The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is highly relevant but elusive when it comes to making effective security strategy. All too often, global attention is riveted on the crises unfolding today at the expense of preventing those of tomorrow.
In North Africa’s deteriorating security environment, Algeria is a prime candidate for a dose of preventive attention. As counterterrorism resources are focused on the expansion of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups across Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Sahel region, Algeria is at risk of being overlooked. A regional behemoth, but a problematic and paradoxical U.S. partner, the country is itself beset with challenges new and old.
Algerian security forces face a formidable challenge policing the country’s 6,734 miles of permeable desert borders with Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, and Western Sahara. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was born in Algeria, and it maintains a presence east of Algiers in the Kabylie mountains. Smaller organizations including al-Murabitun (the breakaway group led by former Al Qaeda honcho Mokhtar Belmokhtar), Al Qaeda-linked Oqba Ibn Nafia, and Islamic State-linked Jund al-Khalifa continue to operate across and within Algeria’s borders. And late last month AQIM killed at least nine Algerian soldiers in an ambush not far from the capital Algiers.
Because of its size and geographical position, Algeria could be a key regional partner for the United States and France in security and counterterrorism efforts against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Algeria has a clear interest in quelling the threat posed by regional jihadists. It has local knowledge that could be helpful to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Without active cooperation from Algeria, bolstering Tunisia’s security will be very difficult. Without Algeria, ending the civil war in Libya will be near impossible.
Closer cooperation with Algeria will be tough, however, for several reasons. Algerians remain intensely protective of their sovereignty and regional role and have been leery of cooperating with the United States—let alone their former colonial master, France—in any way that appears subordinate to global powers. Algeria prefers to lead regional efforts with other North African countries like Tunisia and Libya, and, in the past, with Mali when it brokered the peace deals prior to the 2012 uprising. (It also remains locked in stalemate with Morocco—a key U.S. and French ally—over the decades-old conflict in Western Sahara, while maintaining warm relations with Russia.)
Algerian officials portray their country as a strong, regional leader free of the domestic discord and extremism that plague other Arab states. Yet, the reality is that Algeria is a large and potentially unstable state itself.
The question of who will succeed Algeria’s septuagenarian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika tops the list of concerns about its future. Bouteflika is the embodiment of the military regime that has ruled since the Algerian war of independence against French rule. After a stroke in 2013 left him in poor health, however, he no longer appears in public, creating great uncertainty about who will follow him. The military and much feared security apparatus (known by the French acronym, DRS) are thus in a suspended state of friction. Moreover, the rest of the regime is also aging and at odds with the younger generations that have long awaited their turn to govern. Bouteflika and his hero cadre of the 1950s battle against French colonialism will soon be replaced, but no one knows for sure by whom or what. The result is the prospect of increased elite infighting and new ruptures within the top level of the state.
Meanwhile, declining oil and gas production, coupled with global energy price declines are beginning to strain the economy and state finances. Oil and gas exports make up over 90 percent of Algeria’s total exports and 60 percent of the state revenue. Hydrocarbon revenue plunged 43 percent in the first half of 2015 alone, with an aggregate drop of 25 percent since 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. The government has relied on its sovereign wealth fund to cushion this decline, but cannot do so forever.
The drop in income and constant fiscal deficits since 2008 have complicated the state’s efforts to address chronic economic problems, youth unemployment, and civil tension. Since 2005, low-level violence has occurred in every corner of the country resulting in thousands of micro-protests, which sometimes lead to rioting; the clash near Guerrera in July between Arabs and Berbers that killed over 20 people is but one recent example. Public anxiety is understandably compounded by the turmoil in neighboring Mali and Libya, not to mention the recent inroads of the Islamic State in the latter.
These tensions do not, of course, mean the nation is verging on internal revolt. Algerians lived through a decade of civil war in the 1990s and will be cautious about reigniting the passions that brought that conflict about. If troubling, most protests still seem aimed at goading the state into handouts, not regime change. Despite their rifts, elites are dependent on each other to keep the bunker state from falling apart. Opposition groups are, moreover, divided and ineffectual.
Perhaps most of all, Algerians have the recent examples of Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Iraq—and threats everywhere else—to dampen enthusiasm for rebellion against the state. Even if the government today is corrupt, it at least provides a measure of personal and economic security.
In the next few years, as long as uncertainty about succession and economic problems persist, so will the risks to Algeria’s stability. Missteps, for example, by security services deployed to quell these protests, could generate more genuine resentment and waves of wide scale protests, as occurred so many times in the past.
Needless to say, the world needs to be paying closer attention to this North African regional power broker. If regional trends continue on their recent course, Algeria could become a last line of defense against the chaos that has engulfed Libya and threatened the whole region.
Christopher S. Chivvis is associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and Amanda Kadlec is a project associate at RAND.
Image: Flickr/ Magharebia