North Africa, West Asia

How to be different together: Algerian lessons for the Tunisian crisis

Hicham Yezza - Editor-in-Chief - Ceasefire Magazine.jpg

In light of the crisis currently unfolding in Tunisia - particularly the increasingly strident and incendiary rhetoric of the main political poles - the echoes and parallels with Algeria's own democratic moment two decades ago are stark, and could yield crucial lessons.

Hicham Yezza
10 February 2013

Most analysts have ascribed the Algerian exception to the 'Arab Spring' to the lack of popular appetite for radical political upheavals; a consequence of the deep, still-raw wounds of the post-1992 national trauma. In light of the crisis currently unfolding in Tunisia - particularly the increasingly strident and incendiary rhetoric of the main political poles - the echoes and parallels with Algeria's own democratic moment two decades ago are stark, and could yield crucial and potentially salutary lessons.

For those unfamiliar with the context, a short synopsis should suffice. On Dec 26th, 1991, after months of bitter and virulent campaigning, results of round one of Algeria's first multi-party legislative elections had confirmed the wildest hopes, and worst fears, of millions of Algerians: the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had secured a resounding victory, trouncing the mighty dinosaurs of the, hitherto-unmovable, National Liberation Front (FLN) and securing 188 of a possible 232 parliamentary seats at the first time of asking, with plenty more expected to fall into its orbit at the second round scheduled two weeks later.

But there would be no second round. On Jan 11, 1992, millions of Algerians watched a visibly shell-shocked President Chadli Bendjedid declare he had tendered his resignation and - invoking an obscurely worded clause of the constitution - announcing the dissolution of the very parliament that was due to come into existence that week. Three days later, a five-man unelected leadership, the Haut Comité d'État, was installed as an interim de-facto presidency of the country.

Against accusations that this was simply a cynical coup d'état by the military leadership, the move was presented by many within the democratic and secular movement as a necessary last ditch attempt to "save the republic" from an imminent Islamist takeover. Two decades on, the debate rages on: some hold the government responsible for trampling on the popular will, others blame the Islamists for totalitarian designs that left others no other options, with many blaming both sides for forcing a zero-sum game on everyone else.

Everyone agrees, however, that what followed was a dark decade of untold tragedy and suffering. Tens of thousands, mostly civilians, perished in the all-out war for supremacy and survival between government forces and Armed Islamists, with the bulk of the population maintaining a precarious balance in between. Hundreds of thousands were displaced or exiled, tens of thousands kidnapped or "disappeared", not to mention tens of billions of dollars of losses that brought the country to the brink of ruin.

The January 1992 events have now seeped back with particular intensity this week into discussions of the situation in Tunisia. The Algerian press has largely responded to the killing on Wednesday of Tunisia's leading dissident politician, Chokri Belaïd, with nervous murmurings that we could be seeing echoes of the 'Algerian scenario'; warnings echoed within Tunisia itself and beyond by those alarmed at the eerily familiar polarisation of the discourse and the frenetic raising of the stakes - a situation epitomised by the Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali threatening to resign if his "government of technocrats", scheduled to be presented later this week and aimed at neutralising partisan tensions, is not approved.

History is often cruel in its ironies. Not so long ago, and for most of the past two decades, it was Zine Dine Ben Ali - like several of his fellow potentates across the Arab world - who routinely dismissed the legitimate democratic aspirations of millions of his own people by darkly threatening them with the spectre of the 'Algerian scenario'. Algerians had wanted democracy in 1991, the spiel went, and they got a decade of nightmarish violence as their reward.

And yet, today, it is Algerians themselves who are at the receiving end of such warnings, with Tunisians' current troubles a cautionary tale against anyone aspiring to emulate them. Watching the crisis widen and deepen across the border, there is little shaddenfreude on display, however, at this dramatic turning of the tables. Instead, the initial incredulity and admiration that greeted the Jasmine Revolution in Algeria have quietly turned into alarm and disquiet at what the next weeks and months hold for the Tunisia, Algeria and the region, especially as the repercussions of the In Amenas crisis, and France's Mali intervention, continue to unfurl.

Of course, there are major differences between 1992's Algeria and 2013's Tunisia, and any attempts at extrapolation must be taken with a heavy dose of political and historical calibration. However, for Tunisian society, with its wide spectrum of political tendencies and flavours, the signal lesson of the Algerian scenario remains extremely apt: that the quest for political and cultural supremacy through the elimination of competing visions is a quixotic and suicidal impossibility. Algerians learned this lesson the very hard way. Let us hope this spares their next door neighbours from having to do the same.

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