This post is an addendum on the previous post on Abed Cheref’s piece on Algeria’s Libya policy. Cheref’s column did not focus on Libyan or regional public opinion insofar as Algeria’s Libya policy is concerned. Cheref does not directly ask How will Libyan and other views of Algeria’s policy during the war relate to its regional positioning? That Cheref does not broach this issue and directs his criticism at Bouteflika is generally unsurprising, for reasons the reader can likely glean for himself. The importance as far as Algerian foreign policy would be concerned is that new Libyan leaders at any level, like the Mubaraks during the World Cup fiasco, might be tempted to demagog Algeria’s ‘neutrality’ during the conflict for parochial gain harming Algerian interests, which the sacking of the Algerian embassy in Tripoli was a good example (it came mainly from the bottom rather than the top, of course, which shows a potential point for bating). Cheref appears to make the reasonable conclusion that this is relatively unlikely (probably) because of the material interests (high politics) between the two countries would probably secularize nationalistic tendencies (though the Algerian experience with Morocco might also point to a need to consider managing Algeria’s image in Libya). In any case, this brings to mind how Algeria has been written about in general as far as the uprisings have been concerned and how the Algerians seem to spend less time on public relations than many other Arab regimes.
During the Libyan crisis the idea that Algeria ‘supported’ Qadhafi was taken at face value by many journalists and media analysts. The idea that the Algerian position was something else was sometimes seen as naive and ridiculous. One cannot really believe the Algerians saw a NATO assisted revolution on their eastern border as something to root for. But that the Algerians would, as policy, work to scuttle the thing or deliberately violate UNSC resolutions required more substantiation than was usually offered up. A large number of options are available to those looking for conspiracy theories and innuendo about Algeria’s intentions, objectives and behavior during the crisis. Some of these got play on channels like Al Jazeera and in western op-ed pages (it flows quite naturally from similar theories such as ones about AQIM being basically a massive DRS operation in which France and America as complicit in). Aside from NTC claims that Algiers gave direct support to the Qadhafites there are others which rely less on whether there is documented evidence of this (beyond press statements or undisclosed documents and the like) and argue that the conduct of the Algerian DRS during the 1990s Civil War or the tone of the Algerian press or what are seen as logical domestic interests make it both plausible and probable that the Algerians supported Qadhafi by secret and sundry means. The Algerians allegedly did provide fuel to Tripoli during the war, though it is frequently said that NATO was aware of this and made little fuss over it; in fact it is notable that the NATO countries made very little public protest over NTC or other allegations over Algeria’s alleged behavior during the crisis which likely comes from Algeria’s perceived value in terms of energy and terrorism issues (this assuming the existence of subtler forms of pro-Qadhafite behavior). That some Algerians, linked to official or formerly official people might have used the war as an opportunity to make money is not unbelievable but one is justified in being doubtful about accusations higher than that, though it being the case that hard evidence is hard to come by and that just about anything is possible nothing can be said with total certainty. The basic conclusion is accurate, in this reader’s view. The Algerians placed themselves awkwardly on Libya. They will have to put greater effort in their relations with Tripoli and will have to adapt to changing political cultures there and in Tunisia and the emerging problems among the Tuareg in Niger and Mali.
In any case, this this narrative is worth noting here because it was possible because many outside observers have basically viewed Algeria as a ticking time bomb, the next candidate for a ‘revolution’. This speaks to a perception of Algeria’s regime as especially insecure and self-conscious among many observers. The Algeria regime, it was often (and continues to be) argued, is deeply dysfunctional and is paranoid and even desperate as it looks at events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Algerian society is a tinderbox of frustration, economic malaise and anger. Sitting in a region beset with unrest, Algeria would naturally follow suit. After the fall of Tripoli and death of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi, at least two former CIA officers wrote articles arguing that Algeria will be ‘next’ in revolt after Libya (these were especially problematic and simplistic). Earlier in the year Time wrote that Bouteflika was one of the ‘top ten’ most vulnerable dictators, writing that Algeria ‘looks set to face a budding popular revolt’. A number of news analysis pieces arguing similar theses ran during the spring and summer. The earliest writing was heavily influenced by the massive youth rioting which took place in December and January on the eve of the Sidi Bouzid events in Tunisia. But that angry energy was not channeled into organized protests for reasons which many Algerians and observers of Algeria understand. One recalls the attention given by Al Jazeera to the February CNCD demonstrations in Algeria. On the ground reports often went in the opposite direction from these analytical pieces: the CNCD demonstrations drew few people and were co-opted by unpopular political parties; the strangely advertised 17 September demonstrations drew nearly no one. This is not to say nothing has gone on in Algeria in 2011, quite to the contrary the country has seen numerous strikes, protests and sit-ins by university students and professional associations and the like. These received less foreign media attention than the ones mentioned earlier. This perhaps has to do with the meta-narrative of the ‘Arab Spring’ applied in a way that perhaps did not account for the totality of local events in Algeria (and public sentiments and the collective memory of the 1988-1992 period and Civil War), especially because getting journalists into Algeria is difficult when compared to, say, Egypt or Morocco. This must also be added to the fact that in the English-speaking world (and even in the Arab countries) Algeria is considered marginal as far as regional news and world politics are concerned and so what coverage it does get is generally light and so alternative analyses receive less attention and notice. (This does not mean there are not consistently fine reporters on the wire services, such as Lamime Chikhi for example.)
