Foreign Affairs: The Algeria Alternative

April 16, 2015

Originally published in Foreign Affairs

Why Algiers Defends Order at Home—But Not Abroad

The upheavals of the Arab Spring seemed to pass one country by: Algeria. To its east, Libya collapsed into civil war, and Tunisia suffered an upsurge of terrorism that imperiled its democratic transition and economic recovery. To the south, Mali is holding together, if barely, thanks to a French-led stabilization force. But all the while, Algeria has remained a reliable bulwark—if also something of a riddle.

In many ways, Algeria is a routine democracy. It has held several elections that international observers have deemed to be free and fair and that have been buoyed by an abundance of political parties. It has a free press and an active and engaged labor movement. Its ministries are staffed by competent technocrats; its bureaucracy duly enforces protocol. As Joan Polaschik, the U.S. ambassador to Algeria, recently said, “Life there is really normal. People are out and about shopping, going to restaurants.” Even French television has zeroed in on this feeling. An upcoming series focuses on several Algerians who live markedly unexceptional lives: a woman scuba diver, a chef obsessed with freshness, and a nature guide who leads schoolgirls in chanting, “Without nature, there is no future!”

But Algeria is also vastly different from other countries. For starters, it remains remarkably jealous of the normalcy that many other nations take for granted. This sentiment is rooted in recent trauma: during the 1990s, Algeria was upended by an Islamist insurgency. Almost everyone in the country was affected by grisly and indiscriminate violence or knew somebody else who was. Public life disappeared, as did movie theaters, cafés, and even stop signs, since cars stopping at intersections became perfect targets for gunmen. As these and other attributes of normalcy returned, Algerians welcomed them, but not without some hesitancy—lest the country forget what it went through during its dark decade.

For Algerians, banality is thus a precious gift that must be protected. That explains why regular Algerians expressed little interest in the Arab Spring. Although some observers argued that the people’s inertia was due to the heavy hand of the state, which tamped down their eagerness to revolt, the true reasons lay elsewhere: Algerians were afraid of disorder. They wished their neighbors well and cautioned them that the road ahead would not be easy. And then Algeria went its own way.


Even as Algeria relishes stability, it continues to wrestle with its past—and the struggle manifests itself in an often paradoxical present. Algerian policymaking is opaque to the point of being inscrutable. The political leadership never fully made the transition from the clandestine National Liberation Front of the 1950s to an open organization running a modern nation-state with a bicameral legislature and multiparty political system. Very few Algerians know how policy decisions get made. Instead, policies appear like ripples on water after a stone hits its surface—except neither the stone nor its thrower is ever seen.

In the absence of decisive evidence, analysts have taken to describing a mythical cloak-and-dagger cabal that runs Algeria—often called le pouvoir—whose membership is uncertain and whose power is unchecked. But when theories are pressed about who is actually in le pouvoir and what they are capable of, the concept collapses into speculation.

Algeria is also fiercely independent. Perhaps as an expression of its steadfast commitment to neutrality—Algeria currently holds the presidency of the international Non-Aligned Movement—the country avoids the mutual back-scratching that’s so common in diplomacy. It is wary of entering into agreements and relationships that would oblige it to reciprocate and that would limit its options down the road. And although Algeria is not entirely aloof on the international stage, it only reaches out reluctantly and often forsakes immediate benefits in order to mitigate long-term risks.

The combination of Algeria’s two defining political traits—a deep attachment to normalcy and its opaque policymaking process—grows volatile as security risks mount around its borders. These developments have given rise to an often contradictory diplomatic stance. Although Algeria remains committed to safeguarding the stability that it has achieved within its borders at any cost, its approach to outside crises risks inadvertently letting them fester and become more problematic for Algeria down the line.

For one, although Algeria strongly discourages other states from using force, especially across borders, it has readily used its powerful military at home. In 2013, the Algerian army swiftly ended the terrorist standoff on the In Amenas gas facility, freeing more than 700 hostages, including more than 100 foreigners. The government also deployed ground forces to almost entirely wipe out the extremist group Jund al-Khilafa, which is allied with the Islamic State (also called ISIS). The terrorist organization announced its existence in September 2014; by December, the army had decimated it and killed its key leaders. 

But instead of pursuing a similar approach to extremist threats elsewhere, Algeria has advocated for what often appears to be pie-in-the-sky diplomacy with highly uncertain chances of success. This has been its strategy toward the crises underway in Mali and Libya. In both cases, Algeria has spearheaded negotiations that aim to include as many stakeholders and different viewpoints as possible, thereby risking endless discussions that change nothing on the ground—much less address the very conditions that sparked the crises in the first place.

In Mali, for instance, Algeria initiated talks to settle the conflict between the government, separatist groups, and government-allied militias in January 2014. The dialogue has brought together at least eight different substate actors (including two rebel movements, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Coordination of Patriotic Resistance Forces and Movements), four governments (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger), and five multilateral organizations. And even though the talks achieved only uneven progress over 14 months, Algeria remains committed to keeping them afloat.

Likewise, in Libya, Algeria supported multifaceted negotiations that involved officials of the old Qaddafi regime and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (a terrorist organization that was eventually absorbed by al Qaeda) as well as nine other countries. Algeria drew the line only at terrorist groups that were recognized as such by the United Nations. The latest round of negotiations began in Algiers just this week under the watch of the UN Support Mission in Libya. Perhaps reflecting the excruciatingly slow pace of the talks, their tone has become increasingly desperate, with the UN special representative pleading that “no more Libyans should be killed.” Algeria, however, persists in its unswerving support for the process.

The Algerian government justifies its approach by arguing that only this kind of inclusive process can build a stable peace. It also cites ideological reasons for refusing to use its own military overseas, maintaining its commitment to inviolable sovereign rights of other states. Skeptics criticize such explanations as a disguise for cowardice and an attempt at staking out moral high ground. Yet Algerians hold on to that rhetoric with pride, seeing no contradictions in their government’s views on using force. From a practical standpoint, however, their position is harder to argue by the day: if the use of force is so effective domestically, why should it not be considered abroad, especially when the greatest threats that Algeria faces emanate from outside its borders? 

Asking these kinds of questions at home, however, remains nearly impossible. There exists little room for debate among policymakers. The political parties in power never sit down with the opposition to discuss avenues for the future, and negotiations that do take place almost always involve the same interlocutors: the prime minister’s office, organized labor, and associations of business owners. Even then, final decisions are ultimately made by a narrow and often unknown group. To be sure, there are opposition members who actively and repeatedly voice their criticism of the government—but their efforts have led to little real change.

The coming months will likely become the first real test of the strategic choices Algeria has made till now. Never has it faced such serious threats directly on its own borders. The intensity of Mali’s conflict dwarfs that of previous rebellions in the north, and the fighting shows clear potential to spill into Algeria. Likewise, in Libya’s dangerous morass, Islamist militants grow bolder by the day. For the moment, Algeria appears determined to cling to its conventional approach, pushing for political solutions to external crises while beefing up internal security to protect itself if these solutions fail to materialize. The problem with this strategy is that asks too much from ordinary Algerians, who can only hope that it’s the best way to safeguard the normalcy that they hold so dear.

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