Algeria: Rage Against The Regimes

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March 1, 2011:  In the last week, the number of demonstrators assembling to demand an end to corruption and government incompetence has fallen to less than a hundred, even in the capital. Government concessions (ending 19 years of martial law, tolerance for free media and opposition political parties) has given many reformers other outlets, for the moment. But the goal in Algeria remains the same, to end the dictatorship and make the economy more efficient. The government has loudly and, in detail, promised it would clean up its act and make things better. If there is no progress in the next few months, the demonstrators will return in force, angrier than before.

Meanwhile, Islamic radicals are in a state of shock. A major reason for the existence of Islamic radical groups like al Qaeda is to overthrow the many dictatorships found in the Arab world, and replace them with Islamic religious dictatorships. But now these Arab despots are being overthrown by secular uprisings, with the intention of establishing democracies. Al Qaeda believes democracies are un-Islamic. Most Islamic radical groups in Algeria and across North Africa have already been defeated during the last two decades, and now the remaining Islamic radicals are turning to kidnapping, robbery and the drug trade to keep going. These new democracies are not going to help the cause at all.

The United States is moving aircraft and warships in anticipation of orders to provide support for Libyan rebels. There are many options, including a no-fly zone (to keep Kaddafi's warplanes on the ground), delivering weapons and supplies to the rebels or even air support. The Libyan rebels have grabbed most of the country, mainly using locals (armed and unarmed) and cooperative police and soldiers. Kaddafi's security forces have either gone to Tripoli (the capital and core of Kaddafi's support) or fled the country. Staying in Libya is a less savory option, because getting later found out as one of "Kaddafi's thugs" could be fatal. The Libyan rebels have apparently agreed to let the army handle taking Tripoli. The Libyan armed forces are not a particularly powerful or professional organization. But against Kaddafi's thousands of professional thugs (members of numerous intelligence and security agencies, plus mercenaries), some sort of organized force is needed. The army is incorporating volunteers (usually men who had served in the army) and trying to gather as many working weapons (especially armored vehicles and aircraft) as possible. There's lots of decrepit, elderly, military equipment in Libya (Kaddafi was an indiscriminate shopaholic when it came to weapons), a reminder of how so much oil wealth was wasted. Most of this stuff is junk, but some is a challenge for anyone with technical skills and a desire to fight.

A final battle in Tripoli could be very bloody, as the Kaddafi clan, and their core supporters, face prosecution for all sorts of bad behavior, and their stolen oil money is already being sought by war crimes prosecutors. These guys have openly proclaimed their willingness to die fighting. Many will change their minds, but some won't. Rebel leaders have an opportunity to keep the casualty count down by coming up with ways to get members of the Kaddafi crowd to surrender. The international community is already in the process of freezing the Kaddafi clan's assets (tens of billions of dollars) and preparing to prosecute. There is less enthusiasm for getting directly involved in the fighting. The Kaddafis have few friends left (Venezuela, Serbia, Zimbabwe, for example).

About 100,000 foreign workers have fled Libya in the past few weeks. Most of them have been Tunisians and Egyptians, who were the closest source of inexpensive labor. Most of these Tunisians and Egyptians were able to make it back to their native countries. There are a few thousand Algerians working in Libya, and most of these have fled, at least until it's clear what the new government will be like. The new crew will also need cash. Most oil shipments were halted during the last week of February, although rebels are gradually taking control of oil facilities. But most of the foreign technicians and managers have fled, leaving the native Libyan staff unable to run the oil extraction and shipping system at full capacity.

The new government in Libya is being formed city by city, town by town and district by district out in the countryside. Even in Kaddafi's area of core support (western Libya and the national capital Tripoli), the majority of the population opposes him. In response, Kaddafi is offering cash, weapons and goods (like a car) for those who can bring in supporters willing to fight. That's working, but the long-term loyalty of these new recruits is suspect. Same is true with the African mercenaries, that stand out so vividly as they patrol the capital. These men are rebels from Chad, Sudan and other sub-Saharan countries, who have been living in Libya, or came north for the money (a few thousand dollars a month, with one month up front as a signing bonus). These African gunmen are ruthless, and confident that they can escape south if it all ends badly for the employer. Kaddafi has long backed rebel groups in places like Chad (where Libya has some territorial disputes) and other nations down there. Money, guns and sanctuary does get you some gratitude, and willingness to sign up for what is shaping up as a bloody last stand.

February 25, 2011: The United States closed its embassy in Libya and continued to evacuate American citizens. Nearly all the 6,000 Americans in Libya will be out within a week.

February 23, 2011: Due to disruption caused by the popular uprising in Libya, some 800,000 barrels a day of Libyan oil (one percent of world production) is not getting exported. This is half of Libya's normal daily output, which mostly goes to Europe. Middle Eastern nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, say they can make up all of Libya's lost output, for however long it takes.

 

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