Surrounded by the Arab Spring, Algeria is celebrating both the fiftieth anniversary of its independence and the twentieth anniversary of the abrogation of its democratic process. The marking of these two major political turning points in Algerian history, in the midst of regional turmoil, places Algeria at the forefront of political speculations. Comparisons with its revolutionary neighbors are rampant.
One year after the start of the Arab Spring, the Algerian regime appears to have survived wave of revolution. Despite marches held in Algiers and strikes in oil cities throughout 2011, the government has not been endangered or pressured enough to undertake important reforms. The complex political configuration of the regime and the scars of civil war have convinced the society that revolution is impractical. A review of the historical, institutional and social characteristics of Algeria helps us understand why Algerians have not embraced revolution, unlike their neighbors.
Will Algeria follow in the path of its neighbors? Responding to suggestions that Algeria is next on the Revolutions agenda, the Algerian minister of foreign affairs, Mourad Medelci, said in February 2011 that “Algeria is neither Tunisia nor Egypt.” Half a simple statement of fact, half a warning against any similar move in the country, this declaration acknowledges that the Algerian government cannot afford to overlook the changes taking place next door, nor should it underestimate their potential effects within Algerian society. Each North African country possesses individual characteristics, but they collectively share deep similarities, meaning that the Algerian ground is strewn with the seeds of a revolt.
The Seeds of a Revolution
The configuration of Algeria’s current political system allows little room for democratic practice. The nationalist party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), has been ruling the country since its independence in 1962 and enjoys unchallenged supremacy over the country, justified by a self-attributed and cautiously sustained historical legitimacy of the “mujahideen” party. The political system, led by the military junta, is virtually sealed, with the old guard enjoying power over the national economy and controlling an oil windfall. The system is characterized by notorious state corruption. WikiLeaks revealed that American diplomatic telegrams describe Algerian leaders as, simply, a “gang.”
The government constantly falsifies electoral results. For example, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was reelected for a third mandate with officially 90.2 percent of the vote. The extremely low level of popular participation illustrates the palpable break between the citizens and their leaders. Algerians are fully aware of the political system’s deceit and their reluctance to participate in elections reflects a profound refusal to support the system rather than a lack of interest in politics. Contestation manifests itself outside of the electoral processes that are often boycotted by a tremendous number of voters, and opposition parties refuse to participate in what they perceive to be a predetermined outcome. Nonparticipation must be understood as a national manifestation of mistrust and disbelief in the corrupted elite and a compromised opposition: the Algerian citizen, far from being apolitical, is actually a nonpartisan political actor.
Up to 3,000 Algerians marched in January and February 2011 in Algiers, led by the National Coordination for Change and Democracy—a fragile coalition gathering opposition parties and members of the civil society. Demonstrations were driven by the same social dissatisfactions plaguing neighboring countries—recovering dignity through better life conditions mainly and more political and human rights—and were the result of long-lasting strikes and clashes occurring in various parts of the country before regional turbulences began. Violence had already erupted regularly in the slums of Algiers and other big cities due to the government’s inability to meet the people’s need for decent housing and social services. Unemployment has reached 35 percent and the population struggles to make ends meet as prices—including food and convenience goods—reach record highs, provoking the wrath of the underprivileged while a fragile middle class is on the verge of disappearing.
Most of the social problems Algerian society is facing are comparable to those faced by the region, and constitute the fundamental cause of regional upheavals. Hence, Algeria’s external environment is undoubtedly influencing its domestic politics and feeding the desire for change among the politicial activists, pushing local protests closer to a revolution. For sure, it raises the possibility of change among the population. However, as much as isqat an-nidham (the fall of the regime) may be the nationwide objective, most Algerians doubt that reproducing the Tunisian insurrection would take down the regime. In addition to marches, more moderated protests like strikes are taking place, becoming the daily bread of Algerian social contestation. Recent events have provided fertile ground for the development of civil society groups, primarily through new media and the Internet. These new groups are characterized by the young age of their founders, who tend to be more in tune with the needs of the population. They demonstrate nonpartisanship and represent an alternative to outdated opposition parties outside of the discredited political system. Some groups aspire to be real forces of reform outside the political arena.
Reforms for economic and social development are indeed urgently needed. The government has failed to use the Arab Spring as an impetus for enacting structural reforms. The measures announced in April 2011 by the government in response to the marches include the revision of electoral law, political parties law and information code, but are far from credible and will not appease social ire and deter riots in the medium-run.
A Revolution ahead of the Revolutions
Several cases of self-immolation have taken place in Algeria but none of them had the same impact as the Bouazizi suicide in Tunisia. If the conditions conducive to a major national uprising are present, why has Algeria been spared by the Arab Spring?
