The Algerian enigma (third part)

(To Enrico Magnani)

The position of Spain, in its relations with the Maghreb, shows that one of the strategic axioms of its security, i.e. having a good climate with the rampart of its security arch which, starting from the Canary Islands, passes through the Strait of Gibraltar, and ends with the Balearics, is in difficulty, given the fragility of its relations with Morocco, always at the mercy of the objectives of Rabat and the political and economic bloc with Algiers, given that President Tebboune himself, in a recent speech underlined, that only in case of denial (not only verbal, but also with hard facts) from Madrid of support for Morocco's positions on Western Sahara, the dialogue would resume.

The Spanish foreign minister recently insisted on the need to maintain good relations with Morocco as it is the "number 1 priority" of the Spanish political foreigner, as not having them would be "harmful" for the Spaniards, especially for those living in Ceuta. Melilla, the Canaries or Andalusia, confirming that Madrid is cornered and cannot (or will not) change its position and that Moroccan pressure is successful, not only in keeping Madrid bound to its positions, but also in antagonizing and isolating Algiers with its European partners (for example Algeria's strong, historic ties with Italy are viewed with enormous annoyance by Rabat and the climate has also worsened due to Prime Minister Meloni's positions of ideological proximity to the principle of self-determination of the Saharawi people).

But relations with Spain (and against the light, with Morocco) are not Algeria's only priority. As mentioned, Algiers is engaged in a very delicate geostrategic game where it tries to monetize its position of absolute pre-eminence in various scenarios and of attention and interest from a panoply of actors who seek to have Algeria, if not by their side, at least not hostile.

One of these chessboards, which is part of Algeria's wider return to the international scene after the painful absence of Bouteflika's last two presidencies, is Africa.

At the AU summit held in mid-February, Algeria announced that it will allocate one billion dollars to finance development projects across the continent through the Algerian Agency for International Cooperation for Solidarity and Development. The decision was announced in a speech read by Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane, who was representing President Tebboune at the annual African Union leaders' summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. "I have decided to inject one billion US dollars for the benefit of the Algerian International Cooperation Agency for Solidarity and Development to finance development projects in African countries", reads the speech, and attention will be paid to "integration projects or projects capable of contributing to accelerating development in Africa". Tebboune said the approach of the agency, set up in 2020, is based on Algeria's belief that "Security and stability in Africa are linked to development". The basic objective is to dismantle the network of support that Morocco, especially in the years of Bouteflika's disease, built up, also thanks to the sale of significant quantities of phosphates (essential for agriculture) at a discounted price, if not real gifts and Algiers knows that Rabat has practically nothing other than that.


But the Russian aggression against Ukraine presents itself as an opportunity for Algeria to be an important player in the Mediterranean. For decades, Algeria has shunned participation in international affairs except in very peculiar terms. As a member of the non-aligned movement, the country has been described as "anti-Western", "anti-capitalist" and "self-isolating".

In private, diplomats accredited to Algiers describe the country and its authorities as among the most difficult to penetrate and understand in the region. But over the last couple of years, there have been signs that Algeria is changing and starting to flex its economic and political muscles, which has accelerated in the wake of the war in Ukraine, with Algeria capitalizing on the opportunities created by changes in global energy markets. Algeria has also increasingly asserted itself in the African Union and the Arab League, has intensified its lobbying in foreign capitals and it is intensifying ties with Beijing.

But is Algeria ready for the responsibility that accompanies the role it sets out to play?

For example, during Abdelaziz Bouteflika's longtime presidency, relations between Algeria and the United States were frosty. Repeated attempts to expand and deepen bilateral cooperation have failed as the relationship has remained largely limited to counter-terrorism cooperation, especially in response to threats from al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and a deep cultural hostility among Algerian elites towards private companies (when in the country the big companies are all public). Since independence, Algeria has expressed deep skepticism, if not outright hostility and fear regarding the intentions of Western powers, especially France (its former colonizer) and the United States. As a result, Algeria sought few allies and seemed content to be close to, but never subservient to, Moscow and self-limiting its role in international affairs.

We recall that Algeria it has the second largest armed forces on the African continent buys 81% of its weapons from Russia and is the world's third largest importer of Russian weapons. From 2009 to 2018, arms sales between Russia and Algeria increased by almost 129%, and Russian ships make frequent calls at Algerian ports.

Politically, Algeria's historical position of not interfering in the affairs of other states, together with its support for the principles of self-determination of peoples, the strenuous defense of the principles of sovereignty of each state from external pressures, and a good dose of anti-Westernism they have placed the country next to Moscow (be it Soviet, post-Soviet or neo-tsarist) without identifying itself as a mere vassal state, even as it has repeatedly abstained from voting at the United Nations condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, the war in Ukraine demonstrated the limits of Russia's military power, scrambled global energy markets and, in the process, provided Algeria with an opportunity to redefine its foreign policy, albeit a cautious one. In fact, President Tebboune's planned trip to Moscow, after being in limbo for several weeks, has come back to life and should take place in May. Indeed, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed in a telephone conversation at the end of January to schedule a state visit by Tebboune to Russia for "next May," the Algerian presidency said in a statement. press. The two heads of state argued "of the bilateral relations between the two countries and more particularly of the horizons of energy cooperation". They even argued “of the forthcoming meeting of the large Algerian-Russian joint committee”, which will take place during this visit, the exact date of which has not been disclosed.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Vladimir Poutin also had discussions “of the forthcoming meeting of the large Algerian-Russian joint committee”, to be held during the visit of the Algerian president in May, the exact date of which has not been disclosed. Algiers and Moscow have long-standing privileged relations. In 2021, trade between the two countries reached three billion dollars, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune will also pay a state visit to France in May, but the Algerian presidency has not specified which country he will visit first.

