Comments on Algeria

If left unaddressed, the social, economic, and political grievances festering beneath the surface in Algeria could rapidly escalate into popular revolts that threaten the regime’s stability. The government must begin enacting managed political reform or face the possibility of collapse.

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Several factors have allowed the Algerian regime to avoid an uprising, including a cash surplus from oil and gas resources that funds direct handouts to the population; the protesters’ failure to unite around common grievances; the security forces’ success in managing protests without greatly inflaming tempers; and searing memories of the country’s civil war that make most Algerians shy away from potentially violent situations.

Lahcen Achy, ‘The Price of Stability in Algeria,’ 25 April 2013.

post-Arab uprisings one has to wonder: is “managed reform” ever a possibility, and if so what is its aim? Managed reform was what was being advocated in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere before 2011. It invariably was carried out only superficially — but was nonetheless part of the rhetoric of these regimes. They were always on the road to reform, and often did implement some sort of changes, especially in economic policy, but never democratized. If anything, appearing to be engaged in a process of reform considerably increased the political risk for these regimes, creating a gap between the rhetoric of reform and the reality of autocratic rule. Autocratic regimes that never claimed to reform, like Saudi Arabia (indeed most monarchies) or Sudan, turned out to be safer.

The lesson for autocrats from the Arab Spring, indeed, may be “whatever you do, don’t reform.” Do not initiate a process that promises more than you can deliver. If, like me, you believe the central cause of the uprisings was not strictly political or economic, but moral — that the regimes had exhausted their capital of legitimacy and were proving unable to renew it — it’s not clear that Algeria has reached that point of collapse. The regime continues to have legitimacy, after all.

Isn’t the story elsewhere, at the heart of how power and legitimacy is constituted and understood in Algeria, and what will happen to the real power structures of Le Pouvoir once dominant personalities leave the scene?

Issandr El Amrani, ‘Stability in Algeria, or is reform even possible?’, 28 April 2013.

Algeria is one of the few Arab republics left after 2011, a stalwart of the new authoritarianism; in 2011 the Algerian regime had gone through more transformations and struggles than its neighbors resulting from popular unrest and its elites had learned lessons from their experiences during the country’s infitah, civil war and the regime re-consolidation afterwards. Many Algerians have dark memories from the 1990s that make them hesitate to participate or endorse big mass movements or talk happily about ‘revolution’. From a regime survival standpoint Algeria is a success, two years out from 2011. The core constituencies that have support supported the regime remained more or less satisfied or at least convinced that Bouteflika could meet any serious internal challenge through 2013; some political scientists have it that holding on to this is really all a regime needs to stick around. Now there are internal challenges fro Bouteflika’s rivals in the DRS and biological troubles. Algeria also faces long term economic vulnerabilities stressed in Lachy’s piece. It remains the strongest standing and most ‘stable’ Arab republic. But in such a circumstance one must as paranoid and skeptical as some stereotypes of Algerians because whatever things look like from the outside may well all be mirrors and mannequins, and our assumption may well be worthless.

Algeria is coming to a precipice: a whole political generation is on its way out and it is not clear how one generation will transfer power and legitimacy to the next. This makes the discussion about whether reform is possible (many Algerians say: there has been reform; or that there has been not enough reform; there has not been real reform) very relevant. Why does Algerian politics seem so grey? There are no shortages of official and unofficial Algerians who say: things should be better. Yet there seems to be a serious ‘vision problem’ in Algeria, not just among the gerontocrats, but among the younger generations and opposition as as well. There are few answers about what ‘better’ means or how the country should get there. This seems to contribute to hesitation to rock the boat and to collective anxiety among young people in particular. It contributes to a lack of faith in organised opposition groups which provides the regime with space to rule; the development of a unified, coherent and savvy political opposition trend would probably be the most serious threat the Algerian regime hypothetically. The regime has succeeded because it has stopped this happening and the opposition(s) have thus far been to fragmented to mount a sustained challenge and social currents that mobilise opposition to the established order tend to shy away from explicitly political demands; aside from that the opposition such as it is usually does not seem to have much of an idea of exactly what it is doing or what it wants. And so at a time when the president is in hospital, the biggest problems facing the regime seem to come more from its own structure and internal rivalries rather than from anywhere else in particular. It is not clear if this bodes well for the survival of the regime or not (though the collapse of the regime might be a tragedy of a kind for the formal opposition). (This was the situation of the Egyptians and the other ‘revolutionary’ countries when the regimes collapsed leaving chaos and disappointment, and a more dangerous life than before.) Questions and problems remain for investigation.

