Lessons From Algeria’s ‘Dark Decade’
A survey of the Arab World today reveals the most troubling situations to be a seemingly intractable and bloody civil conflict in Syria pitching an entrenched military based regime against an armed uprising whose constituent parts are increasingly fragmented and radicalized and another military based regime in Egypt seeming to face growing terrorist violence and ...
A survey of the Arab World today reveals the most troubling situations to be a seemingly intractable and bloody civil conflict in Syria pitching an entrenched military based regime against an armed uprising whose constituent parts are increasingly fragmented and radicalized and another military based regime in Egypt seeming to face growing terrorist violence and opposition following the proscription and repression of an electorally victorious Islamist political party. Whilst these situations may be disturbingly new for Syria and Egypt they are very recognizable to another Arab state -- Algeria. The tumult that the North African state experienced from the late 1980s throughout the 1990s has many parallels with the changes and upheavals in large parts of the Arab World over the past three years.
A survey of the Arab World today reveals the most troubling situations to be a seemingly intractable and bloody civil conflict in Syria pitching an entrenched military based regime against an armed uprising whose constituent parts are increasingly fragmented and radicalized and another military based regime in Egypt seeming to face growing terrorist violence and opposition following the proscription and repression of an electorally victorious Islamist political party. Whilst these situations may be disturbingly new for Syria and Egypt they are very recognizable to another Arab state — Algeria. The tumult that the North African state experienced from the late 1980s throughout the 1990s has many parallels with the changes and upheavals in large parts of the Arab World over the past three years.
Yet Algeria’s story during this period is little known and rarely discussed even within Algeria itself where it is frequently dismissed with a shudder as "The black decade." This is despite the importance of what occurred in this period, not only for Algeria, but also for the extent to which it can provide lessons on how the current crises in Egypt and Syria and, indeed, the broader Arab World, may develop. Algeria’s experience was clearly unique, as Algerians are always quick to point out, but possible parallels with current crises are still worth examining.
The most obvious initial parallels are with Egypt. In both countries mass, countrywide street protests facilitated a break with the entrenched political order followed by the drafting of a new constitution and open elections that led to thumping victories for the main Islamist party. In both states, these electoral victories were canceled and swept away by the intervention of the senior military leadership, widely assumed to have stepped back from wielding political power. The military in each case ousted the sitting president, banned and repressed the Islamist party, and introduced a government dominated by the military and its civilian allies.
There are, however, important differences between the two experiences. Most importantly, the military intervention in Algeria came before the Islamist political party, the Islamist Salvation Front (FIS), had assumed national political office and power. The first round of voting in French-style elections to the Algerian National Assembly in December 1991 had seen the FIS take a commanding lead that was almost certainly going to produce a large legislative majority following the second round run-offs which never took place due to the intervention of the Algerian army. The fact that Egypt’s army acted only after the Muslim Brotherhood had been in national power a full year had two important political consequences that set it apart from the experience of Algeria. Firstly, and most obviously, the action of the Egyptian military could more clearly be identified as a straight coup d’état against a democratically elected government whereas the intervention in Algeria simply forestalled an electoral victory and government. Whilst the Algerian military simultaneously removed a sitting president, Chadli Benjedid, he was not a popularly and directly elected figure chosen in a competitive ballot like Mohamed Morsi. Rather, Benjedid was a largely unloved senior military figure first "elected" by plebiscite many years earlier and judged by his colleagues in the army to have mishandled both the political opening and the rise of the FIS. This distinction has not only provided the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt with a clearer argument for being victims of political theft than the FIS but also a martyr in the shape of deposed President Morsi and his ministers.
Yet whilst this robbing of political power and consequent martyrdom has clearly strengthened the outrage and indignation of the Brotherhood, that the Egyptian military acted only after Morsi had been in power a year had an important effect in galvanizing mass popular opposition to the perceived misrule by the Brotherhood that was to prove crucial in paving the way to the July 2013 coup and the subsequent repression of the movement. By contrast in Algeria, public enthusiasm for the January 1992 military intervention was limited to vocal but numerically small sections of the far left and hard-line secularists and there was no remote parallel to the mass demonstrations against the Morsi government witnessed in Egypt. The corollary of this was much broader popular sympathy in Algeria for the blocking of the route to power for the FIS and its subsequent repression.
That the party was not able to capitalize on such sympathy to reassert itself was due not just to the effectiveness of the security crackdown against it but also to the much broader and looser coalition of forces of which it consisted. The FIS in Algeria never remotely resembled the long-established, minutely structured and hugely hierarchical and disciplined organization that the Muslim Brotherhood had for decades been in Egypt. Thrown together in a matter of weeks in early 1989 by an ideologically and geographically diverse coalition of Islamist groupings in response to the regime’s decision to open up the political system to multiple political parties, the FIS had witnessed spectacular growth by posing as the only alternative to the entrenched and deeply unpopular Algerian regime. This political momentum only narrowly succeeded in preventing the significant ideological and strategic differences amongst the senior figures in the new party from tearing it apart during its brief legal lifetime from its creation until it was formally banned in March 1992. The success of the assault on its structures by the regime meant that it was not able to mobilize the sort of mass protests the Brotherhood in Egypt has organized to counter its own repression and was indicative of the institutional weakness of the FIS. It also destroyed the remaining ties between the constituent Islamist groupings making up the party so there was no coordinated or coherent response to the regime’s repression. Importantly, it freed the part of the party that had always been open to the use of violence to begin to organize armed opposition to the regime linking up with other more extreme elements.
The still remarkably disciplined nature of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, born out of decades of organization and training, makes this sort of fracturing and thus radicalization much more unlikely. This is unless the leadership of the Brotherhood decides to explicitly endorse such a strategy which could unleash levels of violence potentially much worse than seen in Algeria given the size and cohesion of the Brotherhood and the concomitant organization and popular support enjoyed by the Egyptian military-dominated regime.
