THE BLOG

The Algerian Connection

It should not come as a surprise that the military dictatorship in Algeria has given refuge to some of the members of the Gaddafi family: his present wife, Safia, his daughter, Aicha, the least influential of his sons, Mohammed and Hannibal, and their progeny. The group crossed into Algeria on 29 August. An Algerian Government spokesman confirmed their arrival, said it was for humanitarian reasons, and specified that it was only "transitory." (This left open the question of whether Muammar Gaddafi himself had requested refuge in Algeria but had been refused). The Libyan rebels' Transitional National Council demanded the group be returned to Libya for judicial proceedings, which was obviously not going to happen, and the TNC spokesman, Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, said the Algerians will one day have to answer for their attitude. (Meantime, on September 5, a large convoy of Libyan military vehicles crossed into Niger, possibly having gone through Algeria. It contained a number of Gaddafi followers but not Gaddafi himself, according to a Niger government spokesman.)

Algeria is the only country in North Africa that has not recognized the Libyan rebels' Transitional National Government. It also reportedly shipped arms and foodstuffs to the Gaddafi forces during the six-month conflict. Algeria was one of four countries that did not endorse the Arab League's support of Resolution 1973 of the United Nations Security Council, which opened the way for the air operation against the Gaddafi regime, starting on March 19. The others were Sudan, Syria and Yemen. (Yet, perhaps in a recognition of the nosediving fortunes of Gaddafi, an Algerian representative, along with those of many other countries, was present at the conference on aid to the new Libyan Government held on September 1 in Paris).

Algeria and the Gaddafi regime have had a common enemy: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), made up largely of former members of the Algerian terrorist movement, the Islamic Armed Group (GIA). The Algerian Government suppressed this group, which rose up following the Government's cancellation in 1992 of an election that would have led to the victory of the Islamist political party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The 10-year war that followed ended in a defeat of the GIA and at an appalling cost of lives on both sides. The GIA then became the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and later officially joined al Qaeda. AQIM has retreated to the Sahel area south of the Saharan desert, where it is now mainly engaged in kidnapping Europeans (mostly French) and demanding ransom. However, in the most spectacular attack in years, terrorists stormed the Military Academy at Cherchell, Algeria, on August 26 and killed 16 officers and two civilians. The AQIM communiqué claiming responsibility for the attack said it was justified by Algeria's support to the Gaddafi regime.

But at the same time, and to illustrate the ambivalence of the situation, relations between Gaddafi and the Algerian regime have been difficult ever since the Libyan colonel came to power in 1969. That this country of miniscule population, led by a quixotic and unpredictable dictator, could pose as a rival to Algeria's dominance of the Maghreb and the Sahel region, was a constant source of annoyance to the ruling group in Algiers. Gaddafi's support of the Touaregs of the Sahel, some of whom were among his mercenaries in the recent civil war; his posing as the "King of Africa," and his generosity to a number of Black African regimes; even his support of the Polisario Front against Algeria's rival, Morocco, grated on the Algerian Government because these were actions taking place in what it considered its own backyard.

The several demonstrations in Algeria that accompanied the Arab Spring earlier this year were severely repressed by the authorities. It seemed evident that the Algerian people have been traumatized by the country's "lost decade" of the 1990's and do not want to see a remake of that civil war. Thus a revolutionary movement could emerge in the country but not, it seems, right away.

In the background to this situation lies the fact that Algeria has a problem of legitimacy stemming from the fact that what began as a revolutionary movement against the French occupation -- the National Liberation Front (FLN) -- morphed over the years into a military dictatorship ruling over a state. The present president, Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, is the last of the original leaders of the FLN. With an ageing and ill president, it seems necessary for Algeria to create a new legitimacy for itself. But Algeria's present policy seems marked by a sort of paralysis, as various groups maneuver behind the scenes in view of the upcoming succession.

Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East-South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from mid-1979 to mid- 1984. From mid-1984 to mid-1989 he was CIA Chief in Paris. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center's International Security Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

This post has been modified since its original publication.