The EU and Algeria: a difficult choice

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of J. N. C. Hill
J. N. C. Hill

Director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London

The European Union (EU) faces a dilemma. How much and what types of support should it give Algeria’s pro-democracy protestors? Conversely, what pressure should it put on the regime to reform and liberalise?

While this is not a new predicament – this quandary has shaped and coloured the EU’s relations with the Maghreb since the signing of the Barcelona Agreement in 1995 – it has been given fresh impetus by the recent ‘Hirak’ demonstrations. The longer these protests continue, the more difficult the choice becomes for the EU as domestic and international public pressure on it intensifies to do more to help the demonstrators.

On the surface, the EU’s decision is straightforward. Its commitment to promoting democracy and human rights in the Maghreb is absolute. “The EU must not be a passive spectator,” the Partnership for Development and Shared Prosperity declares, but “support wholeheartedly the wish of the people in our neighbourhood to enjoy the same freedoms that we take as our right.”

Additionally, the protestors have not given any real cause for concern. The thousands of people who have taken to the streets each week have been drawn from across Algerian society. They do not belong to any one group or constituency and are certainly not all Islamists.  On the whole, they have also refrained from violence. There has been little rioting or looting.

The EU needs to honour its promises not only to give pro-democracy forces in the region more support, but, if necessary, to back them over their governments

Recent history further increases the pressure on the EU. The start of the Arab Spring not only took it by surprise, but exposed its comfortable working relationships with the Maghreb’s authoritarian governments. Both the ‘Partnership for Development and Shared Prosperity’ and the European Neighbourhood Policy’s ‘New Chapter’ acknowledge the deleterious effect of these relations on the EU’s support for pro-democracy forces in the region. Some of the initiatives these frameworks introduced are still being implemented. The EU can ill-afford, therefore, to be caught again on the wrong side of the same issue so soon.

The reputational risks this would entail would undermine the EU’s soft power in the region. Soft power depends on consistency, on actions matching rhetoric matching values. Thus, the EU needs to honour its promises not only to give pro-democracy forces in the region more support, but, if necessary, to back them over their governments.

And herein lies the first part of the EU’s dilemma. Soft power takes time both to develop and to deliver. Even the most straightforward democratic transitions can, at times, be bumpy. Neighbouring Tunisia has made great progress since the Arab Spring, yet still faces significant challenges. It must deal with an Islamist terror threat while reforming its security services to make them fit for democratic purpose.

As the birthplace of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Algeria has faced a similar threat for nearly 30 years. The size of the country’s security apparatus and its geographical location in the heart of the Maghreb make it an essential regional partner in the struggle against Islamist terrorism. Crucially, its strategic importance has only grown since Libya and Mali have descended into civil war. The EU needs Algeria to remain stable if it is to help lead the fight against violent extremism.

If the EU does press the Algerian regime harder to democratise, it must do so carefully

Algeria is also one of the EU’s most important energy providers. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 83% of the country’s 2016 natural gas exports were sent to Europe. Portugal, Spain, Italy and France are especially reliant on this supply. Algeria’s importance as a provider has only increased since then. The disruption to Libyan production caused by the civil war and greater scrutiny now paid to Russian exports ensure that the EU needs Algeria to help meet its energy requirements.

If the EU does press the Algerian regime harder to democratise, it must do so carefully. The timing and development of the Hirak protests continue to be shaped by the country’s painful experiences during the 1990s and 2000s. For example, the army brutally responded to mass protests in October 1988. In doing so, it not only changed how many ordinary people saw the institution, but helped precipitate the political turbulence that led to the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s. In the ensuing violence, the armed forces were implicated in some of the worst human rights abuses of the conflict.

This backdrop helps explain why the Arab Spring demonstrations did not result in Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s downfall and how he managed to retain his office until earlier this year. It also helps account for the recent behaviour of both the protestors and the military as both have sought to avoid antagonising one another too much. Under the leadership of General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, the army has refrained from launching the kind of crackdown that it did in 1988, which could have kept Bouteflika in power.

The fragile concord that has arisen between the protestors and the army has been critical to the political progress of the last few months. The reforms that have been made and are promised, have only come about as a result of both the sustained pressure exerted by the protestors and the army’s refusal to keep backing the regime.

Yet, as former Major-General Khaled Nezzar’s recent intervention highlights, the situation remains extremely fragile. If the EU fails to support the protestors properly it risks not only finding itself on the wrong side of history yet again, but undermining its soft power at a time when the international competition for leverage and influence in the region has never been greater.

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