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Algeria’s geopolitical role in the Maghreb is marked by hesitant reconciliation and growing regional tensions



Werner Ruf,

Ceremony celebrating the signing of the 2015 peace agreement in Mali, to which Algerian mediation was decisive. CC BY-ND 2.0, United Nations Photo

With almost 2,400 square kilometres, the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria is Africa’s largest territorial country. It shares borders with Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Western Sahara, and Morocco. Occupied and conquered by France in 1830, the country was never formally a colony, but was administered as part of France.

Werner Ruf was Professor of International and Inter-Societal Relations and Foreign Policy at the University of Kassel until 2003. He is a member of the peace research working group at the University of Kassel and an academic trustee of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Translated by Andreas Bohne.

Algeria is a rentier state: hydrocarbons account for 97 percent of exports (mainly natural gas). The state oil company SONATRACH, the eleventh-largest energy company in the world, provides two-thirds of state revenues. The decisive power in the state has been the military, which currently accounts for 28 percent of the state budget since the coup against President Ben Bella on 19 June 1965 by Houari Boumedienne, then minister of defence and colonel.

Cold War Legacies

The broad lines of Algerian foreign policy after the end of the War of Liberation in 1962 were shaped by the Cold War. The major anti-colonial uprisings in Indochina and Algeria, as well as the Cuban Revolution, were situated within the prevailing East-West division — the wars of independence were interpreted as part of the struggle of the “Eastern Bloc” against the “liberal” West. Accordingly, the liberation movements were seen as potentially anti-Western forces. In return, they received more or less modest diplomatic and material support from the Eastern Bloc states.

This blanket classification found a special expression in West Germany in the so-called “Hallstein Doctrine”, which stated that the Federal Republic would break off diplomatic relations with any state that established similar relations with the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In 1970, Algeria also recognized the GDR and, as one of the important countries, contributed to the end of this doctrine, which had begun to backfire as West Germany increasingly isolated itself.

In keeping with its self-image rooted in the bloody war of liberation, Algerian foreign policy was characterized by fundamental solidarity with liberation movements, especially in Africa. Algeria’s support for the South African National Congress (ANC), the Namibian South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) exemplify these principles, which naturally also applied to the Western Sahara liberation movement, the Frente Popular para la Liberacion de la Saguia el Hamra y del Rio de Oro, even if they overlap with the traditional rivalry between the two major Maghreb powers, Algeria and Morocco.

Regional Faultlines

This basic orientation also defines the two most important fields of action for Algerian foreign policy: the African Union (AU) and the Arab League (AL). Founded on 9 September 1999, the AU is the successor organization to the Organization of African Unity (OAU), founded in 1963. The main objectives of this union of all African states are: the completion of the political independence of the African states yet to be decolonized, the prevention of conflict on the continent, and the principle of inviolability of the borders of the independent countries drawn by the colonial powers. Among many other conflicts, the Western Sahara issue burdened the OAU: Morocco, for example, withdrew in 1984 because the OAU had recognized and accepted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (DARS), proclaimed by the Polisario Front in 1976, as a member.

Morocco returned to the organization on 30 January 2017, where it meets jointly with the DARS, a founding member of the AU. Due to the proliferation and intensification of conflicts within the continent, the AU established its own Peace and Security Council, in part to resolve conflicts below the level of the United Nations Security Council.

Another conflict directly affecting Algeria stems from Israel’s 22 July 2021 admission to the AU as an observer by Moussa Faki, the Chadian chairman of the organization’s Executive Commission. This admission was pushed primarily by Morocco after US President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, occupied by Morocco since 1975 and annexed in violation of international law, in return for Moroccan recognition of Israel on 10 December 2020. Massive pressure from Algeria and South Africa in particular succeeded in compelling the AU General Assembly to temporarily reverse this decision on 6 February 2022. A committee of seven heads of state, including Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, is set to draft a decision on the further procedure.

