Algerian Foreign Policy in Perspective

Matthew Hanzel Avatar

If there are certain factors that may define Algerian foreign policy greatly, the factors of nationalism and revolutionary movements may provide the answer. This North African country found itself in the spotlight especially after what happened during the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s. The United States Government considered Algerian foreign policy – especially in the 1960s and 1970s – to be ‘activist’, especially in support of independence movements in the Third World.

The changing nature of Algerian foreign policy is highly influenced by its nationalistic view on the nation, state, and politics. Unless we understand how nationalism shapes Algerian foreign policy throughout its existence, it will be hard to see the changing nature of its foreign policy.

This article will give readers a concise overview on Algerian foreign policy, a short historical background on Algeria and its foreign policy, the external and internal factors that influence the foreign policy making, and finally a comparative study of Algerian foreign policy with another country of the same region of North Africa.

Algerian Foreign Policy During the Cold War

It will be hard to grasp the idea of Algerian foreign policy without understanding first the historical background of its foreign policy. This section, therefore, will be dedicated to a brief historical background, especially on its Independence movement and a post-independence movement.

Algérie Française and the War of Algerian Independence (1830-1962)

France colonization in Algeria started with controversies. France, by that time, sought reasons for colonization of territories overseas of France. In 1827, one of the officials in Algiers enraged at the Government of France for refusing to pay a debt incurred at the days of Napoleon. The Algerian official then struck the French Consul in Algiers. This act was considered as an insult to France, demanding an apology. The official refused to apologize, so the Government of France blockaded port of Algiers in retaliation. Yet the blockade turned into failure: no apology was asked.

In 1830, some 34,000 French soldiers landed at Sidi Ferruch, twenty-seven kilometers west of Algeirs. The French later invaded Algiers, facing no resistance. The colonization of Algeria had begun. The French was looking to expand their influence in North Africa, yet the colonization of Algiers gave the French Government nothing to do, especially the overthrow of the king Charles X for a constitutional monarchy. This confusion paved the way for the first revolution after French colonization Algiers, led by a local leader named Abd al-Qadir.

Believed as a descendant of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, Abd al-Qadir conducted guerilla warfare in 1830-1847 to expel the colonialists French. However, French army, with around 100,000 men suppressed the struggle with the strategy of ‘total war’, burning villages, crops, livestock’s, and fining people who supported Abd al-Qadir. This so-called ‘pacification’ strategy succeeded, Abd al-Qadir finally surrendered to the authorities.

After the defeat of Abd al-Qadir, the French was finally able to conquer all the territories of present-day Algeria. In 1871, Algeria was legally incorporated into the State of France becoming a département, or a department – distancing Algeria from the legal status of a ‘colony’, instead a part of France itself – although the level of exploitation in Algeria should give them the status of colony instead.

On its way, the Algerians gained their awareness on their rights, especially the political rights, which they were actually entitled of, but never gained so. There were those Algerians who served in the French Army during the two world wars; there were also intellectuals and religious leaders who were influenced by the Arab nationalist movements for independence from foreign control, such as that in Egypt.

The choice of independence movement through armed struggle only came after the event of May 8, 1945. On that day, which was the day of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, Algerian Muslims celebrated the event while also demanding equality. The event led into violence, house burning and manslaughter of thousands of Muslim.

In the morning of Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) of November 1, 1954, the maquisards (guerillas) under the name of National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN) launched guerilla warfare against France. Attacking military installations, police posts, warehouses, communication facilities, and public utilities; the FLN later broadcasted a proclamation from Cairo, asking for Muslims to join the Algerian struggle.

The Government of France responded in practically the same light. François Mitterand, the French minister of interior responded that war was the only negotiation possible. Pierre Mendès-France, the French premier responded that since Algeria was a département of France, secession of Algeria from the metropolitan France would be impossible.

With some discarded French, German, and American light arms; those maquisards evolved into the National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale, ALN), a disciplined fighting force of nearly 40,000 men. Taking the strategies of ambushes and night raids, the ALN created fear among even their nationals, killing about 6,000 Muslims in the first two years.

