On April 2, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned from office, after seven weeks of mass protests, and a request from the chief of staff of Algeria’s armed forces, Ahmed Gaed Salah, to step down. Even though the Algerian protesters regarded Bouteflika’s resignation as their primary goal, unrest continued as Algeria’s new acting president, Abdelkader Bensalah, was criticized for his loyalty to Bouteflika, and Salah’s military-brokered transition plan gained an unfavorable reception amongst opposition activists.
Although Algerian law calls for elections to be held within ninety days of Bouteflika’s resignation, Algeria’s future stability hangs uneasily in the balance. While the Algerian opposition continues to emphasize its commitment to peaceful resistance, it appears unwilling to accept a compromise that allows any member of the existing National Liberation Front (FLN)-dominated political establishment, called Le Pouvoir, to retain power. The leaderless nature of the Algerian opposition suggests that prolonged unrest could cause it to factionalize and disperse, which could allow organized Islamist movements operating on the fringes of the protests, like the Muslim Brotherhood or Movement for National Reform, to expand their political influence.
The Algerian military has attempted to restrain the momentum of opposition movements and Islamist organizations by invoking memories of the 1991-2002 Algerian civil war, which began as a result of a grassroots Islamist movement, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)’s victory in the 1991 legislative elections. Although these calls for stability prevented unrest in Algeria during the Arab Spring, they have not appeased opposition activists, who link Algeria’s stagnant political system to pervasive corruption, the misuse of the country’s natural gas resources, and rising youth unemployment.
The impending clash between the Algerian military and opposition movements will likely culminate in one of two potential scenarios. The first, and most plausible outcome, is a military-guided election process, which causes an establishment political figure with a reformist image, in the mold of former Prime Minister Moloud Hamrouche, to win power at the ballot box. A politician of this kind would be hailed as a political stabilizer, who would consult with the opposition to defuse unrest, while still upholding the military’s supremacy over Algerian politics. This settlement could give disproportionate representation to breakaway FLN members, who could strike a compromise with the military in exchange for a role in the transition, and limit the influence of less pragmatic actors, like the socialist FFS party.
The second outcome is a military coup d’etat led by Ahmed Gaed Salah. This scenario would likely occur if a contentious election cycle results in the conversion of peaceful demonstrations into violent protests that threaten to destabilize Algeria. As Salah has strained relations with the presidential administration, the military chief could align with influential politicians who are detached from ex-President Bouteflika’s inner circle, like the FLN’s former Secretary General, Amar Saadani, to consolidate power.
As the balance of forces in Algeria are still in flux, Russia’s interests are maximized by maintaining a position of non-alignment in an internal power struggle and facilitating dialogue between rival factions. Russia is viewed favorably by the Algerian military, due to historic links which date back to the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence, and by numerous opposition factions, which have supported Algeria’s decision to accept the risk of retaliatory U.S. punitive measures by purchasing Russian military technology.
As Algeria purchases two-thirds of its arms from Russia and Moscow aligns closely with Algiers on regional crises, the Russian government can leverage its array of intra-Algerian diplomatic partnerships to act as an honest broker that appeases factional tensions. Russia can also use its growing prestige within the Middle East to urge great powers and regional actors to refrain from interfering in Algeria’s delicate political situation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has astutely noted that foreign interference will increase the risk of Libya-style instability breaking out in Algeria. Maintaining consistency on this narrative would ensure it gains the ear of regional actors like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, who could be tempted to facilitate a military coup. Acting like an indifferent stakeholder could ensure Russia maintains its economic interests in Algeria, regardless of who assumes power, and enhance Moscow’s status as a collective security provider in North Africa.
Although Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s departure is a seminal moment in Algeria’s recent history, the Algerian military’s growing assertiveness and ongoing unrest have raised the risk of prolonged political instability in Algeria. In this uncertain climate, Russia should uphold a policy of strategic non-alignment and discourage foreign interference that could spark a cascade of violence in North Africa.