A new Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik report on the Tunisian elections (‘Tunesien: Einmal mehr Vorreiter‘ (‘Tunisia: Once Again a Pioneer’), SWP-Comments 2011, No. 49, November 2011 by Isabelle Werenfels; in German) offers positive comments on Tunisia’s election results and notes some of the economic and structural problems facing the country. It argues for European support for the country’s continued democratization; and it represents a nice break from some of the (widespread) writing in French about the Islamist element. It is worth noting that optimism is easily dashed — even if nowadays Tunisia looks quite good compared to all of its neighbors and Egypt (where transitional problems are being dealt with differently). Certainly worth reading.
After coming upon this report, this reader was motivated to look at some of Werenfels’s other work (she is responsible for the excellent book Managing Instability in Algeria (Routledge, 2007)), which is often helpful in thinking about Algeria’s politics. Two things stuck out in light of the post from earlier this week on Algerian ‘exceptionalism'; Algeria shares much in common with its neighbors in the way of social and economic malaise and repression but there are some differences in recent history that have put Algeria on its own time line just as specificities in Tunisia’s and Libya’s and Egypt’s and Syria’s backgrounds put them on their respective tracks. The Civil War is important not just because it was a massively traumatic experience for the ordinary Algerian; it also had important economic and social consequences for the core elite and the nation as a whole. The political and economic reordering of the country over the last twenty years has been similar to other Arab states though of the countries most similar to itself in social and political make up (the old Tunisia, Syria and Egypt) it has some distinguishing features such as the lack of a personalized regime with a highly centralized elite built around a single family, tribe, individual or sect (see Werenfels ‘Algeria: System continuity through elite change’ in Arab Elites: Negotiating the Politics of Change by Perthes, Lynne Rienner, 2004), an economy utterly dependent on energy exports, a relatively more intense and longer lasting history of internal violence with an important maquisard tradition (it is more like Syria than Egypt in this way but still rather different; the kind of constant rioting and dissidence seen in Algeria’s cities and rural communities is distinct from Syria or Egypt). There is a lot more going on in the way of ‘instability’ in Algeria at any one time than there was in Syria or Egypt or Tunisia before the uprisings in those countries. There is other stuff going on as well (Mohammed Hachemaoui is a good source on the issues Werenfels covers but also on other issues as well as is Rachid Tlemcani, especially in how the military relates to society and in the operations of the bureaucracy and elections and so on). Anyway, Werenfels’s articles are worth looking back at nowadays given how things are going so far as outsiders can tell.
One is a short paper on Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s third term from 2009 (‘Bouteflika zum Dritten: Stabilitätsgarantie oder Stabilitätsrisiko?‘ (Bouteflika to a Third Term: Guarantee of Stability or Risk for Stability?), SWP-Comment 2009, No. 19, April 2009). It worries, at the beginning of Bouteflika’s current term, that Bouteflika lacks a plan for sustainable social and economic stabilization because much of the stability that characterized his first and second terms was the result of foreign currency reserves amassed as a result unusually high hydrocarbon prices. The regime was able avoid deep or serious structural change in the economic and political spheres as a result. The global financial crisis, she writes, threatens the overall viability of such a political model and it was, in her estimate, unlikely that the Algerian regime had developed an idea or plan for a sustainable political or economic or social stabilization program. She writes that there is no evidence of serious efforts at diversification beyond hydrocarbons and highlights this as a potential source of social instability (one see a repeat of the Chadhli scenario here). It provides a good overview of the main political blocks and of the fragmented opposition scene. It also goes into the regime’s general defense mechanisms (the subsection titled ‘occasional concessions as a value’ outlines examples from the first and second terms and argues that ‘neither selective concessions nor the partial tightening of authoritarian screws’ have guaranteed the regime’s overall stability citing increasing threats to security and the quality of life since 2006) and highlights how the Kabyle issue plays into the overall political picture. The report concludes with three scenarios: (1) a continuation of the status quo (she writes this is most probable; the regime’s stability is viable for now if the price of oil is ‘at least’ $65 a barrel and noticeable and ‘broad’ improvements in the people’s quality of living occur; she sees Bouteflika’s leaving office before 2014 as probably leading to ‘at least a temporary destabilization’ as the inner circles struggle over a successor and sees PM Ahmed Ouyahia as probably having ‘far less’ support among the people than Bouteflika); (2) an insurgency if the price of oil drops below $60-65 a barrel (she cites the Economist Intelligence Unit for this number) and the regime becomes incapable of greasing clientelist networks, leading to increasing social tensions and increased state repression which would likely produce a coup or ‘internal regime change’ (she sees this as unlikely); or (3) a democratic opening where oil prices become volatile or drop low over time, straining the regime’s resources and the regime elite decides to ‘leap forward’ and create a transitional government ‘covering the whole political spectrum, including more moderate parts of the banned FIS party,’ this would be precipitated, and probably by some level of instability.
The other article is in English, also from 2009, on Algeria’s political elite (“An Equilibrium of Instability: Dynamics and Reproduction Mechanisms of Algeria’s Political System,” Confluences Méditerranée, No. 71, Autumn 2009). This article is worth looking at to the extent it describes the emergence of Algeria’s current political and private sector elite, much of which emerged as a result of liberal economic reforms undertaken in response to domestic and international pressures and especially the drop in hydrocarbon prices and the religious-political crisis is helped create in the 1980s and 1990s. The current elite comes heavily from (or has close relations to) the old military-bureaucratic classes. Werenfels argues that the old authoritarian elite, in effect, reproduced itself over the last thirty years by means of selective economic liberalization. Algeria’s dependence on imports combined with trade liberalization gave old elites new opportunities to seek rents in the import sector. This Islamist counter-elite was excluded and then partly (and selectively) included in this process by the end of the 1990s. (Werenfels wrote an article in The Journal of North African Studies (Vol. 7/No. 1) on privitization in Algeria and the fragmented, slow decision-making process in Algeria, “Obstacles to Privitization of State-Owned Industries in Algeria: The Political Economy of a Distributive Conflict,” which puts some light on this; it is also discussed in Managing Instability.) These moves were forced on the regime by declines in oil prices and a reduction in the regime’s ability to spread around rent; the high oil prices of the last decade reversed that dynamic and allowed the regime to reorganize itself and seek new sources of rent. The overall result is similar to what is described in King’s The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa (Indiana, 2009).
Historically, Algeria’s social class groupings and civil society as such have been politically weak and did not drive major political movements; the 1988-1990 ‘opening’ was forced on the regime by youth rioting driven by economic pains and poor governance (similar to what happened last December and January), not at the initiative of opposition parties or the middle class. The military and bureaucratic institutions have had a relatively high level of autonomy because of their ability to rely on and distribute rent from the energy and more recently the import sectors. The Algerian regime has a rough time when the price of oil drops and when it can only hold back dissent with violent repression rather than some combination of violence and cash. The increase in the size of the elite in 1990s Algeria weakened the freedom of action of the historic power centers and weakened overall elite unity and its ability to take unified decisions on major issues. Relatively few Algerians linked into elite networks advocate total regime change; ‘nationalist reformers’ (Werenfels’s term) interested in system stability and (or through) incremental change are common. The Algerian regime is thus lucky the Arab uprisings came at a time when it was rather flush with cash and when society is generally still wary of the prospect of major upheaval. But the coupling of the current situation with economic rattling or still more mass uprisings and so on could produce something very devastating for the regime indeed. Algeria is a constant reminder of the power of the ‘fourth quadrant‘.