Relations between the US and Algeria have undergone a sea-change since the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and WTC. The governments of both countries are exploiting the ‘war on terrorism’ to form an alliance against the Islamic groups, and to conclude arms and trade agreements that will benefit the supporters of presidents Bush and Bouteflika. These agreements are likely to be burdensome to the Algeria, which is already in the grip of a severe economic crisis and a decade-old civil strife. According to senior US officials, Washington will sell arms to Algeria, and will also intensify security cooperation with its government. In the past Washington has treated Algeria as being in France’s sphere of influence.
William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told reporters in Algiers recently that the US is drafting a proposal to step up assistance to the Bouteflika regime. "We are putting the finishing touches to an agreement to sell Algeria military equipment to fight terrorism," he said. Burns added that Washington "has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism," and that increased military support was "aimed at intensifying security cooperation" with Algiers.
Burns, who was touring the former French colonies in North Africa, was the second senior US official to visit the Algerian capital in a single month. Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, was in Algiers in late November. The US had already been engaged in training Algeria’s military and security forces to combat Islamic groups, and Bouteflika has been invited to the White House twice after expressing his desire to join the war against the global Islamic movement.
Burns’ visit to Algeria coincided with the publication of a statement by Farouq Qustantini, the chairman of the country’s human rights commission, in which violations by officials were strongly criticised. Qustantini said on December 11 that the human rights situation was far from satisfactory, explaining that 132 years of French colonial rule, 30 years of one-party dictatorship, and 10 years of what he described as terrorism, were not factors favourable to the advancement of human rights in Algeria. He added that Algerian officials routinely dismissed complaints by members of the public, and behaved dictatorially when exercising their official functions, forgetting that they are supposed to be there to serve the people.
The US has also put two Algerian groups that have been the main victims of repression on its list of terrorist groups. Two groups, known by the acronyms GSPC and the GIA, are now on that list for their connections with al-Qa’ida, although they are not known to have expressed any hostility towards the US. In the past Algiers was careful not to ask western countries to supply it with arms, because that usually resulted in attacks on its human-rights record in the Western media. Since joining the ‘war against terrorism’, however, Algerian officials have asked almost every western leader they have met for arms, knowing that they will now be heard more sympathetically. They are also pressing Western governments to arrest Algerian activists. The very governments that used to ignore Algeria’s demands are now arresting Algerians and other North Africans on the excuse that they are plotting terrorist attacks or are linked with the alleged al-Qa’ida attacks on the Pentagon and WTC.
So far neither Algiers nor Washington has announced the kinds of weapons Algeria will receive under the new security pact. But successive Algerian governments have ascribed their failure to end the decade-old civil strife to a shortage of attack helicopters and night-vision equipment. The French have refused to provide the Algerian armed forces with these weapons, fearing that the insurgents would respond by attacking French targets.
The French are now very suspicious of Washington’s decision to play a high-profile role in Algeria’s affairs and those of Tunisia and Morocco, all of them former French colonies that the French still consider to be their own back yard, and have set out to woo the Algerian and Tunisian leaders, as well as the Moroccan king, in clear competition with the US. The French foreign minister, for instance, visited all three countries toured by Burns, while president Jacques Chirac, who was in Algiers and Morocco only recently, is again due in both in a very short time. Recently Bouteflika himself visited Paris and Brussels, where he encouraged not only the French and Belgian governments to join his war against ‘Islamic terrorists’ but also NATO, when he visited its headquarters and invited Lord George Robertson, its secretary general, to visit Algeria to discuss security cooperation.
The Belgian and Algerian governments signed an agreement on December 10, during Bouteflika’s visit to Brussels, whereby Algiers will receive economic assistance worth 36 million Euros between 2003 and 2007. The money is supposed to be spent on fighting poverty in rural areas and city suburbs, and on strengthening Algerian institutions. It will also be spent on public-heath projects such as fighting AIDS, and on improving water supplies. Belgian investors will leave for Algeria on Bouteflika’s invitation, although whether the aid will be applied to serve the purposes specified in the agreement, or on arms to combat ‘terrorism’, is an open question.
Spain, which signed an economic and ‘defence’ agreement, aimed at fighting terrorism, with Algeria during Bouteflika’s visit in October to Madrid, is also keen to improve relations to secure access to Algeria’s oil and gas. A summit meeting between the rulers of the two countries is due to be held soon in Algiers.
The Algerian president and the military generals that maintain him in power are certainly reaping the rewards of the US-led "war on terror" and their readiness to cooperate with it. But whether those rewards will help them to end the country’s economic crisis or civil strife is highly doubtful. It is, after all, the military crackdown and corruption in high places that are responsible for both the crisis and the strife. An intensification of the crackdown ñ particularly with foreign military assistance ñ will only strengthen the resolve of the resistance and to increase popular support for it.
And since most of the ‘economic aid’ is likely to be diverted by corrupt officials and military high hats, most Algerians will be enraged to see so little money being spent on relieving the economic hardships dogging their lives, while so much is squandered on the war on Islamic activism. But although the result will be further violence and poverty, the generals are unlikely to be able to resist the temptation to obtain the military helicopters and night-vision equipment that Washington is willing and able to supply.