What do you do when an unpopular dictator comes a-knocking? With next-door-neighbour Algeria the only country in the Maghreb yet to recognise the authority of Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), it really was the Gaddafis’ only overland option.
News that the dictator’s wife Safia, their two sons and heavily pregnant daughter had crossed the Algerian border in an armoured motorcade provoked outrage from the TNC on Monday. The move has, for many, exposed some die-hard ties between the two regimes.
“It’s perhaps not a surprising development, given the longstanding rumours of Algerian support for Gaddafi during the conflict,” says Michael Crawford, senior global adviser at analysis firm Oxford Analytica. “But there’s also the matter of a shared Arab nationalist heritage between Gaddafi and the Algerian government.”
Both regimes are the legacy of an era of coups and revolutions inspired by Arab nationalism in the 1960s. Similarly, Algeria’s support for Polisario, a group pushing for independence of the Western Sahara region from Morocco, found a long-standing ally in Gaddafi’s Libya. As the Arab League moved away from the idea of an independent Sahrawi state, this tie brought the two governments closer together.
But sheltering the family is still a surprisingly defiant move, given Gaddafi’s obliterated status in the rest of the Arab world. “I feel it’s a decision based on longstanding personal ties,” Crawford says, “but one that seems disconnected from the reality of the Arab Spring.”
Algeria’s government is acutely aware that conditions are not all that different from those that caused uprisings in other countries in the region – high unemployment, corruption and lack of transparency. George Joffé, a visiting professor at Kings College, London, tells Monocle that Algeria experienced 9,700 demonstrations last year. So far, however, memories of the devastating 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 and lack of organisation have kept these fragmented. Sheltering the Libyan dictator’s entourage could be seen as a step too far. It will further distance the government from a youth hungry for international engagement rather than isolation.
It also poses security concerns if Gaddafi loyalists begin operating from across the Algerian border – the end of the regime doesn’t mean it will disappear entirely. “The family could move on to South Africa or Venezuela now,” says Joffé. “But Gaddafi is going to carry on fighting.” Opinion for and against the old regime divides both families and tribes across Libya, he says. The lack of a reconciliation plan at the moment is setting the scene for a complicated future.
Pro-Gaddafi sentiment is going to be around for some time after the war ends. If Algeria’s government wants to avoid a tumultuous border and keep a diplomatic foot in the region then it needs to decide an allegiance – and stick to it.