History of struggle: Algeria's bold act reflects a streak of independence
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Some Americans, including the U.S. national security leadership, were surprised when the Algerians chose to launch an assault by themselves against the kidnappers who seized innocent oil and gas workers at In Amenas, without notifying the governments of the foreigners at risk.
Their shock was the result of lack of understanding of the Algerians, an absence of close relations with them and weak knowledge of the country's history. The timeline of Algerian history includes a tough imperial conquest for the French before they installed themselves in 1830. The Algerians then gave the French a hard time as an occupying power, even though the French poured many settlers into the North African country. The war for independence from the French, ending in 1962, was long and bloody, claiming hundreds of thousands dead. It also was a war that became disruptive for France at home.
After getting rid of the French, the Algerians proceeded to fight among themselves for control, including assassinations and imprisonment of important figures. One was Ahmed Ben Bella, who fought the French for independence before becoming Algeria's first elected president. There was a period in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Algerian struggle against the French became of interest to some Americans.
The Arab Spring appears to have had little impact on Algeria, even though its government is not democratic, somewhat dictatorial, and potentially a target of North Africans seeking greater freedom, as did others in neighboring Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The reason is the Algerian government had it out with Islamist rebels from 1992 to 1999. The Islamists probably would have won national elections in 1992, but the people in power decided that neither they -- nor possibly the majority of Algerians -- wanted rule by sharia law or other aspects of more Islamic government and cancelled the elections. That set off a mini-civil war, which killed an estimated 100,000 people, but that, for the time being, put an end to the Islamist threat.
With the In Amenas hostage-taking, which continued into Friday, the Algerian government clearly didn't want American or other foreign participation in their efforts to reassert authority in their country. First, they did not want the entangling interference in their affairs, particularly from the Americans or the colonial French. Second, they did not feel the need for help, based on their own experience of dealing with opposition. Third, it was faster just to act alone, in the hopes of restoring the stability in Algeria that fosters successful foreign development of the oil and gas resources on which its economy depends.
Algeria's response to the challenge is comprehensible, even though, tragically, hostages were killed in the process. Algeria's mistake, if it truly wanted peace and quiet in its south, was to permit French war planes to overfly its territory to attack Islamist targets in Mali.
First Published January 19, 2013 12:00 am