Rabat – The new Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune announced the names of the members of his cabinet on Thursday, just one day after his appointment. Most notably, the PM had Ramtane Lamamra concede his position as chief diplomat to Abdelkader Messahel, his previous co-Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of the Maghreb, the African Union and the Arab League.
Putting an end to the ministry’s dual leadership signals a shift in Algeria’s diplomatic strategy, with the aim of blunting the edge Morocco has held onto in Africa and the Arab world.
Algeria’s Man in Africa
Messahel has developed networks in many African nations. For three decades he has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, mainly in charge of African affairs.
His designation as Algeria’s chief diplomat indicates the regime is shifting its foreign policy strategy towards Africa. The continent has become a diplomatic battleground between Algeria and Morocco.
In addition to the question of Western Sahara, the two countries have competed for regional influence in the Libyan and Mali crises.
Morocco’ success in the continent, crowned by its triumphant reintegration to the African Union (UA) in January after thirty three years of absence, has put Algeria in a difficult spot.
The kingdom also managed to strike a deal with Nigeria to build a gas pipeline linking Africa and Europe, something which Algiers and Abuja could not agree on despite years of negotiations.
Morocco’s new position in the continent has led some Algerian observers to criticize their government for lacking the vision to implement a true diplomatic strategy in Africa.
“The Moroccan neighbor is extending its influence in the continent at an impressive speed,” wrote Algerian writer Mohamed Benchicou in a satirical article published on Le Matin in November 2016.
The Sleeping Neanderthal
Benchicou’s article compared his country to a neanderthal who has suddenly woken up and walked out of his grove to find out that Morocco was diplomatically conquering Africa through economic partnerships.
Algerian authorities wanted to copy Morocco’s model, so they started discussing economic opportunities in the continent and convened a forum for investment in Africa, which later turned out to be a flop.
The new Algerian discourse appeared unconvincing due to being hastily adopted, while the country’s economic and political reality cast doubt over its potential success.
“How can we honor a partnership with Africa when our industry has collapsed, when our non-oil energy national production is almost non-existent, when our national investors are reduced to immobilism, when we are lagging so much behind in governance?” wrote Benchicou.
In December 2016 the first Forum for Investment in Africa was held in Algiers, in partnership between the government and the country’s union of businessmen, Forum des chefs d’entreprises (FCE).
“The African Investment Forum in Algeria Turned Into a Real Fiasco,” was the title of one article by Agenceafrique.com about the incident.
“Algeria, which is now facing an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, is awkwardly trying to bar the way for its Moroccan neighbor’s successful expansion in Africa.”
For these reasons, Messahel willhave a difficult task ahead of him as the Algerian regime continues its attempt to ‘reconquer’ Africa.
One Department, Two Ministers
Lamamra and Messahel’s time at the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs saw a tense partnership, as both men vied for influence.
The government reshuffle in May 2015 clearly demonstrated the rivalry between the two ministers. Lamamra maintained his position as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Messahel, who up to that was serving as Minister Delegate for Maghreb and African Affairs was elevated as Minister of Maghreb and African Affairs and International Cooperation.
Three days later, the Algerian Presidency seemed to change his mind, promoting Lamamra to Minister of State, of Foreign Affairs, and of “International Cooperation,” which was taken from the title previously given to Messahel.
Tout sur l’Algérie (TSA), one of Algeria’s leading online news outlets, described the confusing incident as “a complicated gymnastics which has raised a lot of questions on the way the country’s foreign policy is run.”
The incident mirrored a larger dynamic at the top of the Algerian regime, where part of the army and the presidential clan compete for power. Sacking or appointing ministers, with loyalty to one side or the other, is part of the chess game between these two factions clans.