Algeria and the Arab Spring: a roundtable

Endemic socio-economic difficulties  have made Algeria a candidate par excellence for the domino effect of the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ But, despite largescale discontent with the status quo for many years now, the iconic slogan “the people want to topple the regime” has been remarkably absent from the protests. This round-table sifts the internal and external reasons for this. See our Algeria and the Arab Revolutions: Pasts, Presents and Futures page for more

Miloud Barkaoui;
25 May 2012

This roundtable took place on March 16, 2012 at the University of Portsmouth as part of an international conference organised by the Centre for European and International Studies Research (CEISR) entitled: ‘Algerian and Arab Revolutions: An International and Comparative Perspective’. The roundtable was chaired by Ed Stoddard from the University of Portsmouth whose research focuses on the European Union within a global context. The four panellists were: Professor Miloud Barkaoui (Professor of American politics at Badj Mokhtar-Annaba University, Algeria); Jean-Pierre Séréni (a journalist with Le Monde Diplomatique, France); Hamza Hamouchene (an activist and member of the Algerian Solidarity Campaign based in London); Dr. Sami Bensassi (an economist who works on North Africa at the University of Portsmouth).

Below we have the initial reflections of each panellist on the complex relationship between Algeria and the ongoing revolutions in the Arab World.    

1. Winds of change: the Arab Spring and the “Algerian Exception” (Miloud Barkaoui)

2. Contrasted overtures to the Arab Spring in Algeria and Tunisia (Jean-Pierre Séréni)

3. Algeria and the Arab Spring (Hamza Hamouchene)

4. The Tunisian revolution: a second decolonization? (Sami Bensassi)



Winds of change: the Arab Spring and the “Algerian Exception”

Miloud Barkaoui

Algeria suffers from the same endemic socio-economic difficulties which set off the recent Arab street revolts, setting in motion a new regional paradigm shift from which the country’s political reality cannot be impervious. Such difficulties have made Algeria a candidate par excellence for the domino effect of the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ But, against all predictions and prophesies, it has been missing from the media coverage and from the radar screens of the domino theorists, ideologues, and analysts. A brief reading of the internal and external reasons helps understand why this Maghrebi state has so far been spared the domino effect of recent revolts in the region.

The Algerian situation is quite paradoxical. Largescale discontent with the status quo, including demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins, has played a part in the country's daily socio-political culture for many years now. The demands have been centered on social justice and equality (employment, housing, participatory governance, ending corruption and nepotism). Yet, apart from a host of committed political and human rights organizations spearheading the protest movement, those engaged in the struggle for change push for reform short of demanding the overthrow of the current regime or the replacement of the incumbent president. Interestingly, the iconic slogan “the people want to topple the regime” has been remarkably absent from the protests.

Such protests were commonplace across Algeria well before the Tunisian revolt (10,000 in 2010 alone). There have even been a number of self-immolations by individuals protesting their precarious social conditions in the four corners of the country, well ahead of Bouazizi’s desperate act. However, in the absence of organizations capable of mobilizing people, the protests have remained sporadic, disorganized, and without a real impact on the authorities’ agenda. This is mainly due to the disjointed nature of Algerian civil society, the polarization of the political elite, and the government's flair for playing one activist group off against the other. The quasi absence of consequential protest is also due to the official instrumentalization of the traumatic memories of both the Algerian war of independence and the “Red Decade” of the 1990s. [1]Such lingering effects have played a major part in curbing Algerians’ drive to rally to the Arab street revolts.

The government has also invested enormous energy in the exploitation of the tragic shift taken by events in the Arab-Spring countries. The fear of a potential Libyan scenario of chaos and of foreign meddling has played a large part in people’s reticence to rally behind those who seek regime change. Algerians are wary of the Arab Spring and its unknown ramifications, especially with the still vivid legacy of civil strife and bloodshed of the 1990s. What is more, there is a wide popular conviction that the events shaking the region are nothing but an orchestrated plot by the big powers to reconfigure the regional geopolitical map along self-serving lines.

