Algerian Exceptionalism and the Arab Spring

While mass protests and civil unrest were unprecedented in much of the rest of the region prior to January of this year, Algeria has had a long history of political upheaval.
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With all the turmoil prevailing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) this year, news of turmoil from Algeria has been strangely infrequent. In the context of what is now looking to be a 'perpetual' Arab Spring, the headline 'Fresh Wave of Violence Kills Six in Algeria' conjures up images of clashes between Algerian armed forces and protestors. However, this was not the case in Algeria last weekend, as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that caused six deaths and injured twenty people. AQM has been actively engaged in an insurgent campaign to overthrow the Algerian government since 2002 and has demonstrated a great degree of autonomy from Al Qaeda (AQ). The death of Osama Bin Laden has had little apparent impact on Al Qaeda's operating capability in Algeria. To the contrary - the turmoil in Libya has allowed AQM to seize weapons and smuggle them into their strongholds in southern Algeria and northern Mali.

While mass protests and civil unrest were unprecedented in much of the rest of the region prior to January of this year, Algeria has had a long history of political upheaval. A brutal civil war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Algerians in the 1990s eventually resulted in a brief flurry of political pluralism in the country, but fears of militant Islam led the army to seize control and declare a state of emergency. Ongoing attacks by AQM provide visible reminders that terrorism is alive and well in Algeria, and strengthen the resolve of the three-term Bouteflika regime to continue its policy of repression in an effort to prevent AQM from getting stronger.

This is not to say there have not been protests in Algeria since the start of the Arab Spring. Riots over food prices and a wave of self-immolations were followed by the lifting of the state of emergency (unimaginable a year ago), as demanded by the protesting groups. This was followed by a promise from President Bouteflika to embrace political reform and release 4,000 Islamists held by the state since the military coup in 1992. However, the protests appeared to lose momentum once the state of emergency was lifted. AQM's support for the protests is a hindrance because it not only serves to legitimize the Bouteflika regime, but has the potential to delegitimize the opposition movement. Libya's rebel forces were officially recognized by the U.S. as the legitimate rulers of Libya last week, but the Algerian opposition could never secure such recognition if it had even the slightest link to AQM.

The government has been adept at stoking the fire of Islamic terrorism in order to secure U.S. military aid. In 2006, Bouteflika argued that Algeria had been fighting terrorism "on its own for over a decade". The Algerian government has been similarly canny in its reaction to the unrest by lowering food prices, raising public sector wages, and pledging to give millions of Algerians free land and cheap loans. In addition, it has ensured that any protests are heavily policed, with security officials often outnumbering protestors by ten to one. Memories of the country's tumultuous political history - which has included coups and civil conflict for decades - has contributed to reluctance on the part of Algerians to take to the streets with renewed vigor.

French commentator Rabah Ghezali has argued that there is a real lack of cohesion in the protests due to Algeria's 'fragmented society'. In addition to the regime's talent for playing Islamists off against Democrats, Ghezali explains that the familiar divisions of French vs. Arab and Arab vs. Kabyle are also exploited by the government. In addition, while protests in Tunisia and Egypt were bolstered by a fluid relationship between the capitals and provincial towns (Cairo was supported by protests in the rest of the country and Tunis erupted in response to a self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid), no such relationship exists in Algeria. Protests are predominantly limited to Algiers, and take place in smaller towns revolving around local issues, such as town planning and road management.

The Algerian government has undertaken some initiatives to introduce subsidies on basic commodities and relax regulations on street selling in some areas, which will undoubtedly improve living standards for the lowest classes, but Bouteflika's pledges to embrace political reform should be treated with caution. If AQM continues its campaign of terrorism - and there is little reason to believe it will not - Bouteflika could easily renege on these promises, which would likely in turn provoke civil unrest. But as long as Algerian protests remain sporadic and disorganized, the government will continue to address them as it has for many years. As the multi-dimensional nature of the Egyptian revolution has shown, social divisions may be overcome to achieve a greater objective, but when these divisions are exacerbated by acts of terrorism, a military dominated state can continue to make limited concessions while retaining legitimacy. The Bouteflika regime has used Islamic extremism as an excuse to close previous windows of opportunity in Algeria. It is hard to imagine that it won't do so again.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut, and also senior advisor to the PRS Group. Joe Feinmann is a research analyst with CRS, based in Glasgow.

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