The chaotic situation in northern Mali, occupied by Islamist militants that include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) since earlier this year, prompted Bamako this week to seek UN authorisation for outside help in reclaiming the north.
Algeria, where the terror network’s north African branch originated, has made the rejection of foreign military intervention central to its diplomacy, as in Syria, and in Libya, where it opposed NATO’s campaign last year.
But it shares a long border with its southern neighbour, where the unrest, that led to the murder of an Algerian diplomat this month by an offshoot of AQIM, may be pushing the government to revise its post-colonial foreign policy.
Algeria “simply does not have the capacity to play the role it once did,” argues Chafik Mesbah, an Algerian defence expert, referring to the country’s leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement during the 1970s.
More recently, Algiers acted as external mediator in an ill-fated accord reached between Tuareg rebels and the Malian authorities in 2006.
But the limits to its influence were made painfully clear in March when the Tuaregs declared independence in northern Mali following a military coup in the capital before being swept aside by the Islamists.
Algeria has so far resisted the tumultuous political changes that the Arab Spring unleashed across the region, containing an outburst of strikes and protests by raising salaries, even if inflation has exceeded seven percent in recent months.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika also launched piecemeal political reforms this year, but legislative elections in May saw the historic ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), tighten its decades-long grip on power.
“Algeria is above all minded to want to save the furniture, that’s to say, concentrate on internal unity and leave the rest,” Mesbah said.
Stability is a “fundamental issue” for Algeria’s leaders, said Rachid Tlemcani, professor of international politics and regional security at the University of Algiers.
“Between now and 2014 (when the next presidential election is due) they want unity and social peace at any price, always with an eye on what is happening very nearby, whether to the south (Mali and Niger) or to the east (Tunisia and Libya),” he said.
Algeria fears “that military intervention could awaken regional, religious or ethnic extremism, and risks opening a Pandora’s box,” Tlemcani added.
Algeria, the largest country in Africa, is populated in the north by Arabs and Berbers, and by nomads in the vast desert regions of the south, most of them Tuaregs with cross-border family ties.
“An explosion in the south would destabilise the north all the way to Morocco. That would be unavoidable,” he argued.
Algeria and Morocco have been at odds over Western Sahara since Rabat occupied the former Spanish colony in 1975, with Algiers backing the separatist Polisario Front. The border between the two countries has been closed since 1994.
In the event of regional military intervention, “the principle of the inviolability of borders will be challenged, with the risk of implosion as happened in Somalia,” Tlemcani said.
A diplomat and regional expert said the Algerian authorities also feared “finding themselves in a new confrontation” with Al-Qaeda’s north African branch.
Stemming from a group of radical Islamists active during Algeria’s devastating 1992-2002 civil war, AQIM formally subscribed to Al-Qaeda’s ideology in 2007. After a string of high-profile attacks, the army managed to severely curtail its operations.
In this context, “the Algerians will certainly not intervene militarily, at least not openly,” the diplomat argued, an opinion shared by the other analysts.
If Bamako and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has 3,300 regional troops on standby, attempt to reconquer the north, “Algeria will be pragmatic” and will not condemn the intervention, he said.
Bearing in mind its internal problems, “Algeria will never be wrong-footed by decisions taken abroad” on military intervention in Mali, agreed Chafik Mesbah.