Washington Cannot Afford to Neglect Algeria

February 11, 2004 Topic: ElectionsPolitics

Washington Cannot Afford to Neglect Algeria

Traditionally viewed as part of France's sphere of influence and as peripheral to Washington's national interests in the Middle East, Algeria has long been an afterthought in American foreign policy decision-making.

Traditionally viewed as part of France's sphere of influence and as peripheral to Washington's national interests in the Middle East, Algeria has long been an afterthought in American foreign policy decision-making.  Since Algerian militants constitute a significant core of the new cadres of al-Qaeda and similar Islamist groups hostile to the United States and its allies, Washington can no longer relegate Algeria to the margins of its national security policy.  Given that Algerian members of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat are active in Western Europe and are engaged in international terrorism that directly threatens vital American national interests, it is imperative that Washington begin to vigorously press for a more stable, pro-Western Algeria that no longer produces large numbers of militant Islamic groups and one that will eventually join with Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia in seeking a rapprochement with Israel.

This coming April, Algeria will have its presidential election.  This will be a good bellwether for the political future of North Africa.  In many ways, Algeria is a laboratory for the relationship between Islam and the West and for many of the political conflicts engulfing the Arab-Islamic world.  Such fundamental questions as the roles of both Islam and military authoritarianism in politics, the relationship between Arabism and ethnic minorities, the role of a free press, and attitudes toward Israel, have all been contested in the Algerian public sphere throughout the 1990s and up until today.  Washington would be well-advised to seriously engage with both the government and the legitimate, non-Islamist opposition movements, all in an effort to help foster a more open, pluralistic Algerian society in which free-market reforms and economic development might stem the tide of both radical Islam and the mass emigration of unemployed men who are easy converts to Islamism in Western Europe and, if holders of European passports, hidden threats to American national security. 

While President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is generally expected to handily win re-election and continue on with his authoritarian style of rule, there have been recent political developments that might jeopardize what was once widely considered a fait accompli and may indicate that Algeria is slowly climbing out of the political turmoil and violence which engulfed the country throughout much of the past decade.  The initial challenge to Bouteflika‚s increasing authoritarian rule hailed from the so-called "Group of 11," a loose coalition of Algerian political personalities who have accused the government of obstructing presidential challengers and, in a recent statement excerpted in the Algerian newspaper La Tribune, called for "a regular, sincere, and transparent election."

Further challenges have arisen from two significant quarters: the Algerian military and the country's significant Berber population.  Although the Algerian military had been on the forefront of the war against Islamism in Algeria and initially supported President Bouteflika, some generals are now having second thoughts regarding the sitting president.  In a stunning announcement, General Mohamed Lamar announced the neutrality of the generals in the upcoming election, prompting one Algerian commentator to bluntly state to a leading newspaper that the military "no longer wants Bouteflika."  

As if this weren't already enough of a challenge to his rule and assumed re-election, Bouteflika is now also facing a major challenge from the country's large Berber, or Kabyle, population.   The descendents of the indigenous, pre-Arab population of North Africa, the Kabyles constitute close to one-quarter of Algeria's population and have  faced  discrimination at the hands of the Arab-speaking government and violence at the hands of the Islamists, many of whom deliberately targeted secular Kabyles such as the novelist Tahar Djaout for execution in their violent jihad of the early 1990s.   Although Kabyles have achieved a great deal of success in post-independence Algeria, the greater and more nationalist Kabyle community has recently threatened to sit-out the April election unless their demand for government recognition of their ethnic language, Tamazight, as an official language is met.  The Kabyles have rejected the suggestion of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia (himself a Kabyle) that the only way Algeria could make Tamazight an official language on par with Arabic was through a national referendum.

Given their hostility to Islamism and their relatively pro-Western, pro-democratic outlook formed through their experience in local government councils called ârchs, the Kabyles should be given ample consideration by Washington.  Under President Bush, the United States has taken a more active role in pressing for democratization and minority rights in the Middle East with the assumption that more democratic and pluralistic societies will not produce terrorists.  Should Washington view a degree of Kurdish autonomy in a federal Iraq as in its interest, it should likewise consider the possibility that a degree of Kabyle autonomy might be in the best interest of both promoting stability in Algeria and in defusing a possible ethnic conflict that neither Algeria nor Washington would want.   

Algeria, paraphrasing the words of the liberal Algerian journalist Mohamed Benchicou, will have its April 2004 election out of the international spotlight. Aside from scattered references in the French media and occasional slight mention in the Anglophone press, Algeria's political future is really not on the radar screen for many in the international community.  Given the fact that Algerian Islamic militants now constitute a clear and present danger to the American homeland and to vital American interests overseas, Washington can no longer afford to continue its policy of benign neglect toward Algiers.  Even though President Bush did meet with President Bouteflika following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Washington has still not done nearly enough to promote a peaceful and pluralistic Algeria that is at peace with itself.  With European intelligence agencies arresting anti-American Algerian militants on a fairly regular basis, it is high time that Washington ends its relatively hands-off policy toward Algerian politics.


Jonathan Eric Lewis is a political analyst and consultant specializing in minority rights in the Middle East.