An Algerian Press Review: Determining Algiers’ Position on an Intervention in Mali

Nov 28, 2012

On October 29, 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Algiers to discuss developments in northern Mali. One of the main purposes of her trip was to determine the role Algeria might play in a future military intervention. The goal of any intervention is to unseat from power three armed militant groups that control northern Mali—Ansar Eddine,[1] the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)[2] and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).[3] Algeria is considered the main regional power in the Maghreb-Sahel region, with key economic and diplomatic influence in northern Mali. Algeria’s cooperation is critical to the success of a potential military intervention.

Algeria’s press coverage of the crisis in Mali and international efforts to respond to it have relied heavily on official Algerian government sources and reflect elite perspectives on northern Mali in one of North Africa’s key power centers. In general, Algerian media coverage suggests that Algiers’ widely reported public opposition to an international military intervention in northern Mali is easing.[4] According to many press accounts, while Algeria reportedly still favors a “political solution” to the crisis in Mali, it now appears that Algiers will participate in an international intervention within specified parameters and discretion. Algerian media reports remain divided, however, over whether military intervention is desirable, and several articles suggest that while Algiers has identified political processes it favors with respect to Mali, it has yet to decide on a desired end state from negotiations or military action.

This article will discuss the focus of Algerian press reports on Hillary Clinton’s visit to Algiers, and how these reactions reflect Algerian perceptions of international efforts to intervene in northern Mali.

Algerian Press Perspectives on Intervention in Mali
Clinton’s visit received extensive attention in mainstream Algerian newspapers. Coverage in the main private newspapers suggests that while the Algerian government has adopted a more flexible posture on military intervention in Mali, significant skepticism exists within Algeria’s elite over the merits and potential outcomes of an intervention. Algeria is often deeply skeptical of international intervention schemes. As a former colony of France—born out of an eight-year war for independence—Algeria jealously guards its sovereignty. It warned Western governments against intervening in Libya’s civil war in 2011, predicting that internationalizing the conflict would destabilize the region by strengthening terrorist groups such as AQIM. Algeria also fears that intensified conflict resulting from an intervention could spread into southern Algeria, where Algeria’s own Tuareg minority lives and thousands of refugees from northern Mali have fled. These concerns are evident in a warning from Algeria’s Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia on November 8, 2012, when he said that an intervention would have “very serious” consequences for “local populations” in the region around Mali.[5]

Algerian press accounts focused heavily (and sometimes exclusively) on the security file, mostly neglecting agenda items in the energy sector and U.S. support for Algeria’s World Trade Organization bid. While coverage in the semi-official newspaper El Moudjahid was overwhelmingly positive and focused on the visit as “reflecting strong relations,” coverage in the private press was more diverse.[6] Articles in El Khabar, one of Algeria’s leading private Arabic-language newspapers, were dominated by security issues between October 28-31, with headlines almost exclusively about Mali and terrorism.

One story on October 29 described Algeria “in the heart of a diplomatic battle over sending its army to Mali.”[7] The article described Algerian concerns of “turning into Pakistan”[8] if it became embroiled in a war in Mali with foreign powers. In the article, a member of parliament (MP) from Tamanrasset called on Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to “maintain steadfastness” in its “traditional position in rejecting any foreign military intervention in the region,” fearing anything else would “act as a gateway to a status quo of foreign military bases in the region.”[9] The MP warned that an intervention in Mali “will create many problems,” stressing the need to continue dialogue. He said, “We know from all previous experiments beginning with foreign intervention that we cannot know how it ends and what happened in Libya is the best proof of this…military intervention in northern Mali will lead to a new colonization” spreading out of Mali and into Algeria.[10] The MP also said that a group of Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)[11] men had traveled to southern Algeria “for dialogue and then returned to Mali” recently as part of the government’s efforts to find a political solution.[12] A major report on October 30 said that the United States and Algeria would follow up the meeting “within the context of bilateral military talks,” while stating that “Washington persuaded Algeria to participate” at the military planning level without the participation of the National People’s Army in a military intervention in Mali.[13] The report said that Algerians would participate in planning sessions with West African military officials on November 2 and November 4.