Although Algerians may fear and perhaps loathe the regime in place, what they fear most is the insecurity and instability of a Libyan or Syrian-style outcome. This wariness of a potential leap in the dark comes from what is viewed as the lack of a viable alternative to the existing system as the political parties are largely mistrusted and deemed unfit to govern. It must be borne in mind that most of such parties have been discredited and weakened by the government either through repressive measures or through smart ways of winning their leaders over.

The government has also largely succeeded in appeasing the wrath of a big segment of the population. Swiftly and cannily responding to what was unfolding in the neighbouring countries, it used energy revenues to buy off social peace (hefty pay rises to public-sector workers, benefits to different social groups, and generous loans for business start-ups to unemployed youth). This is in addition to raising subsidies on basic commodities, and relaxing regulations on street vending to keep unwaged youngsters away from the protests.[2]

In stark contrast to the former autocracies in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the Algerian government has generally been tolerant of social protests; violent police crackdown on protestors is quite uncommon. However, when they fear rallies might serve as potential political platforms for revolt, the authorities do resort to heavy-handed repressive measures short of using firearms. Opposition rallies, which have so far been limited to Algiers, particularly, are met with a heavy police deployment. Security agents sometimes outnumber participants by ten to one.

The government has gone to great lengths to delegitimize the organizers of anti-government rallies such as the one led by the Coordination Nationale pour le Changement et la Démocratie (CNCD) in February 2011.[3] The CNCD was already handicapped by the presence of controversial political figures like Said Saadi (leader of the secularist Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie) and Ali Belhadj (one of the former leaders of the Islamist Front Islamique de Salut that was banned in 1992); a presence which in the eyes of many Algerians endorses the foreign plot theory. In parallel, the government took a plethora of steps towards appeasing the country’s civil society. It repealed the 19-year-old state of emergency laws [4]; promised to end state monopoly of television; and transferred the task of supervising elections from the Interior Ministry to a commission of judges. As a guarantee of transparency, Algiers invited a number of international organisations and institutions[5] to send observers to monitor the recent legislative elections. Meanwhile, scores of new political parties have been authorized to take part in the elections. In fact, this is the first time since President Bouteflika took office in 1999 that new parties have been legalized, including several moderate Islamist ones.

The authorities have deployed considerable efforts to mobilize the people for a high turnout in the elections, which they consider a panacea against foreign interference, and to persuade opposition parties to be part of the process. The participation of parties like the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) will certainly lend credence to the elections. Boycott by major opposition parties and a low voter turnout, however, has undermined the whole process of political reform promised by the authorities. Part of the opposition already suspects that the coming elections are merely meant for foreign consumption and that the authorities are dancing to the tunes of the big powers.

Part of the opposition considers that these powers are striving to uphold the Algerian exception, for geostrategic considerations. The stability of Algeria is seen in the west as pivotal to the continuation of the process of change in the whole Maghreb. Washington, Paris, and Brussels seem to have opted for a low-profile support for a relaxed “processual” change in the country. Algeria has always been a reliable energy supplier to Europe and the US; a consideration that is weighing heavily on the Euro-American stance, especially as conditions in Libya are still unsettled.[6]

Algeria has also become an indispensable ally of the west in the fight against international terrorism, organized crime, and illegal immigration to Europe. Security cooperation between the two sides has been intensified following the security spill-over of the Libyan crisis, unleashing a threatening wave of weapon trafficking that could render the operational capabilities of al Qaida’s North Africa branch (AQIM) and its allies in the Sahel region more ominous.[7] The current explosive situation in Northern Mali has made western cooperation with the Algerian security services even tighter.

The government has so far skillfully exploited the internal socio-political configuration and the favourable regional/global geostrategic climate to ward off the Arab Spring shockwaves. Will it be skilful enough to find the right panaceas for the country’s profound socio-economic and political ills in order to bring stability and prosperity to its wearied population? This can only be through genuine structural reforms directly addressing the political sources of tension in order to make people identify with those who govern them. Or, will it instead remain bogged down in the conceited and stubborn claim that the crisis is simply social, clinging to time-buying cosmetic ploys which can only offer a dawn without a noon? Only time will tell!

