On November 12, the Algerian Constitutional Council confirmed amendments that were approved in the country’s November 1 referendum, which allow the Algerian People’s National Armed Forces (APN) to participate in operations outside the country’s borders (El Khabar, November 12). Missions must be approved by a two-thirds majority in each parliamentary chamber and be within the framework of the objectives of the UN, the African Union, and the League of Arab Nations (al-Arab, October 25). The constitutional referendum was the flagship project of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who has sought to distinguish his government from that of his predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The referendum’s voter turnout at a historic low of 23.7 percent indicates the referendum was not a success for Tebboune. Rather, it confirmed the widespread public apathy toward Tebboune’s leadership since Tebboune took office in December 2019 (El Watan, November 2). Tebboune’s public absence since mid-October, apparently due to COVID-19 health concerns, has also evoked unhelpful comparisons with his predecessor, Bouteflika, who himself spent months in absentia during the latter end of his 20-year rule (La Marseillaise, November 19).
While Tebboune has already received strong backing from French President Emmanuel Macron, he hopes that showcasing Algeria’s value as a regional stabilizer will sustain this support and attract further buttress from other European powers concerned with instability in North Africa (Asharq al-Awsat, November 21). With the specter of the 2019 popular revolution that ousted Bouteflika still very much present, Tebboune is unlikely to have forgotten how quickly longtime backer France abandoned his predecessor (DW-News, March 8, 2019). Libya presents one arena where Algeria may consider a more interventionist foreign policy that, in turn, will win Tebboune support from abroad.
Historical and Political Calculations
The low voter turnout for the November 1 referendum may not have legitimized Tebboune’s government as much as he had hoped. However, the constitutional amendments presage a notable shift in Algeria’s foreign policy. Since achieving independence in 1962, Algerian foreign policy has been dominated by a strict non-interventionist agenda. The only key exceptions were Algeria’s support for the Polisario during its war with Morocco over the Western Sahara from 1975-1991 and Algeria’s participation in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel.
Despite significant military strength, Algeria’s role in conflicts in its borderlands, including the Sahel and Libya, has usually been limited to mediating between warring parties and threat containment. In the previous 30 years, instability in Mali has resulted in Algeria leading various peacekeeping efforts with occasional success. Most notably, in 2015, Algerian-led mediation yielded a ceasefire between the Malian government and various Islamist and Tuareg armed groups in what became known as the Algiers Accords (Al-Jazeera, June 21 2015). However, the refusal to intervene militarily, perhaps out of fear of retaliation by the Mali-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), resulted in Algerian influence diminishing in the Sahel amid the increasing U.S. and European military presence in the region.
Likewise, Algeria’s reluctance to assert itself in the Libyan conflict has allowed the UAE, Turkey, and Russia, among other foreign powers, to intervene. Even Algeria’s attempts to renew mediation efforts between parties in the Libyan conflict were ignored (Al-Jazeera, June 23). Recent negotiations were held in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco instead (Ahram Online, October 11). This came as a shock to Algeria, given that its commitment to a peaceful settlement in Libya based on national dialogue dates back six-years and had gained the support of the United States (AL-Monitor, September 30 2014)
While Algeria’s military strength will allow the government to explore new foreign policy approaches and possibly regain its lost regional influence, a more active role as a regional peacekeeper can also help fortify Tebboune domestically. The opaque ruling elite governing Algeria now ostensibly led by Tebboune has historically resorted to social welfare spending funded by hydrocarbon exports to legitimize its rule. However, Algeria’s economic downturn coupled with the country’s historic aversion to external debt has forced Tebboune to cut public spending by half throughout 2020 (Algerie Part, May 21).
While the government has promised a 4.3 percent rise in welfare subsidies in 2021, this will remain dependent on a significant increase in the price of hydrocarbon exports (Arab News, November 16). The government’s austerity measures reveal the improbability of it being able to continue long-term social welfare packages, particularly as foreign exchange reserves are likely to be exhausted within the next two to five years (Dzair Daily, May 19). Without the ability to “buy” domestic stability, a strong Algerian role in peacekeeping efforts within the frameworks of the UN and the other regional organizations will be vital to safeguarding and legitimizing the Algerian government domestically.
Libya: The Perfect Arena?
Although Algeria did not make any direct reference to Libya regarding the recent constitutional amendments, Libya must loom large behind these changes. The rationale for the amendments was probably that the high-profile nature of the Libyan conflict would provide Algeria with the perfect arena to showcase its value as a regional stabilizer. At the same time, Algeria could also achieve its long-term goal of securing its expansive 600-mile shared border with Libya.
Additionally, with the UN’s success in achieving preliminary agreements to hold national Libyan elections within 18 months from November 2020, securing the ceasefire announced in October will be vital to putting an end to Libya’s now nine-year civil war (BBC Arabic, November 14). The ceasefire is likely to come under pressure from myriad foreign powers that are keen to continue exploiting Libya as a battlefield for geopolitical rivalries and ambitions. Given the absence of a UN troop deployment, the deterrence of an Algerian military peacekeeping force could be necessary to provide muscle to sustain the ceasefire agreement (Al-Jazeera, January 21).
The fact that Turkey is Algeria’s second-largest trading partner in Africa and Russia is Algeria’s principal supplier of military armaments means Algeria is backing opposing sides in the Libyan conflict, which could play into its favor. Algeria would be able to point to these important relations as proof that an Algerian intervention in Libya would be without bias to either warring party. If Algeria can further convince the UN that that it can cooperate militarily and remain subservient to the UN’s peacekeeping objectives, then a concrete Algerian deployment proposal could appear in the coming months.
Risks and Rewards
The risks of military intervention in Libya might outweigh the benefits for Algeria. The Libyan conflict’s complexity with its numerous militia groups and foreign powers with competing priorities means that any Algerian peacekeeping deployment would have to be nuanced and sensitive. Algeria’s prior constitutional restrictions mean the country has a severe lack of relevant experience, which subsequently places doubt on the ability of its military to deploy to Libya without sufficient prior training and planning.
Even if Algeria ensures that any deployment to Libya is extremely disciplined, Algerian checkpoints, supply lines, and other military assets could come under harassment by both foreign and domestic militia groups keen to prolong the Libyan civil war. Such groups either depend on the Libyan conflict as a source of employment or use the insecurity inherent in Libya as a cover for criminal profit-making activities. With Algerian lives at risk, and the likelihood of an expensive and long-term endeavor, such a deployment could become unpopular domestically for Tebboune.
While the constitutional amendments may help Algeria regain some of its lost regional influence, the country will need to be careful about deploying to Libya no matter how tempting it might appear.