11/20/2014 10:31 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Claivoyance on the Barbary Coast

This week Algeria has convened long-stalled negotiations for a settlement of Mali's two-year political crisis. Its role is an acknowledgment of the North African country's continuing credibility as a mediator in the developing world, a credibility that reflects Algerian refusal to interfere in neighbors' internal affairs and the mystique that still attaches over a half century after Algerians won their bruising war of liberation from France.

Algiers is hardly disinterested, however, in either Mali's conflict or any other in which Islamist extremists are battling relatively secular regimes. After annulling elections in 1992, Algeria's security forces suppressed a violent Islamist insurgency in the "années dures" (hard years) that followed. As the war wound down they turned to a one-time political operative and internationally respected diplomat, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to lead the government, hoping he could reconcile disaffected Algerians and muffle international critics.

Bouteflika has made some progress in civilianizing the military-dominated regime, but poor health has now largely incapacitated him. He slipped out of Algiers last week for medical attention in France, just as I was winding up my own stay in the country visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites. The more contemporary inheritance that the ailing Bouteflika hopes to bequeath is the country's seeming stability, built on the government's large investment of oil and gas income into social development, from housing to health to education--and, oh so incidentally, into the security forces.

But the stability may be brittle, and the political leadership elicits more public indifference than active support. Few people imagine that police protests in the south could spark a broader challenge (though no one had expected a fruit seller's suicide in neighboring Tunisia to topple its regime). Having contained the contagion of unrest that swept much of the Arab world in 2011, the country's power elite remains alert to any stirring of Islamist political movements, including those that wrap themselves in a mantle of "democracy." It was therefore particularly embarrassed by Islamists' abduction and grotesque beheading of a French trekker in September.

Algerians observe with some satisfaction Washington's sobered reassessment of its early enthusiasm for what Beltway wordsmiths credulously dubbed the "Arab spring." Algiers had been aghast as Western countries appeared to encourage uprisings that Algerian leaders guessed would inevitably empower hard-core Islamists, not liberal democrats.

On their eastern border, Tunisia has, for the moment, turned out better than expected. But for Algiers, the ongoing chaos in Libya vindicates its opposition three years ago to the Western military intervention aimed at the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. Algerian authorities claimed that many among the Libyan rebels had links to Al Qaeda-style extremists, and they pointedly gave refuge to Qaddafi's wife and three children when his forces were driven from Tripoli.

Algeria also led the opposition inside the Arab League to the Saudi and Qatari campaign to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's Ba'ath party regime in Syria. As with Libya, Algerian officials asserted that Islamic extremists were at the core of the insurrection. They have accepted with equanimity the wanton destruction wreaked by Syrian security forces inside rebel-held areas as unfortunate but inescapable collateral damage.

Long before the Security Council's September vote to require governments to block their nationals from traveling to become foreign terrorist fighters, Algeria's watchful security services had succeeded in suppressing recruitment of Algerians into the Syrian rebel ranks. The number of Algerians fighting with jihadists in Syria is said to be among the lowest in the Arab world--in particularly striking contrast to the hundreds of religiously radicalized Tunisians and Libyans who have flooded into Syria.

As the bloody conflict in Syria has ground on, the Algerian assertion that fanatical jihadists dominate the Syrian insurgency has gained grudging acceptance. The startling expansion this spring into Iraq of the self-styled "Islamic State" led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former prisoner of U.S. forces in Iraq, has seemed to prove the clairvoyance of Algerian policymakers. ISIL's viciousness triggered a concentrated American military campaign to roll it back in both Iraq and Syria, at last putting Washington in sync with Algiers.

Algeria's leaders have never really courted Washington. (Indeed, in the first years of the American republic, the Bey of Algiers famously disdained it.) Clinging to Algeria's more recent liberation heritage--Bouteflika himself had served in the national liberation army fighting the French--they have preferred correct rather than close relations with the United States.

This arms-length relationship is intended to preserve them from the kind of political dependency that might make them susceptible to Western meddling, as they believed Egypt's Hosni Mubarak had become. In particular, they see no need to accommodate American enthusiasms for promoting democracy, whose baneful results they believe they see all around them in the Arab world's current convulsions.

While for 20 years the Americans were toasting Mali as a model African democracy, the Algerians saw Tuareg disaffection as a threat to the country's survival--and a potential opening for Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. They sought to mediate political accords in Mali seven years ago, long before the West realized how hollow that "democracy" was. Algerian leaders' efforts to mediate a settlement today are built on an unsentimental realism about how politics really work in Mali.

Perhaps, however, unsentimental realism may cloud Algerian leaders' clairvoyance about the future of their own society. You don't have to be Sweden in order to avoid becoming Syria. Indeed, little neighboring Tunisia may help point a way to assure Algeria's own long-term stability.