Algeria at 60No more lethargy – Algiers’ passive foreign policy is over
Algeria celebrated the 60th anniversary of its independence from France, gained after a bloody anti-colonial war in 1962, with much fanfare on 5 July. The “celebration of the restitution of national sovereignty” following 132 years of brutal French colonial rule is accompanied every year by nationalist bluster and militaristic pro-regime rhetoric. But this year, the regime of President Abdelmajid Tebboune and Chief of Staff Said Chengriha used the international attention that the 60th anniversary attracted to send a clear message to rival regional powers: the days of Algiers’ passive approach to foreign policy are over.
At this first military parade in Algiers in more than 30 years, the National People's Army (ANP) presented countless armaments and weapons, some of which had been acquired since 2005 – as part of an unprecedented rearmament programme – from China, Europe and, above all, Russia: fighter and transport aircraft, anti-aircraft and artillery guns, tanks and armoured vehicles, Russian submarines and a MEKO-A200 frigate purchased in Germany.
Holding the parade in the first place may be interpreted as a clear warning to Morocco. The dispute with the neighbouring country, which has severely affected relations between both states for decades already, recently flared up again following Spain’s provocative recognition of Morocco's claims over Western Sahara – occupied by Rabat since 1975 in violation of international law. Since the Moroccan occupation of the country, Algeria has been the most important ally of the exiled Sahrawi government, based in Algeria’s Tindouf, and is still calling for the independence of the Sahrawi Democratic Republic. For years, the conflict was stuck in ‘cold war’ mode. But now both Algiers and Rabat are resorting to blatant military threats.
Israel, a bone of contention
Algeria’s government used the independence celebrations and the ANP’s first military parade since 1989 not only to send a clear and unambiguous message to Morocco, but also to Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Tel Aviv and Tunis.
Tunisia’s President Kais Saied is known for his pro-Palestinian rhetoric, but since his authoritarian and highly controversial assumption of all powers in July 2021 and the dissolution of parliament, he appears to have strengthened his relations with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to such an extent that Algiers now fears Cairo and Abu Dhabi could try to pressure Tunisia into normalising ties with Israel too. For Algeria, that would be a no-go.
A few days before the independence day celebrations, a website closely affiliated to a faction of the Algerian security apparatus, Algerie Part, reported that Algeria would continue to keep the Algerian-Tunisian land border closed for political reasons. The border has been almost completely shut to passenger traffic since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The website claimed that the border closure had been maintained because Tunisia had not presented “concrete and solid guarantees” regarding its rejection of normalising relations with Israel.
For years, Tunisia’s tourism industry has been increasingly dependent on Algerian tourists, hundreds of thousands of whom travel to the neighbouring country during the summer months, bringing money into the country and safeguarding jobs. According to Algerie Part, Algiers is using the border closure as a means of exerting pressure on Tunis.
Tug-of-war over Tunisia
During the Tunisian president’s visit to Algiers for the Algerian independence celebrations last week, Saied and Tebboune surprisingly declared the re-opening of the border scheduled for 15 July. At the military parade, Tunisia’s head of state had been seated between Tebboune and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, surely not by coincidence.
Meanwhile, Tebboune later jointly received Abbas and Ismaïl Haniyye, head of the Islamist Hamas’ politburo and the main intra-Palestinian rival of Abbas’ Fatah movement, for a highly publicised meeting. Algeria’s state-owned news agency APS called it an “historic meeting”, once again presenting the Algerian government as not only clearly siding with the Palestinians, but also able to mediate between the divided Palestinian factions.
When it comes to Tunisia, Algeria’s regime is not leaving anything to chance anymore, hence the more aggressive approach. When Kais Saied seized power, Algiers signalled passive approval, apparently also hoping that the protracted political impasse with the neighbouring country might be overcome through Saied’s authoritarian intervention. Since then, however, Algiers has evidently lost political ground in favour of Egypt and the UAE, both of which have already been trying for years to gain a stronger foothold in Tunisia – to the discomfiture of the Algerian government, which continues to consider Tunisia key to protecting its own interests in the region.
Against this backdrop, Algeria not only invited Tunisia’s president to Algiers for the independence day celebrations, but also the secretary-general of the powerful Tunisian trade union federation Union General Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), Noureddine Tabboubi. Since Saied’s unilateral take-over, Tabboubi has been dubbed one of Saied’s main opponents. Tabboubi’s meeting with Tebboune the day after the celebrations can therefore be considered as an attempt by Algeria to intervene more actively in Tunisian domestic affairs.
G4: inner-African alliance
The presence of Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Sewdie at the Algiers independence celebrations was also more than a mere gesture. On the sidelines of the EU-Africa Summit in Brussels in February 2022, Algeria, Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa launched the so-called G4, an alliance that also hopes to play an active role within the African Union (AU). All four states share common ground on certain intra-African affairs, including the rejection of Israel’s observer status in the AU and their support for the independence of Western Sahara.
“So far, the G4 is more of an informal initiative. It appears to be more of a symbolic one”, military and security affairs expert Akram Kharief of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s office in Tunis tells Qantara.de.
The increasingly close relations between Algeria and Ethiopia and the establishment of the G4 are not only important for Algiers regarding Morocco and Israel, but additionally provide Algeria with a trump card in its dealings with Egypt, whose attempts to expand its influence in Tunisia are viewed with suspicion by Algiers. Cairo has already been at loggerheads with Addis Ababa for years over the construction of a mega-dam on the Blue Nile and reacts extremely tensely to any political rapprochement with Ethiopia. No wonder, then, that high-ranking Egyptian officials were absent from Algeria’s independence celebrations.
© Qantara.de 2022