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Democratization in the Arab World?
Algeria's Uneasy Peace
Among Arab countries, it was Algeria that took the most convincing steps toward liberal democracy in the period from 1989 to 1991, when the old one-party system was formally ended, a flowering of civil society occurred, and honest competitive elections were held for the first time. More than ten years later, however, the country appears stalled between its authoritarian past and a democratic future—even while a clearly rising number of its citizens aspire to the latter.
No one today would be apt to describe Algeria as a model for political emulation—whether elsewhere in the Arab world or beyond. If current analysts are asked what they take to be most characteristic of Algerian political life, they are more likely to note its persistent violence and deadly factionalism than its periodic elections, multiparty parliament, or remarkably free press. But to understand the enigma of contemporary Algeria, we must see all these elements together.
The country's move toward greater political openness in 1989 was prompted by a long-simmering crisis that had come to a boil in October of the previous year. 1 The generation that had come of age after Algeria won its independence from France in 1962, and for whom jobs had become scarce following the oil-price collapse of the mid-1980s, had taken to the streets in revolt. Many others who had endured the dreariness and deprivations of the one-party era had cheered the angry young men on. Taking in the extraordinary breadth and depth of popular support for the protesters, the regime—dominated since independence in 1962 by the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its military and state-security apparatus—eschewed a policy of pure repression, opting instead for extensive political reform. 2 [End Page 15]
A new constitution, ratified in a February 1989 referendum, opened the way to the end of the FLN's political monopoly. Within a short time, Algeria was teeming with new political organizations, civic associations, and a free press. The most popular of the new political groups was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an expansive coalition comprising a small number of radical Islamists, a few veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the traditionally pious urban classes, and vast numbers of alienated youths. 3
President Chadli Bendjedid, underestimating the strength of the FIS, seemed to think that he could leverage its support among the public to weaken the unpopular FLN, without endangering his own prerogatives as president or alarming his military backers. Bendjedid himself was a product of the FLN-dominated system, of course, but he had become aware that his own political survival required that he take his distance from a party widely blamed for the failures of the past decade. In thinking that he could endure the weakening of the FLN, he was mistaken, rather like Mikhail Gorbachev, who tried to distance himself from the Communist Party in the last days of the Soviet Union.
In 1990, the FIS made a remarkable showing in municipal elections, unseating the FLN in more than half the country's municipalities and setting the stage for the dramatic National Assembly contest of 1991. Although the FIS polled nearly a million votes fewer in 1991 than it had garnered the previous year, it still won twice as many as the FLN and was poised to win a majority in the new National Assembly. Then the military intervened. In January 1992, the generals canceled the second stage of the election, deposed President Bendjedid, and soon thereafter banned the FIS from politics altogether. 4
In the first round of the aborted election, the FIS had managed to win the votes of only about a quarter of all eligible voters (only about 55 percent of the electorate had cast valid ballots, the rest having either not voted or cast blank ballots), but given the disarray of the other parties, that would have been enough for it to claim a major victory and establish itself as the dominant voice in Algerian politics.
Although the military did preempt democratic elections, it could not—or would not—try to turn back the clock entirely. Some post-1989 liberal reforms survived, most notably a formal commitment to a pluralistic political system, along with a relatively free and outspoken press. But the military and state-security services were clearly the ultimate arbiters of power: Algerians refer to them as "les décideurs," the "seraglio," the "nomenklatura," or simply "le pouvoir"—"the power." Yet it would be wrong to assume that they had no social support, particularly among the many Algerians who felt anxious about [End Page 16] the prospect of the FIS bringing about a "Tehran on the Mediterranean."
Since the aborted election of 1991, Algeria has held five more: for the presidency in 1995 and 1999, for the National Assembly in 1997 and 2002, and for municipal and provincial assemblies in 1997. The 1995 presidential election witnessed a surprisingly large turnout, reported to be some three-quarters of eligible voters. Most of these voters favored Liamine Zeroual, a general backed by the military. But Mahfoud Nahnah, a moderate Islamist, won about three million votes, just slightly fewer in absolute terms than the FIS took in 1991. Despite widespread skepticism about the precision of the reported figures, Algerians took the election generally to reflect a keen desire for a return to order after the bloody years of 1994 and 1995, the nadir of a bitter and devastating civil conflict between the regime and armed Islamist militants.
The 1997 parliamentary elections also saw a relatively big turnout—reportedly about two-thirds of eligible voters. A new regime-backed party, the National Democratic Rally (RND), took first place in what many thought was a fraudulent result. Nahnah's party, the Movement of a Society for Peace (MSP), placed second, and the FLN came in third, with about the same number of votes as it had won in 1991. While the regime-favored RND officially won a third of the vote and 40 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament, it had to find coalition partners if it was to govern effectively. Accordingly, at the outset of the new assembly the exchanges between deputies were often vigorous, galvanizing public debate as they were broadcast on live television.
