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reflections

Oct 26, 2012 | 07:30 GMT

Algeria's Rise in the Maghreb

(Stratfor)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

A week ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's planned visit to Algiers, Reuters reports on Thursday re-emphasized Algeria's policy shift regarding support for foreign intervention in Mali.

Clinton is not the only foreign policy maker paying greater diplomatic attention to Algiers lately. France — the former colonizer of much of the Sahara, including Algeria — has also intensified reciprocal dialogue in recent months. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited in July and again earlier this month, and French President Francois Hollande is expected to travel to Algeria before the end of the year.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

Much of this attention centers around the potential role Algeria will play as part of a multinational effort to restore a level of governance to northern Mali and to reduce the presence of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadists. Algeria has long opposed foreign intervention in Mali, preferring to work with the various groups through dialogue and negotiation. Algeria's primary aim has been to prevent foreign military action that could break the fragile calm in northern Mali and send jihadists and refugees northward. Algiers is also concerned about a re-introduction of Western influence into the region. Algeria's tenuous political reforms and internal power negotiations are aimed at helping the country sidestep the upheaval experienced by the region following the Arab Spring. Algiers thus also fears the domestic disruptions a military intervention near its southern border might trigger.

Led by a secular, military-backed Arab Nationalist regime, Algeria has struggled to assert itself in the region since its independence from France in 1962. Events have kept the country's focus inward: Algeria's 1991-2002 civil war was followed by a persistent jihadist threat (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has its roots in the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an organization founded in northeastern Algeria). External pressure from Morocco and Libya, coupled with the attention of former colonial powers in the Sahel, helped contain Algeria's ambitions of becoming a regional Arab leader.

In the aftermath of 9/11, current President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika was able to use his secular government's experience fighting radical Islam to redefine Algeria's relations with the West, becoming a key regional ally in Washington's counterterrorism efforts. The Arab Spring, although it added pressure domestically, was another critical moment. The fall of strong regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia wrought a precipitous decline in regional competition along Algeria's eastern flank. Morocco, its longtime adversary, has largely turned inward to focus on growing social and economic problems. Though it has not come out of the Arab Spring unscathed, Algiers now finds itself poised to emerge as the pre-eminent power of the Maghreb and Sahel.

Buoyed by its oil and gas wealth, Algeria boasts the strongest economy and military of the six nations it borders, as well as the broader Saharan/Sahel region — with the exception of Egypt. It has also emerged as one of the most politically stable countries in the region. From its southern military base of Tamanrasset, Algeria can project one of the most capable military and security forces in the region — a force deeply experienced in desert warfare and anti-insurgent tactics — into Mali and much of the Sahara. Algiers recognizes the benefits it can now offer foreign stakeholders in the region. This has driven much of its foreign policy decisions in recent months, especially its engagement with the West regarding Mali.

In the months leading up to the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2071, which supports an African-led foreign intervention in northern Mali, Algeria stayed firm in its opposition to a foreign operation, complicating U.S. and European decision-making. Resolution 2071 garnered Algerian support by including elements of a solution proposed earlier this month to the U.N. Security Council by Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci. 

The resolution is meant to spell out the conditions of a foreign intervention in Mali, and within its lines we can read hints of Algeria's proposed contract with the West: Any intervention activities in the region must be African-led and African-fought, with only operational support coming from the West. Algeria must be consulted on any future plans for the region, and Algerian approval must be secured before moving forward with any of them.

To be clear, lack of Algerian support can seriously impede the success of any foreign intervention in Mali or the broader region, but Algiers itself could not block Western activities in the region. The mutual desire for success and stability — and not any Western dependence on Algiers — guides Algerian and Western cooperation in North Africa and the Sahel. Algeria's eventual support for intervention underscores this geopolitical reality, despite whatever ideological opposition to foreign intervention the Algerian state might harbor.

The crisis in northern Mali, against the backdrop of ongoing instability in North Africa, has become the chance for Algeria to demonstrate its increased regional sway. Algiers will have to carefully assert its aims for regional supremacy in order not to force the hand of Western powers to act unilaterally; in other words, Algeria will have to practice restraint. Although it has waited centuries for the threat of regional and foreign interests to subside, continued Algerian independence and leadership in the region will be best guaranteed by facilitating and partnering with the ambitions of the West.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this analysis misspelled the name of French President Francois Hollande.

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