The application to join BRICS, hosting the LAS summit, the new international activity of Algeria, as well as the stance taken by its leadership in relation to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, make many observers turn their eyes to this North African nation, whose regional role was recently highlighted in quite a few analytical reviews. Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s rise to the presidency opens the next chapter in Algerian foreign policy, offering a new perspective on the situation in North Africa and the Western Mediterranean, as well as on the participation of Arab states in global political and economic processes.
On Algeria’s foreign policy at the new stage
A noticeable uptick in Algeria’s foreign policy activity commenced just after Mr. Tebboune won the presidential election in December 2019. A number of key prerequisites for this uptick can be identified: we can talk about three levels, namely, national (intra-Algerian), regional (North African) and global.
The nature and direction of a state’s foreign policy usually depends on the domestic political landscape and, if we are talking about political systems with a pronounced personalistic model of leadership—on individual qualities of a person spearheading the top-down system. Algeria is no exception in this respect.
The events of the “black decade,” 1992–2002, had a negative impact on the Algerian leadership’s flurry of foreign policy activity, reducing the foreign policy resources and forcing policy-makers to focus only on responding to urgent challenges and threats. The foreign policy strategy became primarily reactionary and lost its former proactiveness, which was its distinguishing characteristic during the initial decades of independence. In the 2010s, despite the large-scale regional upheavals caused first by the Arab Spring, which brought about regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt and formation of the permanent instability zone in Libya, and then by regional and international terrorist structures stirring to greater activity in the Sahel and Sahara, Algeria remained in a state of dormancy. This condition was caused by the rapid deterioration of President A. Bouteflika’s health after 2013. Foreign policy became hostage to the “waiting mode” in Algeria’s domestic political space.
In 2019, in response to the nomination of A. Bouteflika for his fifth election campaign, large-scale protests dubbed “Hirak” engulfed the country . The support of the protesters by the military allowed changes to take place within the political elite, which led to Bouteflika’s resignation. The transition period transpired, albeit with the assistance of the military leadership (and perhaps under its partial control), almost in full compliance with the Constitution. The only setback was rescheduling the presidential election from summer to the fall of that year.
A. Tebboune being elected to the highest office following a successful election campaign marked the end of the brief period when political transition was forced under the army’s wing. Besides, this ended the entire period of listless foreign policy and apathy of the Bouteflika regime, quite typical of its last years. Moreover, the new president faced an urgent need to consolidate his position in power against the background of a relatively low voter turnout and continued discontent from members of the Hirak Movement.
Nevertheless, it is not possible to explain an uptick in Algeria's foreign policy activity at the start of the second decade of the 21st century by internal reasons alone. Significant global and regional transformations created favorable conditions for Algeria’s “return” to big regional politics, whereas the traditional principles and slogans of its foreign policy doctrine proved attractive to many regional as well as extra-regional players and observers.
Evolution of Algeria’s foreign policy tracks
Algeria’s foreign policy has had its ups and downs, in addition to periods of stagnation. However, its fundamental principles have remained largely unchanged since the nation’s independence. These include respect for the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states; support for the decolonization process (in particular, in Palestine and Western Sahara); good neighborly relations, cooperation and multilateralism . For Algeria, these principles are not just a tribute to the traditional agenda, but part of its own identity as they define its place in the world after decolonization.
In many ways, these principles were shaped by the long struggle for independence. They also determined the foreign policy of Algeria during the “golden age” of its diplomacy (second half of the 1960s-1970s) and during the challenging period of the “black decade” (1990s), underpinning A. Bouteflika’s foreign policy in the early 2000s.
The same principles persisted after the incumbent Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune came to power. They are reflected in his presidential program (Program Du Président de la République) and then in Le Plan d’action du Gouvernement pour la mise en œuvre du program du président de la Republique (the government’s plan of action to implement the program of the Republic’s President), adopted in September 2021. The Plan addresses various spheres: from jurisprudence modernization to national security and defense consolidation. The fourth chapter is devoted to foreign policy, which ought to be dynamic and proactive.
Comparing the presidential program of A. Tebboune in 2021 with that of A. Bouteflika in 2014, we can see that while the basic foreign policy principles have not changed, while the priorities have shifted.
Thus, Bouteflika’s program sets the following priorities: the policy towards citizens living abroad; activities within the Arab Maghreb, then in the Arab world, in Africa and in other regions within the Non-Aligned Movement; relations with the world’s financial institutions and, finally, international security issues. A. Tebboune’s program highlights quite different key points: a revision of the classic goals and objectives of Algerian diplomacy (as part of bilateral and multilateral relations) comes first, followed by the strengthening of economic diplomacy, as well as cultural and religious diplomacy; and finally, it’s about the protection and promotion of the national community abroad. The logic behind these principles and priorities is also different. While A. Bouteflika’s program leans upon a geographic approach, A. Tebboune’s approach is problematic, with a greater focus on the economy.