The 1999 presidential election had the makings of a return to openly democratic contestation. Seven candidates took part, among whom at least four were serious political contenders with distinct agendas. The campaign seemed at the outset to be free and fair, but on the eve of the election six of the seven candidates withdrew, claiming to have evidence that the election was being rigged. Only longtime FLN member Abdelaziz Bouteflika remained in the race. Official figures gave him a landslide victory with just under 74 percent, but his actual numbers look to have been much smaller. According to a source inside the Algerian administration at the time, only about a quarter of the electorate went to the polls, and of these some 30 percent voted for Bouteflika. 5
By the time Algerians were called to the polls again in May 2002, the political landscape had been strongly colored by a decade of upheaval. At least 100,000 Algerians—mostly noncombatants—had died in the violence between the regime and radical Islamists, despite the fact that most Algerians stayed on the sidelines (a reason for doubting that the term "civil war" captures the reality of the case). In 1997, the country's principal armed Islamic movement, the military wing of the FIS known as the Islamic Salvation Army, reached a truce with the regime. And following his election in 1999, Bouteflika offered amnesty to those who [End Page 17] laid down their arms. While this did not end the violence entirely, it did reduce it substantially. 6
With the easing of the security situation in the late 1990s, social and economic issues came to the forefront of politics. Unemployment, poor education, wretched housing, and a host of other problems—including political corruption and the lack of democracy—were suddenly all on the public agenda. In 2001, a sustained protest movement began in the ethnically Berber area of Kabylia, but the issues raised were of nationwide interest. The regime made concessions to the Berbers' demands that their language be recognized nationally, while stonewalling on most of the broader public demands.
The Current Stalemate
It was against this backdrop of social urgency that the May 2002 National Assembly elections went forward. Several parties, especially the two Berber-based formations, called for a boycott and many Algerians professed a lack of interest. The campaign was generally uninspiring, despite notable efforts by Prime Minister Ali Benflis to rejuvenate the FLN by actively campaigning in the countryside and bringing new and younger people into the party. A public opinion poll on the eve of elections showed that a bare majority intended to vote and that the FLN, the party of order and stability, would win.
The election results were basically credible, if not necessarily exact. 7 Only 46 percent of the electorate turned out, many of whom cast blank ballots as an act of protest, so that only 41 percent actually voted. In Kabylia, there was a near-total boycott of the election. The final tally gave the FLN a majority of the seats with about 36 percent of the vote. The previously dominant, regime-sponsored RND suffered a major setback, winning only 8.5 percent. Similarly, the MSP lost significant support while a rival Islamist party, the Movement for National Reform (MRN)—led by Abdallah Djaballah—won about 10 percent. Prime Minister Benflis's new cabinet included a number of the old guard but also a significant number of new, young personalities, including five women—the largest number ever to serve in an Algerian government.
After more than ten years of elections of varying degrees of probity, Algeria shows a number of enduring political patterns:
First, the society seems to be divided into at least three main ideological blocs: 1) a nationalist group backed by between 25 and 30 percent of the population—officials, state workers, and rural voters—that reliably votes for the FLN or other government-endorsed parties; 2) an Islamist bloc that commands the loyalties of some 15 to 20 percent; and 3) a Berber-nationalist bloc that has the support of another 10 to 15 percent. Political allegiances within the remainder of Algerian society are scattered among small groups of democrats, regionalists, and independents. [End Page 18] No single bloc has a majority, and none can easily govern without some support from at least one of the others.
Second, elections have revealed the main fissures in Algerian society, but they have done little either to legitimize governance or to challenge the positions of those in power. Nor have democratic procedures taken root as a way of resolving conflicts. While elected officials are by no means mere puppets of the military, they know that the latter potentially has veto power over major decisions.
Third, multiparty democracy is no longer a disparaged concept in Algeria, as it was in the early days following independence. Most Algerians today say that they would welcome democracy, greater accountability, the rule of law, and more transparency. They are tired of the contempt with which the regime treats ordinary citizens. And Algerians have become skeptical of ideologues, both within the power structure and among the Islamists. Although concrete evidence is hard to come by, opinion polls do show that Algerians are deeply alienated from all political parties, and most express a fairly cynical view of politics altogether. Concrete social issues now seem of greater concern than they were in the early 1990s, when partisans of democracy and an Islamic state were engaging in vigorous ideological debate.
Finally, a vibrant free press and growing access to satellite dishes and the Internet have made for lively political discussion within the country. Satire, political cartoons, rai music, and a rich political slang in dialectical Arabic provide outlets for political sentiment. The large community of Algerian expatriates living in nearby Europe also helps to ensure that ideas of modernity and democracy are well understood by Algerians back home, many of whom are fluent in one or more foreign languages—principally French, but increasingly English as well.
