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Is Algeria Qadaffi’s Ace in the Hole?

At this moment when it appears that Muammar Qadaffi’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 Qadaffi,  he is not completely alone and without allies.

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

Qadaffi 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 Qadaffi falls, their hold on power will be that much more fragile. Their support of Qadaffi is very much designed 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 Qadaffi 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 – while offering a few political and economic concessions – essentially reorganizing the state’s substantial repressive apparatus to weather the protest storm. But in addition, it is pulling out all stops to support Qadaffi’s increasingly feeble hold on power.

Maybe it is the support of its North African oil producing ally Algeria, that has given Qadaffi 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 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 Qadaffi to help prop up his shrinking (and sinking) regime.

The statement opens thus:

“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 Kadhafi. 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.”

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 Qadaffi on the others. There were recent reports of a 6-8 hour battle in which Qadaffi’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 Qadaffi’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 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 Qadaffi. These diplomatic efforts are being led by Abdelkader Messahel, Algerian Minister of Maghrebian 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 Qadaffi.

The political approach that Bendjama and Belgaid are pursuing echoes Qadaffi’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 Ladin being behind the national uprising. Qadaffi’s argument is identical to what Ben Ali and Mubarak have been arguing for decades: that they are the alternative to an Islamic take over. The West might not like them, but better Qadaffi 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 Qadaffi’s son, Saif, replace his father. It is not clear if they are asking for some kind of arrangement that would protect Qadaffi 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 statement 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 Qadaffi’s regime. Bouzghaia works directly under Major General Rachid Laalali (alias Attafi), head of Algeria’s external relations bureau.

Who else is helping Qadaffi? It will be interesting to see what shakes out.

ROB PRINCE lectures in International Studies at the University of Denver. He can be reached at robertjprince@comcast.net

Rob Prince lectures in International Studies at the University of Denver. He can be reached at robertjprince@comcast.net.

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