This post is a follow up on a previous posting addressing mainly Algerian press reporting on supposed Qatari support for militant movements in northern Mali (‘RE: Canard Enchaîné, Qatar in northern Mali and Algeria‘). It particularly looks at the involvement of the Qatar Red Crescent in this context, which was taken by some observers as evidence (or non-evidence) of supposed Qatari ‘involvement’ in the conflict. This blogger viewed this as part of Algerian propaganda on the conflict mixed with natural paranoia in Malian circles over the role of powerful external actors in the conflict. Similar reports and suspicion about the presence of the Algerian Red Crescent appear to have fit into a similar narrative, especially for those supportive of the MNLA which has put out a large good deal of messaging accusing Algeria of undermining its activities or of supporting the Islamist terrorist and rebel groups in the region. There does not appear to be support for the view that Qatar has sponsored all or some of the main rebel and terrorist groups in northern Mali; and while Algerian involvement in the conflict behind the scenes or via established links to various elements in the region is probable it is unlikely that it is using humanitarian groups as agents of influence. In both cases, though many scenarios are possible and there is no reason to discount such possibilities.
Below is a guest post from Erin Pettigrew, a friend of the blog and a PhD Candidate in African History at Stanford University. She has been doing field work in Mauritania for the last several months and has long experience there. She offers her insights and thoughts on change in Mauritania from the ground level.
Several recent articles have appeared in the last several weeks addressing Algeria’s internal political situation. Below is a list of some of these articles, along with two from a few months back that are still worth looking at. These help get at some of the issues and internal priorities facing Algeria’s political leadership today. Algeria watchers should never forget that the overarching priority for Algeria’s regime insiders is domestic politics, the mutation and maintenance of the system of privileges and patronage that define the general and particular contours of the Algerian ‘model’ of politics. Since the 10 May election, Algeria is still without a new cabinet or government. Its foreign policy on key issues, especially the Mali file, remains obscure to most people trying to figure it out. Some have made attempts at putting what little is available about decision-making and agendas into a broader context and fielded perceptive analyses of the current situation as far as the country’s current posture toward Mali. Reporting an analysis elsewhere has focused on the role of clans in the political class and security services in Algeria’s internal politics.
‘Algeria at Fifty and the Regime’s Successful Fiascos,’ International Affairs at LSE, 27 January 2012.
- ‘Un ancien diplomate français: l’Etat DRS contrôle la vie du pays dans tous ses aspects!‘ La Nation, 17 May 2012.
- ‘Benbouzid, la grande énigme du pouvoir algérien,’ Presse DZ, 11 June 2012.
- ‘Le Sahel : des espaces à conquérir ou des territoires à partager?‘ Mohamed Khalfaoui, El Watan, 03 July 2012.
- ‘Hicham Aboud. Ancien capitaine des “services”, journaliste, auteur de la maffia des généraux “Saïd Bouteflika dirige le nouveau cabinet noir”,’ El Watan, 05 July 2012.
- ‘Lahouari Addi, Professeur de sociologie politique: ”L’Algérie est le seul pays au monde où le pouvoir est caché, clandestin”,’ El Watan, 05 July 2012.
- ‘A Alger, la colère des gardes communaux “humiliés” par les policiers,’ 09 July 2012.
- ‘The Ugly Truth about Algeria,’ John R. Schindler, The National Interest, 10 July, 2012.
- ‘Affaire de deux ex-patriotes arrêtés en France: Mohamed Smaïn accuse l’ex-président français Nicolas Sarkozy,’ TSA-Algerie, 10 July 2012.
- ‘Des détenus qui dorment dans les toilettes, violences, mauvais traitements…Mohamed Smaïn esquisse un portrait sombre de l’univers carcéral en Algérie,’ TSA-Algerie, 10 July 2012.
- ‘La rigueur pour le peuple, le luxe pour les privilégiés,’ TSA-Algerie, 10 July 2012.
- ‘Algérie: A la recherche du véritable général Mohamed Lamine Médiène dit “Tewfik,”’ by 7our, Un regard averti sur l’Algérie et le Monde, 11 July 2012.
- ‘Algeria and the Crisis in Mali,’ Alexis Arieff, Actuelles de l’Ifri, 19 July 2012.
- ‘Un quatrième mandat de Bouteflika n’est plus totalement exclu: Le pouvoir tenté de reporter pour après 2014 les réformes démocratiques promises,’ TSA-Algerie, 21 July 2012.
- ‘Il accuse le pouvoir de déstabiliser le MSP: Paralysie politique du pays : El Islah incrimine le président Bouteflika,’ TSA-Algerie, 21 July 2012.
- ‘Réfugiés en Algérie: Quelle stratégie?‘ LNR, 21 July 2012.
- ‘Lahouari Addi, professeur de sociologie: “La société est en train de se moderniser dans la douleur”‘ Liberte, 22 July 2012.
- ‘Flambée des prix: Le MSP met en garde contre une explosion sociale,’ TSA-Algerie, 22 July 2012.
