Vague thoughts on the Arab Winter Uprisings

The Winter Uprisings in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen have shaken western and Arab confidence in the sustainability of the current models of “competitive” authoritarianism. These were not bread riots; they were illustrations of political gangrene. Tunisia’s strong man fled his fort; the Mubarak family is said to have gone on holiday to London in light of massive protests over days (these cannot be call riots in the way the Algerian or Tunisian ones were at some stages; these are political protests, demonstrations of plain dissatisfaction); rumors are circulating rampantly that Algeria’s president will announce a cabinet reshuffle that may replace the prominent Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia (see here for background). It seems clear that the old calculations for political succession in the polities hit by the Winter Uprisings must be revised. Jamal Mubarak seems ever less likely of a candidate to succeed his father. Ahmed Ouyahia’s close association with the economic reforms and policies blamed for unrest this winter (and in the last two years one might add) have severely damaged his public credibility and viability as a presidential candidate for the time being. Tunisia’s interim government, previously made up of Ben Ali’s old friends, was forced to re-organize after popular protests questioned their legitimacy — and then set the security forces on demonstrators. The likelihood of Said Bouteflika becoming president was, in this blogger’s opinion, always low. After the regime squabbles following the 2009 presidential election, it seems much less likely that Algiers will follow Damascus’s lead. The Egyptian uprising puts the younger Mubarak’s political career in serious jeopardy. The first Arab regime where this winter’s events torpedoed a rising “star’s” political career was Tunisia: it may be said with some safety that Sakhr el-Materi will never be president of Tunisia without dear struggle.

Ahmed Ouyahia may be replaced as Prime Minister in the weeks ahead: some say the recently-appointed Minister of Energy, Youcef Yousfi might take the post others throw in Ahmed Benbitour (ex-PM in 1999 and a former finance minister) or Mouloud Hamrouche. These are personalities whose elevation to Prime Minister would serve the same purpose as Ouyahia’s: balancing the power of Bouteflika and ensuring collegiality in decision-making. There may be a cosmetic response to the Winter Uprisings from the men that lead the major political networks in Algeria. One should look carefully at the personalities that emerge in the next few weeks. Given the tendency of the main factions (those linked to military intelligence (DRS) and those linked to Bouteflika) to use popular crises as opportunities to undermine the reputation of one another, rather than focus on the resolution of socio-economic pressures (which are seen as sustainable in any case), cabinet reshuffles are unlikely to satisfy the demands of the Algerians planning protests in the capital or rioting in the towns and villages.

Beneath this high-level response, there are growing demands from members of the elite and officialized “civil society” groups that some kind of political transition needs to take place. The bulk of these are civilians and many are relatively young. The Winter Uprisings caught the Algerians by surprise but it seems that the deep state and the regime civilians have closed ranks on the need to contain and persevere in the face of popular protest. The regime is confident in its capacity to hold on, reflecting on the experience of the 1990s and the last riotous decade. This is a consensus point yet those who are at a relative disadvantage as a result of the post-Civil War arrangement want more power and are willing to use pro forma cabinet reshuffles or minor opposition parties to get their way. On must therefore distinguish between the cosmetic moves seen at the top of the regime and the genuine moves of sentiment seen among elite Algerians outside of the ranks of the décideurs. The combination of these forces, though, could be the source of relatively significant changes within the regime that could leader future changes.

As Algerians plan to rally on 12 February (with complications, of course), one is drawn to a former military officer seeking to absolve himself and his peers of political stigmas by attacking the regime in print. Rachid Benyelles, Secretary General of the Ministry of Defense under Chadli Bendjedid and former Chief of Staff of the Navy, called for a trasitional government (in other words, a coup or a revolution in the vein of Nasser or Shishakli) in 2009 ahead of Bouteflika’s third term referendum. In his writing, Benyelles (who has not been politically active in twenty years) routinely avoids criticism of the military’s role in politics. His 2008 appeal went like this:

Faced with serious dangers threatening the country, fundamental changes must occur before it is too late. We must close the parenthesis now and begin a democratic process, the only way to stop the descent into hell the last ten years. Must suspend the Constitution and political parties, dissolve parliament, giving power to a transitional government that will work within six to twelve months of its mandate, to manage its current business and to establish a National Council for the Establishment of Democracy (Conseil national pour l’instauration de la démocratie, CNID).

Benyelles’s long essays against Bouteflika and in favor of a political transition have appeared periodically in the last two-three years especially. In the wake of the Winter Uprisings, he gave an interview reflecting on the prospects for change in Algeria. The former general calls for the lifting of the emergency law and, as in other writings, argues that Bouteflika dominates Algeria’s politics completely, framing civil military relations in terms of a unitary and intolerable dictatorship (“there is no duality of power in Algeria”). Weighing in on the question of whether a Tunisia-style uprising could happen in Algeria, Benyelles responds:

La révolution en Tunisie s’est distinguée par une montée en puissance progressive et soutenue dans le temps, des manifestations marquées par une prépondérance des adultes (les adolescents étaient quasiment absents) et par un accompagnement, pour ne pas dire un encadrement, d’une organisation à caractère sociopolitique, l’UGTT en l’occurrence. Tous ces facteurs ne semblent malheureusement pas être réunis en Algérie. C’est pourquoi, il me paraît peu probable qu’une telle révolution puisse avoir lieu chez nous, dans un proche avenir. Mais il n’y a, cependant, aucun doute que les retombées de l’expérience tunisienne auront des effets profonds sur la situation dans le monde arabe et notamment en Algérie.

