Algeria's announcement today that Muammar Qaddafi's wife and three of their children had entered the country has drawn sharp criticism from Libya's rebels, who deemed Algeria's decision to shelter the family an "act of aggression" and vowed to seek the extradition of Qaddafi's relatives. But the news isn't all that surprising given Algeria's behavior over the past several months. (Over the weekend, the Egyptian news agency MENA, quoting anonymous rebel fighters, reported that six armored Mercedes sedans, possibly carrying Qaddafi's sons or senior regime figures, had crossed the border into Algeria, eliciting denials from the Algerian government.) While Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci did recently meet with Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril, Libya's neighbor has neither recognized the rebel council nor officially called for Qaddafi to relinquish power (the picture above shows Qaddafi with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2009).
Throughout the Libyan uprising, the rebels have accused Algeria of supporting Qaddafi politically and militarily--a charge Algeria has denied time and again. The opposition claims Algeria is supplying Qaddafi with arms, mercenaries, military vehicles, and air support, and Western powers have occasionally supported these allegations. In April, French military advisers working with the Libyan rebels discovered that a number of military vehicles used by Qaddafi's forces had serial numbers suggesting that France had sold them to Algeria. U.S.-based Algerian professor Abdelkader Cheref argued in The National last month that Algeria has also undercut the rebels diplomatically, working at the U.N. and with NATO, the E.U. and the Arab League to block limit international intervention in Libya and keep Qaddafi in power. Algeria, for its part, contends that it's remained rigorously neutral during the civil war.
Why the apparent support for (or, at the very least, calculated non-opposition to) the Qaddafi regime? Cheref states that the Algerian government may fear an Arab Spring-style uprising. "Those in power in Algiers remember the October 1988 riots that threatened the military-backed regime, which has mismanaged the country since independence in 1962," he writes. We imagine Algerian authorities also remember the series of protests and self-immolations that the country experience in January in response to rampant unemployment and rising costs. The Algerian government, moreover "has always got on really well with the Qaddafi regime," according to Al Jazeera. A Library of Congress study from 2003 describes relations between the two countries as "amicable" but adds that Algeria has consistently rebuffed Libyan attempts to create a full-scale political union.
Last week, an unnamed Algerian official gave Reuters another reason for Algeria's cool stance toward the rebels: Algeria, which recently experienced almost two decades of destabilizing conflict between security forces and Islamist militant groups, won't recognize the rebel leadership until it's sure that the opposition will fight al Qaeda in North Africa and rid its own ranks of Islamic militants. Algeria's foreign ministry later denied the report, however.
Another possibility is that Algeria, like Russia and China, simply has strong views about national sovereignty and the importance of not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. "Algeria does not recognise the NTC as it is a transitional institution as its name indicates," the anonymous Algerian official told Reuters in reference to the rebel National Transitional Council. "We will only recognise the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people once they themselves pick their leaders," he added, arguing that Algeria adopted the same policy during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.