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Monday, December 9, 2013

Algeria: Current Issues - RS21532

Alexis Arieff
Analyst in African Affairs

U.S.-Algerian ties have grown over the past decade as the United States has come to view Algeria as a key partner in countering Al Qaeda-linked groups in North and West Africa. Algeria is also a significant source of petroleum for the United States and of natural gas for Europe, and its energy sector is a destination for U.S. investment. Congress appropriates and oversees small amounts of foreign aid and reviews notifications of arms sales. Algerian security forces also benefit from U.S. cooperation programs. Obama Administration officials have stated a desire to deepen and broaden bilateral ties, including in the aftermath of a four-day terrorist hostage seizure at a natural gas compound in southeastern Algeria in January 2013, in which three Americans were killed. The attack highlighted the challenges the United States faces in advancing and protecting its interests in an increasingly volatile region.

The terrorist group that seized the hostages is a breakaway faction of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a regional network and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization with roots in Algeria’s 1990s civil conflict. Given Algeria’s large military and available financial resources, U.S. officials have expressed support for Algerian efforts to marshal a regional response to terrorist threats. Yet Algeria’s relations with neighboring states are complex and sometimes distrustful, at times hindering cooperation. Meanwhile, any U.S. unilateral action in response to regional security threats could present significant risks and opportunity costs.

Algeria’s political system is dominated by a strong presidency and security apparatus. Elections are regularly held, but political dynamics appear to be dominated by opaque politico-military elite networks that Algerians refer to as Le Pouvoir (the powers-that-be). The political system has remained stable amid regional upheaval since 2011. Yet Algerians face future uncertainty as President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s third term in office draws to a close in 2014, and as key military and intelligence commanders age. President Bouteflika’s ill health prompted him to seek treatment abroad for nearly three months in mid-2013. He has since sought to reassert his authority, and appears likely to seek a fourth term in office.

Algeria’s macroeconomic position is strong due to high global oil and gas prices, which have allowed it to amass large foreign reserves. Yet wealth has not necessarily trickled down, and the pressures of unemployment, high food prices, and housing shortages weigh on many families. Public unrest over political and economic grievances has at times been evident, though other factors may have dampened enthusiasm for dramatic political change.

Algeria’s foreign policy has often conflicted with that of the United States. Strains in ties with neighboring Morocco continue, due to the unresolved status of the Western Sahara and a rivalry for regional influence. The legacy of Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle contributes to Algerian leaders’ desire to prevent direct foreign intervention, their residual skepticism of French and NATO intentions, and their positions on regional affairs, including a non-interventionist stance toward the uprising in Syria and an ambivalent approach to external military intervention in neighboring Mali. See also CRS Report RS20962, Western Sahara.

Date of Report: November 18, 2013
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: RS21532
Price: $29.95

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