Exceptions, Agency, Structure

Richard Phelps argues that Algeria has not seen a popular uprising this year on broad structural lines (‘An Algerian Exception?‘ CMEC Blog): ‘the Algerian regime does not have an identifiable leader with whom political power truly lies’.

In Algeria, the incumbent president Abdulaziz Bouteflika is not the ultimate repository of power in the country. Instead, the military and security forces are and always have been. Indeed, the generals have consistently worked to limit his authority and power, and as a result people know that protesting against his rule may uproot him but will not uproot a more shadowy architecture behind him. Municipal elections in 1990 and parliamentary elections in 1991 offered the Algerian people the prospect for a major overhaul, when they voted in the Islamist party the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) across the board, ejecting the long-incumbent National Liberation Front (FLN).  But the military stepped in and took over, banned the FIS, and years of brutal civil war ensued after many took part in an uprising against the regime. The trauma of this experience formally confirmed to Algerians what many had always known – that it is the military that is in charge, not the politicians – and it instructed the regime that popular dissent can be successfully crushed through overwhelming and brutal force.  Thus the overwhelming security presence at the demonstrations seen to date.

For all its dissimilarities with Algeria, Lebanon is also an Arab republic with a long history of brutal political violence, and it too has been relatively unaffected by the Arab spring. In neither case is there a single identifiable leader in charge: one hears not of ‘Bouteflika’s Algeria’ as one does of ‘Asad’s Syria’, ‘Gaddafi’s Libya’, or ‘Mubarak’s Egypt’. In both cases – Algeria and Lebanon – there is widespread recognition that power does not lie with Presidents and prime ministers. In Lebanon, power is devolved along sectarian lines rather than concentrated in central government. There would therefore, be little sense in protesting against the rule of the government or a particular leader’s regime, since ultimate power does not lie with them.

A major difference with Lebanon and Egypt is a lack of strong international pressure on Algeria’s internal politics. The Algerians had and probably would have had a freeer hand in dealing with protest so far as foreign powers were concerned given its hydrocarbon resources, role in western counter and antiterrorism policy and the relative weakness of foreign capital inside Algeria. Phone calls from Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Nicholas Sarkozy and even the Emir of Qatar (who today is quite the statesman) would not have the same kind of impact in Algeria in a fit of repression as they did in Egypt, for example (where such calls had less impact than initially expected).

Another comparison with Lebanon is a strong collective memory of civil unrest and conflict which makes citizens and the political class alike hesitant to engage in high risk activity (here the Algerians are probably more cautious than the Lebanese; see the list of abuses here to get an idea of why). Algerian politicians (and average people) often said something along the lines of Nobody wants to see another 1988 and Nobody wants to go back to the 1990s when asked about the potential for a ‘revolution’ in their country. The February protests were the ones most similar to those elsewhere in the region, where participants called for the downfall of the regime and the removal of the president. Very few people attended these protests and many ordinary people viewed the participants with contempt and suspicion based on their political affiliations (unlike other protest movements in the region, Algerian political parties in the formal opposition acted as public representatives of the demonstrations and tainted perceptions of their movement). Generally, protests in Algeria have been different from those in some other countries in that, as Phelps notes, they have rarely called explicitly for Bouteflika’s ouster or even the downfall of the regime (the latter is more common than the former, however). Instead, Algerian strikes, protests and demonstrations have focused on urging concessions from state institutions on specific issues. They have been stratified and fragmented on class, professional and age lines. Some of this is deliberate, the result of fear of repression and violence. Some have suggested that in February there were members of certain political parties that turned out on purpose in hopes of alienating the broader public or that they scheduled demonstrations on a weekly basis to give the government a better shot at preempting them (these parties supposedly being close to the security services). This view caused many to actively shun those protests and student and labor demonstrators avoided that trend for similar (though not the same) reasons.

And the government has focused its strategy toward them based on this reality and avoided the provocative showings of ‘symbolic’ violence that gave fuel to protest movements in Tunisia and Libya and Syria and Egypt (part of this is owed to the government’s relationships with the private media as well). Official and unofficial media has not covered demonstrations extensively to the extent that protesters in one city would necessarily be aware of those in another. The massive showing of ‘force’ at the February demonstrations — which were quite small, using barely a few thousand people if that — was a show of bodies more than anything else, and while protesters were manhandled and some beaten few or none were shot or killed in the way their counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world were. The government issued reforms, after long deliberations, and statements of intent to reform on a range of issues. It acted quickly to buy off organizers and potential participants or to contain and frustrate them rather than making public ‘examples’ of children or attempting to use overwhelming and direct force. The ‘crackdowns’ on protesters in Algeria this year were in large measure qualitatively different from those elsewhere, as were the demonstrations themselves.

Structurally it is important to understand that Algeria’s politics do operate in a diffuse manner, that power is spread through regional and professional and bureaucratic networks which often compete with one another but are also sometimes dependent on one another. (One might quibble with any comparison of the Algerian presidency to the power of any single office in Lebanon or to even its strongest Lebanese za’im; the perception and reality of the president’s power in Algeria is an interesting thing to follow and to try and gauge at any one time but the presidency has frequently overwhelmed the military under Bouteflika.) The business class and the military officers and the technocrats and local notables intersect and it would be difficult to ‘purge’ the government as the Tunisians are now trying to do and it would also be difficult to make removing Bouteflika in a coup appear to Algerians as a symbolic act with and the armed forces a trusted ‘care taker’ of some transition process (let alone a ‘savior’) as the Egyptian Army did with Mubarak, since Algerians are generally more cynical and probably distrust their military and opposition more than their cousins in the rest of the region. It is also important to understand the field in which these various networks and factions (‘clans’) interact, overlap and struggle; it involves a great deal of both external and internal opacity and risk. There are enormous uncertainties involved. Longtime Algeria hand John Entelis wrote in September that change of some kind would wind up taking place in Algeria, if only so that the country’s elite could keep its own interests, and that  ‘[w]hether this process develops peacefully or violently is ultimately in the hands of le pouvoir’. 

