Gaddafi’s Ace In The Hole? Algeria (Part 2)

Algeria protestsCross-posted from Counterpunch.

Algeria, Part 1: Where the Demonstrators Wave Black Flags

At this moment when it appears that Muammar Gaddafi’s days in power are numbered, the Libyan leader has made it clear repeatedly that he will stay and fight. So far he has. His domestic support is evaporating around him, leaders of the country’s 140 tribes siding with the rebels, military units siding with the rebellion in larger and larger numbers, air force pilots and naval vessels defecting to Malta. Much of his government, other than his sons, has abandoned him as well.

What is left?

Those heavily armed private militias controlled by his sons? The army of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa? Some Mirage jet fighter planes with, until now, pilots less than willing to bomb rebel strongholds? All that is true. Yet while the U.S. and Europe work to isolate Gaddafi, he is not completely alone and without allies.

Libya appears more and more headed for civil war. Given his ever shrinking domestic base, one has to wonder how it is that Gaddafi can appear so defiant? It might come from the fact that he is not entirely isolated and alone. Indeed, the support that Gaddafi is garnering has stiffened the colonel’s backbone.

Gaddafi has the support of at least one important regional ally, the Algerian government, which has both militarily and diplomatically thrown its full (and substantial) weight behind his effort to retain power. In so doing, it would appear that Algeria, which has long cooperated with the US and NATO on its North and Sub-Saharan Africa anti-terrorism policies, is breaking ranks to protect its regime’s very survival.

Since its independence, Algeria has been controlled by its military which lives high off the country’s oil profits at the expense of its own people. Algeria’s leaders fear that if Gaddafi falls, their hold on power will be that much more fragile. Their support of Gaddafi is very much one to save their own skins.

If Mubarak saw the writing on the wall as Ben Ali’s little castle in Tunisia crumbled, so the Algerian military leadership understands that if Gaddafi falls, it very likely is next in line, or if not, not very far down the list. Desperate to cling to power, the Algerian government is – offering a few political and economic concessions it is true – essentially reorganizing the state’s substantial repressive apparatus to weather the protest storm. But in addition, it is pulling out all stops to support Gaddafi’s increasingly feeble hold on power.

Maybe it is the support of its North African oil producing ally Algeria that has given Gaddafi that confident appearance that he can indeed – with a little help from his friends – hold out longer. An alliance of two of Africa’s most important oil producing countries is nothing to sneeze at, and could have all kinds of implications, consequences. Should the alliance between the two tighten, and they engage in a common front oil embargo, which some news outlets speculate could happen, oil prices could jump to as high as $220 a barrel.

Less than a week ago, an Algerian human rights group based in Germany Algeria Watch published a statement alleging that the Algerian government is providing material aid – in the form of armed military units – to Muammar Gaddafi to help prop up his shrinking (and sinking) regime. The statement is found on the website of an Algerian youth group, Mouvement Rachad, involved in the current protests against the current Algerian government.

The statement opens as such:

It is with both sadness and anger that we have learned that the Algerian government has sent armed detachments to Libya to commit crimes against our Libyan brothers and sisters who have risen up against the bloody and corrupt regime of Muammar Khadafi [their spelling]. These armed detachments were first identified in western Libya in the city of Zaouia where some among them have been arrested. This has been reported in the media and confirmed by eye witnesses. (Prince translation)

Zaouia is the site of fierce fire fights between the residents of Zaouia, now a zone liberated from Tripoli’s control and under the authority of rebel forces on the one hand, and the military elements still faithful to Gaddafi on the others. There were reports today of a 6-8 hour battle in which Gaddafi’s forces, led by one of his sons, tried to recapture the city but were repulsed by the city’s defenders and pushed back after fierce fighting.

Algeria Watch goes on to accuse the Algerian government of having provided the air transport planes that have carried sub-Saharan African mercenaries from Niger, Chad and the Dafur province of Sudan to Libya to strengthen Gaddafi’s position militarily. It goes on to add that Algeria had played a similar role in transporting troops to Somalia to support the U.S. directed government military offensive against rebellious Somali tribes.

The statement goes on to allege that on the diplomatic front that the Algerian government has been lobbying different European powers (which are presumably France, Italy, German, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain) pressing them to continue to support Gaddafi. These diplomatic efforts are being led by Abdelkader Messahel, Algerian Minister of Magrebian and African Affairs. On the all-European level, Amar Bendjama, Algerian ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as Algeria’s representative to the European Union and NATO and Belkacem Belgaid, another Algerian diplomat whose responsibilities include NATO and the EU, have together opened up an active lobbying campaign in support of Gaddafi.

The political approach that Bendjama and Belgaid are pursuing echoes Gaddafi’s own statements – that if his government were to fall, Libya would fall into the hands of radical Islamic fundamentalists – all this nonsense about Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden being behind the national uprising. Gaddafi’s argument is identical to what Ben Ali and Mubarak have been arguing for decades: that they are the alternative to an Islamic takeover. The West might not like them, but better Gaddafi than Osama. This kind of fear mongering – the threat of Islamic radicalism – has lost its appeal in the current protest wave in which the Islamic fundamentalist element has been marginalized or irrelevant.

The lobbying is similar to what has happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where the first offer of concessions consists of ceding as little as possible. Bendjama and Belgaid appear to be pressing (unsuccessfully) for a solution that would see Gaddafi’s son, Saif, replace his father. It is not clear if they are asking for some kind of arrangement that would protect Gaddafi from prosecution in exchange for stepping down, but such an approach is more than likely. But as one of the first demands in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni protests was precisely that no family member (sons or family member) succeed these elder and now disgraced statements to power, it is not likely that such arguments or suggestions will carry much if any weight. There is more.

Under the direction of Colonel Djamel Bouzghaia, an advisor to Algerian President Bouteflika on security matters, Algeria has, according to the statement, ‘embraced’ a large number of elements of disposed Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali’s private security force and republican guard. These are the same units that were used as snipers to assassinate demonstrators in Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and Thala in Tunisia. Now in the employ of Algeria, they too have been sent to Libya to shore up Gaddafi’s regime. Bouzghaia works directly under Major General Rachid Laalali (alias Attafi), head of Algeria’s external relations bureau.

Who else is helping Gaddafi? Will be interesting to see what shakes out.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.