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Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects
Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects
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

Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects

Originally published in Valdai Club

A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.

The past year’s uprisings shook countries – Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon – that their predecessors had passed by, showing a continuity in roots and purpose. They have in common their anti-establishment sentiment and anger at elites incapable of meeting citizens’ basic needs. But each has its own internal focus and dynamic.

In Algeria, people converged on urban squares when an aging and ailing president announced he would pursue a fifth term in office. In a move to prevent a popular movement from bringing down not just the leader but the entire regime, the military stepped in, replacing the president, targeting some particularly corrupt figures in his entourage, appointing an interim government and organising presidential elections. The protesters have rejected such moves as insufficient, and many have stayed in the street, calling for a more systemic overhaul.

Even if things calm down in these countries, the basic drivers for mass uprisings remain.

In Iraq, popular grievances, on display almost as an annual ritual in the past few years, burst out into the open in early October following the demotion of a popular special-forces general, a hero of the fight against the Islamic State. The streets in predominantly Shiite areas filled with people calling for a corrupt and inept government to go. They met with success – the prime minister and his cabinet resigned – but also with a violent response from security forces and paramilitary groups, which killed hundreds. Yet the protests have continued, squeezed by tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which are turning Iraq into a battleground for their own dispute.

In Lebanon, a tax on WhatsApp use triggered a storm of protests that soon targeted the entire ruling elite for having brought the country to the edge of financial ruin. As in Iraq, the demonstrations’ tenor has been non-sectarian – a breath of fresh air in two countries where sectarian politics have dominated so long and done so much damage. In Lebanon, politicians have openly acknowledged their own role in precipitating their country’s financial implosion, but have resisted stepping aside. In a way, and incongruously, they have been enabled by the protesters themselves, who like elsewhere in the region have failed to put forward an alternative vision, a leadership, organisation or a plan of action.

Even if things calm down in these countries, the basic drivers for mass uprisings remain. They may even have worsened as a result of the violence that has already rained down. Yet, while the people in the squares may have been intimidated to retreat in some instances, their threshold for pain may be rising, along with their anger. This wicked dance between rulers and subjects is likely to determine the region’s shape for years to come.