Algeria under fire for taking in Gaddafi’s children

The bizarre sequence of events raises a number of questions over why Algeria allowed the Libyan strongman’s family to enter.

By OREN KESSLER
August 31, 2011 01:24
3 minute read.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's location unknown

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Max Rossi/Files)

Muammar Gaddafi’s wife, two sons and daughter, who gave birth to a baby girl Tuesday, fled to Algeria on Monday, Algerian authorities said.

The bizarre sequence of events raises a number of questions over why Algeria – largely spared the popular unrest roiling among its neighbors – allowed the Libyan strongman’s family to enter, and whether it may permit the deposed leader himself to take shelter within its borders.

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Daniel Zisenwine, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, said Algeria’s offer of sanctuary defies easy interpretation.

“Algeria has in recent weeks demonstrated a very odd and peculiar position toward the crisis in Libya, one that has left it out of step with the international community and the region. Officially, it has remained neutral on the conflict, but Libyan rebels have been claiming with some validity – though there’s no tangible evidence – that Algeria has been assisting Gaddafi in all sorts of ways.”

Zisenwine said the move is all the more puzzling given Algeria’s attempts in recent years to improve its diplomatic standing.

“Algeria has been working hard over the last decade to reinsert itself in the international community and gain respect,” he said. “The other odd thing is that Algeria doesn’t much like Gaddafi, whom it finds erratic and hostile.”

Algeria gained independence in 1962 after a bloody war of independence against France.

It resurfaced in the international headlines in the early 1990s when democratic elections nearly brought the country’s Islamists to power. The ballot was canceled and the army subsequently intervened, plunging the country into a decade-long near-civil war that cost as many as a quarter of a million lives.

“Algeria is a very complex and opaque country. It’s not really a case of good guys and bad guys,” said Zisenwine, coeditor of the 2007 book The Maghrib in the New Century: Identity, Religion and Politics.

“It does, however, have the same problems that exist across the Middle East: housing shortages, unemployment, limited opportunity, inadequate education,” he said.

Algeria also struggles with a young, booming population, 30 percent of which is younger than 15.

What sets Algeria apart from its neighbors, Zisenwine said, is its government’s relative tolerance of dissent.

“For roughly the past decade, there has been a demonstration against the government almost every week, in one form or another,” he said. “This has been simmering for several years – they didn’t need the Arab Spring for this. So the prospect of spillover from Libya or Tunisia is possible, but protest against the government isn’t new.”

Abdelaziz Bouteflika took the Algerian presidency in 1999 in elections that critics charged were marred by fraud.

“It’s not an open system, to say the least,” Zisenwine said.

“One of the reasons the Algerian regime may have embarked on this unofficial support of Gaddafi is that the scenes of a popular uprising in Libya may have reminded Algeria of what it had in the 1990s.”

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of Libya’s rebel interim leadership, called for Gaddafi’s children to be handed over immediately, and slammed Algeria for what he called its act of “aggression.”

Offering even temporary asylum to Gaddafi’s children, Zisenwine said, is only the “icing on the cake” of Algeria’s policy toward its neighbor throughout the latter’s six month uprising.

“Algeria will say it’s a humanitarian gesture, but the fact that it was open to receiving the Gaddafi family is just a continuation of its rather odd approach to what’s been happening in Libya.”

Zisenwine said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the fugitive autocrat himself seeking refuge in Algeria, “but given Gaddafi’s record, I think that might be too much for Algerians to swallow.”

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