The French did not stand and keep silent. With the French Army, the French authority ruthlessly applied the principle of ‘collective responsibility’ to villages suspected of sheltering, supplying, or cooperating with the guerrillas.

One of the key events on the Algerian War of Independence is the event known as “The General’s Putsch” in April 1961. Important elements of the French Army intended to seize control of Algeria as well as topple the leader of France, General Charles de Gaulle. This event marked the turning point in the attitude towards the Algerian War. De Gaulle himself by then prepared to abandon the colons. Talks with the FLN reopened at Evian in May 1961; a ceasefire by then was agreed to take force on March 19, 1962.

One organization on the General’s Putsch, the Secret Army Organization (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, OAS) unleashed a new terrorist campaign in between the Evian Accord and the Referendum in Algeria, set three months after the enforcement of the ceasefire. The terrorist attacks were aimed not only to the French Army and police, but also to the Muslims, seeking to provoke a major breach the ceasefire. However, the OAS goals were failed, and a truce was signed on June 17, 1962, with some 350,000 colons and 1.4 million refugees left Algeria by then.

The referendum was then done on July 1, 1962. Some 6 of 6.5 million Algerian electorate casted their ballots in the referendum for independence. The result was nearly unanimous. De Gaulle proclaimed Algeria an independent state on July 3. The Provisional Executive, however, proclaimed it on July 5, the 132nd anniversary of the French entry into Algeria as the day of independence. The independent state of Algeria was born.

The ‘Activist’ Algeria during the Cold War

During its first decade of independence, Algeria’s foreign policy was strongly nationalistic and anti-Western. The hostility towards the West, especially the United States, particularly caused by the fact that Algeria was independent from a foreign colonial power. One of the key foreign policies in this era was the support that Algerian Government gave to independent and revolutionary movements around the world, supplying arms, funds, and training. Some of those who benefited from Algerian aid: the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the rebels against Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique, Muslim guerillas fighting the Christian Ethiopian government in Eritrea.

The ‘challenge’ that Algeria posed to the establishment of the West gave Algeria a prominent position in the Maghrib, the Arab and Middle East region, and the Third World. Many believed that Algerian prominence in the international politics, back then, were much exceeding the capacity and resources that Algeria factually had. Gradually, internal problems, especially economic and political problems, challenged Algerian ‘activist’ foreign policy.

Algeria broke diplomatic relations with the United States in 1967, especially due to the US support to Israel. The restoration of the diplomatic relations would only come about a decade later. The relations were later improved in the 1970s and 1980s, especially during the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979-1981). The Iranian Government, at that time, considered Algeria to be a suitable mediator – Islamic yet non-aligned.

During the Cold War, one of the most defining features of Algerian foreign policy was the conflict between Algeria and Morocco – one of the most significant rival to Algeria – on the partially-recognized territory of Western Sahara. Western Sahara is actually a part of the Morocco territory that, by that time, used self-determination movement to secede from Morocco. Algeria supported the establishment of Western Sahara as a separated country from Morocco. However, it was quite ironic that actually Morocco supported the independence of Algeria from France at the time of the War of Independence.

There are guerilla movements at Western Sahara. One of the is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el Hamra y Río de Oro, Polisario), which have fought for the independence of Western Sahara since 1973. The movement later proclaimed the creation of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which was recognized by Algeria as a self-proclaimed state in 1976. Not only recognizing the existence of the SADR, Algeria also provided supports for the guerillas, in terms of food, materials, and training.

After the SADR was recognized by the Organization of African Unity (OAU, now African Union) and many other states, pressure gained on Morocco. Morocco initially agreed on referendum for the Western Sahara sovereignty in 1981. The referendum was to be overseen by OAU, however the proposal failed to capitalize after the King of Morocco rejected it.

Ultimately, Algeria conceded and resumed diplomatic relations with Morocco in 1988. However, the issue of Western Sahara is still under political stalemate until now, with guerilla fighting resumed practically uninterrupted since 1987.

