A First Take on Algeria & Libya

Note: Below is a snap analysis of Algeria’s positioning regarding the Libyan Civil War based on press and official statements as the situation appears to an outsider. As more information become available and the situation becomes more clear, addition posts will follow criticizing and building on this interpretation. This is not an attempt to layout a definitive analysis, a rationalization, justification, tiny-violin pity party, or defense of Algeria’s policy on Libya whatever more complete information reveals it to have been, if it is indeed anything more than what the Foreign Ministry has described. It should be considered with a grain of salt, of course.

Summary. The Algerian position on Libya has been the subject of considerable controversy. On the one hand Algiers has defined its official position as one of non-intervention and neutralism. On the other ranking members of the FLN made controversial comments in favor of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi in direct contradiction of this policy. Algeria voted against the Arab League resolution endorsing a no-fly-zone and criticized UNSC 1973 harshly. Recent announcements by Algeria’s preeminent representative to the United Nations that members of Mu’amar al-Qadhfi’s family entered Algeria on Monday 29 August force a careful consideration of Algeria’s stance during the Libyan crisis. It appears that from the beginning of the Libyan revolt, the Algerians assumed Qadhafi would hold onto power and if that he could not the situation would not be handled best by containing the situation but by relying on regional institutions, namely the African Union, to negotiate some settlement. Voting against the Arab League resolution endorsing a no-fly-zone and strongly criticizing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, the Algerians failed to evolve a policy to cope with the NATO intervention and the brusk manner in which Britain, France and the United States — with important Gulf support — stepped over the BRICs and African Union efforts to avoid the “internationalization” of the Libyan crisis by relying on regional bodies. Much of Algeria’s behavior during the crisis — the inflammatory news reports on the proliferation of arms form Libya through the Sahel, the potential rise of Islamist fighters in the rebels’ ranks and comments by FLN officials criticizing the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) and voicing support for Qadhafi — gave the alternating appearance of displeasure with the NATO intervention, fear of unrest in Libya spreading into ALgeria and even support for the Qadhafi regime as such. At present the Algerians appear to have relied on an inadequate analysis of both the regional and international climate as it related to Libya specifically and to have placed too much credit in the African Union as an institution while underestimating the relevance and interest of the Gulf countries in Maghrebine affairs. Through the crisis, Algiers has not shown signs of recovering from its early deficiencies and will now be forced to deal with the consequences on the political, diplomatic and propaganda fronts.

A flawed foundation. The Algerians have generally laid out their concerns as Libya is concerned in a straightforward way through press intermediaries and in official statements. At the regional level the Algerians were conflicted over the Libyan situation. The Algerians saw the weakening of the Libyan state as a threat to their own border security and their campaign against al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They feared that Libyan stockpiles would become a source of arms for AQIM in Algeria and spread elsewhere in the region. If Algiers was cool on Qadhafi’s politics they were less put off by his ability to enforce his borders and influence Sahelian governments.

More broadly Algiers was troubled by the precedent the NATO intervention might set for similar internal political crises. The Algerians opposed the Arab League resolution on a Libyan no-fly-zone and UNSC resolution 1973 partly fearing what it would mean for the border zone and partly because, as a matter of principle, they oppose the involvement of non-African militaries in African conflicts (recall their official opposition to French involvement in regional operations against AQIM in Mali and their creation of the Tamanrasset process to avoid this, for example). The Algerian government has traditionally opposed intervention, especially by western states, in the internal affairs of other countries. The Algerians likely looked at Libya and considered the what things might have been like if the Security Council attempted to intervene on behalf of their own opposition after the 1992 crisis.

