Sabina Henneberg is a 2022-23 Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute.
Articles & Testimony
By involving Algiers in enhanced multilateral efforts, Washington can nudge it toward more effective strategies abroad while simultaneously improving Tunisia’s political and economic situation.
Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s visit to Moscow this month upset many leaders in Western capitals, who took it as a clear signal that Algeria’s loyalties lay with Russia vis-à-vis the conflict in Ukraine. When it comes to Algeria’s immediate neighbor, Tunisia, however, Algiers and the West are on the same side, with a common goal of preventing instability—albeit driven by different motivations. Yet the tools at Algeria’s disposal for helping to solve these problems are grounded in a longstanding foreign policy doctrine of non-intervention, so its proposed solutions thus far are insufficient. The need—for its own interests, if nothing else—to help its neighbor out of an immediate crisis, combined with its ambitions to lead diplomatically at the regional level and globally, could provide an opportunity for Algeria to rethink its policies and expand how it engages abroad. The United States and the European Union could help nudge that shift.
Algeria’s Concerns on Regional Security and Countering Violent Extremism
As Tunisia continues to sink into political, economic, and social turmoil, Algeria is becoming increasingly concerned about its northeastern neighbor. Since the uprisings of 2011 that took down the dictators of Tunisia and Libya, Algeria’s regional security concerns have expanded, particularly related to violent extremism. This has had direct implications for the Algeria-Tunisia relationship. In the wake of those uprisings, Tunisia’s security services, which lacked their Algerian counterparts’ experience in combatting extremism, were thrown into upheaval, leaving a vacuum that left areas near the Algerian border even more vulnerable to attacks. For the next several years, Tunisia continued to struggle to contain extremist activity, despite increased assistance from foreign partners such as the United States and France. Tunisia also sent disproportionate numbers of fighters to join jihadist movements that sought to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Fortunately, Tunisian-Algeria cooperation has improved, particularly since a bilateral agreement signed in May 2014 that strengthened intelligence-sharing, communication, and operational coordination. On the other hand, the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi in 2011 amplified Algeria’s security concerns along its southern borders. A 2006 national reconciliation process between the Algerian government and armed insurgents following a decade-long civil war did not prevent remnants of extremist groups from relocating to Mali, where they joined up with other local militant groups, all fueled by a fresh influx of weapons from Qadhafi’s caches beginning in 2011. Over the course of 2012, despite continued mediation attempts by Algiers, an alliance of extremist groups took control of Mali’s northern territories and in January 2013 attacked the Ain Amenas gas facility in Algeria’s southeastern Tinguentourine region near the Libyan border, leading to approximately 38 deaths. This spillover of regional turmoil into Algeria marked a key moment in transforming Algeria’s security approach.
Controlling the Borders
The 1,000 kilometer mountainous border area between Algeria and Tunisia runs along Algeria’s densely-populated northeast and remains an economic, social, and security challenge for Algiers. Despite enhanced efforts by both governments in recent years to secure these areas, illegal activity thrives. This primarily takes the form of smuggling, where price differences on either side of the border provide opportunities to profit from the exchange of petrol, livestock, auto parts, electronics, pasta, and other sundry goods.
Extensive collusion between smugglers and local security officials presents the Algerian authorities with something of a dilemma. On the one hand, it limits the movement of weapons, drugs, and terrorists, as smugglers are willing to provide information to security officials about such activity, given the threats it poses to their own business. Smuggling also provides a source of income and livelihood in these underdeveloped border regions. The result, however, is that any crackdown by the central authorities on smuggling would lead to pushback by local populations, potentially in the form of major unrest. Smuggling represents significant lost income for the Algerian state. More immediately perhaps, because the relationship between smugglers and security officials depends largely on bribes, it risks weakening security at the borders and permitting more nefarious activity to occur.
