By Karim Amellal, French-Algerian author, lecturer at Sciences Po (Paris) and Founder of Stand Alone Media
Algerians are going to vote to elect a new parliament in the first poll since the so-called Arab Spring. But after decades of rigged elections and broken promises of democratization, most of voters remain sceptical and will stay away from polling station. Nobody believes the promises made by the 44 political parties (23 new) competing for 462 seats will change anything, deliver less corruption, more hope for change and a better standard of living. A sort of political apathy prevails in the country and the turnout in this election is expected to be under the record low of 35% for the previous polls in 2007.
While Algeria’s neighbours – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – brutally pushed out their dictators after decades of sclerosis and inertia, the country that has 50 years ago won a glorious war against France’s colonialism and thus conquered its independence remains at the margin of the most important upheaval in the Arab world since the end of decolonization.
Yet at the beginning of the Arab Spring, Algeria could also be involved in this process. Last year, several unrests took place in the country. Five people were killed and several hundred injured. Unemployed and poorly housed made up the bulk of protesters. All the ingredients were gathered for a revolution: a spark (rising prices of food), a sclerotic policy process, an aging leader at the helm for over 10 years, a growing inequality despite oil wealth, corruption, etc. And yet, the country stood relatively intact by the massive upheaval that was rocking all around in the Arab world. So for a nation built with revolutions, it is quite surprising. So let’s try to see why.
First, we must remember that Algeria has known a similar revolution 20 years ago – in October 1988 – which keeps shaping the national imagination and most people’s perception of what’s now happening abroad.
In 1988, the regime was breathless because of a strong economic crisis linked with very inept political choices, and a huge popular discontent spreading on the basis of the feeling of « hagra » – injustice mixed with resentment. When the riots broke out in Algiers and the military (designated by the acronym ANP for National Popular Army) drew blood, the crowd gathered in the capital city to express its anger, and the regime was completely discredited and delegitimized. Corrupt and highly incompetent, President Chadli Bendjedid was ousted both by a popular revolt and a cohort of greedy and power-hungry generals, finally fed up with their own puppet whom they manipulated behind the scene. Thus, the road was open for a democratic transition that lasted three years, and brought about a multiparty system and freedom of press and association. But only one party succeeded in matching the Algerians’ expectations, providing the only credible alternative to the regime: an Islamist party, the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut), founded in 1989 and immediately authorized. The FIS, extremely powerful during this period, won the 1990 local elections and was on the launch pad to win the general elections of 1991, which would have given the Islamists access to state power. The military intervened in a coup d’ État to stop the Islamists and regain power. The democratic transition crashed and the civil war started: the GIA (Armed Islamic Groups) emerged and a dramatic struggle against the Algerian government was engaged. The civil war, responsible for approximately 200, 000 dead, ended in the late 90’s with the new President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and the amnesty he gave to most guerilla fighters.
In the context of the Arab spring, everybody in Algeria remembers the unrest and tragic consequences of the transition process, started with the fall of Chadli – in many respects similar to Mubarak or Ben Ali, but much less powerful as they were – and ended ten years later. Despite the considerable concerns of the people, and especially the youth (half the country’s population is under the age of 25), the civil war’s memory is still fresh in the minds: by weighting the pros and cons of a revolt, most people consider that it is now to early to engage in a process whose outcome is far from certain. The street is definitely not ready for a new revolution that could bring unpredictable changes – and why not radical Islamists, once more, to power.
The second issue we need to keep in mind is the important differences that exist between Algeria and its neighbours. Freedom of expression and a relative – but real – multiparty system are the components of an authoritarian regime that is not a dictatorship. In the streets of Algiers, Constantine or Oran, every Algerian is free to speak and express his/her distrust of the government. The print media are rather free – as opposed to television which remains under strict state control – and it is very common to read in newspaper columns that a minister is involved in a corruption case. Despite all the democratic deficits of the Algerian regime in terms of rights, freedoms and transparency, and the still heavy weight of the military, it would be an exaggeration to describe Algeria as closed, autocratic or dictatorial as Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Mubarak’s Egypt were.
Thirdly, after the turmoil of the 1990’s, Algeria is now a wealthy country with considerable oil and natural gas export revenues, thanks to the economic upturn experienced in recent years and the rising prices of oil. In 2010, Algeria’s foreign exchanges reserves reached $150 billions – i.e. more than those of the US ($140 billions), the UK (118) or Canada (63)! Although these figures mask a tough social reality (with unofficial unemployment rate reaching 25% and around 23% of the population living below the poverty line), it gives the government a certain room for manoeuvre. In the wake of Ben Ali’s fall on January 14th and Mubarak’s on February 11th, the Algerian regime was forced to make concessions to make sure that the demonstrations do not degenerate into a mass revolt. The state of emergency has been finally lifted after 19 years and during the spring a very substantial redistribution plan has been adopted, including a massive rise of public spending intended mainly for housing and employment. Moreover, in a television address to the nation, president Bouteflika announced a revision of the Constitution and the setting up of a committee involving political leaders and experts to comply with the principles of parliamentary democracy.
Have the promises of freedoms, change and money durably extinguishes the flames of protest? The marches organized in 2011 in Algiers by a heteroclite “National Coordination for Democratic Change” – a group of unofficial unionists, opponents and rights defenders – has not met the expected success and support and was unlikely to destabilize the government. Perhaps this is the last reason why no deep political change has happened in Algeria despite the strong feeling of “hagra” shared by the people: there are no forces anymore able to catalyze the protests. Indeed and despite they recently gathered in an electoral alliance that groups the Movement of Society for Peace, Ennahda and the Islah party, Islamists are still ideologically divided and politically fragmented and those, moderate ones, who participate in the governmental coalition and/or the ongoing 2012 election do not benefit from the same support as the banned FIS had benefited at the beginning of the 90’s. Other opposition parties – and mainly the one with a popular basis: the socialist party (FFS) of former opponent Hocine Ait-Ahmed – are scattered and too weak to emerge as a credible alternative to Bouteflika’s coalition. In this framework, Islamists remain the only political and ideological force able to oppose the successive avatars of the former one-party FLN. Hoping they can surf the post-Arab Spring « green wave », they seem to be confident in their victory but it may be like a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy!
Finally, the Algerians carefully scrutinize the ongoing transition process in Tunisia and Egypt. In this respect, Tunisia is still suffering the aftermath of the « Jasmine Revolution » and at this stage there is a risk that the great hopes of the youth remain unfulfilled and get strangled in an endless cycle of political uncertainty. In Egypt, more than one year after Mubarak’s fall, square Tahrir’s protesters are still waiting for the major change they struggled for and signs of impatience are amplifying with the very low speed of reforms undertaken by the militaries.
Algerians do not believe in « “the dawn of a new era” hailed by president Bouteflika. They don’t think this election will change anything in their lives. Algerians now want a genuine democratic evolution, more jobs and less corruption. Not a hazy revolution or rigged and artificial polls. It is a fact that the revolutionary fervor that is firmly rooted in the national spirit could surface again if the legitimate aspirations of the people remain ignored.