Can Ramtane Lamamra bring back Algeria’s golden age of diplomacy?

By Farid Alilat

Posted on Tuesday, 31 August 2021 14:29
Ramtane Lamamra, 20 March 2019, in Berlin © Carsten Koall/ZUMA Press/ZUMA/REA

Ramtane Lamamra, Algeria’s new foreign affairs minister, is having to deal with several pressing issues, including the Sahara, the Libyan crisis, Mali’s instability and Israel’s newly acquired observer state status within the African Union. Algeria hopes that his experience and interpersonal skills will help ensure that its voice is heard on the continent.

Shortly before the fall of President Bouteflika, some had predicted that the career of diplomat Ramtane Lamamra would come to an inglorious end. However, he returned on 12 March 2019, during the middle of Hirak as minister of foreign affairs and deputy prime minister.

Lamamra’s mission was to organise the transitional period that would allow the country to emerge from the political crisis that had unfolded, following Bouteflika’s announcement that he intended to run for a fifth term.

A 43-year career

20 days later, Lamamra had not only been dismissed but was also left with a tarnished reputation, as his compatriots reproached him for having tried to save the Bouteflika house. On 30 March 2019, Lamamra left the country, resumed his post as high representative of the African Union (AU) “to silence the guns in Africa” and then ran unsuccessfully for the post of UN special envoy to Libya, before going into hiding. After a 43-year career, the time for retirement seemed to have come.

But on 8 July, to everyone’s surprise, Lamamra made his comeback as minister of foreign affairs and the national community abroad, as part of Aymen Benabderrrahmane’s government. As soon as he was appointed, the new head of Algerian diplomacy received several congratulatory phone calls from African and European heads of state, some of whom are long-time friends.

“These messages are marks of respect and expressions of confidence,” says one of Lamamra’s old acquaintances. “They also demonstrate that foreign partners are willing to work with him. Never before has an Algerian minister been congratulated by foreign leaders after his appointment.”

The huge buildings situated on the heights of Algiers, which have housed the ministry’s headquarters since 2011, hold no secrets for Lamamra. He knows their every nook and cranny, as he headed the diplomatic service between September 2013 and May 2017.

As soon as he returned, Lamamra got to work. “He started working within an hour of taking office,” says a former ambassador who has known him for 40 years. The experienced diplomat was asked to address several dossiers as soon as possible, including the conflicts in the Sahel, the Malian crisis, tense relations with Morocco, the Libyan crisis, Israel’s admission into the AU, preparations for the Arab League Summit that Algeria wants to host in 2022 and, above all, the breakdown of diplomatic relations with Morocco.

Renewing the old tradition of mediation and good offices

The first task is to revive the old tradition of mediation and good relations that had constituted Algeria’s golden age of diplomacy in the 1970s and ’80s. In July, with the three parties’ agreement and support, the Algerian minister undertook a mediation mission between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia to try to find a solution to the disputes over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The Algerian diplomat’s entry into the fray comes after failed mediation through the UN, the Arab League and the AU. “These good relations signal the return of Algerian diplomacy on the international scene, after a long period of erasure and loss of influence related to the former president’s illness,” says a diplomat in Algiers.

A new initiative in Mali?

The second priority issue is the Malian crisis, of which Lamamra is extremely knowledgeable as he has followed it for a long time. The minister is committed to reviving the peace agreement that was initialled under his auspices in Algiers on 14 May 2015.

This new Algerian initiative, which comes amidst the end of Operation Barkhane, would be viewed positively by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who has excellent relations with the Algerian diplomat.

Ironically, Lamamra had learned that a ministerial reshuffle was underway in Algiers the day after these agreements were signed in 2015 in Mali. From Mali, he wrote a letter of resignation to express his disagreement with the presidency, which wanted him to share the diplomacy portfolio with Abdelkader Messahel. But after five days, Bouteflika changed his mind, kept Lamamra at foreign affairs and raised him to the rank of minister of state. He stayed in this post until the 2017 reshuffle.

In any case, his return to the head of Algerian diplomacy is a response to the diplomatic activism of the country’s Moroccan neighbour, with whom relations have become singularly tense in recent months. The Israeli minister of foreign affairs Yair Lapid’s recent visit to Rabat and his remarks, in which he accused Algeria of getting closer to Iran and leading a campaign against admitting Israel as an observer member of the AU, have led to heightened tensions between the two neighbouring countries. Algiers retorted curtly by accusing Rabat of dragging Israel into a “hazardous adventure” against its eastern neighbour.

Intractable and unavoidable

Thus, to the perennial problem of the Sahara, which prohibits any normalised relations between the two neighbours, was added the issue of Israel’s newly acquired observer state status within the AU. “This will be one of the issues on which Lamamra will be intractable until the next AU summit in 2022,” said a source in Algiers.

He has an extraordinary ability to synthesise and analyse, and a memory that allows him to remember a resolution that was adopted long ago.

69-year-old Lamamra has been extremely active on the diplomatic scene because of his impressive CV. This native of Kabylia – who has served as an ambassador several times, is friends with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres and several heads of state as well as a great connoisseur of the continent – has helped settle several conflicts and disputes between African countries.

In 2016, he almost took over the chairmanship of the AU Commission with the support of many African leaders, before Bouteflika decided to veto his candidacy on the pretext that he still needed him as foreign minister. After Ghassan Salamé’s resignation in March 2020, many voices, including that of the AU Commission, said that he should take over the UN mission in Libya. However, his candidacy was rejected after strong opposition from Morocco, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the US.

Friends, colleagues and foreign partners of this polyglot have praised his working methods and interpersonal skills. “Attending a preparatory meeting under his auspices means you don’t have to look through tons of documents,” says a former colleague. “He has an extraordinary ability to synthesise and analyse, and a memory that allows him to remember a resolution that was adopted long ago. In negotiations, he is implacably rigorous, with a dose of flexibility, affability and extra tact that unblocks difficult situations.”

Lamamra’s return to the forefront is all the more important as he now has the confidence of his president and the military establishment; an asset he often lacked when he headed diplomacy between 2013 and 2017.

Unlike Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Bouteflika saw Lamamra as a rival, a possible successor and an obstacle that prevented him from having total control over the diplomatic apparatus. One question does remain though: Will his experience be enough to make up for the delays that Algiers has encountered over the past 10 years?

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