It is important to remember a few things:

(1) The Algerian political elite have made choices about how they have talked about change and dealt with mass dissatisfaction. They have been strategic in their distribution of cash handouts and in coopting of opposition elements (as well as penetration and manipulation of such groups) and in the harassment of those who protest and try to raise the stakes in their struggle with the regime (independent unions, actual opposition parties, unemployed youths, etc.).

The Algerians, unlike some of the regimes that faced difficulties in 2011, have a cash surplus that makes non- and semi-violent responses to dissent possible. Algeria’s greatest difficulties came in the 1980s, when hydrocarbon price shocks took away options for cooptation and handing out cash. That the events of December 2010 differed from October 1988 in that the regime had been riding on high prices and could afford to take control of commodity prices and institute short-term solutions, passing out money to youths and increasing civil servant and police pay. The regime was in a much more flexible position other regimes in the region in 2011. Unlike the Egyptians and Tunisians, the Algerian security services have not taken part in provocative violence, largely on purpose and because it was not necessary.

None of the regime strategies brought out since 2011 (including the new electoral law and law on associations) are new or novel in a post-revolution context. These are all old methods (buying off opponents and paying out angry constituencies, cracking skulls, disappearing professors, etc.) that have been used more intelligently by the authorities than in Tunisia or Egypt where brute force was the main tool of regimes. These are strategies the regime has rolled out previously during times of crisis and retooled on multiple occasions. Under development is also a means of control. This is all very old hat and it is seems the regime either does not have new innovations in this area or does not believe it necessary to develop or roll out new ones.

(2) Similar to Algeira’s elites, the Algerian opposition(s) and population at large made choices about whether and how to act or not act. Commentary about recent events and non-events in Algeria are usually state-centric; they also sometimes seem to assume the inevitability of ‘revolution’ in Algeria or in the region, without assessing what social or political forces would serve as agents of ‘revolution’ there. Relatively few Algerian associations or opposition parties actually militate for ‘revolution’ as such. Those political movements that have been active since 2011 (especially independent unions and student organisations) have been relatively modest in their objectives. As for Arab Spring-like movements, the CNCD – which organized a day for revolution in February 2011 on the model of the Tunisians and Egyptians — is representative. There is some exaggeration about how things happened in February 2011 in terms how many protesters actually turned out for the Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations that were overwhelmed by the security forces but the reality is: this was not a well organized, nationally organized and creative opposition. It was divided on itself and was not mass based or even particularly populist. The Algerian opposition is plagued and hobbled by ideological, personal and geographic fragmentation. On other issues, from a reform standpoint there are not concrete or actionable agendas coming from the opposition currents (for the most part) and the most promising ones are actively undermined by the regime with dirty tricks and beatings. Constitutional reform discussions are not popular and are not especially ambitious; too often opposition equates to boycott at the highest level. And while this results in a kind denial of an official legitimacy its practical results are minimal. Official forums for opposition in the legislature are minimal in impact and authority; more often than not boycott is a more popular form of opposition than parties or elections. Less coordinated venues, street and football riots for example, are popular with youth but without political demands or objectives have limited impact. Whatever distance that exists between the pouvoir and the population at large in terms of hogra or outlook, the pouvoir comes from within Algerian society, and the divisions and tendencies and confusion that exists in one finds at least some expression in the other. Youth-oriented political movements demanding social justice — particularly the Coordination nationale de défense des droits des chômeurs (CNDDC) — have framed their activities in explicitly social and economic terms: jobs for young people and dialogue with the government. Though this likely appears obviously political, the organisers actively disassociate themselves from formal ‘politics’ (which have become discredited in Algeria through corruption, violence; this is best represented by the fact that Algerians somewhat rarely participate in national elections). Muriam Haleh Davis recently wrote:

