RE: Steven A. Cook on Going Too Far on Algerian Exceptionalism

SUMMARY. This post is a drawn out meditation on ‘Algerian exceptionalism’.

Steven A. Cook wrote a blog post this week considering the deficiencies in current, public analysis of Algeria’s stability. 

From time-to-time, observers have asked: “Why not Algeria? How come there has not been an uprising there?” With all the change in the region, the ongoing brutal crackdown on the opposition in Bahrain, and the civil war in Syria, observers have tended to forget that there were demonstrations in Algeria that coincided with the month of popular protests that brought down Tunisia’s Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. It seems the revolutionary bandwagon that began in Sidi Bouzid and took off in Tahrir Square broke down before reaching Algiers. It is a fun side game to speculate why, but it is not a good analytic question, however. After all, revolutions are by their nature unpredictable.

Still, in 2010 analysts might have had insight into the coming changes in the region if they had thought more about the way they were actually thinking about the region. That sounds rather meta, but it brings me back to why I have been pondering Algeria. I recently had an opportunity to listen to a discussion about Algerian politics. The Algeria watchers talked about an aging, ill, and out-of-touch president; a powerful, but shadowy intelligence chief; an autonomous military elite; and an unhappy population straining under a poorly performing economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the indifference of a brutal regime. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Against the backdrop of this dismal situation, however, analysts seem to have come to the conclusion that an uprising is unlikely due to the collective memory of the terrible violence during the 1990s. I’ll defer to the Algerianists and take their word for it, but there is something that is superficial about this. It is as if they actually don’t know why Algeria seems stable, but that is what they feel in their gut so they have settled on the civil insurrection of the 1990s as the explanatory variable. They are not saying that an uprising will not happen, but that the odds are against it. This is reminiscent of the late 2010 prevailing discourse about the Middle East that painted a picture of stable authoritarians, divided and weak oppositions, and an international environment that was indifferent at best to the promotion of democratic change. There were elements of truth to this analysis, but the most anyone could conclude about regimes in the region was that they were “stable for now,” which turned out to be true, until it wasn’t.


This blogger attended a discussion on Algeria (at a Washington think tank) around the time of the May 2012 election with American, European and some North African academics, analysts and the like; the conclusion of the conversations there was that ‘Algeria will be stable, until it’s not’ — a view this blogger more or less sympathises with. Among the Anglophone experts, academics, technicians and analysts present there was almost no disagreement where Algeria’s general political trajectory was concerned. For the large number of what were presumably students present this must have been somewhat boring. The conversation did not yield significant insight into major bumps in the road ahead or risks; youth unemployment, political alienation, and other common concerns raised in discussions about the Arab uprisings all came up but there was no controversy in the basic idea that Algeria, unlike its neighbours, would continue on as it has for the last ten years more or less indefinitely, barring some deux ex machina or black swan. Analytically, this speaks to a kind of groupthink and does suggest a need for more aggressive analytic penetration and openness to considering that Algeria presents analysts with a great deal more structural uncertainty (as opposed to official or political opacity, which is frequently discussed and lamented; there is much going on in the popular neighbourhoods and douars and on the plateaus that receive scanty attention in themselves) than is sometimes acknowledged. This blogger has written and said, hyperbolically but not entirely un-seriously, that there is at any given time something like a 60% chance Algeria could explode into social or other unrest not unlike what did take place in the winter of 2010 (in early 2011, this blog believed the chances were about even that an uprising would take place in Algeria as in other countries and now believes the chances were probably more lopsided; it is not impossible that other analysts who did not anticipate an uprising suffer from confirmation bias; at the same the popular obsession with the Arab Spring spreading or not spreading to one o r more country speaks to some extent to fetishes for the direction of phenomena as opposed to their size and maginitude). The best writing on Algeria in recent years has been in the areas of political economy and elite studies. Thus, a significant amount of writing by Algerianists (and pouvoirologists) has looked at elite reproduction and management styles in Algeria and generational change — especially on how Algeria’s leadership has ‘managed’ the country’s post-conflict environment; some of this writing is better than others but in general it has proven accurate and comfortable for some analysts’ purposes. This risks complacency and possibly stifles creative approaches.

Cook reframes the problem in a way that has not been done in much of the mainstream/non-specialist writing that considers Algeria in terms of the Arab uprisings:

Part of the problem prior to the uprisings and now with the analysis of Algeria—and Saudi Arabia, for that matter—is that observers tend to think in terms of “stability vs. instability” rather than “relative stability/instability.” It is probably better to ask ourselves, “Why does Algeria seem to be relatively more stable than other countries in the region?” There are a variety of ways to answer this question. It makes most sense to me to look at the way rulers rule: Do they have a compelling vision for society? What is their capacity for patronage? How much do they rely on coercion and force to maintain political control? The Algerians do not seem to have much in the way of vision, but rather a fair amount of money to buy political quiescence and a well-developed ability to repress. This mix does not indicate to me that Algeria is going to be stable in the long run. The money cannot buy everyone off and force is useful until people are no longer afraid. Admittedly, there is a subjective quality to this analysis. Someone else could look at the same set of facts and come to the opposite conclusion.

