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Early Perspectives from Algeria on Northern Mali and French Intervention

[Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal points to a map of Algeria after a press conference held in Algiers, Monday, 21 January 2013. The Islamist militants who attacked a natural gas plant in the Sahara wore Algerian army uniforms, memorized the layout of the vast complex and included two Canadians and a team of explosives experts ready to blow the place sky-high, Algeria’s prime minister said Monday. Image by Sidali Djarboub/AP Photo.] [Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal points to a map of Algeria after a press conference held in Algiers, Monday, 21 January 2013. The Islamist militants who attacked a natural gas plant in the Sahara wore Algerian army uniforms, memorized the layout of the vast complex and included two Canadians and a team of explosives experts ready to blow the place sky-high, Algeria’s prime minister said Monday. Image by Sidali Djarboub/AP Photo.]

Thus far, Algerian press coverage and reactions are divided on France’s military intervention in northern Mali, Operation SERVAL, as well as the additional thrusts in the south by Mali’s jihadist coalition. Skepticism that has been prevalent in Algerian media coverage of calls for the internationalization of the Malian crisis remains a strong thread in opinion and editorial writing nonetheless. While significant strands of elite opinionespecially at the political levelappear to have somewhat rallied to support military intervention in northern Mali. At the same time, the Algerian government’s longstanding position in favor of "dialogue" and a "political solution" to the crisis remains evident in press reports, government statements, and skepticism over the prospects that the intervention will successfully resolve Mali’s troubles persists. Comments from Algerian intellectuals depicting the campaign as a "proxy war" of the United States or as destined for failure, and highlights given to the opinions of certain French voices suggest some level of discomfort over France’s intentions and the Algerian government’s role in the crisis; this is to be expected to some extent given the background of distrust between Paris and Algiers over Mali, as well as the nature of Franco-Algerian relations in general. Outside of the major dailies, some confusion does appear to exist over Algiers’ position in the ongoing struggle. This post only reviews French-language media and looks at perspectives through the beginning of the week of 13 January.

Tut Sur Algerie (TSA) has carried several articles looking at Algeria’s response and its evolving role in the crisis. The focus in many of these articles is explaining why Algeria is no longer opposed to the "military option" and why it remains "concerned" over the intervention in general. Algeria’s diplomatic efforts are either described as failures or its differences of opinion with France over intervention is described as part of a long game aimed at eradicating AQIM. These pieces rely heavily or entirely on anonymous Algerian military or security sources. TSA’s coverage is broadly representative of Algerian news coverage of the intervention, laying out a number of different theories and opinions about why the French decided to intervene and why Algeria has decided to cooperate. One piece also argues the objective is to "scuttle" Algerian efforts to promote political dialogue. 

One piece describes Algeria as having put "one foot into the war waged by France in Mali’" by opening its airspace to French over flights and mobilizing forces in southern Algeria. The article quotes a "security source" as stating that the Algerian Air Force "stands ready to intervene if necessary" and "[they] are even ready to participate alongside French forces." The article frames the current situation as a failure for Algiers:

How did Algeria, which has long advocated the option of dialogue before war, find itself involved in this conflict? In recent months, Algerian diplomats have made many statements on the need to focus on a political solution and to avoid a military option. They toured several regional neighbours to rally them to Algeria’s position. It conducted dialogue with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine. [. . .] In fact, long convinced that France would intervene militarily in northern Mali, Algeria sought to gain time to better prepare itself for this war, significantly strengthening southern border security. The French and the Americans wanted the Algeria-Mali border closed to prevent the terrorists from fleeing from a military intervention. once the border was secured, and Algiers agreed to the use of its territory, France could launch military action to regain northern Mali. Algeria is especially brought on this account because it sees the prospect of getting rid of AQIM on its southern border.

