The new geopolitical context in North Africa and the Sahel has created difficult questions for the Algerian regime. The burst of democracy and revolutionary instability have challenged the doctrines, principles and practices that drove the foreign policy choices of the government since independence in 1962. As a result, Algeria’s old foreign policy paradigm that stressed the sanctity of the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs has collided with the emerging pattern of international humanitarian intervention. Many in the Arab street, for example, saw the Algerian government’s hostility toward foreign intervention in Libya as a travesty. Since the onset of the Arab revolts in early 2011, Algerian state action has widely been viewed as driven by a desire to forestall or contain democratic contagion at its borders.[1]

At first glance, fears of democratic diffusion into Algerian territory seem to have conditioned Algeria’s position toward the Arab Spring. In reality, however, this is not the decisive factor in explaining Algerian foreign policy. If one examines Algeria’s geostrategic considerations and foreign policy outlook, then the regime’s calculus begins to look less mischievous.

This article argues that the regime’s attitude to the Arab uprisings was largely shaped by domestic considerations, security policy and geostrategic imperatives. Algerian leaders were concerned about the potential disintegrative effects of the breakdown phase of authoritarian structures in neighboring countries on Algeria’s internal stability as well as on its status in the regional balance of power. The article also aims to show how Algeria’s position reflects the growing disconnect between its long-standing strategic posture and a fast-changing regional order that runs counter to the ideals and principles that it champions. Absolutist conceptions of sovereignty and inflexible opposition to interventionism even in cases of severe humanitarian crises might lead to a possible banalization of the guiding principles of Algerian foreign policy. Most importantly, Algeria might forgo the opportunity to be a relevant actor in managing the multiple crises in its immediate neighborhood—such as the developing situation in Mali—and shaping the ongoing debate about the international legal constraints on the “responsibility to protect.”

How the country adjusts to these changing realities will have regional implications. Algeria’s power attributes place it in a unique position to influence events. The country boasts the largest defense budget on the African continent ($10.3 billion in 2012), strong military power projection capabilities (due to its large fleet of aircraft) and recognized counterterrorism expertise. It also serves as a founding member and leader in several regional and global counterterrorism forums.

The Doctrine That Lost its Way
Since it gained independence in 1962, Algeria promoted an international architecture that defended the sovereignty of states and the right to decolonization.[2] It became a strong voice of African and Arab revolutionaries and a leading proponent of the rights of the developing world, rejecting the Cold War rigid bipolar structure and mobilizing support in multilateral forums for its agenda of self-determination, inviolability of borders, non-interference in domestic affairs and sovereign equality.[3] In a well-received speech before the UN General Assembly in April 1974, Algerian guerrilla-turned-statesman Houari Boumedienne called for the creation of a new world order where the rights of the underprivileged are protected. The old order, he said, consecrated the impoverishment of the Third World and perpetuated global inequalities.

Boumedienne’s ambitions to build international support for his vision of a cooperative, equitable and just world order soon hit a roadblock. The eruption of the Western Sahara conflict in late 1975 set Algeria against Morocco, dividing the global south into supporters and detractors of Algeria’s foreign policy.[4] In Africa, the conflict exposed the continent’s deep political, economic and ideological cleavages between the moderate countries aligned with Morocco and the so-called progressives backing Algeria. Morocco’s withdrawal from the Organization of African States (OAU) in 1984 in response to the OAU admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1982 intensified this divide and dampened any hope of African unity and solidarity.[5] By making the military and diplomatic support for the Polisario rebels a central pillar of its foreign policy, Algeria’s grand strategic preferences and initiatives to promote them came to be seen through the prism of this conflict. It became “very hard to defend the idea of a new international order when you are engaged in a cold war with your neighbor,” wrote Algerian scholar Akram Belkaid.[6] The death of Boumedienne in 1978 did not end the stand-off between North Africa’s major two rivals, but it reduced Algeria’s ambitions to build a single-voiced powerful bloc capable of fighting for the creation of an international egalitarian political and economic order.

