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

This Maghrebi state has so far been spared the domino effect of recent revolts in the region. The iconic slogan, “the people want to topple the regime” has been remarkably absent from the protests, and the stability of Algeria is seen in the west as pivotal to the continuation of the process of change in the whole Maghreb.

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.

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 author

Miloud Barkaoui is Professor of American politics at Badj Mokhtar-Annaba University, Algeria.


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