North Africa, West Asia

Feeble captain in troubled waters: Algeria’s foreign relations after Bouteflika’s re-election

The current triple crisis also constitutes a chance for Algeria. More than ever it becomes clear that the country is indispensable for a solution of the security problems in the region.

Jan Völkel
4 July 2014
Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in election posters, April 2014

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in election posters, April 2014. Demotix/Sisi D. All rights reserved.After the re-election of aged and infirm President Abdelaziz Bouteflika into his fourth term on 17 April 2014, the Algerian government has been trying to continue running business as usual. Yet, a changing political environment may force it to change course. The president’s deteriorating health situation may make timely changes inevitable. Analysts predict disputes over his successor, first and foremost between the military and the secret service. In parallel, dramatic changes have occurred in Algeria’s direct neighbourhood over the last three years, with the democratic revolution in Tunisia, but also war-like state collapses in Libya and Mali.

Particularly the toppling of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi in August 2011 has created a major challenge for Algeria’s diplomacy. Cooperating passably well before, Gaddafi was an important partner for Algeria’s strategy in fighting extremists and insurgents who prevail in the region. The erupted power struggles between Libya’s multiple militias, among them many with an Islamist background, have provoked great concern in Algiers. Not only does the loosened surveillance of the joint border pose a threat to Algeria’s territorial sovereignty, with flourishing smuggling and trafficking activities in both directions; it is also a general concern that Islamists could eventually take control in Libya, providing (open or hidden) support for the various Islamist groups that threaten the stability of Algeria.

The same scepticism is shown, yet to a lesser extent, towards the new situation in Tunisia. After the broad victory for the Islamist Ennahda party in the 2011 parliamentary elections, the efforts of Tunisia’s secular state president Moncef Marzouki with regard to reviving regional cooperation finds open ears in Algiers. After decades of decay, his proposal to revitalise the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) was warmly welcomed. The eventual establishment of a Maghreb Bank for Investment and Foreign Trade by all AMU members, to be headquartered in Tunis, is a first concrete outcome of these renewed efforts.

Yet, as a groundbreaking AMU summit is yet to be awaited, the gradual regional convergence does not mean that a final solution to the smouldering conflict between Algeria and Morocco about the definite status of the Western Sahara can be expected soon. The official invitation for Morocco in 2011 to join the Gulf monarchies as a new member in the Gulf Cooperation Council has started the alarm bells ringing in Algiers: growing alignments among the Arab monarchies are feared for their potential in weakening Algeria’s prime position in the Maghreb.

Qatar plays a particularly important role here. Seen as a traditional ally of Algeria, the axis Algiers-Doha-Damascus was often understood as a counterbalance to an otherwise Cairo-Riad-driven dominance within the Arab world. Now that Syria has drowned in violence and Qatar lost its positive reputation due to the comprehensive accusations that it has supported the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Algiers finds itself somewhat left behind, while Cairo and Riad have renewed their friendship after the enforced ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in summer 2013 and the enthronement of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in early June 2014.

A prime reason for Algerian concerns, however, remains the tense security situation in Mali. The massive spread of influence by extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) throughout the remote territories in Mali’s North (Azawad) and beyond, including Algeria’s South, are followed with great concern. The attacks on the In Amenas gas plant in East Algeria in January 2013 were a dramatic warning sign. Seven Algerian diplomats were kidnapped in the Malian town of Gao in 2012, with one of them being killed, three released, but the other three still in the hands of their abductors, the jihadist Al-Mourabitoun (The Sentinels).

The collapse of state authority in Mali and Libya, along with the principle lack of state presence all over the Sahel region, has sparked illegal activities, many of them in combination with violence against the local population. Even in Algeria’s mundane northern coastline area attacks cannot be fully prevented, as was sadly proven most lately through the fatal attacks against 14 soldiers in Tizi Ouzou in April 2014, apparently conducted by AQIM.

However, Algeria’s current triple crisis of unclear internal leadership, rising pressure by insurgency and criminal groups, and altering circumstances in its neighbourhood, also constitutes a chance for Algeria. More than ever it becomes clear that the country is indispensable for a solution of the security problems in the region. Having wide experience in fighting extremism and insurgents, Algiers has already started various initiatives to tackle the multiple crises. Among others, Algeria has been one of the main drivers behind the regional Joint Operational General Staff Committee (CEMOC), patrolling the region from Tamamrasset in Southern Algeria since 2010. With the biggest army in Africa and the highest military budget, Algeria’s backing for the 3,300 strong ECOWAS military force set up to support Mali’s army in stabilising the country is of utmost importance, particularly after France will have reduced its Serval presence to 1,000 troops.  

Hence, Algeria could gain new credentials within the African Union, as well as among its global partners such as the UN, the EU and the USA, through smart and constructive diplomatic activities. The appointment of widely respected Ramtane Lamamra as secretary of state in September 2013 has raised hopes for a reorientation of Algeria’s foreign policy. Having served as ambassador to the USA, certain European countries (Austria and Portugal) and Djibouti as well as Ethiopia, and having been Algeria’s permanent representative to several UN organisations as well as the African Union’s predecessor Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Lamamra can surely play a constructive role in future negotiations and debates.  However, given the fact that the Algerian president keeps almost all decision-making power in his hands and still is the conditio sine qua non in the country’s diplomatic relations, the question of who will follow Bouteflika will also be crucial for Algeria’s future diplomacy.

The awaited power transfer will be more than just the handover of presidential duties from one man to another. Bouteflika is one of the last members of the generation that struggled for Algeria’s independence in 1962 as well as for its resurrection after the civil war in 1999. That’s why his nimbus is almost unbroken among wide parts of Algeria’s society. One of the favourites to succeed him is his brother Saïd who would probably guard and guarantee the country’s status quo. Born in 1957, he is 20 years younger than Abdelaziz. Algeria’s leading circles, les pouvoirs, would probably back his candidacy, but it still needs to be seen whether also the army and the secret service DRS might support him.

In either case, Algeria’s government will continue its security-oriented approach, with strong oppression towards those who are perceived as hostile to the country’s stability. With this, it will find the support of the EU and the USA, which both have no interest in losing another strategic partner in North Africa, particularly after Egypt has started a charm offensive towards Russia. However, being principally sceptical towards any western involvement in the region, Algeria has condemned the recent military engagements of NATO and EU in Libya and Mali, but at the same time it has officially granted overfly rights for the French air force to conduct its Serval operation in Mali.

Therefore, the increasing destabilisation of the greater region could give fresh impetus into the otherwise rather cold relations between Algeria and the EU. The current dispute with Russia over the Crimea question and the future of Ukraine could further strengthen the cooperation between Algeria and the EU, with the latter being willing to assure sufficient gas supplies. For sure, Algeria’s chances are high that it can play a core role as regional powerhouse, whoever the next president will be.

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