Another article argues that Algiers "rallied to the military solution" because "the Tuareg Islamist group," referring to Ansar Ed-Dine, reneged on standing away from the terrorists of AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). It quotes "a senior Algerian official" as stating that Ansar Ed-Dine "broke their commitment to cease hostilities in accordance with the Algiers Agreements" by joining the AQIM and MUJWA assaults on Konna last week. According to the official, "this gave formal proof that they did not separate from the terrorist groups." The article further quotes this official as describing Algerian efforts to negotiate with Ansar Ed-Dine for a political solution as having gone on "in vain." Still, the anonymous Algerian official argues that "the northern Mali question will not be solved solely by military means. There will be no final and lasting solution beyond political dialogue with representatives from the peoples of the north – the Tuareg, Arabs, and Songhai. After the military phase and once the terrorists are eliminated, the solution will come with political authorities at the heart of the problem."

Still another piece puzzles over Algiers’ "strange silence‘ in response to the strikes in Mali. It argues that in cooperating with Operation SEVAL, Algeria has flipped its position on foreign military intervention – long a fundamental staple in its foreign policy. Of particular concern for the author is that the news that Algeria provided authorization for "unconditional" French over flights came "not from the Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, or Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, or the Minister of National Defense Abdelmalek Guenaizia," but from the French Foreign Ministry. The author asks why Algeria, "which is usually so attached to its national sovereignty," not inform Algerians of its decision regarding France’s strikes in Mali? It reviews Algeria’s opposition to NATO’s intervention in Libya, which came from its "doctrinaire" opposition to foreign intervention in states’ internal affairs. It then reviews Algeria’s long insistence on a "political solution" to the Mali crisis. It describes the government’s failure to "communicate this strategic information to the public" as "total contempt" for the Algerian body politic. It charges the government with betraying Algeria’s long standing commitment to non-intervention:

Allowing these over flights of military aircraft to bomb another country means that Algeria has completely abandoned its basic doctrine and now endorses foreign military intervention in Mali or elsewhere. This sudden and significant change in position is curiously surrounded by a heavy silence of the Algerian political class. The parties like the FLN, RND, and PT, while they warned against ‘the presence of foreign troops on our southern border,’ have fallen into a deep silence. Treatment of the Malian crisis by the imposition of the French military, the former colonial power, a NATO member state, is at this point the consensus within the country? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which called France a ‘friendly power,’ has merely a single statement.

It urges the Algerian government to adopt a "permanent presence in the field of communication to at least explain official positions to the people and to try and convince the Algerians." It accuses the government of "making the same mistakes" as the former regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and despairs that the Algerian parliament cannot be counted on to "initiate a national debate on the issue of the mismanagement of Algeria’s Mali diplomacy."

Another TSA story looks at reactions on Algerian social media. It summarizes the responses as mounting to bitter, sarcastic surprise--a common refrain being "isn’t Algeria a sovereign country?" It describes Algerian social media users as criticizing Algeria’s decision to support the intervention – citing historic markers, such as the Congress of Soummam, where Algeria’s independence era leaders pledged against interventionism and interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Facebook users are quoted as referring to French over flights as "shameful."

Yet another critical article is entitled: "Mali: How Algeria has Shot itself in the Foot." The piece reviews Algeria’s diplomatic efforts in Kidal and promotion of "dialogue" as the solution to the crisis, noting that "all channels of Algerian diplomacy were mobilized to defend this fairly respectable position" and drawing a comparison between the take over of Afghanistan by the Taliban and the US "intervention" there after 9/11, which was intended to dislodge the movement but has not succeeded in eradicating it. It decries Bouteflika’s "silence" on the current situation, asking "what is the true position of Bouteflika on the Mali case," quoting the official Algerian news wire service of only days previous, having reviewed the president’s position in favor of a negotiated settlement in Mali. The piece reviews the statements of Foreign Ministry spokesman Amar Belani, as the Islamist coalition moved south attracting French intervention. It also questions how Algeria has publicly supported the "territorial integrity of Mali," and Algeria’s background of public opposition to military intervention in the Sahel, while describing France as a "friendly power" and allowing it to launch military action in Mali. Now, the author writes, "we do not know how the Algerian head of state regards the crisis." This runs along a common, frustrated theme in a significant portion of Algerian writing on the government’s public stance on the situation in Mali. It ridicules Algeria’s diplomatic leadership:

The capacity of Algerian diplomacy to shoot itself in the foot is amazing. What point did all these negotiations with the MNLA and Ansar Dine serve? There is the perfume of treason in the air. Algiers has not only failed to release its diplomats held hostage by MUJWA in the Gao region, but it is also poised to lose Ansar Dine as an interlocutor. Worse, the credibility of Algerian foreign policy has also been dealt a serious blow. Who is to blame?