The emergence of an armed opposition to the Algerian regime from the latter months of 1992 has clear parallels with the current situation in Syria. These are notably the progressive radicalization and fracturing of the Syrian opposition and its diminishing links with groups outside of the country claiming political leadership of the opposition to the regime. Like Algeria in the 1990s, the armed opposition in Syria has seen the growth in power and influence of elements espousing an extremist Islamist ideology, which are willing to countenance the use of more indiscriminate forms of violence. This has led to clashes between these and ostensibly more moderate armed opposition groups. In Algeria, this fragmentation and infighting amongst the opposition ultimately weakened its challenge to the regime leading to many armed groups developing local and economically focused goals at the expense of the political ambition of ousting the national government. The fanaticism and extreme violence of some of the armed groups also served to alienate popular support amongst the population and contributed to the truce agreed between the more moderate armed groups and the regime in 1997.
All of these elements are visible today in Syria but the presence of two factors that were not existent in Algeria in the 1990s is likely to stand in the way of the substantial decline in levels of violence and the regime’s reassertion of control as occurred in Algeria. The first of these factors is a visceral sectarian dimension to the conflict. Although contours of class, region, and history were clearly present in the Algerian civil conflict, they were much lighter and more mutable than those currently at play in Syria where religious identification has become an increasingly prominent feature of affiliation in the conflict. Because the Algerian population was almost exclusively Sunni Muslim, it wasn’t necessary to reconcile and reassure identifiably distinct religious communities in order to resolve the violence. The second factor missing from the Algerian conflict was the whole scale regionalization and internationalization that has characterized the situation in Syria. Although both the regime and opposition made attempts to solicit external support in Algeria, they were small scale and largely failed so that the struggle became almost exclusively domestic. Once again this made the conflict much less complex and thus easier to settle in the longer run without the huge inflow of arms, money, and even combatants from abroad. Although major powers such as the United States and France ultimately came to back the regime in Algiers against the armed groups, this support only came after much vacillation and was ultimately not of pivotal importance.
All this suggests that Syria’s bloody conflict is ultimately unlikely to be resolved similarly to that of Algeria — where a combination of a weakened and divided opposition, an exhausted and alienated population, and a regime bolstered by increased hydrocarbon revenue was able to reassert itself by the turn of the millennia.
So what does Algeria make of the past three years of turmoil in the Arab world? Such upheaval has been strikingly absent in Algeria. This is overwhelmingly because the traumatic experience of the 1990s largely removed any appetite for mass street politics and violent change that might otherwise have been present amongst the Algerian population. This is not to say that Algeria, both at the popular and official levels, has not observed recent events in the rest of the Arab World with close interest. Algeria paid acute attention to the revolt against Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya since it occurred right on its borders. The Algerian government was highly ambivalent about the uprising to the point of providing shelter to Qaddafi’s family and possibly even aiding the embattled regime. It was greatly alarmed by the intervention of the British and, especially, French in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, the specter of which it brandished to its own population to further dissuade it from revolt. The Algerian government was playing to a popular antipathy toward foreign interference in the country’s affairs dating back to the colonial period and further explaining the lack of internationalization in the conflict of the 1990s. Algeria’s leaders have also followed closely the bloody drama in Syria where it sees a regime with which it has long identified and allied embattled as Algeria itself was 20 years ago. Whether this identification has produced more than advice to the Assad regime is unclear.
Closer to home, events in Tunisia have also attracted Algerian interest. The first country to experience a revolt and successful overthrow of its authoritarian leadership has clearly unsettled Algiers not least through the prominent role that has come to be played by the Islamist Ennahda party. Although elements of Ennahda are wary of Algerian interest and parts of the secularist opposition enthusiastic about it, caution seems to have been exercised by all sides. It was, nevertheless, striking that Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, and the most prominent opposition figure, Beji Caid Essebsi, both visited Algiers to consult President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the very height of the political crisis over the transition in Tunisia in fall 2013.
Any fears in Algiers that Ennahda may follow the violent path taken by elements of the FIS if it is subsequently ejected or barred from power are, however, unfounded. Firstly, the Tunisian party explicitly rejected such a course of action in the early 1990s following its repression by the Ben Ali regime where the contrast with the Algerian scenario was glaring. Indeed, Ghannouchi had spent a year in exile in Algeria when the FIS was at its height in the early 1990s. At that time he observed the party first hand and argued with the FIS’s leadership about what he saw as its reckless willingness to confront the regime and its failure to forge links and alliances with other parties and groups. Ghannouchi and Ennahda clearly learned from this experience and this has undoubtedly contributed to the pragmatic and conciliatory line it has taken in Tunisia’s political transition, which has been greatly boosted by agreement of a new democratic constitution and with a schedule for elections.
It is the likely achievement of an established democratic government in Tunisia that is perhaps the most long-term threat to the Algerian regime through its positive example of largely peaceful political change. By contrast, Algeria’s own system seems locked in ongoing sclerosis to the extent that a severely physically and mentally debilitated septuagenarian has been endorsed for a fourth term as president by a political establishment that seems to have run out of alternatives and ideas. Algeria also appears to have drawn remarkably few clear lessons from the trauma of the 1990s. Any national debate on the subject has been precluded by an explicit official desire to simply draw a veil over the whole period. This has meant that few of the fundamental issues that underlay the original crisis — corruption, unemployment, unaccountable government — have been addressed resulting in Algeria continuing to face many of the same issues that its neighbors faced on the eve of the Arab Spring.
Michael Willis is King Mohamed VI Fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies and University Research Lecturer at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. He is the author of The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History and Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring.
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