University of Virginia

January 1998


Table of Contents


Chapter One: Introduction

Why Algeria?


Part I: Political History


Chapter Two: The Legacy of Colonialism and Revolution

The Transition to Independence

The Boumediene Era


Chapter Three: Pressures for Change

Initial Challenges

October 1988


Chapter Four: The Politics of Liberalization

Political Reforms

The Rise of the FIS

Tests of Strength

Toward Confrontation

The May Strike and the Aborted Election

Toward Elections

The Cancellation of the Election


Chapter Five: Reversion or Interlude?

Economic Reforms

Political Development

The Sant’Egidio Platform

Presidential Elections

New Institutions

The Parliamentary Election of 1991



Part II Political Analysis


Chapter Six: Analyzing Algerian Political Development

The Authoritarian Model of Boumediene

Pressures for Change

Economic Decline and the Rise of the FIS

The FIS Seeks Power

The Military Takes Charge

The Key Questions for Analysis


Chapter Seven: Cultural Perspectives

Defining Who is Algerian

Political Violence

how the State is Viewed

Politics and Islam


Chapter Eight: Social and economic Perspectives

State and Society

The Restratification of Society

The Egalitarian Legacy

Social and Demographic Change

Oil and the Rentier State



Chapter Nine: Political Perspectives: Institutional Choices

Algeria’s Institutional Legacy


Electoral Laws

Political Parties

The Role of the Military

Pacted Transitions

Electing a New Legislature

Completing the Institutional Architecture


Chapter Ten: A Democratic Algeria?

The Essence of Democracy


International Pressures for Democracy


The Balance Sheet

Lessons from the Algerian Case

Guessing the Future






Chapter One: Introduction


Each authoritarian regime, Tolstoy might have said, is authoritarian in much the same way -- but what comes after is another matter altogether. As dictatorships in the developing countries and in Eastern Europe have stumbled and sometimes fallen, they have been challenged or superseded by a remarkable array of political experiments and experiences. We can find impressive examples of young democracies, appalling instances of civil war and bloodshed, and much else in between. One of the great challenges of many peoples around the world is to find a style of governance that steers between the apparent order without freedom of the authoritarian systems, on the one hand, and the freer, but sometimes chaotic and violent alternatives. Somewhere in this realm of limited liberalization, and partial, imperfect democracy, is where most of the world’s people will probably live in coming decades.

The purpose of this study is to understand the impulses that force authoritarian regimes to reform, how liberalization can give rise to political conflict, how violence can threaten to undermine democratization, and how institutions make a difference in the way people pursue their goals. The case to be examined in detail is Algeria, in part because it shows in extreme form the flaws in the authoritarian model, the possibilities and dangers of reform, and the extreme difficulty of containing politically motivated violence once it takes hold.

Algeria has typically been treated as a deviant case, unlike any other. I do not accept that view, although Algeria, like any country, has its distinctive features. But many of the problems that it faces are familiar from other settings. What differ are the specific choices that politicians have made in the Algerian context. While analyzing these choices, we will be trying to see Algeria in comparative context, keeping an eye on analogous developments elsewhere in the Middle East, but also in other parts of what used to be called the Second and Third Worlds.

The past two decades have seen a remarkable consensus emerge in many parts of the world that the old authoritarian order, often propped up by the imperatives of the Cold War, has exhausted its hold on people. The ideological claims of dictators ring hollow; charismatic leaders are in short supply; populations have grown more demanding and more skeptical; foreign conspiracies cannot easily be invoked to explain away domestic problems; and economic payoffs are rarely enough to buy reliable political acquiescence. Rapid economic growth can buy time, but is difficult to achieve and to sustain, and sets in motion a whole new array of demands that will eventually have to be met. In the absence of economic prosperity, regimes are left with force and repression as their mainstays, and reliance on sheer force proves to be an extremely ineffective way to govern in the long run. So the unraveling of the authoritarian model is not much of a surprise. The difficulty for politicians and for analysts is to figure out what comes next.

