western sahara

Algeria: Politics & Regional Power by George Bajalia

This article was originally published on Muftah.org and has been reprinted here with permission.


Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Photo credit: Reuters)

[Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Photo credit: Reuters)]

George Bajalia, with contributions from Toshiro Baum

Note: this article is the third in a series focusing on nationalism, human rights, and regional politics in Morocco, Algeria, and the Western Sahara. The previous piece in this compilation can be found here. A brief historical timeline about the conflict has also been created.

Protest, Power, and Regional Security

As popular uprisings rocked North Africa in 2011, protesters in Algeria took to the streets calling for government reforms. Unlike the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, demonstrators in Algeria focused almost exclusively on economic issues rather than regime change. The protests were strongly supported by Algeria’s youth, and highlighted popular frustration with prevailing conditions as well as the regime’s weaknesses. The latter included the advanced age of many government leaders and the common perception they neither comprehended nor represented the concerns of the increasingly marginalized youth. Last May during a speech in the city of Setif, seventy-six year old Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika acknowledged this disconnect admitting that “for us [my generation] it is over,” and declaring the need for a new generation of leaders to take power.

While Algeria may finally be preparing for a transition in leadership, new political faces will not necessarily result in reforms to the regime’s underlying authoritarian and rentier frameworks. As Algeria’s aging leaders pass on the reins of political and economic structures—ranked as some of the most opaque and corrupt in the world—they will work to ensure any domestic push for structural reform does not receive international support. To achieve this, the regime will seek to further entrench Algeria as a key regional security partner for western powers, insisting that its political stability is necessary to counteract emerging terrorist and criminal threats in North Africa, the Sahara, and Sahel. In taking such a position, the regime will claim stability, rather than reform, should be the focus of international interest.

The Algerian state’s policies towards the Western Sahara can only be understood within the context of this aging regime and its dominance of the political landscape. For President Bouteflika and his supporters, Algerian politics has historically been subject two “diametrically opposed [ideological] poles:” democratization, which has led to ‘Islamization,’ and stability. The Bouteflika regime, as well as predecessor governments that ruled during Algeria’s civil war, have demonstrated their commitment to stability at the expense of democracy. In order to garner international support and bring stability to Algeria, the state has pursued a policy of supporting proxy groups in the larger Sahara and Sahel regions, particularly in the Western Sahara.

To ensure its position as the prime security partner in the Maghreb, the Algerian regime is likely to continue its support for regional proxy groups as a relatively cheap and effective method for projecting power into the seemingly ungovernable trans-Saharan territories. Algeria’s support for the Frente POLISARIO movement in the Western Sahara forms a key pillar of this strategy. Since 1973, the Frente POLISARIO has claimed to represent the Saharawi people in their fight for independence from Morocco.

The POLISARIO’s explicit focus on regional territorial disputes, rejection of transnational terrorism, and long-term dependence on Algerian support make it an ideal candidate through which Algeria can manage the Western Sahara’s persistent instability. This relationship ensures, in turn, that Algeria maintains its status as a necessary security partner for the international community, and staves off outside support for domestic reforms, which the Algerian regime views as necessary piece to its domestic and international security.

The Risk of a New Leadership Transition

Long-serving political leaders and single-party dominance are the norm in Algerian politics. From independence in 1962 until the late 1980s, the socialist National Liberation Front (FLN) presided over a one-party state. Since 1962, Algeria has only had five presidents. Of these, two were deposed by the military, one died in office, and the other resigned. Algeria’s current leaders—many of whom fought in the struggle for independence in the 1950s—are preparing to hand over power to a younger generation of leaders, more out of necessity than anything else. Old age and ill health means that few leaders from the independence era can continue in the country’s highest offices.

Current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, took office in 1999 and is nearing the end of his third term. During the summer of 2013, he was hospitalized in France following a stroke and once again returned to the country for further treatment in January 2014. Despite his age and fragile health, Bouteflika is widely expected to win a fourth presidential term in elections to be held in April of this year. Many believe he will transfer power to a successor—or pass away—before his fourth term ends.

