Ambassador Gabriel on Algeria: Normalcy Masks Weaknesses as Regional Leader

Edward M. Gabriel (Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001)

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What do you think is a major foreign policy issue facing the United States that is not in the headlines and should get more attention in 2014?

Following President Bouteflika’s second hospitalization in France, widespread rumors continue to abound in Algeria about his fate and the stability of the country.  The question is whether the current situation in Algeria could blow up into a major foreign policy issue for the United States.  As Karim Mezran and Ilana Hosios of the Atlantic Council state in their recent article on Algeria, “With the stability of the country closely linked to presidential elections hypothetically slated for April 2014, the results will undoubtedly determine Algeria’s political power configuration for the next decade. Bouteflika’s ability to run in the April elections, given serious health issues, will have a significant impact; it is indeed a defining moment in Algerian history.”

There is a consensus among analysts that Morocco and Algeria fared best in responding to the Arab Spring.  And while Morocco has undergone major economic, social, and political reforms, including the adoption of a new modern constitution and inclusion of the Islamic PJD party into its political structure, Algeria, like its fellow energy producers in the Gulf, chose the more traditional path of providing more benefits to civil servants, expanded subsidies to its citizens, and calls for more dialogue and patience. With strong memories of their recent civil war, most Algerians stayed at home, or continued with the routine strikes concerning economic and social benefits, not regime change.

It is my concern that the “unfinished agenda” in Algeria, compounded by the confusion and ambiguity surrounding the April presidential election, could become a real headache for US foreign policy, as Algeria focuses primarily on its domestic concerns and is therefore unable to contribute its leadership and fair share of efforts to combating terrorism on its borders and in the broader region.  These factors taken together may portend for a much more tumultuous period, where terrorist activity could escalate.

As I write, there are conflicting scenarios regarding the presidential election. What we do know is that we don’t know if ailing President Bouteflika will endure long enough to control the outcome of the elections. In 2013, there were plenty of rumors that had him incapacitated in Paris, unable to hold cabinet meetings after he returned to Algiers, preparing to run/not-run for re-election, while working to diminish the traditional roles of the military and security services in the presidential selection process.

Several candidates declared that they would run for the presidency…none with a sufficient resume to attract either popular or military/security support. A long awaited promise to create the post of vice-president, thus portending a potential policy of succession, has still not been acted on. The opposition, secular and Islamic, while vocal in their calls for Bouteflika not to run, has been unable to secure the support of the media, trade unions, or other cadres capable of mobilizing voters and public opinion.

While in the region, Algeria’s lackluster security leadership has not gone unnoticed. It is largely through the mostly open spaces of southern Algeria that the militants and extremists were able to secure arms from Gaddafi’s storerooms to bring about the overthrow of government rule in northern Mali. Algerian press carries weekly reports of the interdiction of weapons being smuggled to Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, and elsewhere. Tunisia and Libya have prodded Algeria into assigning large numbers of troops to their common borders to thwart the rising number of anti-government incidents.

The State Department and AFRICOM continue to invest time and energy encouraging Algeria to take a more substantive regional role in counterterrorism but there is little to show for our efforts. The border with Morocco is still closed; and Algeria continues to isolate Morocco from participating in regional security arrangements that it leads. Algeria consistently refuses to host military observers from other countries or international forces on a continuing basis who could lend their expertise in support of counterterrorism programs. And domestically, Algeria is still suffering from its own terrorist incidents as well as those inflicted by others, as in the attack on In Amenas last year.

These signs are troubling, primarily because Algeria’s policies remain opaque, even to the most seasoned observers. It is not sufficient to shrug one’s shoulders and claim that domestic considerations in Algeria always top regional concerns. There is too much at stake, as instability and conflicts in the surrounding region, from Somalia, South Sudan, and the CAR to the Sahel and Atlantic, are increasing not receding.

The US needs reliable and stable partners in the region, allies who can balance their domestic politics and regional ambitions to make their contributions to regional security. Algeria’s role to date does not instill confidence in its participation going forward. In fact it could become more unreliable in 2014.

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