Below is a guest post by Thomas Seres, author of ‘The Malian crisis seen from Algeria,’ by Thomas Seres (19 April 2012), focused on views of the conflict in Mali in Algeria’s domestic politics. This blogger wrote a response focused on the piece’s implications for discourses on Algeria’s foreign policy using the piece as a launching pad for discussions of other related issues, especially among Anglophones. This is necessary since this blogger wrote that Seres’s analysis was ‘insufficient’ in getting at Algerian foreign policy on the crisis; he fairly points out that his piece was not about foreign policy even though this blog was eager to use it as a means of discussing that issue. Seres is sharp and points to the flaws in this blogger’s analysis of his as well as points of disagreement and agreement on levels of analysis and the framing of particular problems. The response provides clarifications (especially on certain problems lost in translation, as his English piece was originally in French), rebuttals and arguments which add to the debate on these issues. His response, in French, is reproduced, unedited below. Continue reading
While West African countries weigh a military solution to the Mali crisis, Islamist group Ansar al-Din has turned to the internet to muster support.
The group’s media official, Sanda Ould Bouamama, recently held a series of discussions on global jihadist forums, including the “Ansar Al-Mujahideen Network”.
The Touareg Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) called on “brothers and members” of the network to submit questions about the organisation’s ideology and the situation in the Azawad region.
Bouamama stressed the group’s salafist background and intent to implement Sharia.
Analysts say that the move has to do with the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was responsible for recruiting fighters using modern technologies. His demise caused the organisation to look for alternatives to preserve its narrowing support base, observers say.
‘Ansar al-Din turns to jihadist forums,’ Magharebia, 02 July 2012.
The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor on Sunday warned Islamist rebels to stop destroying ancient Islamic shrines in northern Mali’s Timbuktu, saying it amounted to a war crime.
“My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate,” Fatou Bensouda told AFP in an interview.
She said that Mali was signatory to the Rome Statute which established the ICC, which states in Article 8 that deliberate attacks against undefended civilian buildings which are not military objectives are a war crime.
“This includes attacks against historical monuments as well as destruction of buildings dedicated to religion,” said Bensouda.
‘Destruction of ancient Timbuktu shrines a ‘war crime’: ICC prosecutor,’ al-Arabiyya English, 01 July 2012.
The rebellion in Mali has inspired particular forum users to rejoice at the victories of AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine and MUJWA over the Malian Army and the MNLA through poetry. Members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum have posted at least three poems including praise or reference to the Salafi-jihadi effort in Mali. Two of these are focused specifically on events in Mali; one posted in April 2012 praises the ‘conquest’ of Mali by Islamist forces and another posted on 02 July 2012, after Ansar Ed-Dine and its allies in Timbuktu took to their second attempt to destroy the city’s fabled Sufi shrines, widely condemned in north and west Africa (especially among Muslims) and in the rest of the world as an assault of the city’s religious and cultural heritage. These poems are reviewed here because their content and context and responses to them can be taken as indicative of political and ideological sentiment among forum members and a kind of constituency to which groups like those currently carrying on in norther Mali have sought to appeal to beyond the physical areas they control.
They also illustrate one kind of worldview that is interpreting events in northern Mali in a manner sympathetic to the jihadist groups there, largely from afar, as the majority of people in northern Mali, especially places like Gao and Timbuktu, generally lack the time, access or spirits to churn out poems on Internet forums (this is part of why northern Mali’s jihadist groups, including AQIM and Ansar Ed-Dine have tended to make their key announcements to regional and international (‘kafir‘) news agencies such AFP, ANI, RFI and the like as this is where their target audiences get their news). So this is a way at getting a specific kind of reaction to what is generally called the ‘crisis’ in northern Mali. Continue reading
This a very brief post, reeling from the event in Gao. It makes no claims to definitiveness, and predominantly asks questions and wonders.
The week of 25 June saw the MNLA expelled from Gao by Islamist militants belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Ed-Dine, the latest in a string of tactical and strategic defeats for northern Mali’s pro-independence and more or less secularist rebel group. The group has been outmaneuvered at nearly every turn by Ansar Ed-Dine, AQIM and MUJWA since the armed rebellion began to move south to Timbuktu and Gao from Kidal. MUJWA appears to have deftly leveraged its local connections in Gao among local Arabs to exploit strong animosity between Songhai armed elements and the Tuareg-dominated MNLA. The MNLA’s pro-session agenda and abuses of the local population on arrival in Gao coupled with long-standing hostility between members of the Ganda Iso and Ganda Koy militia groups (elements of which were involved in atrocities against Tuaregs during previous rebellions) appears to have allowed MUJWA to direct popular discontent with living conditions in the city resulting from the rebellion onto the MNLA, marginalizing it and forcing its members in the city to take flight (resistance to the MNLA’s behavior in the city is not difficult to hard to imagine, especially given reports of the the group’s pillaging and abuses related by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch and how the group declared unilaterally declared independence for the Azawad in an area that was the capital of the Songhai Empire, without even mentioning previous conflicts in detail). The victory of Islamist forces at the Battle of Gao is, as things stand now (with MNLA forces on the run from both Gao and Timbuktu) a significant development in the conflict in Mali; armed Islamists are happily setting out to destroy sacred Islamic shrines in Timbuktu, inviting foreign jihadists (some of whom are reported to have already arrived) to help fortify their victory in Gao and guard it from an external intervention. The brief rumor that MNLA forces had killed the elusive AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, like so many other instances where the group has attempted to demonstrate value to outsiders by talking smack about AQIM, appears to be utterly false.