Under the presidency of Chadli Bendjedid from 1979-1992, Algeria’s foreign policy continued to be based on the same ideological principles of self-determination, freedom from external control, and its own special brand of socialism, but several factors contributed to an attenuated commitment to revolutionary idealism in its international relations. The end of the colonial era in Africa, the resistance of the industrialized West to the economic reforms defended by Algeria and the inherent instability of its own economic model led to a shift in the country’s foreign policy orientation.[7] The economic and political constraints that Algeria began to face in the mid-1980s accelerated the country’s diminished global aspirations and refocused its diplomacy on its immediate neighborhood.[8]

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the descent of Algeria into a bloody civil war in 1992-1999 presented a series of new challenges for Algerian foreign policy. The regime did not have the money or the time to focus on world affairs.[9] The country was faced with near financial bankruptcy in 1994 and it confronted a violent Islamist insurgency from 1992-1999.

The primary objective of Algerian foreign policy in the 1990s was to prevent the isolation of the country and any outside interference in its own internal conflict.[10] The military regime sought international acquiescence for its decision in January 1992 to abort the electoral process and rob the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of victory in the second round of parliamentary elections. More importantly, it fought to prevent the international community from focusing on the excesses of the struggle against armed Islamist groups. The foreign policy machinery was geared toward convincing the West and the Arab world that there was only a military solution to Algeria’s civil strife.[11]

The election of the former foreign minister of Houari Boumedienne, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to the presidency in April 1999 reinvigorated Algerian foreign policy. Bouteflika was determined to restore Algeria’s battered image. The gradual return of peace to the country and an improving economic outlook facilitated his task. Bouteflika then embarked on reclaiming Algeria’s leadership role on the African continent, evident by its involvement in brokering a peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000, the creation of a cabinet position dealing solely with Africa,[12] and the formation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2001. The dramatic changes in the international geopolitical landscape caused by the 9/11 attacks on the United States strengthened Algeria’s geopolitical ambitions. The perception of Algeria by the international community changed dramatically. Long perceived as a major producer of violent extremism and a human rights violator, the country became a victim of Islamist terrorism and a key actor in the global fight against international terrorism. The proliferation of violent extremist groups in Algeria’s southern hinterland boosted Bouteflika’s push to make Algeria the linchpin in international counterterrorism efforts in the trans-Sahara region.[13]

The Foreign Policy Disconnect
Bouteflika brought a dose of pragmatism to Algeria’s foreign policy, skillfully engineering a strategic rapprochement with the United States and expanding defense and economic trade beyond the country’s old partners. Algeria’s participation in NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue in 2000 marked an important step in this regard. This signaled shift toward pragmatism, however, did not result in any major changes to the country’s guiding ideological imperatives. For example, Algeria’s perception of self-determination remains unchanged, as is demonstrated by its continuing refusal to compromise on the Western Sahara dispute. Despite the indifference of the Algerian public to this conflict,[14] the growing number of countries that have severed their relations with the Polisario,[15] and the support of most Arab states and the major world powers for a consensual political solution, Algeria hopes for a referendum that leads to the independence of the Western Sahara similar to East Timor. Algerian diplomacy is still driven by the same objectives that guided its approach to the conflict since its eruption in late 1975: using every diplomatic tool to drum up support for the Polisario as the only legitimate interlocutor of the Sahrawi tribes and delegitimize Morocco internationally by holding it solely responsible for the stalemate.[16]

Algeria also continues to evince a strong aversion to interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. The country adamantly refuses to acquiesce in the application of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention even in the case of massive human rights violations.[17] For the Algerians, state sovereignty remains the bedrock that provides order and stability to the international system. This puts the Algerian paradigm of foreign policy at odds with the emerging international human rights norm of the “responsibility to protect.” The multilateral humanitarian intervention in Libya and greater Western engagement in Syria and Mali have brought into focus the major challenges facing Algerian foreign policy. The non-interference policy has limited the strategic options of Algeria to deal with the tensions in its immediate neighborhood.

