A National Solution to the Algerian Crisis?

20. September 2019   ·   Isabelle Werenfels, Luca Miehe

There is great concern about outside interference in the current situation in Algeria, tying the hands of external actors. The German government is best advised to offer indirect support through the African Union and Tunisian civil society actors. It should take a decisive stance against human rights violations and stop arms exports into the country.

In the first half of 2019, Algeria experienced significant political turmoil: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been the country’s leader for 20 years, resigned; two presidential elections were announced but cancelled; a wave of arrests shook the elite, and numerous political initiatives were launched. All this is the result of continued nationwide peaceful protests that started out in February. Seven months later, the various political camps find themselves in a stalemate. On the one hand, the heterogeneous protest movement (called Hirak) remains determined to achieve a democratic transition and opposes presidential elections without prior political concessions by the ruling elite. On the other hand, parts of the established opposition, the ruling elite, and Algeria’s new strong man, Chief of Staff and Deputy Defence Minister Ahmed Gaid Salah, insist on having presidential elections before the end of the year, which would further decrease the prospects of a fundamental political transition.

The political tug-of-war in Algeria is taking place against the backdrop of an impending and profound economic crisis. Its structural causes - low oil prices, a lack of reforms, and rampant corruption - are exacerbated by the direct and indirect economic consequences of the current political turmoil. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Algerian elite to prevent social upheaval through targeted distribution of resources and privileges. This means that a successive merging of socio-economic and political protests – which have been separate so far– is highly likely, making a political transition even more difficult. Consequently, it is in the interests of not only all Algerian actors, but also its European neighbors, that the largest African country finds its way out of the political stalemate as soon as possible.

Algeria is wary of foreign interference

In the past, Germany has resorted to varying instruments of its foreign and development policy in somewhat comparable situations in Tunisia or Egypt in 2011. In theory, measures ranging from economic policy advice to the provision of expertise on constitutional and electoral processes, or even a national dialogue would be conceivable.

However, in Algeria, both the government and broad segments of the population reject any form of external interference. Algeria’s aversion to foreign influence is rooted in its colonial experience and painful struggle for independence, as well as its pioneering role in the non-aligned movement and the civil war of the 1990s. Algerian domestic policy, public discourse, and foreign relations are still marked to a large extent by a great sense of sovereignty, a profound fear of outside interference, and restraint in cooperation with Western actors. Last but not least, developments in the Sahel region and North Africa since 2011 have contributed to the perception of being encircled by Western actors: NATO’s intervention in Libya, France’s backing for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, Western engagement in Tunisia, and the European presence in Niger (related to migration routes) have all been viewed negatively. Hence, it is not surprising that accusations of intervention and manipulation by foreign forces have become a widely-used political tool during the protests.

Fear of a "foreign hand"

The rejection of the so-called "main étrangère" has been the lowest common denominator across the various political camps in Algeria for decades. This expression is often understood as a code-word for the former colonial power France. Paris has so far taken a restrained approach to the political upheaval in Algiers and appears anxious not to make any mistakes that would possibly result in long-term (economic) consequences.

However, France’s non-interference does not stop the narrative of the "foreign hand" from spreading: since February, the various political camps have been using this trope primarily to discredit each other. Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah regularly rages against obscure internal and external forces that allegedly manipulate the protests. Opposition leaders call for a dialogue process between the army and the Hirak to avoid external intervention. A visit to Moscow, Berlin and Rome in March by then Vice-Prime Minister Lamtane Lamamra sufficed to make him the primary target of one of the weekly Friday protests. The Hirak accuses the United Arab Emirates of backing Gaid Salah to prevent democratization, and criticizes Russia's support for rapid elections. Even the Algerian diaspora, especially in France, is under overall suspicion.

From an Algerian perspective, previous political transitions in the region serve neither as a blueprint nor as a role model. Even if some regard the political agreement in Sudan as a model, a similar form of mediation by third parties - such as the African Union or a neighbouring state - would be undesirable and unthinkable in Algeria. Further, many Algerians do not see "small Tunisia" as a model of remarkable democratisation, but rather an example of destabilisation. Finally, Egypt's Sisi regime is perceived as the antithesis to the desired democratic transition by the Hirak.

The outlook for Algeria is uncertain

An additional complication for external actors is the current uncertainty about Algeria’s political future. On the one hand, there are signs that the resurgent protest movement will turn more radical with protesters possibly resorting to means like civil disobedience. On the other hand, some opposition actors support speedy presidential elections, scheduled for 12 December. After the cancelled elections on 4 July, it remains to be seen whether similar problems arise this time around. The inclusiveness, fairness, and - most importantly - popular acceptance of the election process will determine how much legitimacy a newly elected president will have. In the best case scenario, we would see a gradual transition towards democracy. In a more realistic scenario, a kind of status quo ex-ante would emerge, without Bouteflika’s network, but with an increased role for the military and a higher degree of repression. This could result in the worst-cast scenario: the radicalization of the Hirak and a surge in violence.

In any case, the country is not likely to cool down in the short and medium term, as all indicators point to a deterioration of the socio-economic situation. Even in the best-case scenario - a democratic transition process with a legitimate new leadership - this is likely to pose a considerable challenge to those in power.

The German government should act with restraint

So far, the German government has exercised restraint. While a hands-off approach is recommended, this does not rule out making preparations for different scenarios. An increase in human rights violations should be unequivocally condemned and massive repression against the population countered with measures including but not limited to targeted visa restrictions.

Since it is likely that Algeria will continue to seek national solutions to the political crisis, Germany should support Algerian actors in finding such solutions. While doing so, a number of issues need to be taken into account.

Firstly, this situation calls for unconventional and indirect measures. There is no reason why a meeting of Algerian and Tunisian civil society actors and opposition politicians in Tunis should not be facilitated by Germany – especially since precedents involving similar measures have already been set by German political foundations in the past. Indirect offers of support via the African Union, which has good ties to the Algerian power apparatus, are also conceivable. However, a prominent role for France should be avoided in order to pre-empt mistrust.

Secondly, supporting only certain political actors, for example a civil society collective, can be counterproductive because it can discredit both the external and the Algerian actors. However, it could make sense to offer quick and non-bureaucratic expertise for the newly founded election authority – if this authority is supported by all the main camps (Hirak, opposition, and regime), and if support is explicitly requested. In addition, interactive digital platforms could be set up to share know-how and experiences from other countries and regions in transition.

Thirdly, symbolic gestures matter. For example, the reception of contested Algerian officials in Germany can be misunderstood as endorsement. In turn, German officials travelling to Algeria should carefully select their interlocutors since a meeting is likely to be exploited by all parties. An increased exchange at working level with individuals that are not politically exposed is a useful confidence-building measure and can serve to support economic reforms.

Last but not least: Algeria has been the number one destination of German arms exports in the past. As recent as summer 2019, Germany supplied the regime with kits for military trucks and tanks. At this critical time, when outcomes are uncertain, the German government should refrain from such exports altogether. Algeria is currently a de facto military regime. As a result, any cooperation in the security sphere should be exercised with restraint. In the current situation, less is more.

Naher Osten & Nordafrika Frieden & Sicherheit Algerien

Isabelle Werenfels

Isabelle Werenfels is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP, German Institute for International and Security Affairs) in Berlin. @iswerenfelsi

Luca Miehe

Luca Miehe is a Research Assistant in the Middle East and Africa Division of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP, German Institute for International and Security Affairs) in Berlin @LucaMiehe