Why Algeria remains stable: past lessons and new challenges

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Five years after the Arab Spring, Algeria is the isolated case in North Africa where stability and security still reign. In the aftermath of the 2011 revolutions, several countries continue to be affected by political change, including Tunisia, Egypt and to a much larger extent Libya. To explain Algeria’s stability, many politicians and analysts have raised several arguments whose central theme is the fact that Algeria has already experienced major change since the late 1980s. The riots of October 5, 1988 were the catalyst for a prolonged and bloody conflict with the emergence of radical Islamism and terrorism which in turn sparked a civil war: this caused more than 200,000 deaths and more than 10 billion dollars in damage in the 1990s.


How Algeria managed early political Islam

It has been said time and time again: Algeria is a special case and should be treated as such. This is true but there is more to the story than meets the eye. It often goes unnoticed that the real secret behind the stability that characterizes the sleeping giant of North Africa is its management of political Islam through foresight. Alongside the fight against terrorism, and faced with the most violent terrorist rebellion in history at the time, the Algerian authorities adopted a political approach vis-à-vis Islamist parties designed to persuade them to condemn violence and to participate in the institutional process. This approach, embodied in the policy of rahma (forgiveness), led to civil concord and national reconciliation, and has been beneficial in more ways than one.

For the government, it was essential to prove to the people that Islamists really offered no political alternative and that a purely moralizing discourse was not a solution to the various problems of Algerian society. To do this, the government managed to engage moderate Islamist parties like the Movement for Society and Peace (MSP, formerly Hamas) and Ennahda in the legislative and municipal elections of 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012. This engagement was successful: activists from these parties agreed to join the government. Islamist ministers were appointed to various government posts following these elections, and have been present within the administration for the last 20 years.

The result has been disillusionment as the Algerian people discovered that once in power, the Islamists have no magical solutions to problems regarding housing, employment, private investment, bureaucracy and corruption, and urban standards of living. They understood that religious discourse is simply a means to achieve power. Thus, support for the traditional establishment parties has grown, based on the widespread perception that, in terms of management, they have the skills and capacity to act. Islamist parties have fragmented to the point that even during the Arab Spring, they could not manage to emerge victorious from the 2012 parliamentary elections for lack of a serious and credible candidate.

Certain elements of the Algerian experience of the 1990s have also characterized countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya in the wake of the Arab Spring. Beyond the hopes for democracy and freedom of expression, the Arab Spring gave way to the emergence of Islamism, as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who were the winners of the popular revolutions which overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But unlike Algeria, which practiced participatory democracy in its struggle against terrorism and eventually achieved a return to civil peace, those countries that have experienced turmoil in the aftermath of the Arab Spring still have to develop a strategy to tackle political Islam or Islamism in the context of a democratic process following the collapse or crisis of authoritarian systems.

Democracy per se, in the Western sense of the term, has little meaning for an Arab world that is changing and is looking for a social project for future generations. Principles such as secularism are difficult to implement in an Arab sphere where the weight of contemporary history, including colonization and the Palestinian question, still affects internal political dynamics.


The troubled neighbors

Since 2011, Algeria has been closely following the developments in Tunisia and Libya, while also keeping a watchful eye on what is happening in Syria, which has become a terrorist base for the Islamic State and constitutes a real threat to stability not only in the MENA area, but in Europe as well. Many Tunisians have been quick to withdraw their support from the Islamist Ennahda party represented by Rached Ghannouchi. After winning 89 seats in 2011 in the Constituent Assembly, Ennahda lost this position in 2014 due to voters’ disaffection and the alleged connections to Salafist activists whose involvement in terrorism had been brought to light.

Algeria has not hesitated to give its political and financial support to the nascent democracy in Tunisia, as it considers this neighbor’s stability essential to its national security. Algeria has also strengthened its cooperation with Tunisia on the issues of border security and the fight against Salafist subversion. The Algerian authorities have a pragmatic relationship with the Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, who has been warned against the rise of the radical Salafist movement. Tunisian Islamists have understood the need to step away from radical militants and carefully stay within the boundaries of the legal system in order to remain part of the democratic process.

For Algeria, Tunisia is both an interesting example and  a reminder of past mistakes; it is also a potential threat. It is an example because Tunisia has a solid civil society that plays an important role in political life - this kind of civil society no longer exists in Algeria. It is a reminder of its own past because, by initially embracing Ennahda, Tunisians have made the same mistake that Algerians made in 1990 when they believed in the religious discourse of the dissolved FIS. Finally, Tunisia can be seen as a threat because, under the rule of Ennahda, Salafists have prospered and even organized armed attacks. Despite a certain rebalancing of power, in 2014 with the election of Caid Essebsi, the fact remains that Tunisia continues to provide the largest contingents to terrorist groups in Syria.

What especially worries Algeria is the impact of the Libyan chaos on Tunisia, and how this will in turn affect the security of its eastern borders. The problem is that Tunisia is not prepared to implement the kind of security policies that might be needed, as they would likely deal a lethal blow to its tourism-based economy. Hence, what the West sees as a laboratory of democracy, Algiers also sees – unfortunately – as a laboratory for terrorism.


Politics, economics and society

After more than 26 years of successfully managing political Islam, Algeria can claim to be an example not only for combating terrorism, but also for handling fundamentalist movements. Indeed, compared to the rest of the Arab world which is experiencing a rise of Islamism, Algeria has registered a downward trend of this phenomenon. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Algerian authorities have developed a new religious discourse that calls for a return to the fundamentals of Islam to serve as an ancestral, impassable bulwark against foreign extremist ideologies. Tolerance of Islam has, historically, been present in Algerian society, as tolerance, solidarity, and love of country are seen as fundamental principles. Second, the renewal of economic growth in the early 2000s helped the government stabilize the country and initiate social programs.

The 2000s were synonymous with shared wealth, wider access to housing, cars bought on credit, and the return to full employment in public economic enterprises. This economic growth erased the memory of the IMF structural adjustment agreements that led to the layoff of 522,000 people between 1994 and 1996. The early 2000s were also the time when the nation’s private sector had its boom, when foreign companies invested in Algeria and when Algerians began to once again enjoy holidays abroad. While the oil money flowed, President Bouteflika decided to repay the debt early. It was the time when Algeria lent five billion dollars to the IMF, a time for public sector salary increases, of the emancipation of women whose employment has now reached more than 15% of the labor force. It was a time for youth-driven SME entrepreneurship, social transfers and subsidies that reached nearly 63 billion dollars a year, and financial reserves amounting to 180 billion dollars.

These economic successes cleartly helped President Bouteflika stay in power. But this was not the only reason. The solidity of the political system he has established since his election in 1999 allowed him to pursue restructuring process and a partial renewal of state structures. The intelligence services have been restored and placed directly under the control of the Presidency of the Republic. A new constitution was voted in February 2016 which empowered the citizens by limiting the number of presidential terms to two, and granting more power to the legislative and judicial branches. It also established Tamazight (a Berber language) as an official language, and strengthened freedom of speech and of the press.

But true democracy remains a long journey away for a society that must strengthen its foundations. Algeria must still work towards the construction of a truly modern state and will need an active, well-educated youth in order to reach a level of democracy that will be sustainable for years to come.