MUJWA’s propaganda during the Battle of Gao displays its intelligent exploitation of local grievances. A video released to regional media (and posted to the jihadist forums) shows the group’s effort to link its narrative to Songhai nationalist feelings; the video bears the name “Askia,” the name of a Songhai emperor with strong symbol power. The video shows MUJWA’s men defending anti-MNLA demonstrators from MNLA gunfire, with subtitles carefully narrating the events; how this demonstration was initiated is unclear but it believed that it may have begun as a protest against the city’s Islamist groups but was flipped at the MNLA with the help of provocateurs or other means. The video itself is evidence of northern Mali’s Islamsits’ increasingly sophisticated media operations and use of psychological warfare against their adversaries. The video made it to the Internet only a day after the events occurred, edited and sound-tracked; how the video made it to the Internet so quickly from a city where Internet access is severely limited and sparse is an important question that needs to be answered in time. It also shows the group’s local focus; in previous posts this blogger has pointed out MUJWA’s links to Gao’s local criminal and Arab communities and the concentration of its activities in and around that city (though its armed actions have been strongly focused on Algeria, including a suicide attack in Ouargla which is important not only for its distance from the Mali border but also because MUJWA claims the attacker was from Ouargla which could mean he was an AQIM fighter who joined MUJWA when the group formed late last year or more seriously that he joined the group at some later stage). MUJWA has moved from former AQIM subcontractors, members and even drug runners to finding tactical support among members of the city’s other ethnic groups in the city, in the process projecting an image of ‘popular support’ which may or may not reflect sympathy with the Islamist groups per se as much as a perception of a common enemy. Interestingly, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s communique setting out his version of events during the fighting in Gao makes no mention of MUJWA; he denies any sectional or ethnic ‘conflict’, specifically between Arabs and Tuaregs (which perhaps speaks to the view that MUJWA is heavily composed of Gao-area Arabs), and states that ‘we didn’t intend to declare war on any party, and neither any of the members or groups of the movement, as have been claimed by one of the leaderships of the movement, as it was an ending for this deliberate injustice, aggression and killing, which came from the main headquarters of the movement.’ [Here 'the movement' refers to the MNLA. See a PDF of the statement from the Ansar al-Mujahideen English forum here, in Arabic here and on ANI here. The events in Gao received relatively significant attention from members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum where three or four threads are running covering events in Gao, focused on the initial video from Gao, reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was leading the fighting in the city and news updates on the situation; as with most posts covering Mali on the forum, members posting are generally ecstatic and view events there as proof of the rapid progress of the jihadist movement in Africa since the beginning of the rebellion, though posts on northern Mali remain sparse if interesting and sometimes lengthy. Ansar Ed-Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana will answer questions from members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum soon enough (a 'sticky' thread with seven pages of questions is open on the 'Events and Issues of the Islamic Ummah’ sub-forum); his answers there may clarify some of the group's relationships with AQIM, MUJWA and the MNLA and its attitude toward foreign fighters, who appear eager to travel to the area to get some of the action if we [unreasonably] judge by the comments on forums and elsewhere, though there are many reports about fighters from Algeria, Tunisia, and beyond in any case. MUJWA made a public invitation in an AlAkhbar interview to foreign jihadis last week as well.] MUJWA’s relationship with Belmokhtar appears as though it may still be auxiliary if not subordinate; the group continues military activities in Algeria and elsewhere, while being evidently focused on Gao. How do the overlapping relationships between northern Mali’s Islamist armed groups function, where does AQIM end and MUJWA begin? Where does Ansar Ed-Dine begin and AQIM end? At what point do such distinctions begin to matter, where do they fade? There is much to learn.
To the lay observer, MUJWA’s actions continues to be vexing; the group’s initial rhetoric speaks of a campaign to spread jihad in west Africa but most of its actions appear to have been against Algerian targets; it has emerged from a Salafi-jihadi organization and milieu but has used local ethno-nationalist imagery in its messaging and the group’s funders are also widely rumored to be involved with drug trafficking and other dirty tasks seemingly at odds with its ideological orientation. Questions emerge: what is MUJWA’s purpose in relation to Ansar Ed-Dine and AQIM? How thoroughly has it expanded its membership and appeal to locals in Gao and the surrounding region? Why and how does it continue to reach relatively (Tamanrasset) and absolutely (Ouargla) deep into Algerian territory, in areas widely considered to be heavily militarized and guarded by the Algerian military and security services (it should be mentioned that many of these areas have relatively high levels of security but this may be insufficient in terms of orientation or emphasis in terms of disposition or posture with respect to the current situation, especially since reporting from last year onwards indicates that major build ups took place in the southern provinces and these exact arrangements are not well known as yet)? Who are its key funders and political leaders, strategists and tacticians and to what extent to they overlap with AQIM proper and Ansar Ed-Dine? If the group is soliciting outside jihadists to Gao, how might their arrival, combined with hardcore elements in the organization itself, cause the group to overreach or make itself less welcome in Gao (especially if, as some have wondered, it begins attacking shrines in the city)? What is to be made of reports from June that MUJWA escorted convoys of the Qatar Red Crescent in Gao, and that these ambulances provided its fighters with support during the fighting in Gao ‘against the MNLA‘ (especially in light of other reports about Qatar providing support to ‘all’ the armed groups in northern Mali seen in the French and especially Algerian presses)? As always there are at the moment more questions than answers and sustained interest.
