Why is the United States cementing its support for North Africa’s last dictatorship, who just so happens to be a staunch ally of the Assad regime while cozying up to Iran? It’s a consideration US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likely had in the back of her mind during her latest talks in Algeria this week, the only North Africa stop on her way to the Balkans.
While Algeria has remained little more than a blip on the international media’s radar, its strategic importance has skyrocketed in the wake of the Arab Spring. After the fall of secular dictators across North Africa, the military-backed Abdelaziz Bouteflika regime has emerged as the last dependable ally in the war on terror in an age where the US needs all the friends it can get.
Clinton’s October 29 talks in Algiers aimed to garner support for foreign military intervention in northern Mali, following a series of high-level US military delegations in recent months. Clinton’s visit also aimed to promote economic deals in Algeria, particularly with the General Electric corporation. The Bouteflika regime had initially opposed military intervention in northern Mali, while agreeing in principle to support a campaign as a last resort following the talks. Algeria has played a key role in curbing Islamist militancy in Africa, with many of its own Islamists having fled to Mali in recent years following nationwide security crackdowns in Algeria. Algeria’s military has since made efforts to hinder smuggling across its borders, including from neighboring Libya into Mali.
The military-backed Bouteflika regime is considered among the last secular dictatorships in the region following the Arab Spring. While widely unpopular within their own constituencies, the Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Gaddafi regimes were known for strict crackdown policies against Islamist sentiment and Islamic militancy. Their collapse has not only empowered Islamist factions politically, but enabled radical militants to seize weapons and establish cross-border smuggling routes in the resulting security vacuum. While Algeria continues to witness sporadic socio-economic unrest, the country’s regime and security forces remain largely in control of the country, with little prospects for an organized mass uprising in the near term.
Algeria’s security apparatus has now emerged as the most experienced and capable entity in the region in combating Islamic extremism, leading to increased ties with the United States. Military cooperation with the US has led to enhanced intelligence-gathering capabilities and technological support needed to track militants in remote or mountainous areas in which Islamist militants are known to establish bases.
While the Bouteflika regime remains staunchly committed to curbing Islamist militancy, it continues to act under the context of preserving its own ruling continuity in Algeria. As such, the regime likely remains hesitant to advance any military operation in northern Mali which could have both direct and indirect consequences on domestic stability. Since Algerian Islamists fled into northern Mali, Algerian security forces have largely succeeded in preventing their return. A military operation to regain control of northern Mali may cause militants to flee and search for new bases of operations, including Niger, Mauritania, and back into Algeria.
Furthermore, the participation of the Algerian military in such an operation would increase the threat of reprisal attacks by Mali-based and locally based militants, including in Algeria’s oil-rich southern provinces and in the northeastern coastal region. Lastly, participation in a military operation would put a further strain on the government’s expenditures, which have already caused socio-economic unrest in various sectors over subsidy cuts and public sector wages.
As such, Algerian participation in any military intervention campaign is likely to be limited, despite probable diplomatic pressure from the United States and its allies. The United States remains dependent on the continuity of the Bouteflika regime to uphold stability in Algeria, which serves as the seventh largest supplier of oil to the US and is a key player in the OPEC organization. As such, US economic and military ties are likely to assist in staving off any instability brought on by domestic militancy or socio-economic unrest.
US dependency on Algeria is further highlighted by the former’s hesitation to pressure the Bouteflika regime to join an international coalition against the Assad regime. While Algeria is a largely Sunni Muslim nation, it has refrained from supporting the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria as other Arab regimes in the region have done. The secularist and military-backed government thus views the Assad regime’s crackdown as a shared effort to curb Islamic militancy, trends which may re-focus on Algeria in the event that the Assad regime is ousted. Algeria’s ties with the Assad regime have also warmed relations with Iran, including increased cooperation in the energy sector.
Indeed, despite a number of political elephants in the corner of Clinton’s meetings with Bouteflika, the US simply can’t afford to ruffle any feathers in the Arab world’s last dictatorship.