The author accuses Bouteflika of blindly seeking a fourth term in office, "throwing down the sacred principles of the nation." It surmises that Paris informed Algiers of its plans to intervene in Mali and that "Algiers did not find fault because of secret agreements established during François Hollande’s visit in Algeria." It accuses Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal of providing public cover for "the reversal." It also casts skepticism on the legal premise of France’s intervention and argues "it is too easy to say that Bamako’s decision to call in the army of the former colonial power is sovereign, as the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims." Scathingly, it asserts "if Algeria’s diplomacy was persuasive and convincing, there would be no need for Mali to call on the 'help' of Paris to 'save' it from 'savages' in the north. Is not Mali part of the 'core countries' supposed to coordinate around Algeria for operation action against terrorism in the Sahel?" It continues arguing that the Comité d'état-major opérationnel conjoint (CEMOC) – which includes Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria, "should have been able to set up a joint force to counter act the actions of terrorist groups in the Sahel. What of the military staff members in Tamanrasset: Nothing!" The conclusion mocks Bouteflika’s 1999 campaign promise to "rehabilitate Algeria’s international image" —"La réussite, comme on le constate aujourd’hui, est éclatante!"

El Watan, Algeria’s premier French-language paper, carried narratives similar to those above. Early articles have noted the Foreign Ministry’s "silence" about the decision to allow French over flights, while also highlighting measures taken by the Algerian security forces in southern Algeria over the last year, including the deployment of 35,000 men to the southern border with Mali. El Watan highlighted meetings between top Algerian officials and other regional leaders — notably PM Abdelmalek Sellal’s attendance at the Ghadames Summit in Libya and his meetings with Malian PM Diango Cissoko. It highlights Sellal’s change in tone, comparing it that of a "warrior," since France launched its raids in Mali:

We supported dialogue to the maximum and continue to do so, but in the case of infringements of security and the use of other means, we stand firm [. . .] The crisis in Mali will have a direct impact on the region. It is not a simple case of terrorism, organized crime that uses drugs and launders money.

It describes Algeria as initially reluctant to accept a military option but "now embedded in a war international in operational scope." It reiterates concerns among Algerian elites that the country could become like Pakistan, a rear base for Western wars and a client state whose territorial and political sovereignty is ambiguous. "Public opinion is outrageously cynical when a war comes to our borders and three Algerian diplomats are in the hands of jihadist groups." 

El Watan still describes the much talked about "political solution" favored by Algiers as being on decision-makers’ minds. An article entitled "War Causes More Problems Than it Solves" features comments from Ahmed Idebir, the amenokal of the Algerian Tuaregs in the Ahaggar. Idebir, who is also a senator, has previously told the media about his opposition to military intervention in northern Mali. Idebir argues that war will complicate the situation in Mali and the wider region, accusing France of holding a destabilizing "hegemonic policy in the Sahara" with "other interests aside from fighting terrorism." The article goes on to quote the senator as arguing that the Libyan crisis has created a "new context," weakening the region, and predicting that "this war will push thousands of people in exile along the border regions, already heavily affected by successive outflows related to the various rebellions. We have an increasingly large refugee community to take charge of and secure." The article states that "about forty-five nationalities" are now represented in Tamanrasset and that "the economic situation in the region is very difficult with tourist season due to be catastrophic due to events in northern Mali." Additionally, Idebir states that "thousands of Tuareg" in Mali, Niger, and Mauritania have Algerian papers, which are circulating around. He states that while in the past, it was fine to give papers to people who passed through frequently. He argues for greater vigilance for fraudulent papers or people using papers illegally, explaining "harm comes from those who have decided to give this heavy responsibility, under the sovereignty of the nation, to unauthorized persons." 

Media comments suggest Algerian public opinion is intensely divided over the intervention. These divisions are expressed in the local press, with the El Watan editor Omar Belhouchet expressing "absolute" support for the intervention and Kamel Daoud offering scathing criticism. More than one paper gave space and attention to comments by French defense analysts such as Eric Denécé and from former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin regarding the wisdom of Operation SERVAL. There has been plenty of open criticism of France as well. Much of this coverage reflects the still adversarial perceptions many Algerians – those in the elite and the masses – have of French foreign policy. 