Early on the Algerians, like many others, read the situation in Libya as one that Qadhafi could put down. Through the early months of the conflict the Algerians worked frantically on the African Union circuit to try and develop an African position on the problem which might prevent the internationalization of the crisis in Libya. The Algerians are typically multilateralists, placing a high value on the United Nations, the African Union and even the non-Allied Movement as vehicles for legitimacy. Importantly, they have tended to pay less attention to the Arab League on issues related to the Maghreb due in part to Egyptian and Saudi support for Moroccan positions on border disputes and the Western Sahara and the logic that on issues of direct interest to Algeria, there is a greater potential for political and diplomatic support to be found in Africa than the Arab region. Official Algerian policy tends to follow the Arab “consensus” on major issues while remaining broadly aloof on deep or controversial questions, such as the dispute between Hamas and Fatah or competing factions in Yemen. Thus the Libya problem, given Libya’s recently traditional engagement in African affairs and patronage of the AU and the rising prestige of the AU relative to the Arab League, the Algerians judged the most appropriate posture to be one oriented toward Addis Ababa rather than Doha.

Algeria’s policy looked like a variant of South Africa’s position in that it seemed to reach for an African solution to what looked like an African problem. This analysis did not prepare them for the aggressive stance taken by France, Britain and then the United States nor did it prepare them for the keen interest Qatar and the UAE took in overthrowing Qadhafi. President Bouteflika spend many years before becoming president in the UAE and has important ties there; Algeria has had a relatively warn relationship with Qatar whose coverage of the Western Sahara struggle has pleased many Algerians and caused irritation in Morocco. Algeria’s hesitance on Libya did not endear it to the Qataris whose influence on public opinion is significant because of al-Jazeera — whose coverage some Algerians accused of bias in January and February. Media reports now speak of a row growing between the two countries on this issue. Given that Algeria has allowed a large number of the Qadhafis (though not Mu’amar) across the border they will need to answer hard questions about violating the travel bans outlined in UNSC 1970 and scrutiny that is likely to come from regional media outlets sympathetic to the TNC.

Ahead of and after the passing of UNSC 1973, Algeria launched massive military buildups on their border with Libya, increasing land and aerial patrols. The Algerians were less interested in supporting Qadhafi as such, either as a tactical or ideological ally in the conventional sense, than for the sake of containing the Libyan Civil War to Libya. Algerian foreign policy is generally pragmatic, and puts a high value on international institutions as a means of guarding the sovereignty of small and developing countries. The NATO intervention, which went on not while mostly ignoring the collective posture of the BRIC countries and the African Union was anathema in Algiers’s general worldview. Official Algerians are unpersuaded by high-minded arguments for humanitarian interventionism, which they see in materialist terms as a means of meddling in the affairs of weak states. The official question for the Algerians was not one of supporting Qadhafi or the rebels but how best to contain the conflict in the framework of the relevant regional institutions (as they saw them). And based on the Algerian experience it likely appears that the outcome of the Libyan conflict is a serious blow to the vision of international order they together with many other African and Asian countries have attempted to build and institutionalize. The Algerian position on Libya appears to have come from a general misreading of the international scene on the uprising and the intervention and a failure to compensate for this as the situation evolved.

Opacity, confusion and cynicism. Algeria’s official, neutralist, Libya policy was seriously compromised by the contradictions between the public statements of official institutions and the country’s foreign policy leaders and other centers of power. The president and the foreign minister made the Algerian position clear early on with respect to a number of issues discussed below. In March the Foreign Ministry received several delegations from Russia (on 23 March, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Algiers “Russia’s position is identical to that of Algeria”), Vietnam and African Union states in most cases issuing statements calling for an end to hostilities in Libya and criticizing the implementation of the no-fly-zone. The official line was rhetorically technical if frequently vague. The Ministry’s statements emphasized Algeria’s opposition to foreign interventions and its support for non-intervention in states’ internal affairs; the dangers of state collapse in Libya and their importance for arms smuggling and terrorism; and most notably the high value Algiers has traditionally placed on regional and international organizations like the African Union. Abdelkader Messahel, Delegate Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs in the Foreign Ministry called for “comprehensive dialogue” and backed up African Union efforts to mediate between the rebel and government forces (even claiming to be in contact with the TNC as early as May, although press reports on 28 August mentioned an alleged meeting between Medelci and TNC Prime Minister Mahmoud Djibril as the first meeting between the two parties) which were largely ignored in the west and the Arab region. The Algerians on multiple occasions described their position on Libya as one of neutrality. This policy was generally ineffective in either accomplishing its objectives as they related directly to Libya or in staving off criticism, especially in the pan-Arab media and in Libya, that it had chosen to “support” Qadhafi. The Algerians were in a poor position to rebut such claims particularly given the regime’s credibility gap in the public opinion arena as an authoritarian regime with a background of brutal crackdowns of its own and simmering social unrest.