Optimists of the "end of history" school have argued that liberal democracy is the wave of the future. It may indeed be true that the end of the Cold War has left liberal democracy without a convincing ideological adversary comparable to communism, socialism or fascism. But this is not to say that liberal democracy in practice will everywhere prevail. There are still many variants of nationalism and dictatorship that may endure in large parts of the world, even if they have little ideological appeal beyond their borders -- and perhaps not much within as well.

Those of a more gloomy disposition have seen a different model for the future, a period of growing anarchy as governments fail to cope with the many problems of their societies, with people retreating to primordial identities that they are prepared to defend with violence. Ethnic and religious conflict, in this scenario, will become more prevalent. Over the horizon is a "Clash of Civilizations", as modernity increases potential for conflict among different cultures, rather than producing a uniform Westernization. Reflecting on Bosnia, Lebanon, Somalia, Congo, and Cambodia, among many other similar cases, one might well conclude that the old authoritarian system had, at least, the virtue of maintaining order, and indeed we have seen some tendency of voters to return to the "reformed" communist and nationalist parties in the hope that they can at least prevent crime, corruption, and conflict. But it is not so easy to go back. The old order failed precisely because it was good only at maintaining order -- if that -- and most people want order, and prosperity, and freedom, and justice. It was the inability of the authoritarian orders to meet these latter demands that was their undoing.

Much of the world, including most countries of the Middle East, is caught somewhere between these optimistic and pessimistic visions. They have not managed to achieve democratic stability, but they have avoided full-scale breakdown and civil war. In the Middle East/North African context, Sudan stands as perhaps the most desperate case of a failed state, torn by civil war. Turkey, by contrast, despite endemic violence in the southeastern Kurdish areas, has clung to the basics of democratic politics for most of the past fifteen years and has seen modest economic growth. Algeria, sometimes seen as another failed state because of the high incidence of political violence in recent years, is far from the Sudan model, probably closer to Turkey, but with less experience with multiparty politics.

All of these cases involve efforts by regime politicians and their opponents to find balances between conflicting values -- order and freedom, state control and private initiative, communal and individual rights and interests, growth and equity, personal gain and national aspiration, religious values and secular practices. Sometimes a blend of these seemingly competing values is possible, but more often choices must be made to favor one or another. It is here that political calculus and judgment come into play, but not in a pure, unfettered way. Choice is always contextual, historically and situationally rooted, but that does not mean that individual leaders are simply playing out a predetermined script. The margin for choice may be narrow, but it is still there, and this is what makes politics such an important part of a nation’s development. Politics, in much of the world, trumps economics as the key determinant of change. Lenin understood this, even if Marx seemed to think otherwise.

It is through political action that tradeoffs among competing values are made in societies. And it is through political institutions that the rules for acquiring and using power are established. Political development may involve debate and persuasion; it may involve elections and mass organization; and it may involve force and intimidation. But whatever the method of political contestation, the main protagonists have their eye on gaining power over the apparatus of the state. For one of the legacies of the authoritarian era that is not so easily shaken is the belief that control of the state is the main prize in politics. We may find democrats in the post-authoritarian era, but not many of the Jeffersonian type. More commonly, politicians of whatever background continue to believe that the state is the means by which the ills of society can best be fixed. The answer to the question "Who Governs?" is still seen as a life and death matter in many parts of the world. Not surprisingly, political competition in such circumstances is often very intense. That certainly has been the case in Algeria.


Why Algeria?


Cases that surprise us are often the most rewarding to study. And Algeria, for those who have followed its modern history, has been a source of continuing surprises. For an earlier generation of French colonists, officials and intellectuals, the surpise was that Algerians, who seemed to have only a fragile sense of national identity, were prepared to fight a long and costly war for their independence. Algeria, in the 1930s, was widely viewed as the most assimilated of colonies, hardly a candidate for revolution.

The next to be surprised were the leftist intellectuals who thought that independent revolutionary Algeria would become a model of development with social justice. Within a few years of independence, it was clear that such romantic notions were far from reality. The pieds rouges -- European leftists who flocked to Algiers after independence -- were just as wrong about Algeria’s path as the pieds noirs -- the European settlers in Algeria -- had been.