Other El Khabar reports framed the visit as part of Washington’s efforts to wage a proxy war against AQIM and emphasized differences “revealed by Algerian officials” over their views of the MNLA and Ansar Eddine (contrasting with reports elsewhere arguing that Algiers and Washington have similar views of the two groups).[14] One article explained how some in the West see Algerian views of northern Mali as relevant “because Algeria differentiates between the different armed groups in northern Mali, and this helps to understand the social structure of the terrain inside northern Mali, rather than colliding with it and turning it into a hotbed that attracts extremist groups [from abroad] under the pretext of resisting a foreign presence.”[15] It then pointed to reports that the AQIM-linked MUJAO is preparing for a foreign intervention in Gao by bringing in jihadists of various nationalities including Sudanese and Pakistanis.[16]

The report opined that the French-led approach to Mali looks to “recreate the American NATO model of involvement in Afghanistan” and argued that an intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West would be hampered by “armed groups well trained in guerrilla warfare, who enjoy freedom of movement in a vast desert area and their knowledge of the terrain gives superiority in combat, which will drain regular troops participating in the intervention.”[17]

Algiers: Between Washington and Paris?
Algeria’s leading private French-language daily, El Watan, also gave Clinton’s visit prominent coverage. Its early reporting was mostly based on wire service or Algérie Presse Service reports. Longer, deeper articles from October 29-31 focused on security and Mali. These were somewhat consistent in their emphasis on describing shared U.S.-Algerian perceptions of the situation in Mali, while one article described the visit as having “cooled French ardor” by seeking to “cure” Algeria’s chronic allergy to military intervention in Mali.[18] Such reports described Clinton having “a better grasp of the political and security issues in Mali” than the French and as having “given all attention to concerns raised by the Algerian authorities.”[19] They argued that the United States understood “the complexity of the situation in Mali coldly, stepping away from the risky consequences which are hardly imaginable,” for “the Americans do not want to commit blindly to the quicksand of northern Mali, wanting to understand and know where they are setting their feet.”[20] El Watan judged Clinton “much less committed to military action ‘in a few weeks’ as suggested by the [French] Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.”[21]

The article stated that “if Paris and Algiers agree in principal on the use of force against terrorists in northern Mali, they differ significantly on the identity of potential targets.”[22] The article then presented the intention of Algerian officials to “recover much of the elements of Ansar Eddine brought in through dialogue, in order to isolate the radicals.”[23] An El Watan piece from November 1 described Algeria as “embedded” in planning for an intervention with West African militaries and noted that despite Algeria’s acceptance of a role in an intervention, “the nature of the group Ansar Eddine…remains a point of contention, especially with France.”[24] The article later quoted an anonymous diplomat as saying “the north of Mali is also the south of Algeria” before suggesting that Algeria intended to play a prominent role in a potential intervention.[25] “Information services such as the Foreign Ministry and Presidency are stingy with information” on what role Algeria seeks or plans to play in Mali, the article continued.[26]

A brief opinion piece by well-known commentator Chawki Amari from the same day described Algeria as being pressured to allow its airspace to be used for an intervention but “unofficially, it [Algeria] is playing the benefits of America against those of France.”[27] The piece criticized the Algerian government for not being clearer with its own citizens about its intentions in Mali.

Certain press reports described Clinton’s visit as a power play by either Paris or Algiers to use the United States as a check on the other’s influence over international plans for an intervention in Mali. These reports tended to focus on differences in Algerian and French views of the heavily Tuareg Islamist group Ansar Eddine, with which Algeria has reportedly engaged in discussions and negotiations during the last several months (another track of talks has been led by officials from Burkina Faso). French officials have dismissed Algerian efforts to splinter factions within Ansar Eddine away from AQIM. Algeria views those elements of Ansar Eddine close to historical Tuareg rebel leader Iyad Ag Ghaly as susceptible to a “political solution” and having the credibility among key Tuareg demographics in the Kidal region to help counter AQIM.[28] Algerian press accounts place this disagreement near the center of Algerian objections to plans for an international intervention. Some Algerian outlets presented Clinton’s visit as vindication of the Algerian view that more time for “dialogue” between Algerian officials and elements of Ansar Eddine is needed before an invasion.