Because the CNDDC has demanded a peaceful change of the system, there has been some speculation that they are trying to “politicize” their actions. It may seem paradoxical that a movement that is calling for a new socio-economic status quo, and which has rejected the government’s stop gap employment measures by calling for another protest, could be considered as anything other than political. Yet the head of the movement, Tahar Belabbes, has maintained the following: “Our demands (revendications) are social: they concern the right to a job and the opening of a direct and formal dialog with the government.”  I spoke with Hakim Addad, a long-time militant in Algeria, about the rejection of the word politique in Algeria. “The word ‘politics’ scares people, especially after the civil war. The regime has managed to criminalize (culpabiliser) the youth who partake in politics.” If the CNDDC has underlined that their actions are social and economic in nature, this is undoubtedly linked to the demonization of politics in Algeria – a country where the word boulitique (an Arabized version of the French politique) has an unmistakably negative connotation.

It continues to appear that social-economic-oriented activism remains alienated from ‘political’ activity, which itself seems more and more delegitimised and prone to distrust and fragmentation; these being main features of the political landscape in Bouteflika’s Algeria. This sets up the stage for multiple futures in which populist and youth movements may become re-politicised through the failure of ‘social’ activism to affect systemic change or the state loses its ability to cope with such activism through poor politicking or cracks in discipline or competence in the security sector or the ‘malaise’ drags out through another generation or some major event triggers some mass action that throws the country into chaos or creates pressure for different styles behavior among the elite leadership.

(3) The situation is not much different on the regime side. There are limits to what is possible in terms of system change in a place like Algeria. Algeria is an oligarchy; such regimes can do well when there are enough resources (cash) to go round; when there are not life becomes hard and brutal. With declining hydrocarbon revenues (as analysts have pointed out for last couple years and as Layachi does in his recent report), and limited moves toward diversification, the tex decade may put Algeria en route to repeat some of the errors in planning that contributed to its crises in the 1980s (which was the result of particular international conditions as well as inadequate economic policy); if we project the Algeria of today out by ten or twenty years the scene is not especially encouraging. Algeria’s liberalised authoritarianism is probably like to continue to look like the Russia of the Mediterranean until some great crisis hits, for even if it possesses great natural wealth now, this will not always be the case. It remains exposed to the fluctuations of the international market and non-extractive sectors are insufficiently developed to cope in the even of a major ‘black swan’-like economic scenario.

The Algerian experience from 1980 onward teaches that relatively good fortunes can turn to objectively unbearable ones quickly. Lessons that unfold and are discussed in the kind of system Algeria has do not always find expression in collective action. Algerian leaders tend to operate within nationalist, statist and other ideological or non-ideological boundaries that limited their range of possible policy options; among these are standing material interests solidified through political/social networks. One cannot fire a minister because he is the son-in-law of So And So. One cannot change regulations on imports-exports because it will undermine This And That’s monopoly, which must not be done because Some Other’s ‘godfather’ will not allow it. These networks are enormously important and as much as they regulate the regimes behavior they also prevent needed change and reform from taking place. And so on top of these parochial, ‘business’-oriented limitations there are the other, intangible blocks that make the management of change challenging.