The crisis in Mali is a stark reminder that a shift toward a more pragmatic approach to the imperative of non-intervention is crucial for Algeria to be part of the solution. Algeria’s caution against rushed military intervention is warranted as is its emphasis on dialogue and negotiations with Tuareg rebels, including the Islamist militant group Ansar Eddine.[18] If diplomacy fails, however, brandishing rhetoric of non-intervention becomes unsustainable, especially if a well-planned and well-resourced African-led military effort to dislodge violent extremist groups aligned with al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has the sanction of the UN Security Council and consent of the authorities in Bamako.

The non-interference principle has deepened Algeria’s trust deficit in the region and worsened its public image. Hewing to principled positions at a time of unprecedented democratic upheavals has earned Algeria the reputation of being a supporter of rogue regimes. According to Algerian former diplomat Abdelaziz Rahabi, the regime is struggling to position itself in the new architecture of international relations because it has not yet taken stock that the world is changing. This problem of adaptation does not apply to foreign policy alone, but it affects the way the whole country is governed as well.[19]

Domestic Considerations
Algeria’s opposition toward foreign intervention stems largely from principle. Yet in the case of Libya and Syria, it also reflects the Algerian regime’s own nervousness about the creation of another potentially dangerous precedent for Western imposed regime change in the Arab world. Algerian leaders fear that the practice of humanitarian intervention constitutes a slippery slope of more foreign interference as the effects of democratic expectations and popular protests in the Arab world continue to unfold.[20] This feeling of unease and insecurity has only grown with the momentous political changes that have engulfed Tunisia and especially Egypt where Islamists outmaneuvered the old guard generals. The Algerian regime saw in the fall of two neighboring secular dictatorships a grave prelude to the Islamization of both societies, undermining their own national security as well as that of their surroundings.[21]

Many government officials have made the case publicly that revolutionary change will destabilize the Middle East, spreading chaos and fueling the flames of Islamist extremism.[22] Some have even portrayed the Arab uprisings as a scheme orchestrated by outside powers to reshape the political order of North Africa.[23] A common refrain heard in Algeria is that Western powers and their Gulf allies, especially Qatar, are the main driving force behind the revolutions. In a speech he delivered on April 14, 2012, President Bouteflika warned that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. “The Algerian people, like all peoples who lived under domination, learned that no foreign party, however democratic and developed, will bring them development and democracy,” Bouteflika said. “What is happening today under the guise of democracy and respect for human rights remains subject to debate. Because democracy like development can’t be given as a gift or imported.”[24] Keen observers of Algeria, however, believe that the regime is playing the nationalist card to temper Algerians’ disgruntlement with their social conditions during a difficult leadership transition.[25]

Strategic Imperatives: The Case of Libya
For critics of Algeria, the country’s obstructionism was especially alarming during the Libyan conflict where the regime refused to condemn the Mu`ammar Qadhafi regime. The Libyan opposition openly accused the Algerian government of militarily supporting the Libyan dictator.[26] Algeria’s position toward the conflict became more perplexing when it initially refused to recognize the Libyan Transitional Council (NTC) after the death of Qadhafi and the collapse of his regime. It took Algeria six days after the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on September 16, 2011, to give Libya’s seat to the NTC to finally come to terms with the new reality.[27] This made the regime look increasingly anachronistic, obstructionist, and inimical to democratic change. This latter explanation of Algeria’s behavior toward the Libyan conflict is, however, unsatisfying. There is no doubt that the fear of democratic diffusion helped shape the Algerian regime’s negative attitude to the Arab Spring. Yet this is not the only factor.