While a handover to a younger, more dynamic group of leaders would help the regime connect with an increasingly disenfranchised youth population, any political transition carries the potential for destabilization and unrest. Popular discontent in Algeria has so far been limited, but internecine fighting among regime elites has the potential to drive official corruption and abuses of power into the national spotlight. Combined with domestic and international calls for greater transparency and accountability, this attention could turn low-level popular discontent into a potent challenge to the regime’s stability.

Fear of the Return of the Black Decade

For Algeria, this possibility became an ugly reality in the early 1990s in a decade long civil war known as the “Black Decade.” In December 1991, the Front of Islamic Salvation (FIS), a coalition of Algerian Islamist Parties, won a resounding victory in elections for municipal councils and mayorships.

Invoking fears that an Islamist victory would lead to an Islamic theocracy, Algeria’s military leaders forced the government to suspend then-upcoming elections for national parliament. Popular belief held that the general’s chief concern was not an emerging theocracy but potential investigation into their corrupt dealings. Soon enough, protesters had taken to the streets. Security forces heavily repressed these demonstrations. Within a few months, the government declared a state of emergency while radicalized Islamist supporters launched an armed insurgency against the state. The civil conflict that followed would kill hundreds of thousands of Algerians and displace countless more. Tellingly, two of Algeria’s main international partners, the United States and France, did not denounce militar repression in the early years of the civil war, demand military leaders respect the FIS’ electoral victory, or use their permanent seats in the UN Security Council to pursue international sanctions against the Algerian regime.

As a new generation inherits the regime’s authoritarian structures, the potential for internal power struggles, challenges by domestic opposition groups, or even popular discontent at the continuation of “business as usual” will greatly increase. Fearing a return of the Black Decade (a fear which has only been exacerbated by the Arab Awakening) the Algerian regime has leveraged its new international position as a regional security partner to foreign governments and corporations concerned with their own interests to gain international support for its suppression of domestic challenges and threats. By casting its authoritarian structure as necessary to the preservation of both domestic and regional security, the regime has sought to ensure the tacit support of key international partners should it need to emulate the repressive crackdown of the early 90s.

The President and lePouvoir

Bouteflika came to power based on a platform of general amnesty and national reconciliation after the Black Decade. A longtime proponent of market reform and rapprochement with the West, Bouteflika’s ascension to the presidency reflected a desire among some Algerian powerbrokers to end the country’s long isolation after years of domestic conflict and the collapse of its former patron, the USSR. Known popularly as le Pouvoir, or the “power,” this elite group and its political and economic fortunes are inextricably linked to the shadowy regime.

Upon becoming president, Bouteflika worked quickly to improve Algeria’s foreign relations, which included making new inroads into Africa through the African Union and expanding economic investment in West Africa. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and launch of an American-led “war on terror” gave Algeria the unexpected opportunity to recast its Black Decade as a fight against domestic Islamic terrorists and thereby improve its standing with Western powers, such as France, Spain, and the United States. To fortify these relationships, Algeria positioned itself as a regional security partner, and signed a strategic partnership agreement with the United States.

The POLISARIO, the Western Sahara, and Proxy Power

For Algeria, the Western Sahara has always been linked to a greater struggle. The country’s decade-long fight for independence from France, which began in the 1950s, helped to cement a national narrative and orient the personal worldviews of its early leaders toward fierce support for anti-colonial independence struggles. The 1963 Sand War—the military invasion of the newly independent Algeria launched by Moroccan King Hassan II—added to the regime’s fears. While King Hassan II claimed his actions were aimed at recovering historical Moroccan territory illegally given to Algeria by France, his irredentism presented a real threat to the new Algerian nation.

Algeria based its early support for the POLISARIO on two ideological principles: solidarity with the struggle for self-determination by inhabitants of the Western Sahara and a desire to undermine Morocco’s regional expansion-by-annexation policy. With the 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the POLISARIO, Algeria began a concerted initiative to become the movement’s primary political backer. Throughout the 1990s, Algeria and POLISARIO politicians, matched by their equally obstructionist Moroccan counterparts, maneuvered to bring a UN-proposed referendum on Western Sahara independence to an inconsequential stalemate. By bringing this process to a halt, these parties were able to limit international influence in the region exclusively to indirect actions undertaken by non-governmental human rights organizations.

