Covering Algeria’s Foreign Policy: an Expertise of Phantasms?


“Don’t you think Sir, that Central Barbarian State is rather particular…I do not understand…It works well with Tunis, Tripoli and the Sultan of Fez but when it comes to Algiers, it gets complicated.”

Georges Washington (1732-1799)



Foreign policy interrogations

In past years, Algeria’s foreign policy has been the subject of quantitative publications and articles. Indeed, since the onset of the ‘Arab Spring’, the ongoing crises in Libya and Mali and the dramatic hostage-taking on the Tinguentourine SONATRACH-BP-STATOIL gas-plant of In Amenas, Southern Algeria, in January 2013, Algeria’s diplomacy has found itself under the spotlight of the world’s media leading to an avalanche of analyses and comments on its foreign policy. In contrast, even during the Cold War and the time of the Non-Aligned status where Algiers played a leading role, Algeria did not face as much scrutiny or find itself under the media spotlight.

However, any attempt to analyse Algiers’ foreign policy through the lenses of neighbouring conflicts hinders a clear transparent assessment of Algeria’s position shaped by its own legacy of revolt, independence and civil war. Also, to assess Algiers’ diplomacy without looking at its own internal nation-state building and historical regional alliances and affiliations is deemed to fail. Importantly, the ongoing regional crises should not overshadow Algeria’s long-standing investments in regional security, promoting at key moments dialogue and state-building for their neighbours’ respective internal crisis.

Algeria’s history legacy

Analysing Algeria’s regional and foreign policy would be incomplete without a clear review of its past, and particularly its nationalism and pan-Africanism which in turn gives a clear insight into what drives Algerian policy, its motives and explains what is often externally perceived as its singularity and specificity. As Malley recalls, “understanding Algerian politics requires taking a step back to contemplate what [is] happening around it”.

Once the Mecca of revolutionaries, – in the words of the revolutionary Amilcar Cabral- Algeria has since its independence in 1962 been playing a leading political role in Africa. Its doctrinal principles anchored in the national consciousness finds its roots in its own history which was marked by profound violence and attacks. In this regard, the brutal and violent imposition of French colonialism in Algeria over 132 years is unrivaled. Likewise, Algeria’s ghastly eight-year long war (1954-1962) of independence only finds comparison with the Vietnam War (1956-1975).

Consequently, from the early days of their independence until now, Algeria’s leadership tooled themselves with the diplomatic apparatus which matched their status on the international scene, conducting their diplomacy answering the core basis of their history and their principles Algiers considers as intangible. Algeria – one of the founding members of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)- initially adopted an anti-imperialist position tirelessly leading the Non-Aligned Movement and playing until the mid-1980s, an active role for the liberation of other African states and liberation movements such as Nelson Mandela’ African National Congress (ANC), Angola’s Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) or Zimbabwe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) as well as several other liberation organisations, often providing them with financial, political and military support.

As a result, Algeria’s political activism undeniably gave the state leadership status worldwide. As Malley writes, “it was under Boumedienne’s rule that Algeria came to be considered a ‘montreur de conduite,’ or catalyst, for the Third World. Its active role in emerging Non-Aligned Movement, the nationalisation of the oil industry in 1971, and solidarity with national liberation movements all pointed to an aspiration to become the ‘best, the most progressive, in a word, the Third World’s guide [aiguillon]”. The climax of Algeria’s political activism is probably the Algiers Summit of the Non-Aligned in 1973 and the special session of the UN General Assembly on the ‘New Economic International Order’ and for a system of international relations that will guarantee the right of the then ‘Third World States’. Also, and as Badie rightly notes, after having accumulated all humiliations of both the colonisation and the decolonisation processes, who would be surprised by Algeria’s leading [political] role?

Algeria’s regional political activism


Covering Algeria’s foreign policy and its [un]willingness to engage the Algerian army (the Popular National Army or ANP under its French acronym as it is widely known) to fight terrorism outside Algeria’s territory, all sorts of adjectives such as lax, indolence and nonchalant have been employed to describe Algeria’s position. A giant afraid of its own shadow, a ‘prickly, paranoid’ strategic partner, ‘Algiers’ pivotal ambivalence’, and even sponsoring regional terrorism in the Sahel and Mali are examples of the semantic used to qualify Algeria over the Malian crisis and the hostage-taking crisis of In Amenas. Some even argued that ‘Algiers transformed the northern part of Mali into its own dustbin’(1).

Regarding the ANP’s role, since its independence, Algeria has had a clear doctrine with the role of its army well defined within its national borders: to guaranty the republican order and safeguard the territorial integrity of the country only. Indicatively, it is from this perspective that Algiers has always refused to send any of its troops abroad(2).

Moreover, when looking more closely at Algiers’ international activism to fight terrorism and all related activities such as arms and drug trafficking, evidence indicates that Algerian authorities have been very active. In this regard, since the 9/11 attacks occurred in the U.S.A, Algeria has forged strong security ties with Washington which sees Alger as a key actor in the fight against international terrorism.