The official line was undermined by the commentary and posturing of a number of senior officials whose public statements on radio and to newspapers conveyed pro-Qadhafi messages. Most of these appear to have resulted from efforts by particular elements to capitalize on the crisis for internal political ends and, perhaps, from an effort to assure Tripoli that Algeria was not interested in assisting in his overthrow at a time when his demise did not appear imminent. This was mainly the case with the FLN, Algeria’s former single ruling party. Abdelaziz Belkhadem, secretary general of the FLN, voiced his support for Qadhafi and his party’s opposition to the no fly zone on multiple occasions on radio programs aimed at domestic audiences. In May Saddek Bouguettaya, a member of the FLN central committee and head of the parliamentary commission on foreign affairs, attended pro-Qadhafi meeting in Tripoli and declared the FLN’s support for Qadhafi and accused rebel forces of atrocities. FLN party officials in particular spoke in aggressive terms when it seemed Qadhafi was unlikely to be defeated. Belkhadem, it should be noted has faced much criticism from members of the FLN for not being assertive enough in the governing coalition, of favoritism and lacking vision. It is probable that he hoped to gain some credibility from sections of the FLN by capitalizing on anti-western sentiments to give the appearance of leadership. Other parties in Algeria’s tripartite ruling coalition took a different tone and stance. The RND, the party of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia (who is a former career diplomat and foreign minister) and the one with the largest number of seats in parliament, was largely silent while the MSP took a line that was clearly favorable to the TNC and rebels. Most in government and the opposition openly opposed the NATO no-fly-zone or, as Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci did, at least criticized the western powers‘ implementation and interpretation of UNSC 1973. Virtually none of the significant opposition parties took a pro-Qadhafi line as such though several aggressively criticized the NATO campaign and the TNC for accepting NATO’s support. On a historical note it is also important to recall that even in the days of the one party state, political parties were of little relevance in Algeria’s overall foreign policy decision making process with the most sensitive policy issues being handled mainly by the president, the military leadership and the most senior elements in the foreign ministry. Parties alone do not present a full picture of the Algerian posture on Libya.

While individual members of the government and political class have made various comments the president and foreign minister have restricted their words to technical matters, such as the wording and mandate of UNSC 1973 and NATO’s implementation of it or Algeria’s commitment to African Union efforts on the conflict. The Algerian government has traditionally opposed intervention, especially by western states, in the internal affairs of other countries. The Algerians likely looked at Libya and considered the what things might have been like if the Security Council attempted to intervene on behalf of their own opposition after the 1992 crisis. At the systemic level, they were concerned about UNSC 1973 would set a precedent in favor of similar such interventions elsewhere. On the regional level, the Algerians were quite explicit that they were concerned Libya’s arms depots would be easy pickings for smugglers and militants and that the collapse of the Libyan state would produce “chaos” and empower Islamist militants like al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb. The Algerian press published many stories hyping this possibility and carried stories on the alleged flow of weapons out of Libya and through the Sahel. Libyan rebel sources reported that Algerian military aircraft were used to ferry mercenaries into the country and that Algerian mercenaries provided support to the Libyan government. This likely caused pro-regime elements in the press to continue to escalate the tone of their reports on the rebels, weapons and the terrorism angle into the late summer. Foreign Ministry statements on Libya were generally bland until accusations of harboring Qadhafi or providing material support to his forces became common in the mid-summer. The Foreign Ministry found itself issuing press releases claiming that, contrary to what news reports or TNC sources claimed, it had not released press releases on particular issues related to Libya. It is also worth noting that a significant amount of the most hostile and bizarre coverage of the Libyan rebels in Algerian papers appeared as if it were intended for a domestic audience like in an attempt to illustrate the supposed pitfalls of rebellion and fitna and remind Algerian readers of the horrors of civil war.

