A “delayed Arab Spring” in Algeria will not take place, but how dangerous the future might be?

A “delayed Arab Spring” in Algeria will not take place, but how dangerous the future might be?

This article tries to analyze the situation in Algeria, offering the historic and political context of this country that led to a bloody civil war and the 20-years Bouteflika rule ever since. It also examines the dynamics of the political landscape and tries to predict the perils and prospects after the future “change of guards”.

Algeria was the first Muslim country where “Political Islam” showed its power and potential. After the heroic 7-year war and the liberation from the French in 1962, the “resistance” came to power. The National Liberation Front (FLN) was the only party and no-one could doubt its patriotism, since it was the party of the freedom fighters. It was secular and socialist, but the conservative and pious Muslims wholeheartedly supported it as a national movement. The first leader of free Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, tried to connect the tradition with his idea of modernity, speaking about “Islamic socialism”, a contradiction in terms.

In 1965 after a successful coup, a charismatic Colonel, Houari Boumedienne, replaced Ben Bella and remained in power until 1978. Algeria’s statism and exploitation of resources (oil/ natural gas) along with collectivizing of agriculture and the development of heavy industry made Algeria “a model of a progressive, developing nonaligned country”.[1] The “religious elite” came on board and supported the leader. The ministers of culture, of education, and of religious affairs were famous “ulama” such as Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi and Mouloud Kassim.[2] Boumedienne was afraid of radical Islamists and exercised control even on Friday prayers’ sermons.[3]

From Boumedienne we witnessed a decline that led to a bloody civil war. The new leader Colonel Chadli Bendjedid lacked the charisma of his predecessor. Actually, there was a power struggle and one of the candidates to succeed Boumedienne was the minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the current President of Algeria who instead of becoming the country’s leader ended up in self-exile.[4]

When economic crisis struck the country, the “Political Islam” filled the vacuum where the State was unable or unwilling to provide basic welfare (food, shelter etc). Parenthetically, this is something we witness with NGOs affiliated with terrorist groups around the Arab world. In 1988 after 10 years in power, Chadli Bendjedid faced riots and demonstrations. Like in Egypt, in the beginning the slogans where secular like “demand your rights” but soon enough the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan “Islam is the solution” prevailed.[5] Faced with an unattainable situation Chadli promised to hold elections and allowed for other parties to be founded. The first (1989) and by far strongest party was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). In less than a year FIS participated in the municipal elections and won more than 50% of the votes.[6]

The spasmodic reactions by the government (change of electoral law, arrest of FIS leaders, and ban of FIS newspaper) did not prevent the overwhelming victory of FIS in the national elections of December 1991. There was even the possibility of FIS being able to change Algeria’s Constitution.[7] The major problem is that FIS had been taken over by extremists that openly supported violence and from a relatively moderate Political Islam party; it had become a radical one. The army never allowed for FIS to take power and a civil war broke up with more than 100,000 victims.[8]

In 1993 the struggle against the secular government was led by GIA (Armed Islamic Group), a terrorist organization. It distinguished itself by the indiscriminate nature of its targets including intellectuals and peaceful civilians. It also killed in a decade more than 100 Europeans. When FIS accepted a ceasefire in 1997, GIA kept on terrorizing Algerians. An offshoot of GIA, the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) proved to be even more violent. This group ended up merging with Al Qaeda and forming the AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), which is still active in the area.

In 1998 the war ended but the terrorism, as aforementioned, remained. An electoral system with a democratic façade was adopted with political parties (some of them labeled as Islamic ones).[9] In 1999 Abdelaziz Bouteflika ran for president supported by the armed forces and was elected with 74% of the votes. Since then, he has been in power. Actually, he “won” his second term with 81% of the votes, his third term with 90%, and his fourth term with 81%.

During the nowadays infamous “Arab Spring” the unsuccessful Arab revolutions in several countries, there were comparatively less demonstrations in Algeria and without great participation. It was not due to the excellent crisis management (as was the case in the Gulf Monarchies), but due to the devastating civil war that had lasted for so long. Algerians valued their peace, stability and security. Actually, Bouteflika lifted the state of the emergency that had been in place since 1992 (with the exception of demonstration ban that remained in place).

On 10 February 2019, Bouteflika (aged 82) announced his intention to seek a fifth term as President of Algeria despite that six years ago he had suffered a stroke six years ago and can hardly walk or talk, being confined in a wheel-chair. The days that followed, Algerian youth took the streets enraged with this decision. The size of the demonstrations was much larger than any similar one during the “Arab Spring” and some people started talking about a “delayed Arab Spring”. Logic prevailed and on 11 March 2019, after sustained protests all over the country, Bouteflika announced that he changed his mind and would finally not seek a fifth term. However, he would postpone the elections that were about to take place (April 2019). Instead, Bouteflika will organize a “national conference on political change”. Bouteflika said “…his last duty would be to contribute to the founding of a new system that will be in ‘the hands of a new generation of Algerians’. An ‘inclusive and independent’ national conference will oversee the transition, drafting a new constitution and setting the date for elections. The conference should finish its work by the end of 2019, with elections to follow… The conference will be headed by an ‘independent, consensual and experienced national figure’…”[10]

The moment of truth was postponed, but the future of Algeria is uncertain and the entire Mediterranean stability is at stake. First of all, let us see what will happen when the “President of Reconciliation” abandons the power. The Algerian “deep state” will try to stay in firm control. But even this “deep state”, is not homogenous as the average Algerian think.

