Since Algeria’s foreign minister’s recent visit to the United States speculation is intense about its intentions and results. From the Western Saharan issue and its recent developments to possible armament deals and good ol’ business. Both Mr Medelci and Mrs Clinton remained vague about what they discussed in their micro press conference, half the questions by journalists were answered with the usual diplomatic filler tripe, and the other half was irrelevant to the visit, indicating the media’s usual apathy to the country.
But today Quds Press dropped a bomb and reported that the country has succumbed to the United States’ pressure to have a military base in the country. The formula seems to be holding “temporary” bases where American troops launch fast attacks against AQIM throughout the Sahara, trailing them to their holdouts in neighbouring countries. Supposedly the temporary nature of the bases avoids upsetting the local population. The story is gaining momentum, with Aljazeera throwing their mammoth weight behind it and soon the local opposition press will follow suit.
Such a heavy claim commands careful analysis though. First, the only source of this is Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a disgruntled former Algerian diplomat now in Asylum in Britain. Zitout is a fierce critic of the Algerian government, appearing on multiple news channels Arab and Western. But before going deeper into his background and to avoid any accusations of ad homming the source, we will dig elsewhere first.
Bouteflika’s Algeria has tried to play the cards with everyone and keep passable diplomatic ties with world powers. The country exports a considerable amount of oil to the United States, with Halliburton and other American companies present in the industry. Culturally it is closely tied to France (it pretends this is not true). The country’s recent multi billion construction projects are mainly managed by Chinese and Japanese companies, whose relationships with Algeria are apolitical so far. Most substantially, Algeria imports most of its important Arms from Russia, including advanced aircraft equipment and surface to air missiles. This is why the country is strategically considered in the Russian camp.
A decision to accept American bases would severally upset this balance of powers. The country has tried to keep this balance for as long as possible, never opening up to one direction, habitually pissing everyone off in turn. The Russions in the last scandalous armament deal, when the Algerian military was publicly dissatisfied with the quality of the MiGs they received. France by demanding apologies for the war of independence every few years and refusing to fully endorse Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union. And lastly, the United States by publicly refusing to hold an American military base when debate about American involvement in the Maghreb intensified following the rise of AQIM.
Paradoxically, AQIM is much less of a threat now than it was perceived to be in 2005/2006. AlQuaeda In the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has largely failed in implementing its Agenda of exporting its ideology throughout the region, as confirmed by the findings of Jean-Pierre Filiu, the expert on terrorist movements in the region, in a Carnegie Endowment report. AQIM’s predecessors, the various terrorist groups that were fighting the Algerian state, had some support within the population after the coup of 1991. Despite the horrific events of the late 90’s against civilians, this support diminished year by year but never completely went away because of continual frustration at the state. That support seems to have nearly completely dried up inside the country and its neighbours, as AQIM’s global vision and integration of fighters from foreign American wars made Algerians realise that AQIM are not fighting for their cause and that their Agenda is foreign. American bases in the country will give more fuel to AQIM and possibly even reverse its fortunes. AQIM is weaker and is perceived to be weaker by the population, so their presence and current state cannot alone explain Algeria’s possible sudden change of heart.
The country has forever publicly stated that they allow no foreign bases on Algerian soil full stop. The nation draws great pride from its war of Independence and is extremely sensitive to the idea of foreign troops. For a long time it has been a source of differentiation from other Middle Eastern countries, notably the Gulf countries: they have American bases and troops, we don’t, they succumb to foreign powers, we don’t! It also helps that the country has been geographically far from any hot spot. That is, until AQIM’s rise and Algeria’s public refusal to host bases.
Quds Press, Aljazeera and Zitout speculate that the Algerian élite and military officials have a lot to gain from setting up private security companies that help an American military presence – Black Water gained billions in Iraq and other places. A powerful argument for sure, but the lack of history of sacrificing diplomatic standing over financial gains, even personal ones undermines it. The country has forever let its generals and army commanders run loose in holding the main companies that import essential goods and dealing with far more money than anything that these security companies might bring. Moreover, au contraire, Algeria’s habit has been the opposite: easily letting away financial opportunities using dubious spiteful laws (Oil windfall taxes as an example) and more prudent diplomatic stances.
The second argument is that Algeria is seeking the US’s support on Western Sahara. This issue, while important to the Algerian authorities, has never garnered enough importance to make the country take such drastic measures, and indeed, Algeria has been successful in shaping the terms of the conflict. This argument is even weaker in the light of Morocco’s recent difficulties vs Aminatou and Spain. The third argument is Algeria’s desire for American arms, a drastic change in its stance with its old ally Russia if true. Lastly, Zitout says that the country wants its general to be protected when travelling abroad, since many of them could be accused of war crimes after Bouteflika’s reconciliation laws that largely exonerated them. Usually the preferred destination for these generals is Europe, somewhere on the shores of lake Geneva or the Cote d’Azur, and American protection will not prevent NGO’s and European countries launching criminal cases against them.
Algeria’s response to this will be closely watched in local and Arab circles. The traditional response of the government in situation like these is dead silence – the presidency and authorities often given the impression that they are beyond answering rumours and speculation. That is, until the rumour grows big enough, and there is no question that this will only grow. Aljazeera is a powerful force in the Algerian public opinion arena. The station carried the story both on its Arabic based website and on air, the local press will soon follow.
So the verdict is that the story has little truth, given what we know now. It appears that Zitout wants to corner Algeria in a difficult situation by forcing them to, once again, publicly state that they don’t accept foreign bases, humiliating both Algeria and the US after the diplomatic visit and potentially doing enough damage to reverse any diplomatic progress. Zitout’s public goal through the Rachad movement that he co-founded is to weaken and topple the current government via peaceful means (and from exile), and this could be one of the tools he is using.