Book Review: Algeria since 1989

James D. Le Sueur’s Algeria since 1989: Between Terror and Democracy (Zed: 2010) provides for the most up-to-date reading on the Algerian Civil War since Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed by John Philips and Martin Evans (Yale University Press: 2007). The book offers a comprehensive introduction to the country’s history since 1989, using English and French sources and interviews with Algerian and foreign experts and exiles (notable examples include Hugh Roberts and Anouar Benmalek; Roberts’s comments are especially insightful and add much to the book’s themes and perspective). Le Sueur gives the “national reconciliation” process a hard and studied look. He attempts to place the 1988-1992 “transition” into a global context, emphasizing its importance for political Islamists and the end of the Cold War, comparing its abrupt end to the 1956  Hungarian Revolution, the Prague Spring and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1988. In this, Algeria since 1989 represents a noble effort to contextualize Algeria’s recent history for English-speakers. The book spends thankfully little time rehashing the colonial history or struggling to make Camus relevant to the Civil War; it tells the Algerian story from 1989 straight. The author may assign too much importance to ideology, particularly where Chadhli Bendjedid’s initiation of liberal market and political reforms are concerned. The 1989 moment came from rather cynical political calculations (as shown in the design of the electoral law, which was meant to favor large parties and thus re-enforce the FLN’s hold on power, but ended up aiding the FIS because of the unpopularity of and elite divisions within the FLN) which are not emphasized here. Le Sueur begins (and finishes) the book by referencing identity conflicts (Arab vs. Berber, arabisant vs. francisant, etc.), especially when referring to the tensions that produced the Civil War; this is common in writing on Algeria, but Le Sueur does well in disallowing identity-centric analysis to dominate his history. It is also relatively free of Cold War baggage. This is a praiseworthy tome. 

Le Sueur is not afraid to point out Bouteflika’s unctuousness on women’s rights. Khalida Toumi, for instance, receives a paragraph (pg. 89-90) in which Le Sueur concludes that her appointment (along with the other women in his cabinet) was “largely in response to demands made on Algeria to show internal political reform” and that “she has not been able to effect meaningful change” in government policy in regards to women’s rights. In English-language accounts, Toumi hardly ever receives so much attention — in fact female politicians on the whole barely get so extensive a referal. What is curious, though, is that if Le Sueur were discussing women whose political activity had become highly symbolic (and how systematically such tokenism has become a feature of the Bouteflika presidency) he might have done better use include more information about Louisa Hanoune’s activities in the post-1997 period in particular. Le Sueur includes Hanoune at the very start of the book in his alphabetical list of characters, “The Pincipals” (pgs. xxi-xxiv; Hanoune appears on page xxiii) but she appears perhaps four times throughout the rest of the book, usually in passing. Le Sueur offers these women probably the most extensive treatment of any recent book on Algeria not focused on women’s issues per se. Again, most treatments of recent Algerian history ignore women almost entirely or reference them less than Le Sueur does, though it should be said that he could have spent more time on the debate around the Family Code in 2005.

The later chapters deal especially with terrorism and its impact on political culture. He provides a useful account of the evolution of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat into Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and detailed portraits of the Los Angeles millennium plots (one might be able to do without it, though). The Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP) gets less attention than one might think it ought to, especially when Le Sueur writes about the “reconciliation” process; the party’s role in this was relatively important and could use a page in an otherwise interesting and sensitive section (he rightly terms this crime the reconciliation process a “historical lobotomy”). There is an obvious sympathy in Le Sueur’s tone, particularly when he writes about the impact of the war and “reconciliation” on the civilian life and the arts (Le Sueur is also the author of Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics during the Decolonization of Algeria (University of Nebraska Press: 2005), which helps to explain his special interest in the impact of the violence on intellectuals and the arts).

The book has only two serious drawbacks. Like many recent books on Algeria, it emphasizes the American role to a degree that is disproportionate to its actual impact on the country’s international and domestic affairs. That is not to say that there is too great of a focus on the American role or that Le Sueur’s depiction of it is at all inaccurate; rather it is to say that there are other states whose roles are as important, frequently more important, than that of the United States that need mention in any discussion of Algeria in the international sphere. The comparison of Bendjedid to Gorbachev (pg. 28) is the only significant reference to the Soviet Union or Russia in the entire book; the United States receives more mention on the whole, which greatly distorts the reader’s perception of Algeria’s historical and current foreign policy partners; where military assistance is concerned, for example, Algeria’s doctrine and materiel is almost wholly Russo-Soviet in origin and design. French influence is clear in law enforcement and the gendarmerie, but one cannot fully understand the political culture of the Algerian special and secret services without taking note of the massive influence of the Soviet Union in its design and doctrine. Additionally, one cannot understand the distance between the United States and Algeria on security issues without accounting for longstanding American skepticism of Algeria as a result of its close relationship to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While Vladimir Putin’s 2006 visit to Algiers is not covered in any real detail while Donald Rumsfeld’s visit during the same year segways  into a rather detailed discussion of Algerian-American cooperation in the War on Terror. While cooperation with the United States, Algeria’s relationship with Russia is more important historically and the fallout from the 2006 visit (and the other, more murky politics around it) should have been covered here. Similarly, Morocco is strangely absent from many of the segments on Algeria’s cooperation with the United States and there can be no discussion of that subject with the Moroccan-American relationship also being a part of the discourse (though the Algerians would like to change that in the medium-term).

Finally, Algeria since 1989 makes scarce use of Arabic sources. Since the book includes no literature list or bibliography (there are, however, twenty-three pages of notes) it is difficult to tell whether he uses any or none. Most of the notes refer to English or French-languages journal or news articles or books. He uses South African immigration records when discussing pieds-noirs migration to that country (one often reads about this but seldom sees a clear reference on it; this particular note is thus especially exciting), but there are hardly any Arabic references. There are some references to articles from Al Hayat or El Khabar (the popular Arabic daily) but some of these are reproductions from English media, such as the BBC. While French is essential for any coverage of North Africa, Arabic is as well. One cannot get a good idea of the extent to which the security services infiltrated the media without reading the Arabic papers of the early 1990s or the militant papers alleged to have been produced by the armed groups; and one misses quite a bit of the political and cultural conversation by relying on French-language sources and resources. In all, though, Algeria since 1989 adds is an important addition to the growing literature on Algeria published since 1999. It is a unique book, relative to others on Algeria, both in emphasis and scope and will be of particular use for North Americans looking for a solid introduction to Algeria and her politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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7 comments

  1. This is a great review. I’m surprised at the lack of Arabic sources – is that common? I would’ve thought that substantial reference to Arabic materials was essential.

    Have any good books on Mauritania come out lately?

    1. I’m not familiar with any recent books on Mauritania. The most useful one I’ve come by that’s more recently than the 1980s is the Historical Dictionary of Mauritania by Anthony G. Pazzanita (who is known for his numerous articles on Mauritania and west Africa). It’s an amazing book, nowadays in the third (maybe even fourth) edition. I recommend it highly.

  2. Great review! I share your comment on the lack of Arabic sources: a common problem in books about Morocco, especially French ones.

  3. Thanks Kal and Alex. Buying the book and this is the second time I see reference to it:

    “Historical Dictionary of Mauritania” by Anthony G. Pazzanita

    I guess it should be Oxford Press.

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