Liberte took a different line, previewing the visit on October 28 with a piece stating that “there is every reason to believe that the United States will continue to exert further pressure on Algiers trying to sell it on certain points, knowing that differences lay in the role that Algeria should play according to the Western model.”[29] Liberte reported that “Algeria, according to Western officials, has moderated its position [on foreign intervention] and accepts an African intervention force. It refuses, however, to be directly involved in this process which it considers highly risky.”[30] It also reported that Algeria refused over-flight rights to France during an intervention. The report, published on the eve of Clinton’s visit, also accused U.S. officials of “issuing contradictory statements,” complaining that “it is as though some officials who have visited Algiers have spoken openly against foreign intervention in Mali, whereas others have rather supported the French proposal.”[31] The piece highlighted how both Washington and Algiers are approaching Mali with “strategic aspects” in mind: “the United States does not want to repeat the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan in the Sahel, as Algeria does not want to have a fire on its southern border…The question now remains as to why the Western countries want Algeria to enlist in a transaction that may be part of a vicious cycle.”[32] The article then described the economic elements of the U.S.-Algeria Strategic Dialogue framework, noting that “by the admission of American officials, Algeria offers unlimited opportunities.”[33]

An October 29 Liberte report described “the American perspective on Mali.” The United States, it said, views Mali facing multiple challenges “of equal importance which must be solved simultaneously.”[34] Liberte described Washington and Algiers as being on “the same wavelength” on the issue, with Algiers supporting United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the African Union and regional bodies to plan operations to remove the armed groups from the north. It briefly reflected on U.S. views of the humanitarian crisis in the region, focused mainly on the overflow of refugees into neighboring countries. The article quoted U.S. statements urging Mali’s neighbors (such as Algeria) to support an intervention and to take responsibility for resolving the country’s problems.

One strand of Algerian press accounts presented the Clinton visit as an Algerian attempt to play Washington off of Paris as a means of conditioning international plans for an intervention in a way favorable to the Algerian position. One representative report on the French-language news site Tout Sur Algerie argued that Clinton’s visit was intended to offset French pressure over a Mali intervention by using the United States to shape an outcome in Mali closer to Algiers’ image—the visit would be “a boon for Algiers which has long sought an ally to counter French intransigence on several points, including dialogue with Ansar Eddine and the timing of a military intervention.”[35] Algerian concerns over an intervention are thus not a question of ends but merely means. According to Tout Sur Algerie, Algerian officials see the U.S. position contrasting with the French one (and being similar to its own) in two ways: 1) Ansar Eddine “can be part of a political solution within the framework of a credible dialogue with the Mali authorities,”[36] and 2) “an intervention must be well thought out, well prepared, well funded and well informed so as to avoid collateral damage that would aggravate the situation in a region destabilized by many problems.”[37] The Tout Sur Algerie report noted that the Algerians were pleased to have Clinton visit without a stopover in Paris.[38] The article said that while Algeria opposes foreign troops using its territory during an intervention, it “has not yet ruled on issues such as over-flights in its airspace during a military intervention and the exchange of information on terrorist groups.”[39] The report concluded that “it is indeed easier for Algiers to grant concessions to the Americans than the French.”[40]

At the same time, a column by Mustapha Hammouche on October 28 noted that “Algeria does not have a clear position on the question of intervention in Mali.”[41] Hammouche argued that Algeria is right to “maintain its decision not to take part” in plans for a Mali intervention, arguing that Algeria and France disagree over the nature of armed groups in northern Mali (i.e., Ansar Eddine) and described Mali as a weak state “plagued by corruption and the unpopularity of an unjust regime with tribes and ethnic groups after squandering a good part of the few democratic achievements of the country”—in line with the descriptions Algerian officials often give of the “root causes” of Mali’s numerous troubles. Hammouche attributed Mali’s overall troubles to “unfinished decolonization” in which borders are inconsistent with the demography, with post-colonial regimes antagonizing and repressing ethnic dissent.

