Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Algiers Oct 29

We flew out on Sunday just before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. We had been due to leave on Monday, but as the weather reports grew increasingly ominous were told to be ready to move earlier -- and I'm glad we did. By the time we made it to Andrews on Sunday afternoon it was already blowing pretty hard, and it was a pretty bumpy departure as we skitted out just before the first waves of the storm hit.

That put us into Algiers at dawn. Its a strange place -- it looks both rich (lots of new highway construction) and poor (lots of hardscrabble apartment blocks), which I guess it is. It's got a lot of gas income, but the proceeds are very unevenly distributed. It is one of the North African countries where the "Arab Spring" never quite made it, and the security presence is high.

We went first to the hotel, where we checked in for the night at 7 a.m. That was enough time for a couple of hours of sleep, which was much needed. I kept on waking up thinking I was hearing children screaming ... it was both weird and unsettling, and I couldn't figure out of I was dreaming or what. When I finally did wake up I looked out the window and there was an amusement park next door, with all the rides going full of (presumably) happily screaming children. That was a relief.

We checked out again around 11 a.m. and the motorcade departed for Clinton's meetings with longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Algiers is set on a series of hills overlooking a lovely Mediterranean bay. The way up to the presidential guesthouse takes you through some pretty plush neighborhoods, with grand old palazzos built to overlook the sea. Unfortunately there are also a lot of very ugly concrete buildings built up in front of the palazzos, so the effect is sort of ruined. But the guesthouse itself was lovely and really gave you the feeling of being in a sort of movie version of North Africa.

Clinton went in for her meetings, which were aimed at getting the Algerians to sign off on a potential plan for foreign intervention in next-door Mali. Since a lot of the Islamist insurgents now operating from Mali were originally kicked out of Algeria, they are not too eager to see the process reversed. But Clinton pressed hard and, from what officials told us afterwards, its seems as though there might have been some movement. We can expect to see more U.S.-Algeria cooperation in the future ... all filtered through what officials call "the security prism" which at times seems to yield a pretty distorted view of things.

After waiting around in a meeting room we were hustled outside. Clinton had not wanted to make any comments in Algeria, but the Algerians were determined, and when she emerged from the guesthouse there was a microphone and a horde of local TV crews hemming her in. There was no way to escape it, so she smiled gamely and made some fairly innocuous comments. Its one of the first times I've seen a foreign country effectively force her to speak in public, but it goes with Algeria's reputation of being a tough operator!

From there we went to another beautiful Moorish building, where Clinton had lunch with the president. We were also fed -- ushered into a huge holding room where there was what looked like a banquet set up. Tables lined with dozens and dozens of chairs, each with two little boxes (one salad, one chicken) topped by a full-sized baguette. It looked both odd and a little obscene, but it was nice of them to do it. Apparently this is exactly what the press was given the last time in Algeria, so they've got it down. I ate some of the baguette and struggled with my computer .... the aircard connections were frustratingly slow.

After about an hour, it was off again back to the airport. And two hours later we landed in Sarajevo, where it was snowing and cold. Once we got to the hotel (sort of suprisingly, no alcohol at all is served here which makes us think it must be a Saudi chain) we all rushed to our rooms to check on what Sandy was doing back home. Sounds as though DC escaped the worst of it, but pretty hairy all the same. Glad to be here although I hope our house made it through unscathed. Today we are looking at a long one: three countries (Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo) and a lot of scrambling in and out of vans.