We Have All This Before: Algeria and the 2011 Arab Spring

Many analysts and commentators have referred to the current uprisings across the Arab World against authoritarianism as the “1989” moment for Arab citizens, referencing the 1989 events in Eastern Europe when millions of people toppled communist regimes and installed democracy in their place. While there is a degree of truth to the assertion that the widespread uprisings in the Arab World today are momentous events destined to shape the future of the region, it should not be forgotten that Arab countries did go through their “1989” moment. . .well in 1989.

While world attention was obviously focused on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, a number of Arab countries also witnessed important changes and for a time it seemed that they were also on the road toward democracy. In November 1987, after a series of riots against the rule of President Habib Bourguiba, Tunisians awoke to the news that Prime Minister Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had seized power, replaced Bourguiba and was planning reforms that would introduce political pluralism and accountability. He then proceeded to sign a national pact with opposition parties in which he guaranteed that a new political system would be created to reflect the diversity of opinions in Tunisian society. Democratic reforms were also introduced in Morocco and Jordan as well after bread riots and demands for more openness on the part of large sectors of both societies.

It is, however, in Algeria that the spirit of “1989” was most visible. After serious rioting across the country in October 1988 by ordinary citizens protesting collapsing standards of living and the absence of political openness, the Algerian regime introduced a series of reforms that fundamentally undermined the one-party system in place since independence, culminating with the approval by referendum in February 1989 of a new constitution that guaranteed political pluralism. A series of multiparty elections were scheduled, freedom of speech guaranteed and civil activism emerged strongly across the country. Algeria seemed well positioned to become a genuine democratic state. However, its democratic experiment lasted only until January 1992 when the army took power to stop the Islamist party, The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), from forming a government after having won a stunning victory in the first round of the 1991 legislative elections. What followed was a brutal conflict between the army and Islamist insurgents that lasted well over a decade with the regime finally managing to win and remain in power. Since 1999, the country has been led by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. While there is the façade of democracy and its institutions such as elections, a parliament and a number of nominally independent regulatory authorities, the country is considered not free and scores badly on both civil liberties and political rights in the Freedom House index.

The 1988 Algerian riots were sparked by declining living standards, rise in unemployment particularly among the young, rampant corruption among the ruling elites, profound dissatisfaction with the political establishment and absence of genuine political pluralism. It is interesting to note that many of the causes for today’s uprisings are broadly the same. Socioeconomic demands for greater redistribution of resources and social equality have fuelled current protests and, just like in Algeria in the late 1980s, they are accompanied by political demands of accountability and pluralism. What is equally interesting to note is that Algeria itself does not feature prominently in today’s attempts to democratize the region despite the fact that it suffers many of the same problems of its Arab neighbors currently in turmoil, as Constance Desloire detailed in her thorough analysis of Algeria in a special report for the La Jeune Afrique magazine in March 2011. Why is this the case, what makes Algeria different today from what it was in 1988 and what sets the country apart from its Arab neighbors?

Two explanations have been put forth in some circles to account for the low-intensity pressure that exists on Bouteflika and the regime. First, there is the argument that Bouteflika himself is not as much of a hate-figure among ordinary Algerians as were Ben-Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. He is credited in many quarters for bringing to an end the civil war that tore the country apart, for making sure that Algeria would be welcomed again among the community of nations after years in the diplomatic wilderness and for investing the oil rent in much needed infrastructure projects. While this is partly true, it should also be noted that Bouteflika has also been in power for more than 10 years and had the constitution changed to allow him to run for a third mandate, just as Ben Ali had done in Tunisia. This means that when his mandate expires in 2014, he will have been in power for 15 years, one year more than Bashar al-Assad in Syria, if the latter manages to last the distance. The second reason for the absence of widespread mobilization against the regime is the relative health of the Algerian economy. While it is true that the macroeconomic indicators are solid, the distribution of resources has remained very uneven and oil rents are not primarily invested in productive activities, but speculative ones that leave many Algerians, particularly the youth, destitute and unemployed. Algeria still depends too much on the sale of hydrocarbons whose rents are redistributed through corrupt networks of patronage, and growth rates cannot mask the profound socioeconomic inequalities that exist. Most of Algeria’s economic growth over the last decade is due to public expenditures fuelled by high oil and gas prices, while the private sector does not generate competitive exportable goods and does not create employment. Thus, the record and standing of Bouteflika is much more questioned than some analysts present.