What, then, are the prospects that Algeria's limited degree of liberalization will be transformed into genuine and sustained democratization? The society is structurally pluralistic; popular sentiment seems to favor democracy; and the formal political system, while inclined toward a very strong executive, is not the major obstacle. So where is the problem?
Some argue that it lies deep within Algerian culture. One version of this view—commonly asserted about all Muslim countries—is that Islam and democracy are simply incompatible. Any religion that recognizes the sovereignty of God, the reasoning goes, is going to have trouble with the idea of the sovereignty of the people. 8 Indeed, some of the hard-liners in the FIS once made this argument themselves, asserting that democracy was a false Western import with no substantive value in Muslim society. Scholars now generally dismiss this claim as [End Page 19] a form of erroneous cultural essentialism, but the argument nevertheless lives on in some circles. A variant on the culturalist argument is a historical reading of Algeria's past, holding that an engrained pattern of resorting to violence for the achievement of political ends has prevailed for hundreds of years. 9 Both arguments share the problem of explaining both too much and too little. If cultural arguments can explain Algerian political violence, can they also explain the prolonged period of calm from about the mid-1960s until the late 1980s? Or do cultural analysts maintain that Algerian culture actually changed during this period? In the end, seeking "cultural" causes here begs more questions than it answers.
Closer to the mark are specific features of Algeria's recent history and economy that make it difficult to change the locus of power. First, Algerian nationalism was from the outset fiercely egalitarian, populist, and antipluralistic. From the colonial period onward, parties have been seen as a source of weakness. Because the French had destroyed much of the Algerian elite during 132 years of colonial rule, the new nationalist leaders generally came from modest backgrounds and tended to believe that only they could speak authentically for "the people." Both during and after the struggle for independence, there was very little in the way of a hierarchy capable of winning automatic respect in Algerian society. In a sense, it was thought that "the people" had won the revolution and that no single individual should stand out above anyone else. 10 The FLN quickly splintered, and political power eventually ended up in the hands of the one institution that did have some structure and hierarchy—namely, the military—where it has remained ever since.
Why has it been so hard to wrest power from the military's hands? First of all, the military has never split into warring factions. Second, it has been able to use the threat of internal disorder as a justification for its rule. And third, the flow of oil wealth enabled the military to provide strong financial incentives to those who collaborate with it. This is something of a familiar pattern in resource-rich rentier states, and it makes it difficult to break the monopolies held by those who control the flow of rents. At the same time, when oil prices go down, as they did in the mid-1980s, the regime may feel the need to engage in at least the appearance of political opening in order to diffuse responsibility for the cuts in benefits inevitable at such times. 11
In brief, then, a populist form of nationalism paved the way for the military to take power in the name of the people; the military's relatively cohesive organizational structure has given it a comparative political advantage; and petrodollars have helped to keep soldiers in place by giving an unpopular regime a means of buying acquiescence from many citizens. The system is nevertheless under strain, and we ought not to discount the prospect that there could be change in the direction of greater participation and accountability. [End Page 20]
If Algeria is to experience real and sustained progress toward democracy, the military must move to the sidelines. This could take the form of a Chilean-style "pact," a deal with the democrats that offers a high degree of autonomy and immunity from prosecution; or it could follow the Turkish model, with a powerful military assuming a special role as guardian of the constitution—a kind of "national security council"—but with day-to-day responsibility clearly in the hands of elected politicians. As the generals advance in age, it may be possible to negotiate a pact of this type. Most are of the generation that came of age in the 1950s and are reaching the natural ends of their careers, and it is not clear whether they can or will put in place successors to themselves. 12
Were Algeria to make a transition to democracy in the near future, it would probably be an untidy affair—as democracy often is—but there is no reason to think that it would prove unmanageable or throw the country back into a state of strife. Algeria has already had the experience of a fairly vigorous and pluralistic national movement during the 1930s and 1940s; it has sustained a meaningful measure of pluralism over the past decade, despite enormous challenges; and few Algerians now want to go back to the constraints of a one-party state.
An Algerian democracy would probably begin with a strongly presidential model. The constitution, which has been tailor-made by each president except the current incumbent, already tends to privilege executive power and leave parliament in a relatively weak position. But the legislature would also likely become a forum in which coalitions would have to be forged in order for government to work at all—which, in turn, could be an important basis for a more general habituation to the arts of compromise that Algerians have been chronically unaccustomed to practicing.