The “Government’s Plan of Action to Implement the Program of the Republic’s President” emphasizes the role of Algeria in international organizations, especially in the section on promoting the relations with Africa and the Arab world. The LAS (The League of Arab States) is mentioned separately: “Within the Arab world, Algeria will work in the coming months to restore joint Arab action by creating optimal conditions for the conduct and success of the next Arab summit.” As for the African Union, there is more emphasis on economic areas of cooperation: “In the same spirit, our country should also support continental organizations, help to usher the African Free Trade Zone and to develop intra-African infrastructure projects, such as the trans-Sahara route, the Algeria-Nigeria gas pipeline and fiber-optic communications.”
A special role is assigned to diplomacy modernization, whereby Algeria’s diplomatic corps at various organizations – the UN, the AU, the LAS, the OIC – was significantly ramped up. It is impossible not to notice the new leadership’s focus on multilateral formats of international interaction. Like many other states, Algeria is trying to use multilateral formats to enhance its role in the regional and global international environment.
The Arab thrust has historically been one of the most prominent and important for Algeria’s political rhetoric due to tradition and ideological attitudes. Its origin can be traced to the search for political identity of the state and society in the years following the end of the war for independence and formal recognition of Algeria’s sovereignty by France. Involvement in the Commonwealth of Arab States and in the “pan-Arab cause” and struggle for the rights of Palestine as well as the eradication of colonial legacy in all its manifestations served not just to show the maturity of the Algerian state; this also signaled its willingness to conduct an active policy not only in the vicinity of its borders, but also throughout the great “Arab homeland”. Moreover, this came down to the purely utilitarian issues of building a new system of education and culture in Algeria itself, focused on the reproduction of an alternative anti-colonial Arab national narrative, with the support (primarily via HR, practices, and experience) of other Arab states.
Through its eager participation in the activities of the League of Arab States, Algeria has for many decades advocated the idea, which has been getting less and less popular in many other member countries, that the LAS is not just a traditional meeting place for presidents and monarchs. Algeria’s foreign policy vision has always been, and still is, of the League as a supposedly very effective and necessary tool for Arab nations to work together towards developing joint solutions to common problems. The Algerian authorities also made it clear that the potential of the LAS had been unjustifiably ignored. This essentially idealistic principle bordering on naïveté in the current context, nevertheless, accurately reflects Algeria’s unwavering solidarity-based orientation towards multilateral cooperation with the Arab states.
In 2022—after three years of the LAS summit dormancy—Algeria received the right to host the next summit and made unprecedented efforts to make sure it was not just “another” formal protocol event with zero results. The summit meant that Algeria was to be visited by representative government delegations, and Algerian policy-makers were not only keen on demonstrating the achievements of the Algerian leadership and on presenting their country in the best possible light, but also on assuring definite progress in the key areas of regional political and economic development in the face of familiar and new challenges to sustainable development as well as security threats.
The extensive and thorough preparations involved a wide range of regional security issues, the situation in the zones of unresolved military-political conflicts, as well as global food and energy security issues that became more acute in 2022. Algeria deliberately sharpened its focus on the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the light of some Arab states signing the Abraham Accords, along with the situation around Western Sahara, both developments affecting its national interests and security. In doing so, the Algerian foreign ministry promoted a dialogue and execution of an agreement of understanding and cooperation between Palestinian organizations, trying to show not only in word but also in deed that the Palestinian movement still had allies among the Arab states willing to provide not only humanitarian, but also political support for its cause. Rather than during the summit, tough questions were raised in the run-up to it and in the course of preparatory meetings between the foreign ministers of the participating countries regarding the restoration of Syria’s membership in the LAS, the participation of non-Arab countries of the region (Israel, Iran and Turkey) in the internal affairs of Arab states. Notably, most rulers of the monarchical Gulf in the Arabian Peninsula did not attend the summit, and neither did the King of Morocco, whose visit to Algeria against the background of deteriorating Algerian-Moroccan relations could have, but never became a sensation.
Nevertheless, the November LAS summit in Algeria was revealing in many ways, highlighting once again both old and new divides in the region, as well as the multiple problems in the regional security architecture and in relationships between the nations of the region. Meanwhile, Algeria’s seemingly archaic foreign policy discourse has not turned it into a rogue state, but rather attracted burgeoning attention from other Arab actors to the North African leader, not just from the recognized powerhouses. Algeria’s discursive strength, manifested before, during and after the summit, proved to be an effective tool for defending its political and economic interests in the turbulent 2022.
Another priority area of Algeria’s foreign policy is Africa. Being the cornerstone of Algerian foreign policy activity, Africa and its numerous problems were leveraged to address various concerns.