The second framework in which Algerian foreign policy operates is the AL. It was founded back in March 1945 and comprises 21 states. This organization was and remains arguably one of the most inefficient regional organizations, due in part to the heterogeneity of its members. The AL includes the reactionary despots in the Gulf as well as countries that, like Algeria, are secularly oriented and, at least rhetorically, partly draw on socialist ideas. Until 2020, their common thread was their declared opposition to Israel. The potential for conflict resolution within the organization tends toward zero, as can be seen in the recent conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, where individual member states fight each other — sometimes covertly, sometimes openly.

An AL summit conference was to be held in Algiers in March 2022, but was postponed. In addition to the aforementioned disputes within the League and the question of recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, it was also to deal with the conflict between Morocco and Algeria. The latter severed diplomatic relations with the neighbouring kingdom on 24 August 2021, after the borders between the two countries had already been closed in 1994. A solution to the multitude of conflicts, or even something approaching one, is unlikely to be found — if such a summit is even held in the first place.

In addition, Algeria maintains its foreign policy relations as a function of two fundamental interests: the export of hydrocarbons (mainly natural gas) and the procurement of weapons. In addition to facilities for the production of liquefied natural gas, Algeria has built pipelines to Europe. One — currently blocked — runs to Spain via Morocco, while a second goes directly to Spain. The third runs via Tunisia to Italy, and another, intended for transport to Europe and the production of liquefied gas, is under construction on a trans-Saharan route between Nigeria and the Algerian Mediterranean coast.

This is how the state supports itself through pension revenues. A very substantial part of the revenue flows into the procurement of armaments. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the country is the sixth-largest arms importer in the world. Germany is also taking its share of the profitable pie: between 2016 and 2019, German arms exports (a frigate, tanks and armoured vehicles, armoured vehicles, etc.) ranged from 1,418 million to 847 million euro annually.

The two business sectors of hydrocarbons and weapons are at the same time gateways for large-scale corruption in a battle that the clans in power are currently fighting among themselves. The series of trials in which representatives of clans close to former President Bouteflika have been sentenced for over two years are not signs of an independent judiciary fighting endemic corruption, but quite the opposite: signs of submissiveness of this judiciary to the grouping victorious in the clan battles.

Algeria as a Mediating Force

In keeping with the foreign policy tradition outlined above, Algeria has always attempted to resolve regional conflicts in its surroundings on a regional basis. The major powers —particularly France, which continues to behave in a neo-colonial manner across this region — should be kept on the outs as much as possible. The most recent example of this is Mali. After the overthrow and assassination of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Mali in particular became a battleground of conflict between various gangs, some of them Islamist. France responded with Operation Serval, an attempt to contain the conflicts and stabilize the regime it supported in Bamako.

In doing so, Algeria, which had acted as a mediator in negotiating a peace treaty between the hostile groups in Mali in 2015, was primarily concerned with preserving the territorial unity of the state and its secular character, which had been called into question by the Tuareg groups, some of which were allied with Islamists. A certain degree of autonomy was to be granted to these groups, which are based primarily in northern Mali. The treaty was to be supported by a development programme for the country, the fight against corruption, drug trafficking and terrorism. Participants in the negotiations included MINUSMA (a United Nations peacekeeping mission), the AU, the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the EU, and the neighbouring countries of Mauritania and Chad.

The extent to which this treaty was taken seriously as a negotiating process by the UN Security Council and its permanent member France remains to be seen. With its Operation Berkhane, which followed Operation Serval, and the MINUSMA and EUTM missions, which were massively supported by Germany, France took the reins of (neo-colonial) action, and the reconciliation concept laid out in the Treaty of Algiers did not come to fruition. Thus, a concept oriented toward intra-African solutions was doomed to failure at an early stage. The interventions of France and its European and German allies, which were aimed at military “pacification”, were rather counterproductive. Insurgent “terrorist” movements are now also active in the neighbouring countries of Niger, the Central African Republic, and Burkina Faso, while France and Germany are about to withdraw their troops from the country, which has been shaken by military coups.

