Non-interference policy constrains Algeria’s diplomacy

Sunday 24/04/2016
Army officer trainees marching during graduation ceremony

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.