[1] The 1963 Algerian Constitution cites the figure of one and a half million victims – 500,000 killed and disappeared and 1 million wounded and injured. On the historical controversy of losses during the Algerian War see Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.335-338. The crisis of the 1990s claimed the lives of over 100,000 people and billions of dollars in economic losses.

[2] The youth unemployment rate in the country is currently estimated at 25%.

[3] The CNCD comprised the Human Rights League, a number of independent trade union organizations, some political parties, and a host of youth groups.

[4] Those laws were designed to prevent gatherings in public places and to give security services unchecked powers for the detention of opponents.

[5] These included the EU, the UN, and independent organisms like the Carter Center and the American National Democratic Institute.

[6] Algeria, which is the world's sixth-largest producer of natural gas, is an OPEC member, and a supplier of about one fifth of Europe’s gas imports. It covers about 3.6 % of American oil imports.

[7] The Algerian army intercepted in February of this year a large quantity of shoulder-launched missiles which are capable of bringing down commercial airliners (commonly known as man-portable defence systems- MANPADS-) smuggled from Libya.



Contrasted overtures to the Arab Spring in Algeria and Tunisia

Jean-Pierre Séréni

Wednesday, January 5, 2011, two neighbouring countries in North Africa, Algeria and Tunisia, experienced widespread political agitation. In Algiers, the unrest began right in the centre and quickly spread to other important towns such as M’Sila, Boumerdes, Tizi-Ouzou, Annaba, Tipaza ou Tlemcen. Usually violence, very frequent, rests at the level of one locality, rarely two, for purely local reasons (cutting of the water supply, problems over housing, car accidents). In the evening, an official communique listed three dead and 400 injured. For the first time, this movement was verging on the national scale.

In Tunisia, the day was marked by the burial attended by 5000 people of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation on 17 December 2010 provoked demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid, one of the poorest parts of the country. The responses of the exiled opposition in Europe were cautious: ‘there is no possible alternative to the regime for the moment, that will take years’ was the view of the activist, Adel Ghazala, a refugee in Paris. In London, the daughter of the leader Ennadha, Rachid Ghannouchi, the Islamist party that will win the elections less than a year later, spoke of ‘agitators’. Nobody envisaged the fall of the regime.

Three days later, Saturday 8 January, calm reigned in Algeria, the authorities had taken control of the situation. In contrast, in Tunisia, the youth of Tala, a small mountain town near to the Algerian border, attacked a police station which led to four deaths. In the evening the rioting spread to Kasserine, a neighbouring town with a population of nearly 100,000. This rioting did not stop, spreading to the whole country; less than a week later the regime of Président Zineddine Ben Ali fell.

Their’ version of events

How can one explain such a different train of developments in two countries ruled by equally authoritarian regimes confronted with social and political explosion? The handling of the crisis by the authorities, the financial and police resources at their disposal and their capacity to impose on national opinion ‘their’ version of events, was markedly different in the two countries.

Tunis reacted slowly to the events: the President had left the country and his subordinates were late in warning him of the gravity of the situation, believing that this was local violence such as Tunisia experienced in 2008 in Redeyef and the following year in Ben Gardane. The decision-making process is long and complicated, the government manages security issues in an opaque manner and then measures take a long time to be carried out by the police divided into several bodies which in theory take orders from the Minister of the Interior. Algiers reacted rapidly, on 8 January the government took the necessary measures while the police has a unified command structure.

The second difference, the Algerian police, 140,000 strong, is well equipped for maintaining order, with water canons and light tanks, the anti-riot police are well trained and very quickly repressed the riots without too much bloodshed. In comparison, in Tunisia the police force is smaller in number (barely 50,000), the specialised units for maintaining order skeletal and their equipment obsolete. In Kasserine on 8 January the police did not have any of the most up to date tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. Ben Ali was controlling the country through a small secret police force that relied upon 4,000 local committees in charge of spying on their neighbours. But this time, the committees did not feed through the intelligence that is indispensable for preventative repression. The populace attacked police stations which then opened fire and killed more than 140 demonstrators.