Algiers, along with multiple AU countries refused to recognize the TNC as Libya’s governing authority while fighting continued after rebel forces moved into Tripoli. While this put Algeria close to the African mainstream is isolated the country in the Arab and Maghrebine contexts, leaving it as Libya’s only neighbor in the Arab League refusing to recognize the new government in Tripoli, even as the Libyan embassy in Algiers raised the “rebel flag”. Algiers was embarrassed by media reports citing anonymous sources that the government was conditioning recognition of the TNC government on its commitment to fight al-Qa’ida. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 27 August saying it “categorically denies” Reuters reports that it was making its recognition of the TNC conditional on the Libyans’ pledging to combat AQIM. On 21/22 August, rebels sacked the Algerian embassy in Tripoli, causing its employees to seek refuge in the UN office and the government to repatriate the families of Algerian diplomatic staff in the country.

While various Arabic and French language papers in Algeria criticized Libya’s strugglers, many were critical of the government’s official neutrality and its refusal to support the rebels — a trend that became increasingly common as the conflict dragged on. Prominent national figures who fought in Algeria’s revolution were particularly critical of the president and the foreign ministry. Among the harshest criticisms were accusations that Algeria had missed an opportunity to assert itself as a leader in the region by taking a strong stand on Libya, by for example siding with the Libyan resistance or condemning Qadhafi. The main line of criticism has been that Algeria has been too passive and too cautious during the Libyan crisis. Algiers, many argued, was missing an opportunity to show leadership in Africa and the Maghreb and even betraying the nation’s revolutionary heritage.

No love ‘lost’ between Algiers and the Qadhafite regime? On the political and strategic levels the Algerians have little sentimental interest in Qadhafi. For years was Qadhafi seen as a nuisance (with respect to the Western Sahara, border and even energy issues), unreliable (recall his shifts in stance of the Western Sahara, various African questions and on terrorism) and even hostile at times (again on border issues, where there were skirmishes and claims disputes over gas fields). Though the two countries had relatively cordial relations in the 1970s, resulting almost exclusively from a common support for the Polisario against Morocco in the Western Sahara, relations soured in the 1980s under Chadli Bendjedid when Qadhafi sent a delegation proposing immediate “union” between the two countries which Bendjedid explicitly refused. Following this, the Libyans made threats to assassinate Bendjedid and renewed territorial claims on Algerian territory. The two countries policies with respect to the Sahel through the 1990s were in direct conflict, with Algiers attempting to counter Libyan efforts to stoke rebellion among Tuaregs and other nomadic communities in the border regions, including southern Algeria. In 1984 the Libyans signed an alliance with Morocco further alienating Algiers. Algeria’s relationship with Qadhafi was generally a function of pragmatism as it related to Algeria’s rivalry with Morocco, a subject on which the Libyans were generally unreliable from the Algerian standpoint. In later years, though, the terrorism file became more and more important. In the last five years Algeria and Libya finally delineated their border and engaged in joint military exercises and cooperated on counter terrorism. The Algerians believed Qadhafi had been evolving into a more pragmatic position on the questions that mattered to them: border security with reference to smuggling, terrorism and migration (especially since 2006). In public statements the Algerian foreign ministry and government have given these issues priority over all others; the Algerians have expressed little interest in the outcome of the Libya’s internal upheaval aside from whatever government emerges’ ability and commitment to enforce the border and fight al-Qa’ida. And beyond these conventional interests are parochial ones, shared business interests and investments by Libyan firms linked to the Qadhafi sons in Algeria, particularly in the western part of the country where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and many of his close associates and top officials have family ties or reside. It would be quite surprising if these interests dictated the whole of Algeria’s approach to Libya from mid- to later-stages of the conflict when his removal from power appeared imminent. It seems probable that the Qadhafis will eventually find themselves in a third country.

