Terms of Engagement
The Dog That Didn’t Bark
Algeria looked ripe for revolution. What happened?
What’s wrong with Algeria? Over the last year, the fever that is the Arab Spring has overtaken one country after another. Monarchies like Morocco or Jordan have been able to focus popular discontent on the government rather than the head of state; oil sheikdoms like Qatar or Kuwait have bought social peace. But no autocratic republic, no matter how brutal, has been able to resist the storm — except Algeria. Here is a country where strikes and demonstrations were routine long before 2011, where newspapers openly mocked an enfeebled leader, where security forces and pro-regime thugs confronted rioters amid the first stirrings of the Arab Spring. A year ago, Algeria might well have been voted most likely to overthrow its ruler. But it hasn’t. In fact, the mass protests petered out. Why? Why elsewhere, and not Algeria?
Very few Americans visit Algeria, or study it, or know much about it. You probably didn’t know, for example, that Algeria is the biggest country in Africa — bigger even, than undivided Sudan, which was always said to be roughly the size of Western Europe. Most of it, of course, is the Sahara Desert, though with 35 million people Algeria is also the second-largest nation in the Arab world (behind Egypt, of course). Algeria has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas. It has $150 billion in its sovereign wealth fund. Are you feeling a bit ashamed yet that you don’t more about Algeria?
Algeria was, like Tunisia and Morocco, a French colony. But France ruled Algeria as an overseas extension of la patrie, and would not, or could not, part with it. French rule in Algeria ended with the horrendous civil war of 1954-1962, a struggle whose atrocities were famously memorialized in Gilles Pontecorvo’s film Battle of Algiers. The anti-colonial war brutalized Algerian society and left in its wake a legacy of revolutionary rhetoric, and revolutionary posturing. Algeria became an avant-garde autocracy — the Cuba of the Maghreb. The state wrapped itself in the flag of revolution.
But then something remarkable happened: Chadli Benjedid, a president installed by Algeria’s shadowy military leaders, decided to give democracy a try. After winning re-election in 1988, Benjedid promulgated a new constitution and submitted it to a national referendum. The constitution eliminated all reference to socialism, removed restrictions on freedom of speech and legalized unions and political parties. In a matter of months, as John P. Entelis, the rare American Algeria expert, writes in the current issue of The Journal of North African Studies, "the Algerian political system had been fundamentally transformed from a single-party authoritarian state to a multiparty, pluralistic nation of laws."
For the next two years, Algeria carried out an experiment in democracy which the Arab world had never seen before, and has not seen again until now. An Islamist party, the FIS, won an overwhelming fraction of seats in local elections — and the vote was allowed to stand. Entelis says that the FIS espoused a moderate brand of Islam, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia’s Ennahda (though other accounts claim that the FIS sought to discredit the state and undermine the constitution). But in January 1992, citing the fear of an Islamist takeover, the military annulled the election and overthrew the regime. The West, equally frightened of political Islam, offered little criticism. The FIS did pose a threat to the secular Algerian state; but the military also exploited that threat in order to re-impose its authority over the state, as the Turkish military would do the following year after a moderate Islamist party came to power through election.
Turkey got a second chance with the election of the current ruling party, the AKP, in 2002; Algeria never did. The failure of liberal meliorism reignited Algeria’s habits of revolutionary polarization. The military hunted down the FIS leadership and the rank-and-file; the party splintered, with some joining the state and others embracing terrorism. For the next six years, both sides engaged in a mutual slaughter which left as many 200,000 dead — the worst spasm of violence in Algeria’s convulsive history. The civil war of the 1990s traumatized the Algerian public far more deeply than the war against France had done. The uprising against France had fostered an image of national solidarity; the civil war turned Algeria’s activists and reformers against one another and shattered the state’s revolutionary legitimacy.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, first elected in 1999, brought the war to an end. Bouteflika advanced some mild social reforms and tolerated far more freedom of the press than was available, for example, in Tunisia. He was re-elected in a relatively free election in 2004, and was given credit both for seeking to modernize the economy and for seeking to tame the power of the security and intelligence apparatus. He permitted Islamists, who had come to terms with the civil state, to operate openly, and to run for office. Nevertheless, as Bouteflika continued to consolidate power in his own office, jailed opponents, and undermined the independence of parliament and the judiciary, he came to be seen as a "liberal autocrat" in the mold of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. And with high unemployment and rising costs, by 2011 Algerians were as deeply alienated from the state as Egyptians or Tunisians. The chief difference was that they expressed their frustration more openly, through strikes and public criticism of the regime, which Bouteflika, like his predecessors, tolerated within limits.
When the Arab Spring blossomed last January, Entelis says, Algeria’s opposition — human rights activists, Islamists, Trotskyites — seemed ready to overcome the deep mutual suspicions that had long separated them, and had been exacerbated by the civil war. He thought, and Algerian activists hoped, that 2011 might be the fulfillment of 1992. Last January, in between the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, riots in Algiers over food prices and unemployment led to the death of five protesters and the wounding of 800. Demonstrations spread to major cities across the country.
Bouteflika responded with force, but also with conciliation. In February, the regime lifted the emergency law that had been imposed in 1992. In April, Bouteflika went on the air to announce constitutional reforms designed to "strengthen democracy," including a new electoral law. In May, the government announced that it would boost subsidies on flour, milk, cooking oil, and sugar — on top of a 34 percent increase in the salaries of civil servants announced earlier in the year. Algeria, it turned out, belonged to a category of its very own — more flexible than neighbors like Libya or Egypt, but also wealthy enough that, like the Gulf sheikdoms, it could use payoffs to blunt social anger. Instead of gathering force, as happened elsewhere, the mass protests in Algeria subsided.
Algerians remembered their own past all too well. Despots like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad warned that protest will unleash extremism — and then consciously provoked precisely the violent response they had warned of. But in Algeria, political dissent had boiled over into fratricide in very recent memory. A relatively moderate form of Islam had degenerated into terrorism; indeed, one remnant of the FIS ultimately signed on with al Qaeda in the Maghreb and remains a threat to the state, if a distant one. And so while Algeria’s tradition of protest permitted a degree of activism forbidden elsewhere, the fear that it would boil over, leading the military to respond with murderous force, acted as a check on public resentment.
The Bouteflika regime is itself engaged in a battle for supremacy with le pouvoir, as Algerians call the security and intelligence apparatus, with the ultimate prize being control over Algeria’s oil and gas revenues. Entelis argues that the reactionary forces within le pouvoir have recently gained the upper hand. Meanwhile, Algeria’s ruling elite seems more divorced than ever from Algeria’s restive public. Deeply fearful of the domino effect of the Arab Spring, the regime sided with Muammar al-Qaddafi during the Libyan civil war, and was the last country in the region to recognize Libya’s National Transition Council, rendering its "revolutionary" credentials yet more threadbare. Secular and Islamist opponents have called on Bouteflika to replace his current prime minister in advance of parliamentary elections this May. But Entelis says that he doesn’t expect either evolutionary or revolutionary change. Algeria has tried both, and both failed.
Algeria’s story reminds us of the danger of looking at events categorically. Because the same grievances have given rise to protest across the Arab world, and because that protest has taken a very similar form from one country to the next, we tend to expect the outcomes to resemble each other as well. But they won’t, because different histories have shaped different political cultures in each of these places. Algeria also forces us to recognize the weight of the past. History is not destiny: Had the military chosen not to step in, Algeria might well have groped its way to democracy. Turkey went one way, Algeria another. But history shapes expectations and fears, conditions the response to new events. All of us, whether we know it or not, carry our past within ourselves.