Algeria weighs plan to allow army deployments abroad
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has urged a constitutional change that would allow deployments abroad, signalling a departure from a military doctrine that has barred interventions outside national borders.
The proposal by a government under continued pressure from a pro-democracy movement has sparked concerns about ending a cherished tradition of non-intervention and becoming embroiled in foreign conflicts.
It could also awaken a regional military giant, the biggest armed forces in North Africa's French-speaking Maghreb region.
Algeria National People's Army (ANP) has over 467,000 men - 130,000 active troops, 187,200 paramilitaries and 150,000 reservists - says the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Defence spending came to $9.6 billion in 2018, or 5.3 percent of gross domestic product, the highest ratio in Africa, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The reform, proposed in May, comes as a bloody civil war rages in Libya, with which Algeria shares a nearly 1,000 kilometre (about 600 mile) border.
Mohamed Laagab, a presidency official, has pointed to the "presence of terrorist groups, foreign armies and mercenaries in neighbouring countries".
"The defence and the preservation of the stability and security of the country and its sovereignty can sometimes be undertaken outside its borders," he said.
Turmoil and instability also threaten Algeria's southern flank, in Niger and in Mali, where Algiers acted as a mediator in 2014-2015 between Bamako and armed rebel groups in northern Mali.
Algeria, traditionally an ally of Russia, has also been forming ties with NATO since the 2000s, especially in the context of fighting Islamist militancy.
The draft amendment plan was published in early May, weeks before the Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel, head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed by French troops in northern Mali, near the Algerian border.
Commenting on the killing, Algiers said at the time the fight against terrorism was the "responsibility" of the international community.
The amendment would give Tebboune, who is also the defence minister and supreme commander of the armed forces, the right to send troops on peacekeeping missions, provided these are backed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
According to the amendment, it could, "within the framework of the United Nations, the African Union and the Arab League, and in full respect of their principles and objectives, participate in operations to restore and maintain peace".
"The option is up to the judgement of the head of state", said Ahmed Laraba, chairman of the committee of experts in charge of the proposal.
The amendment, one of several proposed changes to the constitution, will first be put to parliament and then to a referendum.
Under its current constitution, Algeria "refrains from resorting to war to harm the legitimate sovereignty and freedom of other peoples" and opposes interference in other countries' affairs.
The army has not participated in any external conflict since the Six Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973) against Israel.
Some analysts fear changing the doctrine will expose Algeria to new and unwanted dangers.
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"Sending military troops abroad risks exposing our soldiers and the whole country to danger," warned Reda Deghbar, who teaches international law at Blida 2 University, south of the capital.
"We do not want a change in doctrine because, until now, it has sheltered us from all foreign interference."
The army magazine El Djeich (The Army) in an editorial argued the proposed constitutional amendment is "in full conformity with foreign policy".
It accused detractors of "attempting to remove the debate from its real context and deliberately choosing ... to spread disinformation and poisoned ideas".
Smail Maaref, an expert on strategic issues, said the initiative "risks jeopardising Algeria's sovereignty as it will provide foreign forces with an opportunity to interfere in the country's internal affairs".
Laraba, who heads the committee dealing with the amendment, rejected those concerns.
He said peacekeeping missions could not be considered a form of intervention, noting that "there are no confrontations or use of heavy weaponry".
"These amendments do not call into question the fundamental principles around which Algeria's foreign policy is organised: sovereignty, non-intervention and non-interference," he added.
"This is in no way a new military doctrine."