How Algeria Faces the Libyan Conflict
By Jalel Harchaoui
This Briefing Paper explores the underpinnings of Algeria’s foreign policy, and how it has evolved with respect to the ongoing crises in Libya, and offers insight into future prospects.
Key Algerian principles
As it devises its foreign policy, Algeria pursues its own national interests, above all else. Although exceptions exist, this exercise often articulates three main principles, of which territorial sovereignty is the most pre-eminent.
To an extent that frequently arouses the consternation of Arab and Western powers alike, Algeria is profoundly attached to the sacrosanctity of postcolonial borders (Trout, 1969, p. 428).
In common with other former colonies endowed with an immense territory still inhabited by the memory of bloody interaction with a foreign occupier, it opposes almost any form of foreign interference and dreads being carved up or seeing other Global South countries partitioned.
By implication, Algiers is particularly sensitive to issues such as ethnic minority self determination.
In the case of Algeria’s Tuareg community, which is linked into both Libya and Mali’s current crises, Algiers has not forgotten Paris’ strenuous efforts in 1957–62 to insulate the Sahara from northern Algeria in the hope of retaining access to its natural resources after decolonization (Guichaoua, 2015, p. 321; Vaïsse, 2012, p. 283).
President Charles de Gaulle long tried to ‘internationalize’ the oil-rich expanse, albeit to no avail (Horne, 2006, p. 475). As a result of this
history, many Algerians, to this day, believe that the French still do not regard Algeria’s national territory as indivisible.
They fear Paris might, if an opportune geopolitical environment arose, lend direct or indirect support to ethnic minorities’ aspirations for self-determination, with the unstated purpose of diminishing the central government’s control over parts of the nation’s territory.
This perceived ‘return’ of an activist France in the Maghreb-Sahel since 2011 must be acknowledged if one wishes to understand Algerian thinking on Libya.
For instance, several Paris officials and commentators said that 2011’s NATO military campaign there made it possible for France and Great Britain to ‘rectify the bad memory that was the Suez Crisis’ of October 1956 (Razoux, 2013, p. 6).
Algeria’s diplomats and security officials evidence considerable reticence when they hear that France may still be interested in rectifying any of the ‘bad memories’ it may have retained from several decades ago. For the Algerians, post-colonial borders in general and the Évian Accords of 1962 in particular are by no means unfinished business warranting fine-tuning.
For the Algerians, these parameters are, on the contrary, graven in stone. This stark difference between the attitudes of Paris and Algiers towards the concept of territorial sovereignty has considerable significance for the ongoing Libyan crisis.
Because of the aforementioned opposition to interventionism, Algerian security depends on neighbouring states not collapsing. When this happened in the past few years, Algiers responded by attempting to help neighbouring countries train their own national security personnel.
The hope has been that such capacity-building initiatives will diminish the chances of a foreign power (including Algeria itself) needing to intervene in these countries (Benantar, 2016).
Another manifestation of the sovereignty principle is the fact that, to this day, Algeria has never allowed a foreign base to be openly established on its soil, unlike Egypt in 1967–73, for example (Schmidt, 2013, p. 44; Petro and Rubinstein, 1997, p. 251).
In recent years, foreign bases have proliferated in the Middle East and Africa, meaning that Algeria’s choice very much stands as an exception to a growing trend. Foreign pressure on Algiers in this regard will only increase in coming years.
Sovereignty is closely intertwined with independence, which is the second key priority of Algeria’s foreign policy. In the international sphere, Algeria is committed to maintaining some degree of leeway for itself.
Total alignment with an outside power is perceived by the Algerian government as an existential threat. This thinking is most likely a legacy of Algeria’s war of liberation: its leadership is fiercely attached to independence for the sake of independence.
The loss of latitude in the foreign policy realm would mean a return to its former status as a colony. Policy-makers believe that if they accept limited authority in the foreignpolicy domain, their country’s domestic sovereignty will inevitably become compromised as a result.
Historically, unlike Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria, and many other countries in the Global South, the emancipation of Algeria from European presence was achieved through a long, violent war of liberation (1954–62).
