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.


In summary, Algiers’ key principles are sovereignty, independence, and skepticism 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.

Foundations of Algerian foreign policy

Algeria’s foreign policy has tended to achieve results when it has managed to simultaneously tap into natural-resource wealth and promote robust national security.

Natural resources

The main sources of funding for the Algerian government are hydrocarbon-export proceeds and foreign-exchange reserves saved from previous years. Algeria’s hybrid political system combines authoritarianism with some elements of democracy (Ghanem-Yazbeck, 2017).

Domestic stability is, to a substantial extent, predicated on the country’s ample re-distributive socio-economic policies made possible by hydrocarbon exports. The latter is also a way of ensuring that Western powers are stakeholders in Algeria’s internal stability Çelenk, 2009).

As a critical link in the European Union’s energy supply chain, the North African country is the third largest gas supplier to the bloc, helping to meet the energy needs of member states including Spain (55 per cent), Italy (16 per cent), and Portugal (15 per cent) (Chikhi, 2016; 2017a).

In 2016, it exported a daily average of 185,000 barrels of crude oil and unfinished oils to the US (EIA, 2018). With regard to shale resources, the North African country possesses an as-yet-untapped reservoir of over 700 trillion cubic feet’s worth of technically recoverable gas, which exceeds that of the US (EIA, 2013, p. 6).

National security

The Algerian government claims that it possesses a robust national security apparatus, and justifies this claim by referring to strong military and police forces, extensive numbers of experienced diplomats, vast intelligence networks, and, since 2001, an enhanced counter-terrorism focus and capacity.

a) Armed forces.

After Egypt, Algeria has the largest armed forces in Africa, with around 147,000 active personnel. The overall figure reaches 460,000 when the country’s military reserve forces and gendarmerie are included (Touchard, 2017, p. 17). Algeria possesses a large fleet of aircraft.

The country’s defence budget, at USD 10.2 billion in 2016, is Africa’s largest, and the sixth largest in the Greater Middle East (SIPRI, n.d.). The majority, although not all, of the weapons that Algeria imports are purchased from Russia (Mokhefi, 2015).

The fall in hydrocarbon prices since 2014 has caused Algeria’s revenues to shrink from USD 60 billion in 2014 down to USD 27.5 billion in 2016 (Chikhi, 2017b). In responding to this decreasing income, Algiers reduced public spending from USD 103 billion in 2015 (Middle East Online, 2014) to USD 65 billion in 2017 (Aghiles, 2017a).

Algerian imports fell from USD 58 billion in 2014 down to USD 46 billion in 2017 (Direction Générale des Douanes, 2018).

But the country has maintained military spending above USD 10 billion for the last several years (Aghiles, 2017b). This shows how intent the government is on insulating its large defense budget from the austerity measures affecting all other outlays.

But if oil prices exhibit softness on a prolonged basis, it may translate into greater caution and less consistency within Algeria’s national security.

b) Police.

Over the last decade, Algeria has endowed itself with a large, well-trained, well-equipped, and well-paid police force (ICG, 2017, p. 23).

Between 2009 and 2014, this force more than doubled in size, increasing from 90,000 officers to 209,000 (Matin d’Algérie, 2014).

c) Diplomatic corps.

The aura associated with its 1954–62 war of national liberation enables Algeria to position itself as a Global South country un-subordinated to any other state or coalition of states. In being anchored in that narrative of perennial opposition to disruptive agendas in world affairs, it has maintained a strong diplomatic tradition through a large part—but not all—of its history since 1962.

Often secretive, Algerian diplomats have on several occasions shown themselves to be proactive, steadfast, and well-informed mediators (Tajine, 2013). For example, in 1975, Algeria brought Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran to the negotiating table and helped broker a settlement to the Shatt al-Arab dispute (Entelis, 2015, p. 199).

d) Intelligence networks and counter-terrorism capacity.

Algiers has long been committed to maintaining an extensive web of intelligence assets abroad. Its intelligence networks are proficient and its information on the Maghreb-Sahel may well be more granular than almost any other capital.

Algeria’s foreign policy also relies on its own counter-terrorism performance at home as a source of credibility. In the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the Bouteflika Presidency, which by then was already working on a rapprochement with Washington, took on a zealously pro-­US posture (Tlemçani, 2008).

It identified hundreds of Algerian citizens suspected of fomenting terroristic activities domestically and abroad (Bamford, 2001) and shared this information with the US authorities. Since the late 1980s, many of Algiers’ most redoubtable enemies had been trained and hardened in Afghanistan’s jihadi enclaves that the US began bombing on 7 October 2001.

Counter-terrorism capacity proved a credible talking point because the Bouteflika Presidency had largely succeeded in ending a ten-year insurgency at home (Ghanem-Yazbeck, 2016).

From October 2001 onward, Algiers highlighted its counter-terrorism know-how and presented itself to the world as a wise, neutral, and steady security giant with a ten-year head start in the Global War on Terror.

This narrative is still deployed (APS, 2017b). In March 2003, in overriding Algeria’s customary opposition to interventionism, President Bouteflika forbade domestic protests against President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq (Lands-ford, 2011, p. 112).

The charm offensive worked. Intelligence and security cooperation with the US, and later France, grew tighter. The increased closeness with the West effectively ended the decade of relative diplomatic isolation that had begun when elections were cancelled in January 1992.

