Algeria is strangely quiet—at least for now

Algeria is strangely quiet—at least for now

By J. Dana Stuster

Best Defense office of Arab seasonal affairs 

In the earliest days of the Arab Spring, Algeria appeared poised to join Tunisia in its revolution. Protests swept through the country weeks before the first stirrings in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya or Syria. According to The Economist‘s tongue-in-cheek attempt to quantify the factors generating the unrest ("the shoe thrower’s index"), Algeria seemed less likely to be stable than its revolutionary neighbor and far outpaced Bahrain in factors contributing to potential unrest.

Algeria isn’t stable now, but it has managed to avoid reaching a critical mass of domestic upheaval through a measured police response that has been severe without being so brutal that it incites more anger, as well as economic concessions that reduced the cost of staple foods and legal reforms that include the repeal the country’s twenty-year-old emergency law. While it remains to be seen whether these concessions will stick in the long-term, they seem to have bought some time for the Algerian government.

The next potential crisis will be the country’s legislative elections, scheduled for May. The country is only dubiously democratic; true power resides with a cabal of political and military officials informally know as Le Pouvoir, and there are concerns that, if a truly democratic election is held, the military may intervene to prevent an Islamist landslide in the parliament. The last time the military stepped in was 1992; what followed was a military coup, the institution of the emergency law, and an ugly civil war. The Algerian government is only now walking back the many effects of 1992, and if Le Pouvoir intervenes in May it would be a significant setback for the country, but so too could be a polarizing election.

Speaking at CSIS recently, Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci expressed his full confidence that the military will support the results of the election and downplayed the significance of a potential Islamist election, pointing out that an Islamist party (condoned by the government) has participated in the parliament since the late 1990s. Listening to Medelci, it is easy to get caught up in his optimism for Algeria. He boasts about his country’s progress toward meeting the United Nations’ Development Program’s Millennium Development Goals and speaks eloquently about the political and economic reforms underway. Speaking to a collection of Arab media, businesspeople, think tank experts, and diplomats, he touted the increasing privatization of the economy, the large college-educated population (the majority of which are women), the proliferation of trade agreements, and the government’s attempts to diversify the economy, including a large solar array to reduce Algeria’s reliance on oil exports. He tied the new flurry of reforms to Algeria’s efforts over the past decade to better incorporate minority groups, though he didn’t go into detail on these. He seemed pleased with the new reforms, which include expanded press freedoms, a new quota system for women’s representation in the parliament, an increased role for the judiciary in elections to make them more independent from the administration, and an upcoming revision of the constitution.

It all sounds very promising, and if done right, it could be precisely the sort of gradual reform that the United States has encouraged the monarchies in the Gulf to embrace. But even ignoring the questions about how healthy Algeria’s economy truly is (only last year, Issandr El Amrani called Bouteflika’s economic policy "an unmitigated disaster"), Algeria has only a narrow window of opportunity for this to succeed – Bouteflika’s term expires in 2014, but he is physically ailing and there is no clear means of succession if he passes while in office. If Algeria cannot prepare its democratic institutions for this essential transition, it will face a two-front struggle: a crisis within Le Pouvoir, and also the remobilization of the disenfranchised and disheartened public that took to the streets in January 2011. Eurasia Group’s James Fallon pointed to Algeria for a potential renewal of upheaval last November, and while the protesters in Algiers had difficulty expressing a set of common grievances, they will no doubt learn from the successes in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Algeria’s problems are far from solved and new unrest may arise between now and then, for now, its role in the Arab Spring is restricted to its participation in the Arab League delegation to Syria. Medelci distanced his government from Anwar Malek, the Algerian monitor who resigned from the delegation and called it a "farce." Medelci has pointed out that Malek was representing a non-governmental organization and not the Algerian government, which remains committed to the mission in Syria. Justifying this commitment involved some verbal hurdles. Pressed by Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center to reconcile Algeria’s involvement in the Arab League’s involvement in Syria with its policy of non-intervention, Medelci explained that he considers the Arab League mission as less a matter of interference, but an effort to prevent broader interference through providing an option for third-party mediation.

Medelci was nothing if not positive in his assessment. Speaking of its revolutionary neighbors in North Africa, he told the audience, "We hope that these countries now control their destiny and can join us as stronger partners. We need stronger partners, but we are not in a position to be hegemonic. We don’t have lessons to teach but we share a revolutionary heritage." This July will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France, and while, for now, Algeria’s non-interventionist intervention in Syria may be the center of attention, it is shaping up to be a dramatic year domestically as well. Here’s hoping it lives up to the foreign minister’s optimism.