The next to be surprised were those who believed in Algeria as a benign model of authoritarianism, a kind of third-world Robin Hood calling for a new economic order. For a while, Algeria seemed to have achieved a modicum of stability, economic growth, and international recognition. Some saw it as one of the most promising examples of development in the Arab world. Its revolution provided a degree of legitimacy for the regime; oil revenues eased the strains of modernization; and Algeria’s educated, secular elite seemed well prepared to lead the drive for industrialization and a new north-south relationship. But those hopes also turned sour in the 1980s.

Then, to the profound surprise of many, for a brief moment Algeria seemed to be embarked on an experiment in democratization. In the late 1980s, Algeria was suddenly the freest, most pluralistic, and most enthusiastic defender of democracy in the Arab world. Or so it seemed. But the democratic spring ended suddenly when the Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) -- seemingly emerging from nowhere to become the dominant political movement in the country -- was on the verge of electoral victory.

The military stepped in and cracked down on the Islamists, some of whom took up arms, and soon analysts were predicting that Algeria would be the next Iran -- that is, a seemingly modern country in which an Islamic revolution would sweep away the Westernized elite by force and impose Islamic law. That belief also has fallen on hard times. No consensus exists today about where Algeria is heading. In short, Algeria has been a puzzle for analysts, for its own politicians, and for the Algerian people.

The Algerian case, because it has challenged so much conventional wisdom, deserves careful attention. It contains in extreme form some of the elements that are often used to explain developments elsewhere, and can therefore prove to be a valuable test for theories of political, social, and economic change. We may be able to assess the impact of colonial rule because that period of history looms so large, and was so long and intrusive. Similarly, we may see a link between the means by which independence was won -- violent revolution in the Algerian case, compared to gentler cases elsewhere -- and the post-independence practice of politics.

Since Algeria has been exposed to both intense Frenchification and Arabization, we should be able to get some idea of the role of language and culture in influencing Algeria’s political trajectory. Similarly, Algeria has experienced all of the rapid social change found elsewhere in the Third World -- population explosion, migration to the cities, mass education -- and that too must be taken into account in any political analysis. Finally, Algeria has been dominated by a "rentier" economy, one in which the state is the recipient of vast "rents" for the country’s oil and gas, which it then distributes in ways that provide opportunities for widespread corruption and that discourage efficient investment in productive sectors. This economic reality has had a major impact on Algerian political life. The task for the observer is first to untangle, at least conceptually, these varying strands of Algerian history and then to assess why Algerian politicians have made their choices

As we examine the Algerian case, we will want to bear in mind a number of other Middle East examples -- Egypt, Turkey and Iran come to mind -- as well as Latin American cases such as Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Peru. Each represents a certain type of post- or late- authoritarian politics. None is a fully institutionalized liberal democracy, and none is a Stalinist-style dictatorship. Each has a degree of political openness, side by side with residues of the authoritarian state. In most, the military plays a central role, but in some cases so do political parties. Elections are held, some more meaningful than others, and a post-authoritarian political discourse can be found that values pluralism, competition, free markets, initiative, and human rights. Of course, many of the old themes of order, hierarchy, respect for tradition and for community can also be found.

As we look at Algeria from this comparative perspective, we will be changing lenses several times to see which one gives the sharpest focus. First we will weigh the arguments that attribute great importance to history and culture. Indeed, this is perhaps the dominant approach to explaining Algerian events. Many in the Middle East, for example, are quick to explain Algeria’s bloody struggles by referring to the temperament of its people, shaped by its particular history and culture, some would even say by its climate and geography. Algerians themselves will often give similar explanations for the clannishness and distrust that pervades political life. Such explanations cannot be readily discounted, but they should be treated with great caution.

An alternative approach is to start our inquiry with an examination of Algerian society -- its class structure, its demographic shape, its solidarity groupings -- and then to assess political change in terms of these social categories. Marxists take naturally to this approach, but so does any political sociologist, including the great North African, Ibn Khaldun, in the fourteenth century. Few would deny that the fit between state and society is an important issue to investigate, but it is less clear how much we can explain once we have completed this analysis.

