‘Regime clear off; we will keep the state’ is the motto which illustrates best the protests which are taking place on Algerian streets. Since February, people have shown great determination in their intention to remove the regime and implement a large political change within their country. The dismissal of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president from 1999 to 2019, is only a first step and not the final objective for citizens. Period of uncertainty has visibly opened in Algeria. This complex situation might bear important consequences (both positive and negative) in the upcoming months on the whole Maghreb region (especially Morocco and Mauritania) but also on the EU. In the ideal world a positive evolution would provide Central European countries (who are this year celebrating the 30th anniversary of their democratic revolutions) with an opportunity to play a role of inspiration source for political and economic transition for Maghreb and regional cooperation. However, Central Europe has become an arena for semi-authoritarian drift often mixed with Islamophobia, tensions with the EU institutions and main EU member states (including France) and securitisation of their policy toward Mediterranean.
A brief outlook at Algerian history
Algeria, the second most populated Arab country, independent since 1962 and the signature of the Evian agreements which ended a dramatic eight years’ war against its former colonial power: France. This terrible period has shaped Algerian contemporary identity and political system (from 1962, the Front de Libération Nationale has remained at power almost uninterruptedly). During Cold War, Algeria developed itself in cooperation with the socialist camp and witnessed great social and economic improvements. Nevertheless, in the 1980’s notably due to the oil prices’ crisis, Algeria experienced a recession as well as new tensions which eventually led to a bloody civil war in the 1990’s between the FLN and its supporters and Islamic political movements (especially Front Isalmique du Salut). Consecutively, the army took back control of the situation and froze the political system. Taking power in 1999 by Abdelaziz Bouteflika symbolizes this continuous authoritarian trend in the 2000’s and 2010’s. Still, as the Freedom House rightly points out, the authoritarianism in Algeria and Mauritania was of a softer kind than that in other not free Arab countries. Currently, formal contestation of the regime is the consequence of the ‘Bouteflika’s Decision’ to run for 5th time for presidential mandate despite his very poor health. Bouteflika’s recent withdrawal brings hope to Algerians. Hope, to fully change a political regime which they consider not only inefficient (mainly for economic reasons) but also illegitimate. It is yet impossible to predict whether the system will accept this change and help to implement a democratic transition, or will this movement be repressed.
A possibly evolving situation in the region
Algeria is located in the North-African Arab-Berber region called Maghreb which consists of: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. A region which has drawn international attention due to the instability it released during and after Arab Spring Movements (from 2011). As much as these tensions are still heavily perceptible in some parts of the region (mainly in Libya where civil-war is devastating the country) one mustn’t forget that these ‘revolutions’ have also brought some positive changes in the region, mainly in terms of democratisation. For instance, Tunisia: eight years after the revolution and despite facing serious problems and challenges, is still being considered a free country by the Freedom House. By default, Tunisia represents a unique case amongst Muslim states of the MENA region. At the same time, Morocco was recognized as a partly free country by Freedom House and received the best score after Lebanon among Arab countries in this category. It shows that the core of Maghreb (Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia) constitutes the freer part within the Arab world. Algeria has remained almost unaffected by these events as the protests were rather limited. Clientelist policies and memories of 1990’s dramatic repressions by the army and terror from radical Islamists evidently helped the regime to hold steady but it has also proved that Algeria is able to remain impermeable to the influence of the region and of its neighbours. This trend has been confirmed by the limited impact of the Sahel crisis on Algeria despite large and porous borders in the desert (the attack in Tiguetourine gas infrastructures in 2013 being the only serious consequence). Algeria, being the most important country of the region, consciously or not, seems to have the ability to influence its neighbours. In this sense, Sudanese protests can be linked to Algerian ones as the ‘late Arab Spring’ processes. Meanwhile, a country like Morocco could be impacted in case of a successful regime change in Algeria (since 2011, Morocco has shown several signs of social strains). However, what Algerian neighbours are the most worried about is a failure of these protests. Failure, which might turn into a long-term civil war. Under such circumstances, we could easily imagine destabilization of Tunisia (being stuck between two unstable countries) or a return of Algerian-Moroccan military tensions.
