Non-interference policy constrains Algeria’s diplomacy
TUNIS - Regional upheaval is straining Algeria’s non-interference doctrine, which restricts its powerful military to Algerian soil even though its neighbours are seeking support against jihadist violence.
The jihadist advance into sub-Saharan regions and Libya has spread to Algeria, targeting its vital energy industry and eroding the country’s military ties with nearby countries.
Algeria won independence from France in 1962 and a non-interference policy was written into its constitutions of 1989 and 1996. The North African country built its diplomacy on mediation and cooperation, basking in the prestige of its national liberation struggle and ambitious rebuilding projects.
However, the policy is “increasingly putting Algeria in an untenable situation”, said Jean-François Daguzan, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think-tank focusing on defence and security issues.
“If Algeria wants to really restore peace and stability in its environment, it will be compelled to engage more than it is doing now,” he said.
Algeria’s south-western neighbour Mali sought urgent military assistance in January 2012 to help stop jihadists moving towards its capital Bamako after overwhelming Mali’s military in the north. Insurgents had profited from seizing Libyan weapons after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Malians saw Algeria as having the power to intervene but Algiers did not do so. France stepped in.
Jihadists set off car bombs and stormed Arlit and Agadez in Algeria’s south-western neighbour Niger in May 2013. Niger needed Algeria’s troops to ward off assaults near the Algerian border, but Algiers did not intervene.
The attacks in Niger were similar to an Islamist raid on southern Algerian gas installations of In Amenas four months earlier. Algeria crushed the attackers, who had travelled to the installation from Libya. Forty plant employees and 29 militants were killed in a four-day siege.
Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania in 2010 set up a Joint Operational Chiefs-of-Staff Committee, based in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset. Subsequent turmoil overwhelmed the committee and pushed Algeria’s neighbours to go it alone in tackling security challenges, sidelining Algiers.
Moving ahead without Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad set up a group in 2014 that carried out joint border patrols and shared intelligence.
France also helped, further isolating Algeria.
African neighbours thought Algeria had the power to help militarily. Since 1999, the Algerian military has grown to 580,000 active soldiers, backed by about 2 million reserve troops, making it one of the largest forces in Africa.
Despite this strength, diplomacy showed its limits when Algiers tried in 2015 to mediate between Libyan factions and failed, leaving Morocco in a better position to host talks.
“Algeria has a very clear foreign policy. It always follows a strategic doctrine that prevents it from interfering in other countries’ affairs,” Daguzan said. “This tradition is very heavy in Algeria and it is not possible to change it easily.”
The Algerian failure to broker the Libyan deal led commentator Saad Okba to bemoan the loss of influence since the days when Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the current Algerian president, was the country’s chief diplomat under president Houari Boumediene.
Analysts say the challenges facing Algiers’ non-interference diplomacy stem from Algeria having to spend more diplomatic energy to mend spats with Arab brethren and manage high expectations from neighbours to tackle security problems.
When Saudi Arabia forged an Islamic military alliance earlier in 2016, Algeria steered clear of an initiative that it saw as a veiled way to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs.
When Gulf states branded Lebanon’s Hezbollah a “terrorist group” as part of a confrontation with Iran, Algeria was the rare Sunni Muslim country to dismiss such a move, putting it at diplomatic loggerheads with the Saudis and their allies.
Bouteflika, in a telltale gesture, met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in March but did not receive Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir when he visited the country three months earlier.
Bouteflika’s adviser Tayeb Belaiz visited Riyadh on April 2nd to defend Algeria’s non-interference policy.
“That policy will not change with Bouteflika in power. Only a next president can shift the lines,” Daguzan said.