This post is a follow on to the post, ‘Introductory Algeria Foreign Policy Reading List (I),’ which covered books. A second list is still forthcoming. This post is a kind of meditation on the literature on Algerian foreign policy generally as well as some of the features of Algeria’s foreign policy in very general terms. The second part of the list — made up of journal articles, reports, dissertations and the like — is still forthcoming. Continue reading
Reuters published an article on 20 June (‘Algeria’s elite at loggerheads over next president‘), describing fissures within Algeria’s elite and how these are believed to be influencing the (non-) selection of a successor to elderly and ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The article is quite good. Up front, the fact that Boutelfika, who is over 70-years-old, has not designated a successor and that this is being done by clans and camps speaks to the often mentions similarities between Bouteflika’s style of rule and that of Houari Boumediene, who ruled the country from 1965-1978, when he died of an obscure blood disease (Boutelfika was a key player as Boumediene’s foreign minister). When Boumediene died suddenly (his illness was kept secret while he received medical care in the Soviet Union), Algeria’s military and civilian elites began bickering over who would succeed him, men from the party, the Foreign Ministry and the military had their views, ultimately the military torpedoed the prospects for the civilian candidates, including Bouteflika by various means, and installed Colonel Chadhli Bendjedid.¹ The Reuters piece makes good reading with Le Soir‘s 20 June interview with Chafik Mesbah, a DRS officer cum political commentator. Take both with a grain of salt. According to the Reuters piece, Algerians suspect five possibilities for a Bouteflika successor:
- Abdelaziz Belkhadem. A Bouteflika ally and the head of the National Liberation Front, traditionally the ruling party. It won last month’s parliamentary election. He would open up the economy to investors and reach out to Islamists, an influential group. Some in the secularist elite think his closeness to Islamists makes him suspect, and they would prefer a cleaner break from Bouteflika. He could though emerge as a compromise candidate because he straddles the Islamist and secularist camps.
- Said Bouteflika. The president’s younger brother. If he became president it would be a continuation of the incumbent’s rule. That is resisted by many in the elite, who think a family dynasty is wrong and that, anyway, it is time for a change.
- Amar Ghoul. A moderate Islamist who until last month was minister of public works. He is close to the Bouteflika camp. His selection would signal Algeria is coming into line with the trend in the region for Islamists to gain power. For many in the elite, choosing an Islamist though would be too much to stomach.
- Ahmed Ouyahia. Many in “le pouvoir” believe the serving prime minister’s push for economic nationalism has failed to create jobs, and it is time for him to go. He hinted at the debate going on behind the scenes when he said on July 2: “I know I annoy people, that’s the way it is.”
- An outsider. At times, the elite drafts in a presidential candidate from outside the mainstream to show it is ready to embrace reform. This could be Ahmed Benbitour, a technocrat who resigned as prime minister in 2000 after clashing with Bouteflika. Another option could be Mouloud Hamrouche, also a former prime minister who, his supporters say, was fired in 1991 because he wanted to reform the economy. Both are secularists.
This is a good overview of the personalities and attitudes involved as far as most people can tell. The description of Belkhadem is somewhat optimistic, in that he is a polarising figure coming out of the FLN; his ability to straddle camps will likely be dependent on the results of struggles over his leadership within the FLN. Ouyahia was until about two years ago a favoured candidate for succession among many, including this blogger. He attached himself too closely to the economic reform platform and thus became too controversial. Ghoul is also controversial, coming from the establish Islamist MSP (the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood) which under performed in the May legislative election. When thinking about MSP men in terms of Islamism, though, it is important recognise that this is a minority movement within Algerian Islamism and that its leaders, Ghoul in particular, have been in governing roles for most of the Bouteflika period. On the younger Bouteflika, there was strong resistance to the suggestion of him becoming the president’s successor early on and it would speak strongly about the depth of unseen forces if the Algerian political class came round to the idea of him as president. Those convinced of Algeria’s ‘exceptionalism’ or insulation from Tunisian or Egyptian style revolts and instability should consider the influence of succession crises and uncertainties on events in those countries in the 2010-2011 period; those not convinced on these lines should consider the longterm triumph of the Algerian regime’s agility in surfing over spontaneity and instability. The situation as of now puts Algeria in its usual posture, at any point some unforeseen event could upend years worth of assumptions. Such is life.
Still, the Reuters piece also offers an opportunity to think about some of the habitual problems in even the best reporting on Algerian politics in English (and frequently on this blog). Nothing is perfect and even things widely regard as sound today will eventually become passé. Continue reading
SUMMARY: This post considers reports from the French press that Qatar has been funding armed groups in northern Mali in light of Algerian press coverage of the story and uncertainties in the region and strong claims.
