Observations on Algeria-Libya Relations in the Aftermath

By Salman N. Al-Rashid

The uprisings against Colonel Muammar Gadhafi’s rule that began in mid-February and culminated in his effective ouster days ago marked the end of forty-two years of repressive dictatorial rule in Libya. In the most turbulent year in the Arab world in decades, three North African regimes have fallen. Another, Algeria’s, is clearly nervous.

The Algerian approach to Libya was fraught with problems from the beginning, and Algeria’s sensitivity to the potential resurgence of terrorism, combined with its tenuous domestic political situation, most likely explains its leadership’s inability to navigate the unrest with skill. By rejecting the NATO-led no-fly-zone as well as having misplaced confidence in the prospects for ceasefire and dialogue, Algerian leaders were clearly protecting themselves from protesters and terrorists alike. At the same time, this position alienated Libya’s rebels.

And as the conflict dragged on, Libyan rebels began accusing Algeria of actively aiding Gadhafi with arms and mercenaries. By now taking in members of Gadhafi’s family, Algeria has committed a symbolically risky move that has fed into Libyans’ anti-Algeria narrative and infuriated the international community at large. Algeria’s stubborn neutrality (and supposed pro-Gadhafi bent) means it might have to embark on an aggressive PR campaign in order to avoid tense relations with Libya’s new government and a diplomatic backlash from global actors that expended significant diplomatic and financial capital in seeking to unseat Gadhafi.

Protesters and Terrorists

Algeria’s leaders are confronting a precarious domestic situation. Beginning in January and in tandem with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Algerians protested against high food prices, unemployment, and tight restrictions on political freedoms. In response to these demands, the Algerian government increased spending on infrastructure and introduced various subsidies to ease rising costs. In mid-March Algerian President Abdelaziz Boutefika announced the end of a 19-year-old emergency law and promised that more reforms were on the way.

Despite Boutefika’s (unsurprisingly unfulfilled) promises, the history of terrorist activity in Algeria means Algerian authorities will neither relinquish absolute control nor curb the army and police’s power. Security considerations warrant continued authoritarian control, which will foster continued corruption and hoarding of resources. These political and economic realities might clash with  Algerians’ widespread desire for socioeconomic improvement. Dr. Claire Spencer of Chatham House claims that despite the lack of a unified national protest movement, “amongst the under-employed and under-represented citizens of Algeria, the pressures for change are nonetheless both there and steadily mounting.”

With these pressures in mind, Algerian leaders were likely anxious that any unrest in Libya could reinvigorate domestic protest in Algeria. Throughout a chaotic 2011, demonstrations have transformed into revolutions once protesters break a barrier of fear that outside observers who live in free societies can only dream to articulate. Unrest in Tunisia triggered demonstrations in Egypt, and a Libyan people perched between the revolution-bearers has similarly purged themselves of a dictator. Algerians, gripped to their television screens like every Arab population, might be emboldened to establish a unified front and demand transparency and accountability from Boutefika and the handful of generals that make decisions.

Algerian leaders’ terrorist- and protester-related concerns became abundantly clear as the Libyan uprising gained steam. On March 8, Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci issued a statement that warned that terrorists would attempt to exploit continued violence in an attempt to establish a “rear base for terrorism.” In mid-April Medelci reaffirmed the Algerian position by claiming that “what is happening in Libya may constitute an encouragement of the development of terrorism” in the area.

Moreover, Algerian leaders’ own political insecurities partly informed their basic positions of non-intervention and promotion of internal dialogue between all parties in Libya. In mid-March, the Algerian foreign ministry published a statement that called for the “immediate stoppage of violence in Libya and the opening of a national dialogue” that could “find solutions that satisfy protesters’ aspirations.” Algerian leaders called for domestic order in Libya and a national dialogue that included Libya’s leadership in order to avoid presenting itself a pro-revolution and sending the wrong message to their own citizens.

Algeria believed that the African Union (AU) would serve as the best mediator for this dialogue precisely because the AU’s basic position on the Libya situation was pro-dialogue and non-interventionist. On April 25, Medelci argued that the AU “is the only entity with the power to negotiate with the two parties in Libya.” He even added that the National Transitional Council (NTC) has “confused and distorted” the reality on the ground and that the AU was needed to provide clarity. The AU’s basic approach to the uprising—and the way Algeria presented the AU’s narrative as an alternative to that of the rebels’—would only alienate Libyans further.