By the late 1980s, economic and political problems within Algeria and the changing global mapping restricted Algerian once active foreign policy. The domestic regime ultimately altered Algeria’s ideological perspective from a socialist orientation to a more Western tendency. From the 1976 through its National Charter Algeria had altered its commitment to socialist revolution and shifting toward nonalignment. Algeria by then focused on domestic economy as its greatest priority.

External Factors

There are a number of external factors outside Algeria itself that prove to be important in shaping Algerian foreign policy. After seeing the position of Algeria and its foreign policy during the Cold War, it would be appropriate to also consider the factors that influence Algerian foreign policy both now and then.

It is true and apparent that the contemporary Algerian foreign policy is much defined by the domestic issues: no clear interest on international politics, due to internal conflicts and problems during recent years. However, no one should forget that Algeria was once very pivotal in determining the international politics, especially for the Maghribi region, and even once, the Third World independence and revolutionist movements.

The Maghrib is a group of Northwestern African countries, namely Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, and the partially-recognized Western Sahara. The Maghrib remains a very important factor in determining Algerian foreign policy, not only due to the status of Algeria as the largest of the Maghribis, in terms of population or area; but also due to the similarities in terms of economy, culture, language, and shared national borders. Throughout the struggle from independence, the Maghribis supported each other, although after attaining independence relations between them are often soured.

The important thing from the Maghrib is on the notion of the ‘Great Maghrib’. This notion is overshadowed often by tensions between the Maghrib countries. One of the dominant causes is the mutual suspicion of harboring political insurrectionists from each other countries. Algeria, in particular, has had international relations problem with Morocco over the ideological differences: Morocco was rather conservative, while Algeria was leaning towards socialism. The notion of a political and economic cooperation between the Maghribis turns to be difficult due to rivalries and strategic regional interests of the countries.

Following the Algerian-Moroccan conflict over Western Sahara, in the late 1980s both countries reconciled with an accord establishing an economic and political Union of the Arab Maghrib (Union du Maghreb Arabe, UMA). This treaty, signed in February 1989 by Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia, established a loose framework for regional cooperation. If there is any significance in UMA, it will be the symbolism. UMA, at least at the 1990s, tries to cooperate (as a potential counterpart) to the European Community. However, again, this dream is threatened by internal problems within Algeria. The goal of having a common economic market, which was to go into effect in 2000, failed to capitalize because Algeria and Morocco continue to be opposed on numerous issues, including the Western Sahara issue.

While we should expect that the Magrhibi should be a cooperation forum, in reality relations between the Maghribi – at least from the Algerian point of view – have been soured many times due to tensions and problems among the Maghribis. Thus, the Maghribis prove to be defining for Algerian foreign policy, not because of its cooperation, but for its problems. The Algerian-Moroccan relationship may give us one of the examples.

However, the Algerian-Moroccan relationship proved to be the most problematic of all the Maghribis. Relations with other Maghribis tend to be less problematic, if compared to Morocco. Take the example of Libya. Generally, the relations between Algeria and Libya have been ‘amicable’. Algeria and Libya share similar affinity to independence movements in the past, supporting the Polisario in Western Sahara. However, Libya inclined to have a full-scale political union, which is rejected by Algeria.

Another country that has close relations with Algeria is Tunisia. Dubbed as ‘smaller and in a more precarious position vis-à-vis Libya’, Tunisia and Algeria enjoyed a mutual cooperation, including on economic ventures and transnational pipeline. The two nations are considerably close, including the recognition of Western Sahara so as to support the Algerian recognition to the Polisario.