The Tunisian revolt was organized and led by adults and civil society groups, where as in Algeria adults have lost control of young people, who carry on with indifference to official or institutional authority. A valid and perceptive point. But Benyelles’s line seems to obscure other political factors that hold up and complicate the Algerian regime, namely the key role of the military and security apparatus much of which has diminished in absolute terms over the last ten years but nevertheless remains essential in decision-making and “stabilization.” One must question the suggestion, for example, that the military would not oppose lifting the state of emergency long in place. The regular military is linked up closely with Bouteflika; the military intelligence aparatus (DRS) has much of its own agenda politically. One must read the political writing of veteran Algerian politicians and officers critically and with an eye toward their purpose in the wider context. These often give light to a more frank expression of how certain power factions in government would like the public to view their motivations and objectives.

In light of how the introduction of the military into the Tunisian and perhaps the Egyptian uprising helps to clarify the Algerians’ decision to keep the army out of the winter clashes: the introduction of the armed forces into the fray would be an unacceptable and unsustainable admission of “failure,” and loss of control given Algeria’s recent history. The Tunisians — whose history has been far less violent than Algeria’s since 1989 — over estimated the power of a “show of force” using the military, and the government could not control it in the end. The Egypt’s military and civilians face a less stark divide internally than the Algerians do but may have made a mistake in bringing out their army as they rely more heavily on both outside support and outside perceptions for economic and political support than Algeria does. The stock market took a hit as the situation in Egypt escalated. The stakes are high for its people and its elite. The Algerians have few close international partnerships by way of treaty than the Egyptians do and are less concerned with the opinions of tourists — their key sector, hydrocarbons, is tightly secured and tucked deep in the Sahara, far away from anything remotely “popular”. As Marc Lynch wrote earlier this week: Arab regimes learn. The misfortunes one dictator are the instruction manuals for the others. Arab leaders by and large have held on to power by anything but luck.

Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past. The Arab Summit last week displayed this very clearly. Every Arab leader is on red alert at the moment, determined not to repeat Ben Ali’s mistakes. They are frantically offering concessions on economic issues, reversing price rises and increasing subsidies. And of course they are ramping up the repressive apparatus, on the streets and online, to try to stop any snowballs from rolling before they get too big. The lesson most seem to have learned is not “be more democratic,” it is “be tougher.” No Arab leader seems likely to be taken by surprise, or to disregard the early signs of trouble. The success of Egypt’s protestors yesterday doesn’t mean that they won’t be violently crushed today.

On this note one should be sure to consider: 1) What kind of regimes are being considered here? Are they run by men more interested in their lifestyle — like Ben Ali — than the acquisition and management of power itself — as Hafez al-As’ad was? Have they got the loyalty of their military or have they neglected them? Are their sons wrapped up in business or special units of their presidential guards? 2) Who are the regimes’ allies and how important do those allies consider them relative to others? How dependent are they on other countries’ assistance? 3) How great is the gap between their means and their perception of their own impunity?

Much of this comes down to environment and judgement: in response to the demonstrations Husni Mubarak gave a speech with a message not significantly different than Ben Ali’s last pronouncement. But he has a political and security apparatus that is more loyal to him and his regime personally and Mubarak can count on a wider array of foreign actors to support him in a time of crisis due to the Camp David dynamic which is entirely absent in Tunisia’s Maghrebine context. This goes back to the heart of the matter: in the end the Winter Uprisings are political, not merely economic. They cannot be reduced to economic “reforms,” price checks and micro-finance. They are putting strains on the Arab political order in its full diversity. And the youth driving the Winter Uprisings appear not to be satisfied when thrown a bone — they deserve steak. In the span of two months they have seen two long-sitting autocrats make shaken and desperate public appeals in response to their actions and watched one of them make a run for the Gulf. Whether Tunisia or Egypt or some other Arab polity turns out a revolution or a serious political change, these uprisings will be of serious political and historical importance going forward. These are exciting, perplexing times indeed.

9 thoughts on “Vague thoughts on the Arab Winter Uprisings

  1. Hello Mr Moor. In the case of Algeria I think that the military’s touch has not diminished but has transformed to become a subtle political armed branch growing (or has grown already I should say) an iron economical arm. The DRS or rather Mediene’s tactic and chess moves resemble those of 1) Putin, as he was preparing to become president (although I don’t believe that this is Mediene’s ambition, he will place a talking horse instead) and 2) Putin’s Siloviki (especially at the time when they were cleaning the Kremlin from old Yelstin’s supporters and dealing the cards of future economical tactics). I am personally hoping that it is the Algerian government’s greed that will drive them blind thereby opening a way to a free society. Inshallah, no more blood.

  2. ‘vague’ and ‘incomplete’, you are very modest with your titles, yet you provide the most comprehensive analysis and obviously have a striking understanding of the region and of every country’s specifics than the so-called prominent researchers and mideast ‘experts’ of the ignorant west

    just read the BBC, Guardian, carngie and mideast research institute a month ago , they all agreed on one thing “Egypt is not Tunisia..it can enver happen in Egypt.. Mubarak is not Ben Ali” blah blah.. they should all be eating their hats now

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