There are more profound reasons that explain why Algeria does not seem to follow the pattern of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. One is related to Algeria’s recent past, namely the 1990 civil war, and the caution that this instills into political actors. The memory and the trauma of the terrible war that convulsed the country for more than a decade is still fresh and there is widespread fear that upsetting the current “authoritarian stability” might lead Algeria back to the 1990s. Thus the legacy of the civil war prevents citizens, opposition political movements and the regime from opening up broad avenues of confrontation. This does not mean that there are no instances of political mobilization against the regime, as there have been numerous localized strikes, riots and marches to put pressure on Bouteflika and the government since the mid-2000s across the country, but the boundaries of the permissible are never surpassed. Some political parties, notably the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and the Movement for Democracy in Algeria (MDA), are critical of the absence of genuine democratic procedures and accountability, but they are also aware that confronting the regime head on in the streets would very likely lead to violence. They therefore either refrain from engaging with the political system by boycotting certain elections or participate in the knowledge that real policymaking power does not rest with the elected institutions. It is no wonder that President Bouteflika himself, in a televised speech in April 2011, indirectly but menacingly referred to Algeria’s dark decade when he stated that fostering political divisions among Algerians is worse than murder. The armed forces as well keep a watchful eye and have a history of direct intervention.

The second explanation for the Algerian exception is that the opposition movement is weak and divided. Political movements that have been given a voice in the facade democratic system have little interest in rocking the boat as they derive material and political benefits from playing the role of loyal opposition. They are also unable to link up with social movements at the root of protests and localized demonstrations because they do not enjoy popular credibility. In addition to their weakness, ideological and personal divisions also play an important role in undermining the effectiveness of the opposition. Finally, one should also be aware of the elephant in the room, namely political Islam. While there are two legal Islamist opposition parties in Algeria, they are seen as instruments of the regime and are believed to have very little autonomy. Opposition Islamism has not gone away simply because the FIS has been outlawed and its historical leaders silenced. This means that to this day a lot of secular opposition figures and parties prefer not to break with Bouteflika and the ruling party for fear that a more democratic system might reward the Islamists as in the early 1990s. The appeal of the FIS is today unknown as the party is illegal, but the popularity of Islamism across the region is still strong and there is no reason to believe that this is not the case in Algeria. While some of the Islamist vote is intercepted by Islamist parties loyal to the current power structures, some of it has withdrawn from politics altogether, preferring to live Islamism in its daily practices. The absence of an Islamist opposition party from the political scene makes it therefore difficult to gauge the potential support it might have in society, but FIS Islamists are also acutely aware that their forceful return would upset the authoritarian balance and lead to profound ideological and political divisions in public. In any case, Algerian Islamists are certainly looking with great interest at developments in Tunisia and Egypt where Islamist movements have become protagonists of the changes taking place and might in the future be stimulated to act. The history and political development of the FIS, however, is significantly different from that of the Egyptian Brotherhood, and the two movements might not be comparable in their approaches to politics.

All this does not mean that Algeria will be insulated from the desire for political change sweeping the Arab world. This is understood by the president himself and, in a nationally televised speech, he announced a number of political reforms that have the objectives of democratizing the political system in addition to introducing economic measures destined to reduce the current inequalities. Even if we assume that this reformist acceleration is genuine, the problem for Bouteflika is that he might not have the institutional strength to carry out his reforms because of blockages from other actors such as the intelligence services, the ruling parties – notably the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) – or sectors of the predatory business elites that all benefit from the current political and economic arrangements. For the international community, the dilemma is the same as when it comes to the region as a whole. While Islamists might have become more credibly democratic over time and while they have not been at the forefront of the uprisings, they are in line to benefit from the changes taking place. Is the international community finally ready to engage them or will it do as it did in Algeria two decades ago and condone a military coup against a popularly elected Islamist party in the name of security?

The current situation seems to indicate that Bouteflika will remain in power until the end of his mandate and that he will manage to push through political and economic measures that will meet some of the demands that a myriad of civil actors have put forth. The nature of the political system is however unlikely to change as a complex web of interlocking interests and a balance of power between different clans and power centers will ensure that genuine democratic change is postponed indefinitely. There is no doubt that oil and gas revenues will play a central role in supporting current arrangements between the economic, military and political elites. As long as such revenues remain high, widespread and sustained dissent can be staved off . However, much of Algeria’s future depends also on how regional events play out. A successful transition to some sort of accountable and popularly sanctioned government in Tunisia and Egypt would put pressure on Algeria, but a civil war in Syria and Yemen, and the failure of Egypt and Tunisia to transit successfully to democracy would strengthen the hand of those in the Algerian regime who argue for the glacial pace of reforms so as to avoid another round of widespread civil violence.

Dr. Cavatorta is a senior lecturer in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University (DCU), Dublin, Ireland. He lectures on international relations and the politics of the Middle East. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles and four books. He also wrote “The international dimension of the failed Algerian transition” published in 2009 by Manchester University Press. He is working on a research project examining civil society activism in Iran and Syria.


1/07/11 Algerian police use teargas against demonstrators protesting high food prices and unemployment.

1/13/11 Mohsen Bouterfif burns himself to death after being unable to find a job and a home.

2/12/11 Some 2000 Algerians protest in Algiers in solidarity with Tunisian and Egyptian protesters.

3/15/11 The Algerian government raises pay wages of public workers to stave of further unrest.

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