Why Did Algeria Not Know Its Own Arab Spring? The Islamic Hypothesis

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According to asurvey conductedin 2012 by the ArabBarometer, 84.5% of Algeriansare not interestedin politics and 52% donot have faith in the political system.  Such lack of confidencemight suggestthat Algeria isready to engage in its own Arab Spring.  However, almost a yearand a half has passed since the youngMohammedBouaziziset himselfon firein SidiBouzidin Tunisia, sparking a broad movementof revolts inseveral countries.  However,despite somesporadic riots, Algeria remainsa long way from emulating the revolts seen in Tunisia, Syria, Libya orBahrain.  This seemsparadoxicalin a country thatwas one of theleadersof the decolonization movement.


Algeria protests

Factors that could lead to a major revolt have nonetheless long been presentin Algerian society.  In October 1988, for instance, a large anarchic protest movement led to the fall of the country’s single party system.  The civil war that followed, however, neutralized the effects of the opening, and the long political hibernation that ensued has failed to resolvethe structural problems in Algeria, nor indeed to reconfigure the political field and depose the elite class.  During the last decade, the general population has become deeply detached from the power, while the revival of Islamin Algerian society has become an essential component of Algerian political identity. Finally, the civil war rejustified the state inthe fight against terrorism.  In this context, political Islam could appear both as a factor in the failure of the export of the Arab Spring, but also as a vehicle for changing the Algerian regime.

A strongly destabilized society that has recently undergone a major revolt

In the 1980s, population growth, the oil glutand the lack of economic and political reforms discredited the single-ruling party and led to the war of liberation. Obsolescence of its ideology translated, very procosiouslyin the Maghreb, into the major riots of October 1988 in which the malaise of society sought to regain control of its freedoms.  Following the riots, effective Islamist discourse on inequality and injustice suffered by the people has served to delegitimize the FLN.  The transitionto a multi party system, the emergence of a new press and the democratic openness that followed, also operated without discernment, led towhat could be called anearly “Arab Spring.”

However, the Islamists came to power in 1990, and the FIS victory in the legislative elections of 1991 triggered a “coup” carried out by the army, which was designed to block political alternation.  From December 1991, Algeria experienced a wave of violence that degenerated, between 1992 and 1998, into a kind of civil war.  This conflict arose between the military-backed regime and a complex network of covert Islamist opposition.  According to unofficial figures, 60,000 people were killed during this period. In April1999, a page was turned with the election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, military candidate and foreign minister under President Boumediene from 1963 to 1979.  This election raised great hopes. The president quickly declared an amnesty limited to those responsible for the violence- the law on civil concord-and promised to implement fundamental reforms to halt the violent crisis that shook the country since 1992.  Ironically, the FLN again became the first political force to align themselves with Islamist parties.

However, crisis factors remain: violence and corruption are high in Algerian society, and the gross inequalities felt by many social groups translate into a “contempt” of the government. The division between the elites and the rest of the population has not resolved since 1988 despite the emergence of democratic and peaceful elections. In addition, with the adsence of political plurality, violence could always ber egarded asalast resorttoa change in political power structures. This tendencyis fueled byunemployment andpoor housing, especially among younger people who are mostly skeptical aboutthe “official ideology.”

Still,due to the fatigue of a decade of violence, the return of historical violencein the hands ofthe state -which islegitimized by the fight against terrorism-and the absence ofa figure thatcould centralizediscontentsignificantly reduces Algeria’s possibilities of a newpopular uprising.  Moreover, increased oil revenues since the beginning of the Arab Spring have enabled theAlgerian stateto buysocial peaceunder thesefavorable economic conditions.

The ability of power to prevent mass movement and the role of the civil war

The beginning of thecivil warinAlgeriain 1992 coincided withthe appearance of twophenomenawhich contribute to preventingthe emergence of amovement similar to theArab uprisings.On the one hand, because of theviolenceandthe collapse of business, more than 4000 executives and academics haveleft the country leading to a great brain-drain. On the other hand, the atomization of societyintovarious interest groupsseeking protectionfrom the state have exacerbatedsocial segmentationandprevented the emergence ofalternative politicalprojects.

Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 4  No. 2

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