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Algeria's next move - After the voting
Algeria's next move - After the voting
Foreign Minister of Algeria Ramtane Lamamra congratulates Bilal Agh Cherif, secretary general of The Coordination of the Movements of Azawad (CMA), after Cherif signed a preliminary peace agreement in Algiers, on 14 May 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Report 164 / Middle East & North Africa

Algeria and Its Neighbours

Algeria has emerged as an indispensable broker of stability in North Africa and the Sahel. But, especially as it enters a generational transition in domestic politics, it needs better strategies to deal with financial pressures, a neighbourhood in turmoil, cross-border jihadi threats, and ongoing tensions with France and Morocco. It should also resolve a presidential succession that is paralysing institutions.

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Executive Summary

Algeria is emerging as an indispensable broker of stability in North Africa and the Sahel. Where insecurity, foreign meddling and polarisation are on the rise across the region, it has at key moments promoted dialogue and state-building as the best means for lifting neighbours out of crisis, thus to safeguard its own long-term security. What some call Algeria’s “return” to regional politics after a long absence since its “black-­decade” civil war in the 1990s has been positive in many respects: its approach of promoting inclusion and compromise to stabilise its neighbours, driven by enlightened self-interest, presents an opportunity for an international system that has struggled to tackle the challenges engendered by the Arab uprisings. Yet, its ambitions have self-imposed limits. A moribund domestic political scene – a regime riven by factionalism and uncertainty over who might succeed an ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – cast a fog over the political horizon. Relations with other powers with clout in the region, notably Morocco and France, have room for improvement.

After more than a decade of prioritising relations with the U.S. and European Union (EU), Algeria is recalibrating its foreign policy. Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, a widely respected career diplomat and Africanist, has reinvigorated diplomacy toward the continent and its environs, demonstrating his country’s desire to be an anchor for a troubled neighbourhood, although without jettisoning close engagement with the U.S. and Europe. This has been in part a necessary response to unprecedented turmoil on its frontiers. Along much of the eastern and southern parts of its 6,500km land border, Algeria has to contend with greatly weakened states and jihadi threats. The Arab uprisings and Malian crisis and their aftermath have turned Libya, Tunisia and Mali, as well as the wider Sahel region, into cross-border security risks for the first time. The January 2013 jihadi attack on a natural gas complex in Ain Amenas was ample evidence of this.

Since the 2011 regional upheaval, Algeria has played important – at times crucial – roles in the political and security crises of three of its neighbours. In Libya, it has backed UN negotiations and conducted its own discreet diplomacy since mid-2014 to reconcile warring factions. In Mali, it has hosted and brokered talks between the government and northern rebel factions, both to stabilise the country and to prevent northern secessionism. In Tunisia, it has been a quiet but critical backer of the consensus between Islamists and secularists that has been the source of stability there since 2014. In these cases, Lamamra and other senior officials have championed political solutions to polarisation, social unrest and armed conflict. Given the scarcity of actors capable of and willing to play a constructive role in the region – especially in the Sahel, perhaps the world’s largest, at least partly, ungoverned space – this is very positive.

Nonetheless, there are constraints on the aspiration for a prominent regional role. These start with domestic politics, where the regime has shown less flexibility. Fears abound that Bouteflika’s eventual succession could usher in intra-elite competition and popular unrest. Calls to prepare a managed political opening have been rebuffed, prompting some in the opposition to accuse the president and his entourage of rigidity and stagnation. A constant backdrop to these concerns is that the regional context will make an already delicate transition riskier, as the attention of the military and intelligence institutions, which have an outsize role in domestic politics and governance, is directed beyond the borders. Deteriorating regional security also affects domestic politics, since it is one of several battlegrounds in the unprecedented public divisions between the presidency and a powerful “deep state” centred on the military intelligence services.

Inversely, domestic politics and its glacial pace of change impede any attempt to adapt foreign policy doctrine (and corresponding military doctrine) to changing times. Traditionally focused on state-to-state relations, Algeria has begun, and must continue, to buttress its traditional diplomatic relationships with ties to the region’s multiplying non-state actors. Long influential in African affairs but relatively marginal in the Arab world, it should engage Gulf states that are increasingly assertive in North Africa and make its case to them through persuasion and not just express pique. Relations with France, the former colonial power, and neighbour Morocco are riven with often unnecessary tensions and rivalries, hostage to a history of which most Algerians have no living memory.