Last week the satirical French paper Canard Enchaîné reported that Qatar has allegedly been funding armed groups in northern Mali made their way into Algerian and west African outlets. Suspicions that Ansar Ed-Dine, the main pro-shari’ah armed group in the region, has been receiving funding from Qatar has circulated in Mali for several months. Reports (as yet unconfirmed) that a ‘Qatari’ aircraft landed at Gao, full of weapons, money and drugs, for example, emerged near the beginning of the conflict. The original report cites a French military intelligence report as indicating that Qatar has provided financial support to all three of the main armed groups in northern Mali: Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). The amount of funding given to each of the groups is not mentioned but it mentions repeated reports from the French DGSE to the Defense Ministry have mentioned Qatar’s support for ‘terrorism’ in northern Mali.
Jeune Afrique mentions that the report is likely to increase tensions between Algiers and Doha, pointing to possible contention over hydrocarbons in northern Mali and disagreements over Qatar’s aggressive support for Arab uprisings, which has irritated Algiers. (The original report mentions discussions between Total and Qatar on energy in Mali.) The first question to ask about a story like this is what and where is the source for the French source on this? While knowledgeable sources in west Africa have alleged Qatar has been ‘supporting’ at least one armed group in Mali their reports tend to mention Ansar Ed-Dine specifically and not the secular MNLA, the well known al-Qa’ida affiliate AQIM or its splinter, MUJWA. That Qatar is backing all of these groups is new and unique to the Canard Enchaîné report. One wonders if Algerian reporting (the French had to have gotten this information from someplace) has to do with this particular accusation going beyond Ansar Ed-Dine. Even if this is not the case the Canard Enchaîné report is worth thinking about in the wider political context. Continue reading
SUMMARY: This post is a general description of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, also known by the English acronym MOJWA and the French MOJAO), following on previous posts on the group’s origins and activities in northern Mali. It discusses the group’s origins, activities, leadership and relationships with other armed groups in northern Mali, including Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It also points to recent analyses of the group’s origins. Unlike previous posts on this blog dealing with MUJWA, which deal with competing explanations for the group’s origin it is preoccupied with its activities and recent comments by its leaders. Among the strongest formal descriptions of the group in English (such as they exist) comes from Dario Christiani for the Jamestown Foundation, published in Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 10, Issue 7 (6 April 2012). Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali has dealt with the emergence of the group in overviews of the Islamist armed groups for al-Jazeera, first in Arabic and now in English (PDF). Though relatively little is known about MUJWA with certainty and any analysis of the group must cautious to stress this, more information has become available with time and certain observations and even claims can be about the group. Continue reading
Alex Thurston at the Sahel Blog notes news reports of military exercises being held on the Mauritanian border with Mali. Mauritania’s armed forces have been on heightened altert since at least last November, with increased patrols and excercises on the border in response both to kidnappings and the rebellion in Mali. During last week’s exercises ‘a heavy artillery bombardment could be heard outside Bassiknou for two days. Meanwhile, military aircraft carried out sorties over the area and bombed virtual moving targets as part of a training drill supervised by French experts.’ These sounds caused some local residents to believe there was actual fighting going on, between the Army and AQIM or ‘the Tuaregs’ according to sources. The Mauritanians have been especially active against AQIM in northern Mali, launching several air and land raids across the border in the last three years. In March 2012, the Mauritanian air force bombed convoys in northern Mali, killing what it claimed with AQIM militants, Malian sources told wire services civilians were killed. The Mauritanians retain an aggressive posture. In 2010 and 2011 AQIM had taken to claiming its dead — posting statements and obituaries on jihadist forums for example, following up on their own accounts of the fighting — or attempting to exploit civilian casualties by claiming the victims of such raids were civilians and not their men. The Mauritanian raids were relatively lethal, causing what were probably embarrassing casualties for AQIM; this coupled with AQIM suffering heavy defeats in northern Algeria during the same time period made it more difficult for the group to put consistent effort into Internet propaganda following more recent raids. Thus there are fewer accounts of the fighting (at least from AQIM’s perspective) for more recent raids and relatively few obituaries for members killed. The fighting has continued and the Mauritanian military and intelligence services undertook offensive measures aimed at intercepting and interdicting AQIM operatives and uncovering its plots in the country (which include plans for kidnapping soldiers and an attack marking the anniversary of Usama Bin Laden’s death), due to increased monitoring on the border and in the refugee camps there as well as apparently, if Algerian media reports and the recent killing of an alleged Mauritanian spy at the hands of AQIM are any indication, a relatively aggressive intelligence gathering activity which may have included the penetration of AQIM itself. These actions were made possible by Mali’s unwillingness to confront AQIM and Mauritania’s perception of northern Mali as a strategic space where AQIM’s presence made the country vulnerable to the group’s emphasis on armed action against the Mauritanian state. The collapse of state control in northern Mali contributes to the sense of urgency on the Mauritanian side of the border.
While Mauritania’s internal politics have brought the legitimacy of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz into question since his disputed election in 2009 (and those disputes appear to be coming to a head this year) there has been relatively little controversy over the army’s raids into Mali (though members of the opposition did attempt to paint Ould Abdel Aziz as reckless early on, the raids did not appear unpopular in Mauritania and most political parties tended to back them). Ould Abdel Aziz is far more controversial for his internal policies (while range from corruption in financial management and resource allocation to his stalling of the electoral process to what many see as open contempt for the opposition), which continue to provoke agitation and controversy.