To answer this question, it is essential to look back at Algeria’s post-independence history; it appears that we are waiting for a revolution that already occurred. Several popular upheavals have punctuated the country’s history. The war for independence in 1962 was itself a quest for dignity and human rights rebuffed by the French colonial empire. Algeria is the only Arab country to have claimed its independence at the cost of war, a traumatic memory even today. After the Berber Spring in 1980—the first popular protests demanding official recognition of the Berber identity and opening the way to further contestation—the October 1988 uprising is the most remarkable predecessor of today’s Arab Spring, and a major turning in Algerian’s history. The breakout of massive protests led to democratic reforms, encouraged and enabled by the authorities who were willing to subject themselves to the test of fair and free elections. In 1988, reforms included the separation of the party and the state, free representation, changes in the executive branch and diminishing the role of the military in the country’s affairs. A national referendum in February 1989 approved a new constitution and marked the most significant democratic change that Algeria had ever known. Once more, the overwhelming and unpredicted success of the Islamic Salvation Front revealed the army’s unwillingness to relinquish power. The army suspended the election process in January 1992 and called for the president’s resignation in a military coup d’état, resulting in a civil war in which 150,000 to 200,0000 civilians were killed.
Popular uprisings, Islamist victories, military coups d’état and guerilla war bring to mind the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan scenarios. Would Algerians be willing to give revolution another chance? For now it seems unlikely. First, Berbers tried again in 2001 during the Black Spring and it ended with bloodshed. Second, Algerians have measured and experienced the danger of politics and they are well aware of the dramatic possible outcomes of an impetuous political move. Residual terrorist attacks also remind Algeria of the risk of playing political games. Revolting is now perceived to be a risky gamble that this generation is not yet willing to take. This might also explain Algerians’ preference for expressing discontent periodically through strikes and localized protests. Moreover, military control—though not repression—is pervasive. Residual struggles from the civil war have justified further the militarization of the regime.
Nevertheless, Algeria has provided a wider window of freedom compared to its neighbors, notably with regard to freedom of speech. The press has room to maneuver, while violent criticisms of the government are common practice and personal attacks on the president have become a national sport—all without consequences. The press has turned into an outlet to let off steam. The government has realized that it was necessary to allow a limited open space in order to reduce the risks of a spontaneous mass protest in the streets. This is also one of the reasons why the emergency rule, which was announced in 1992 and further strengthens the army’s stranglehold on power, was lifted last February. This represents the downfall of an important symbol of control.
Despite failing to garner support on domestic issues, when it comes to foreign policy, the Algerian government is in tune with public opinion, in unlike most Arab countries. This nationalism leads Algeria to stand firmly with Palestine and Iraq and demonstrate Cold War–inherited, anti-imperialism with broad support.
An Obstacle to Radical Change
Without a strong and organized opposition, popular discontent with the government cannot be challenge the current regime. The opposition figures are old, have not changed for decades and are no longer representative of the population (70 percent of whom are younger than 30). Political opposition groups are thought to have compromised with the government, and none of them has been able to denounce Algeria’s biggest problem—its military. Additionally, opposition to the regime is not cohesive, and many parties refuse to rally at marches and are unable to put their rivalries aside. Even the Islamists, who could represent a serious threat to established powers, are divided, lack organization and have not represented a substantial force of opposition since the dissolution of the Islamic Salvation Front in 1992.
The regime’s clan-like system makes change unlikely. The president is not the system’s master, so his resignation would not undermine the regime. The power structure is impersonal and is not in the hands of one strongman and his family, but rather several dignitaries who are themselves divided into rival cliques. There is no sacralized political figure to attack, like Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi. These inner rivalries are double-edged: while they maintain an opaque and hermetic system, they also lead to shifts between the factions. Algeria has shown in the past that the president can be sacrificed if the military feels it necessary. Hence, one possible scenario for transition would be an internally instigated regime change, especially at the end of Bouteflika’s mandate in 2014. But if change comes from within the ruling circle, it will remain sealed; in fact the military junta benefits from the opacity and complexity of its clan-like structure to control the means of power and in particular oil revenues. Leaders have no incentive to renounce to their privileges. Furthermore, oil revenue allows the government to alleviate and quell the masses. The country reinjects ten billion dollars in social transfers—unemployment insurance, health care system, subsidies and food price reductions—every year, thanks to petroleum income.
Change at a Softer Pace?
Oil wealth may appease signs of dissent, but for how long? It has not proved to be a long-term measure and Algeria does not have the capacity to temper social discontent in the long term or on such a wide scale. The government needs more sustainable medium- to long-run measures if it wants to avoid massive protests. The current strikes and clashes across the country show there is a critical need for reforms. Hogra (official contempt for citizens) is widespread in North Africa and the people can no longer suffer it. If the regime remains at a standstill, Algerians will, one day or another, take action, especially since they have been encouraged to do so. The underlying political vacuum, resulting from inaction and indecision by both the people and the government, needs to be filled. One side or the other must take action. There is no doubt that the Algerian government is taking the threat of a revolt very seriously: they lifted emergency rule, ended state monopolies and the decriminalization of press offenses in September 2011. However, there is more to be done. The government must preemptively undertake long-awaited reforms that would guarantee political pluralism and provide basic social needs.
Algerians are now in the middle of a political calculation, weighing the relevance and the potential benefits of more protests while keeping in mind the trauma of the civil war, and the outcome of the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions. It is now only a matter of time before either the government or the population makes a decisive move. The forthcoming legislative elections in May 2012, during the fiftieth anniversary of Algeria’s independence, may prove to be such a critical moment.