In recent months, foreign ministers and heads of state have been engaged in an unceasing ballet in Algiers, with Mali and Libya top of the agenda. After a new agreement between all parties to the conflict in Mali was signed in early March, Algerian diplomats were soon busy attempting the far more difficult task of bringing the myriad Libyan armed groups and politicians to the negotiating table.
The latest talks began in Algiers on 10 March, led by Algeria's deputy foreign minister Abdelkader Messahel and the United Nations special envoy Bernardino León. The latter said that "Libya had the choice between two options, a political agreement or destruction" - adding that "destruction was not an option".
The efforts deployed by Algeria enjoy the support of the United States and major European countries. Less than a decade ago, those very same countries shunned Africa’s largest country because of the excesses, as they saw it, of its security forces against Islamist armed groups during the 1990s.
How and why Algeria’s brave attempt at democracy and economic liberalisation went so badly wrong a quarter of a century ago holds many lessons, both for Algerians and foreign observers. In any event, the elegant new foreign ministry in al-Madania, high on the hills above the dazzling bay of Algiers, bears witness to the country's slow rebirth after those bloody years. The minister who receives me is professional, low-key and possessed of a wry sense of humour, a characteristic many Algerians share with the British. Ramtane Lamamra brings an experience honed as ambassador to the Organisation of African Unity, the Uinted Nations and the United States to bear on the huge challenges the broader north Africa region faces today.
Algiers at the centre
The negotiations over Mali and Libya, though, are a healthy reminder that Algerian diplomacy has been at the heart of some very difficult negotiations over recent decades. In 1975, Algeria succeeded in brokering an agreement between the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein over the Chott el-Arab. In 1981, the minister of foreign affairs, Mohamed Seddik Benyahia, pulled off an amazing diplomatic coup when he helped secure the release of the American diplomats held hostage in Tehran. Benyahia had played an important role in the run up to the Accords d’Evian of 1962 which brought an end to 132 years of French colonial rule. In May 1982 he was travelling from Baghdad to Tehran, trying to broker a ceasefire in the bitter war between Iran and Iraq, when his Grumman Gulfstream plane was shot down by an Iraqi missile. Saddam Hussein later admitted responsibility, and apologised to Algeria's then president, Chadli Bendjedid. The accident decapitated the Algerian ministry of foreign affairs which lost some of its most talented diplomats. Those journalists who knew Saâdeddine Bennouniche, director of European and North American affairs, never forgot him.
In the same period, relations between Algeria and the US were improving dramatically, with 1981 as the turning-point. Washington had long viewed Algeria, a staunch supporter of the PLO and the ANC, as a crypto-communist state. When the Algerian head of state, Chadli Bendjedid, made a state visit to Washington in April 1985, Ronald Reagan told him: “You are the only Arab leader who speaks his mind to me”. During that same visit, Chadli pleaded the Palestinian cause with greater warmth and conviction than virtually any other Arab head of state had done. "We often try to raise the issue of Palestine with our Arab visitors”, the US president told his Algerian counterpart, “but they usually refuse to discuss it.”
Ramtane Lamamra makes two points which Europe and Nato might care to ponder. The first is that the Algerian government strongly believes that diplomacy is the key to sorting out the very complex issues of terrorism, confrontation between different ethnic groups and loss of control of frontiers which bedevil he vast north-west region of Africa. Problems have accumulated for decades which cannot be dealt with by armed force and repression alone. This way of thinking will provide no lasting security to the region, however necessary it is to curb terrorism. We did not discuss Iraq but I suppose the same remark could be made about the situation there.
The second is that the Algerian army holds steadfast to the doctrine it has followed since independence. It does not intervene beyond the frontiers of Algeria. It is regularly encouraged to engage more deeply in Libya, not least by senior French officers and ministers. But from the available evidence, there are no takers in Algiers for such types of military interventions. It is worth pointing out at this stage that key decisions on broader security and foreign policy affairs are no longer decided simply by the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and two or three top officials, but discussed but discussed among a dozen seniors officers. This small group can be broadened to included two hundred or more senior officers on certain occasions an Algerian version of a Majliss Echoura (or consultative council) A further point to take into consideration is that the very idea of body bags of soldiers or officers killed abroad being flown back to Algeria is anathema. The population simply would not accept it.
A question over Europe
Many senior Algerian officials remain distrustful of foreign interference, as they see it, in the region. Algeria did however condone French military intervention in Mali in 2013 but was not happy with Nato’s intervention in Libya, foreseeing – and warning Paris, London and Washington of - its disastrous consequences.
During a visit paid to Nato headquarters in February by representatives of various Algerian ministries, one of that organisation's most senior officials told his visitors that the intervention in 2011 “had been a huge mistake on the part of the international community and the Libyans.” Considering the near unanimous cheerleading among many European politicians and media which greeted the overthrow of the former Libyan dictator, such an admission is worth its weight in gold.
The minister is keen to stress that relations between Algeria and major European countries and the US have never been so good. When I asked him whether the European Union could not do more in the region, notably to try and find a solution to the Western Saharan issue, the answer is yes. The UN envoy to the Western Sahara, Christopher Ross - also the former US ambassador in Algiers - seems at times rather alone. As I walk out of the ministry, I am left wondering, and not for the first time: does the EU have a well thought out, strategic policy towards north Africa? Is it really engaging sufficiently with Algeria, whose security and energy assets (three gas pipelines link Algeria with Europe through which the flow of gas has never been interrupted) are obvious?
This concern is shared in London and Madrid. The EU itself is increasingly concerned about the potential nexus between the growing frustration in the refugee camps of the Polisario in south western Algeria and the spread of extremist / terrorist / criminal groups further west. Promoting a settlement to the forty-year old Western Saharan dispute has moved up the agenda, but no one knows how to proceed except to urge the parties concerned to negotiate seriously. As no one wants to take sides, the result is predictable: statements without muscle. Events on the ground might push the EU into being bold, but the current disarray of European policy across the southern Mediterranean rim hardly argues for optimism.