During an age of increasing autocracy around the world, Algeria’s ruling regime doesn’t inspire much confidence. In power since 1999, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has sailed into multiple terms thanks to constitutional changes critics say were aimed at keeping him head of state for life. Although presidential term limits were recently reintroduced, the 81-year-old rarely makes public appearances since suffering a stroke in 2013, and he has defied calls from opposition forces to step down over his health. Today, watchdog Freedom House classifies Algeria as “not free.”
Yet for all Bouteflika’s dubious, nondemocratic tendencies, experts say his country stands out another way in northern Africa. That’s because the Algerian military has singlehandedly kept an Islamist insurgency at bay — no mean feat in the Maghreb, a region long plagued by turmoil and terrorism. Having the right tools has certainly helped:
Algeria spends more than any other African country on defense and is the continent’s largest weapons importer.
With an annual defense budget of around $10 billion — more than double that of the runner-up, Sudan, which spends $4.4 billion — Algeria was responsible for importing 51 percent of Africa’s arms over the past five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. A quick look at the neighborhood explains why: It includes Libya, where the Islamic State has flourished amid a power vacuum; Mali, which is battling separatist and extremist violence in the north; and Niger, a base for the notorious terrorist group Boko Haram. Algeria shares at least several hundred miles of frontier with each, a fact that poses serious security concerns for the government. “For Algerians, it’s a question of survival,” says Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Profits from the lucrative oil trade have allowed the government to spend generously on defense. In recent years, Algeria has snapped up Russian fighter jets and tanks, Chinese artillery and frigates, as well as German armor and French radar systems. Meanwhile, the country’s recent history of violence — government troops clashed with Islamist rebels in a bitter, decade-long civil war in the 1990s — has hardened Algeria to the realities of warfare. “We call it the ‘Black Decade,’ which was a difficult time for the Algerian people,” says Walid Namane, an analyst at Control Risks, a strategic consultancy.
For the military, however, it was also a profound training experience. Years of battling Islamist guerrillas helped the security forces hone effective counterinsurgency strategies they later used to neutralize the sort of jihadist violence that exploded elsewhere in the region after the Arab Spring. Bouteflika’s consolidation of counterterrorism and military forces further improved the country’s fighting efficiency, Namane adds. Late last year, the ailing leader was tapped as the African Union’s counterterrorism coordinator.
Today, whatever is left of Algeria’s insurgency — represented by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — has been marginalized and banished to the northern mountainous areas and the south, says Yazbeck, of the Carnegie Middle East Center, from where it largely lacks the ability to stage meaningful strikes. So secure is the situation, she adds, that she feels safer in Algiers, the capital, than in Paris. “It is highly localized and highly sporadic,” Yazbeck says of the insurgency, “while in Paris, you don’t know where they can hit or how they can do it.”
Fighting terrorism isn’t exactly a valid excuse for stifling political pluralism, but Bouteflika and his ruling regime would probably argue it’s the price to pay for security. That, and billions of dollars each year.
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