Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 6-7 Table of Contents
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June/July 2004 

dossier Dossier: Lakhdar Brahimi
United Nations envoy
by Mahan Abedin

Lakhdar Brahimi
For months, former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi was at the forefront of negotiations leading to the formation of the Iraqi interim government that formally assumed control of the country on June 29. Because of his past ties to Algeria's military junta in the early 1990s and service as under-secretary general of the Arab League in the 1980s, Brahimi's appointment early this year sparked fears among Iraqi Kurds and Shiites that he would seek to establish an interim government more in line with regional Arab sensitivities than with his pledge to bring about an Iraqi government characterized by "credibility, honesty and expertise."[1] His reputation as a back room wheeler-dealer and evident discomfort at expressing his views in public furthered such suspicions.

Whether Brahimi's pledge has been fulfilled remains to be seen, but it appears that the UN special envoy's involvement in Iraq has galvanized regional Arab support for the country's political transition (Yemen and Jordan have already expressed interest in sending peacekeeping troops). However, if Brahimi's mission heralds a broader Western strategy of making Iraqi democracy "safe" for the Arab world, his diplomatic prowess may come to be seen as a mixed blessing.


Lakhdar Brahimi was born in 1934 to a wealthy family living south of Algiers. He received his education in law and political sciences in Algeria and Paris, where he co-founded the Algerian student union and came into close contact with nationalist-minded ideologues and revolutionaries.[2] When the Algerian war of independence began in earnest in 1954 Brahimi was quick to join the Front Liberation de National (FLN). Brahimi's international connections coupled with his impressive lobbying skills convinced FLN leaders to send him to Jakarta, where he served as the representative of the independence movement. He arrived back in Algiers in 1961 as the war of independence was winding down.

From 1963 to 1970, Brahimi served as permanent representative of Algeria to the League of Arab States and ambassador to Egypt and the Sudan. This was an important time for the Arab League, an institution established in 1945 to promote pan-Arab interests and facilitate greater Arab unity on international issues. Although the Arab League is today regarded as an impotent institution, back in the 1960's there were hopes that it could develop into a credible and effective pan-Arab forum.

After leaving the Arab League, Brahimi served from 1971 to 1979 as Algerian ambassador to the United Kingdom, an important post as the FLN was anxious to diminish the country's economic dependence on France and the UK was seen as a natural counter-weight. Although this was his first diplomatic posting to a European country, Brahimi greatly impressed his hosts. From 1982 to 1984, he served as diplomatic advisor to Algerian President Chadli Benjedid, a position that gave Brahimi the opportunity to influence overall Algerian diplomacy at a time of acute crisis in the Arab world.

In 1984, Brahimi became an under-secretary general of the Arab League, a position that brought him into close contact with Iraq's Baathist regime. In 1989, Brahimi was appointed the special envoy of the Arab League's Tripartite committee to Lebanon, where he succeeded in negotiating a cease-fire between Syria and the forces of Lebanon's General Michel Aoun. While recent media reports have credited him with brokering the Taif Accord, signed by Lebanese parliament members in October of that year, his role in the negotiations was secondary.

Brahimi was appointed foreign minister in 1991. This appointment came at a critical juncture for Algeria, as the liberalization program begun by President Benjedid in the late 1980's had inadvertently boosted the political and electoral fortunes of militant Islamists. The Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS) triumphed in the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991 and stood poised to wrest control of the state from the secular nationalist FLN. In January 1992, just days before the second round of parliamentary elections, the Algerian military ousted Benjedid, canceled the elections, and arrested the senior leadership of FIS.

While some have suggested that Brahimi was involved in the decision to annul the elections of December 1991, it is not entirely clear what role he played in the coup itself. After the military seized power, however, Brahimi assumed one of the seats on the six-man High Security Council that governed the country.[3] With top army generals running key ministries, such as Defense and Interior, the junta desperately needed a more urbane face to represent the new government to the rest of the world. Brahimi fit the bill. One Western journalist at the time called him the "most intellectual and certainly the best-known personality in the cabinet."[4]

Although Brahimi performed the difficult job of representing a military junta about as well as could be expected, he nevertheless came under heavy (albeit politically motivated) criticism within the regime for failing to end Algeria's international isolation. This criticism intensified in 1992, after he toured wealthy Arab states of the Persian Gulf to seek aid for Algeria's ailing economy and came back virtually empty-handed. In 1993, after quarrelling with then-Prime Minister Belad Abdessalam,[5] he was ousted and replaced with Redha Malek, a former Algerian ambassador to Washington who happened to have close ties with the Clinton administration's newly appointed secretary of state, Warren Christopher.[6]


