Headlines are screaming about Algeria’s raid in a remote gas field facility in the desert to free hostages. “Lack of Warning on Rescue Effort Highlights Limits of Algerian Cooperation” tops an article by Michael Gordon and Mark Mazzetti in the January 17 New York Times. “Early reports of casualties follow surprise assault to free hostages at gas field” highlights a front page story in the January 18 International Herald Tribune – the global edition of the New York Times.
All of a sudden, Algeria is in the news. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in December 18, 2010, rulers have been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Uprisings have occurred in Bahrain; a civil war is taking place in Syria; there have been serious attempts at reforms in Morocco. And Algeria? The complaint against Algeria’s acting unilaterally without informing other countries lacks an understanding of Algeria’s history. With so much attention on the Arab Spring focused on other countries, people forgot the importance of Algeria.
Algeria is the largest country in Africa, the tenth largest in the world. It is as far from Geneva to Algiers as it is from Algiers to the southern border. Its national oil company, Sonatrach, is the largest company in Africa. For many years, Algeria was a leader in the non-aligned movement. Following its bloody war for independence from France, it was rocked by civil war that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. Algeria has seen conflict; it understands the dangers of fundamentalists. The army has always played an important role in independent Algeria as it has in Egypt. President Bouteflika, ailing and up for re-election, has maintained a pragmatic relation with military commanders in the face of sporadic terrorist activity.
While the world’s attention focused on other countries during the Arab Spring, little attention was given to Algeria. Oil and gas continued to flow; the United States is the largest buyer of Algeria’s oil. In spite of a considerable sovereign fund, the general population has not seen the benefits. The wealth in the ground in southern Algeria has not been transformed into important changes in the everyday life of ordinary Algerians. The construction of a modern shopping center on the outskirts of Algiers by Alain Roland, former director of the large Globus department store in Geneva, is a long overdue example of modernization.
The head of the U.S. African command has been quoted as saying; “there will not be a satisfactory solution to the situation in Mali without Algeria’s participation”. What participation? The taking of the hostages was a direct result of Algeria’s allowing France to use Algerian airspace. Blocking the southern border from incursions seems overwhelming and could alienate the Tuaregs, a nomadic group that moves between Algeria, Mali and Niger. What alternatives to the raids have been suggested? Negotiations? Algerians have a sad history of dealing with terrorists.
The problem of the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara, recognized by most of the countries of the African Union but not Morocco, has long been a source of tension in the Maghreb. Since James Baker, UN Secretary General’s special envoy resigned in 2004, there has been little movement on a referendum voted by the UN Security Council to decide sovereignty. The referendum on the Western Sahara is moribund. Relations between Morocco and Algeria have stymied any attempt at cooperation among the countries of North Africa. Calls for democracy in Tunisia and Morocco have not reverberated in Algeria where people vividly remember the cancellation of the elections, how the military intervened to stop radicalization. The war for independence and civil war have left traces.
The world’s attention has now turned to southern Algeria. The government of Algeria is being criticized for acting alone. Mrs. Clinton visited Algeria briefly in October to ask for help in fighting Al Qaeda in Mali. Enlisting Algeria in the fight against terror should have begun long ago as part of a new policy toward the Muslim world announced by President Obama in Cairo in 2009. What outreach has there been? As long as the oil was flowing from southern Algeria to Houston everything was fine.
Blaming Algeria for not cooperating is backwards; Algerians have been looking for cooperation which was not there. Asking for help in a crisis is normal. Without a background of real cooperation, it becomes problematic.