Why the cave-in?
Bouteflika's sudden reversal -- with no explanation -- on the French-sponsored union has raised many hackles, reports Nasr El-Din Qasim
Algeria's sudden decision to participate in the Paris summit to found a Union for the Mediterranean has stirred controversy across the nation. President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika informed the French president that he agreed to attend the Paris summit during a 15-minute aside at the G8 summit in Japan. Everyone thought that Algeria would not attend the Paris summit, or, in a best case scenario, would not be represented by the president, for several reasons. One is Algeria's many reservations over the nature of the union and another is to avoid participating in the French national holiday, which no Algerian president has attended since independence. Not even Morocco's King Mohamed VI -- the most outspoken African supporter -- attended, sending his brother Prince Moulay Rachid instead.
Algeria kept quiet about its participation in the 13 July summit until the last moment, and many have asked why. Questions have also been raised over the clarifications Nicolas Sarkozy offered in his brief meeting with the Algerian president and which succeeded where the two-day visit of the French prime minister to Algeria had failed. Confusing the political class in Algeria all the more is Sarkozy's confirmation that his Algerian peer had joined his Mediterranean endeavour, and that the late Algerian response had not been connected to any reservations or conditions.
The National Rally for Democracy, one of the primary members of the Algerian president's alliance, welcomed from the beginning Algeria joining the Mediterranean initiative and even insisted that it was necessary. The position of the other primary member in the alliance, the National Liberation Front, however, was initially more hesitant and unclear before it finally joined the bandwagon of supporters following the official announcement of Algeria's participation.
It appears that the party's position was connected to that of its president, Abdul-Aziz Belkhadem, who when prime minister, announced his reservations over the endeavour during a visit by a French minister. He had said that Algeria didn't know who to dialogue with, Paris or Brussels, suggesting that it was unclear whether the initiative was Mediterranean or Euro-Mediterranean. Many observers hold that this was the cause of his hasty dismissal from the premiership last month. The French press claimed it was an attack by the prime minister on the powers of the president to determine foreign policy which angered Bouteflika and made him withdraw his confidence in the premier, the most avid supporter of amending the constitution to allow him a third presidential term.
The final member in the alliance, the Movement of Society for Peace, did not hide its reservations over the Euro-Mediterranean scheme, which the movement's leader, Abu Jurra Saltani, says is not clearly "in keeping with the interests of Algeria and protecting our identity".
The opposition Renaissance and Reform Movements took the same approach with a stronger stance. They expressed their rejection of the union and their reservations over the president's participation in the summit, accusing France of seeking to dismantle and supersede the League of Arab States and the African Union, and to force Arab states to normalise relations with Israel.
The same attitude was taken by the president of the opposition National Front, Al-Sayed Tawati. He questioned whether the president's participation in the summit reflected the nation's higher interests or was a response to narrow interests and desires. In this he was making a clear reference to France's support of Bouteflika in his attempt to win a third term. He noted that Algeria belongs to the African Union, the Arab League, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and its participation in the French union is an attempt to strip it of these affiliations and tear it from its Arab-Islamic roots.
President of the Muslim Clerics' Association Sheikh Shiban blatantly denounced Algeria for joining the union for the Mediterranean. "This union is an endeavour that is incompatible with honour and dignity, and it is a means of achieving normalisation with Israel." The sheikh ended his speech with a call for Arab leaders to refrain from participating in such events. "We ask God Almighty to guide the leaders of the Arab and Islamic nations to be wary of all the acts that their enemies may undertake to further harm their dignity and honour," he said.
The Algerian University also rejected joining the union. A group of professors issued a statement in the name of a committee they call the Council of Algerian bodies in opposition to a union with an entity of occupation and crime. In this statement, they stressed that Sarkozy's initiative offered technical, economic, and geopolitical benefit only to the Zionist entity. Yet the committee was careful to not close the door completely -- it stressed that it was not against Algeria joining a unified Mediterranean as long as that came with France's recognition of and apology for its crimes and its offering of compensation to the Algerian people.
While the national arena is teeming with reactions and positions, and discussion of Algeria joining is generally rejected. The authorities have not bothered to offer an explanation or justification for the sudden turn about in the Algerian position. Algerians heard about their president joining the French initiative through the French president, not their own. Neither did the foreign minister offer an explanation to Algerians on the "reassurances" Bouteflika may have secured from Sarkozy.
Due to the lack of an official statement, the media has stressed that Algeria did not have reservations over joining the initiative but was only hesitant over what slice Algeria would take of the initiative's cake. Yet this doesn't explain the president's decision to participate in the summit after a short meeting with his French peer, for the scope of reservations expressed prior to the G8 meeting were too great to have been resolved in a single meeting of a few minutes. This is perhaps what has caused reservations among the political classes. They are afraid that joining the union for the Mediterranean is a gamble in which Algeria will lose more than it will gain.