After his forced resignation from the Algerian foreign ministry, Brahimi began a career with the United Nations. From December 1993-June 1994, he served as the UN's Special Representative for South Africa, where he observed the elections that brought Nelson Mandela to power. In September 1994, he was appointed special UN representative for Haiti, where he helped engineer the peaceful transition of power to Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Brahimi headed UN missions to other troubled states in the mid-1990s, including Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Yemen, Liberia, Nigeria and Sudan. His most challenging mission came in July 1997, when he was tasked with mediating an end to the conflict in Afghanistan. However, the unwillingness of local protagonists and their external sponsors (Russia, Iran, Pakistan, etc.) to compromise eventually wore him down, a remarkable outcome for a man described as "infinitely patient, politically shrewd and persuasive, and valued for his negotiating skills and intellectual ability."[7] His departure from Afghanistan in October 1999 was the first and only time during his prolific diplomatic career that he conceded defeat.

Afterwards, Brahimi won acclaim for leading a panel tasked with assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of United Nations peacekeeping missions. The so-called "Brahimi Report," released in 2000, made a number of key recommendations including the quicker deployment of peacekeeping forces and the creation of a dedicated information gathering and analysis office within the UN. Whether this report has had any real impact on UN peacekeeping operations around the world is anyone's guess.

Brahimi returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban was toppled by US-led forces in 2001, serving as head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Kabul until December 2003. Commenting on Brahimi's work in the war-torn country, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the UN, said: "There is huge respect in the UN system for his experience, his political and diplomatic judgment and his subtlety in getting through the rocks in an extremely difficult subject."[8] Laudatory comments like this highlight the extent of respect reserved for Brahimi by career diplomats both in the UK and the US. While Brahimi was successful in his second Afghan mission, this was facilitated by support from the United States and the newfound determination of most Afghans to solve their deep-rooted problems.


Brahimi's success in Afghanistan and status as one of the Arab world's elder statesmen made him, in the eyes of the Bush administration, an ideal candidate to supervise the formation of an interim government in Iraq. By the turn of the year, the Bush administration had decided to expand its engagement of Sunni Arab elites in Iraq. This was largely due to the escalating Sunni insurgency, but it also reflected tensions between the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Shiite leaders, led by Ayatollah Ali Sistani. US planners believed that Brahimi, a Sunni Arab, would be more capable of gaining the trust of influential Sunni Arab elites than any other possible UN envoy. More generally, the CPA wanted to broaden the scope of patronage and influence in the new interim government, having lost faith in the ability of former exiles in the Iraqi Governing Council (most notably Ahmed Chalabi) to lead the transition. Brahimi, famed as he is for his ability to strike deals and reconcile violently opposing agendas seemed ideally suited for the job. Finally, the setbacks suffered by the US in Iraq, coupled with the collapse of the Middle East peace process, increased American sensitivities to criticism of the occupation in the Arab world. Brahimi's involvement, it was hoped, would make US plans for Iraq more palatable to the Arab audience.

Although initially lukewarm to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's offer to serve as UN special representative for Iraq, Brahimi accepted the job after meeting with Bush in Washington. The intervention of Brahimi in the delicate transition of power in Iraq was widely praised by Arab and European governments, but criticism of his appointment quickly emerged in American and Iraqi circles. Brahimi's American critics argued that, as a former member of Algeria's governing elite, Brahimi was too wedded to the region's authoritarian political culture to supervise a democratic transition in Iraq. This point was made most articulately by Fouad Ajami:

Mr. Brahimi hails from the very same political class that has wrecked the Arab world. He has partaken of the ways of that class: populism, anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and a preference for the centralized state. He came from the apex of the Algerian system of power that turned that country into a charnel house, inflicted on it a long-running war between the secular powers-that-be and the Islamists, and a tradition of hostility by the Arab power-holders toward the country's Berbers. No messenger more inappropriate could have been found if the aim was to introduce Iraqis to the ways of pluralism.[9]

When Brahimi publicly criticized the month-long coalition siege of Fallujah, his critics lost no time in accusing him of hypocrisy - the Algerian military had used far more aggressive tactics against insurgents with ideological and political agendas very similar to the Fallujah militants.[10] Brahimi subsequently embarrassed the UN by describing Israeli policies as "the great poison in the region." This outburst drew an immediate response from the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, who accused the Algerian of "prejudice, bigotry and anti-Semitism."[11] Although Brahimi probably made the statement to shore up his credibility in the Arab world, the fact that he felt the need to engage in such pandering was hardly befitting a UN envoy.

