Will regional border tensions create the “rally around the flag” effect that Algeria’s regime appears to hope for?
Rabat – Algiers’ use of diversionary foreign policy is distorting perceptions on border tensions between Algeria and Morocco.
Global news outlets around the world are increasingly writing about simmering border tensions between Morocco and Algeria. While tensions and mutual distrust are undoubtedly real, the source of tensions is often ignored.
By using a well-known strategy called ‘diversionary foreign policy,’ Algeria is attempting to divert domestic attention away from local crises and instead focus attention on perceived foreign threats.
Over the past few months, plenty of examples of Algeria’s diversionary foreign policy have emerged.
Algerian officials have warned citizens of a “zionist” threat at the border after Morocco normalized relations with Israel. It has framed Morocco’s cannabis legalization as a Moroccan tactic to spread “drug addiction” in Algeria, amid spreading a continuous barrage of Western Sahara-related misinformation online.
Diversionary War Theory
Algeria appears to be applying a strategy that will be familiar to most students of political science and international relations. The strategy is called “diversionary foreign policy,” a version of the Diversionary War theory which refers to foreign policy moves explicitly intended to use a foreign threat to galvanize or placate a domestic audience.
Algerians are expressing their frustration through mass protests which constitutes a threat to the country’s ruling elite in Algiers. In response to this domestic issue, Algeria’s leadership appears to apply a diversionary foreign policy to distract citizens and create a false “rally around the flag” syndrome.
“Rally around the flag syndrome” refers to citizens of a nation coming together in the face of a crisis or foreign threat. With Algeria at peace and facing few foreign threats, its elite appears to be conjuring up an imaginary border crisis with Morocco using a diversionary foreign policy.
Currently, Algeria’s domestic crises have generated an “in-group” of disgruntled citizens, with the country’s elite as the “out-group.” By presenting Algerians with a foreign enemy, politicians in Algiers hope to create a new “in-group,” a united Algerian population, with Morocco playing the role of the perceived “out-group.”
This strategy has been used for centuries, namely by notable leaders such as Otto von Bismarck who used a conflict with France to finally unite Germany. More recently, diversionary foreign policy was used to great success by US President George W. Bush and his father, both of whom saw their approval ratings soar after launching conflicts in the Middle East.
For Algeria, diversionary foreign policy does not mean having to start an actual conflict. Instead, it uses the perceived threat of a foreign foe despite the absence of a real war.
Using diversionary foreign policy amid very real tensions and public mistrust is a risky strategy.
Disingenuous moves by Algeria that generate tensions are inflaming public opinion and creating unnecessary conflict between two nations that would be better served through peace and cooperation.
Algeria’s diversionary foreign policy is aimed at a domestic audience, yet does not occur in a vacuum.
The border issue at Figuig this week again provided an example of how Algeria’s strategy victimizes both countries’ citizens, while unnecessarily inflaming tensions among civilians.
The Figuig border crisis has since become a national issue, with the hashtag “free Figuig” circulating as Moroccans express their anger. In reality, the issue impacts the livelihoods of a few dozen families at most, yet it has become a national topic of discussion that is fueling mistrust.
In Figuig, Algeria’s diversionary foreign policy is generating local resentment while robbing locals of their livelihood. On a broader scale, Moroccans and Algerians are being manipulated into mutual distrust that undermines the long-term objective of Maghrebi collaboration and peace.
Morocco is treating Algeria’s foreign policy moves with kids’ gloves, careful to not trigger an actual conflict while trying to raise awareness of the diversionary nature of Algiers’ strategy.
To the casual observer, tensions are brewing in the Maghreb, and a possible clash between two heavily armed North African nations is a possibility.
On closer inspection, such a clash could only happen if the diversionary foreign policy of Algeria has the unfortunate, and likely unintentional, consequence of triggering an actual clash.