its inability to curb strong militant sentiments within and around its own borders (not in the least part due to its own contradictory nature of its Wahhabi background) means that the strength of terrorist organisations like AQAP and Islamic State is not likely to be threatened by any moves on Saudi Arabia’s part.

Tunisia

The governing Nidaa Tounes party released a statement condemning the 7 January 2015 attack inside the headquarters of a newspaper in Paris which led to a number of deaths and injuries. The Nidaa Tounes movement offered its “deepest condolences and most sincere sympathy to the families of the victims, all the French people and the French government. The movement strongly condemns this treacherous terrorist act that targeted journalists and artists. Nidaa Tounes also stated that the events of Charlie Hebdo reminds us of the heinous attack which recently martyred a member of the security forces, Mohammed Ali al-Sharabi. These acts confirm that terrorism has no homeland or religion, and that Islam is innocent of terrorism and crimes wrongfully perpetrated in its name.

One minute analysis: Tunisia has seen a rise in terrorist attacks from militant Islamists in the country since 2011. This press statement refers to the recent murder of a police officer (one of multiple murders) by suspected Islamist militants linked to Ansar al-Sharia (AST) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Following the dismal lack of anti-terrorism measures during Islamist party Ennahda’s time dominating the Tunisian government, Nidaa Tounes has highlighted the importance of an internationally collaborative effort to combat terrorism. Nonetheless, the regime-reminiscent party is despised by Salafists and militant Islamists alike in Tunisia, and the prevalence of terrorism not only threatens Tunisia both from within and along its borders, but has also seen Tunisia become perhaps the greatest suppliers of militants to Syria. Tunisia and France have a longstanding relationship and Nidaa Tounes has stated clearly its aim to improve the economic partnership between the two countries. Terrorism is bound to be an ongoing problem for the new Tunisian government and solidarity with France, its leading trade partner and foreign investor, over the attack should come as no surprise.

Yemen

The Yemeni foreign ministry condemned the attack and demanded in its statement that the “international community stand united against the terrorist challenge facing all states,” from which Yemen is one of those which has “endured the fire of terrorism”. The ministry also sent its condolences to the families of the Charlie Hebdo victims.

One minute analysis: The Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred on the same morning that militants carried out an car bomb attack against a police college in Sana’a, killing at least 35 people and injuring dozens more. Yemen has experienced an uptick in attacks by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since Shi’ah Houthi militants expanded into the country’s central governorates in September 2014. The attack in Sana’a was overshadowed in the international media by the events in Paris, even more so when it became apparent that at  the perpetrators, Chérif and Said Kouachi, had traveled to Yemen to train with the late al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki. The weakness of Yemen’s central government and military limits the country’s ability to combat extremism, leaving AQAP with various strongholds from which to carry out attacks on government and Houthi targets.

Final Analysis

Each statement roughly followed the formula of (1) denouncing terrorism, (2) sending condolences to the victims, and sometimes (3) calling for international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Many of these statements do not mention the name of the newspaper. The populations of some of these countries, such as that of Egypt, is torn on the attack, with some citizens seeing a certain level of justification for the attack in the newspaper’s content. If these statements in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack reveal anything, it is that the above countries, who are currently combating terrorism both inside and along their borders, feel that it is okay to condemn terrorism in the Western world, but for their own reasons and external relationships, do not hold the freedom to openly criticize Charlie Hebdo’s decisions to print the cited cartoons. Contrast this to Iran, which equally condemned the murders in an official statement, but also made it clear that “humiliating monotheistic religions” through freedom of expression is unacceptable, and you can once again see how government connections to Western countries such as France can at times distance official rhetoric from public opinion.


Laura Danielle is a current graduate student studying Middle East Politics at the University of Edinburgh.

Kevin Moore holds an MSc in Arab World Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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