Suspicions about Brahimi's mindset and motives were even more acute among Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, who see the Algerian regime's denial of linguistic and cultural rights to the country's substantial Berber minority as eerily similar to the Arabization policies of Iraq's former Baathist regime. Kurdish activists were quick to accuse Brahimi of denying Iraq's use of chemical weapons while serving as Arab League undersecretary.[12] Many Shiite political factions also questioned Brahimi's motives, the only major exception is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose leaders, perhaps because of Iranian pressure, insist that Brahimi has played a constructive role in Iraq.[13]

Not surprisingly, the process of selecting Iraq's interim government witnessed considerable tension between Brahimi and US planners in Iraq - at one point he reportedly threatened to resign.[14] However, it is important to note that Brahimi's real gripe with US officials wasn't so much that they were overly interfering in the transition process, but that they were not interfering enough. Brahimi's biggest difficulties came in dealing with the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which was dominated by formerly exiled opposition leaders. Brahimi expected Washington to pressure the IGC's various political groups into accepting an interim government dominated by "technocrats" - i.e. people who pursued careers, not politics, during Saddam's reign. Brahimi, like so many other intellectuals of Arab nationalist persuasion, viewed anti-Saddam opposition leaders as stooges (a gross simplification) and assumed that US planners were able and willing to dictate to them.

Brahimi's first choice as prime minister was Hussein Shahristani, a Shiite former nuclear scientist, but Shahristani declined the post in the face of opposition from the IGC. Instead, they settled on Iyad Alawi, a Shiite former Baathist with ties to the CIA and MI6. While this dispute might suggest collusion between the CPA and the former Iraqi opposition, the contentious debate over the presidency saw Brahimi and American officials both backing Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi and the IGC rallying behind Sunni tribal leader Ghazi Ajil al-Yawer (who eventually got the post).

Brahimi's mission in Iraq might have left more of a mark had he not been obliged to moderate his agenda in the face of considerable pressure by Iraqi leaders who remained suspicious of his motives. In the end, the transition phase in Iraq could probably have been managed without his intervention. While Brahimi has been replaced as UN special representative in Iraq by Pakistani diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, many expect the UN to employ his services on an ad hoc basis as it oversees national elections and the drafting of a new constitution next year.[15]


  [1] ABC, 25 April 2004.
  [2] Laura Secor, "The Pragmatist," The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2004.
  [3] The Boston Globe, 2 December 2001.
  [4] The other five were Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, Justice Minister Hamdani Benkhelil, and three senior generals: Gen. Khalid Nizar; Gen. Larbi Belkhair, and the army Chief of Staff, Gen. Abdelmalek Guenaizia. See "Algeria Militants Call for Uprising," The New York Times, 14 January 1992.
  [5] Robert Fisk, "Military keeps its grip on Algeria," The Independent (London), 21 July 1992.
  [6] The Financial Times, 5 February 1993.
  [7] "Exit Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi, enter Warren Christopher's friend Redha Malek," Mideast Mirror, 4 February 1993.
  [8] BBC News, 25 May 2004.
  [9] http://www.law.harvard.edu/news/2002/10/02_brahimi.php+%22Lakhdar+Brahimi%22&hl=en
  [10] Fouad Ajami, "The Curse of Pan-Arabia," The Wall Street Journal, 12 May 2004.
  [11] Christopher Hitchens, Covering the Quagmire, Slate, 29 April 2004.
  [12] The Jerusalem Post, 28 April 2004.
  [13] Ata Norie, Lakhdar Brahimi the man who denied that Saddam gassed Halabja, KurdishMedia.com, 30 April 2004.
  [14] Author's interview with Dr. Hamid Bayati, SCIRI leader and deputy foreign minister of Iraq, Spotlight on Terror (a publication of the Jamestown Foundation), 21 June 2004.
  [15] Haaretz, 13 June 2004.
  [16] Author's discussion with Dr. Mustafa Alani, of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) of London, 23 June 2004.

2004 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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