Q&A: In an interview with TRT World, North Africa expert Abdennour Toumi described the region's political upheavals and discussed the potential for closer cooperation between Algeria and Turkey - including in the Libya conflict.
After years of isolation in foreign policy matters under Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled the North African country with an iron fist for 20 years, Algeria is experiencing a strategic reorientation, chipping away from its old allies such as former colonial powers France and Russia. Instead, the new Algerian government is building new relations, diversifying its contacts through pragmatic cooperation with countries like Turkey.
TRT World spoke to Algerian expert Abdennour Toumi to get an insight into Algeria's ongoing transition from being an isolationist regime to an open, democratic one.
TRT World: In Algerian-Turkish relations there have recently been indications that a political rapprochement between the two countries could take place. How do you assess this possibility?
ABDENNOUR TOUMI: Algeria will definitely look for new regional partners under the new government. This includes Turkey, of course. That is a plus and a solid enrichment not only for Algiers, but also for Ankara.
In particular, the political impasse in Libya will improve relations between the two countries in order to find a long-term solution. Algiers is prepared to hold direct talks with all parties to the conflict. Algeria does not want Libya to disintegrate into a failed state or warlord state.
Nevertheless, Algeria does not want to intervene directly militarily, but it does want to contribute to a political solution.
"There will be great cooperation with Turkey, Tunisia and Algeria, and we will be in an alliance," Libya's Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said at a press conference in Tunis. Is such a geopolitical rapprochement really possible?
AT: The statement by Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga is significant. In view of the policy of balance between all super and regional powers and the developments in Libya, a powerful sub-regional system must be revived and supported by Turkey because of its close links and good relations with all Maghreb countries.
The Libyan crisis has become a problem for rapprochement between the countries of the Maghreb. The main reason for this is the questionable persistence of Khalifa Haftar and his international supporters, who do not want to see a subregional system emerge. They do not want a Maghreb region cooperating with each other to replace the politically irrelevant Arab League. Nor does anyone have an interest in this region demanding concessions from EU countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and France.
Turkey and Algeria are both key states, both countries have been targeted and face serious national security threats at their borders - so both countries are looking forward to a new phase of public diplomacy to strengthen their crucial link to the optimal functioning of regional policy. That is why Turkey's call for Algeria and Tunisia to participate in the Berlin Summit in the coming weeks is important. But the recent developments in Libya call into question whether a summit in Berlin can still take place at all.
Can you clarify the question of hegemony in the Maghreb?
AT: For example, France still sees the region psychologically as its backyard. The fact is that the region has changed significantly over the last 10 years. We are seeing an increasing presence of the United States, China and Turkey in the Maghreb.
As far as the geopolitical rapprochement between Turkey and North African countries is concerned, I believe it is a must, and this goes hand in hand with the desire of the people in the region to send out a strong message of change. There has been a glimmer of hope at least since the Tunisian parliamentary and presidential elections last autumn and the recent presidential elections in Algeria. The new governments offer Turkey completely new opportunities to expand bilateral cooperation.
In this way, Turkey is challenging the hypocritical attitude of Russia and France. It is precisely these countries that are only concerned about their own geo-economic interests. A win-win situation is not their first interest.
How have relations between the former colonial power France and Algeria developed in recent years in their opinion?
AT: From Algiers' point of view, Algerian-French relations are in a very changeable political mood, as the recent political statements of some French politicians in Paris, especially from the left and the extreme right-wing party of Marine Le Pen, were not well received by the government or the population.
It must be stressed, however, that Paris will never stay away from Algerian politics. What is even more impressive is that Paris declared the affairs in Algiers to be a national security interest. Pragmatic Algerians describe this relationship as a “hate & love” story. It is important to know that France's influence is deeply rooted in Algerian society. Especially in the yuppy elite and the higher class.
Symbolic of the relationship between the two countries is this still politically highly heated discussion about whether English could possibly replace French as the first foreign language in Algerian educational institutions. The current Minister of Higher Education is pushing for a generalisation of English at universities instead of French. This is, of course, a development that France does not like at all.
Has the disempowerment of ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the death of the Chief of Staff, Gaid Salah, changed the political climate in Algiers?
AT: One senses a new confidence that the military and the new president are developing. Both have more room for the country's foreign policy imperatives and goals to diversify their behaviour towards Russia, China on the one hand and the US on the other. This will make Paris panic. In addition, France is conducting an absolutely surreal foreign policy in Libya, which will make the situation of France even worse. The anti-French attitude exists not only in the Sahel but also in the Maghreb.