The fight against terrorism is central to Algeria’s will to embrace new values, and this determination has made it a natural ally of the United States. Now the country has shrugged off the nationalistic socialism that characterized its identity following independence and is a beacon of regional stability

When George Bush sent a congratulatory message to Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, on the occasion of the country’s 40th anniversary of independence this July 5, there was more than just diplomatic courtesy at stake. In the post-September 11 world, in which the Bush administration has divided nations into those who are with America and those who are against it, Algeria is firmly on the side of the United States.

Algeria has been at war with terror for a decade, since the then military regime annulled elections, which Islamic fundamentalists seemed set to win, leading to civil strife. It is not entirely over, but the conflict has been dramatically reduced since President Bouteflika came to power in 1999. This has led the Chief-of-Staff of Algeria’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Mohammed Lamari, to speak of victory.

That sentiment was echoed in President Bush’s fraternal greetings in July. He pledged his support for Mr. Bouteflika’s continuing efforts to heighten security. But he added: “I am aware of the fact that, in addition to your efforts in fighting terrorism, you are sparing no effort in order to achieve necessary political and economic reforms for your people.”

Indeed, in the long-term, it is those political and economic reforms that really count, and will determine just how close an ally and partner Algeria will be for the United States. In line with his predecessors, President Bush has stressed that democracy, freedom and the free market are not just core American values, but desirable universal norms as well.

This has meant – and will continue to mean for some time – big changes for a country like Algeria, which first responded to gaining its hard-won independence from France by following a highly nationalistic and socialist road. In the 1970s, it was seen as a beacon by much of the Third World, but some of the political rhetoric coming out of Algiers at that time went over like a lead balloon in Washington.

Nonetheless, Algeria’s rich oil and gas resources were something U.S. energy companies were not going to miss out on. And although the areas of activity they could get involved in were tightly circumscribed, the investment and return have been impressive. With the liberalization that is now taking place throughout the Algerian economy, such opportunities can only grow.

A cynic might say that if Algeria did not have some of the biggest hydrocarbon reserves in Africa, the U.S. just wouldn’t be interested. But that would be unfair. Nor is it simply that there are plenty of other commercial opportunities for U.S. firms, in sectors such as housing. Politically and strategically, Algeria is extremely important for U.S. interests.

The State Department realizes that the stability and prosperity of the three Maghreb neighbors, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, is vital not just for the region but for the world as a whole. The U.S. may be geographically much more distant than the European Union or sub-Saharan Africa, but it has no intention of standing aside from the Maghreb’s evolution.

The Bush administration aspires to build a new security relationship with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, which could lead to joint military exercises and intelligence sharing. And it is keen to assist where possible in improving relations between the three states.

On the Algerian side, President Bouteflika has made no secret of his desire to preside over a new era in U.S.–
Algerian relations. John F. Kennedy was in the White House when Algeria achieved its independence. At the time, he expressed the American people’s solidarity with their Algerian counterparts. Forty years on, that may truly be becoming a reality.