For Algerians, a Divide on France in Mali

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (L) shakes hands with Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko upon his arrival at the presidential palace in Algiers 14 January 2013. (Photo: Louafi Larbi)

By: Mourad Traboulsi

Published Wednesday, January 16, 2013

After hopes were dashed that Algeria could avert a war in Mali, there is a growing concern that the conflict may destabilize the country and ignite a civil war.

Algiers – The Algerian government has yet to officially announce whether it is participating in the conflict between French-backed government forces and Islamist armed groups in neighboring Mali.

Most indications suggest that Algeria is involved in some way, despite the fact that the government has been insisting on a peaceful solution to conflict, which erupted nearly a year ago when Islamists took control of northern Mali.

Algerians still find it hard to believe that their country would participate in such a complicated military intervention due to its dangerous consequences for the whole region.

France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius put all speculation to rest on Monday, 14 January 2013, by declaring that the Algerian authorities have “unconditionally permitted French planes to cross their airspace to fight in Mali.”

This statement was followed by additional news that high-level security and military coordination are underway between the two countries.

Alarm spread as newspapers and social networking sites raised the possibility that the ministry of defense may have to call up its military reserves to defend the country’s 2,000-mile border with Mali and Niger. According to the UN, approximately 30,000 people have already fled their homes since the start of the French intervention last Friday.

Although a little over a thousand have arrived in Niger, the total number of refugees since the beginning of the crisis a year ago is estimated to have topped 450,000. Undoubtedly, Algeria will become an important destination for those fleeing the fighting in the coming months.

Given the harsh desert landscape and the complete lack of infrastructure and resources in the area, humanitarian organizations expect the worst as the fighting intensifies.

Algerians’ main concern stems from the fact that their country has historically refused any involvement in other nations’ internal affairs. Only during the 1973 October War, which pitted Egypt and Syria against Israel, did the military call up its reserves.

Algerians fear that the fighting in Mali will spill over the border and engulf their country, especially given the interconnected nature of the two countries.

For example, nomadic Tuareg tribes populate the Saharan desert shared by Mali, Niger, Libya, and Algeria. These tribes will almost certainly become involved in the fighting, perhaps turning the Mali crisis into a regional war with unknown consequences.

This is why the Algerian president was opposed to any military intervention over the past year. In the end, however, he was unable to withstand French, African, and international pressures to change his position.

Algerians today are divided into three camps regarding the conflict in Mali.

The first group opposes French intervention, viewing it as a declaration of war on a neighboring country. This camp is led by Algerian Islamists who accuse the government of allying itself with France against fellow Muslims.

The second camp believes that French intervention is legitimate and that Paris is only helping the Malian central government reclaim its territory from Islamist groups that refused to accept peaceful resolutions to the dispute.

A third group wonders why Algeria is tailing France when it could have taken the initiative in dealing with the Mali crisis as head of the Sahel Joint Military Command, which was established in 2009 to confront the infiltration of al-Qaeda into region.

This camp believes that the situation in Mali would not have gotten to the point of open warfare had Algeria responded to former Malian president Amadou Touré’s appeal for intervention at the time of the Libyan uprising, when weapons and fighters flooded into the north of the country.

There are two dangerous scenarios facing Algeria now that it has become implicated in the Mali crisis.

The first could lead to a confrontation between the state and a section of the population, which may then develop into a civil war along ethnic and tribal lines that would threaten the very unity of the country.

The second may see “sleeper cells” in northern Mali conducting suicide attacks in the capitals and cities of neighboring countries, thus spreading fear and instability throughout the region.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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