In general Algeria is less concerned with its public image than the old dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt were or the current monarchies in Morocco and the Gulf: they put less effort into tacky public relations jobs and tend to seek influence in Europe and America from their energy resources and ‘experience’ with terrorism while keeping a lower profile. Very few tourists visit Algeria (who are not in some way already linked to Algeria) and so looking happy and balmy is not an economic concern. This is more true in English-speaking countries than the Francophone ones where many Algerians live and where there is a common language of public discourse, where Algerian generals and politicians have been taken to task in books, journalism and even courts for example (notably and recently Gen. Khaled Nezzar). But even so, the Algerians go to less pains to craft a friendly public face than their cousins in the rest of region. This extends from its handling of accusations of atrocities by army defectors to the Western Sahara question, which occupies much of Algeria’s international agenda but on which they spend quite little as compared to the Moroccans. So rumors about the motives and content of their foreign or domestic policy proliferate with relative ease; Moroccan propaganda pushed by public relations firms, for example, makes many of the most bizarre (and shameless) claims about Algiers’s tolerance for pedophile, communist indoctrination, terrorism and so on in the Tindouf camps. There is usually little official or unofficial response to such things from the Algerians. When it comes to the treatment of dissidents and the conditions of ordinary people, the Algerians usually have well worn stock responses which involve things like hypocrisy and sovereignty and relative comparisons. The concern is first and foremost about internal dynamics and the management of the potential for instability and far less about when people in western salons and periodicals think about Algeria’s politics or cultural productivity or whatever. Algerian government benefits from the country’s relative obscurity and geopolitical independence, from foreign mass opinion (owing to its rentier economy and limited ) in this sense.
The Algerians occasionally become uncharacterically defensive in public about specific claims. This does not always work. The Libyan crisis is a good example of where the Algerians were forced to come out of their shell. The Algerian Foreign Ministry and UN Mission were especially fervent in their denials of accusations about supporting, harboring or otherwise aiding Qadhafi. At one point a wire report claimed the Algerians were conditioning recognition of the NTC government on a pledge to fight al-Qa’eda which forced the Foreign Ministry to issue a communique stressing that it had issued no communique and had no policy to that effect. These denials showed a great deal of effort and energy but also made the government’s neutralist policy look defensive and callow, especially after the AU front was outmaneuvered by the NATO and Gulf countries. Algiers came off as unprepared for the sorts of accusations the NTC made in July-August. One suspects that this posture came out of concern that NTC accusations could lead to troubles in the security council or could lead to further instability on the border (the Algerians have a very state and state-institution-centric foreign policy outlook).
The Algerians are not without PR campaigns, though. One can observe deliberate efforts in the many pieces on Algeria appearing in cultural magazines and newspapers, which direct attention at UNESCO heritage sites and book festivals.. Many Algerian embassies have pamphlets and books about Algeria’s unique cultural heritage and various places in the desert foreigners might like to see. They also have colorful copies of government gazettes and whatnot for the public to learn about Algerians many elections and which they can share with friends. Of course this is generally useless in influencing mass opinion. Algeria has not gone to the big consultants and set up streams of op-eds in the Huffington Post or set up websites in English to pillory Morocco’s reputation or even to refute claims made about the Tindouf camps or the conduct of the Algerian military during the Civil War. It is doubtful that the Algerians will take on an aggressive PR stance as Morocco or Egypt or Bahrain have, in part because they do not view themselves as needing one on key issues and because, in general, what initiatives in the line they have taken on have tended to come quite late. Recall, for instance, the establishment of communications (press) officers in the military which came about in the early 2000s (along with conferences with the foreign media and academics), as part of the government’s effort to rehabilitate itself internationally in order to portray a cleaner and more open image of itself to outsiders, especially after 9/11. This evolved relatively slowly. This is not to say the Algerians have not got a strong understanding of PR and media manipulation, which can be seen easily and plainly when reading Algerian newspapers. But they mainly target the internal audience (although one finds bizarre stories that look planted on some of the English pages of their websites which often look planted). Another exception in this area is the previously mentioned World Cup crisis with Egypt. Elements in the Algerian elite exploited public opinion aggressively and demagogically in a manner not substantially different from the Egyptians did but differed critically in that relatively Algerian few high officials (or their relatives) engaged in the dirt spreading as compared to the Egyptians where the Mubarak sons and prominent MPs went on television and stirred up hate; the Algerians mostly left this sort of thing to the press and to media figures, though not exclusively. The two regimes had very similar public opinion approaches overall during that crisis but put the emphasis in different places. This and the Orascom affair in its wake points to a more inward focused strategy for both parties. The Algerians are quite practiced on the domestic front but seem to target foreign opinion at the elite and governmental levels more so than the popular one. There are probably better explanations for this tendency, though.