Given the role of oil and gas revenues in independent Algeria, one is tempted to look seriously at economics as the heart of the matter. The regime, after all, regardless of its makeup, is the recipient of a vast inflow of capital. Control of the state means control of billions of dollars, without even having to reach into the pockets of the citizenry. Many believe that "rentier states" of this type have special features, are less susceptible to mass political movements, are able to buy acquiescence, and spawn an avaricious, predatory elite that clings to power as the sole path to well-being. Iran’s problems during the Shah’s era, some would argue, were compounded by this economic model. When the price of oil stagnates or collapses, these regimes are incapable of adjusting. Much about the Algerian case fits the broad outlines of this model.

Political scientists are increasingly prone to look at institutions -- agreed upon rules of the political game, often forged in the heat of intense political battles -- as the key to political development. This perspective would privilege the one-party system as the key to Algeria's crisis. This system, consisting of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the military and the bureaucracy, was challenged in the mid-1980s by a proliferation of political organizations and parties, the most important of which was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). An institutionalists' view emphasizes the effect of specific electoral systems on political outcomes, and it does seem true that in Algeria a different voting system in 1991 might have produced a fundamentally different -- and more manageable -- outcome.

All of these approaches help to bring parts of the Algerian story into focus. But they all fall short in certain respects, since they leave out of the equation the choices made by individual actors at crucial moments in the country’s history. Without accepting the notion that individual volition is everything, one still needs to be wary of overdetermined explanations of politics that ignore human choice. History, culture, society and political institutions may well constrain choice, but they do not erase it altogether. And even if we cannot get into the minds of key decision makers, we can try to reconstruct the probable political calculus they confronted at various moments. This does not mean that a purely rational model of choice will suffice, as the economists are wont to posit.

Politics has a different logic from economics, one measured in different, and less tangible units, but not devoid of calculus. Indeed, the art of politics -- and of good political analysis -- is to try to figure out the political strategy that key players, in power and in opposition, are following at any given moment. In doing so, one must remember that they operate under conditions of great uncertainty, that they face many constraints on their choices, that history and culture and society and economics do matter -- but in the end many of their choices will have a somewhat experimental quality to them.

Politicians must act without knowing the consequences of their actions, or the strategies of their adversaries. They are constantly having to judge the effects of their decisions, and successful politicians will adjust to suit changing circumstances. But to a large degree, they will be guided by beliefs that they have acquired in the course of their political socialization. They will rely on so-called "lessons of history". They will act in the present to prevent the mistakes of yesterday, without knowing what the real problems of tomorrow will be. We must try to see those moments of choice as they do. In analyzing critical turning points in history -- and Algeria has had many in recent years -- this approach will help us to ask the right questions, even if it cannot guarantee the correct answers.

My emphasis on decisions made by leaders -- in power and in opposition -- at critical moments stems from a belief that political change is not continuous. Rather, it proceeds in fits and starts, with moments of considerable innovation and creativity followed by long periods of inertia as politicians try to figure out the consequences of their previous actions. No single political actor has more than a limited repertoire of ideas and strategies. Some may work better than others, but at some point even the most skillful politician will be forced to reassess and reconsider his actions. During these moments, new possibilities may emerge, either as a result of change in policy or change in leaders.

By looking at critical moments -- sometimes of deep crisis, sometimes when new leaders emerge on the scene -- we will see both the potential for change and the limits on flexibility that stem from the particular form of governance that Algeria has experienced. More than many political systems, Algeria has had a hard time forging reform-minded coalitions; factionalism within the elite has often meant immobilism; and opposition movements have also tended to fragment. Why this has been the case, and what it might take to produce a more responsive system, will be concerns throughout this study.

So in this account of Algeria’s recent past, we will proceed as follows. First we will sketch the authoritarian system when it seemed to be working reasonably well, under the leadership of Houari Boumediene, from the late 1960s to his death in 1978. Then we will examine the unraveling of the Boumediene legacy in the 1980s, culminating with the mass uprisings of October 1988. By any standard, this was a turning point in recent Algerian history.

