Can France and Algeria find common ground on Mali?
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While France has been pushing for a military intervention in northern Mali, Algeria has been less than enthusiastic. Can French President François Hollande manage a diplomatic breakthrough during his visit to Algeria next week?
reporting from Algiers
With the sacking of Malian Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra earlier this week, the latest crisis in this West African nation threatens to endanger plans for an African-led military mission to re-conquer northern Mali and rid the region of al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups.
Algeria, the wealthiest country with the strongest security services in the region, is a natural leader on regional security. Like Mali, Algeria also has a Tuareg population - a traditionally nomadic people spread across national borders in the Sahel, the remote transitional belt between the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa. It was the latest Tuareg rebellion that led to the 2011 breakup of northern Mali.
But while Algeria shares a 1,300-kilometer desert border with Mali, the resource-rich North African nation has been reluctant to endorse a military intervention in Mali.
Over the past few months, France and the US have been trying to woo Algerian authorities in a bid to secure the regional powerhouse’s support for the military intervention.
As French President François Hollande prepares to visit Algeria next week, FRANCE 24 speaks to Mohamed Shafik Mesbah, former senior officer at the Algerian intelligence service of DRS (Department of Intelligence and Security).
FRANCE 24: Why has Algeria been opposed to a military intervention in northern Mali?
Mohamed Shafik Mesbah: Algeria’s fundamental principles are very clear: non- interference in the internal affairs of other states, rejection of violence as a means of settling conflicts, and the inviolability of borders inherited from the colonial era. Over the past 20 years, Algeria has mediated between the [Malian] central government and Malian Tuareg resistance movements. It has always opposed a possible secession of the North from the rest of the country
F24: Is Algeria ready to accept a NATO intervention?
MSM: Algeria has an aversion to NATO and to the principle of Western intervention. During Algeria’s independence war [against colonial France] NATO assisted France logistically and operationally, so there are bad memories. It’s for this reason that during the  Libyan crisis, even if the Algerian public had no particular sympathy for [Muammar] Gaddafi, Algeria was against the alliance’s intervention in Libya.
F24: Algeria has been advocating dialogue to try to solve the Malian crisis - is it a realistic course of action?
MSM: In practice, the Algerian authorities know that dialogue is not a solution. We can discuss with Tuareg resistance movements but not with terrorist movements who reject dialogue. An armed intervention is the only solution.
F24: The Malian crisis appears to be worsening - what are the likely consequences for Algeria?
MSM: The Algerian authorities fear that the conflict would spread beyond northern Mali, particularly because the borders are uncontrollable. If we abandon the very principle of Mali’s territorial integrity, Tuareg demands for independence will spread throughout the Sahel, wherever there are Tuareg, especially in Algeria, which has a sizeable Tuareg population.
Finally, if the situation deteriorates and it gets deadly, Algeria will have to get involved. If that happens, there’s a risk to the stability of the Algerian regime.
F24: Why has Algeria taken such a position?
MSM: The authorities want to send a message to the Algerian people that they’re doing everything to find a peaceful solution to this crisis. But in the end, they know that, inevitably, there will be a military intervention.
On the domestic front, [Algerian President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika is focused on the prospect of a fourth term in office. He’s ready to start negotiations with the Americans and the French if they do not object to the renewal of his mandate. At his [third presidential] inauguration [in 2009] Bouteflika clearly said that he wished to die at the controls. His Western allies know this. They pretend to support Algeria on the principle of dialogue, but in practice, they know that the country will not oppose a military intervention.
F24: So everyone’s just sticking to their official positions?
MSM: Bouteflika has his own agenda. He’s trying to buy time to obtain public support. He also wants the army’s support, which is not the case right now. France and the United States would like Algeria to take command of a military intervention. So we will find a compromise: Algeria will accept the intervention and provide logistical support in terms of intelligence, but will not directly participate in the operations.
F24: Why has France refused to get involved militarily?
MSM: Because it would be return to the neo-colonial period. There’s also the question of possible fatalities. The US, for example, does not want to intervene in conflicts where American soldiers could die. It’s the same for France. Paris wants a resolution to the crisis, but without paying a human price. The French will be forced to intervene in the form of special units, as they did in Libya.
F24: When could this intervention take place?
MSM: According to experts in the field, the ideal time would be the end of the first quarter of 2013.
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