Europeans, the EU and Maghreb: strong but underperforming relations
For historical and geographical reasons, European countries have particularly close links with Maghreb and these links are decisively more significant than with Mashreq (the proper Middle East). As such, this region should not be considered only as potentially unstable but also as strategic. Above all, Maghreb countries have an important economic potential (even if these countries are largely underperforming). For instance, Morocco has displayed a remarkable growth rate during this decade which in turn convinced many European companies to invest in the Kingdom (such as Renault or Acciona). The region is also particularly important because of its natural resources with Libya being the 9th oil holder in the world (more than 2% of total proved reserves) and Algeria the 11th gas holder (same proportions). Furthermore, European and Maghreb countries are interlinked by population flows. The EU is home to approximately 13 million people with at least partial Maghreb background with various ethnic and religious roots (mostly Muslim Arabs and Berbers from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco but also Sephardi Jews and many descendants of Europeans settled in the region during the colonial era). These flows of population have practical consequences on Maghreb countries such as an upholding of cultural influence. As an example, these countries still have a strong cultural attachment to France which transpires through the importance of French language, still being used by many locals (more than 50 % Tunisians use French daily). French language is also still considered as the language of culture and contestation (most of the signs are written in French in the current Algerian protests). In conclusion, these socio-cultural links to France could be perceived as positive factors for the process of democratisation in Maghreb. Last but not least, Maghreb region bears another importance: it represents the door to Sub-Saharan Africa (this implies security and both: political and economic interests). For these numerous reasons, Europeans have the responsibility to engage with these countries, especially while Russia and China are becoming more and more active in Maghreb region. Some concrete initiatives have been implemented in the 2000’s such as the Union for the Mediterranean (2008) but have been largely underused since then. The outcomes of the Algerian crisis will partly define future actions of the EU and its Member States. A positive aftermath could trigger a renewal of North-South initiatives via a new dynamism in economic (more important and more diversified relations) and political (EU soft power to assist democratic transitions) relations. Also, such positive evolution could potentially lead to better relations in Maghreb region via a process of economic integration (for instance the restart of the Arab Maghreb Union framework). A negative outcome however, could create significant problems for EU countries. Large-scale instability in Algeria could generate crucial geopolitical problems such as a new migration crisis or the development/reinforcement of terrorist groups not only in the region (Maghreb-Sahel nexus) but also in the EU.
Central Europe and Maghreb: passivity despite opportunities
It is certain that the Maghreb region is first and foremost a region of interest for EU Mediterranean powers such as France and to a lesser degree for Spain and Italy. It is noticeable at political and economic level where they appear as the main European partners for Maghreb and vice versa. It becomes clear, that either positive or negative changes in Algeria and the whole Maghreb region could have an impact on all the EU Member States and it is almost obvious that Central Europe cannot disengage itself from these changes. Economic and political relations between these two regions may intensify and this in effect, might trigger benefits for both sides. On one side, Central European countries could hope to diversify their energy supply (and by doing so, reduce their dependency on Russia) as well as find new commercial debouches. On the other side, Maghreb countries could take advantage of Central European positive experiences regarding democratic transition, particularly 30 years after The Autumn of Nations. If Algeria is stepping onto the path of democratic transition in the next months (with a possible domino effect within the whole region), Central European countries could have a window of opportunity to gain some influence not only in the region but also within the EU (acting as active promoter of democratisation). However, recent experience of democratisation process in Tunisia is not auspicious as only Poland took part, and it did so in a very limited way (financial contributions to Tunisian movement were not equal to diplomatic promises). Furthermore, current political context in Central Europe does not encourage optimism, as several states are ruled or co-ruled by political forces openly defying the EU values, such as liberal democracy and rule of law. Potential democratisation of Algeria (and Maghreb region) is rather not likely to be a priority for Central European countries, especially with the current rise of Islamophobia in their political discourse or with the deterioration of their diplomatic relations with France (especially Poland in the latter case) who is the key player in the region. Moreover, Central European countries’ approach to the Mediterranean is based almost entirely on security while marginalizing the issue of human rights. Summing up, if a positive outcome were to happen for Maghreb’s region, Central Europe would expectedly and yet consciously miss some great potential opportunities.
Several questions remain unanswered in Algeria after the nomination of Abdelkader Bensalah as President by Interim for 90 days. The decision respects Algerian constitutional order but appears highly unpopular among protesters. The role of the armed forces and especially their readiness to consider citizens demands will be decisive. Generalized instability in this region would have dramatic consequences on the EU and on its ambitions to ensure peace and prosperity in its neighbourhood. At the same time though, with a touch of optimism, a democratisation of Algeria could be an astounding opportunity for the EU and all its Member States to reengage into multi-dimensional relations with this region and to appear as a strong and reliable partner in North Africa.