In a similar perspective, despite the founding role of Algeria to the OAU, Algeria is still most closely affiliated with its Arab neighbors and southern Europe than with the African countries (including the Maghribis). The commitment to the African cooperation is considered to be more strategic rather than genuine commitment to the organization. The strategic interest for Algeria is to once again gain the activist role in foreign policy; rather the more moderate one after Algeria is plagued by economic and political problems. In 1999 Algeria hosted the OAU Summit, assumed the presidency of the organization, and adding commitment for a role of conflict-resolver in Africa, in which the President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, succeeded in solving the tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

France, on the other hand, is undoubtedly Algeria’s most significant foreign partner. France is practically one of the largest trading partners of Algeria, contributing to 19.7% imports of Algeria and 7.97% exports of Algeria. As a formal colonist, France creates cultural overlaps with Algeria. Close to two million people live in France, while many Algerian speaks French.

Both countries’ relationship is defined by numerous factors, from the issue of Western Sahara to the issue of dependency. France supported Morocco on the Western Sahara issue. Algeria is highly dependent to France, while on the other hand Algeria wants to eliminate its dependency – thus created a conflict of interest within Algeria. In terms of economy, gas and oil exports define both countries’ relations.

One of the most sensitive issues of both countries’ relations is the Algerian emigration to France. The general sentiments of people towards the Algerian migrants have been not favorable to the Algerians. There are common tensions between migrant workers (namely from Algeria) and the so-called ‘French ethnocentrists’. The Algerians in France find themselves hard to survive and isolated, finding difficulties in obtaining house, education, and employment. The French government often sweeps the Algerian immigrants, doing random searches for papers, and deportation without appeals in times of irregularities.

France is considerably important for Algeria due to its great influence in Algeria. Most of the financial assistance, imports for Algeria, and technical supports are provided by Algeria. However, French-Algerian relations have not been always that benevolent. In the years of President Houari Boumediène (1965-1978), Algeria nationalized French petroleum companies in Algeria. Nonetheless, France sought other trading partners other than Algeria, in the believe that they would be able to put their influence back to Algeria sometime in the future. It happened shortly afterward, after talks between Boumediène and the French government confirmed both countries’ interest in restoring diplomatic relations. France wanted to preserve its position strategically in Algeria, while Algeria needed technical and financial support from France. Strained relations then became soured in the late 1970s after the French intervention in the Western Sahara issue, supporting Morocco.

Oil and gas may prove to be another separated external factor, however its importance is still highly related to the influence of France upon Algeria. After the alienation of French oil and gas buyers post-nationalization of French oil companies in Algeria in the years of Boumediène, followed by further French-Algerian disputes over natural gas pricing in the late 1980s led to a drastic drop in both countries’ exports and imports. France lost Fr. 10 billion, while Algeria lost Fr. 12 billion between 1985 and 1987. Only after further agreement in 1989 provided French financial assistance for Algeria while Algeria provided commitments of French purchase for Algerian oil and gas.

The changing theoretical perspective might also be important in looking at Algerian foreign policy. Many Third World countries during the Cold War were Realists. While the reasons may differ one another, large countries in the respective regions by that period of time had one recurring reason: to be dominant in the region. Countries like Indonesia (largest in the Southeast Asia region), Brazil (largest in the South America region), South Africa (largest in the southern part of Africa), were undoubtedly Realists. We believe that this pattern is created due to the importance of regional influence in tackling the spreading bipolarism of United States and the Soviet Union. When both powers were struggling to gain support from other countries, especially the Third World countries, regional power may prove to be important in halting the ‘war of ideology’ in the region.

There is also an interesting pattern, in that respect, of Third World countries that gained their independence by armed struggle. During the Cold War, those countries tend to be Realists in the sense they were being hostile to the Western world. The hostility towards the Western world (especially the United States) put these countries into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a movement first promoted by Yugoslavia, India, Indonesia, and Egypt – although in reality, these countries often tend to incline toward the Soviet Union.

Algeria was no different during the Cold War. Supporting independence, revolutionaries and self-determination movements, Algeria was strongly anti-Western at that time, especially to the United States. Not only they dejected the United States and the Western world (in part because their historical background of being occupied by France), they sought to become the strongest in the region – in this sense, among the Maghribis.