Algerian financial resources allowed the authorities to make concessions from 8 January onwards: VAT was abolished on a series of primary products, subsidies were given the rioters and the wages of civil servants were dramatically increased. Algeria, a rich petrol country, has the means to buy social peace.

Nothing like that in Tunisia. It was only three days before his fall that Ben Ali promised measures to alleviate economic hardship and announced the immediate creation of 300,000 jobs. But this had no credibility given that average job creation schemes had never gone above 70,000 new posts a year. The promises, late and mean-minded, fell flat.

Above all, the Tunisian regime lost the ‘street opinion’ shortly after the immolation of Mohammed Bouzizi on 17 December. The story that spread quickly within Tunisian opinion was deadly for its credibility. This can be summarised as follows: this young unemployed student who was selling goods on the black market was the victim of a policewoman who slapped him in the face. Humiliated he set fire to himself. This version, concocted by a small groups of lawyers and trade unionists of the UGTT (l’Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens) which had kept a certain autonomy under the dictatorship – won out as the dominant version in public opinion and attracted the support of several important components of Algerian society: firstly, many thousands of qualified people without employment and the innumerable poor who lived off an informal economy once they are made redundant by a company or the state. And finally the traditionalists who were indignant at the spectacle of a woman laying a hand on a man.

After Ben Ali’s fall, it emerged that the policewoman had not slapped Bouazizi. But the Qatar satellite channel Al-Jazeera, followed throughout the country, took this narrative on the basis of reporting by a Tunisian journalist who works clandestinely for the channel through the internet.

The Algerian authorities imposed their version of the riots of the beginning of January 2011: hooligans who were paid by speculators who wanted to turn public attention away from the increase in prices on foodstuffs and accuse the government in their place. No group contradicted this official discourse on the ‘olive and sugar revolution’ and soon opinion turned to other things, notably the political reforms. Al-Jazeera, much less followed in Algeria than Tunisia, had nobody on the ground and covered the event much less

Without giving an explanation, it is necessary to underline the paradox; on the one hand on 5 January in Algeria a movement seemed able to spread for the first time to the whole of the country while in Tunisia the day was marked by the peaceful burial of a victim who became famous in a provincial backwater, while the rest of the country remained calm. To the contemporary historian that is a journalist, the fall of the Algerian regime seemed far more likely than that of Tunisia. But by the beginning of the following week, the balance of forces had been reversed. The Arab spring took off in Tunisia, while Algeria would finish the year in political terms as the country had started it, with the status-quo intact.    



Algeria and the Arab Spring

Hamza Hamouchene

A year ago, waves of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa swept away western-backed tyrants one after the other - first Tunisia’s Ben Ali, then Egypt’s Mubarak... It seemed the list of toppled dictators was bound to go on and on. These uprisings were unforgettable historical events and the emancipatory experience was so contagious that people all over the world were inspired. Occupiers from London to Wall Street were proud to “Walk like an Egyptian”.

These revolts had echoes in other countries because they shared the same detonators of the explosion: authoritarianism, inegalitarian development, high unemployment, poverty, endemic corruption and nepotism, a suffocated political life, repression, human rights abuses, a frustrated educated youth without horizons and parasitic bourgeoisies who continue their protected robbery, exploitation and self-enrichment.

The peoples of this region were long confined to racist stereotypes and contemptuous clichés of the like: “Arabs and Muslims are not fit for democracy and they are incapable of governing themselves”.

The Arab Spring shattered these stereotypes and debunked these myths. The wind of revolution has spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman. Algeria at the vanguard in the 1960s, a nation that inspired the entire world with its heroic revolutionary war against the French colonialists, paradoxically seemed preserved from these aspirations. The western media portrayed Algeria as being at the margin of the Arab spring, of being the exception. Of course this is an optical illusion.