“Le Pouvoir” (the power), as it is called by the people is believed to be “centred around the party, some powerful generals and prominent businessmen”.[11] The truth is that it has several poles of power: The armed forces for sure, the security apparatus, the FLN party officials, the Bouteflika nexus of family members (huge nepotism), the top civilian administrators and some rich businessmen do not necessarily have convergent interests. Furthermore, there is no single figure that seems to be strong enough to unite them. Most likely the most respected figure is the veteran diplomat, former foreign minister and UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria until 2014, Lakhdar Brahimi.

The aforementioned “members of the Pouvoir” have different opinions as regards the economy, the foreign affairs, even the democratic process. What they have in common is the fear of retaliation in case they lose part of their power and become countable for their deeds during the last 20 years. On the other hand, the “opposition” is equally fragmented. There are moderate Islamists, radical, fanatic ones, there is a strong secular youth, mostly European educated, there are peasants, there are workers and a vibrant middle class. It is a game of “all against all” but no one wants to move back to the bloody 90s. This is why we hope that cool heads will prevail.

Actually, we can remain optimistic for the future of Algeria for two reasons: The first is that the lessons from the “Arab Spring” are identified and most likely learned. Half of the countries that embarked in this adventure are in ruins and the rest are probably in a worse situation than a decade ago. The protetors and the power contenders understood that they knew exactly what they did not want (in our case it is Bouteflika having a fifth mandate) but they did not agree on what they want. Hence they are reluctant to ask for a rapid change and they did not seem too unhappy with the President postponing the elections. The lessons were also learned from the government side. The democratization effort in Egypt led to a constitutional coup by an elected President that wanted to impose Islamism. Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by a popular uprising that was supported by almost all Egyptians with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood. Someone could argue that an attempeted coup was answered by a military coup. The lesson for Algeria is that many times democracy is completely shattered in the name of democracy and Morsi is the foremost example.

The second reason for not being pessimistic is the civil war. Not any other Middle Eastern country faced 20 years of war (if we add the liberation one and the civil war in the 90s). Veterans of the liberation war are still alive and the wound of the civil war that ended two decades ago have not completely healed. The Algerians will be very careful in order to avoid throwing their own country to havoc once more.

Is it an overstatement that the entire Mediterranean stability is at stake? Even if we believe that in the end nothing will go wrong, Algeria is “too big to fail”. One of the major oil and natural gas providers of Europe should at all cost refrain from another civil war. Its western and northeastern borders are quite stable but its long eastern border is with Libya, which is in a chaotic situation. Hence, the domino theory should be seriously taken into consideration. Any spill-over of chaos would cause more terrorism and unstoppable migration flows. With Algeria and Libya being unstable, Egypt might also face great difficulties, especially due to the illegal actions and terrorism by militant fractions of the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter has tried to destabilize other countries, too and will definitely exploit any vacuum of power in Algeria.

The world is not perfect. So in Algeria, Bouteflika, an old, ailing dictator might prove to be a better choice than democracy. In any case, what we firstly need is peace and stability and the “Arab Spring” revolutions proved that and many analysts, along with the author of this article, admitted that the experiment that seemed so great in the beginning ended up as a disaster, with the possible exception of Tunisia, where at least there was no civil war. Concluding, despite our optimism, we should point out that Algeria with its violent past, its indigenous terrorism and its radicalized Muslim Brothers is a much more dangerous playfield and the entire international community should be vigilant concerning the future of this Mediterranean country.

[1] Price, Daniel E. (1999). Islamic Political Culture, Democracy, and Human Rights  (Westport: Praeger), 115

[2] Layachi, Azzedine. (2013). “Islam and Politics in North Africa” in Esposito, John & Shahin, Emad El-Din. (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 357.

[3] Hardman, Ben. (2009). Islam and the Métropole: A Case Study of Religion and Rhetoric in Algeria (New York: Peter Lang), 194.

[4] Werenfels, Isabelle. (2007). Managing Instability in Algeria (New York: Routledge), 35

[5] Volpi, Frederic. (2003). Islam and Democracy: The Failure of Dialogue in Algeria (London: Pluto Press), 40

[6] Willis, Michael J. (2013). “Islamic Movements in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia” in Esposito & Shahin, 534.

[7] Werenfels, 44.

[8] Hardy mentions 100,000 – 200,000 dead. See Hardy, 90. Layachi raise that number to over 200,000 people. See Esposito & Shahin, 362. Some other sources speak about much less. Mundy believes that they are among 42,750 and 89,150. See. Mundy, Jacob. (2015). Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence (San Francisco: Stanford University Press), 41.

[9] Boubekeur, Amel. (2009) “Islamist Parties in Algeria” in Salih, Mohamed (ed). (2009). Interpreting Islamic Political Parties (New York: Palgrave/MacMillan), 69.

[10] Chikhi Lamine & Hamid Ould Ahmed. (2019). “Algeria’s Bouteflika abandons re-election bid after weeks of protest”, Reuters, 11 March 2019.

[11] Jawar, Rana. (2019). “How does reclusive President Bouteflika run Algeria?”, BBC, 6 March 2019.