Creating new perspectives since 2009

Are Algeria and Tunisia holding friendly talks?

January 27, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Algeria and its neighbour Tunisia have increased the levels of their discrete bilateral cooperation. In a period of roughly a month and a half, Algerian and Tunisian officials met several times to discuss many issues in a series of meeting in Algiers.

In early August, Algeria’s Foreign Minister, Mourad Medelci, pointed out in a press conference co-hosted with his Tunisian counterpart Othmane Jarandi that “security cooperation between the two countries is essential to guarantee political stability in the region.” Mr Jarandi was later received by the Prime Minister of Algeria, Abdelmalek Sellal.

During this meeting, Mr Sellal highlighted the historical relationship between the two countries and expressed to his guest “the availability of Algeria to spare no effort for the purpose of further strengthening cooperation between the two brotherly countries”. At the end of the month Medelci greeted two special envoys of the Tunisian president. He reaffirmed Algeria’s position to adopt “all initiatives that may promote more important cooperation with Tunisia.” This diplomatic round culminated with the visit of Rachid Ghannouchi to Algiers last week.

The head of Tunisia’s ruling Al-Nahda Party was received by President Bouteflika. The two leaders expressed their “satisfaction” with the evolution of Algerian-Tunisian relations in security and the economy for the benefit of stability in the region. They vowed to renew their cooperation to fight terrorism. President Bouteflika likewise met with former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caïd Essebsi who informed the Algerian leader of “Tunisia’s ongoing effort” to meet the requirements of the political transitional stage.

Friendly relationships between Tunisia and Algeria are nothing new as the two countries have always been close, cooperating in many domains. The diplomatic activity of these past weeks, therefore, seems trivial. However, considering Algeria’s position in North Africa coupled with the eventful last couple of years that the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region has experienced, Algeria’s efforts to increase cooperation with Tunisia as well as its attempts to promote political stability may actually hide something other than genuine bilateral cooperation or a simple courtesy visit.

Since its independence Algeria has always been a major player in the MENA region due to its size, population and, of course, oil resources. Its position of leadership in the Arab Maghreb (West) is both natural and of major importance to the Algerian government. However, it is not undisputed. Historically, Morocco, Algeria’s other large neighbour and rival, proved to be a major challenge to Algeria’s prominence in the region. The two countries share a tumultuous history due in part to the Western Sahara conflict. Algeria’s support of the Polisario Front, the independence movement in Western Sahara, continues to plague its relationship with Morocco. The stand-off between North Africa’s two rivals is still a major issue that prevents any political unity in the area. Of course, Algeria’s leadership role in the Maghreb has faced other challenges such as the collapse of its ally the Soviet Union and a disastrous civil war from 1992 to 1999.

The Arab spring brought with it, besides domestic issues, new external influential players and new challenges to Algeria’s pre-eminence. In fact it provided the Gulf monarchies with an opportunity to play a more important role in the affairs of the Mahgreb as shown by their financial aid to the Islamic parties, notably the victorious Al-Nahda in Tunisia. Furthermore, the emergence of Islamic parties in Tunisia and Morocco allowed Qatar to strengthen its ties with these countries and intensify cooperation in the economic and investment fields. In summer 2012, during the visit of the Crown Prince of Qatar to Tunisia, several agreements covering a wide range of sectors (development, justice, oil and energy) were signed. This wave of investment also included Morocco where Qatar created a $2 billion joint venture to fund development projects.

Of course the Gulf monarchies’ support of regime change in Libya can also be viewed as another testimony to their will to play a more influential role in Maghrebi business. Although it would be mistaken to depict the Gulf support to Maghreb states as unified, as proven by Saudi Arabia’s suspicion of the Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt, it is nonetheless very real and could explain in part Algeria’s recent efforts to cooperate with Tunisia. Such cooperation, of course, includes commercial agreements such as the “preferential trade agreement” signed between the two countries aimed at reinvigorating commercial exchanges. These agreements became effective last August. Moreover, the fall of the Gaddafi regime, which only increased the risk of instability in the region, should be considered by Algeria as another threat to its interests and should serve as an incentive to increase security with its neighbours.

It would thus appear that the current policy of the Algerian government means to achieve just that. A mediation role in the Tunisian political scene could lead toward political stability in the country which would then increase security cooperation and cement Algeria’s position in the MENA area.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.