While Europe scrambles to compensate for the decrease in Russian energy, Algeria has truly entered a new phase. Before the war in Ukraine, 40% of Italy's energy imports came from Russia, which dropped to 10% in October, while imports from Algeria increased significantly. According to some estimates, exports of Algerian natural gas to Italy have increased by around 20% in 2022. But it is not only Italy that is looking beyond the Mediterranean, Algeria now supplies 11% of all natural gas consumed in Europe and is Africa's largest natural gas exporter, and Italy and Algeria have launched a serious reflection for the start-up and completion of the awaited (for too long) GALSI gas pipeline, which from the region of Constantine should reach Sardinia and end in Piombino.

The war in Ukraine also coincided with changes in Algeria's internal political environment. In 2019, Algerians took to the streets to protest Bouteflika's announced intention to run for a fifth term. The protest movement, called Hirak, brought thousands to the streets and led, among other things, to the resignation of Bouteflika. However, Hirak never evolved from a protest movement to a political entity with a clear platform or coherent set of demands and was swept up in COVID-related lockdowns and closures. The end of Hirak has allowed the new government under President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to focus its energies beyond the (always peaceful) street protests and bring more balance to Algeria's alliances, reinvigorating ties with the United States and the China.

As already mentioned, in November 2020, the Algerian constitution was amended to allow for the deployment of the military outside the country. The move was seen by some as a way to allow Algeria to intervene in Libya if needed, but constitutional revisions also allow participation in military operations. peacekeeping under the Arab League, the United Nations and - perhaps most importantly - the African Union.

Algeria's increased participation in AU peacekeeping missions is important because it signals that Algeria is eager to counterbalance Morocco's perceived growing influence within the organization. Morocco left the AU's forerunner, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), in 1984 to protest the procedurally questionable accession of the SADR (Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic), the state entity set up by POLISARIO.

In 2017, Morocco joined the AU (giving up after years of an unthinkable barter: Morocco would have joined the organization only after the expulsion of the SADR, request obviously refused) and has used the body as a vehicle to advance its interests and its continental position, often in ways that make Algiers feel threatened. Morocco has successfully pushed several AU member states (French-speaking ones in particular) to recognize its territorial claims over Western Sahara and to open symbolic consulates in the former Spanish colony, and has supported the arrival of several individuals in leadership within the AU who are identified as pro-Moroccan and supportive of Rabat's claims to that territory.

Western Sahara is the nexus of dispute between Morocco and Algeria with Morocco claiming the territory and Algeria supporting the Saharawi independence movement. By participating in the AU's peacekeeping operations, Algeria could enhance its position within the organization. Algeria has also been harshly vocal in its opposition to Moroccan rapprochement with Israel under the Abraham Accords.

From Algiers' point of view, greater security cooperation between Morocco and Israel would give Rabat a qualitative military advantage over Algeria (something Morocco probably already thinks it already enjoys by virtue of its almost entirely Western arsenal, and with Israeli and Chinese presences). Secondly, Morocco's normalization with Israel could open the door for other AU members to follow suit, further isolating Algeria within the organization and in this sense, Algiers (jointly with South Africa) held a very firm line blocking the initiative to grant Tel Aviv observer status, threatening an institutional crisis of the organization and, on the occasion of the mentioned Addis Ababa summit in February, he blatantly expelled an Israeli diplomatic delegation from the meeting room.

In addition to stepping up its activities in the AU, Algeria applied for membership in the BRICS group of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in November and hosted the Arab League summit. By all accounts, that summit was a complete success from Algeria's point of view. Tebboune chaired the summit and, in the preceding weeks, was able to negotiate a "unity meeting" between the president of thePalestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. While not all heads of state attended the summit, those who did struck a harmonious tone in their communiqué, strongly pro-Palestinian and subtly critical of the Agreements of Abraham.

Algeria followed up on this success by signing an executive plan with China for the joint development of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). Notably, the announcement of the Algeria-China deal came a week ahead of the US-Africa (FTA) leaders' summit in Washington, which Tebboune did not attend. In March 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (who with her peer Vicky Nuland forms the dioscuri of 'Foggy Bottom') traveled to Algiers, separately, and met with Tebboune. Both meetings ended without significant announcements or engagements, perhaps signaling that Tebboune has not agreed to any request from Blinken and Sherman. The content of these discussions was not made public by either government, but Tebboune was able, once again, to assert Algeria's self-sufficiency; perhaps encouraged by the recent pledge of support he received from Beijing.

Despite the lack of "deliverables," this high-level US engagement demonstrates a new opening in Algerian foreign policy, which begs the question of what this could mean for bilateral relations between Washington and Algiers.


Read: "The Algerian enigma (first part)"

Read: "The Algerian enigma (second part)"

Read: "The Algerian enigma (fourth part)"

Photo: Presidency of the Council of Ministers