• Owen Swift

Episode 54. Algeria: The Powderkeg of North Africa

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Rundown:

For decades Algeria has been tussling for the leadership position in North Africa with its Western neighbour Morocco, with the fighting stretching from Western Sahara, to the Sahel, and to competing economies. Now the conflict is bubbling up again, with both states building up their armed forces, facing internal instability, and relations between the two have derailed. Will this escalation bring victory for Algeria, or internal collapse for Africa's largest nation?

Guests:

Jalel Harchaoui

  • Senior Fellow at Global Initiative, specialising in Libya, Algeria, and North Africa

  • Published a wide range of geopolitical papers on key issues shaping the region

Robert S. Ford

  • Former US Ambassador to Algeria, US State Department lead in Syria, Deputy US Ambassador in Iraq, and Chief of Mission in Bahrain

  • Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute

  • Professor at Yale University

Riccardo Fabiani

  • Reporter and Project Director for the International Crisis Group specialising in North Africa and the Sahel

  • At the forefront of reporting in the region

Part 1: Re-treading the Past (2:28)

  • Harchaoui helps us understand the fundamentals of Algeria, from its failure to diversify economically, its unique history and the domestic importance of colonial legacies, to how the generation that won its independence is only now giving up effective leadership.

  • For decades Morocco and Algeria have been competing for influence and control over the region, both seeking to be the region hegemon. We trace the fundamental factors that contribute to this; geography, demographics, and resources, and how this competition has evolved.

  • We trace the deep, long-standing economic mismanagement of the country that has seen it repeatedly fail to build a substantial or successful economy outside of its oil sector. With the country utterly reliant on international oil prices, its current economic situation is unstable and does not bode well for domestic stability.

  • We look at the political protests and movements in the country as the consequences of economic mismanagement spread, and the nature of various domestic political actors.


Part 2: The Powderkeg (27:27)

  • Ford traces the development of Algerian involvement in counter-terrorism as well as the presence of Islamic extremists within Algeria itself.

  • We look at the efficacy of Algerian security services in the fight against extremists in North Africa and the Maghreb. They have decades of experience in fighting, monitoring, and cooperating with other states on the issue, and continue to be critical to the effort today.

  • We turn to the issue of Western Sahara, the breakaway region in the south of Morocco. This has been a point of contention between Algeria and Morocco for decades, and to this day the leaders of the Sahrawi Arab Republic are in large part based out of the border regions with Algeria.

  • We tackle why Algeria remains so committed to the Western Sahara dispute despite its economic turmoil and the cost of doing so. What are the unique combination of historical, political, and social factors that make them so determined, and how do they makes mediation such a difficult endeavour?

  • Finally we get Ford's view of the likely outcomes of future political strife and protest in the country, as well as how the dispute with Morocco may develop.

Part 3: Shifting Sands (49:55)

  • Fabiani helps us understand how the French colonial legacy in Algeria is still deeply relevant today, and the impact that has on its domestic and foreign politics. Particularly in recent years, Algeria has felt more and more under threat as the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the status quo undermined.

  • This includes the partial withdrawal of the United States from the region, the increased involvement of other actors, and critically the improvement in relations between Morocco and Israel, which could give Rabat access to highly advanced weaponry.

  • We go through how Algeria has responded to these changes and what it's likely to do. From expanding relations their key relationship with Russia, to recent banning of France from their airspace, to gulf state posturing and supposed economic reforms.

  • There are other regional issues in which Algeria has a role, and we look at what they are and how they may develop. This includes the supply of oil and natural gas to Europe, and the instability and turmoil in Libya.

  • Finally we round back to focus on the details of recent developments in the Moroccan-Algerian relationship. The government in Rabat has thrown around accusations toward Algiers, including harbouring terrorists, spying, and even lighting bush fires inside Morocco. We look at the extent to which these are just rhetoric, and the danger that they may spiral out of control into some sort of confrontation.

The Red Line's Algeria Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Algeria.


Books:

Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed

John Phillips and Martin Evans


Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring

Michael J. Willis


Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order

Jeffrey James Byrne


Articles/Journals:

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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Jerry Harwood, Sonof, Ali El Ali, and Knut Wistbacka