But structural reasons are not the only ones Algeria has not seen an uprising. The Algerian military and political class has dealt with uprisings and transitions before and probably had a better idea of how to deal with such problems technically given its experience in the 1988-1990 period and the youth uprising in 2001 and the tens of thousands of youth riots which have struck the country in the last decade. In other words, it is important to recognize that the Algerian regime — like its counterparts elsewhere — made choices this year. Since the protest movement was weak to begin with and even though it is widely rumored that the inner circles of power faced serious internal fissures on how to deal with the situation in the late winter, the decisions that were made in Algeria in 2011 ended up being significantly less provocative than those that were made in Tunisia, Syria and Egypt. Part of this owes to the general context but much of it is the result of the fact that the Algerian regime behaved differently toward protesters, subverting them in less overtly violent ways and avoiding the sorts of outrages the Syrian regime committed in Dera’a. Syria and Algeria looked very similar at the start of 2011 (even if Algeria had seen mass youth rioting in January); the president was not particularly unpopular (though maybe not popular) in either country (people used to say many Syrians actually liked Bashar al-As’ad; it is still possible to find people who say this about Bouteflika) and both avoided massive protests while Tunisia, Egypt and then Libya saw opposition grow into full-fledged popular resistance. And then there was a small protest in Syria and decisions were made about what to do with children; and then about how to speak to the public about it; and then about how to treat still more protesters. Syria today is the result of a combination of choices by a combination of actors just as Algeria now is the result of choices by its leaders and its people. As yet, how deliberate many of the choices were is a subject ove debate and investigation. Rachid Tlemcani, who is always one to listen to, has said the regime inner circle lacks the political will to affect meaningful change. Its responses this year are like the result of knotting up and dysfunction, political miscalculations (Tlemcani described Bouteflika’s third term ‘a term too many’ on account of his health and age) and a tense caution in a volatile situation.

The idea of Algeria as an ‘exception’ has caught on in some analyses of the uprisings this year. This is somewhat problematic and brings to mind questions of structure and agency in political change. (Sometimes this looks like an editorial or title-giving problem and other times it has other causes; Phelps’s piece is not so bad.) The ‘Algerian exception’ calls to mind the bigger idea of Arab exceptionalism generally, that Middle Eastern and North African polities have some special resistance to democratization and political change. This was an idea to which that the Arab uprisings have been a major counterpoint; and it was one of the reasons some analysts did not foresee the Arab uprisings or struggle to contextualize and understand them. Eva Bellin made a good argument about the exceptional will of coercive institutions to crush and stifle dissent and change in the Arab countries and that in order for meaningful political transitons out of authoritarianism that will needed to be broken (“Coercive Institutions and Coercive Leaders” in Posusney and Angrist, Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Regimes and Resistance, 2005). What took place in Tunisia this year is a very fine example in favor of that view (where the head of the Army refused orders to join the security services and police in the repression and where elements of the old regime have been pushed back by mass mobilization and effective politicking by new elites in the streets and the government); Egypt is a similar though more complex point in favor of this. There is a Marxist view that says armies and similar institutions must be weakened or destroyed in order for ‘revolutions’ to be successful. One might believe this more strongly after look at Egypt in comparison to Tunisia. Both show that the conscious and unconscious exercise of agency is key, perhaps just as much as the background setting of a particular country. The overall political structure and relationships within it matter too, of course; and the argument that structure can overpower men (and women) is often very strong. Actors make calculations, estimates, decisions, error and can exercise relative limited control over outcomes.

Worth thinking about, especially in light of Algeria’s recent history:

In any event, what matters most is always the support or acquiescence not of the popula majority of society but the politically powerful and mobilized groups, invariably including the regime’s own cadres. Loss of legitimacy, especially among these crucial groups, tends to ensue with a vengeance if and when (for reasons that are always open to sociological and historical explanation) the state fails consistently to cope with existing tasks, or proves unable to cope with new tasks suddenly thrust upon it by crisis circumstances. Even after great loss of legitimacy has occurred, a state can remain quite stable — and certainly invulnerable to internal mass-based revolts — especially if its coercive organizations remain coherent and effective. Consequently, the structure of those organizations, their place within the state apparatus as a whole, and their linkages to class forces and to politically mobilized groups in society are all important issues for the analyst of states in revolutionary situations, actual or potential. Such an analytic focus seems certain to prove more fruitful than any focus primarily or exclusively upon political legitimation. The ebbing of a regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of its own cadres and other politically powerful groups may figure as a mediating variable in an analysis of regime breakdown. But the basic causes will be found in the structure and capacities of state organizations, as these are conditioned by developments in the economy and class structure and also by developments in the international situation.

The state, in short, is fundamentally Janus-faced, with an intrinsically dual anchorage in class-divided socioeconomic structures and an international system of states. If our aim is to understand the breakdown and building-up of state organizations in revolutions, we must look not only at the activities of social groups. We must also focus on the points of intersection between international conditions and pressures, on the one hand, and class-structured economies and politically organized interests, on the other hand. State executives and their followers will be found maneuvering to extract resources and build administrative and coercive organizations precisely at this intersection. Here, consequently, is the place to look for the political contradictions that help launch social revolutions. Here, also, will be found the forces that shape the rebuilding of state organizations within social-revolutionary crises.

Skocpol, Theda. States and Social Revolution: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 32.


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