Not at the centre of the media spotlight, nevertheless the country in 2010 and 2011 saw an unprecedented number of demonstrations, strikes, occupations, and clashes with the police. In 2010 alone, the authorities counted 11,500 riots, public demonstrations and gatherings across the country. The year 2011 started with the implementation of fiscal measures introduced by the government to counteract the informal economy. These had dire consequences on the already-difficult life of the population: a substantial increase in basic food staples (30% for sugar for example). For the networks that controlled the informal market, these measures were bound to cause huge financial losses.

The reactions converged into violent riots between January 4 - 10 in several cities. These of course were contained by a bloated police force. ‘Algiers the White’ became ‘Algiers the Blue’ in reference to the uniform of 140,000 policemen who successfully suppressed all the marches and demonstrations organised by political parties and by figures of the civil society in the following weeks.

All this indicates that Algeria has not been spared from the wind of revolution, and like their counterparts in other Arab countries, Algerians have expressed the same aspirations to freedom and dignity. The rapidity with which the flames of revolt spread – thanks to Al Jazeera - gave the illusion that change will happen overnight and regimes will fall one after the other like a house of cards. That did not happen!

Why is Algeria not following in the footsteps of Egypt and Tunisia in toppling dictators? A revolutionary experience along the lines of the Tunisian and Egyptian scenarios will be very difficult to reproduce in Algeria, but that does not mean that Algeria is immune or protected from the wind of change.

Why such a task is hard to achieve

Despotism in Algeria is collegial. It is shared and not concentrated in the hands of one person/one family that focuses all the hatred and grudges. A diffuse dictatorship like the Algerian one is harder to dislodge than those that offer a precise target to popular resentment like the Shah in Iran, Suharto in Indonesia or Ben Ali in Tunisia, just to cite a few examples. The oligarchic coalitions have a larger base than personalised dictatorships, which makes them less fragile. They are also more resistant because they conceded some power to the people, especially to the large and complex networks.

On top of that, the oil rents contribute significantly to regime longevity and stability by pacifying the population and delaying any radicalisation of the popular anger, especially with the recent redistribution of the petro-dollars à la Bouteflika.

The Algerian ruling elite likes to repeat that Algeria had its democratic revolution in October 1988 when the regime was forced by weeks of riots to open up to political pluralism and allowed an independent press. These gains in civil liberties were diluted and the democratic transition aborted in the civil war of the 90s that left the nation wounded, traumatised and less disposed to rise up against a regime that triumphed over radical Islamism at the expense of hundreds of thousands of deaths.

This fratricidal war has divided democrats, seriously damaged civil society and left a political vacuum in the face of the ruling parties. There is almost no opposition with a proper base that can take the demands of the people forward.

The spectre of the civil war and the fear of bloody violence have been exacerbated by the Libyan drama, and what’s currently happening in Yemen and Syria. The intervention in Libya was a war of regime change and was perceived as an imperialist plot in Algerians’ minds, reviving their anti-colonialist feelings. I have been told by many friends and family members: “Algeria is fine, we don’t need to go down the route of the Libyan disaster, and we don’t want the France we expelled in 1962 to come back to our country”.

Algeria Solidarity Campaign

What is to be done to achieve a genuine democratic change? The conjunction of social discontents that we have seen in the last year seems insufficient to threaten a regime that has always repressed revolts in blood. There is a crying urgency for an authentic democratic opposition to revive itself and politicise the legitimate demands of the people that currently find only confused expression.

Some people say that democratic change will come from above, i.e. from the citadels of the regime. But as long as the masses do not exercise pressure from beneath, struggle to radically change the status quo will be unfulfilled and the interests of the profiteering cast will be maintained.