The March raid was reported to have resulted in at least a few civilian casualties; the Mauritanians have also killed civilians in previous raids. On one occasion, AQIM used the opportunity to express is sympathy and solidarity with the tribes in the surrounding region (in Timbuktu) in subsequent statements; it is unclear as yet what wider result civilian casualties have had or might have in the future on AQIM’s ability to hold onto control in Timbuktu together with Ansar Ed-Dine. The border zone is an area to look, especially in terms of any potential ECOWAS (of which Mauritania is not a member) intervention in Mali.
ATGM points out that a trial on appeal confirmed a death sentence for Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Ahmednah (and a three and twelve year prison term for Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Khouna and Didi Ould Bezeid, respectively) for the 2009 murder of American aid worker Christopher Leggitt. Ould Ahmednah is one of three brothers who were recruited in AQIM, sons from a relatively wealthy family but whose father died when they were young. Momhamed Abdellahi Ould Ahmednah’s brother, Abdelkader was killed in combat by a Franco-Mauritanian force in northern Mali in June 2010. A third Ahmednah brother is also in Mauritanian prison; the two of them identified Abdelkader’s body to the authorities after his death. Those clashes and Ahmednah’s death were covered in this post.
The slides below were drawn up in 2009 and 2010; this blogger put them together in the course of ordinary research and used them mainly to journalists or others trying to familiarise themselves with the general contours of Algerian politics. More of these will appear on this blog shortly.
The first one deals with Bouteflika’s political ‘legitimacy’ within the Algerian political establishment and wider international community. The themes of the projection of certain images: order, stability, reconciliation, the centrality of the executive, normalcy. These are the sort of things the Algerian government would prefer the world gleaned from the Bouteflika presidency. Some of the points in the cultural and institutional level could be moved into each others’ places; a flaw in the concept here.
The next slide is a generalisation about the process of rule in Algeria in the 1960s and 1970s — what is remembered by some as a time of plenty under Boumediene. The objective with this slide is to draw parallels with Bouteflika’s style of rule, which draws heavily on methods and lessons from the Boumediene period (which were formative years for Bouteflika, when he was Foreign Minister and before that Minister of Sports and Youth, it was also a time of plentiful energy revenues and a post-conflict environment not unlike the 2000s in Algeria; many of the means of control under Boumediene were revitalised or revamped for the multiparty period under Bouteflika, especially the mass organisations and similar institutions). A similar slide used in other presentations adjusts this (no pictures) to include tribal or other informal and local networks, aside from just categories of state institutions.
The third slide shows three ‘circles’ (really, rectangles) of power and elite influence: indirect elites, advisory elites and decideurs. These generalisations are meant to describe varying levels of influence official decisions and non-decisions, outcomes and processes in Algerian politics, mainly in terms of high politics, but it might be of some utility, with modifications, at lower levels. It draws on Isabelle Werenfels’s work on Algerian elite dynamics (Managing Instability in Algeria, 2007) and on Quandt’s work (Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria 1954-1968, 1969).
The fourth slide is used to discuss continuity through the various periods of Algeria’s political history after the death of Boumediene. It begins with Chadhli Bendjedid, followed by the post 1988 infitah (opening) and the rise of the FIS, the 1992 coup d’etat and civil war and then the consolidation of Bouteflika’s rule after 1999. A question mark is probably the best adjustment to make at this point. In terms of continuity, the centrality of the price of hydrocarbons, the role of the military (and how this changes) and the direction of decisions made by important individual actors are usually focal points of discussion; the key characteristics of the Algerian regime and the fragmentation of Algerian society are other points of interest. It is not especially useful on its own, and is usually accompanied by other graphics and notes.
Al-Akhbar recently published a video of a man in his forties, according to the write up, confessing to a number of acts of spying on behalf of Mauritania in northern Mali. He collected names, phone numbers, positions and other information about AQIM in the region. He says he was hired by the head of the Bureau d’Etudes et de Documentation, Mauritania’s foreign intelligence service, Gen. Mohamed Ould Meguet, to work with a commander Hbibi Ould Delloul and a captain Kheiry in collecting intelligence on AQIM in Mali. The write up quotes sources close to Ould Meguet the Mauritanians have not investigated the circumstances of his capture or death and did not attempt to negotiate or otherwise obtain his release. He was eventually executed, according to the report. According to the report his family has received ’modest compensation’ from the authorities. The article describes the military’s handling of the affair as ‘cynical’.¹
He also worked at the service of the walis (governors) in the eastern provinces bordering Mali scouting for the military, traveled in northern Mali tracking the movements of AQIM and monitoring westerners traveling on the Rue d’Espoir (the Brazilian-build high way that links eastern and western Mauritania, the Highway of Hope). The al-Akhbar report places the video in the context of AQIM’s leaders’ reported purges of Mauritanians accused of spying for the Mauritanian intelligence service, which has been reported on in the Mauritanian and Algerian press; in late 2010 and early 2012 Algerian papers began reporting on paranoia in the AQIM command (mainly Abu Zaid’s katiba) about penetration by Mauritanian intelligence and more recently there are reports that there has been an effort to diversify the southern katibas’ ranks which for some time were dominated by Mauritanians (estimates are that at as many as 70% of AQIM recruits/fighters to particular katibas in the Sahel were or have been Mauritanian).