Nonetheless, due to numerous internal problems, especially political and economic problems, Algeria is forced to turn their sight into a more Liberalistic view. This alteration of perspective is not without reason: due to the pressing internal problems that ought to be settled, Algeria needs to seek help from other countries in order to solve the problem. This is a pattern that is also shared by many Third World countries that were initially Realists – especially during the Cold War.

I believe that this shift comes for two reasons: [1] there are no longer reasons why they should contain the spread of either ideology that were dominant during the Cold War. Dominance in a certain region at the Cold War may present a challenge for both the US and the Soviet Union, to take the dominant power in the region to join either alliance. [2] Often these countries were plagued by internal problems late in the Cold War or at the post-Cold War period. Countries like this experience economic and political problems within, so that external help and aids are much needed in order to solve the problems.

Algeria tries to press more cooperation, particularly in the Maghrib region and Africa in general, through the UMA and through the African Union. Yet the importance of Algerian role in cooperation is not shown in merely organizational cooperation, but also in bilateral relationships. One of the highlights would be the restoration of the relationship between Algeria and the United States.

It is a fact that even if both countries had had tensions during the Cold War, Algeria strongly believed that US economic aid was important for Algeria. That is why, even in the tense relationship, Algeria still tried to pursue economic cooperation with the US. Since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika came into power, Algeria tries to have a more intensified talks and cooperation with the US. The event of September 11, 2001, however, gives both countries a common ground: War on Terrorism.

Internal Factors

After looking at the external factors that shape Algerian foreign policy, it is best to see the internal factors also. There are some factors from within Algeria that influence the foreign policy making. The internal factors are largely unchanged from time to time, needless to say that there are apparent changes during the period of transition between the Cold War and the post-Cold War period.

The internal factors that define Algerian foreign policy are largely shaped by the political structure of Algeria. The Algerian war of independence leaves a political legacy in the form of a competitive authoritarian political structure. This is a very common pattern in post-colonialism Africa. The nationalist parties formed to mobilize people’s support against the colonial regime, while at the same time launch their leaders to power which is practically unchallengeable. The most important thing is that in the process, the imposition of control from the top, rather than the mobilization of support from below, became the predominant relationship between African rulers and their subjects.

Constitutional provisions have concentrated virtually all important powers of the Algerian state in the executive branch, which has both formally and effectively remained the supreme institution. The executive branch, namely the president, has virtually unlimited power, especially during the Cold War. The President of Algeria is at one time the head of state, head of government, commander in chief of the Armed Forces, defense minister, and head of the FLN (which has became the ruling political party in Algeria).

Things changed a bit in 1988-1989. In times of President Chadli Bendjedid (1979-1992), there were some problems that plagued Algeria. Bendjedid proposed some reforms in economy, including a shift in domestic investment away from heavy industry toward agriculture, light industry, and consumer goods; breakdowns of state enterprises into smaller unites; reduction of subsidies; cuts in government spending; and anti-corruption campaigns. Algerian economy was opened limitedly for investment and revitalization of private sector. The reforms made Bendjedid able to eliminate the oppositions and loyalists to President Boumediene. The reform, however, exacerbated an already dismal situation. There were growing unemployment, reduced industrial output, drastic increase in prices, while the purchasing power of average Algerians were decreased. These problems led to the most violent public demonstrations since independence in October 1988. Weeks of strikes and work stoppages followed by six days of violent street rioting in several cities that targeted public offices and supermarkets – practically anything that represent the regime and the FLN.

On October 10, 1988, President Bendjedid promised political reforms, which followed with a constitutional amendment accepted by a national referendum on November 3, 1988. The changes included the separation of party and state, restructuring of executive and legislative authority, free elections, elimination of ideological commitment to socialism, freedom to assemble and creation of independent parties, and reduction of the role of military in politics.

Nonetheless, the Algerian government has a daunting task to unify three large factors in Algerian politics: the military, the Islamists, and the civic associations. All these factors have their own role in shaping Algerian domestic and foreign policy.

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