Why Has the Arab Spring Not Spread to Algeria?

Algeria embraced the popular overthrow of Benali and Mubarak with happiness and pride. More onerously, however, these developments are a sobering reminder of Algeria's recent history.
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Algeria embraced the popular overthrow of Benali and Mubarak with happiness and pride. More onerously, however, these developments are a sobering reminder of Algeria's recent history.

Far from being unprecedented in modern North African history, these recent events were long-preceded: in October 1988, a spontaneous and massive Algerian demonstration filled the streets, protesting shortages and calling for the democratization of a corrupt, autocratic, and inward-looking regime. Demonstrators wielded a plethora of slogans and banners ("We are human beings!" announced one) and the army opened fire, killing some 500 to 800 people. Ultimately, however, the demonstration proved effective in spite of this violent oppression: it marked the end of the one-party system and the brief rise of political pluralism.

Democracy was tragically short-lived. When, in January 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front won the elections, the army skillfully exploited the "Islamic threat": it first deposed the perennially powerless President Chadli, and then annulled Algeria's first multi-party legislative elections. Its actions provoked a brutal civil war -- the brunt of which was borne by ordinary, non-partisan Algerians. Waves of violence from both sides left more than 150,000 dead and a further 10,000 missing. More recently, 9/11 and the War on Terror have been used to rhetorically legitimize the military's use of force, construing it as part of a broader, global struggle: for the Algerian military, their dirty war was, in fact, the first fight against Islamic extremism. Needless to say, in the aftermath of this carnage Algerian civil society has little appetite for demonstrations -- a fact that goes some way towards explaining why Algeria appears (for the moment, at least) as the odd-man-out in the spread of the Arab democratic movement.

Since Algeria's independence in 1962, the army has held power -- or, more precisely, the Department of Intelligence and Security. Algeria went through four Presidents between 1991 and 1999; not one served out their mandate in full. This flux only ended in 1999 when the incumbent president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, came to power. While the Egyptians and Tunisians celebrate ousting their dictators, Algerians are realistic enough to insist on "business as usual" even when faced by the resignation of a President.

This relative quietism hardly reflects satisfaction with the regime's performance. The Algerian people should be the beneficiaries of rising gas prices and the discovery new reserves, but instead the country has disintegrated economically and socially. It continues to lack just about everything, be it housing, health, or jobs, and what it does possess is deficient and requires rebuilding. The state flaunts its $150 billion reserves in foreign currency, revealing the full extent of the fissure between a privileged clique in power and the rest of society that thinks about eating and dreams about emigrating. Since 1962, successive governments failed to build a real state or an economy; instead, they aimed to neutralize and contain resentment towards the regime. In reality, rage against the regime has been building up for fifty years.

Algerian society is too fragmented for concerted action, despite isolated pockets of resistance in the independent trade unions. The regime exploits divisions and plays Algerians off against each other along familiar lines -- French versus Arab- speaking, Arab versus Kabyle, "Islamist" versus "Democrat", besides multi-way ethnic and tribal tensions.

Besides these divisions, Algeria is also distinctive in the relationship between its capital and provinces. In the recent uprising in Egypt and Tunisia, there was a synergy of capitols and provinces: Cairo was quickly supported by the rest of the country, while revolution in a small provincial town had ramifications in Tunis. By contrast, past protests in the Algerian capital of Algiers have had little impact in the rest of the country. In Algeria, there is little solidarity between Algiers and provinces; the lead of the comparatively rebellious capital is not necessarily followed.

While there are many social revolts (in 2010 alone there were around 900 incidents) in Algeria, they are fragmentary and often parochial in aim. The rebellious youth and antiquated weak political opposition are mutually distrustful and incapable of forming an anti-government front. Revealingly, in February 2011 the opposition could only gather an ineffectual 2,000 demonstrators in Algiers. In response, the regime mobilized 30,000 policemen, effectively bribing them with a 50% pay increase that was applied retrospectively to their salaries for the previous three years in order to ensure their loyalty. Until now, therefore, the regime has proved hugely successful in exploiting these various divisions in order to perpetuate a system that offers no prospect of improving the lives of the majority. The poorest and most desperate suffocate under the "hogra" (the term used to describe the contemptible attitude of the authorities vis-à-vis the people) and take the streets, but they do so less as a coherent political act and more because it is the only channel for expressing resentment. Lamentably, a program for gradual improvements and the fair distribution of oil revenue has no place in these protests.

Another reason for the Arab spring not spreading to Algeria is its political vacuum. The very nature of authoritarian rule is to deny the possibility of legitimate opposition; it prohibits or circumscribes organized political actors' activities and prevents the possibility of an opposition emerging that can debate and offer alternatives. In Algeria, there are currently no political parties that can provide the country with a credible vision. As a consequence, the popular movement can only ever be defensive -- fighting oppression and rejecting the socio-political situation -- rather than taking the offensive and offering a positive program.

To a greater extent than in many other Arab countries, the regime in Algeria is insulated from the international community's criticism because it does not depend on tourism (like Tunisia) or on the US aid (like the Egyptian army). Moreover, since the US and Israel have no truck with Algeria it is hard to see America repeating its role in Egypt. It seems equally unlikely the European Union would act. Aside from memories of colonial conflict with France, Algeria provides for 10% of the EU's gas and oil demand at a time of rising prices and energy insecurity.

The retired generals responsible for annulling the 1992 elections still hold power, but they have eschewed diluting control and bringing in a younger generation of generals into the foray. The result is discontent among many generals in their fifties. Blamed for Algeria's disintegration, it remains to be seen whether these generals will continue their involvement with a discredited regime. Combined with widespread discontent, the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, this military "generational clash" presents the possibility of an explosive cocktail. The only realistic hope for change in Algeria is an internal coup within the army, but, as always in a country with such a turbulent past, it would be foolhardy to predict the outcome.

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