The Algerian enigma (fourth part)

(To Enrico Magnani)

The COVID pandemic and globally falling energy costs have hit Algeria hard, coinciding with domestic political turmoil that has threatened to uproot the existing governance structure. However, the COVID restrictions have provided the government with the pretext it needed to limit theHirak (protest movement, ed) and drain much of its already declining fervor. Subsequently, the war in Ukraine sent global energy prices soaring, providing the government with the liquidity it needed to buy social peace.

In 2022, the IMF reported that Algeria recorded its first budget surplus in nine years, boosting international reserves by $7 billion since 2021, and a budget surplus is expected again this year.

This robust financial leeway has allowed Algeria to consolidate the position of neighboring countries necessary for its security, such as Tunisia (again infuriating Rabat, which lives on loans, gifts and financing and which has absolutely no availability to rival, not even remotely, with Algiers).

Algiers has provided Tunis with a $300 million loan in 2021 and another $300 million ($200 million loan plus $100 grant) in 2022. As Tunisia's IMF loan rescue package ends in short, it would not be surprising if Algeria intervened once again to support President Kais Saïed, avoiding economic collapse, and associated stability risks.

Algeria's new solid presence in the region and influence on European energy markets will bring new expectations. While Algeria was previously considered a fringe player in resolving regional conflicts, it now wants to play a constructive and central role in Libya and a renewed influence in the Western Sahara dossier.

Algeria's longstanding insistence that it is not involved in the Western Sahara conflict is becoming less and less defensible and as an aspiring regional leader, the country will have to resolve this contradiction and confront Morocco, which - however - has not nothing to offer and the negotiations which he insistently requests with Algiers appear to be, in Rabat's viewpoint, a repetition of the diktat of Versailles of 1919 to be imposed on Tebboune (president of Algeria).

Also on Algiers' complex agenda is Egypt, traditionally a country of great (but equally fragile) regional influence. Cairo may see Algeria's growing influence as a threat leading to a regional rivalry: it will have to be ready to compete.

In August 2021, Algeria hosted foreign ministers from across the region (as well as representatives from the AU and the Arab League) to breathe new life into the "Libya Stability Initiative".

In April 2022, Tebboune announced its intention to host a second conference on Libya. Algeria's effort to compete with France, Italy, Germany, Egypt and the UAE for the position of top mediator in Libya will test its diplomatic acumen. Algiers has already proved this (it is useful to recall that over 40 years ago he led a mediation between the major global powers, when he helped negotiate the return of American hostages from Iran in 1981).

In Western Sahara, Morocco has had some diplomatic assertions, such as the aforementioned Trump administration's recognition in 2020, which took place out of time, of Moroccan sovereignty claims over that territory. However, international support - at least in Europe - for Morocco's position could wane due to Europe's growing energy dependence on Algeria. The question will be whether Algeria can use its growing influence in Europe, especially, to make up for lost time and political space.

On the eastern front, a regional rivalry with Egypt may be the most challenging by-product of Algeria's renewed foreign policy. There has long been a discrepancy between Egypt's self-perception and its perception among those in the region. The result is that Egypt continues to overload itself with commitments and missions, not fully considering its limits and its ability (or otherwise) to impose concessions on others and Cairo's threatening tone on the project of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam they are a great example of this. This assertive stance could lead to an escalation of tensions with Algeria, especially in Libya.

Egypt has not been the most influential international player in Libya, but its sharing a long western border and eagerness to get involved has allowed Cairo to play an outsized role, especially recently. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has hosted several attempts to reach a compromise between rival factions. Earlier last month, Egypt hosted the Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh and the Chairman of the High Council of State Khaled al-Mishri, where the participants agreed to develop a new "roadmap" for political reconciliation.

Egypt has long supported warlord Khalifa Haftar in his efforts to dominate Libyan politics and Cairo clearly wants to play the king in whatever government comes next. Algerian efforts to broker a compromise in Libya could be seen as an attempt to undermine Cairo's strategy. Algiers will have to use tact in its Libyan mediation venture.

For the United States, Algeria's new foreign policy is an opportunity to expand bilateral cooperation and build the relationship Washington has long sought but never really found. Last fall, several delegations of mid-level Algerian officials with ties to military and intelligence ministries traveled to Washington and quietly communicated their desire to expand cooperation between the United States and Algeria. The falling point for Washington will be to seize the openness offered by Algiers without alienating Rabat, especially now, given Morocco's February UN General Assembly vote on Ukraine, has decided to vote in favor of integrity territory of Kiev (abandoning the previous abstentions and above all the grotesque absence from the vote).

