Powell’s visit was billed as an opportunity primarily to discuss the war on terrorism. All three countries have fallen victim to militant Islamism. In May, suicide bombings in Casablanca killed more than 30 people. Just over a year earlier, 11 German tourists died in an attack on a Tunisian synagogue. Algiers has been fighting Islamist insurgents since the cancellation of a general election in 1992 that the Islamist Front de Liberation National had been poised to win. All three governments have seen their US military aid increase in 2003.

President Bush declared in early November that Washington would no longer turn a blind eye to a lack of democracy and human rights abuses among its allies. ‘The heads of state and senior officials you will see in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia no doubt view your visit as an early indication of how the US intends to further the principles espoused in the president’s speech,’ said New York-based Human Rights Watch in an open letter to Powell in late November. ‘It is therefore critical that you address in a frank way the human rights problems particular to each of these three countries and articulate concrete improvements.’

In Tunisia, where the tour began, the secretary of state praised the government of President Ben Ali for advances in living standards and women’s economic integration. His criticism was more circumspect. ‘The world is looking for more political pluralism. and a standard of openness that deals with journalists being able to do their work,’ he told a news conference. Ben Ali, who has been in power since 1987, was re-elected in 1999 with 99 per cent of the vote.

Moving on to Algeria, Powell’s message was similar. He called for the presidential elections in 2004 to be free and fair, with equal media access for all candidates. The long-running Western Sahara dispute with Morocco was also on the agenda. Powell urged direct negotiations with Rabat. Algiers insists a solution must be negotiated directly with the Algeria-based Polisario Front, which demands independence for the territory.

Powell ended his tour on friendlier ground. Rabat is one of Washington’s closest allies. The government received more than $13,000 million in aid in 2003 and this is set to double in 2004. Negotiations on a free trade agreement are at an advanced stage. The secretary of state held Morocco up as a beacon for the region, praising the country’s electoral process and women’s rights. Ironically, given the international criticism meted out to the US over the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, the only warning note was on the treatment of suspected terrorists. ‘When one cracks down on terrorism, it has to be with the full understanding of basic principles of human rights,’ he said.

Powell then jetted off to heal transatlantic wounds caused by the war in Iraq. Human rights groups were left unimpressed.