Le Temps, which often carries hardline pieces on terrorism, published an interview with Algerian professor, Menas Mesbah, which accused the United States of running a "proxy war" in northern Mali. He argues that the war in Mali illustrates "a new game in the world where the US entrusts wars with other countries to its allies." Mesbah predicts a "quagmire" in Mali if the war is long and that the conflict "will have an impact on Algeria. Mesbah also predicts an "exodus" of Malians into southern Algeria as the war continues. Still, according to Mesbah, "Algeria will not participate in the war in Mali."

Le Temps also ran a summary of a commentary by Laid Seraghni. Seraghni argues that France’s intervention come under "the false pretext of restoring the constitutional order that is, in reality, the colonial order established to protect its interests." The author argues that the intervention will "affect and destablize all the countries in the Sahel region, including Algeria, whose borders are so great that the state can not counter the infiltration of terrorist groups." "According to him," Le Temps writes, "this intervention ‘would force Algeria to consider the military option to protect its borders and the Algerian population in the region of Kidal (Mali). The Algerian army will face the rebels of Ansar Eddine, AQIM, and MUJAO.'" Additionally, the intervention will leave Algeria "surrounded by the French army operating Libya, Ivory Coast, Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Mali." The article argues that Algeria is being "targeted by France," using Seraghni’s piece as backup:

Since colonization, Algeria has always claimed its independence and sovereignty. The Algerian revolution of 1957, derailed the plan to create an independent Tuareg state controlled by the colonial power. Algeria refuses to admit French bases on its territory, whose primary mission is to monitor and pressure the Algerian state.

Seraghni argues that "anyone who follows relations between Algeria and France knows that it is not Mali which raises the attention of French power, but Algeria." The author accuses French elites of having "never forgiven the independence of Algeria, which paved the way for the decolonization of Africa" concluding by reminding readers to recall "the phrase of Charles de Gaulle who declared that "France has no friends, she has only interests.’"

On the eve of the intervention, Le Temps also published a series of articles based on interviews with French analyst Eric Denécé. The headlines for these, mostly short articles, highlighted points of distrust between Algeria and France – "The French have prejudices against Algerians" for example – or praise for Algeria’s efforts in Mali  — "The Algerian strategy for the crisis in Mali will bear fruit."

In an interview with the French-language daily, Le Soir d’Algerie, political science professor Ahmed Adimi described the intervention as an attempt to "undermine Algeria" and a "step in a plan for the installation of foreign forces in the Sahel region." Adimi’s thesis is that France has worked for years to destabilize the Sahel as a means of strengthening its geopolitical stance. Asked whether the French operation in Mali was consistent with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2085, Adimi states the following:

Western powers have used it to intervene and adopt resolutions to justify their military operations. This has already happened in Iraq. In fact, the French operation may seem legal since it comes at the request of the acting president of Mali. However, it is important to remember that the current government came to power in a coup.

Adimi argues that Algerians have "been sounding the alarm about the situation in the Sahel in general." He goes on to argue:

Ahmed Barkouk and myself have organized several seminars on this topic. We discussed the role of France and its commitment to the region. It was France that was behind the creation of the movement for the Azawad and I speak of course of the political organization and not of the people of Azawad who have rights as a community. The French knew that their intervention in Libya would lead to a return of the pro-Gaddafi military Tuareg to Mali. They also planned the release of Libyan arms stockpiles across the Sahel band. The project is to transform the region into a new Afghanistan, the result of long term planning.

While Adimi argues that "the war will surely last for a long time," he does not believe the French have the capacity to erode the armed groups in Mali, since leaders from these organizations can count on "jihadists from all over the world" to "flock to participate in this new crusade." He predicts, at the suggestion of the interviewer, that the French will find themselves in a situation similar to that of the Americans in Somalia, producing a "catastrophic situation" resulting from entering the conflict "in haste." Adimi then argues that Algeria faces a "dilemma":

On the one hand it acknowledges that it is the Malian government that has appealed to the French, so this in not an occupation. But on the other hand, Algeria is very concerned about the events occurring along its border in Mali. A strong and powerful state should not allow this to happen along its borders. But we must recognize that it is the absence of Algerian diplomacy in Africa that has allowed this. We totally lost the influence we previously had on this continent and we are paying the price for absence. The consequences could be difficult to bear. Honestly, I think the next step will be the sharing of southern Algeria. Foreign intervention in Mali aims to weaken the Algerian state, this is a reality. I tend to see danger everywhere, but the risks are real."

