international analysis and commentary

Algeria and its neighbors: which regional role?


At a time when the Algerian political leadership appears stronger than in the past, the country faces unprecedented security risks and tensions linked to the neighboring Tunisian Salafi movement. Algeria avoided a revolution, partially thanks to the vivid memory of the long and bloody civil war of the 1990s. Algiers has reacted to the Arab revolts by expressing respect for the sovereignty of other states and the refusal to meddle with domestic developments elsewhere. With regard to Tunisia, despite the risks related to the development of the Salafist movement and its attempts to connect to similar networks in Algeria, Algiers has refrained from closing the door to its neighbor. Rather, Algeria tried to support the country’s stabilization, by offering 100 million dollars as a direct budget support to the Tunisian government. Algeria was careful not to alienate the secular wing – which supports President Moncef Marzouki – or the more religiously inspired  wing (by receiving Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi in Algiers). Afraid of the weakness of the Tunisian regime, Algiers has refrained from any action which might have undermined it. Algierian tourists have continued to flock to Tunisia (700,000 Algerians go there annually), which helps  to improve the conditions of border regions.

The same cautious approach was adopted towards Libya, despite Libyan criticism that the Algerian government had long supported Gheddafi. Vis-à-vis Tripoli, Algeria has taken steps to prevent arms smuggling across the border while refraining from stopping the traditional inter-border trade (mostly cattle and  food). Tripoli eventually asked the Algerian government to help economically and in terms of security by organizing police trainings courses. Security remains the first and foremost challenge for Libya today, and Algeria, is ready to help in a spirit of enlightened self-interest. The Algerian Minister of the Interior, Daho Ould Kablia, recently said, “Algeria will work to prevent any attempt of infiltration into Libyan territory, which could destabilize the country, harm the interests of the Libyan people and undermine the Libyan revolution. “

On the Moroccan side, Rabat continues to request the reopening of borders which were closed in 1994, but the issue of normalization of relations is not a priority for Algiers. Algiers did support  the return of the UN envoy, Christopher Ross, to continue his mission in Western Sahara, but the border with Morocco does not seem to present an immediate and acute challenge. Moreover, some bilateral visits have taken place and others are scheduled between the two countries.

With Egypt, Algeria has kept a low profile since the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. Last October’s visit by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil to Algiers had a pragmatic tone, with the two sides discussing investment of Egyptian companies in Algeria (housing, building, petrochemical). They signed five agreements in the fields of oil and butane gas between the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) and Sonatrach (Algerian oil and gas company). The first agreement aims to increase Algerian butane gas exports to Egypt, from 800,000 tons to one million tons starting in December. The second agreement calls for the creation of a joint venture between EGPC and Sonatrach in oil exploration and production areas. The third agreement provides the establishment of another company in engineering studies and economic feasibility studies in the fields of oil, gas and petrochemicals.

Last, but not least, is the Sahel crisis. If Algiers succeeds in its political dialogue calling for the settlement of the crisis in Mali, it will have accomplished a double diplomatic coup. Paradoxically but luckily, in the case of Mali, the Algerian stance is close to that of the US: the main point of convergence is the primacy of a political solution vis-à-vis the military option. Any outside intervention on the security front should be accompanied by a development effort and a political roadmap for the rehabilitation of institutions in Mali. Pursuing this  strategy is in fact a key test for Algeria’s regional leadership role. If Algiers were to suffer a failure in Mali, its regional policy would call for a deep and global rethinking.