As the May date for legislative elections approaches in Algeria, one of the opposition parties, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, has publicly announced it will boycott the elections, which are widely considered a hoax in the country. Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, the National Liberation Front (FLN in French) has enjoyed unchallenged power. The regime has proven immune from the currents of democratization, unlike some of its neighboring countries, and from external and internal pressures to undertake serious reforms, despite alarming social conditions.
One reason for the regime’s long reign is the traumatic civil war that followed the October 1988 uprising, which taught Algerians to accommodate the government to avoid violence. The dark memories of a failed revolution have led to restraint and prudence when contesting the regime. Furthermore, the complex distribution of power among a handful of discrete army officers within a presidential system has rendered regime change almost impossible. As a result, low-intensity and localized contestation has so far been favored over direct confrontation.
Nevertheless, there are now signs of growing social dissatisfaction in a regional context of change, such as strikes in the health and education sectors, and the current political inaction is resulting in a political vacuum that urgently needs to be filled. In exchange for welfare and security, Algerians have sacrificed their liberty, but the government has failed to satisfy the population’s economic needs. Spending the country’s oil revenues on long-term reforms aimed at economic and social development is the only way the regime can avoid revolt.
Even if the Arab Spring is perceived by Algerians as a positive change in the region, it has equally been viewed with caution and skepticism in the context of their own situation. Algerians have been contesting the authorities for many years now, and several uprisings were attempted in the 1980s, to no avail.
In October 1988, massive protests brought hopes of structural democratic reforms, including the separation of state and party, but they soon revealed the military’s indisposition to a real transfer of power. After the immense success of the Islamic Salvation Front during what appeared to be an authentic democratic process, where political leaders subjected themselves to the test of fair and free elections, the army suspended the electoral process in a coup d’état and drove the country into a bloodstained decade of civil war where at least 150,000 civilians died. A revolt, a victorious Islamist party, a civil war, and a military coup d’état: in effect, Algeria’s history combined the Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian scenarios.
This episode has taught Algerians the dangers of contestation. The “black decade” remains an open wound within the society, preventing it from reproducing the next-door revolutionary model. In the collective mind, revolution involves considerable risks that the current generation of Algerians are not willing to take.
Moreover, the power structure of the Algerian regime greatly differs from its neighbors, and the complex distribution of power renders personal responsibility of the political leaders hard to assess. The difficulty in challenging the Algerian stratocracy lies in the fact that it requires dislodging not one ruler, but a handful of military officers who have enjoyed, since independence, a monopoly over politics and the economy, and who have benefited disproportionately from oil revenues. The regime and the army are in fact two sides of the same coin. Thus, in a case of upheaval against the regime, the army would not remain neutral like it did in Tunisia or, in the case of Egypt, side against the autocrat.
Also, the lack of media coverage of high-ranking military officers, along with their absence from the official political scene, protects individual officers from criticisms. Instead, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika captures all the media attention. However, because the president was chosen by the army, he does not hold much power, and any personal attack against him would hardly destabilize the regime. History has shown that the president is the most likely individual to come under pressure and that, when necessary, the army could decide to get rid of him – e.g., Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965 and Chadli Bendjedid in 1992. The configuration of the Algerian political system is unique in the region since it impedes any appropriation of power by one man. While Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi personified their country’s regime, the Algerian stratocracy is not embodied by one leader whose sole overthrow would bring down the regime.
Algerians are carefully weighing their chance of a successful revolt. And these chances seem slim: change lies in the hands of 15 of the most influential generals operating within opaque and hermetic circles; there is no organized opposition; and no credible alternative to the ruling party. Though there are now 36 opposition parties, none of them won more than five percent of the vote during the elections.
The challenge Algerians are facing is how to initiate change, improve their living conditions, and set off a durable democratic process without bringing chaos to the country—again. Since the relative freedom that the Algerian press enjoys has only served to let off steam without provoking any real change. Strikes have been organized by unions and clashes have erupted in petroleum cities, such as Laghouat, Skikda and Ouargla. Sadly, the government has remained unresponsive, following a similar pattern that preceded the Arab revolts in other countries.
This year commemorates the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence, and the 20th anniversary of the thwarting of the democratic process. In such a symbolic context, the upcoming legislative elections in May could be an opportunity for change. In order to appease the growing social ire, policies aiming at a fairer distribution of oil revenues are essential. Sustainable reforms targeting poverty, precariousness and fostering employment in the long run should be the priority, as well as large-scale investment in housing.
Narrimane Benakcha is a Fulbright scholar pursuing her MA in international affairs at Columbia University in New York.
About the photo: Protest in Algiers on January 22, 2011. Photo by Djamel Boussouh.