In opposition-oriented sources, similar narratives emerged, although with a closer eye toward their domestic implications. For example, the French-language opposition paper Le Matin carried similar reports to those found in the Tout Sur Algerie article.[42] One such report quoted an International Crisis Group analyst as saying that it is likely Washington is more understanding of Algerian concerns over foreign intervention than Paris; it noted that with a French lead, Algiers would be forced to “abandon the dialogue it initiated last June” with Ansar Eddine. Another story in Le Matin puzzled over the Algerian view of Ansar Eddine: “According to Paris and Washington, Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQIM are the same breed of terrorism. In contrast, for Bouteflika, Ansar Eddine has nothing to do with MUJAO or AQIM. This is why Bouteflika wants to save the lost soldier Iyad Ag Ghaly and his group Ansar Eddine…How many Islamist battalions embedded with the MNLA at the beginning of the year? What does Algiers see in Iyad Ag Ghaly? Is he a mole of the DRS [Algeria’s Department of Intelligence and Security], as suggested by some commentators on the Sahel question?”[43]

Le Matin also published another piece criticizing Bouteflika for not communicating more often on foreign affairs, which the author claimed are only made clear to the Algerian public “during visits by foreign diplomats” which is also when they “are informed that their president is still alive.”[44]

Conclusion
Algerian press reporting of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Algiers trip suggests Algeria is strongly concerned about spillover effects of an intervention and the impact it might have on Algerian efforts to divide AQIM’s Malian Islamist supporters. Press reactions to Clinton’s meetings in Algiers suggest positive responses to the visit as recognition and validation of Algeria’s position as a regional power. It implies that Algeria will likely play a role in an intervention but will probably seek to shape its scope according to its own interests and concerns. Algerian elite opinion appears divided as to the merits and viability of an intervention in Mali.

While much of the reporting indicates perceptions of shared Algerian and U.S. perspectives on northern Mali, it is not clear that this is a consensus view among Algeria’s elites. Press reporting indicates that Algerian officials and local elites, notably in southern Algeria, believe that a military intervention internationalizing the Mali crisis could spread into Algeria’s border regions, which currently host thousands of refugees and are home to vulnerable communities. These sentiments have likely contributed to Algeria’s preference for a “negotiated solution” through elements of Ansar Eddine while putting off a potential armed intervention. It does not appear, however, that Algeria rejects military intervention in general. Instead, Algeria prefers a longer timeline for a potential intervention and sees this outcome less optimal than an alternative process. At the same time, media discussion shows that Algeria fears being drawn into an international military effort in Mali from which it cannot extract itself.

Kal Ben Khalid is a Washington, D.C.-based North Africa analyst. He is the author of the northwest Africa-focused weblog, The Moor Next Door. The views expressed here are his alone.

[1] Ansar Eddine is an Islamist faction that was founded by veteran Tuareg rebel leader Iyad Ag Ghaly in 2011 and is one of three main Islamist groups in control of northern Mali. Made up heavily of Tuareg fighters, it is close to AQIM and MUJAO. It has been particularly active in Timbuktu, and the Kidal region.

[2] The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is one of three Islamist groups in control of northern Mali, especially the area around Gao. It emerged out of AQIM’s network in northern Mali, although the specific circumstances around its origins are murky and controversial among analysts. The group is strongly comprised of a mix of Malian Arabs, Songhai, Arabs and others; it is rumored to have links to Gao-area merchant families and drug traffickers. It remains close to Ansar Eddine and AQIM.

[3] The French posture is probably best summarized in the Agence France-Presse headline from October 28: “US, France Pressure Algeria to Stop Fence-sitting on Mali.”

[4] One headline of a story summarizing Clinton’s meeting with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the Arabic daily Ech-Chorouk described the visit as “The Last Meeting Before the Military Intervention in Mali.”

[5] “Ould Kablia: une intervention militaire au Mali aura des conséquences ‘très graves’ dans la region,” Algerie360, November 8, 2012.

[6] “Algeria USA: Clinton Visit Reflects ‘Strong Relations,’” El Moudjahid, November 20, 2012.

