Algeria is making headlines for the first time since its bloody civil war thanks to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit in late October. Secretary Clinton visited Algiers in part to solicit its support for a multilateral military intervention in Mali. Algeria has so far been unwilling to take a leadership role in addressing the crisis just beyond its borders, despite having a strong military, a capable intelligence force, and a strategic location. The international community is pushing for resolution of the northern Mali crisis over fears that the area will become a terrorist haven.

The UN has even hinted at a willingness to propose a military force to aid the Malian government in retaking territory that has been lost to Libyan rebels, Tuareg tribesmen, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. For now, the international community remains convinced that Algeria’s participation is essential in such an undertaking. However, the existence of an Islamist stronghold in Mali would be more in line with the interests of the Algerian pouvoir much more than a thriving democracy in Mali would.

Algeria has an opaque system of government and many Algerians believe the real power resides in the hands of what they call the pouvoir, which refers to a covert coalition of unelected military elite and security officials who direct and control most aspects of Algerian politics. The army and security apparatus became the de facto authority after they succeeded in instituting stability following a brutal ten-year war with the Islamic insurgency in the 1990s. This influential core circle has effectively shaped the narrative of Algeria’s national interest to coincide and advance its own interests.  The pouvoir draws attention to the Islamist threat, real or perceived, in the southern region of Algeria as an ever-present danger in order to legitimate the permanence of emergency laws and extra powers granted to the military establishment. It is also a way for the military to maintain a check on the activities of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who has struggled for more than a decade after his election in 1999 to distance himself from this circle and establish civilian control over the military.

Despite the overthrow of two of its neighboring regimes and political pressures that forced King Mohammed of Morocco to undertake constitutional reforms, Algeria seems to have escaped the Arab awakening unscathed so far. This may be due to the fact that many Algerians associate political dissidence with the civil war that claimed between 100,000 and 200,000 lives. However, the Arab uprisings and Islamist political victories has not only put the pouvoir on alert, but gave it cause to further consolidate its power.

With regards to Tunisia, the pouvoir viewed the revolt with suspicion and feared that the political success of Tunisian Islamists could constitute a dangerous example for its own Islamists, a risk that it simply cannot afford to take.  The example of Egypt lends further credibility to the rise of Islamist forces in the region and stokes fears within the upper echelons of the Algerian elite that any democratic opening would surely benefit the very Islamists they spent more than a decade trying to eradicate. In Libya, this fearful necessity to maintain high alert in the fight against Islamism prompted Algeria to entertain friendly relations with the regime of Colonel Qaddafi, another staunch enemy of the Islamists. During the Libyan uprising the Algerian regime was very active in supporting pro-Qaddafi forces in the civil war that eventually toppled the Libyan leader, up to the point that it even offered asylum to the wife of deposed Libyan dictator, two of his sons, and daughter.  Currently, Algeria is rumored to be complicit in some of the clandestine activities organized by exiled Qaddafians by overlooking their operations against the new Libyan state taking place within Algerian borders. Looking to the west, Algeria is also cautious with respect to its relationship with Morocco. Enmity exists between the two states over the disputed Western Sahara territory. Algeria supported the Sahrawi self-proclaimed independence and heavily criticized Morocco’s claims to the land. Algeria also accused Morocco of supporting Algerian Islamist terrorists, which led to the closure of the shared border in 1994.

Clearly the unrest of the Arab uprisings triggered a fear that the pouvoir‘s influence could also be overthrown. But the existence and legitimacy of this powerful network rests on the need to combat the Islamist threat. The weak, poor and isolated nature of the Islamist power in northern Mali does not constitute a fatal threat to the Algerian state, but its existence provides a nominal challenger for the pouvoir to attack.  Algeria is unwilling to act as the West’s policeman in Western Africa and the Sahel by invading northern Mali when maintenance of the current situation is in its best interests. For these reasons, Algeria’s acceptance of Clinton’s request is perhaps unlikely. This leaves the United States and France (Algeria’s former colonial master, which maintains intense economic ties in the region) to deal with the Mali issue without a powerful North African ally, an effort both are hesitant to undertake. 

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Sarah Wade is an intern with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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