Keeping up with the Qadhafis. Speculation as to the the location of Mu’amar and the other Qadhafis was rampant after TNC strugglers moved into Tripoli. Early TNC reports suggested Qadhafi himself or his sons fled to Algeria. Rumors of Qadhafi’s presence in Algeria following the fall of Tripoli were undermined by Algiers’s dim view of the former Libyan leader and a general lack of substantive evidence for TNC claims that he allegedly took refuge there as well as the sheer variety of claims and accusations made as to his whereabouts. TNC leaders variously claimed Mu’amar al-Qadhafi found sage harbor in Algeria, that South Africa sent planes through an air embargo to transport him out of the country, that he had fled to the desert, his home town of Sirte or to Sebha or that he was still in the vicinity of Tripoli. Rebel leaders had also claimed Qadhafi and his sons had fled to Algeria earlier after battles at Gharayan. Rebel claims that the Algerians were providing support to pro-Qadhafi forces or the the family proper were strengthened by the fact that while major military patrols were stepped up on the border, the border with Libya remained open during the conflict.

Qadhafi is known to have two sons with links to Algeria, one supposedly married to an Algerian and the other believed to have a residence in Algiers. Reports in the Washington Post citing Libyan rebel sources about Qadhafi’s money being moved to Algerian accounts suggested preparations for a move of the former ruling family. Several of the Qadhafis have investments in western Algeria, the home region of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and many of his close associates. These reports are bolstered by the recent announcement the Algeria’s permanent representative to the UN that Algeria allowed Aisha, Safiya, Mohamed and Hannibal al-Qadhafi together with their spouses and children into the country early Monday morning. Algerian sources claim at least two of Qadhafi’s sons have residences in Algiers and that one is married to Algerian. Unnamed Algerian officials told the New York Times that none of the Qadhafis in Algeria were subject to arrest warrants by the ICC. Hannibal, Aisha and Mohamed are all subject to travel bans under UNSC 1970, putting the Algerians in violation of its responsibilities on that front and seriously undermining the government international credibility and further entrenching already deep mistrust among Libyan strugglers and the TNC.

The price of cynicism and mixed messages? The mixed messages coming from Algiers — the contradictory statements from high officials and party leaders and the tone of articles in newspapers considered close to one or the other faction of the political elite — have exposed Algeria to conspiracy theories and accusations from the Libyan resistance and even traditional adversaries such as Moroccan propaganda outlets. Early in the conflict it seemed the Algerians hoped that a strong showing of solidarity by major developing countries and rising powers would help push back against the will of NATO and the Gulf Arabs. The Libyan episode thus far appears as a serious set back for the AU’s political and institutional credibility as well as a major statement about the ability of Russia and China’s ability to majorly influence events as related to their partners. Algeria’s policy appears symptomatic of its leadership’s general lack of finesse in managing emerging norms trends moving east to west in the Arab region. Algeria will likely face criticism internationally for having taken in the Qadhafis; it is also like to suffer pressure from Gulf Arab states pushing the consensus position on Libya. Algiers lost the propaganda campaign during the Libyan crisis and is likely to continue to take a lashing when it comes to regional opinion and media coverage. Its links to NATO are unlikely to suffer seriously but may be put at some risk if it continues to dig into its defiant stance. France is a likely source of pressure. Its importance as a European energy supplier may offset harsh western pressure, particularly since Libyan oil production is likely not to be online in time for it to provide a politically relevant alternative. At the domestic level standing by the Qadhafis will not earn anyone in the Algerian leadership any kind of kudos from the Algerian people who are hungry for political change themselves. As Qadhafi scrapes out of the political scene, Algeria is ending the Libyan crisis more isolated than when it began.

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6 thoughts on “A First Take on Algeria & Libya

  1. [...] apparently noble sentiment shouldn’t blind observers to the despotic Algerian regime’s opposition to the Libyan intervention and to popular uprisings in general. Algeria has now closed part of its border with Libya, which could be seen as an aggressive move [...]

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