Yesterday on Twitter Steven A. Cook and several others engaged the following exchange.
A lot of space has been spent on articles and commentary about why Algeria did not see the kind of upheaval that struck Tunisia, Libya and Egypt (and now Syria and Yemen). Much of this was of poor quality to recycled the same arguments and rationales. This blogger never found that conversation particularly interesting and generally avoided it. He is not going to attempt to explain why or why not Algeria has or will or might have an uprising. He is interested in the process of things inside Algeria more than big, hypothetical outcomes, at the moment in any case. What is more interesting is to look at what actually did happen in Algeria in 2011 as opposed to what outsiders think ought to have happened based on considerations about very different polities with very different political regimes from Algeria’s. A lot of time has been spent attempting to frame events in Algeria and virtually every other Arab polity as part of a single narrative — the “Arab Spring” — at the expense of looking at events as functions of the internal logic of very sophisticated and complex societies with actors operating in specific political contexts. While the countries that saw uprisings in 2011 had regimes and leaders with strong structural and psychological similarities these were nonetheless very particular situations. Algeria resembles Morocco or Egypt in more ways than it resembles Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Qadhafi’s Libya or Ba’thist Syria.
But Algeria has a distinct political background and demography that is sometimes downplayed in discussions about the Arab uprisings, which includes the civil war during the 1990s, an opposition that is pitifully fragmented and a regime made up of remarkably cunning political strategists and tacticians. Much of the writing about the events that took place in the Arab world focuses on forces as opposed to individual actors; the force of Tahrir Square, the force of social media, the force of the example of Mohamed Bouazizi, the force of symbols and avatars. One of the reasons uprisings became successful was that they forced regimes into reactive positions where they were forced to react in aggressive and impolitic ways. Questions of agency and causality seem to be relegated largely to mystical forces as opposed to decisions and specific circumstances. A popular revolution or uprising is treated not only as likely, but inevitable and existential. However likely some kind of uprising may be in Algeria, it will have in three dimensions, not one and not two (as some would like it); and like the other uprisings its trigger will be local and will have built over time, resulting from decisions and circumstances largely sui generis. There are many reasons Algeria’s leadership and opposition and masses have not come together in the kind of cocktail that has hit many other Arab countries over the last year; this is not surprising to people who follow Algeria closely, even those who tend to believe that at any given time Algeria is at something like a 60% chance of exploding into unrest. One of the things brought out very clearly by events in 2011, though, was that things usually are as they are until they are not. Algeria is constantly confusing and offering analysts surprises. This observer sees no reason to believe that it will stop doing so any time soon.