Adimi suggests Algiers increase its diplomatic profile in Africa; he compares Algeria to Morocco, which he says has a presence "everywhere in Africa." Secondly, he recommends that the government invest more in development in southern Algeria. Accusing the government of failing to formulate an adequate policy in the region, Adimi concludes by stating that the army should be the last resort and that "national defense is not only the duty of the army, but also the policymakers."

Kamel Daoud, a prominent Algerian columnist, ponders the possibility of Algeria becoming "Pakistanized" – "a country reduced to the status of a nursery of explosive barracks, drones, services, cells, coups, and collaborators. A country that finds its legitimacy in its 'international' usefulness, and its geostrategic rent." Daoud recalls comments from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to Algiers late last year about what "Algeria must" do in cooperation with international anti-terrorism efforts. Daoud fears that Algeria’s growing ties to the US and other Western powers puts Algeria at risk of becoming less stable, less independent. Daoud predicts that France’s attack on the armed groups in Mali will grow into "an open war" that sucks in Algeria. He imagines North-West Africa as South Asia:

Obliged to play false neutrality or cooperate for the sake of internal balances against its own population and emergency external support. It will emerge from general restlessness and agitation and the Talibanization of the periphery, in the worst scenarios. Will Tunisia be Sri Lanka, and Morocco India, with a smaller and more devious SADR [Polisario-controlled Western Sahara] as Kashmir? Libya? A black hole. Mali? Karzai’s Afghanistan with the French in Bamako.

Daoud describes Algeria as it is now as too centralized and too post-colonial to handle the evolving crises in the region, arguing that the state must "reform or collapse."

Finally, another Algerian columnist, Brahim Younnessi, criticized the Algerian government for not informing the government or public about its decision to allow French over flights. "Algeria is at war. How can we think otherwise when French military aircrafts are permitted to fly over the sky to hit Algerian armed groups in northern Mali?" Younnessi argues that southern Algeria has been an area of strategic depth for groups like Ansar Ed-Dine, AQIM and MUJWA; fighters fleeing the bombing will probably move north, attempting to enter Algeria. The mobilization of Algerian troops along the border in the sixth military region means that Algerians will "be forced to engage in ground combat" with these armed groups, under "French air cover." He overviews intelligence and other support reportedly given by Americans to the French; he then states: "There is no doubt that Algeria, which wants to prevent any incursion on its territory enjoys all the information gleaned by the French military services." Although Algiers says it does not want to act against armed groups 'outside of its territory,’ they may need to go beyond the border since the MNLA (the non-Islamist Tuareg group that helped initiate the rebellion in the north, only to be outgunned and smarted by the Islamists) "cannot face them alone."

Overall, the Algerian government’s decision to allow over flight rights to the French Air Force, along with troop and helicopter movements in southern Algeria, suggest Algiers will likely play an enabling role by opening airspace, attempting to block off escape routes, and sharing intelligence. The Algerians may also seek to assist in negotiating post-war planning, despite the failure of its diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Ansar Ed-Dine and Bamako. The timing of Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko’s two-day visit to Algiers speaks to Algiers’s continuing desire to impact political conditions in Mali. France’s aggressive (speaking descriptively, not legally) moves in Mali appear to have given momentum to international and regional efforts to push forward an intervention in Mali and may be bringing along Algeria at the same time. There is one main message coming out in certain Algerian press accounts, namely in Francophone press via anonymous security officials. The message is that Algeria decided to abandon dialogue with Ansar Ed-Dine and others in northern Mali in favor of an immediate armed campaign when its leaders renounced non-aggression pacts they signed at Algiers’s egging and participated in attacks in Konna and elsewhere with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

[A version of this article was originally published on The Moor Next Door.]

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