The country would be well served by resolving or at least decreasing these tensions whenever possible. A generational leadership change underway in its politics as well as its institutions offers an opportunity to do so, provided there are understanding counterparts. Particularly at a time of heightened regional insecurity and ideological polarisation, greater Algerian engagement as a pragmatic broker of stability and political compromise in the Maghreb’s and Sahel’s conflicts should be welcomed.

Algiers/Brussels, 12 October 2015

Algeria's next move - After the voting

Originally published in International New York Times

One of the most relished jokes in Algeria is that, having been brought to the edge of the abyss on the eve of its independence from France in 1962, the country has since taken a giant step forward. Considering the facts, it's safe to say that the joke has been on the Algerians.

Over the past half century, Algerians have suffered under repressive colonial rule, a fierce war of national liberation, an authoritarian regime, a horrific armed conflict between government forces and so-called Islamic groups that has taken scores of thousands of lives, and, through it all, economic mismanagement on a scale matched only by the country's bountiful resources. As the Algerian people have chosen to give President Abdelaziz Bouteflika a fresh and impressive mandate, now might be a good time for the country to take a step back and choose a different path.

The election last week- in which Bouteflika was credited with over 80 percent of the vote - is, in many ways, a study in contemporary Algerian politics. It lacked clear platforms or genuine parties. Instead, 15 years of superficial pluralism was offset by a deep-seated communitarian reflex to vote as one for the most likely guarantor of stability.

But the unexpected margin of the president's victory suggests that there may be more to this election than a confirmation of things past. Of course, suspicions of fraud abound, and there is little doubt that the playing field had been skewed by a wide range of pre-electoral ploys. Yet there is so far little hard evidence of large-scale election-day fraud, and this seems to have been the country's most transparent election yet. By garnering as much of the popular vote as he did, Bouteflika has effaced the bitter memory of his first election, in 1999, when he was the army's clear choice and his rivals withdrew on the eve of the vote - citing, among other claims, the military's bias. This time around, the army appeared to have no preference and Bouteflika's rivals stayed in the race to the end. Bouteflika has thus put himself in the position to reduce still further the army's political role and to restore the presidency to pride of place in the system of government.

The challenge now is to fill the void created by the dismal state of party politics on the one hand, and the partial and provisional retreat of the army from the political field on the other. There are reasons to fear that Bouteflika will be tempted to act on his own, reading his popular mandate as license to treat all resistance or criticism with authoritarianism. But he could also use his mandate in a novel way: Rather than exclude all his opponents from the policy making process, he could empower them. Only on this basis could he truly solidify the process he can claim to have begun: the emancipation of Algerian political life from the supervision of army commanders under which it has labored since 1992.

The army's neutral posture in the elections and its partial retreat from the political stage is only a first - and incomplete - step. True reform will require the development of political forces capable of filling the space provisionally evacuated by army leaders. This is something that Bouteflika, for all his current popular support, cannot do on his own and to which the civilian opposition and political class, for all its apparent fecklessness, can contribute.

Still reeling from a war that was civil in name only, under threat from terrorist groups for whom Islam is a convenient label, the Algerian people for the last 15 years have been victims of a policy of deliberate secrecy in which visible institutions were devoid of all power while invisible ones enjoyed it all.

There is now an opportunity, however fleeting, to take up the real challenges the country faces. The widespread demand for justice should be met with a thorough reform of the judiciary that includes consecrating its independence as well as its professionalism. Genuine political accountability should be established by empowering the legislative branch, making Algeria's elected assemblies real forums of decision-making. Effective political parties should be developed and pressing social needs should be attended to, above all housing and job creation. Last, but not least, the public graft and the mafia economy that has flourished so brazenly over the last dark decade and more should be reined in.

Whether Bouteflika will do any of this is unclear. Whether he ought to is not. Algeria's voters created a surprise by the size of the mandate they handed him. It is now up to Bouteflika to create an unequivocally welcome surprise of his own by what he chooses to do with it.