by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.On 11 March 2019, one of Africa’s oldest dictators announced his intention to retire from politics. At 82 years of age, and plagued by health problems ever since he suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2013, Abdelaziz Bouteflika had implausibly sought a fifth term as President of Algeria in an election originally expected to be held in April 2019. Bouteflika’s about-face was precipitated by a month of mostly peaceful protests in Algiers and elsewhere in the country, as well as a statement of support for the protesters by Algerian military leaders. However, Bouteflika has postponed the presidential election until a “national conference” can be held to propose revisions to the country’s political system, which would then be codified in a new Constitution, even though Algeria’s current constitutional framework was only adopted in February 2016. This has prompted the protesters, who only fill the streets in higher numbers with each passing week, to accuse the President of drawing out the transition so as to retain power indefinitely. The uncertainty regarding Algeria’s political future has been compounded by Bouteflika’s resignation, rendered on April 2, and his likely succession as Interim President by Abdelkader Bensalah, the Chairman of the Council of the Nation, the upper house of Algeria’s parliament, in line with the current Constitution. Given these developments, it is worthwhile to consider how Algerian foreign policy might take shape in a post-Bouteflika era. Algeria has been a significant partner in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), both of which operate in the country and who seek the overthrow of Algeria’s secular government. In the wake of the Libyan civil war, and as the security situation in the Sahel has deteriorated, Algeria has also been targeted by militant Islamists, most famously in January 2013, when members of AQIM-affiliated al-Mourabitoun seized the Tigantourine gas facility near In Amenas, killing dozens. At the same time, Algerian policy has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in Western Sahara, including the forced expulsion of refugees without food or water with which to traverse the desert.
Based on some reports, as many as 32 candidates had sought to replace Bouteflika prior to the postponement of the election. It would be exceedingly difficult to provide an analysis of the potential impact each of these candidates might have on Algerian foreign policy, especially as some may not have yet considered Algeria’s place in the region and the broader international community. Though Bouteflika had been supported by the country’s governing coalition – comprised of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Democratic National Rally (RND), the Algerian Popular Movement (MPA), and the Rally of Algerian Hope (TAJ) – there are a smattering of opposition parties represented in Algeria’s bicameral legislature: the Movement for the Society of Peace (MPS), the Justice and Development Front (FJD), Future Front (FF), the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the Workers’ Party (PT), the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), and others. To narrow this analysis, we will consider here only those candidates who have received backing from one of these parties or, with Bouteflika stepping down, could potentially receive such backing.Ali Benflis called for a boycott of the April 2019 presidential election but might reconsider if there were sufficient reason to believe that a free and fair vote will be held. Benflis had served as Prime Minister of Algeria from 2000 to 2003, and then emerged as Bouteflika’s main challenger in the 2004 and 2014 presidential elections. Benflis seems intent on implementing the security sector reforms necessary for ensuring the health of Algeria’s democracy and that Algeria is defended by a professional military force, but it is not readily apparent as to what role, if any, Benflis envisions for Algeria in resolving the humanitarian crisis in Western Sahara, stemming the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, or combating militant Islamist forces in the Sahel. Given the strong focus of his statements in recent years on domestic issues, such as food security and the diversification away from oil and gas production, it is likely that Algeria would be less engaged in regional and international affairs under Benflis’ leadership. Rachid Nekkaz is perhaps the most unusual presidential candidate in Algeria’s recent history. Although he has renounced his French citizenship in order to exclusively become a citizen of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, Algerian constitutional law prohibits anyone who has ever held the citizenship of another country to seek election as President. To circumvent this, Nekkaz, a wealthy entrepreneur, intends for his cousin, an Algiers-based mechanic with the same name, to run in his stead. If successful, the cousin would appoint Nekkaz his Vice President, then resign so that Nekkaz could assume the presidency. Nekkaz has also been partial to political theatrics, most recently delivering an hour-long speech on the steps of the Christiansborg Palace, seat of the Danish government in Copenhagen, in September 2018, during which he accused the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, of personally financing terrorism. In 2007, he also sought to become an officially recognized candidate for the French presidency but could not gather the required number of signatures.
There is little to suggest that Nekkaz would pursue meaningful reforms in Algeria and his behaviour in both French and Algerian politics over the past decade suggests a tendency toward populism. For the protesters angered by the elitism of Bouteflika and his allies, that populism and irreverence might well be appealing. However, as questions abound about the future of the League of Arab States, the Arab Maghreb Union, and other regional and international organizations of which Algeria is a member, as well as some of the pressing regional issues, the election of Nekkaz would have a seriously negative effect on Algerian influence and impair constructive dialogue.Though not a declared candidate, there has been some speculation as to whether Lakhdar Brahimi could emerge as a unifying figure in Algeria’s post-Bouteflika politics. A respected diplomat and statesman, Brahimi played an integral role in South Africa’s post-apartheid transition, efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and Iraq following the US-led interventions in those countries, and most recently served as the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria in 2012-2014. In March 2019, Bouteflika seemed to take Brahimi out of the running by appointing him to chair the conference that revises the Constitution. However, that role, if the revisions are timely and satisfy societal grievances, might also serve to reinforce Brahimi’s role as a figure for national reconciliation. Interestingly, Brahimi has broken with Algeria’s conventional policy on Western Sahara, even calling in a December 2016 speech for joint administration of that territory by Algeria and Morocco. Brahimi has also been rather outspoken about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even when his role has had little to do with that issue. In 2004, for example, he attracted controversy for calling Israeli policy toward the West Bank and Gaza “the big poison in the region” and then criticizing American policymakers for their “thoughtless support” of Israel in regional affairs. Certainly, a more assertive foreign policy could be expected under Brahimi, though it is unclear whether this would extend to Algeria taking a side in the diplomatic dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Ali Ghediri, a retired general, is a likely successor to Bouteflika. Few details have been offered thus far as to his vision for Algeria’s future, with much of his public statements focusing on the need for stability and references to the terrible toll wrought by the civil war Algeria experienced from 1991 to 2002, in which more than 100,000 people lost their lives. This message is not likely to resonate with the youth who have led the protest movement thus far, having no memory of the conflict, but it could draw the endorsement of the FLN-led governing coalition, who no doubt fear the potential loss of their control over the country with Bouteflika’s retirement and what that could mean for the 16-year-old peace. Many Algerians speak of “le pouvoir” (the powers that be), a kind of deep state comprised of military leaders, senior bureaucrats, and business elites who have rendered Bouteflika little more than a figurehead and so wield the true power in Algerian politics. The fear is that Ghediri could be backed by “le pouvoir” as a false alternative to Bouteflika, offering voters the semblance of political change without offering any meaningful reforms. Were these fears to be realized, Algerian foreign policy would likely remain consistent through the post-Bouteflika transition, but it is unclear whether Algeria could be a credible partner in regional counter-terrorism efforts. In fact, some protesters might become radicalized, expressing through violent means their anger at being denied a democratic change in Algeria.
With a population of more than 42 million people and a territory that encompasses a significant swath of Northern Africa, Algeria is a regional power and a significant participant in the international community. When Bouteflika leaves power, and how he does, will have bearing well beyond Algerian borders. Much as the African Union must now hold Bouteflika accountable for his commitment to cede power, security partners should also follow how the debate evolves in Algerian society regarding Algeria’s place in the world and what contributions it might yet make. The rise of populism could exacerbate conflicts and the cost of the humanitarian crisis in Western Sahara, but a ‘business as usual’ attitude at the highest echelons of Algerian politics will not advance the pursuit of peace and stability in the Sahel.