So They Say: Algeria and Qatar

TSA Algerie writes about Algeria’s growing displeasure with Qatar’s assertive foreign policy and growing influence in the region. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is in Doha for the Forum of Gas Exporting Countries and TSA writes ‘the stakes are high’. (It writes that Bouteflika’s presence is notable given how rare his trips abroad have become in recent years.) Qatar has given a boost to a number of Islamist factions recently, notably in Tunisia and Libya and the article reports that Algiers is concerned Doha may be plotting to help revive elements of the external opposition, mentioning the fact that Abbasi Madani, one of the founders of the FIS is a long time resident in Qatar (the article alleges Madani has developed close ties with prominent CNT officials and attributes some of Algeria’s tension with the new Libyan authorities to this) and that Saad Djabbar (a vocal regime critic who appears frequently on Al Jazeera) is reported a personal lawyer for the Emir. It also notes Algiers’s disapproval of Qatar’s aggressive support for the overthrow of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi and its recent measures against Syria in the Arab League. It also writes that Algiers is refraining from publicly criticizing Doha, which it attributes to Qatar playing the US, France and the divided Arab states off one another making it practically ‘immune to pressure’ from the outside, especially because Saudi Arabia, it writes, seems unprepared to push back against it. The article ends by claiming that Bouteflika will probably seek Qatari mediation in outstanding disputes with Libyans and the CNT and describing rumors of Madani wanting to return to Algeria from his exile in the Gulf to live out his years in his homeland and for ‘ulterior’ political motivations at age 80.

Displeasure with Qatari foreign policy has been manifest in Algerian media coverage of Libya and in the variety of accusations by some Algerian commentators on the role of Al Jazeera in the Arab uprisings more generally. A number of Facebook groups serve as rant spaces for Algerians angry because they believe the state-owned Qatari news channel is actively attempting to incite rebellion in Algeria and to defame the country by repeating accusations about the government’s alleged support for Qadhafi and so on. Calls for boycotts and condemnation of Al Jazeera and the Emir of Qatar are common such pages. On the other hand there is little indication that the channel is any less popular today than last year among the Algerian viewing public. Much of the public manifestations of outrage at Qatar and Al Jazeera have been promoted by the private media, some of which is close to people in or formerly in government. These are possible signs of a couple of things. On the one hand it points to an official policy disagreement with Qatar on its support for the intervention in Libya and its support for Islamists in neighboring countries (which the government seems reluctant to voice public since it is hard to find any official communications against Qatar or even strong words from the most relevant top officials and according to the article). On the other hand it looks like the Algerians are feeling insecure about the potential for the country’s largely inoculated (or broken and tamed, if you prefer) Islamist movements. Most of these have been co-opted over the last twenty years and have been sapped of much of their popular legitimacy (see the MSP (the Ikhwan), the various smaller tendencies and the ex-FIS members who now speak up in favor of regime amnesties and reconciliation policies) or have had their will broken. That en-Nahdah was able to return to electoral success Tunisia after many years cut off from its constituency in exile is probably unnerving for the Algerians and that it has received support from Qatar is likely a point of concern for them. And that Qatar was so eager to support religiously-oriented insurgents in Libya and that it now reportedly acts as a patron to specific, supposedly Islamist, armed political factions there gives them no more comfort. The Algerians, then, look at their own historic external Islamist opposition in comparison to en-Nahdah and Libya think: Could it happen here (again)? Algeria will have legislative elections next year; that will not be as free as Tunisia’s recent poll. What if the Qataris attempt to meddle or to influence them by actively supporting one or the other party or through Al Jazeera? This seems far fetched given the Algerian government’s generally tight control over things electoral and that, unless there is massive change before hand, few people are likely to vote (some of the analyses one sees in Algerian newspapers about en-Nahdah’s performance overplays Qatar’s role). The Algerians very probably are unnerved by this years events and are looking for reassurance. Bouteflika himself has many financial and personal ties in the Gulf. There is probably not a single, uniform feeling about what impact Qatar’s foreign policy means for Algeria’s regional or internal political dynamic among the Algerian elite though sentiments are likely generally negative. Assuming the TSA report is accurate, it is improbable that Bouteflika would travel to Qatar if he did not think he could have some impact on Qatari behavior or at least get something important out of it on the Libya file for example (this is also notable because Bouteflika is known not just for his considering himself his own foreign minister (to use the cliche) but also because he is a strong believer in what are now considered traditional views of state sovereignty, though these are widespread in Algeria anyway; they apparently took extreme security precautions, avoiding flying over Libya, that this was released to the press indicates a political motive too, the article linked cites a number of reasons including not wanting to offend international opinion and the no fly zone). This points also to the challenges a small country faces when  playing an outsized role in its region. Doha has been smart in that it has focused some of its bigger plays in places far away, in North Africa rather than in the Gulf (in Bahrain or Yemen), though some say its act in the Arab League with Syria might cause it some trouble eventually.

Something worth noting on Al Jazeera and Algeria is that the Qatari channel has generally covered the Western Sahara in a way the Algerians liked, which got them kicked out of Morocco not long ago. Some of the pro-Moroccan propaganda websites and pundits have suggested that this might change if Algeria kept up its bad attitude on Libya. Speaking nastily about Qatar would probably influence that element though this is probably not a driving factor in Algerian decision-making as much as say their fear of what Qatar might do in the Arab League with respect to Algeria’s own stability (see: Syria).

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