Robert Fisk: Algeria's role remains one of the untold stories of the war


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When the Emir of Qatar flew to see President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria early this summer, he had one message to convey: don't help the Gaddafi regime. In other words, don't replace the dictator's Nato-destroyed armour with identical tanks and personnel carriers from the Algerian army. Word has it – meaning very good Arab military sources say – that Mr Bouteflika, almost as much a façade for the military authorities in Algeria as Mr Assad is for the Baath party in Damascus, gave all the necessary promises and then broke them. An awful lot of Gaddafi's Russian-made desert armour appears to be new; it didn't get its shine from rotting in the desert for five years.

Qatar's role in the Libyan conflict remains one of the untold stories of the war – there were Qatari flags waved in Martyrs' Square in Tripoli last week – but so does Algeria's. Arabs were not surprised that so many of Gaddafi's family turned up in Algeria this week.

For years, the Algerians have supported Gaddafi's independent – albeit crazed – policies because their own history has taught them to never accept orders from abroad. The moment the French – occupiers, colonisers and also persecutors of Algeria for 132 years – bombed Libya, the Gaddafi regime's struggle to survive became a re-enactment of the Algerian FLN's 1954-62 battle for freedom against French rule.

Algeria does not intend to be a second Libya. The country is freer and marginally more democratic than in the dreadful 1990s. But it believes – not without reason – that the Libyan revolution gathered Western support because Gaddafi's land is so rich in oil.

Algeria itself possesses the eighth-largest natural gas reserves in the world and is the fourth-largest gas exporter. Beneath its deserts lie 12.5 billion barrels of oil reserves and 27 per cent of current oil exports are bought by the United States. Algerians are well aware that if Libya's national export was potatoes, the West would no more have intervened than it would have invaded Iraq if Saddam Hussein's principal resource was asparagus.

So if anyone else challenges the rule of the pouvoir, it is not going to collapse in a "democratic" spring. Taking in Gaddafi's wife and brood was a gesture that was aimed more at the West than at the remains of the tyrant's élite who are still left in Libya.