In the case of the Libyan conflict, the regime’s decision was mainly informed by strategic and security imperatives. First, it believed that the humanitarian calculus behind the intervention was disingenuous and feared the dangerous precedent that the enforcement of the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” against the depredations of authoritarian regimes sets.[28] Second, the regime was concerned about the effects of regime change on the Western Sahara conflict and the balance of power in the region.[29] Algeria sees France, which played a major role in the NATO intervention, and its regional allies, namely Morocco, as the biggest hurdle in its quest for regional dominance.[30] If Libya joins the pro-Morocco axis, it would counterbalance Algeria’s power and neutralize its ambitions to dominate North Africa and the Sahel.

Most importantly, Algeria feared that an external intervention in Libya would reawaken the old ghosts of ethno-tribal demands for sovereign identity, demands already boosted by the Arab Spring promises of self-determination.[31] The Algerian government was convinced that the overthrow of the Libyan autocrat would trigger a devastating chain of events, unleashing a wave of refugees, arms proliferation, and most worryingly the return of seasoned Tuareg fighters into their countries of origin.[32] The second and third challenges were seen as the most explosive as they had the potential to empower transnational terrorist and criminal groups, exacerbate secessionist tendencies and reignite simmering insurgencies. The proliferation of micro-states in Algeria’s immediate neighborhood is detrimental to the country’s interests and security.[33] Despite their expressions of attachment to Algeria, an independent Tuareg state might be a powerful inspiration for the country’s own Tuaregs in the south.[34]  It might also spark a revival in Berber activism, even if Berber nationalism remains less threatening to the territorial integrity of the state.

Subsequent events vindicated Algeria’s assessment of the risks. The devastating shock of the Libyan war directly led to the explosion of festering historical grievances in northern Mali. Although the disintegration of Mali is the product of local, national, and international factors that are inexorably intertwined, it was the Libyan war that transformed the simmering insurgency in the north into a full-fledged armed rebellion. The failure of NATO to control the weapons within Libya and halt their flow into neighboring countries has aggravated the militarization of a region full of internal dissident movements and prone to intrastate conflict.

The problem for Algeria, however, is that given its status as the region’s military power and self-proclaimed role as power-broker, its neighbors and the international community are looking to it to assume the role of regional stabilizer.[35] Inability or unwillingness to effectively perform such a role damages its credibility and reputation. Thus far, however, Algerian foreign policy seems torn between the country’s desire to be recognized as a regional leader on security, and its reluctance or inability to use its significant capabilities to maintain stability in its backyard and help restore peace when conflict does break out.

Algerian foreign policy has faced formidable challenges since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Its uncompromising position against outside interference even in cases of humanitarian emergencies put the country out of step with Arab public opinion. As a result, its image in the region suffered greatly, leading some in Algeria to call for an immediate course correction.[36] In a context of geopolitical fluidity and emergence of new ambitious and competitive actors such as Qatar, Algerian leaders are worried that a hard-line policy of non-intervention risks marginalizing Algeria and excluding it from international deliberations on how best to manage the myriad instabilities on its borders and in the rest of the region.

These concerns have recently contributed to a slight shift in Algeria’s stance. The country still opposes any outside interference in Syria, but it has softened its opposition to an international intervention in northern Mali.[37] Its response to the sudden French military action on January 11, 2013, against advancing Islamist militants into the center of Mali is instructive in this regard. The intervention of foreign forces (French, Senegalese, and Nigerian) is a Malian sovereign decision, as it was done in response to a plea by the government of Mali, said Amar Belani, the spokesman of Algeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[38]

To shed its reputation of perceived obstructionism and hostility to the Arab Spring, Algerian leaders now affirm their support for the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Arab people.[39] It is still too early to determine whether these changes represent an evolution toward a more pragmatic foreign policy approach. The only conclusion that is certain is that an absolutist policy of non-intervention will become unsustainable unless adapted to a concept that advances Algerian security policy and national interests.

Dr. Anouar Boukhars is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East program. He is an assistant professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland and the author of Politics in Morocco: Executive Monarchy and Enlightened Authoritarianism (Routledge 2010).