Since 1962, the country’s leadership has gone to great lengths to avoid ‘becoming beholden to a single state’ or a single bloc (Draper, 1981).
A recent illustration of that policy was Algiers’ ability to speak and coordinate with both Tehran and Riyadh, two mutual enemies, during Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) negotiations in 2016 (Sheppard, Ravel, and Hume, 2016).
A former Algerian minister observed: ‘We never involve other states in our policy formation or key decision-making processes. [It has] been an expensive choice.’
This is an allusion to Algeria’s refusal to let a foreign overseer assist it in confronting its own national security challenges. Algiers takes umbrage whenever it senses outside powers might be trying to dictate terms to it.
Instead of putting its assets at the service of foreign entities, Algeria wants to be consulted and insists that its policy recommendations be heard.
In the specific case of Libya, the principle of independence establishes that if a foreign state or a bloc of foreign states interferes in Libya, or attempts to enhance its influence in the western half of the country, Algeria will resist and seek out ways to challenge or subvert this development
challenges. Algiers takes umbrage whenever it senses outside powers might be trying to dictate terms to it. Instead of putting its assets at the service of foreign entities, Algeria wants to be consulted and insists that its policy recommendations be heard.
In the specific case of Libya, the principle of independence establishes that if a foreign state or a bloc of foreign states interferes in Libya, or attempts to enhance its influence in the western half of the country, Algeria will resist and seek out ways to challenge or subvert this development.
‘A security-only approach cannot work’
A third core belief among Algiers policy makers—that a narrow security-driven approach always backfires—can be traced back to the country’s 1992–2002 civil war.
Hard power must be used ruthlessly against the threat of terrorism in the security sphere, but always in conjunction with an array of bold, softpower measures in the socio-political sphere. In the early 1990s, Algiers followed an all-out security approach in which security hardliners were pre-eminent.
This began to change in 1995. Algiers’ own eradication campaign during the first half of the 1990s—consisting of deployment of force along with little in the way of soft power—in fact failed to eliminate the insurgent organizations that the campaign was meant to eliminate and further hardened the political opposition (Steinberg and Weber, 2015, p. 53).
Algerians feel that they ‘learned the hard way’ to never leave political opponents without a way out of armed confrontation. President Zeroual’s rahma (clemency) law in 1994 (Martinez, 2000, p. 239) was the first manifestation of this principle.
President Bouteflika, upon acceding to power in 1999, used a similar concept to implement the Civil Concord Law. The latter offered a time window allowing armed Islamists, who in theory had no blood on their hands, to disarm and apply for amnesty.
Those who had engaged in violent crimes were excluded from the National Reconciliation initiative but still received reduced
sentences. A second round of amnesty was implemented in 2005 (Lounnas, 2013). Bouteflika’s measures, despite their many flaws and injustices, were instrumental in bringing an end to a civil war that had killed 150,000 (Joffé, 2008; Ghanem-Yazbeck, 2016).
Algerian officials see a clear parallel between Libyan faction leader Khalifa Haftar’s air strikes in Libya and President Zeroual’s use of the same method to eradicate Islamist militants near Algiers two decades previously (Al-Warfalli and Lewis, 2017; Ashour, 2009, p. 120).
Haftar, whose headquarters are based near Benghazi, has, since May 2014, conducted an intransigent military campaign with the intention of eliminating his political opponents (Toaldo, 2017).
He has sought to conflate different hues of Islamists, extending from the jihadi Salafis to the Muslim Brothers, to secular actors who demonstrate any level of tolerance towards the latter (Harchaoui, 2018).
In his discourse, each is considered to be a ‘terrorist’. Algerian strategic thought is almost unanimous in agreeing that Haftar’s method is unlikely to foster peace or avoid a partition of Libya.
In summary, Algiers’ key principles are sovereignty, independence, and scepticism about security-only policies. Although a few other principles influence Algerian foreign policy, these are the three main and central ones. In attempting to enforce them, Algiers draws upon the following pillars.
To be continued
Jalel Harchaoui is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geopolitics of Université de Paris, France. His doctoral research focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict. A frequent commentator on Libya, Harchaoui has published widely, including in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Middle East Eye, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Sada.