Libya’s Prickly Neighbor

As I write this, former Libyan dictator Qaddafi is still at large somewhere, although hopefully we’ve agreed that it is not likely to be in Tunisia. Ah, but what of that other direct neighbor to the west, Algeria? His wife and younger sons, and their families, have apparently fled there – can Muammar be far behind?

In fact, things have gone even further than that. Algeria has closed (or at least declared closed – with the obvious exceptions) its 1,000km-long desert border with Libya, has cut diplomatic relations, and of course shows no inclination to formally recognize the new regime there. It is hardly the only country to have bet the wrong way on the ultimate outcome of Qaddafi’s struggle with domestic rebels, but it might be the only one further doubling-down on that failed wager. Why? Several answers are offered in an excellent – though anonymous – analysis in Die Zeit (Algeria’s problem with the new Libya).

The best clue might lie in the little-reported bombing attack last Friday on Algeria’s military academy at Cherchell, a coastal town, which killed 18 cadets. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (Maghreb=North Africa; that terrorist organization is conventionally abbreviated as AQIM) claimed responsibility, you see. The Algerian government hates AQIM, understandably, but also suspects that there have been elements involved in Qaddafi’s overthrow. While the entire rebel movement was hardly another Al-Qaeda project, as Qaddafi repeatedly tried to make the world believe, it is nevertheless by no means unlikely that the more-limited Algerian suspicions about some involvement are true. And it’s indisputable that this terrorist group was able to use the general chaos prevailing in Libya to pick up all sorts of new weapons and munitions.

While it may share its anti-AQIM stance with most of the rest of the world, Algerian diplomacy also has a strong anti-NATO stance, particularly when that organization is intervening on the African continent. This also sets it against the new Libyan regime, which of course relied heavily on NATO air and logistical support. Then again, the Zeit article also very intelligently describes the tacit “Stability Pact” which the Algerian regime has long held with the US and Western Europe: you leave us alone, we’ll not only sell you oil and gas but also work to prevent radical Islamists from taking over anywhere in the Maghreb, just like we were able to thwart them in our own country.

Now that mutual understanding looks a bit dated, that recent AQIM attack aside. What’s more, the Algerian government itself is a bit paralyzed when it comes to policy-making due to an internal power-struggle currently taking place. Meanwhile, though, the country is riding its losing Libyan bet to increasing diplomatic isolation.

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