The vision question is highly subjective, and some Algerians, Algerianists and others will disagree as to what ‘vision’ the Algerian system offers those who buy into it (what counts for vision for some does not for others and these kinds of considerations are often relative). There is a strong pecuniary incentive for a qualified young person to associate himself with the Algerian regime[1]  and that a number of young, competent Algerians do remain in awe of the accomplishments of the revolutionary generation and even the state itself, especially those with a specific historiographyof the civil war (Isabelle Werenfels refers to these as ‘neo-Dinosaurs’[2]). So this is relevant in retaining elite and notable loyalty, though this likely diminishes at the popular level where it must be augmented by patronage and coercion. At bottom, though, politics in Algeria is a practical game and without looking at Algeria from the ground it is difficult to appreciate what writers mean when they say Algerians are politically ‘apathetic’ or disillusioned or that the country sits on a low boil or that large numbers of young people dream more intensely about sailing to Europe than they do about building the future of the country.[3] Something are readily apparent from the existing literature which nonetheless help illustrate that even if much of the writing on Algerian politics (in English) of late is not wholly satisfactory, there is quite a lot of work that helps get at some of the deeper problems students of Algeria face in trying to make sense of the place.


Cook’s point is that

The bottom line is that the field has engaged in analytic overshooting, for lack of a better phrase, since the late 1980s/early 1990s. Scholars have gone from irrational exuberance about Algeria’s more apparent than real democratic opening to believing that it is stable, even as the country confronts considerable political, economic, and social problems. Instead, analysts should be cognizant of the need not only to dig deeper to gain additional insight into the dynamics of a society they are studying, but also to develop new techniques for evaluating what they find.

This is fair. This was also the subject of an exchange on Twitter involving Cook and others in May 2012. Some interesting writing has been done in 2011 and 2012 on the subject in general. For example, in March 2012, Barah Mikail published a paper with FRIDE titled ‘Algeria’s Deceptive Quiet,’ (FRIDE, Policy Brief, No. 117, March 2012). Coming from an EU perspective, Mikail’s analysis of Algeria’s relationship with the ‘Arab Spring’ and its relations with Europe and the west. The country’s still imbalanced civil-military relations and the government’s timid efforts at reform come into focus:

The reforms to date are timid and inchoate. Algeria is wealthy but still needs to improve on a plethora of issues, such as fighting unemployment, encouraging foreign direct investment, promoting industrial policy, increasing revenues and combating corruption. The army’s strident interference in civilian affairs is no secret but the government’s reluctance to address this ignores a vital opportunity to inspire confidence in the people. The gap that opposes conservatives to reformists is also reflected within the state apparatus. Therefore, instead of profiting from regional instability to strengthen its position, the government’s proposals for reforms have simply highlighted its limited room for manoeuvre.

Tellingly, few interlocutors in Algeria seriously expect that the regime’s internal tensions and contradictions will bring top-down change. The army remains a strong actor that operates under civilian auspices. Bouteflika is still the army’s preferred leader; it was the army that allowed him to benefit from a 2008 constitutional amendment to open the way for a third presidential term. His popularity may be declining, but a lot of Algerians see in him a ‘saviour’ who turned the violent page of the 1990s. Yet with discredited institutions and a lack of tangible social reform, few are optimistic about May’s election.

Civil society and the opposition?

[. . .] a certain ambivalence coloured Algerian responses to the actions of citizens elsewhere in the region. Demonstrations in Algeria never reached the intensity of those in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. Opposition leaders have failed to counteract the regime’s containment tactics. The fundamental lack of political organisation in the Algerian population is the most pertinent factor. Asked why protests have failed, opposition figures inAlgiers all refer to the absence of organisational structures, especially among the youth. They also accuse national media and ostensibly opposition parties in parliament of helping the regime. As one journalist put it: the regime is ‘playing on society’s divisions to strengthen its position; it just distributes money to various socio-economic categories of the population in order to buy social peace.’

Mikail concludes:

The ‘Algerian silence’ only exists in name. Having seen its democratic process derailed in the violent interlude of 1990s, Algeria finds itself at an era- defining juncture. Weak civic organisations and anti-Western reservations have reduced the prospects for democratisation. Pandering to international (NATO intervention), regional (Libya, Israel-Palestine) and national issues (Islam, terrorism) to quell dissent helps preserve the status quo. However there is now some space to see Algeria evolve and open at its own pace. May’s elections will not bring a sea change in perspectives – the scepticism of the population is deep. Nevertheless, a possible change in leader, overtures to the West and a harnessing of economic potential are all good auguries for a better future. The EU should be cautious but not waste this opportunity.