This year, Algeria will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of a thwarted independence, an anniversary that bears witness to the deception and disappointments that followed, a celebration tainted with bitterness as Algerians feel cheated of the fruits of independence and realise that the corrupt pouvoir betrayed the revolution. It is time for Algerians in Algeria and abroad to revive that revolutionary fervour that was admired all over the world, to renew our struggle for a true liberation and a meaningful democratic change, and to build a dynamic civil society and a strong mass-movement against authoritarianism and any form of oppression and injustice.

In that spirit, some Algerian friends and I, inspired by the historic events of the “Arab Spring”, have founded Algeria Solidarity Campaign, an organisation based in London, which is campaigning for peaceful democratic change and the respect for human rights in Algeria. We are striving to build a platform for debate and an exchange of ideas regarding the challenges that face the Algerian people.



The Tunisian revolution: a second decolonization?

Sami Bensassi

The fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Algerian War gives us the opportunity to analyse the link between the first successful modern Arab uprisings during the 1950s and 1960s against their rulers and the current ones. In particular, is it possible to consider the 2011 Tunisian revolution as a second round of decolonization following independence from the French in 1956?i

One of the striking facts of the post revolution period is that, for the first time, a large number of the new Tunisian government have not been educated in the French higher education system. On the contrary, their educational networks have grown outside Tunisia, in London and in the Arabic peninsula: the beginning of a shift towards new set of connections no longer centred on a Paris-Tunis axis but on a Qatar - Tunis - Washington triangle.

This might be a temporary shift. After all, many in the Tunisian government still have close connections with French political leaders. But here the distinction between the short and long-term trend is essential. Already during the Ben Ali era the use of the French words in state TV programmes was considered inappropriate. Now, even in the French educated elite, the fashion is to send children to schools proposing early language classes in English. State sponsored high education institutions like the Tunis Business School offer academic tutelage only in English. Generally the Tunisian elite (conservative or liberal) seem to have acknowledged that better perspectives are offered to an English/Arabic educated labour force (particularly when the difficulty of emigrating to France is contrasted with the attractiveness of the Gulf States and North America).

From decolonization to the end of the 1980s, Arab states were showing multiple signs of the adoption of western modernity (westernized clothes, leisure, technologies, and education system or government formal organization) with two exceptions: westernized freedom of press and westernized democracy. At the start of the 1990s, the creation of Al Jazeera transformed the first element: by challenging most (but not all) incumbent governments through the Arab World it has laid the fist foundation stone of Arab modernity, adopting the code and the objective of a free press but with a distinctive Arab content and tone. Towards the end of 1990s came the second step towards the elaboration of an Arab modernity, namely the acceptation of democracy by the Turkish and Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) as a legitimate way to organize political life, and its victory through the electoral process. In this way the Turkish example has taken centre stage in Tunisia and Egypt. However, unlike Turkey, Arab countries still have to make a choice: is it religious or elected legislators who will have the last word in shaping their political systems?

Finally some remarks about the social and economic context of the Tunisian revolution. The urban, educated, upper middle class were fed up with the Ben Ali clique which they viewed as corrupt. Thus, in contrast to Syria, this section of society chose to support the 2011 revolution which started in the midst of the poor Tunisian interior, and their support was pivotal. Equally, the demand for more jobs and opportunities from the majority of the population has not yet been fulfilled. Despite the migration of young Tunisians to Libya, and the promises of investment from the US, Qatar and the EU, the economic prospects stay bleak. In addition to this demand, increasing inflation has put in doubt the capacity of the new government to manage the economy. Here the economic situation in Europe - the main trade partner of Tunisia – will play an important role in the stability of Tunisia and its neighbours. Economic difficulties and injustices triggered the Tunisian revolution, but this unrest may return if the elected government fails to deliver a better economic future.

So, to conclude, should we talk about a second decolonization? Tunisia is surely becoming more Arab and Muslim, looking more eastward and less across the Mediterranean. At the same time it may succeed in creating its own model of development, integrating and adapting westernized values to its own historical and cultural background. By doing so Tunisia will definitively step out of the age of colonization.



This article is part of the Algeria and the Arab Revolutions: Pasts, Presents and Futures partnership, funded by the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

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