Don’t Get Your Hopes Up About Algeria

The Middle East’s latest protests seem like the Arab Spring all over again. That’s no reason for optimism.

Students demonstrate in Algiers, Algeria on March 12, 2019, one day after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his withdrawal from a bid to win another term in office. (Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images)
Students demonstrate in Algiers, Algeria on March 12, 2019, one day after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his withdrawal from a bid to win another term in office. (Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images)

It is hard not to be awestruck by events in Algeria over the last three weeks. Once again, a Middle Eastern autocrat tried to put one over on his people. By now, anyone with even a passing interest in the headlines knows that the country’s behind-the-scenes leaders decided to put the incumbent president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, forward for a fifth term. The hubris of Algeria’s generals and other power brokers to hand the presidency to a man who had a debilitating stroke in 2013 was clearly too much for people. Having no institutional mechanism to oppose this decision, Algerians put their foot down, declared they were not going to take it, and headed out to the streets en masse. With each Friday, larger and larger crowds showed up in cities across the country to demand an end both to Bouteflika’s candidacy and to a system that made it possible for a man who is so ill to stand for election again.

The demonstrations and the Algerian leadership’s response to them have been fascinating—and no doubt exhilarating for those involved—but also chillingly familiar. In the span of a few days, members of the National Liberation Front resigned, judges refused to observe elections in which Bouteflika was a candidate, veterans of the fight against French colonial rule—the mujahideen —joined the opposition to the president’s re-election, and the armed forces issued a statement declaring that the Army and the people “shared a vision of the future.”

Is the Arab Spring back, as some protesters, activists, and analysts have declared? The uninspiring answer is a qualified maybe.

In comparison to 2011, when columnists were writing paeans to the “lion-hearted Egyptians” and others were proclaiming an “Arab revolutionary moment,” the commentary on Algeria—occasional references to the Arab Spring aside—has been tempered. Still, as events unfold in North Africa there is the risk that the romance of the barricades might unintentionally push aside actual analysis. Consequently, it is worth keeping the following facts, analysis, and tidbits in mind:

First, Algeria’s military establishment is the primary beneficiary and defender of the existing political order. As with its Egyptian counterparts, it seems highly unlikely that it is going to give it up so easily. The recent announcement that Bouteflika would not run after all, the postponed elections, the promised reforms, and the plans for a new constitution are delaying tactics. The generals must know that they miscalculated when they decided to give Bouteflika another term. To resolve this problem of their own making, they have pledged to undertake reform, but they are more likely going to use the time they have gained searching for a way to salvage a political system that represents their interests. The very fact that they have appointed regime figures to oversee reform efforts is a dead giveaway that the Algerian power structure is acting in bad faith. The good news is that there seem to be some people who do not believe the Algerian version of “The army and the people are one hand.”

Second, the protests are an important expression of popular outrage at a decrepit, corrupt, and arrogant elite, but the demonstrations did not push Bouteflika to rescind his candidacy. As in Egypt on Feb. 11, 2011, it was the armed forces that determined the president was putting the country at risk and thus dismissed him. No one knows how this decision was made, but it is worth bearing in mind that the powers that be in Algeria only settled on the incumbent president when they could not agree on a successor. Yet three weeks of protests forced the issue, producing the newly announced and undefined transitional period during which the officers will try to resolve their differences and settle on a new candidate.

Third, there have not been many references to “revolution” yet, but to be clear: Revolutions include changes of personnel, but not all changes of personnel are revolutions. There are many definitions of this phenomenon, but among the best is one offered by Theda Skocpol in States and Social Revolutions: Revolutions entail the simultaneous overthrow of a mutually reinforcing political and social order. That has not happened in Algeria. It may yet, but until it does the political advantage lies with the existing elite who control the guns and, importantly, the means to use the institutions of the state against their opponents.

Fourth, transitions to democracy are rare and even when they do succeed, they are not as durable as previously believed. It is possible that Algeria will defy the odds. It is important to remember that in 1988, Algeria experienced nationwide protests that produced a new, apparently liberal constitution. This led some analysts to conclude that Algeria was the most democratic country in the Arab world. Just a few years after the 1989 constitution was approved, Algeria fell into civil war after the generals canceled election results because the military did not like the victorious Islamists. History is not a road map for the future, but it does underscore the contingent nature of politics. At one moment, Algeria was thought to be democratizing; at another, it was bloody and authoritarian.

Fifth, analysts are supposed to look into the TV camera and tell the audience confidently what, in their best judgement, is going to happen. Those experts called upon to explain what is happening in Algeria would best serve their viewers and listeners by saying there are a range of possible outcomes there. Democratic change is one of them, some version of the status quo is another, and a narrower, harsher dictatorship is still another—but there is not enough information to know Algeria’s trajectory. People tend to acknowledge this by declaring that the “situation is fluid,” but it would be better to outline plausible scenarios without assigning them any particular probability, because no one knows what is going to happen.

FinallyAlgeria was a longtime backwater of U.S. foreign policy. It was too far from Washington’s obsessions with the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran and thus left to the French government. That said, Bouteflika actually visited Washington, the first visit by an Algerian leader since the mid 1980s, a few months after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. He returned to the United States for a G-8 summit in 2004. American policymakers saw the Algerians as suitable counterterrorism partners, but overall the relationship remained distant. As a result, Washington has little in the way of resources, leverage, and will to influence developments in Algeria. That is probably a good thing, because even the people who know Algeria well do not understand how decisions are made there. These demonstrations are an Algerian story—it is best to keep it that way.

Revolt is a salutary feature of Algeria’s history. During these protests, the Algerian people have again demanded their dignity and a representative government. The fact that they have not gotten what they wanted says nothing about them and everything about the institutional and social barriers they confront. One thing is clear, however: Algerians and many people around the region are not giving up. They still want the end of the regime.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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