The Arab world — and indeed, much of the world as a whole — was rocked by massive protests and violent uprisings in the turbulent year of 2011. Decades of systemic political repression, stagnant centrally planned economies, high unemployment, a huge youth bulge and a growing realization that better options existed but were just ignored by Arab leaders proved to be a combustible mix. In Arab country after Arab country — Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq — crowds poured out into the streets, chanting “THE PEOPLE DEMAND THE FALL OF THE REGIME!” A few dictators were actually toppled.
But 1 country, huge yet located on the margins of Araby, mostly escaped the worst violence and social upheaval. Algeria, a perpetually overlooked Arab country in northwest Africa, saw the same protests and riots as other Arab countries, but did not metastasize into a full-blown war zone — or, you know, a democracy. Why? What makes Algeria somehow different from the other troubled Arab nations?
Despite its Arab identity, Algeria is a different beast from most of its brethren. Along with its neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia (who are together called “the Maghreb”), it speaks its own variety of Arabic mostly unintelligible to those further east. It has retained a major native minority population, the Berbers, who also speak their own language and fiercely defend their distinctive culture. The Maghreb is fairly isolated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, from the rest of Africa by the massive Sahara Desert, and from other Arab countries by big, mostly empty Libya.
Most of all, though, Algeria is Frencher than other Arab countries. It was conquered by France in 1830, long before other African countries were, in a bid for France to stroke its ego after losing the Napoleonic Wars. France decided to engage in a bit of a mission civilisatrice (“civilizing mission,” its version of the “White Man’s Burden”) and bring its culture to the benighted Arabs. Algeria was organized along French administrative lines; roads, ports, and railways were built; restaurants, cafes, bars, patisseries, and boutiques sprouted in the cities; a French settler colony was nurtured. Yet Algeria’s amalgamation with France was imperfect; the majority of Algerians never felt very French and mostly lived separate lives from their colonizers. The charade of Francification collapsed in the 1950s, when an indigenous revolutionary movement, the FLN (Front of National Liberation), arose, turning on its white masters with long-repressed fury. After a brutal war of independence, France gave up and left. French colonists, Algerian collaborators, Jews and Christians were expelled. It’s a story worth telling in more detail, but I’ll save it for a later blog post.
With the FLN victorious, it took over Algeria, remolding the country into a more Arab, socialist state with strong state control over the economy. Algeria has huge oil and gas reserves in the Sahara Desert, which gave the government a huge windfall, especially in the oil crises of the ’70s. It was able to spread the oil money around to its friends, creating a close-knit clique that dominated the economy and ran off a patronage network. Ordinary people were bought off with cushy housing, food, and fuel subsidies. Education and women’s rights were pretty good by Arab standards.
The problem, of course, was that this combination of lucrative natural resources and a self-satisfied elite generated the usual result: corruption. The private sector was neglected; infrastructure investment lagged. Algeria mostly continued to use the same buildings and systems left over from the colonial era. The FLN and army monopolized power; elections were a sham. Unemployment climbed, especially for those without useful skills and education. A sense of stagnation and torpor mingled with increasing anger and discontent.
In 1988, this discontent erupted in protests and riots. Rattled, the dictator of the decade, Chadli Benjedid, decided to actually carry out political reforms after the uprising had been repressed. A constitution was enacted; opposition parties were finally allowed to form and campaign in elections. The FLN had been discredited a quarter-century after its revolution; the romantic guerrillas of its youth had morphed into complacent, greedy oppressors. Instead, the public rallied around the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), a party dedicated to political Islam (or Islamism). It’s unclear how extreme its doctrines were; its president was more moderate, while the vice president was more radical. But the FLN had steered clear of political Islam, preferring to cultivate a mildly Westernized, secular bourgeoisie. Its leadership was nervous when the FIS won local elections in 1990.
When FIS supporters started to form armed brigades and attacked government offices, and when FIS leaders started disparaging the idea of democracy, the army had enough. It overthrew Benjedid in 1992 and cancelled the impending legislative elections. Outraged, the Islamists went to war. The FIS was mostly marginalized in the war — groups called the GIA and GSPC played more prominent roles — but whatever: the point is, various jihadist groups took over big portions of north Algeria (the important part of the country) and harassed the government. Both sides committed heinous massacres, sometimes against innocent bystanders. Women forgoing the veil would be shot by Islamists. Men with thick beards might be gunned down by soldiers. The elite in Algiers (the capital) avoided leaving the city for fear of their lives. Foreigners were kicked out, and for years media reports were scarce, making the war relatively obscure considering that over 100,000 died.