Democrats and Others
Algeria is not exactly a case of a potential "democracy without democrats": There are some convinced democrats, but there are probably many more Algerians who have a narrowly instrumental view of democracy—in particular, viewing it as a means to get rid of a political order that they detest. None of the country's existing political parties, even those most ostensibly democratic in ideology, is governed internally by democratic procedures. In fact, most are simply groupings gathered around some prominent personality. There is certainly no Algerian Nelson Mandela—no single political figure around whom democrats would naturally rally. Still, there are several individuals who could appeal to democrats: the current prime minister, Ali Benflis, a modern and competent technocrat with reformist inclinations; Mouloud Hamrouche, the prime minister who presided over the first phase of Algeria's democratization in the early 1990s; and possibly Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a [End Page 21] moderate Islamist with good nationalist credentials, although he is now getting on in years. Any one of these figures could count on significant levels of support from Algeria's alienated young, women, Berbers, and moderate Islamists.
While in the mid-1990s the military could plausibly claim that it needed to hold power in order to defeat radical Islamists, it has now succeeded in reducing the chances of an Islamist victory—whether by force of arms or at the polls—to almost nil. The extremism of Algerian Islamists, especially from 1995 to 1997, alienated most citizens, even among those who had been initially sympathetic. Conflict fatigue has decidedly set in, and the population is showing a keen desire to return to a more tranquil and normal life. The appeal of ideologues must now compete with a profound and pervasive skepticism, which is felt even by those youths who would previously have been most inclined to seek salvation in the radicals' millenarian vision of an Islamist state.
Moreover, most Algerians are politically well-informed and would support the change to a more responsive and accountable government. The media would also be on board, having already established themselves as robust guardians of free expression. Furthermore, democracy in Algeria would have several important assets: The expatriate community would likely be willing to repatriate part of its wealth to an Algeria that seemed to be on the mend. Europe and the United States would provide tangible new support. And the country has enough oil and gas income to enable a democratic government to address issues of social concern such as housing and education.
So I remain a guarded optimist, not about the possibility of a
sudden transition to democracy, but about an eventual change in that
direction. Recall the conditions set out by Dankwart Rustow in his
seminal article on the conditions needed for a democratic transition:
a sense of national identity; a hot family feud that no single party
can win; the adoption of rules to regulate competition; and a period of
habituation to nonviolent handovers of power from one group to another.
Algeria is nearing the point where the third of these conditions
may be met: Its political system offers the makings of a set of rules
regulating political competition among major groups in Algerian society,
groups that for decades have been engaged in an acute struggle. We may
not quite know what to label the country at this point. It is still
fundamentally an authoritarian system, but it is not enough to note that
power remains concentrated in the hands of a few. Much else is happening
to suggest that its future need not resemble its past. Whether democracy
is, in fact, in Algeria's future is uncertain—and up to Algerians
to decide—but those on the outside should not be dismissive of
the prospects or indifferent to the possibility. A democratic Algeria,
were it to come about soon, could again place the country among the
pacesetters for the entire region.
William B. Quandt is Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. His books include Peace Process: American Diplomacy Toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967 (2001) and Between Ballots and Bullets: Algeria's Transition from Authoritarianism (1998).
1. See M'Hammed Boukhobza, Octobre 88: Evolution ou rupture? (Algiers: Editions Bouch'ene, 1991), 49-68.
2. Abed Charef, Algérie: Le grand dérapage (Saint-Amand-Montrond: Editions de l'Aube, 1994), 6-41.
3. Séverine Labat, Les islamistes algériens: Entre les urnes et le maquis (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1995), 95-127; and Ahmed Rouadjia, Les fr'eres et la mosquée: Enqu^ete sur le mouvement islamiste en Algérie (Paris: Editions Karthala, 1990), 111-39.
4. Lahouari Addi, L'Algérie et la démocratie: Pouvoir et crise du politique dans l'Algérie contemporaine (Paris: Editions la Découverte, 1994), 160-83. Addi (188) puts forward the idea of a "regression féconde," meaning that if the FIS had been allowed to assume power, this would have had the effect of demystifying and discrediting the Islamist movement, paving the way for real democracy in future elections. In a sense, the extremism of the Islamists in the mid-1990s had the effect of discrediting them in the eyes of many, without the Islamists ever coming to power.
5. William B. Quandt, "Algerian Puzzles," EUI Working Papers (Florence: European University Institute, 2000).
6. Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 254-75.
7. Hugh Roberts, "Musical Chairs in Algeria," MERIP Press Information Note 97, 4 June 2002.
8. Bernard Lewis, "Islam and Liberal Democracy," Atlantic Monthly, February 1995, 89-98. See also Bernard Lewis, "Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview," Journal of Democracy 7 (April 1996): 53-63.
10. William B. Quandt, Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969), 148-74.
11. Giacomo Luciani, "The Oil Rent, the Fiscal Crisis of the State and Democratization," in Ghassan Salamé, ed., Democracy Without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1994), 130-55.
12. For a thoughtful discussion of these possibilities, see Omar Belhouchet, "ANP et l'Algérie," El Watan (Algiers), 24 June 2002.
13. Dankwart Rustow, "Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model," Comparative Politics 2 (April 1970): 1033-53.