This comes amid the dispatching of gendarmerie counterterrorism units to the military garrison at Bassiknou as part of an effort to beef up security on the border after plots linked to AQIM were discovered at a border check point; the article describes Mauritanian gendarmes’ efforts to seek out AQIM operatives traveling in civilian clothes, searching for possible operatives in the camps housing refugees from the conflict in northern Mali. “Mopping up operations on the border began on 12 May 2012, according to Sahara Media.
(1) Last month the Mauritanian press reported that AQIM captured a Malian Arab who had been spying on the terrorist group in the Timbuktu region; he was held out in the city as an example and taken off to the outskirts by the group who at the very least beat him severely, according to rumours. He was accused of scouting and relaying information on the positions of AQIM targets in northwestern Mali to the Mauritanian military, in support of their cross border operations there.
NOTE: 2012 APN charts are updated (14 May 2012).
NOTE: Readers can also compare this blogger’s recent writing on the election with his initial thoughts (circa December/January) on Islamist prospects in the election at Fair Observer — ‘Islamist Prospects in Algeria.’
The Algerian elections reinforced the FLN and RND’s dominance of the formal political process, ,and exposed the persistence of the Algerian regime’s machinery of fraud. Despite high confidence and reports and rumours of promises of manipulation, the MSP (Brotherhood)-led Islamist Green Algeria Alliance (AAV) roughly as many seats as the MSP itself held in the 2007 legislature. Opposition parties and foreign observers are complaining about irregularities, fraud and manipulation. The FLN came out with the largest number of seats, nearly doubling its share; the RND more or less held steady. Minor opposition parties like Louisa Hanoune’s Workers Party (PT; an interesting story on the party in Blida is here; also interesting about Blida is that the MSP performed poorly there, one of its traditional strongholds, which speaks to the extent of fraud and vote buying) and Moussa Touati’s Algerian National Front (FNA) lost out to new parties and independents. The Hocine Ait Ahmed’s Front of Socialist Forces (FFS; the oldest opposition party), which was alleged by many to be under heavy pressure from the regime to participate aggressively, both in the election campaign and also in regional and local municipal politics this year, recuperated a similar number of seats as those it held the last time it participated in national legislative polls in 1997. In some areas where the FLN did unbelievable well voters were quoted as saying “I cannot believe the results”; in certain semi-rural areas the FLN came close to winning 100 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was low even by official accounts. The 2012 legislative election thus reinforces the dominant electoral trend in Algerian formal politics: low participation and high voter indifference, increasingly intense incumbent success and consistent fraud.
It will important to watch how the FLN delegates behave in the new APN; whether they will carry over the rivalries and dissidence that has characterised much of FLN’s recent internal politics and whether Secretary General Abdelaziz Belkhadem will remain dominant in the party.
The complaints over fraud from parties like the MSP, which are reliant on cooperation with the regime for access to state resources and to maintain their patronage networks, point to longer term tensions within in the elite. It will be important to watch whether the MSP pursues these complaints or seeks to take some symbolic retaliatory action, and if such parties will seek to reenter the ruling coalition (or if they are allowed to).
It was interesting to watch the MSP make its effort at grassroots campaigning, passing out green baseball caps, canvassing and the rest. It still probably inaccurate to say, as one Algerian political scientist did in the New York Times, that ‘in a fair vote, the people would have voted for the Islamists.’ The moderate Green Alliance parties are not mass based, popular parties like the FIS was; they have concentrations of support and relatively narrow constituencies ideologically speaking. They are outnumbered by non-Islamists and more conservative trends, including Salafis who probably command a larger share of young Algerians than any single religious trend aside from “mainstream” Algerian Islam, and who generally refuse to vote, let alone for the Muslim Brothers. It is probably accurate to say, though: ’The government has lots of money, and it is distributing it … This regime will last another few years.’ Or, as The Economist put it
Some say that certain people in “le pouvoir” know that real democracy cannot be postponed indefinitely. Two days before the elections, Mr Bouteflika said that “my generation has had its time.” The elections will give at least some indication of who might run the country if ordinary people were allowed a real say. There is no sign they will have it soon.
Below are charts showing the breakdown of the Algerian legislature in 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012. The last chart shows a gender breakdown of the seats taken by each party (There are more women in the new legislature than any previous one; compare the last chart below with the charts and sheets posted on this blog in 2009 and 2010 for the 2007 legislature . The breakdowns for 2012 are based on a tally from Liberte (here; note this is a provisional tally; a chart with the full count is forthcoming).
Yesterday on Twitter Steven A. Cook and several others engaged the following exchange.
