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Algeria and the Arab Awakening: Pasts, Presents and Futures

We want to open up a public conversation which will situate the country’s history, society and politics within the wider context of the Arab World; one that will be finely attuned to specificities and generalities as we explore what Algerians aspire to for them and their country in the twenty-first century.

On July 5, 1962, Algeria achieved independence from France after an eight year conflict launched by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in November 1954 and 132 years of colonisation.  Without doubt this was a major event in international affairs; the end to one of the bloodiest wars of the post-1945 decolonisation process, whose longevity was due to the presence of one million settlers (as against a nine million Arabo-Berber population in 1954) and the fact that Algeria, invaded in 1830, was an integral part of France, in theory no different from Normandy or the Haute-Savoie.  No French politician could countenance withdrawal and this is why Algeria brought down the Fourth Republic in May 1958, opening the way for the return to power of War Two Resistance hero General Charles de Gaulle.  Initially de Gaulle hoped to solve the crisis within a new Fifth Republic, but after three years of never-ending violence de Gaulle came to the conclusion that Algeria was an expensive anachronism, telling a press conference in April 1961: ‘ Algeria is costing us, this is the least one can say, much more than it brings us’.    

Fifteen months later France had left; a departure that caused most of the one million Europeans to leave.  In terms of losses the historian Gilbert Meynier has calculated that the conflict led to anything between 250,000 and 300,000 Algerian dead which, out of a 9 million Algerian population, is equivalent to the percentage of French losses during World War One.    By contrast, independent Algeria has talked about the blood sacrifice of one and half million victims – 500,000 killed and disappeared and 1 million wounded and injured; a figure that would be officially inscribed in the 1963 Constitution.     

The ‘one and a half million martyrs’ narrative endowed Algeria with a moral legitimacy on the international scene throughout the 1960s and 1970s.   The Algerian War was seen to be the measure of colonial evil which gave the post-independence FLN regime an heroic status within large parts of Africa, Asia and the Latin America. Algeria became a beacon of the on-going anti-imperialist struggle as the country, firstly under Ahmed Ben Bella and then Houari Boumediène, fashioned a future based upon ‘socialism’, ‘agrarian reform’, ‘pan-Arabism’, ‘revolution’ and ‘non-alignment’.  

Boumediène died in 1978.   By this point Algerian socialism was already under pressure, but it really began to unravel in the 1980s.  The high hopes of independence gave way to bitterness as the country was wracked by an economic crisis that hit the young, post-independence generation very hard.  Within Algerian popular culture the 1980s have assumed the status of the ‘Black Decade’, the moment when younger Algerians, blighted by unemployment, lost confidence in the system’s ability to deliver a better future.  This anger exploded into street violence in October 1988.  Yet, as Algeria moved towards a multi-party system, many Algerians turned towards the Front Islamique de Salut (FIS), a party established in 1989 out of various Islamist groups, which denounced the FLN as having betrayed the ‘authentic’ values of the anti-colonial struggle.  Promising an Islamist future, the FIS was poised for election victory in January 1992, at which point the army moved in to cancel the electoral process. Within one year Algeria had descended into unbelievable violence as armed Islamists took on the army. 

On April 14, 1999, the sixty-two year old Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president in dubious circumstances after the other six contenders withdrew in protest at electoral fraud. War veteran, protégé of Boumediène, former ambassador to the United Nations: Bouteflika used all of his political acumen to turn the country away from what, in popular terminology became known as the ‘Red Years’.  Looking back to what many older and middle aged Algerians saw as the ‘golden years’ of Boumediène, when Algerians felt more secure about their future, Bouteflika also initiated a process of peace and reconciliation and in the following years the violence subsided. Thus, although the economic problems, and the resultant undercurrent of tension, have endured, Bouteflika did stabilise the system, and, to this end, he received valuable external support from the US which, in the wake of 9/11, looked to Algeria as a crucial ally in the ‘war on terror’.  For this reason President Bush’s administration warmly welcomed Bouteflika’s re-election in April 2004 despite accusations of irregularities.  Similarly, the US said little when the Constitution was amended in 2008 to allow Bouteflika to run for a third term.  This he duly did in April 2009 winning a further five years, although once again the victory was mired in reports of large-scale fraud.     

In these ways Algeria encapsulates many of the key problems in the Arab World: corruption, the role of the military in politics, the gulf between a closed political class and the younger population, the relationship between ruling elites and the US and issues of democratic transparency.   But although there were protests in Algeria at the beginning of 2011, these quickly petered out, partly because the government swiftly reduced the prices of basic food stuffs, but also because Algeria lacks credible opposition leaders that can channel this anger.  Equally, given the memory of the ‘Red Years’ when up to 200,000 Algerians died, circumspection prevails.  Nobody wants a return to the instability of the ‘Red Years’ and the Bouteflika regime has skilfully exploited this feeling.  

So, despite enduring anger Algeria has experienced nothing like the tumultuous events in the rest of North Africa: a particularity which the political class is keen to underline.  The talk is of a managed transition and on this basis Bouteflika called upon Algerians to vote ‘massively’ in the 10 May parliamentary elections. With this aim in mind, addressing a rally on 6 May 2012, Ahmed Ouyahia, the prime minister, appealed to Algerian nationalism, telling supporters that Algeria was different and needed no lessons from the Arab Spring: ‘The Arab Spring for me is a disaster.  Our spring is Algerian: our revolution of 1 November 1954.  We don’t need lessons from outside’.  

Equally Ouyahia played the anti-imperialist card, telling the audience that the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were orchestrated by ‘Zionism and NATO’ and that NATO countries were granting, ‘visas to young people to train them in new technologies to create unrest’; anti-western rhetoric that always strikes a chord within the Algerian populace. Yet, most electors refused to respond to this language.  Instead there were large-scale abstentions as the ruling coalition, dominated by the FLN, held onto power.       

Taking the intersection of these elections, the first since the ‘Arab Awakening’, with the fiftieth anniversary of independence, we want to reflect upon the connections between Algeria’s pasts, presents and futures.  We want to open up a public conversation which will situate the country’s history, society and politics within the wider context of the Arab World; one that will be finely attuned to specificities and generalities as we explore what Algerians aspire to for them and their country in the twenty-first century. 

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.

About the authors

Martin Evans is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sussex.  He was formerly Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Portsmouth. He is the co-author (with John Phillips) of Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press: 2007) and the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press: 2012). 

Natalya Vince is Senior Lecturer in North African and French Studies and an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Fellow. She teaches on the MA in Francophone Africa at the University of Portsmouth.


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