Analysis | Algeria Goes Against the Grain

Analysis | Algeria Goes Against the Grain

Megan Zimmerer

- Senior Fellow of MENA Affairs
- MENA Specialist
- Mali Peacekeeping Research Assistant
- Student of International Relations, French & Arabic at Miami University

Last month marked the 20th anniversary of a gruesome chapter in Algeria’s history: The Bentalha Massacre. This horrific show of violence, reminiscent of Hitler’s “Night of Long Knives,” occurred at the height of Algeria’s civil war in 1997. In just one night, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) indiscriminately slaughtered, raped, and decapitated hundreds of civilians. Algerians are still haunted by this nightmarish event, along with the memories of countless other massacres during this period. Many hold the Algerian government complicit, not only for failing to prevent the massacres, but for instating a policy of inaction known as the “strategy of decay.” This policy allowed the Algerian people to suffer the full destructive force of the GIA in order to turn them against radical Islamism.

There is no question that Algeria’s bloody past has calloused its resolve against all malicious and destabilizing forces in the region. After a notoriously violent war of independence from France, an 11-year civil war, a wave of protests during the Arab Spring, and a never-ending battle against radical Islamists, Algeria’s military and security forces have emerged seasoned and sharp. Despite this military prowess, Algiers has shown a tremendous amount of restraint as well as an inclination toward diplomacy.

Today, Algeria seems well-positioned to take the lead in regional affairs. The country shares religious, ethnic, and historical ties with its neighbors dating back centuries, and it is the largest country in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Algeria has been blessed (and cursed) with an abundance of oil and hydrocarbon resources, upon which the economy has flourished for many years. In the face of numerous destabilizing factors, president Bouteflika’s regime has enforced a strategic balance of democratic and authoritarian measures in order to maintain political stability.

Given this information, it should come as no surprise that Algeria has served a critical role in resolving regional conflicts. Algeria has been a powerful diplomatic force, negotiating the release of American hostages in Iran in 1981 and a peace agreement between rebel forces and the Malian central government in 2015. In recent years, Algiers has set its sights on the Libyan conflict, attempting to broker peace between its many stakeholders.

Strained Partnerships
In the 1980s, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi desired to see a united Maghreb. The Maghreb countries (Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) never united fully, but in 1989, the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) was created to facilitate economic and political relationships between member states. Since then, political conflicts have created tension in the union and prevented the UMA from functioning as it was intended. In an effort to save the union from dissolution, the group established several joint bodies in order to address more specific social, political, economic, and environmental concerns.

In recent years, Algeria has emphasized the need to revise the structure of the UMA to address regional security issues. Politicians often rhetorically emphasize international cooperation, but in reality there are many obstacles to collaborative efforts, especially in the security sector. Countries in the Maghreb and Sahel have struggled to agree on a clear definition of terrorism, which makes the enemy ambiguous. Regional actors argue that defining terrorism too broadly could lead to governments dangerously interpreting terrorism as any attempt to disrupt the balance of power, thereby strengthening authoritarian rule. While Algeria favors a more aggressive, military approach, other countries criticize Algeria for its inability to resolve its own domestic security concerns and favor a more comprehensive approach to security.

In addition to the lack of cohesive vision and strategy, lack of trust often sabotages coordinated efforts. Algeria is extremely cautious about entering into security partnerships, and does not trust countries like Mali to commit fully to security operations. Western countries are also viewed with suspicion, but as the situation grows more dire, Algiers has strengthened its security relationships with the United States and the European Union.

Obstacles to Leadership
Several domestic issues loom large in Algeria. As the price and production of Algerian oil drops, the country is facing an economic crisis. Stubborn in the face of adversity, Algerian PM Ahmed Ouyahia just announced a 5-year economic plan that involves borrowing directly from the country’s central bank. Algerian leaders are resolutely determined to maintain economic sovereignty and independence, defying the IMF’s recommendations in recognition of the fact that compliance would entail future dependence. If Algeria is to push past this economic crisis and make way for a sustainable future, it will need to diversify the economy, decrease dependency on oil wealth, and open up the private sector.

Algeria has traditionally adhered to a policy of non-intervention in international conflicts, and with good reason. Military intervention in foreign countries puts a target on Algeria’s back. In an already-challenging fight against local terrorist groups including al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Jund al Khalifa-Algeria (JaK-A), the Algerian population does not want to exacerbate domestic terrorism. This understanding has manifested in a cautious and isolated security policy.

To make matters worse, Algeria has been in a state of constant rivalry with its western "brother" since the 70s. Tensions between Morocco and Algeria began with the Western Sahara conflict and still exist today as the two countries vie for regional hegemonic status. This rivalry has resulted in competitive, rather than cooperative, security initiatives. It goes without saying that the entire region would benefit from a unified security approach, which will require Algeria and Morocco to set aside their differences for the greater good.

Another major concern involves Bouteflika’s succession. As the longtime president suffers from serious health issues, many are concerned that the transition following his death will bring a new era of chaos to Algeria. Others have surmised that the transition has already begun, with de facto leaders working behind the scenes. Whatever the case may be, the new regime will have to confront several disgruntled subpopulations, including a large and growing number of unemployed youth and the underrepresented Berber minority.

Algeria may seem like the best candidate to lead military security efforts, but the country faces a number of daunting obstacles in its bid for supremacy. With rapidly diminishing oil and hydrocarbon resources, competition with its neighbor Morocco, and the threat of economic and political chaos on the horizon, Algeria will have to make some tough choices.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Banner Photo Credit:

  1. "Ville de Constantine مدينة قسنطينة Wilaya de Constantine ولاية قسنطينة " by Habib kaki, Wikimedia Commons

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