The Algerian experience since 1980 easily produces a conservative, cautious and skeptical (some prefer ‘paranoid’) political outlook. The experience of 1988-1992, and even more so the Civil War experience, teaches the necessity of avoiding sweeping change without preparing the ground ahead. The stakes of reform are high; especially given the profile of Algeria’s senior leadership in the presidency, secret services, military and even business. This is a country run and owned by old men. There are young people in rising positions in Algeria who have benefited from who their parents were; or whose daughter they married; or which school they went to; or what their grandparents did; or favours they do or have done. These are the ones separated from the masses who live in places where old people freeze to death in the winter and where students with fine marks go without work for more than a decade. But this group has a disproportionate share of those who really do believe that gradual reform and change are desirable but not worth risking the overall stability of the nation, thus requiring cautious, diligent and targeted reform. They believe the state can be legitimated through showings of competence (see for example the spiffing up of the police, as an example of this view) and improvements in economic conditions These people believe in the Algerian national state and remember civil war from the perspective of school children or even young officers. Their experience is one that recognises the need for change but fears it for because their personal position is the result and dependent on the status quo and because they recall the consequences of the rush to reform two decades ago, which some of them are reliving as they watch events in Tunisia or Libya. People with such perspectives are one part of a larger generation, some of which have darker memories than others. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish fear of change itself from fear of the consequences of change; and it is also difficult to determine where and how material or immediate and abstract interests are ranked. Thus while elite and non-elite Algerians are afraid of ‘change’ or revolution, there are other things they fear that stop them from moving on what seem to be obvious targets for reform from the standpoint of improving the quality of governance and life (these are like Isabelle Werenfels’s nationalist reformers). But if there is a fear of change without proper preparation, there seems to be relatively little planning done in the open to reassure the public at large, which may be deliberate or may be the product of a political culture where schemes and plots have been integral to success and opacity is seen to serve internal regime interests, as well as personal ones (changes in opinion must be muted, for example, so as not show weakness or disloyalty). Unfortunately, at the systemic level the result of this situation can be inertia, collapse or both. Nonetheless, as El Amrani observes, Algerian leaders have learned:

[. . . ] it is not always when things are going from bad to worse that revolutions break out. On the contrary, it oftener happens that when a people which has put up with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it. Thus the social order overthrown by a revolution is almost always better than the one immediately preceding it, and experience teaches us that, generally speaking, the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways.

Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Doubleday Anchor, 1955, pp. 175-177.

The overriding priority for Algerian leaders is the survival of the regime; related to this are sustaining sectional or ‘clan’-based business interests, staving off international scrutiny of individuals’ roles in abuses or atrocities (a major part of the kind of consensus that had underlies much of Bouteflika’s presidency) and keeping political opposition divided or co-opted. It is unlikely to do anything it does not believe will increase its members’ chances of staying in charge or decrease the ability of its opponents to come to power. While it may be reasonable to assume that the major clans have worked out their own versions of how to transition into a post-Bouteflika arrangement, whatever these plans might be remain opaque to all but a tight few. And it is not altogether clear that if there are multiple schemes for a succession that these are reconciled or agreed upon. The deluge of newspaper articles exposing, insinuating and fingering members of Bouteflika’s entourage for corruption and malpractice indicates that there is a desire to discredit that clique; the fact of rather extensive anti-corruption investigations by the DRS (using tactics not dissimilar to those employed against members of Liamine Zeroual’s coterie in the late 1990s), or ‘SONATRACH II’, suggests that there is a some perception of opportunity on the part of people at odds with Bouteflika. It is not obvious that there is a consensus about the direction of presidential succession in Algeria or the direction of the country in coming years. Yet this is a regime that has survived many obstacles with success. It is not dependent on the person of the president alone; despite the real divisions that exist within the pouvoir the exit of the president does not decapitate the Algerian system as a whole. It is an organic set of highly networked relationships that are reliant on one another even in competition and conflict. Though one set may attempt to displace another, the destruction of other nodes is reserved for special occasions. (See this map which sketches some of these relationships (reseaux)  on geographic, institutional and organisational lines, without getting into overlap which is hard show in this format.) There are few in Algeria, even among the most liberalising and democratically-minded, who would press aggressively for thorough-going change. The overarching objective in Algerian political life is survival; it is widely argued that no personal or political belief in Algerian high politics is really about ideology or ideas (including ‘democracy’ or ‘revolution’ or ‘religion’ or ‘free markets’) as such. There is a legitimate question, then: what portion of those about to gain more power in Algeria believe reform (however defined and however deep) is necessary for their own benefit? In public writing Gen. Bachir Tartag, the rumoured successor to Gen. Mohamed Mediene (‘Tewfiq’) supposedly carries a hardline worldview and has it out for the Bouteflikas.  What does this mean for 2014 onward? Hard to tell in concrete terms.

