President Abdelaziz Bouteflika votes in Algiers on Thursday..
(photo credit: ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS)
When Yuval Steinitz, minister of strategic affairs, criticized last week an agreement that allows Iran to move toward a rapid breakout to nuclear weapons capability, he said it would spark “Sunni Arab countries like Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, perhaps also Turkey and the UAE, to seek to launch a nuclear-arms race.”
Algeria, which saw the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Thursday, who secured his fourth term as the country’s president in a vote marked by irregularities, could be an increasingly important factor for Israel.
The stroke-ridden and wheelchair- bound 77-year-old Bouteflika will oversee a country riddled with corruption, stagnation and social unrest among its huge youth generation.
Algeria in 2014 mirrors in some ways the former Egypt until the removal of president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Algeria has not been front-and-center in Israel’s national security priorities, largely because the country has not become a hub of anti-Israel terrorism.
There are, however, troubling signs.
Bulgaria’s government announced earlier this month that a suspect in the 2012 bombing of an Israeli tour bus in the Black Sea resort of Burgas, who was trained by Hezbollah in south Lebanon, was an Algerian national. The terror attack caused the deaths of five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver.
Algeria works closely with the US and its European partners to root-out al-Qaida networks. In January 2013, the Signed in Blood Battalion, an al-Qaida- linked group, stormed an Algerian gas plant. The three-day hostage crisis resulted in the deaths of 40 workers and 39 Islamic radicals. That attack jolted the Algerian security establishment.
It is worth noting that Bouteflika has used his country’s counterterrorism system to dismantle opposition parties and any semblance of democracy.
As for Israel, the standard call to condemn the Jewish state for the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process was voiced Tuesday by Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra.
Bouteflika is neither an Anwar Sadat nor a King Hussein. There are no plans to open diplomatic relations with Israel.
To his credit, Bouteflika played a crucial role in ending Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s. The blood-drenched conflict between Islamists and security forces resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 people. The international community mainly yawned at the spectacular violence.
The genesis of the 2011 Arab revolts can be traced to the 1991 Algeria election, which the Islamic Salvation Front won. In response, Algeria’s military and secular dictatorship pulled the plug on the vote. Consequently, a civil war erupted.
Writing in US News & World Report last week, Caitlin Poling, the director of government relations at the Foreign Policy Initiative, noted that “the dangers of a destabilized Algeria cannot be overstated. As the largest nation in Africa, Algeria borders Libya and Mali, two nations that are homes to jihadist insurgencies, and thus provides a bulwark against the spread of ideologies of violent extremism. The collapse of Algeria’s bulwark could lead to large swaths of ungoverned territory in which terror groups could find safe haven, creating an even graver threat to international security than what currently exists in neighboring countries.”
All of this helps to explain that a collapse of the Algerian state – or sections of the country – could result in a new terrorist-weapons pipeline into Israel’s sphere of concern. Just as Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya – admittedly a radically different political state than its neighbor – fragmented and led to a proliferation of weapons into Israel’s backyard, the pattern could emerge in Algeria. The Gaza Strip and the northern Sinai are flooded with Libyan arms.
Weapons from Libya are also in circulation in Syria.
In sharp contrast to Egypt’s role in the region, Algeria has not been a bellwether country for understanding trends in the Middle East and North Africa. In retrospect, Algeria might very well have been the trendsetter among the collapse of the post-Ottoman Empire order. See its 1991 Islamic revolt.
The Middle East expert Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in a 2011 Bloomberg View article that “the next Arab domino may be oil darling Algeria.” He observed that “since 1990, Algeria has been a volcano waiting to explode again. The revolts in Libya and Tunisia have probably brought that day closer. The coming shock to energy markets and America’s role in the region may not be small.”
An Algerian revolt or awakening may jolt Israel’s role in the region. Will Israel be prepared for the demise of the current Algerian state? Benjamin Weinthal reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.