Although radical Islam didn’t scare the world as much in those days, making the war an obscure sideshow, by the late ’90s the violence had grown too loud and was generating too many refugees to ignore. The war gradually petered out after the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika as president in 1999. He enacted amnesties for former rebel fighters, taking the air out of their rebellion.
If the story above seems sort of familiar, that’s because it’s very similar to what Egypt went through recently. Egypt also had a stifling socialist bureaucracy stiffened by military and security forces and an angry, underemployed, swelling youth population. Egypt also had a short period of democratic reform and public political participation. Egypt also had an Islamic political party emerge as the best-organized opposition force (the Muslim Brotherhood), and the Egyptian leadership also decided that allowing them to take over the country was a risk not worth taking. (The difference so far is that Egypt’s civil war is nowhere near the scale of Algeria’s.)
Meanwhile, depressingly, the situation in Algeria has not changed much. Bouteflika continues to rule over the country 16 years later, his mandate extended 3 times in fraudulent elections. A fighter in the revolution, he is now getting old, and had a stroke in 2013. As a result, he barely appears in public anymore, and often heads to France for medical treatment. Other political parties are allowed, but they barely matter, since real power lies in the hands of the “deep state” (or as it’s called in Algeria, le pouvoir, “the power”). A shadowy network of generals, political operatives, spies and businessmen pull the strings, with Mohammed Mediène, the mysterious, unseen chief of security, the real power behind the throne. Widespread cynicism means most people don’t vote.
Algeria still has its oil and gas wealth, which gives the regime $190 billion in reserves. This has allowed it to stay in power by buying off unrest. But the public sector remains bloated and inefficient (it comprises 60% of the economy). Private sector jobs are hard to find. 70% of the country is under the age of 25, and many of those are under the age of 15. Economic growth hasn’t kept up with population growth, meaning that a lot of those young people have nothing to do all day. Some cause trouble; protests are a regular occurrence. The recent fall in global oil prices means there will be more unemployment and most likely cuts in infrastructure projects and subsidies. Housing shortages in the cities adds pressure.
Although the war is over, a bitter malaise still hangs over the country. The GSPC was never really defeated; in 2006, it rebranded itself as a far-flung branch of al-Qaeda (“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”). It is a shadow of its former self, and mostly seems to extort hapless villagers, smuggle drugs and tobacco, and take hostages. Yet it still causes violence, most spectacularly in 2013, when it seized a gas plant in the Sahara Desert and took 800 hostages, some of them foreigners. A lot of those angry young men leave the country to find work in France… but others join the Islamic State or other jihadist groups and cause trouble. As a result, Algeria has one of Africa’s biggest, most well-equipped armies, with 150,000 personnel and a $10 billion annual budget, and operations against insurgents and gangs continues — now with more foreign support, since it counts as “counter-terrorism.”
In short, Algeria, despite its unique identity and distance from the core of the Arab world, shares a lot of Araby’s problems. Its youth are denied viable and fulfilling opportunities; living standards pale in comparison to Europe; the elite are more concerned with staying in power and skimming off oil incomes than any kind of reform. Violence is an ongoing concern, fanatical religion has a big appeal and the treatment of minorities (in this case, the Berbers) isn’t very nice.
… So why didn’t Algeria explode in the Arab Awakening? There were protests, actually (as seen above), mostly against food prices and the lack of affordable housing, and they occurred at about the same time as the uprising in Tunisia. Bouteflika made some token concessions: he lifted the state of emergency that had given the military and police free range since the war and gave more government support to struggling entrepreneurs and the unemployed. But large-scale change (or for that matter large-scale violence) didn’t transpire.
The main reason why is that Algeria already knows what the consequences for fighting The Power are. Libya has collapsed into chaos; Egypt has reverted to heavy-handed dictatorship; Syria is the world’s worst current war. But most of all, it knows from its own experience how painful and bloody prolonged civil war can be, and how political Islam grows in power when the central political order collapses. Given the choice between more stagnation and dictatorship and a vicious, confusing, multi-sided battle for supremacy, Algerians have sullenly concluded that the regime they’ve known all their lives is a safer option.
And given the unrest rocking Arab countries in the east, who can blame them?
This blog post is dedicated to Jack Mayer, whose love of and enthusiasm for Algeria was infectious and made his class a pleasure to take.