Next we will reflect on the remarkable response to those uprisings -- a liberal opening of unprecedented magnitude. Why did the regime rush forward with a democratic agenda, when little in the past had prepared the country for this taste of freedom? Was this a case of "democracy without democrats", merely a game of maneuver rather than a commitment to new rules of the game? Or did reformers have a moment when they could steer events as they chose? And where did the FIS come from? Almost overnight, it seemed, an Islamist opposition movement ruled the streets in the heretofore nationalist and somewhat secular state of Algeria. Was this religious resurgence, or societal discontent spilling over into militant politics?

The military intervened to stop the second round of parliamentary elections in January 1992, another turning point of great importance. This moment has become a symbol for many. Passionate arguments can be heard in Algeria and abroad about whether it would have been wiser to let the elections continue, even if the Islamists were poised to win, or whether the military saved democracy by preventing a fascist-like movement from using elections to put an end to democracy.

However one comes out on that debate -- and it is not such an easy question to resolve -- few would deny that the years since have been an unparalleled disaster for independent Algeria. Political violence-- and just plain violence-- has become endemic, and the human and economic costs of the political crisis that has hit the country are incalculable. The several attempts to bring the crisis to an end -- through political accommodation, through technocratic planning, through institutional reform, through elections, and through repression -- will be assessed. Each of chapter will be organized around a central set of decisions that put the country on a particular course at that time. Inherent in this approach is a conviction that other choices might have been made.

With the basic political narrative provided in Part I, we will turn in Part II at the contending interpretations -- historical/cultural, social, economic, institutional and political choice -- to see what each helps us to understand about our four main concerns: the collapse of the authoritarian model, the abortive turn to democracy, and the descent into political violence, and the effect of the creation of new political institutions.

The study of the Algerian case will provide insights into several broad issues of concern to students of political change in developing countries. First, we will see in detail the difficult relationship between the military -- the backbone of the old system -- and the forces for change in the post-authoritarian era. No problem has been more troublesome for democratizing countries than to find a legitimate role for the military, without sacrificing freedom or risking a coup d’état. Especially in systems like Algeria, Egypt and Turkey where the military see themselves as the guardians of the national project, it is not so easy for civilian politicians to move them to the sidelines.

Second, the Algerian case will illuminate issues of civil society and democratization. It is often believed that the key to democracy is the existence of intermediate groupings -- beyond the family and tribe, but short of the state itself -- where people with common interests can come together to pursue their goals. These voluntary associations, it is argued, create trust, educate in the ways of coalition building, and provide a laboratory for nurturing values conducive to democratic governance. But where can such associations come from when authoritarian regimes have suppressed them? Algeria shows that they can emerge very quickly, but they do not necessarily immediately play the hoped-for moderating role, nor are they necessarily very strong, even when they seem to have a wide following. Still, one of the lessons of post-authoritarian politics is that civil associations do develop once restraints are lifted and can play an important role in shaping a new order. The existence of a relatively free press in Algeria is one of the most impressive examples of how these new groups can forge a strong sense of their own identity.

Third, Algeria allows us to look at the hotly debated issue of Islam and democracy. During Algeria’s democratic spring, the FIS nearly succeeded in coming to power by free elections. To many democrats, this would have been a nightmare scenario, comparable to Hitler’s electoral victory in the 1930s. Once in power, some believed, the Islamists would close the door to any future political contestation. In short, there would be "one person, one vote, one time". But others believe that an elected Islamist movement would have been obliged to moderate its goals, to share power with the military, and would have either been transformed into a legitimate party in a pluralistic system, or would have been ousted in subsequent elections. We will not be able to answer with any certainty these questions, but we will examine in some depth the behavior of the FIS and other Islamist parties at different moments.

We will then conclude with an assessment of the prospects for democratization in Algeria, drawing general lessons where possible. Somewhat surprisingly, the prospects may not be so dim, despite Algeria’s troubled past and problematic present. If, as some have argued, democracy is always preceded by a hot family feud that neither side can win, leading to a codification of rules of the game for sharing power, then Algeria may be setting the stage in its unhappy present for a more hopeful future.