[7] “Pressured by Paris and Washington, Algeria in the Heart of a Diplomatic Battle to Send its Army to Mali,” El Khabar, October 29, 2012.

[8] This is a common refrain heard among Algerian officials concerned about or opposed to an intervention in Mali. See Anouar Boukhars, The Paranoid Neighbor: Algeria and the Conflict in Mali (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).

[9] “Pressured by Paris and Washington, Algeria in the Heart of a Diplomatic Battle to Send its Army to Mali.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] The MNLA is one of three armed groups that took control of northern Mali in 2012. A mostly Tuareg group founded in October 2011, the MNLA’s fighters and leaders include many Tuaregs who served in the Libyan military or fled from Libya during 2011. Self-described secularists, the MNLA, with Ansar Eddine, initiated the 2012 rebellion against the Malian government. It was eventually marginalized by AQIM and its Islamist allies in Ansar Eddine and MUJAO after defeating the Malian army in the key northern cities; it currently controls a few towns in northern Mali.

[12] “Pressured by Paris and Washington, Algeria in the Heart of a Diplomatic Battle to Send its Army to Mali.”

[13] “Clinton Persuades Algeria to Participate in the ‘Planning’ Committee for a Military Intervention in Mali,” El Khabar, October 30, 2012.

[14] “Washington and Paris: Proxy War Against al-Qa`ida in North Africa,” El Khabar, October 31, 2012.

[15] “Washington and Paris: Proxy War Against al-Qa`ida in North Africa.”

[16] Ibid.; Andrew Lebovich, “What to Make of Foreign Fighters in Mali,” al-Wasat, October 30, 2012.

[17] “Washington and Paris: Proxy War Against al-Qa`ida in North Africa.”

[18] “Crise malienne: Mme Clinton partage la position algerienne,” El Watan, October 30, 2012.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “La participation algerienne se precise,” El Watan, November 1, 2012.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Chawki Amari, “Une blonde à Alger,” El Watan, October 30, 2012.

[28] Jean-Felix Paganon, the French special envoy for the Sahel, told Jeune Afrique in October: “The behavior of Ansar Eddine is that of a group totally linked to the terrorists of AQIM. They are in the same camp. But many countries in the region, such as Algeria, and many analysts believe that negotiations are possible with Ansar Eddine and that to understand the organization as supporting terrorism is a mistake. We shall see…” See “Jean-Félix Paganon: ‘Tout le monde est désormais engagé’ dans la reconquête du Nord-Mali,” Jeune Afrique, October 22, 2012.

[29] Rubrique Radar, “Hillary Clinton ne compte pas rempiler,” Liberte, October 28, 2012; Djilali Benyoub, “Hillary Clinton chez Bouteflika pour parler du Mali,” Liberte, October 28, 2012.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Djamel Bouatta, “Hillary Clinton à Alger: Le point de vue américain sur le Mali,” Liberte, October 29, 2012.

[35] Samir Allam, “Alger accueille Hillary Clinton avec l’espoir de renforcer sa position face a Paris,” Tout Sur Algerie, October 28, 2012.

[36] This view is especially strong in articles like this from November 3 in which Algerian sources intimate to El Watan that Ansar Eddine’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, would make an announcement splitting from AQIM in the coming days. The Algerians will likely hold any such announcement as validation of their policy over the last several months; it remains to be seen what process can be fashioned out of such a development, although it would give many actors greater freedom of movement and space for creativity. See “Clinton-Bouteflika: The Last Meeting Before Military Intervention in Mali,” Ech-Chorouk, October 29, 2012.

[37] Allam.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Mustapha Hammouche, “Le syndrome malien,” Liberte, October 28, 2012.

[42] “Crise au Mali: Alger entre la diplomatie de Washington et les pressions de Paris,” Le Matin, October 29, 2012.

[43] “Intervention militaire dans l’Azawad: Alger veut sauver Ansar Dine,” Le Matin, October 30, 2012.

[44] “Bouteflika: un président à distance,” Le Matin, October 30, 2012.