It also initiated the current era in which the Algerian government entertains diplomatic and economic ties with not only the US, but also China, European countries, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and others—this being consistent with the revived Non-Alignment Movement’s philosophy inherited from the cold war era.

In 2013, Algiers also began more sustained efforts to cultivate security, economic, and political relations with sub-Saharan African countries. When one or several of the linchpins described above is weak, Algeria’s foreign policy loses momentum.

When they are in place, it can be effective. For example, Algiers played a pivotal role in promoting the political compromise reached between Islamist and non-Islamist parties in Tunisia in 2013, a tense, perilous year (Tajine, 2013).

Combined with the diplomatic work, Algiers initiated a wide ranging training programme for Tunisia’s security forces, and boosted military and intelligence cooperation with Tunis in order to combat militants along their shared border.

Washington, Paris, and African security

In 2006, for several reasons, the growing importance of Africa led Washington to create the US Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, thereby splitting responsibility for military operations on the continent off from US European Command, which had previously been the relevant body. This provided Africa with an increased level of attention in the US military (Kempe, 2006; White House, 2007).

The US at that point in time decided to adopt a two-pronged approach to African security. The new approach—which still persists under Secretary of Defense James Mattis—relies upon a combination of covert US presence and overt presence provided by allied European militaries.

Paris has embraced the framework. The French government’s 2013 white paper on defence and national security acknowledges that, in addition to its US AFRICOM initiative, the US believes that the ‘Europeans, who have a more direct stake in Africa’s stability and also the capabilities to take responsibility for it, must play a greater role in the security of the continent’ (MDA, 2013, p. 29).

After 2011’s Libya war, Britain adopted a more limited role in Africa. France, in contrast, did precisely the opposite by initiating major military operations in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Niger.

Paris has taken on a much more active posture in Africa than during the 1994–2011 period. Washington’s Africa doctrine since 2006 has left the Algerians in a quandary:

they want to work closely with the US on regional security but are reluctant to see France fulfil a military leadership role in the Maghreb-Sahel region. This unease is attributable to France’s track record in Libya, its lack of progress in Mali, and Algeria’s past as a colony along with its fierce attachment to sovereignty and pre-dilection to keep its options open.

In the Algerian view, a security partnership between two countries cannot be a dynamic where one actor executes policies determined by the other (Lebovich, 2015, p. 6). Meanwhile, France—because it has the military capability and willingness to intervene in the Maghreb-Sahel—views itself as the main decision-maker in the area.

Thus, each of the two states views itself as the more legitimate, wiser ‘brain’ behind the regional security project. Furthermore, Paris favours a rather militarized approach (Powell, 2016; Guichaoua, Jezequel et al., 2018) that runs counter to Algeria’s principles.

Over the last decade, Algiers has introduced minority-specific benefits that are focused upon specific religious movements and ethnic groups (Lebovich, 2015, p. 7). Even in its near abroad, including northern Mali and south-west Libya, Algeria in recent years has sometimes followed a policy that consists of extending humanitarian assistance to analogous communities.

In doing so, it has noted that this practice mollifies the corresponding community in Algeria itself. As a former Algerian minister observed:

For us, those groups [in our immediate vicinity] are the continuum of our own communities, but the French don’t understand what we do [in the realm of soft power]. For them, it’s just small-time sociology.

As a result of the mutual mistrust and doctrinal incompatibility between France and Algeria, there has been substantial and counterproductive duplication of efforts within the Sahel (ICG, 2015, p. 12). A similar malaise is growing in relation to Libya. The events of 26 May 2017 illustrate the divergence between Paris and Algiers.

Only hours after militants from the non-state armed group ‘Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham’ (the so-called ‘Islamic State’; IS) killed 29 Christian Copts in Minya, Egypt conducted air strikes on Derna in east Libya, and Hun in the country’s central area, just 370 miles from Algeria’s eastern border.

Cairo likely targeted enemies of Haftar unrelated to IS there (Aboulenein and Elgood, 2017; MacDonald, 2017). Paris voiced support for the air strikes conducted by Egypt on Libyan soil in support of Haftar (Irish, 2017). In contrast, Algiers expressed concern about Egypt’s military intervention in Libya (Dimitrakis, 2017).

More broadly, Paris has in recent years ramped up its support for Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s and Chadian President Idriss Déby’s governments. Since at least early 2015, France has also assisted Haftar’s coalition directly, by sending advisers, clandestine operatives, and special forces on the ground.

Moreover, France has refrained from criticizing the UAE for violating international law by delivering weapons and operating an airbase in east Libya (Nkala, 2016; UNSC Panel of Experts, 2017, pp. 25–34). As a result of this trend, French influence is increasingly felt around Algeria, and extends from Egypt to Morocco and onto the Sahel.

The engulfing trend, if it continues, could end up running counter to Algeria’s independence principle. The aforementioned dissonance between Algeria and France will assert itself with greater force if Haftar’s forces or other French-backed factions grab territory by force, moving nearer to urban centres in the western half of Libya, such as Misrata, Sabha, and Tripoli.

Before reviewing the impact that the Libyan crisis has had on Algeria since 2011, and the policies that the country has implemented in response, it is useful to examine the relationship between the two countries in the years prior to 2011.

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.


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