Saturday, November 10, 2012

Algeria: Current Issues

Congressional Research Service

Summary: U.S.-Algerian ties have grown over the past decade as the United States has increasingly viewed Algeria as an important partner in the fight against international terrorism. 

The Algerian economy is largely based on hydrocarbons, and the country is a significant source of petroleum for the United States and of natural gas for Europe. Congress appropriates and oversees small amounts of bilateral development assistance, and Algerian security forces benefit from U.S. security assistance and participation in bilateral and regional military cooperation programs.

Algeria’s political system is dominated by a strong presidency and security apparatus. 
The military views itself as the heir to Algeria’s long struggle for independence from France, and has remained the most significant political force since independence in 1962.

Following Algeria’s bloody domestic counterinsurgency against Islamist groups in the 1990s, the military backed Abdelaziz Bouteflika for the presidency in 1999. 

Bouteflika was reelected for a third term in April 2009, after the constitution was altered to remove term limits. He is widely rumored to be in poor health, and has no clear successor.

Algeria’s macroeconomic situation is stable due to high global oil and gas prices, 
but the pressures of unemployment, high food prices, and housing shortages weigh on many families.

These factors, along with longstanding political frustrations and the ripple effects of political
change and tumult across the region, have motivated recent demonstrations and labor unrest.
At the same time, Algeria’s experience with civil conflict, the fragmented nature of civil society, and the “negative” examples of violence and uncertainty in countries such as Libya, Yemen,
and Syria, may dampen enthusiasm for dramatic political change. 

The government has used the security forces to prevent and break up demonstrations, while also attempting to defuse public demands with limited political and economic concessions. Some hope that reforms initiated in April 2011 might strengthen the relatively weak legislature and judiciary. Yet it is unclear whether the reforms have the potential to alter the deeper balance of power within the opaque politico-military elite network that Algerians refer to as “Le Pouvoir” (the powers-that-be).

Domestic terrorism perpetrated by violent Islamists remains Algeria’s principal security
challenge. Algerian terrorists also operate across the southern border in the Sahel and 
are linked to terrorism abroad. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), is an Algerian-led criminal-terrorist network with roots in the
1990s civil conflict.

As the dominant economic and military power in the region, Algeria has attempted to take the lead in developing a regional approach to counterterrorism in the Sahel.
President Bouteflika’s tenure has produced an energized foreign policy. Strains in ties with
neighboring Morocco continue, due to the unresolved status of the Western Sahara and a rivalry
for regional power, although signs of a thaw have emerged in the past year. Relations with former
colonial power France remain complex and volatile. 

The legacy of Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle contributes to Algerian leaders’ desire to prevent direct foreign counter-terrorism intervention, their residual skepticism of French intentions, and Algeria’s positions on regional affairs, including a non-interventionist stance toward uprisings in Libya and Syria.

Alexis Arieff, January 18, 2012.

See also CRS Report R41070, Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence,
and Implications for U.S. Policy, coordinated by John Rollins; and CRS Report RS20962,
Western Sahara, by Alexis Arieff.

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