As Blyth notes, Algiers has clearly demonstrated thorough leadership away from the spotlight of discussions on military intervention. In order to be more efficient on the Sahel, Algeria has also sought to marshal a coordinated regional response to cross-border terrorism, smuggling, and other armed group activity in the Sahel’s vast and under-policed border regions. The ‘Tamanrasset Plan’ agreed to in 2009 by Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania, which led to the establishment, in 2010, of a joint military operations center, the Common Operational Joint-Chiefs of Staff Committee (CEMOC) located in Tamanrasset (southern Algeria) and of a joint intelligence cell Fusion and Liaison Unit (UFL) in Algiers is a concrete example of this regional security cooperation. While progress has yet to be widely demonstrated, cooperation between the countries in conducting operations, analysing security threats, and sharing border responsibilities is a laudable model, and the initiative demonstrates Algeria’s willingness to instigate collaboration.

Algiers is also the lead backer of the Nouakchott Process, launched by the AU in March 2013, which brings together eleven Maghreb, Sahel and West African countries to promote regional security cooperation. Likewise, “Algeria has supported efforts to strengthen the Northern Standby Brigade of the African Standby Force, the African Union Peace and Security Council’s enforcement arm intended for rapid intervention as well as peace support and humanitarian operations”. Also, and as Ramzi recalls, it is undeniable that with this act of housing that key logistic base, this reflects Algeria’s strong commitment, before the AU Peace and Security Council, affiliated to the African Union that enables the African continent to play its role in managing peace and security.
Algiers has moreover spared no efforts in convincing the ‘international community’ and the United Nations (UN) to follow the path of the African Union which has endorsed the principle that ‘terrorism is a threat to human rights’ and ‘cannot be justified under any circumstances’. Algeria has also been lobbying for the UN to explicitly put a ban on the payment of ransoms for individuals kidnapped–which is also inscribed in the AU’s charter-, which continues nurturing terrorism and terrorists’ activities.

It is also under the presidency of the Algerian Said Djinnit, the AU Peace and Security’s first Commissioner (2002–2008) that the Africa Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), the framework through which the AU now addresses and handles peace and security on the continent was designed. Therefore, and as Nickels reminds us, “Algeria’s long-term investments in the APSA pursued by Ramtane Lamamra from 2008 to 2013 [and Ismaïl Chergui since October 2013] might seem to contradict the image of an insular Algeria uncomfortable with regional and international cooperation”.

On the regional front, Algiers has spared no efforts to bring peace and stability to its Malian, Libyan and Tunisian neighbours. In Mali, Algeria has been the chief mediator of the Inter-Malian Dialogue which has eventually brought all together the main Malian protagonists to eventually put an end to the Malian crisis which led to the Bamako’s Accords signed in April 2015.

Similarly, Algeria’s diplomacy is extremely active in order to find a final and lasting solution to the current dangerous Libyan political stalemate. In this regard, Algeria has been advocating national reconciliation through an inclusive process bringing together rivals, including Islamists and Qaddafi-era officials. In order to do so, Algiers has been pushing a consensual, democratic solution, culminating in elections and a new constitution. To this end, it has been working closely with the UN Special representative and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Bernardino León.

In nascent democratic Tunisia, Algeria has also played a key behind-the-scenes role in stabilising the post-Ben Ali political transition as well as fostering strong and close cooperation on counter-terrorism and cross border security. It also provided financial assistance with a $200 million in loans and deposits in May 2014.

Nonetheless, Algeria’s efforts and endeavours have faced in different occasions external initiatives emanating from France and its African allies that to some extent only duplicate Algiers’ own. For instance, the France-backed “Sahel G5” framework for promoting peace and security coordination between Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger convened an extraordinary summit in Nouakchott just one day after the Nouakchott Process was launched. Similarly, France launched in 2014 a Regional Intelligence Fusion Unit (RIFU) which strikingly bears similarities with the Algiers-based UFL.

Waters of phantasms

“No one knows what is going on. To be honest we are talking about a country which a few days ago most of us could have not found on a map”. Such was the BBC’s journalists, Nick Robinson’s statement who concluded while covering the dramatic hostage-taking of In Amenas. This statement is in starch contrast with the numerous papers and media interventions made by various analysts and journalists who are all too often eager to present complex situations in a very superficial manner.As Sansal explains, before the emergency of a crisis, the dictatorship of the immediateness leaves no room for any deep reflexion.

Clarke perfectly highlights this new form of analysts in a piece on ‘experts’(3) on Africa, where he explains that in order for them to be heard, it is important for those ‘experts’ to ‘remain ideologically fashionable, avoid complexity and above all, never consult the vast body of literature on the continent, and for the purpose of this paper, on Algeria.