If initially the main agenda promoted and backed by Algeria within the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was decolonization and support for national liberation movements, the situation changed after the “black decade.” Algeria started promoting a counterterrorism agenda, inviting other countries to take advantage of its successful experience in countering extremism and post-conflict reconstruction , as well as developing channels of cooperation and trust-building measures between police structures of the continent’s states in their fight against cross-border crime.
Another new avenue in Algeria’s foreign policy and discourse within the framework of the AU has been promoting economic cooperation. Today, the main tool used is bilateral agreements with specific states, but Algeria also focuses on the desirability of developing trans-regional trade and improving the volume and quality of trade and economic relations between African states within the continent.
In addition, Algeria keeps on using the AU to pursue its foreign policy aspirations, a special emphasis being placed on the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (and opposition to Morocco in this matter) as well as on restraining the Israeli influence on the African continent.
Algeria and BRICS
In 2022, Algeria not only amped up its participation in regional international organizations, but also declared its ambitions on a global level. The leadership of Algeria both signaled its plans to join this club and began to dynamically develop the BRICS accession process. While until recently the BRICS expansion prospects were perceived more as a purely hypothetical possibility, now, given the sharp aggravation of the situation on the world stage, these prospects are viewed as quite real.
In Russia, there were occasional discussions in previous years about which state might join the BRICS next. For many observers, it seemed obvious that it should or could be one of the states in the Middle East and North Africa, but it was not clear which one that could be. Iran, Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were mentioned among the potential contenders. Each of them had both strong cases for accession and serious constraints (the size of their economies, their membership in certain blocs, etc.). Nevertheless, since South Africa officially joined the organization in 2011, no formal criteria or description of the procedure for admitting new members have been developed and publicly presented, which created uncertainty both for potential candidates and interested observers from outside the association.
The Algerian leadership publicly declared its desire to join the BRICS in July 2022, applied for membership in November, and all five members of the association responded positively already in December. Despite the fact that the accession process will take some time (presumably it will last until the summer of 2023), the decision to expand the membership can be considered approved in principle.
The rapid pace of developments indicates that they are related not so much to specific economic parameters and potential benefits as rather to political circumstances. The symbolic capital of the BRICS throughout the history of this interstate association has been at least as important as the economic value of cooperation within its framework.
It seems that Algeria’s participation in the BRICS could be interesting in several respects. First, given Moscow’s determination to fundamentally transform not only the system of international relations, but also the global economy, the idea of abandoning world reserve currencies and “forming new international financial platforms, including for international settlements” is becoming increasingly relevant.
Second, as the events of 2022 have shown, new trans-regional transport and logistics projects are of particular importance for transformation of the world order. In addition to China’s BRI Initiative, we are usually talking about the North-South transport corridor with access to the Persian Gulf, on the one hand, and a potential railway offshoot to the Mediterranean Sea through the territory of Iraq and Syria, on the other hand. After Algeria joins BRICS, there could also be a third project on the table – a trans-African railroad, the idea of which has been pushed since colonial times.
Third and finally, Algeria’s participation in the BRICS could be an important factor in filling this club – predominantly economic thus far – with new political content. Algeria’s foreign policy narrative, based on the values of anti-colonialism and sovereignty, perfectly chimes with Russia’s new approaches to global governance. In the 1960s and 1970s, Algeria’s foreign policy was very successful when Abdel Aziz Bouteflika headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It allowed the North African state not only to establish a certain reputation outside its native region, but also to gain friends and partners in Asia and South America.
In addition to favorable assessments, both Algerian and foreign analysts often express skepticism. On the one hand, Algeria’s economy obviously lags far behind the economies of four of the five BRICS member states, although it is comparable to South Africa’s (43rd and 32nd in the world GDP by PPP rankings, respectively). In addition, the Algerian economy development rates are directly dependent on the volume of hydrocarbon supplies to European markets. As a result, from economic perspectives, Algeria’s accession to the BRICS won’t add much to this association’s clout. In political terms, according to critics, it may well dilute the association’s objectives and thereby reduce its effectiveness, while leaving a number of other states that have declared their desire to join this club in bewilderment. From the Algerian perspectives, the potential negative effect of participation in the BRICS could be due to the prospect of increased economic dependence on other participants of the association, the loss of political independence, and the imperative to join the emerging anti-Western alliance.
The notable uptick in Algeria’s foreign policy activity can be described as one of the most significant changes in the regional system of international relations in 2022 that affected the situation in North Africa as a whole. Despite the fierceness of the foreign policy rhetoric and the permanent aggravation of relations with Morocco, Spain and France, as well as the escalation of unconventional threats on the southern borders, which forced the Algerian parliament to empower the armed forces to conduct military operations abroad, the “new” Algerian foreign policy, notable for the commitment to historically established principles and attitudes, could not only bolster the acquisition by Algeria of the status of a powerful regional actor, but also precipitate the formation of a more resilient subregional security system.
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