Connections to Europe
In addition to the threats posed by the movement of weapons, drugs, and terrorists, Algeria’s porous borders permit migrant trafficking, which increasingly presents a concern for Europe. Tunisia has become a key launching point for migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, and recently Tunisian officials have noted an increase in irregular migration from other parts of Africa across the Algerian-Tunisian border. Driven by these shared concerns, Algerian and Italian officials recently renewed their commitment to stabilizing Tunisia together; this was followed by the European Union’s announcement earlier this month that it plans to provide €100 million to Tunisia for border management and combatting smuggling. The deal will also include support for helping third-country migrants return to their countries of origin or for Tunisia to develop legal pathways for them, as well as for migrants of Tunisian origin to be returned.
Algeria also is North Africa’s main exporter of gas, part of which also flows through Tunisia to Italy and by extension Europe (in addition to a second pipeline that flows directly from Algeria to Spain). Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy and Algeria have deepened their bilateral partnerships, and the two countries have agreed on the construction of a new pipeline linking Algeria to Italy directly through Sardinia. For now, however, Tunisia is still part of this three-way relationship, making its stability all the more critical.
Finally, Algeria’s poor relationship with Morocco, its neighbor to the west, particularly over the disputed territory of the Western Sahara, has led it to seek Tunisia’s favor. Morocco’s normalization of relations with Israel in December 2020 made this issue—on which Tunisia has historically been neutral—especially complicated. Since then, Algeria has sought to prevent Tunisia from recognizing Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory in order to avoid isolation within the region.
Algeria’s Support to Tunisia
Since 2011, Algeria has supported its northeastern neighbor through the latter’s economic and political challenges. For instance, in 2013, then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika hosted a series of talks between the leaders of the Islamist and secularist movements, as tensions between them grew. These efforts ultimately helped the two camps overcome their political impasse.
Economic assistance has also been a key pillar of the relationship between the two countries, given Tunisia’s failure to overcome its economic struggles set off by the 2011 events and fueled by underlying structural problems. Beginning in May 2014, Algeria delivered a series of economic assistance packages to Tunisia, generally as a combination of loans, deposits, and grants. The most recent such package amounted to a $200 million loan and $100 million donation in early December 2022, shortly before Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, which represented the culmination of President Kais Saied’s highly-controversial political roadmap. Meanwhile, Algeria has kept low the required payments from Tunisia for the electricity and gas that flow through the Transmed pipeline to Italy that Tunisia keeps for its own use, even agreeing to delayed payments on certain occasions. Most recently, with Tunisia pushing back against an IMF loan needed to prevent default, Algeria has reportedly organized a “meeting of donors” with Persian Gulf countries to raise $3 billion to $4 billion (more than the IMF loan).
Despite Algeria’s economic support, the two countries’ political relations have suffered tensions in recent years, with Algeria occasionally tempering its initial displays of support for Saied’s heavy-handed measures. Tunisia’s unwillingness to openly back Algeria’s position on the Western Sahara conflict (more below) may have contributed to a delayed reopening of the Algeria-Tunisia land border in spring 2022, which had been closed two years earlier to contain the spread of COVID-19. The reopening was critical for restoring tourism in Tunisia—a key industry to which Algeria is a major contributor. Even the sharing of natural resources such as groundwater is thought to represent an increasing source of tension, reflecting the absence of sufficient cooperation in multiple arenas.
Limits to Algerian Support for Tunisia
Speaking from Rome in May 2022, President Tebboune offered to help Tunisia “return to the democratic path.” During an interview with Al Jazeera in early 2023, he also offered to participate in a dialogue to “prevent the collapse” of the Tunisian government. Tunisian opposition politicians and activists have rejected such offers as meddling in Tunisia’s domestic affairs.
Moreover, although Algerian officials insist that its participation would only be at the invitation of the Tunisians, Saied has said that convening a national dialogue is the role of Parliament. His opponents’ inability to force him to dialogue on the current crisis makes the whole prospect highly unlikely, with or without Algerian involvement.
