Algeria approved constitutional amendments on Sunday that experts call an ambitious move to answer public demands after months of protests and to safeguard its borders against violent extremism spillover from Libya and other troubled neighbors.
Since its independence from France in 1962, the North African country’s constitution has stipulated that the army’s mission is to defend Algeria’s borders and sovereignty without breaching other nations’ sovereignty. That changed in the Nov. 1 referendum when articles 28 and 29 of the constitution where amended to allow cross-border operations upon the approval of two-thirds of its parliament and under the supervision of the Arab League, the African Union and the United Nations.
"It is a pragmatic choice, the region is unstable, and Algeria is surrounded by states, mainly Mali, Niger and Mauritania, that are considered to be fragile states, so Algeria needs to be ready if a conflict erupts in its neighbors,” Dalia Ghanem, Algerian resident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told VOA.
Ghanem said the new amendments to allow the army to carry out cross-border peacekeeping missions are an attempt by the new government to prepare Algerians for any future military interference in neighboring countries.
Algeria has been in political unrest since 2019, when thousands of its citizens took to the streets to protest an attempt by Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for president for a fifth consecutive term. The youth-led movement Hirak ended two decades of Bouteflika rule and brought Abdelmadjid Tebboune to power.
The Sunday referendum, which coincided with the anniversary of Algeria’s war for independence, approved the proposed changes with 66.8% of the votes despite a low turnout of about 23%.
The amendments introduced presidential term limits and created a new anti-corruption body, which the government says will help address the country’s economic crisis. Hirak, however, says the amendments fall short of fundamental reform.
The country’s political transition over the months has been increasingly rough as its borders became more vulnerable to insurgent groups infiltrating along the desert terrain.
The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) in September published its Algeria 2020 Crime and Safety Report that found terrorist groups remained active in the Sahara region where Algeria extends southward.
“[Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb] AQIM, AQIM-allied groups, and ISIS elements, including the Algerian affiliate locally known as Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria (JAK-A, now calling itself ISIS-Algeria), are present. These groups aspire to attack Algerian security services, local government targets, and Western interests,” the report said.
The report warned of “immediate cross-border threats” to Algeria, including the presence of 4,000 violent Libyan extremists near Algeria’s eastern border. It also cited concerns coming from Tunisia where AQIM leaders were trying to unify factions in Algeria.
While Algerian officials in the past were largely passive toward conflict in their region, they are now recognizing the necessity of military engagement in addition to diplomacy to assert their role in regional affairs, according to Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
“Algeria has been concerned regarding the security of its borders for years and has become particularly acute since the revolution in Libya, the Tuareg Rebellion in Mali of 2012, and of course several attacks in Algerian towns,” Lebovich said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Algeria has maintained close counterterrorism cooperation with the United States. Some observers say that the scope of security and military relations has improved in recent months because of the rising ability of jihadist groups to maneuver across North Africa.
“The U.S. is trying to have a more holistic and involved approach in the region and trying to continuingly foster a closer defense relationship with Algeria, particularly in a time when U.S. government is concerned about the influence of other powers in North Africa and West Africa, Russia, China and Turkey,” Lebovich said.
In late September, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, visited the Algerian capital, Algiers, where he met with President Tebboune to discuss increasing cooperation on regional stability.
“Algeria is a committed counterterrorism partner. They play a central role to the security of North Africa and the Mediterranean," Townsend said, stressing the region’s importance for the interests of the U.S., Africa and Europe.
In a separate visit on Oct. 1, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he spoke with Algerian officials about the threat imposed by extremist groups in the Sahara and Sahel regions.
"There are a number of areas where we plan to increase our cooperation, such as in counterterrorism. We look to improve our exercises and training together," Esper said. "We also discussed other issues involving our militaries, which I am confident will increase our interoperability as well."
Some experts say the recent top visits, while an extension of U.S. policy toward Algeria, indicate Washington predicts a growing military influence of Algiers as it shifts away from its non-interventionist position.
“We started to see more AQ [al-Qaida] activity in the Maghreb along with Malian Algerian border. The first time, from a State Department delegation, was in 2008 when it was the first time we discussed Mali with Algeria,” said Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Algeria (2006-08) and professor at Yale University.
“Esper’s visit is not a change in the policy, it is a continuation in the policy,” he told VOA.
While the new constitutional amendments can improve Algeria’s security, its main aim is to answer the reform demands of protesters on the streets, the Algerian government says.
President Tebboune had claimed that “Algerians will make history for a sought-after real change.” However, experts say the low voter turnout suggests that Hirak’s call for a boycott found support among a large population of Algerians.
Hirak is the first mass movement since the decade-long civil war (1991–2002) between Islamic guerrillas and the government. The war claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.
Some experts say the ghost of the civil war is still present in the country as it struggles to respond to challenges ranging from economic crisis to political unrest and extremist threat.
“Algeria’s internal political situation is difficult now; the Algerian economy is suffering [and], little by little, its foreign exchange reserves are disappearing,” Ford said, adding that these conditions are similar the crisis of legitimacy and political unrest that led to the internal conflict of the 1990s.