[1] Claire Spencer, “Strategic Posture Review: Algeria,” World Politics Review, July 25, 2012.

[2] Amine Ait-Chalal, “L’Algérie depuis 1962: retour sur une histoire contrastée,” La Revue International et Stratégique 2:46 (2002): pp. 61-72.

[3] Nicole Grimaud, La politique extérieure de l’Algérie (Paris: Karthala, 1984).

[4] For a short and excellent overview of the conflict, see Erik Jensen, Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate (Boulder and London: Lynne Riene, 2005).

[5] Morocco bases its claim to the Western Sahara on several factors: 1) historical ties between Moroccan sovereigns and the tribes of the Western Sahara, as clearly stated by the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the legal status of the territory; 2) juridical and colonial records denoting Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory before the Spanish conquest in 1884; 3) similarity in status of the Spanish Western Sahara and nearby Moroccan southern provinces, also occupied by Spain; 4) domestic public consensus on Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara; 5) threat to Morocco’s internal stability and security that a weak, non-viable independent Western Sahara state might pose. For an in-depth analysis of Morocco’s stance, see Abdeslam Maghraoui, “Ambiguities of Sovereignty: Morocco, The Hague and the Western Sahara Dispute,” Mediterranean Politics, Spring 2003.

[6] President Bendjedid, for example, began the process of normalizing relations with France and the United States, which he visited in 1983 and 1985 respectively. The reopening of borders with Morocco in 1983 and the resolution of territorial conflicts with Niger, Mali, and Mauritania in 1981, and Tunisia in 1983, attested to this desire to establish constructive relations with its neighbors, especially Morocco. See Akram Belkaid, “La diplomatie algérienne à la recherche de son âge d’or,” Politique étrangère 2 (2009).

[7] Saïd Haddad, “Entre volontarisme et alignement: quelques réflexions autour de la politique africaine de l’Algérie,” Dynamiques Internationales, October 7, 2012.

[8] The creation of the Arab Maghreb Union (which included Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania and Morocco) during the summit of Marrakech (February 15-17, 1989) represented the culmination of this reorientation of Algerian foreign policy. See ibid.

[9] Francesco Cavatorta, “La reconfiguration des structures de pouvoir en Algérie: Entre le national et l’international,”  Revue Tiers Monde, April-June 2012.

[10] Belkaid.

[11] This strategy was quite successful. In the economic and financial realm, Western governments, especially France, and international financial institutions lined up to support ailing state finances through financial aid and investments in the oil and gas sector. It is estimated that between late 1993 and early 1995, state coffers were propped up by at least $15 billion, thanks to debt rescheduling and international loans. Politically, by the mid-1990s Algeria was integrated into a number of multilateral forums without having to demonstrate a minimum level of respect for human rights. See Cavatorta.

[12] Since its creation in March 2001, Abdelkader Messahel has occupied the position of delegate minister for African affairs, later expanded to include Maghrebi affairs.

[13] It is important to note that it was Algeria’s successes in driving violent militant groups out of Algeria and into Sahel-Saharan areas that created a terrorist problem for fragile states like Mali. By 2003, several Algerian Islamist militants put down their arms as part of two amnesty initiatives launched by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, while the rest were successfully hunted down by Algerian security forces or forced to flee Algerian territory into northern Mali.

[14] According to Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, the Algerian public knows of the Western Sahara conflict through the lens of regime-controlled television and print media. Yet few Algerians understand why they support this “cause.” See Kamel Daoud, “Comment les Algériens voient le reste du monde,” Slate Afrique, July 24, 2012.

[15] Belkaid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Even in the case of Kosovo, Algeria refused to support the NATO air campaign in 1999 to save Muslim Kosovars from ethnic massacres by Serbs. When faced with respect for the principle of territorial integrity and Muslim solidarity, Algeria chose the former. See Abdenour Benantar, “La démocratisation des Etats arabes redéfinira le dialogue de sécurité en Méditerranée,” Notes Internacionals 29 (2011).