Tebboune’s offer fits squarely within Algeria’s longstanding foreign policy of insisting on diplomatic solutions and rejecting military intervention. Rooted in Algeria’s bloody independence war from France of 1954-1962, this approach reflects a firm belief in the principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention. It has led the country to frequently take on a mediating role, particularly in African conflicts, and contribute actively to multilateral organizations such as the African Union.
Yet critics argue that this approach is becoming increasingly difficult for Algiers to maintain. For instance, as Algiers pushes for finding mediated solutions to conflicts, it cannot simultaneously continue to insist that it has no role in negotiations over the Western Sahara issue, which it claims should be dealt with in a bilateral framework between Morocco and the Polisario Front (representing the Sahraouis’ independence movement). Similarly, in both Libya and Mali, where Algeria has played a lead mediating role, a lasting political agreement appears perpetually elusive. This further suggests that Algeria’s approach may require rethinking.
Moreover, in Mali, Algeria compromised somewhat on its initial reluctance to intervene militarily following the Ain Amenas attack by sending material and logistical support to the government in Bamako. Meanwhile, in Libya, where Algeria received substantial criticism in early 2011 for being one of the only Arab countries to oppose international intervention, the lead regional mediator has been Algeria’s rival, Morocco. Experts point to Algeria’s 2020 constitutional amendments, which allow the deployment of armed forces outside the country’s borders for international peacekeeping operations, as an acknowledgement that the doctrine of non-military intervention needed revising.
In recent years, Algeria has also sought to play a more central role on the global stage. However, its enthusiasm for multilateral cooperation does not always square with its insistence on respecting national sovereignty, such as in countering transnational terrorism. Additionally, especially given its outsized military capabilities, Algeria’s reluctance to intervene militarily in foreign affairs could, as some argue, come into conflict with the international principle of the Responsibility to Protect (an international law doctrine stating that countries should intervene in others’ affairs in order to protect populations from mass atrocities). Algeria’s reticence also could limit its response to pressing humanitarian concerns. In short, Algeria’s willingness to facilitate dialogue among competing political forces in Tunisia, like its economic assistance efforts, may offer no more than a Band-Aid solution to Tunisia’s deeply-rooted problems.
Algeria’s failure to confront its own tumultuous history compounds this risk. Many consider the predominance of the military in politics—a vestige of its revolutionary struggle and linked to the instability of the 1990s—to reflect the regime’s larger inability to adapt to change. For instance, the regime has not sufficiently addressed the grievances that drove the Algerian population’s mass uprising in 2019-2020, instead using increased revenues from hydrocarbons exports to return to its classic model of buying social peace. This short-sightedness undoubtedly also applies to Tunisia, where Algeria is largely perceived as trying to win over Tunisian loyalty on the Western Sahara issue rather than being genuinely concerned for the Tunisian people.
Given Tunisia’s dependence on Algeria for gas and economic assistance, Washington should consider Algeria a key partner in helping Tunisia return to a more prosperous track. This should take the form of enhanced long-term multilateral efforts in which Algeria can play a key role. To start, Washington, which works with organizations such as UNICEF and the World Bank to deliver emergency assistance to Tunisia’s neediest communities, can encourage Algeria to use its largesse to further enhance such multilateral assistance, as well as to prepare for longer-term humanitarian intervention despite its traditional reluctance to intervene.
Algeria can use also the opportunity presented by Tunisia’s troubles to re-think its foreign and security strategies. For instance, working with its neighbors to formally involve local border communities in security efforts could contribute to developing those regions while countering cross-border threats.
At the regional level, pushing for stronger institutions to facilitate cooperation on Tunisia—including reviving the moribund Arab Maghreb Union—would require Algeria to overlook its traditional rivalry with Morocco. This is a tall but necessary order if Algiers is to realize the regional and global leadership role to which it aspires. Clearly, given that Tunisia is only the latest in a series of challenges to its traditional foreign policy approach, abandoning the status quo in favor of a more sustainable, mutually beneficial model would help guarantee stability on all fronts.