The fall of Egypt’s long time dictator Husni Mubarak may have an impact on the demonstrations planned for 12 February in Algeria. Most assessments appraising the likelihood of a popular revolution in Algeria have been grim: Algeria’s civil society is too weak, its political parties too divided and unpopular to inspire or direct an Egyptian or Tunisian-style mass movement. Protests and uprisings are often localized and spontaneous rather than organized as previous Egypt’s 6 April and Kifaya movements were. Its urban geography, some wrote, is more restrictive than Cairo’s or Tunis’s, lacking large public squares where demonstrators might camp out or confront security forces. These are all valid points and reflect keen observations of Algeria’s political scene. One would be surprised if Said Sadi could turn out large masses of Algerians beyond Algiers and Kabylia. The other factions making up the Coordination nationale pour le changement et la démocratie (CNCD) are small, though each has its own constituency. The Algerian security services have been preparing to swallow up the 12 February protests over the last week (if not more), particularly since the state denied the organizers’ application for a permit to assemble. Because the protests have been associated with the RCD, many doubted the legitimacy of the protests and their intentions; in particular the FFS, the RCD socialist rival in Kabylia, refused to participate as well as have other opposition parties. Some have speculated as to the motivations behind the protests given Said’s links to the DRS. That the demonstration permit was denied lends the demonstrations additional credibility. (the CNCD also includes groups like SOS disparus (an advocacy group for the families of people disappeared during the Civil War), Tharwa Fatma N’Soumer (a group opposed to the 1984 Family Code and especially interested in women’s empowerment) and several independent labor unions.) If 12 February is a success in the sense of turn out it will not be due strictly to the work of the CNCD: it will owe to a whole climate of dissatisfaction and frustration. And the regime’s efforts to smother the protests may have the opposite of their intended effect.
The fall of Husni Mubarak might inspire some politically minded Algerians to go out and join the march in Algiers or elsewhere; but to draw the comparison between the Egyptian movement which focused on Mubarak and “his regime” and Algerian political problem is somewhat difficult. The Algerian regime is more effective at managing popular protests and riots than either Tunisia or Egypt, having done so for the last twelve years. The slow official response to the January demonstrations (as compared to the relatively fast and repetitious public statements from the former leaders of Tunisia and Egypt) helped the regime deprive demonstrators of public targets in the form of the the President or the Prime Minster. This was like partly a learned feature (the aggressive and callus statements from former Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni during the April 2001 events had a radicalizing effect not unlike Mubarak’s, though very different in tone) and the result of Algerian decision-making processes which ordinarily takes a great amount of time.
The regime already faced a significant popular protest movement in 1988. The response to that crisis is often remembered in terms of the 1992 elections, called after a period of impressive liberalization and aborted when Islamists looked likely to win. The years of suffering that followed are well known to most. The motivation for the transition has been revealed (and debated) in the commentary and memoirs of contemporaries having been the survival of the old regime by writing the electoral law to favor mass-based parties like the FLN so that the former single party could run younger, more religious candidates and co-opt voters’ religious preference while allowing the ancien regime to maintain its hard grip on the country with a popular mandate. The FIS, modeling itself on the FLN benefited from the new electoral law, though. Chadli failed and Army generals visited him in the Presidential Palace and talked him into resigning and giving them control of the country. The regime that came after, a junta, used Chadli’s strategy: it advanced Liamine Zeroual in the 1995 presidential election. The genealogy of Bouteflika’s leadership comes out of that process; internal competition between factions within the regime reflects the same institutional rot that afflicts other long-standing Arab regimes rather than ideological distention. Because Algeria’s core elite is divided between elements of the military and the president’s loyalists there is a possibility that the deep state may attempt to use 12 February as an opportunity to expand their role own power; encouraging or allowing violence to occur would give the security forces a louder voice in government. It might also give them a means of getting concessions out of the civilian leadership in economic policy and on certain political questions. But the regime as a whole understands how dangerous excessive force could be in the current regional climate. That one or the other elite faction might try to exploit the demonstrations for internal leverage is perhaps the greatest risk for both demonstrators, officials and their allies. Practically all key players understand the importance of avoiding the steps that led to the “national tragedy” though those in power see this as meaning maintaining power for themselves more shrewdly than Mubarak or Ben Ali did. In their view this requires a willingness to do just about anything, violent or otherwise.
Keep in mind that the Algerian regime has something neither Tunisia nor Egypt has: piles and piles of gas money ready to be dumped on the right opposition and social players as needed. The government can buy off political figures and their bases; it can attempt to pacify religious and tribal leaders by dumping money and infrastructure on them. Algeria’s leaders may benefit from the country’s status as a major energy exporter to Europe and America in the event of serious street struggle.
The RCD’s headquarters in Algiers was has already been surrounded by police after three hundred people reportedly congregated there to demonstrate their satisfaction with the fall of Mubarak. What kind of affect early obstruction might have will depend on how many people turn out in force to begin with: the masses of police on the streets may have a serious psychological impact on smaller demonstrators and if the demonstrations are as easily dispersed as on 22 January its unlikely that much else will follow. And while many Algerians are thoroughly dissatisfied with Bouteflika, most understand the real political challenge is the whole system, the politicized military leadership, the economic oligarchs, the not mere personalities. Many Algerians have been impressed by the fall of Mubarak, though. Buses of people are heading to Algiers from the surrounding cities and provinces, blocked by the police. By cutting out those seeking to protest peacefully (and with a limited popular appeal) the regime is increasing the likelihood of spontaneous, violent demonstrations which may indeed be to the government’s advantage. While the opposition is weak and without strong popular credentials (not wholly committed to the 12 February movement) there is more potential for something much bigger than previously anticipated as a result of recent events and the anxiety they may cause in the security services and the government at large. Mubarak’s fall has raised the stakes for Algeria’s 12 February march. But his fall does not necessarily make Bouteflika’s imminent. More to come.