Currently, ties between the United States and Morocco are at their peak and Washington will want to maintain that position. True to form, given highly susceptible Morocco, when Blinken and Sherman traveled to Algiers last year, they also stopped off in Rabat. The Biden administration has been eager to establish and expand alternatives to Russian energy for dependent European nations; Algeria is now a key component of this line. This gives Algeria a lot of influence in Washington. The question for the Algerians will be what will they do with that leverage? Will they ask Washington to roll back the 2020 proclamation on Western Sahara? Demand access to advanced weapon systems? Or ask for support for Algerian efforts in Libya?

Algeria will have to think about a strategic dialogue with Washington because now there is an opportunity to set a new course for the trajectory of relations.


But to understand Algeria's position and political perspectives, it is mandatory to consider the burning issue of relations with France. The "Algerian question" took the form of an unresolved debate that agitated France at the end of the 50s, on the fate of the three French metropolitan departments of North Africa (Oran, Algiers and Constantine). Today history repeats itself and it is still the eternal debate on the "Algerian question", but in another form.

How to manage the structurally conflictual relationship between Algeria, a country born in 1962, and its former colonizing power? As mentioned, Franco-Algerian relations have seen a marked improvement due to a precise will of Macron (unleashing the paranoia of Rabat who considers any improvement in relations between Paris and Algiers is perceived as harmful to Morocco's interests regarding Western Sahara and the lucrative interests of the Moroccan elites), but remain fragile.

In the latest crisis between Algeria and France, it is difficult to distinguish reality from appearance. One question prevails over all: Can the Algerian regime afford the luxury of provoking a break with France for having legally recovered, according to Paris, one of its compatriots (with dual citizenship) in Tunisia, the journalist and opposition activist Amira Bouraoui?

The honeymoon between Algiers and Paris lasted only a few weeks. The old tensions have resoundingly returned to relations between France and Algeria. Media heroine of the affair, Amira Bouraoui whose conditions of arrival in France via Tunisia continue to cause controversy. In the eyes of many commentators, the Algerian regime has overreacted to this affair by summoning its ambassador to Paris for consultations and allowing its press to use violent tones underlining the hostile hypocrisy and persistent French colonialist spirit.

A team from the French services allegedly took care of Amira Bouraoui in Algiers, helped her cross the border into Tunisia and then forced the hand of the Tunisian authorities to put her on a plane bound for France. It is this scenario that has infuriated the Algerian regime and reacted risking calling into question the long months of rapprochement and reconciliation between Paris and Algiers.

Paris has made the choice to adopt a minimalist position by saying that France has done nothing exceptional and has contented itself with helping a French citizen in difficulty, believing that the summoning of the ambassador is an Algerian affair and has focused on consolidating the strategic partnership with Algeria (position confirmed by a statement by President Macron at the end of February). A way of saying that French diplomacy will not respond with the same intensity to this sudden surge in Algerian mood.

This new bilateral crisis has reaped a third collateral victim: the Tunisia of Kais Saied. The latter was forced to fire his foreign minister, Othman Jerandi, and struggles to explain to the Algerian authorities that they are providing essential economic aid, because he accepted French requests rather than Algerian ones.

During this crisis, Tunisia has appeared a country under total Algerian influence and whose slightest act of sovereignty risks creating a crisis with its neighbor, protector and financier and to save face, a Tunisian court has sentenced in absentia and very direct, la Bouraoui, for illegal entry into the country.

This new crisis between France and Algeria will go to the heart of the trust that has been difficult to re-establish between the two countries through the multiple visits of French officers to Algiers and the much-noticed visit by the Algerian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, General Saïd Chengriha to Paris recently? Or will it be just a mood swing soon forgotten over time, and to which Algerian diplomacy, susceptible (like the Moroccan one) had gotten used to?

However, Chengriha's visit deserves a reflection, launched by some press sources, regarding the possible purchase of French armaments and to begin the replacement of his immense arsenal of Muscovite origin.

Few bet on a lasting crisis between Paris and Algiers. In fact, the barometer is the next state visit of Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune to France scheduled for May and in fact, in the multiple and violent accusations of the Algerian press against France on the occasion of this new crisis, no one mentions cancellation or postponement.

This umpteenth tension between Paris and Algiers demonstrates an essential political fact. The fragility of this new alliance between France and Algeria, despite the efforts of President Emmanuel Macron who fell into the trap of commemorative reconciliation, which could overflow at any moment, and the Algerian regime's management of its relations with a partner like France reveals a very strong sentimental charge.


Read: "The Algerian enigma (first part)"

Read: "The Algerian enigma (second part)"

Read: "The Algerian enigma (third part)"

Frame: YouTube