Wrestling for Regional Hegemony

The regional hegemonic conflict with neighbouring Morocco remains a priority for Algeria and its foreign policy. It could be the subject of negotiations in another regional organization, the Arab Maghreb Union, to which Libya and Mauritania also belong. However, the conflict between the two powerful Maghreb states has always made such an agreement impossible. Already incompatible are the two regimes and their respective legitimacy. While the Algerian system invokes the revolutionary (and secular) legitimacy of the war of liberation, the Moroccan monarch legitimizes himself from a constructed descent from the prophet. As “ruler of the faithful”, he is both secular and spiritual head of the people.

As early as the late 1950s, all Moroccan offices displayed a map that expressed the kingdom’s irredentist ideas. According to it, Morocco’s eastern border went in a fairly straight line from the Mediterranean to the Senegal River and consequently included a large part of western Algeria, part of Mali, all of Mauritania and, of course, the then Spanish colony of Western Sahara. When Mauritania became independent in 1960, Morocco broke off relations with countries that recognized Mauritania, following the example of the Hallstein Doctrine.

An armed conflict between the two countries took place in the fall of 1963 immediately after Algeria’s independence, as the palace probably believed that the Algerian army would be prevented from taking effective countermeasures due to the sometimes armed clashes between various factions of the National Liberation Front. The desert war soon became a war of position and was ended in 1964 through mediation by Mali and Ethiopia. The borders remained unchanged.

The conflict gained new explosiveness at the moment of Western Sahara’s pending decolonization. The UN General Assembly had called on Spain to decolonize several times since the early 1960s. At Morocco’s request, the International Court of Justice issued a legal opinion stating that “neither the internal acts nor the international acts invoked by Morocco ... indicate the existence of sovereignty ties between Western Sahara and the Moroccan state.” Nevertheless, Morocco launched a military occupation of the former Spanish colony, and much of the population fled across the border to Algeria under massive Moroccan bombardment. Some 160,000 people from Western Sahara continue to dwell in squalid refugee camps to this day.

Morocco and the Polisario Front concluded a cease-fire mediated by the UN and the OAU I 1991. The future of the territory was to be clarified by a referendum, but this has been prevented by Morocco — supported by France in the UN Security Council — to this day. On 13 November 2020, the Polisario Front called off this ceasefire after Morocco violently dispersed civil protest by Sahrawis against the violation of the ceasefire line and the relocation of the coastal road in the buffer zone between Western Sahara and Mauritania. Since then, fighting has resumed in the area. Morocco further fuelled the resulting crisis by distributing a diplomatic note at the UN General Assembly calling for support for the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia, which is classified as a terrorist organization in Algeria.

The Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara in the wake of the so-called Abraham represents a decisive break in bilateral relations. Although Morocco has maintained intelligence relations with Tel Aviv since at least the mid-1960s, the Israeli defence minister now came for an official visit in August 2021. He publicly criticized close Algerian relations with Iran. This all took place against the backdrop of the use of Israel’s Pegasus spy software, which Morocco said it had to wiretap some 6,000 leaders in Algeria’s state and military leadership and even the French president.

This visit was crowned with decisions on future close military cooperation: Israeli drones and the Iron Dome missile defence system are to be purchased, a factory for the production of military drones is to be built, and the construction of a military base is planned near Melilla on the Mediterranean coast.

As welcome as a reconciliation with Israel may seem at first glance, it must also be noted that neither the Gulf states, which have now officially recognized Israel, nor Morocco have ever been involved in a warlike conflict with Israel. Across the Middle East, however, a front of the most reactionary states is forming in alliance with Israel, which, thanks to its resources and military know-how, could turn the region into a new flashpoint.

Algerian foreign policy has become increasingly isolated as a result of recent developments in Mali and the AU, and especially Israel’s encroachment into the Maghreb, but above all due to the development of the Western Sahara conflict, which could call into question the previous precarious stability in the Maghreb. It is not surprising, then, that the clans in power are drawing hope from the war in Ukraine that rising quantities and prices in the export of natural gas could raise the revenues of the rentier state again to a level that stabilizes the military’s rule.