This strategy of presenting a situation in a very simplistic manner is due to the fact that it is easier to mobilise and convince the general opinion in order for them to support in return their governments in specific situation. Additionally, the search for the scoop on the part of the media pushes journalists and analysts to present things simply and short adopting the ‘viewership criteria’. However, this ‘viewership criteria’ strategy leaves little room for serious investigations which would in turn thoroughly inform the population. More, as Said argues, “the trouble comes when journalists [and experts] who, losing touch with the realities […], good sense, and intellectual responsibility, either promote [a] special interest group at all costs or put it too willingly and uncritically at the service of power”. But the real danger arising from such a strategy is that “the scholar would be transmuted into an ‘area expert’ […] and be listened to in reverential silence”. As a result, topics end up being covered rather than elucidated or understood. Arguing further, the author of ‘Orientalism’ underlines that “there is never un-derstanding, nor knowledge where there is no interest […]. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias”. It is therefore paramount to remember that “although one depends on them a great deal, television, newspapers, radio, and magazines [as well as blogs and Internet articles] these are not our only source of information. There are books, specialised journals and lecturers available whose views are more complex than the essentially fragmented and immediate things delivered by the mass media”.


Regarding this study, and as Malley indicates concerning the analysis of Islam which may be transposed to a general perception of Algeria, “Western observers are so entranced [with Algeria], that they tend to confuse reality with their phantasms”. More, as Porter points out “in the absence of decisive evidence, analysts have engaged in too much speculation and stereotyping in the way the actions of the Algerian state are interpreted, especially abroad. Algerian leaders are sometimes seen as ‘too clever’ or the military too powerful to make mistakes or to be outsmarted so that any major incident or event is seen as having inevitably been the result of some powerful conspiracy or false flag”.

Having said that, Algiers bears its own responsibility in this confusing situation due to a rather poor communication on its part. The limited information released during the dramatic hostage-taking of In Amenas and the hospitalisation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2013 are two examples which clearly show that Algerian officials do not master the communication means and tools available and necessary in this modern world. More, for Abderrahim, rather than controlling communication, the authorities prefer letting rumours spread, which to some extent, nurture the State’s risk of destabilisation. As a result, and in a pure Goebbels style cynicism and lies whereby if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it, this poor communication from Algiers and Algerians has allowed countless outsiders to nurture all kinds of rumours on Algeria and its people which with the time has become the norm, not to say the ‘truth’(4). Moreover, a key hurdle to Algiers’ communication is probably also its absence of modern tools of communication such as think tanks and English speaking specialised press. Least to say that the rather poor command of English from Algerians in general, the de facto lingua franca, further penalises Algiers, its diplomats, academics and researchers. And Ramtane Lamamra, Algeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, trumpeting that “we do not talk much, but we are always present”, may not be sufficient in this era of fast communication and need for clarity.

Georges Washington (1732-1799)

“Don’t you think Sir, that Central Barbarian (5) State is rather particular…I do not understand…It works well with Tunis, Tripoli and the Sultan of Fez but when it comes to Algiers, it gets complicated.” Such was this puzzling comment made by Georges Washington (1732-1799) to John Adams (1797-1801).

Yet, as it has been underlined in this study, it is only through its historical lenses that one may get any close to understanding Algeria’s foreign policy. History bears a heavy role on the construction of a nation, its doctrine and principles and Algerians do not escape from this reality. This is undoubtedly why Malley argues that “present and likely future developments make an understanding of [Algeria’s] past all the more necessary”.

Having said that, there is no doubt that Algeria is an indispensable broker of stability in the North Africa and Sahel broader region and its influence and peace-searching diplomacy make the largest African country an crucial regional interlocutor for the U.S.A, France and more broadly, the European Union.

As Hussey subtly notes, “Algiers is probably the most known unvisited capital in the world”. However, more than two centuries since Washington’s perplexing question to Adams, there is little doubt that Algeria remains an enigma to many across the world. As a result, this has often led to the incomplete portraying of this African giant which does surely not help understanding this multiple and complex country and its foreign policy. But as Orsenna says, [those] ‘general ideas always mislead those who believe they are quick to understand’. Also, one may meditate upon Claude Cheysson’s wisdom. The former French Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1980s once advised his diplomats posted in Algeria, that ‘after many years living in Algeria, you will think that you understand this country [and its people]; yet, it will always surprise you’. Indeed, Algerians are chess players and it surely does not help to have a short term vision when analysing their politics.

1) Comment from David Zounmenou, workshop on Mali, Clingendael, The Hague, 28 September 2012
2) Algiers sent its military forces abroad on two occasions only: the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.
3) The inverted commas are in the original text.
4) The forty-year long Western Sahara conflict which opposes the Polisario and Sahrawi nationalists to Morocco is a perfect example. Indeed, Algeria’s position over the Western Sahara conflict has been one of the most con-tested yet little understood aspects of this four decades old dispute. This confusion stems, in part, from Algiers’ lack of communication, but also from numerous hypotheses that have been put forward to explain Algeria’s motivations. However, as Mundy writes, “Algeria did not create Western Saharan nationalism generally nor Polisario specifically”. See J. Mundy, Algeria and the Western Sahara Dispute; see also A. Abderrahmane, Algérie, Maroc et la complexité de l’Union du Maghreb Arabe
5) The term ‘barbarian’, from the Greek Barbaros (βάρβαρος) literally means “whoever is not Greek is a barba-rian”. In ancient times, Greeks used it mostly for people of different cultures. In the Roman Empire, Romans used the word “barbarian” for many people, such as the Berbers, the first inhabitants of North Africa.


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