It is therefore no surprise that African leaders received a cold reception in Benghazi upon their arrival for reconciliation talks in mid-April. The African delegation had previously met with Gadhafi in Tripoli, leading protesters to reassert their demand that Gadhafi leave and shattering any confidence in the AU as an effective, trustworthy mediator of the hostilities. As one of the main AU proponents, Algeria’s image among the rebels took a significant hit. Algeria clearly misunderstood protesters’ intransigence on Gadhafi’s departure and underestimated their resolve in achieving this objective.

Nonetheless, Algeria demonstrated its own resolve as it stubbornly stood by its pro-AU stance. In the beginning of June, Algerian Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs Abdelkader Messahel reiterated Algeria’s “support for the African Union’s roadmap,” which, beyond ceasing hostilities and addressing humanitarian concerns, called for “putting in place institutions that conform to the Libyan people’s aspirations for free elections.” This roadmap, however, still included Gadhafi.

Algeria’s fixation on ceasing violence conflicted with the global community’s desire to rid of Gadhafi. Representatives to the Arab League, usually a defunct organization comprised of states that fear the precedent that could be set by sanctioning interventions, harnessed their collective hatred for Gadhafi and came together to approve a NATO no-fly-zone on March 12. Syria, Mauritania, and Algeria were the only states to reject the move. In the coming weeks, Arab media outlets and governments alike will likely chide Algeria, and its diplomatic standing might seriously be affected.

Troubling Allegations—and What They Could Bring

Throughout the Libya conflict various Libyan rebel leaders charged that Algeria provided aid to Gadhafi. In mid-July Randa Takieddin of Al-Hayat newspaper conducted an interview with Mahmoud Jebril, the head of the NTC’s executive committee. When asked how Gadhafi is maintaining a steady supply of arms and manpower, Jebril replied that major smuggling activity was occurring along the Algerian border.

In another interview conducted by Algerian newspaper Echourouq Al-Yawm last week, Jibril addressed the issue again, claiming that the Libyan people were upset with the flow of mercenaries from Algeria (a charge Algeria’s foreign ministry categorically denied) and expected Algeria to side with them throughout the conflict. After the interviewer called attention to an inquiry being conducted by the NTC regarding the mercenaries issue, Jibril expressed his desire to turn the page on the issue and reaffirm ties between Libya and Algeria (though he did not say with confidence that Algeria did not facilitate the flow of mercenaries).

Jibril elaborated on the firm ties between Algeria and Libya:

But what I want to say is that relations between the two countries are historic, and they cannot be split by transient things, whether we like it nor not. As officials, we should not at this stage impede the movement of history between the two peoples who have most the common characteristics in North Africa.

But Libya’s rebels will not forget Algeria’s neutrality (which the Algerian foreign ministry proudly reaffirmed in an August 28 statement) and will certainly not discard from memory the troubling allegations against their neighbor to the west; to them, Algeria’s actions throughout a bloody rebellion against Gadhafi hardly qualify as “transient things.” In fact, the NTC even labeled Algeria’s recent admission of members of Gadhafi’s family as an “act of aggression.”

On August 21 Libyan rebels trashed and looted the Algerian Embassy in Tripoli, and Jibril insisted that Algeria itself was not the target of that specific incident. But what might the incident say about diplomatic relations between Algeria and the NTC?

Icy relations between Algeria and Libya are likely to follow in the months to come. Algeria still refuses to recognize the NTC as the sole representative of the Libyan people, making it one of few states in the region to do so. Reports circulated that Algeria claimed it would recognize the NTC in exchange for Libya’s pledge to combat Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (which, again, Algeria’s foreign ministry denied). Algeria seems less interested in nurturing Libya’s reconstruction and more interested in establishing a partnership with Libya that addresses its own interests. The rebels surely recognize this.

And finally, the most provocative question might be: how will Algerian citizens respond to the toppling of Gadhafi? Bruce Riedel argues that in the beginning of 2011 a “fear of a return to the terror and violence of the 1990s is so great it acted as a brake on the Arab spring in Algeria even before winter had ended.” While the ecstasy of success could invigorate Algerians’ desire for change, it seems they have multiple barriers of fear to overcome.

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