After decades of struggling with political dissent and claims for increased regional autonomy in the northern region of Kabyle north, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime has since 2013 been confronted with a comparable challenge in its Saharan South. This has pushed the regime to reconfigure the country’s internal geopolitics and the perception of its vast Saharan spaces, as well as the turbulent areas in the neighboring Sahel countries. The dramatic deterioration of order on the periphery of its borders has raised the potential risk of spillovers into Algeria’s treasure-chest southern territory. Taming regional disorder has acquired special urgency as the precariousness of the southern frontiers has been catapulted into a situation of acute social crisis and ethnic tensions. This prospect of destabilization of Algeria’s economic heartland is shaking up the internal geopolitical order, leading to a probable reorientation from the traditional east-west axis to a north–south axis. Whether the grave regional turmoil becomes a source of instability in Algeria’s south, and whether the seething discontent of its southern populations will turn violent or foment separatist predilections, remains unclear. The examples of Sudan, Iraq and Ukraine, however, suggest that regional resentment and unresolved ethnic frictions have become a major strategic challenge for regional powers.

Anouar Boukhars
Boukhars is a nonresident fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is a professor of countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University.
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Within the social sciences and international relations at least two explanatory models for regional dissent and separatist aspirations exist that are relevant to consider when analyzing Algeria’s challenge in the South. One body of literature emphasizes the role of external factors, claiming that military intervention, in particular, actively contributes to undermining the power of the central government by delegitimizing its ability to claim authority over peripheral territories. From that perspective the spillover effects from the recent French military intervention in Mali south of Algerian border in January 2013 may indeed explain the current pattern of instability in southern Algeria. Another body of literature emphasizes internal political factors as key variables for generating separatist, autonomist, and federalist movements. As Roland Pourtier shows, regional contestation is in some cases explainable by the institutional weakness of the state and its incapacity to strike an equitable balance in its decentralization and local governance policies.1Indeed, state break-up is often preceded by regional disorder. Marie Jose Jolivet and Philippe Léna (2000) show, however, how social and political strains that population groups with a common cultural identity perceive can be channeled into ethnic contestation and rejection of central government.And from a third perspective, Philippe Sébille-Lopez’s study of Nigeria (2005) demonstrates how the perception of not receiving sufficient reinvestment may lead population groups living in the territories where extraction takes place to support armed groups that oppose the central government or international extraction companies.3

From this perspective, the enduring inability of the postcolonial Algerian regime to address ethnic, religious and regional contestation as political challenges—rather than security challenges emanating from conspiracies against national unity—provides a fruitful analytical model for explaining the current instability in the south. This chapter argues that this instability, which has emerged during Bouteflika’s time in office, is due to the combination of society’s internal transformation in the Sahara and the government’s obsolete regional policies.4 More informed and better organized, population groups in the Sahara have come to understand that the natural resources beneath the territories they inhabit are vital for the regime’s survival. In consequence, the regime is being forced to rethink its geopolitics in the South, to strike a balance that these population groups perceive as more equitable than the current and past ones.

Taming the Frontier

As the main focal point of the oil and gas industry, the south looms large in Algeria’s security perceptions.  Its wealth and size—it encompasses more than 80% of the national territory—have contributed enormously to Algeria’s geostrategic position and economic standing. But despite being celebrated as the country’s savior, the south is little understood.The paradoxes of history and differences in identity development amplify the sense of otherness of a region that was long cut off from the national territory by colonial diktat.  Up until 1957, Algeria’s Sahara desert was not administratively part of French Algeria. The region’s particularity increased as oil and gas began to flow in 1956.  To mark its dominance of the southern territories, the following year the French created the ‘French Departments of the Sahara’, formally separating them from the Algerian north. However, unyielding tenacity of purpose and ferocious resistance to French domination eventually forced French President Charles De Gaulle to come to terms with the reality that no peace negotiations could materialize unless the future of the Sahara was tied to Algeria’s north.6

The fragility of the historical connection of the sparsely populated Saharan desert to the rest of Algeria meant that after independence, the state had to incorporate this vast region into the rest of the country. However, distance and a forbidding climate hampered movements of people and social interaction between an Arab and Berber North and a mainly Tuareg and black South. For the state, the top priority was to tame the frontier and develop its massive resource base. The goal was never really to foster deep integration between north and south. To a large extent, the state succeeded in transforming the Sahara into a strategic redoubt and a hydrocarbon lifeline that underpins regime survival. Even at the height of the civil war in the 1990s, the south and its oil installations were immune to attacks. In fact, it was in the deep south where the state interned thousands of Islamists and their sympathizers in concentration camps. This veneer of defensiblity and stability, however, started to show signs of cracking after the Arab uprisings of 2011. The dramatic 2013 terrorist attack on a remote gas plant in In Amenas in the south east Algeria punctured the aura of invulnerability of Algeria’s energy installations. Coming as it did on the heels of other suicide attacks on Tamanrasset and Ouargala, Algeria’s south suddenly found itself in the eye of the storm....

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Roland Pourtier, “Reconstruire le territoire pour reconstruire l’Etat : la RDC à la croisée des chemins,” Afrique contemporaine (2008).

Marie José Jolivet and Philippe Léna, “Des territoires aux identities,”Autrepart (2000): 5-16.

P. Sébille-Lopez, “Les hydrocarbures au Nigéria et la redistribution de la rente pétrolière,” Afrique contemporaine (2005).

The Algerian Sahara is populated mainly by nomadic Tuaregs, the pastoralist, nomadic Chaamba tribesmen of Arab origin and the sedentary Mozabites. The latter are berber-speaking Ibadis who live in the M'zab valley in the northern Sahara and whose numbers do not exceed 300,000. The Chaamba who follow the Maliki school Islamic law are found near Ouargla and Ghardaïa while the Tuareg are mainly present in the central and southern Saharan massifs of Hoggar and Tassili n’Ajjer. The Tuareg constitute a small minority, comprising less than 0.1 per cent of the Algerian population. See “Ethnicity, regionalism and political stability in Algeria's Grand Sud,” The Journal of North African Studies, (2003)8:3-4, 67-96.

Cherif Ouazani, « Le Grand Sud, l'autre Algérie,” Jeune Afrique 14 May, 2012.

Michel Piolat, “Nord-sud : nouvel axe géopolitique de l’Algérie?” Ligue des droits de l’Homme : Section d’Aix-en-Provence.

This chapter was originally published in Luis Martinez and Rasmus Alenius Boserup, eds. Algeria Modern From Opacity to Complexity (London: Hurst & Co., 2016) and (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).