Algeria: Can a bitter past signpost a better future?

Algeria: Can a bitter past signpost a better future?
  • PublishedJune 9, 2019

In Algeria, it remains unclear what comes after the ongoing political demonstrations. But the Arab Spring – tainted by its catastrophic failures – is an unreliable guide. Algerians however can look back to their own unique history for a more navigable course. Analysis by David Wood.

Protesting is now an obligation,” said Madani Bezoui, who teaches mathematics at the University of Boumerdes, just outside the Algerian capital. “We must participate because we will not have this chance for another 20 years.”

For weeks, mass demonstrations have swept across Africa’s largest country. At first, the rallies opposed a fifth term for Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s wheelchair-bound authoritarian president, who assumed power two decades ago. The army forced Bouteflika to resign on 2 April, citing medical grounds.

Unsatisfied, the protesters are now demanding what Bezoui describes as an “opportunity to evolve” – to build a modernised society in the place of today’s

Above: Further to President Bouteflika’s resignation on 2 April, mass demonstrations have continued to sweep across the country faltering, thinly veiled kleptocracy.

The eye-catching demonstrations have evoked memories of 2010-11’s ‘Arab Spring’, when millions protested against authoritarian regimes across North Africa and the Middle East. Major international news outlets have already declared a kind of ‘Arab Spring 2.0’ for Algeria, which saw relatively muted protests during those heady revolutionary days.

Such accounts do not bode well for Algerians, given the Arab Spring’s largely dismal track record. Democratic movements were snuffed out in Egypt and several Gulf states, while Libya, Syria and Yemen spiralled into anarchy and civil war. Only Tunisia swapped authoritarianism for democracy.

Yet the Arab Spring is hardly the most reliable guide for Algeria, with its rich tradition of public protesting and regime resistance. Indeed, many Algerians argue that their nation has already had its Arab Spring moment – 30 years ago.

Algeria’s unique history helps to explain the perceived “maturity” of the public demonstrations so far. It also challenges predictions based on the Arab Spring’s fallout, including that Islamists would gain power in open elections.

The road forward for any new civilian government in Algeria is beset with formidable challenges – overcoming the pouvoir (“the power,” or regime elites), restraining the armed forces, and restoring the economy. But Algerian activists maintain hope of succeeding where the Arab Spring did not.

Old hands at protesting

Algerian protesters have won praise in high places. In early April, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commended the “mature and calm nature” of the demonstrations, which have shown a widespread commitment to non-violence.

According to Dalia Ghanem, an Algerian resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, this seasoned, disciplined approach should come as no surprise. Algeria, she told France 24, has been described as “the country of 1,000 demonstrations”.

After winning independence in 1962, Algeria – like Egypt and Tunisia – quickly slipped into authoritarianism. Yet Algerians mounted a serious challenge to the venal pouvoir long before the Arab Spring reached their North African neighbours.

In the late 1980s, widespread protests forced the regime to hold multiparty elections. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a coalition of Islamist groups, harnessed this broad discontent and was poised to win the presidency in 1992, until the army cancelled the elections. A horrific, decade-long conflict ensued between the state and Islamist insurgents.

Algerians continued demonstrating, even after the war’s enormous death toll emerged. The regime cracked down on certain movements – most notoriously against Kabyle Berbers during 2001’s ‘Black Spring’ – but generally tolerated public dissent more than neighbours l i k e Tu n i s i a .

Today, Algerian protesters remain influenced by their nation’s chaotic brush with democracy, and the disaster that followed. “Algerians paid a very high price during the 90s ­– 20 0,000 dead – so they do not want to relive this hell,” said Bouzid Ichalalene, an Algerian journalist.

Francis Ghiles, associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, believes that the 2019 protest movement has strived to overcome the disunity once plaguing Algeria. For example, secular protesters have actively included religious citizens, waiting near mosques until after Friday prayers are finished.

Ghiles claims that, in Algiers, protesters recently laughed off the appearance of supposed “Afghan freedom fighters”, recognising the incident as a crude regime attempt to stoke anti-Islamist sentiment.

“When you consider [the protesters’] maturity, you really have to tip your hat to them,” said Ghiles.

Knowing your foe

Algeria’s protesters also benefit from a clear-eyed understanding of the forces stacked against a more democratic future.

In Egypt, Arab Spring demonstrators celebrated with jubilation when the armed forces ended the thirty-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. Many Egyptians then vacated the streets, easing pressure on the true power brokers operating behind Mubarak.

Bezoui, the mathematics lecturer, says that Algerian protesters are determined not to repeat this error. Demonstrations continued after Bouteflika’s resignation, leading to the arrest of high-profile politicians, businessmen and even Said Bouteflika – the former president’s enormously influential brother.

The activists are also wary of political Islamism, which played a decisive role in the post-Arab Spring governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood made some alarming decisions while in power, raising serious concerns about the party’s commitment to democracy.

Several international observers have cited these examples – along with the FIS’s electoral successes in the early 1990s – as evidence that Islamists could “hijack” any democratic transition.

But in Algeria, political Islamism is widely discredited. Algerians harbour bitter memories of the bloody insurgency war during the 1990s, while mainstream Islamists have been co-opted over decades by the Bouteflika regime.

Bezoui has been protesting alongside religious Algerians, but he says that established Islamist politicians are not welcome. “We all know they are hypocrites,” he said.

Ghiles predicts that Islamists could well attract 20-25 per cent of votes at a freely contested election, given that many Algerians are religiously conservative. But predictions of a landslide Islamist victory slip into viewing Algeria through the lens of the Arab Spring.

“[Supposed] divides like ‘Islamist versus nonIslamist’ … these are cliches,” Ghiles said.

The long road ahead

Algeria’s future remains perilous, no matter how responsible the protests have been to date. The pouvoir has entrenched myriad vested interests over decades, and, despite the recent spate of high-profile arrests, not everyone will be snared.

Uncertainty looms over the role of Algeria’s armed forces, which have taken de facto control of the country for now. Gaid Salah, the army’s chief of staff, oversaw Bouteflika’s resignation and the issuing of corruption charges, but Bezoui remains sceptical.

Specifically, he worries that Salah merely wants to quell the demonstrations rather than tackle the pouvoir. A 2007 US diplomatic cable, released by Wikileaks, lends support to Bezoui’s cynicism, containing reports that Salah was “perhaps the most corrupt official in the military apparatus”.

“Men from within the system cannot change anything,” Bezoui said. “99 percent of us think are a movie – just without any good special effects.”

Ghanem, the Carnegie scholar, queries how long this “give-and-take” arrangement between the protesters and the armed forces will continue. She also laments the decision to hold presidential elections so soon – they are currently scheduled for 4 July – because only the pouvoir will have time to campaign effectively.

“Elections in July are a terrible idea,” Ghanem told me. “I hope that they don’t happen.” She advocates following Tunisia’s lead, where a constituent assembly spent three years drafting a new constitution during the post-Arab Spring transition.

And even if Algerians do manage to elect a truly representative government, those leaders will immediately need to rejuvenate the nation’s deeply troubled economy.

A global slump in oil prices has battered the hydrocarbons sector, by far Algeria’s most important revenue source. Already, youth unemployment has reached 29 per cent. When you consider that around seven in ten Algerians are under 30, a grim statistic becomes diabolical.

Ultimately, nobody can predict what the future holds for Algeria. But Ghanem warns against jumping to conclusions – be that a military takeover, or worse – based on failed revolutions elsewhere in the region.

“We are totally blinded by what happened during the Arab Spring,” Ghanem said. “Maybe, this time, the outcome is going to be different.” NA

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New African

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