Younes Bahri, Algeria. NESA Alumnus; Consultant.
Power is often defined as the sum of the assets that enable a state to achieve its goals, even when they clash with the goals and the wills of other international actors.
An overview of a tense and complicated decade
Whilst the wave of uprisings improperly called “Arab Spring” caused spectacular upheavals in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region from December 2010, Algeria undertook a series of second-generation political, social, and economic reforms aimed at reviving the internal dynamics and preventing any form of turbulence. These reforms were accompanied by regular diplomatic actions in order to reassure foreign partners, as well as positioning the country on the spectrum of an unstable region, marked by the collapse of nations such as Libya and – to a lesser extent – Tunisia. Moreover, Algeria has always been firmly opposed to any foreign intervention in the region, advocating for political solutions and insisting on the priority of neighbors and riparian countries to conduct the necessary dialogues, under the auspices of international organizations such as the UN and the AU. This stance imposed a certain symmetry in the country’s dialogue with its partners on the various issues of defense and counterterrorism.
However, despite its opposition to a foreign military presence in the region, Algeria has always adhered to bilateral and collective initiatives likely to reinforces peace, security and stability in the region. This has resulted in various visits by the U.S. Department of Defense and the AFRICOM Command leadership in late-2020; the establishment of CEMOC (Joint Military Staff Committee) in 2010 – despite the tactics undertaken by some states for its failure; and the regular anti-terrorist collaboration with Tunisia. Algeria also gave impetus to the creation of AFRIPOL in 2015, an agency perceived as one of the most ambitious projects in terms of security cooperation in Africa.
In 2019, the country was shaken by the outbreak, on February 22nd, of a peaceful popular movement called “Hirak”, similar to the color revolutions, which led to the resignation of President Bouteflika in April of the same year. Just two days later, events in Libya took a new turn with the eruption of open armed confrontations between the forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Marshal Haftar – backed by Russia and the United Arab Emirates – and the troops of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of El-Sarradj, recognized by the international community – with the support of Turkey. This accelerated the course of the protracted proxy war. During this period, Algeria continued to mobilize its diplomatic apparatus to prevent the war from getting out of hand, even if it meant maintaining the status quo while waiting for better visibility.
After a transitional period, presidential elections were finally held on December 12, 2019, putting an end to a period of latency of more than nine months. Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected President of the Republic by the majority of voters. One of his campaign promises is to be actively involved in the resolution of the Libyan conflict by making it a matter of national security. This became effective since the very first weeks of his inauguration through the visit of Fayez El-Sarraj, then by his participation in the Berlin Conference on Libya on January 19, 2020. Meanwhile, Heads of State and Ministers of several countries took turns in Algeria (13 official visits between January and March 2020), and the Algerian diplomacy multiplied its activities.
Today, Algeria is witnessing a multidimensional internal crisis, marked by the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak, as well as the President’s illness (infected by Covid-19) and his sixty days convalescence in Germany, before his return home on December 29, 2020. It is in this very context that the growing tensions in Western Sahara took a new turn. An armed military confrontation erupted on November 13, 2020 between the Moroccan army and the Polisario troops leading to a declaration of War by the Polisario and its announcement to end the ceasefire, in effect since 1999. Furthermore, A tripartite deal was signed by Morocco, Israel and the United States of America, with Morocco agreeing to normalize bilateral relations with Israel in return for, among other things, the United States recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Algeria is thus caught in a regional stranglehold by crises and conflicts of great intensity, with two armed conflicts: one on the eastern borders and the other on the western borders of the country. And, after a phase of “Fallback” (reactionary outbursts by political leaders on events such as the resolution of the EU parliament on the human rights situation in Algeria, or the statements of French President Macron describing the internal situation in Algeria as a transition), Algeria finds itself presumably obliged to redeploy, reconsider its alliances, and redefine its strategic positioning on the regional and international scene. What are the prospects for such a redeployment?
Strengthening and consolidating institutions
Above all, Algeria will draw its legitimacy on the international level from the stability of its own institutions. For almost a year now, the country has been working on the completion of two major structural projects. First, the preparation and then the adoption (by referendum) by a majority of voters of a revised Constitution; then the renewal of the legislative branch (with legislative and local elections scheduled for 2021).