[18] Ansar Eddine is one of three groups that now control northern Mali. The other two groups are the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

[19] Quoted in Sonia Lyes, “Interview with Abdelaziz Rahabi, ‘On fait un mauvais à la diplomatie algérienne,’” Tout Sur l’Algerie, July 26, 2012; Abdelaziz Rahabi, “Quelle diplomatie pour l’Algérie?” El Watan, April 9, 2009.

[20] Personal interview, Algerian journalist, Algiers, Algeria, June 18, 2012.

[21] Driss Cherif, “La politique étrangère algérienne à l’épreuve des révoltes arabes: entre considérations internes et impératifs stratégiques,” Conférence internationale, Rabat, Morocco, May 10, 2012.

[22] Mélanie Matarese, “Face à l’ennemi, Alger mise sur l’unité nationale,” El Watan, September 29, 2012.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Quoted in Samir Allam, “Bouteflika: La Democracie ne s’octroie pas et s’importe pas comme une usine clés en mains,” Tout Sur L’Algerie, April 14, 2012.

[25] The uncertainty over the succession of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is expected to retire when his third term ends in 2014, is a cause of concern as it creates a political vacuum and amplifies popular disaffection. The powerful security services are also expecting their own leadership transition. The DRS’ all-powerful and long-serving chief, General Mohamed Mediene, is in his 70s, and Army Chief of Staff Giad Salah is 80-years-old. The outcome of these transitions would have ramifications for the pace of institutional change and the direction of economic reforms. See Lamine Chikhi, “Algeria Awaits Change After 50 Years Under Ruling Party,” Reuters, October 16, 2012.

[26] “Our only response to Algeria is: stop supporting Kadhafi and stop helping him terrorise and kill innocent civilians and our loved ones,” said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, the then vice president of Libya’s National Transitional Council. See “Libyan Rebels Warn Algeria: ‘Stop Backing Kadhafi,’” Agence France-Presse, July 10, 2011.

[27] “Libyan Leader Begins State Visit to Algeria,” Agence France-Presse, April 15, 2012.

[28] This conclusion is based on the author’s personal interviews in Algiers with a range of specialists.

[29] Kamel Daoud, “Pourquoi l’Algérie ne veut pas intervenir au Sahel,” Slate Afrique, September 28, 2012.

[30] Luis Simon, Alexander Mattelaer and Amelia Hadfield, “A Coherent EU Strategy for the Sahel,” European Parliament, May 2011; Salim Chena, “Portée et limites de l’hégémonie algérienne dans l’aire sahélo-maghrébine,’” Hérodote 142:3 (2011): pp. 108-124.

[31] Cherif.

[32] The Malian Tuareg are Berber nomadic pastoralists who had long pushed for autonomy from a central government they accuse of misrule and marginalization. Hundreds of Tuareg who served in Qadhafi’s pan-African force, established in 1972, and who fought against Libyan revolutionaries, returned to their homes in northern Mali after the eruption of the Libyan war. Some of these fighters are the offspring of Tuareg who had migrated to Libya during the 1984 drought or fled the Malian government’s repression during the 1963 rebellion.

[33] Ibid.

[34] In the last few years, the Algerian government has launched an ambitious program of economic development in southern Algeria.

[35] Algeria has $200 billion in foreign currency reserves and boasts the largest defense budget in the African continent ($10.3 billion). For details, see Borzou Daragahi, “Algeria: On a Military Spending Spree,” Financial Times, November 15, 2012.

[36] Lyes.

[37] Cherif.

[38] “Intervention étrangère au Mali: ‘C’est une décision souveraine’ des autorités maliennes, selon Alger,” El Watan, January 12, 2013.

[39] “La politique étrangère algérienne à l’épreuve des révoltes arabes: entre considérations internes et impératifs stratégiques,” Conférence internationale, Rabat, Morocco, May 10, 2012.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up