(4) For emphasis, old men run Algeria. The big names in Algeria’s political life – Bouteflika, Guenaiza, Gaid Saleh, Mediene, Bensallah, and a few others – are on their way out. It may be reasonable to believe that these men have schemed out succession plans and eyed or named successors, even if they have not molded state institutions to accommodate succession in a clear way (waiting for 2014 is where much of that discussion has been since the new year). Abdel Nasser Jabi has noted that today, Algeria is watching a whole generation of political leaders die off rapidly; this trend seems to have been anticipated by the major political parties and leadership. The gap between the ruling generation and their children and grandchildren led to efforts to include younger people in the political bureaus of the FLN and RND, and in the APN and local assemblies. The rate of turn over for parliamentarians and mid-level party cadres is high (partly due to local politics but also to incentives to use political positions as a springboard into business or personal wealth, and vice versa). The perception of the legislature as a rubber-stamp body with minimal relevance is established constitutionally and in the conduct of MPs during major deliberations and reinforced by a lack of institutional experience and expertise; the underdevelopment of the legislature since 1997 is a major contributor to the persistence of cloudy politics and cautious reformsim (such as it exists). This seems to check ambitious legislative personalities from developing or becoming outsized; and maintains the father-son relationship between the executive and legislature (the upper house is mostly appointed by the president; the lower house (APN) is elected). Recent struggles within the FLN over its leadership after Belkhadem likely reach back into rivalries that emerged between Bouteflika’s supporters in the party (often from the west or otherwise related to the president) and other cadres from elsewhere in the country, especially those who lost out when Ali Benflis was rebuked in 2004; one must also consider that the party, like its cousin the RND, suffers a serious lack of vision stemming from its own marginal status within the broader constellation of power in Algeria. It is unclear to most what either the FLN or RND ‘stand for’ and what influence they may have over succession is obscure. The RND party platform is a strongly organisational and managerial document, there is very scarce on big ideas or policy asperations. For many people the FLN seems to be in a place similar to its  website during much 2013 [the link to the FLN Facebook page reveals one dominated by activity and news related to the party’s football club, fitting given recent events]:

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If president Bouteflika is really on his way out it is totally unclear how Algerians might react on the street; at present the political scene remains webbed together and is likely to meet any popular challenge with at least an attempt to show unity in ‘legitimate’ forums, as it did during the winter of 2010-2011, with virtually every political party and association supporting public order and working together on a public compromise to appease rioters/demonstrators.

(5) It is arguable that Algeria is the most successful of those Arab regimes in the style of the ‘new authoritarianism’, reliant on coalition expansion through privatisation and new attempts/approaches to legitimisation. This was what gave us the late Ben Ali, Mubarak and As’ad regimes by 2011. It also gave us the Algeria we continue to puzzle over. The sort of people who have prospered in Algeria since the end of the civil war are often basically reform-minded. They do believe in the benefits of moving toward a market economy or a ‘social market economy’ (though these terms usually do not mean in Algeria what they mean elsewhere in the world) and in political pluralism within defined limits. Ultimately, though, these tendencies tend to exist on a paternalistic and populist spectrum that does not translate into much in practice. Others do not at all prefer economic reform, sometimes the result of unfortunate consequences from privatisation, especially among labor types. Perceptions of popular expectations and structured clan or social preferences/loyalties tend to turn self-described ‘reformers’ into managers of the ‘malaise’ so many Algerians lament, for the sake of avoid a slide into chaos, ‘moving too fast’. Constraints on such people, produced by le systeme and socialised almost entirely within it, lead to comparisons of 2013 with 1985 or 1998. This perspective does have currency with many Algerians who have done marginally (or substantially) better under Bouteflika than they did in the 1990s and who regard him as meeting their leadership expectations adequately (calls for the removal of Bouteflika are relative uncommon); while there has been strong dissatisfaction with the status quo through much of the last ten years, there was also relief at increases in the standard of living and driving back the Islamist insurgency.  It is not entirely clear whether other potential leaders evoke the sympathy or respect Bouteflika does among certain parts of the population. Where the next iteration of power in Algeria will get its ‘legitimacy’ from needs to be investigated; if the era of revolutionary legitimacy is over, as Bouteflika and others often say, what comes next?