Whether one agrees that ‘anti-Western reservations’ are related to the upkeep of Algeria’s heavy executive, there is a strong case to be made that Algeria is not as ‘quiet’ as public discourse often describes it. Strikes, protests, riots, self-immolations, and other similar events are common in Algeria and yet the country creeks along – and this despite a looming succession in 2014 that could take place at anytime before then.

Two other articles are worth considering, Andrea Dessi’s ‘Algeria at the Crossroads, Between Continuity and Change’ (IAI Working Papers 1128, September 2011) and ‘Why has the Arab Spring not “hit” Algeria’ (IPRS Maghreb Bulletin 13, Spring 2012) by Ulla Holm. Dessi’s explains the situation in line with the dominant view that Algeria is unlikely to see significant unrest as in other Arab countries while cautioning (in his introduction) the regime’s resilience

has allowed the government to project an image of continuity to the outside world, one cannot discount the possibility of Algeria experiencing a delayed reaction to the waves of change that have spread across the region since early 2011. Algeria’s recent history is littered with recurring outbursts of popular unrest, and while today the government appears to have regained the upper hand, the combined dangers of a deepening economic malaise, widespread social discontent, and a growing crisis of legitimacy affecting Algeria’s political institutions do not bode well for the future.

Holm, a Danish researcher, argued that three factors (the memory of the civil war, the regime’s ability to ‘buy political peace’ with oil money and the fragmentation of the political field) kept Algeria from breaking down into unrest in the 2010-2011 period.

A mixture of oppression, incentives to cooperate with the powerful and exclusion from power are a result of this policy of divide and rule. Steered by personal rivalry rather than ideas, the parties are built up around systems of clientelism, to which a host of people are bound to the political leader and dependent on his economic and social protection. The factions all hold each other in check in this network of interdependence. As a result, it is virtually impossible to implement any far-reaching political and economic reforms.

Instead “stability in a system of instability” is maintained. This balance between stability and instability is controlled behind the scenes by an army of 140,000 soldiers and 100,000 reserves. As far as is known, there were no deserters during the conflict of the 1990s. If the Arab Spring reaches Algeria it is thus highly unlikely that the army would back the political unrest.

Holm goes on to argue that the Arab Spring did have influence on Algeria’s politics, describing the package of eventually watered down reforms introduced after months of consultations in November 2011 and Algiers’s skepticism about revolutionary and transformational events in neighbouring countries. Ultimately, according to Holm, political change will come gradually in Algeria as the population and political class retain mixed sentiments of caution and apathy.


The future is open ended. Exploring scenarios for Algeria out through 2014 (or 2015) and 2020 would be useful analytically and would produce interesting debates among Algeria watchers and other regional specialists. More discussions and debates on political events inside Algeria among people who follow the country aggressively and those who specialise in other areas and regions would probably also have a similar result. There is a risk that discussions between North Africanists or Algeria watchers can be too narrow and too specialised that analysts lose perspective, a tendency that is frequently greater for those studying places in which there is relatively little interest for others. Exploring alternative explanations for the events that have taken place and have not taken place in Algeria (at least so far) need to be explored in greater depth. Algeria deserves more attention, especially from English-speakers; rather than more stories and articles about why Algeria did not witness an uprising or why it remained ‘stable,’ more discussions about events and trends inside Algeria. Even countries without revolutions still have politics and Algeria is no exception.


[1] See this vignette in Managing Instability in Algeria: Elites and Political Change in Algeria Since 1995 (Werenfels, 2007, pp. 136-138):

[2] In Managing Instability in Algeria (2007), Werenfels discusses four ‘ideal types’ among members of the politically relevant elite in Algeria: (1) neo-Dinosaurs, (2) Nationalist Reformers, (3) Islamist Reformers, and (4) Radical Democrats (see pp.  95-118 (see tables below). Neo-Dinosaurs are described as ‘the most reform-averse of the third-generation elite ideal-types, and displayed a strong nostalgia for the past rather than visions of the future. [. . .] While he had grown up bilingual (French and Algerian dialect), he tended to support all Arabization efforts and to have conservative values in all questions pertaining to the social order or touching upon religion. His discourse nevertheless was anti-Islamist and he was opposed to any form of reconciliation with the FIS or similar political forces. Important spaces for his early political socialization were the mass organizations UNJA and, later the UGTA that socialized him to the parti unique system and that functioned as a channel for upward mobility. The neo-dinosaur’s prime role model was Houari Boumedienne and, to a lesser extent, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and he saw himself in the populist national tradition of these leaders. At the same time he understood himself as the natural and true inheritor of the revolutionaries, for whom his admiration and respect was enormous.’ (pp. 95)

[3] This is not entirely fair but one wonders if the dryness in a lot of writing on Algeria comes from the lack of close familiarity writers in the mainstream have with Algeria as compared to Egypt, Morocco or other Arab countries that are easily accessible to westerners. There is an adequate enough literature on Algeria in academic and social science circles to grasp the big themes and problems in the country without diverting too much time away from other pursuits, however.


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