Redefining strategic positioning and alliances
The culmination of these internal structural processes will enable Algeria to once again claim the role of key actor in the region. Algeria’s history, as well as its diplomatic and military doctrines, will limit the risks of repeating the Turkish scenario* (see author’s note at bottom). According to many observers, the country will have to go ‘on the offensive’ with regard to the issues of the riparian countries, and this will be done via an oscillation between ‘big stick’ diplomacy and coercive diplomacy. This can only be accomplished by activating all the necessary formal and informal channels. And it will have to go through several steps:
- Favoring alliances based on mutual interest as well as common and shared challenges. This strategic repositioning of Algeria can only be done on the basis of a positive-sum-game approach, instead of a zero-sum-game one (predominant amongst developing countries because of the asymmetry of relations). While strengthening its ties with its traditional allies such as China and Russia, Algeria will continue to explore the leads of rapprochement achieved over the last ten years with countries such as post-Brexit Britain, the United States of America, and South Africa for a more global resonance. The relationship with France will have to go beyond the phase of populist rhetoric to define a new partnership framework whose foundations remain historical. It should be noted that the Framework Partnership Agreement (DCP) governing bilateral relations between the two countries has not been renewed since its expiry in 2017. The same applies to the European Union, with the re-evaluation of the Association Agreement initiated with the Barcelona Process
- Deprioritizing commitments to obsolete alliances such as the Arab Maghreb Union, a persistent ideal but devoid of any prospect of materialization, or the Arab League, a “folkloric” entity that has had no role of influence to play in the major regional issues. These affiliations have often been presented to public opinion as self-evident, based on ideological and dogmatic considerations. As for the African Union (AU), it remains a favorable ground for Algeria to re-establish its influence on the various continental issues.
- Taking charge of the security issues of the region. With Libya in total chaos and a Sahel plunged into low-intensity conflicts, it becomes a matter of the country’s national security to take firm measures towards these countries. Undertaking inclusive political dialogues and mediation actions (such as the Algiers agreement on Mali in June 2015, and the Algiers meeting on Libya in January 2020) could be supported by a show of force, particularly through military exercises at the country’s borders, in order to showcase its capability.
- The resurrection of coalitions and joint commands such as CEMOC and AFRIPOL will allow Algeria to place itself at the center of the region’s security issues, whilst at the same time exerting more pressure to denounce the relations that certain states have with terrorist and VEO groups.
- Taking an emotional step back from the conflict that opposes Morocco to Western Sahara while maintaining Algeria’s position of principle considering the issue as a matter of decolonization that must be settled within the framework of UN resolutions. Algeria will have to adopt a posture adapted to recent events. In fact, several parties are beginning to distance themselves from the Sahrawi issue considering the decision taken by the Polisario Front to end the ceasefire following the Moroccan attacks in Guerguarat in November 2020, as a strategic error despite the repeated violations perpetrated by Morocco. This was the case of German MP Joachim Schuster, who stepped down as head of European Parliamentary Intergroup “Peace for the Saharawi People” on December 16, 2020. Algeria will thus have to put more pressure to get the Polisario Front back to the negotiating table and give another chance to MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) to organize a referendum of self-determination for the Saharawi people. This posture will also allow Algeria to gradually absorb tensions with Morocco in view of opening channels of dialogue.
- Capitalize on Algeria’s experience in the fight against terrorism and its corollary scourges and asserting its expertise in the fight against national and transnational terrorism, and in the processes of reconciliation and civil concord. Algeria will have to work to model this experience and turn it into a real modus operandi in countering and preventing terrorism and violent extremism, taking into consideration military, ideological, socio-economic, and cultural elements.
Sensitize the citizenry on the different stakes
The dangers lurking in Algeria make the challenge of popular adherence to this vision of international redeployment more necessary than ever. With the current efforts to restore bottom-up confidence between the people and the ruling elite, this adhesion can only be achieved through an offensive communication strategy that involves a wide arsenal of tools and channels for a triple objective: inform, raise awareness/educate, and adhere. Far from any populist approach and any alarmist discourse, this communication will also aim at bringing the Algerian citizenry to better understand the notion of “national interest” and to accompany them in realizing that these interests can only be achieved through the integration of Algeria in the various regional and international dynamics.
Addressing the cyberwarfare issue, Algerian geostrategy experts strongly believe that the greatest challenge facing the country’s leadership is to prepare the public for this war and to raise awareness amongst them regarding this reality to face it with serenity. These actions will necessarily have to involve communication specialists, but also key opinion leaders, political actors, non-state actors, and civil society organizations, in order to achieve a deep appropriation of the national and reginal challenges in space and time.
*Authors note: Turkey had indulged in a zero-sum-game, accumulating the risks of divergent interests. With a flourishing economy and good momentum, but by overestimating its power, Turkey failed on several fronts. As a result, Turkey went on the offensive later, with adventurous implications in various conflicts, in order to wrest by force its status as a regional power (the war in Syria, the Battle of Tripoli in Libya, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the crisis in Karabakh). All this has put Turkey in a position opposite to the one it has worked for years to cultivate, namely the idea of positioning itself as a key player in the international arena and alliances in the Middle East, while strengthening its ties with Europe.
The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.