Over the last ten years, however, Algeria’s support for the POLISARIO has become part of a strategy for projecting its power into the Sahara and competing for regional dominance. Morocco’s efforts and substantial investment in securing the Western Sahara through direct military control helped prompt Algeria to move beyond the POLISARIO and co-opt armed groups in the region. Through this policy, Algeria has obtained effective and cheap, although not always certain,control over the vast and hard-to-secure expanse stretching across its southern borders, from Mauritania to Mali. Algeria’s proxy relationships give the regime crucial intelligence on the licit and illicit activities of groups operating in the Sahara – ranging from trade, terrorist training, and armed insurrection. Armed with this intelligence, the Algerian regime is uniquely placed to influence the behavior of actors within the Sahara and thus impact the complex relations that govern the region’s security.

Regional Security and the Prospects for Regime Change

As authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Libya collapsed in 2011, maintaining security in the Sahara and Sahel became paramount for countries like Morocco and Algeria. The July 2012 coup and ensuing civil war in Mali illustrated the potentially destabilizing effects of the North African uprisings across the Sahara. For the European Union and United States, the rise of a jihadist statelet in Northern Mali confirmed the fear that ungoverned spaces, such as the Western Sahara, could allow radical Islamic terrorists to operate with impunity.

For international policy makers, the civil war in Mali vindicated Algeria’s adherence to supporting proxies in the Sahara. For example, the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an armed group claiming to fight for an independent Tuareg state in North Africa, became one of Algeria’s main partners in working to defuse and resolve the conflict in Mali. In 2012 the MNLA, along with other armed groups, captured the northern third of Mali. The MNLA eventually helped Algeria recover several diplomats taken hostage by a radical Islamist group in the Malian city of Gao. In a seeming about-face, the MNLA even turned on its former radical Islamist allies, assisted French troops in an intervention supported by Algeria, and became the main interlocutor in the ceasefire agreement between the Malian government and rebels endorsed by Algeria.


The Western Sahara issue has always played a key role in the Algerian regime’s foreign policy calculations. While Algerian support for the POLISARIO emerged initially from a sense of ideological solidarity with a post-colonial struggle, the opportunity to contain an aggressive neighbor quickly made the POLISARIO a useful tool of asymmetric foreign policy. Further inflaming and drawing attention to the Western Sahara issue remains a key piece of this strategy.

Bouteflika’s latest salvo, calling for the expansion of the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara’s (known by its French acronym, MINURSO) mandate to include human rights monitoring, tarnishes Morocco’s human rights reputation and casts the kingdom as a threat to regional stability. Recently, the UN has charged MINURSO with enforcing a cease-fire agreement in the Western Sahara, in addition to preparing for a popular referendum on independence.

Bouteflika’s statement, delivered at a pan-African conference organized in the capital of Algeria’s ally Nigeria, carried significant undertones: Algeria, and not Morocco, should be the dominant diplomatic and political player in North and West Africa. The move is hardly accidental. Over the years, Algeria’s goals have evolved from protecting its borders from Moroccan incursions to preserving its position as a regional security partner to the West. In this regard, Morocco is Algeria’s main competitor for American and European Union partnership.

President Bouteflika’s unspoken message to the region and the international community is that Algeria, and Algeria alone, has the power to draw lines in the Sahara’s shifting sands and keep them from being crossed. With looming presidential elections and an inevitable transfer of political power in the country, ensuring the regime’s stability is key to maintaining its international position as well as preserving le Pouvoir. For the time being, the durability of Algeria’s autocracy rests in part on its use of the POLISARIO both to contain and preoccupy Morocco, and present itself as the only guarantor of security in a region where many European and American policymakers view stability as a top foreign policy priority.

*George Bajalia is a staff writer for Muftah and former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @ageorgeb or at www.georgebajalia.com. Toshiro Baum is a former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @toshirobaum.