A lot of space has been spent on articles and commentary about why Algeria did not see the kind of upheaval that struck Tunisia, Libya and Egypt (and now Syria and Yemen). Much of this was of poor quality to recycled the same arguments and rationales. This blogger never found that conversation particularly interesting and generally avoided it. He is not going to attempt to explain why or why not Algeria has or will or might have an uprising. He is interested in the process of things inside Algeria more than big, hypothetical outcomes, at the moment in any case. What is more interesting is to look at what actually did happen in Algeria in 2011 as opposed to what outsiders think ought to have happened based on considerations about very different polities with very different political regimes from Algeria’s. A lot of time has been spent attempting to frame events in Algeria and virtually every other Arab polity as part of a single narrative — the “Arab Spring” — at the expense of looking at events as functions of the internal logic of very sophisticated and complex societies with actors operating in specific political contexts. While the countries that saw uprisings in 2011 had regimes and leaders with strong structural and psychological similarities these were nonetheless very particular situations. Algeria resembles Morocco or Egypt in more ways than it resembles Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Qadhafi’s Libya or Ba’thist Syria.
But Algeria has a distinct political background and demography that is sometimes downplayed in discussions about the Arab uprisings, which includes the civil war during the 1990s, an opposition that is pitifully fragmented and a regime made up of remarkably cunning political strategists and tacticians. Much of the writing about the events that took place in the Arab world focuses on forces as opposed to individual actors; the force of Tahrir Square, the force of social media, the force of the example of Mohamed Bouazizi, the force of symbols and avatars. One of the reasons uprisings became successful was that they forced regimes into reactive positions where they were forced to react in aggressive and impolitic ways. Questions of agency and causality seem to be relegated largely to mystical forces as opposed to decisions and specific circumstances. A popular revolution or uprising is treated not only as likely, but inevitable and existential. However likely some kind of uprising may be in Algeria, it will have in three dimensions, not one and not two (as some would like it); and like the other uprisings its trigger will be local and will have built over time, resulting from decisions and circumstances largely sui generis. There are many reasons Algeria’s leadership and opposition and masses have not come together in the kind of cocktail that has hit many other Arab countries over the last year; this is not surprising to people who follow Algeria closely, even those who tend to believe that at any given time Algeria is at something like a 60% chance of exploding into unrest. One of the things brought out very clearly by events in 2011, though, was that things usually are as they are until they are not. Algeria is constantly confusing and offering analysts surprises. This observer sees no reason to believe that it will stop doing so any time soon.
This blogger made several posts in 2010 and 2011 on Algeria’s formal political processes. These included charts and tables on various political parties in the lower house of parliament (the National People’s Assembly, APN), the cabinet and on the presidential elections from 1995 through 2009. As time has gone on, voter participation has decreased, especially in national elections; the 2007 legislative election was a fine example of this, where turnout hit a historic low, around 40-something percent — and this was taking into account official exaggerations. Most of those posts (not al, though) can be seen on the “O, Sir, You are Old” page, which includes various posts dealing with Algerian politics. This post will not go too deep on the elections but will only offer general observations and assessments of things as they stand in broad terms, real analysis can be done later. Continue reading
Kamel Daoud writes a pithy poignant column, ‘Raina Raikoum’ (My Opinion, Your Opinion) for the Quotidien d’Oran. His novels and short stories have won several awards. He can also be read in Slate Afrique (slateafrique.com) This skeptical look at Algeria’s upcoming legislative elections ran in the Quotidien d’Oran on April 4, 2012. Continue reading
In the last couple of months the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put out two reports on Mauritania:
- Thurston, Alex. ‘Mauritania’s Islamists,’ March 2012, Washington DC.
- Boukhars, Anouar. ‘The Drivers of Instability in Mauritania,’ April, 2012, Washington, DC.
Both are substantial and worth reading, even if one quibbles with specific parts of either. Both will be added to the next iteration of the Mauritania Bibliography.
The Algerian newspaper El Watan also recently published several articles on the Salafist trend in Mauritania, including a brief interview with Nouakchott Info journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali (whose long article on the situation in northern Mali was discussed here).
- Rabia, S. ‘La carte Abou Hafs El Mauritani: Un numéro III d’Al Qaîda pas du tout encombrant,’ El Watan, 3 May, 2012.
- Rabia, S. ‘Islamisme, misère et autoritarisme, un pays maghrébin en difficulté: la Mauritanie inquiéte pour son avenir,’ El Watan, 3 May, 2012.
- Rabia, S. ‘Mohamed Mahmoud Aboulmaali. Directeur de Nouakchott info et spécialiste des questions islamistes: Les salafistes pourraient intégrer le jeu politique,’ El Watan, 3 March 2012.
- Rabia, S. ‘Les mahdharas, véritable réservoir du salafisme: Ces Algériens qui partent s’abreuver aux sources du wahabisme,’ El Watan, 3 May, 2012.
- Omar, Jamel. “Mauritanian sheikhs review mahdharas role,” 1 May, 2012.
This is a short selection of books focused on or include chapters or sections that focus on Algerian foreign policy for more or less English-speaking analysts. This is intended as an introductory list, not a comprehensive or exhaustive one. A longer list of journal articles, reports and dissertations on the same subject is forthcoming. If readers know of recent dissertations on Algerian foreign policy (in English, French, Arabic, German, Italian or Spanish), they are welcome and encouraged to send them to the email address listed on this blog’s ‘About’ page for inclusion in the ‘Dissertations’ section. Continue reading