What’s the difference between Algeria and the United Arab Emirates? The two countries have a completely different approaches when it comes to the concept of Brand Nation and the need to attract the world’s attention or to get on the trending list of social media. If Africa’s largest country had a motto, it would be «To live happily, let’s live hidden».
And yet, the New World Order, the Greater Middle East, the «Abraham Accords» and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have all had little effect on Algeria’s foreign policy, which has remained loyal to the principles inherited from before Independence. Moreover, 60 years after gaining its Independence, the weight of history is still being felt, as the main institutions on which the modern Algerian state is based (army, intelligence services, diplomacy) all stem from the revolutionary impetus of the 1950s and early 1960s, which led to the departure of France, and then to 60 years of « je t’aime, moi non plus » between Paris and Algiers, and by extension between the West and Algeria.
To understand the difficulty of this relationship, we need to understand the principles of this Algerian vision of the world and what Algeria considers to be the red lines that must not be crossed.
The first principle of Algerian diplomacy is that «the country is not subject to current events, it is always the long term that matters»
Algeria’s foreign policy is characterized by its constancy and long-term vision, linked to its heritage of struggle for independence. This struggle was relentless and lasted for many years, setting the framework for Algeria’s actions. It is not influenced by overnight events or « hot » topics. On the contrary, it persists even when circumstances are unfavorable. The obstinacy of the Mujahideen has been essential in forging Algeria into a proud, independent, and sovereign state. So Algeria must remain determined because this approach has worked in the past and will continue to work today. We saw this, for example, in March 2022, after Spain’s sudden U-turn on the Western Sahara issue and its recognition of the Moroccan argument. While many observers saw this turnaround as a major turning point in the issue, with Algeria’s position undermined, Algiers slowly and methodically switched to the counter-attack.
However, attachment to this revolutionary heritage is often used to mask problems of bureaucracy or lack of strategy in Algeria. It is also used to impose historical legitimacy on the population. Nevertheless, the primacy accorded to the attachment to the revolutionary narrative indicates that this strategy is focused on enduring and essential issues, rather than on the glossy and ephemeral aspects of geopolitics.
The Manichaeism in Geopolitics
Once again, because of the glorious and painful past that gave birth to Algeria, the country’s leaders have always had the facility to use a Manichean reading grid, good and evil being absolute, the truth about them being the only important thing for Algerian diplomacy.
This explains Algeria’s position on the Palestinian and Saharan issues, which has remained unchanged despite all the geopolitical upheavals the world has seen. Algerian diplomacy draws this resilience, once again, from its past. The FLN Maquisards had been vilified by France, their reputation tarnished and their population crushed. Despite a military victory on the ground, the French ended up losing on the field of diplomacy and negotiation.
There are no small countries, just small causes
After 1962, Algeria carried on its shoulders the responsibility of emancipating dozens of countries in Africa and Asia from the colonialist yoke, with the absolute conviction that all peoples were equal. This notion of sovereignty is one of the fundamental principles of Algerian diplomacy. It involves non-interference in the internal affairs of countries and the self-determination of peoples. The so-called « black decade » (Algerian Civil War of 1990-2000), during which Algeria experienced a civil war of cataclysmic proportions, saw the total isolation of the regime, strangled by an arms embargo and an oil price of 15 dollars. This isolated regime refused to call on any international aid and learned the lesson that weak regimes are doomed in any case.
This principle was put to the test recently by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Algeria rejects while maintaining a « friendship » with both countries. Incoherent as this attitude is, it is also one of the reflections of this attitude of non-interference.
Maintaining a friendship with everyone
The only way to apply the principles mentioned above is to make a constant effort to maintain positive relations with everyone, without this being friendship, or in the case of less powerful neighboring countries, domination. This Algerian stance survived the most difficult moments of its socialist period when a minimum of good relations and openness was maintained with the US and Western Europe. Non-alignment or freedom, this attitude has enabled Algerian diplomacy to pull off several coups, such as the release of the hostages from the American embassy in Teheran and the resolution of the Lebanese civil war.
This attitude of Algiers is not to everyone’s liking, especially if one considers that in the diplomatic hierarchy, power is very often linked to means, means which are not always at Algeria’s level. This explains, for example, the poor relations between Algiers and the petrol-monarchies of the Gulf, or even with the logic of Europe, which is quick to give the title of good and bad pupils to its interlocutors on the other side of the Mediterranean, who are sometimes disturbed by Algeria’s impertinence.
The essence of the incongruity of Algerian diplomacy is perfectly reflected in its handling of the Western Sahara issue. A case in which all the points mentioned above can be found.
Algeria and the Western Sahara question
Algeria maintains an uncompromising position on the Western Sahara issue, arguing that a referendum is the only way to resolve this conflict in a just and lasting manner. There are two main reasons for this position. Firstly, Algeria considers the question of Western Sahara to be one of decolonization, where the right of peoples to self-determination must be respected. Morocco’s occupation of the territory is seen as a continuation of the colonial legacy and a denial of the Sahrawis’ fundamental right to decide their destiny.
Secondly, Algeria insists that there has been an agreement between all the parties concerned, with the UN as guarantor, to hold a referendum on the future of Western Sahara. It considers that any other solution would be a betrayal of the UN Charter and a contempt for sacrosanct international law. Algeria stresses the importance of respecting the agreements reached and the UN resolutions that recognize the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.
With this in mind, Algeria considers any country supporting the Moroccan position as siding with the enemy. The example of Spain is often cited to illustrate this position. When Spain reversed its policy of neutrality on the Western Sahara issue in 2021, Algeria took drastic measures, even suspending its friendship treaty with Spain. This reaction underlines Algeria’s firmness in defending the Sahrawi cause and its commitment to supporting the rights of the Sahrawi people.
Algeria regards any position in favor of the Moroccan argument as a challenge to its principles and national interests. It sees this as an attack on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Consequently, it does not hesitate to take strong measures, including economic sanctions, to defend its positions and express its displeasure with countries that support the Moroccan thesis.
By imposing economic sanctions on a European Union country, Algeria has set a precedent as the first Third World country to take such action against an EU member state. This decision reflects Algeria’s determination to uphold its principles and defend the rights of the Sahrawi people, even if this means adopting drastic measures that may have an impact on economic and political relations.
However, Algeria also recognizes the importance of dialogue and diplomacy in resolving conflicts. It calls for a peaceful, negotiated solution that respects the rights of the Sahrawi people and the principles of international law. Algeria is ready to play the role of mediator and to support all efforts aimed at finding a peaceful solution. Algeria believes that it does not need to pay lobbyists to defend its interests, as it believes that the truth will prevail in the long term. It relies on the prevailing interpretation of the Mujahideen legacy, according to which deeds are more valuable than words. However, this belief may limit Algeria’s ability to control the narrative and communicate effectively on the international stage.
This brutal attitude towards Spain does not prevent Algiers from maintaining excellent bilateral relations with other EU countries: Italy, for example, has been elevated to the rank of strategic partner, Germany to that of main technology supplier, and despite a chaotic relationship, the friendship between Paris and Algiers remains a major objective of the diplomatic strategy of Presidents Macron and Tebboune, who make no secret of their closeness of view and friendship.
In conclusion, Europe would gain much by adapting its approach to Algerian values, and by better understanding the dynamics that make Africa’s largest country so special.
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