international analysis and commentary

Algeria: the cautious and conservative actor in North Africa

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Amidst the euphoria that surrounded the cascade of Arab uprisings in 2011, notes of sobriety, even skepticism, came from Algeria. The government in Algiers displayed explicit, albeit qualified, empathy with challenged rulers and resisted any collective endorsement of the uprisings by the remnants of the troubled Arab political order.

Critics of the Algerian stance towards the then-hailed “Arab Spring” explained it as resulting from the Algerian vested interest in avoiding the collapse of the model of the “Arab republic”. The governments of the Arabic-speaking world shared many facets — autocracy, paternalism, a glaring deficit of democratic practice, and rentier arrangements when possible — but differed in the source of legitimacy of the ruling elite, between monarchies with absolute power, and self-styled “republics” tracing their legitimacy and dictatorial mandate to a revolutionary moment. By the spring of 2011, of these “republics”, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen were living seemingly transformative events, while Iraq (and Sudan) had fractured beyond repair. Algeria was the anomaly, as the last “Arab republic” standing. A handful of demonstrations, limited in scope and numbers, were registered, but no systemic challenge or radical calls for regime change.

In fact, with its military in control of much of the economy and serving as the decision-making institution in all aspects of politics, Algeria may well have been the most developed example of an Arab military autocracy with a civilian veneer. As such, Arab Spring activists noted, Algeria was an antithesis to the popular sovereignty sought by the uprisings, and the hostility of its regime to the regional transformations stemmed from self-interest. Yet, a more sympathetic assessment of the Algerian position could have noted that its Spring-skepticism was informed more by its actual tragic past, than a potential challenging future.

It is true that the actions of the Algerian military, in reaction to Islamist political ascendency in the 1990s, could be partly blamed for the radicalization of Islamist activists and the degeneration of their claims into the murderous years lived by Algeria itself. Yet, the proclivity of the rebels to espouse extreme brutality, assert abject intolerance, and pull into the conflict foreign combatants, recast the autocratic regime as the lesser, by leaps and bounds, of two evils.

Even before the further militarization and radicalization of Islamist movements, Algerian skepticism of the positive potential of Arab Spring uprisings was shaped by the nation’s tragic experience. When vernal hopes were replaced by fears of an Islamist winter, the Algerian caution seemed vindicated. Confident of the soundness of its approach that favors security and stability over democratic graduation, Algiers has witnessed the evolution of a strategic policy approach with both remedial and pro-active components, underlining a status that many in the country have believed to be a long-neglected reality in Northern Africa: that Algeria is the natural destination and primary ally for any international stakeholder seeking to remedy the damage that has afflicted many states in Northern Africa and re-create a regional order. Algeria has demonstrated its relevance and potential impact in three major challenges witnessed by the region.

1. Through close cooperation with the Tunisian military and intelligence services, Algeria has indeed contributed to thwarting attempts at exploiting the security vacuum in post-revolution Tunisia. Politically, its presence in Tunisian affairs experienced a noted increase, with political figures  from Tunis competing to visit Algiers to leverage its influence. However, the fears of Algeria acceding to a dominant role as the overseer of Tunisian politics seem so far checked both by the balancing effect of France’s alliance with both Algeria and Tunisia, and by maneuvers by Tunisian politicians who have pulled less expected international actors (such as the UAE) into their local political races.

2. While the concern in Tunisia is stability, in Libya it is security. Algiers has recovered from the assumption of its provision of support to the defunct regime, and has proposed a reconciliation initiative amongst Libyan factions, with the aim of creating and consolidating a central power capable of securing weapons and safeguarding frontiers. The Algerian initiative, deemed dovish by other international actors (Egypt, the UAE and France) has however failed to materialize, pushing Algiers to seek unlikely partners in its realization, including Turkey — a country which had, at least initially, espoused positions opposed to Algiers on Arab Spring concerns.

3. Algeria may also have provided less acknowledged support for the 2012-2014 French operation against jihadists in Northern Mali. Its involvement has, however, been constant in battling many of these same jihadists, both defensively (as in the Algerian In Amenas gas field takeover by militants in January 2013) and pro-actively in on-going operations against the constellation of Islamist groups with diverging allegiances active on and from Algerian territory. The Algerian approach to Mali reproduces the two elements of Algiers regional strategy: immediate action on security, long-term efforts on stability. The Algerian government has accordingly sponsored, since June 2014, consecutive rounds of inter-Malian dialogue.

In addition, Algeria may point to its successful redirection of surplus from oil revenue in the past years to virtually wipe out its national debt, as well as its relatively uneventful re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2014, to underline that its potential regional weight is built upon actual internal mass. This is not to deny that Algeria’s military autocratic order faces multiple internal challenges, from disenchantment and radicalization to critical unemployment. However, the main obstacles to its assumption of its sought-after status of regional reference may be its unresolved relationship with Morocco, notably on the question of the Western Sahara. On this dossier, as well as on enhancing its relationship with Europe and initiating a new type of partnership dialogue with the United States, Algiers has shown little initiative, and seems burdened by anachronistic patterns of diplomatic and administrative behavior. The appreciation of the Algerian potential requires further coordination with interlocutors with converging interests. It certainly requires an overhaul in diplomatic communication practice, a reconsideration of priorities (away from the obsolete showdown with Morocco), and the rebranding of a nation still framed by legacies of the past century.