Opting for the Status Quo Rather than Experimentation
Since the beginning of the protests that led to changes of government in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, and eventually also in Libya, there has been speculation both in Algeria and abroad about whether Algeria is an exception, whether the government is implementing its own, Algerian-style changes, and whether the country will continue to be spared mass protests against the regime in the future.
According to comments made by the Algerian foreign minister Mourad Medelci in December 2011, in comparison with some other Arab states that are experiencing changes, many of them painful, Algeria really is an exception. He reminded people that despite the violent conflicts of the 1990s Algeria has been experiencing a period of relative political stability for almost twenty years now.
However, Mourad Medelci correctly pointed out that Morocco could also be described as an exception. Since the ousting of the Tunisian president Ben Ali on 14th January 2011, neither Morocco nor Algeria have seen mass protests on a national scale that were persistently directed against the state leadership and the regime, or that threatened the existing order and political stability.
Reforms to ward off rebellion
In this, Algeria and Morocco are fundamentally different from the so-called North African transition states of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
But they also differ from Middle Eastern countries like Yemen, Bahrain or Syria, where protests against their respective regimes in 2011, stimulated by events in North Africa, escalated and led to violent conflicts which were quelled by military intervention (Bahrain) or the resignation of the president (Yemen), but without resolution and the creation of political stability; or which – as in the case of Syria – led to an ongoing and bloody confrontation between opponents of the regime and the security forces.
The King of Morocco responded to developments in Tunisia and Egypt with the swift introduction of far-reaching reforms in the spring of 2011 that also made changes to the political order. In 2011 King Mohammed VI speeded up the process of reform that he had been promoting since he acceded to the throne in 1999, a process that has secured him respect and legitimacy among large swathes of the Moroccan people.
The Algerian leadership, on the other hand, reacted to the protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya by introducing a massive increase in subsidies, as well as smaller political concessions such as new legislation on political parties, associations and media.
Announcements were made about the fairer distribution of social housing or the creation of new jobs, about material support for young unemployed people, and wage increases. These took up the societal changes people were calling for, as they had been formulated for years and repeatedly demanded in the form of protests.
"Deaf and archaic rulers"
In a report in Algérie-Focus in March 2012, however, the author Kamal Benkoussa doubts that Algeria will escape a societal explosion, because "the street is young" and those in power "deaf and archaic".
Their concern, he says, is to maintain the status quo; they are no longer getting through to the young people, and state institutions have lost all legitimacy – especially with the young.
At the latest since the 1980s, when the repercussions of the oil crisis created difficulties for the supplier country because it was no longer able to fulfil the expectations it had created in its people, the relationship between the Algerian people and the state, its institutions, and especially those in office has been distant, even hostile.
Since the 1980s, in this increasingly aggravated socio-economic context, corruption, cronyism and inefficient bureaucratic structures have had the effect of increasingly delegitimizing the state institutions. The institutions and those in office came to be seen more than ever as 'opponents'. Among the Algerian people, trust in their country's state institutions is lacking across all age groups; on the contrary, there is strong criticism of prevailing governmental policy.
The problematic circumstances that worked in favour of the protests in Tunisia or Egypt also exist in Algeria. Since 2004 there have been repeated outbreaks of social protest on account of the lack of infrastructure, lack of transparency in the allocation of social housing, unemployment, lack of water, decreasing spending power, inappropriate actions by the security forces, inefficiency and lack of neutrality in the administration, preferential treatment or marginalization of population groups and regions, etc.
These protests are an indication of both the virulence of the problems and the dissatisfaction felt by large sections of the population with regard to the circumstances in which they live.
For many years now there has been a considerable readiness to go on strike and to protest, and young people have also always played a large part in these actions. Yet despite this, the political opposition was unsuccessful in its calls for mass mobilization against the regime, even though in Algeria too there were numerous incidences of self-immolation in protest against the dire social situation. So a high proportion of young people dissatisfied with the government and its politics is not in itself a sufficient precondition for mass protest.
In both Morocco and Algeria, a combination of experiences, developments and constellations specific to each country have contributed to the fact that no protest movement equivalent to those in Tunisia or Egypt has arisen that could force a transfer of power or even regime change. Algeria is therefore not the only exception in North Africa. There are numerous reasons why this is the case.
Shadows of the past
Firstly: the consequences of the unrest of October 1988, which led to political opening, the end of one-party rule and pluralistic elections, which worked in favour of the Islamists organized in the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The power struggle between the former political and military powers and the Islamists who were laying claim to power was followed by a violent conflict of many years' duration, which finally ended in a decisive phase of reconciliation and pacification in 1999 under President Bouteflika. Many Algerians are still affected by these events and by their personal experience of violence.
Secondly: the generally bad image parties have among the population. They are seen as representing the particular interests of those in party office and a small elite. The internal party divisions and quarrels which have very often led to party splits only reinforce these negative views.
Thirdly: the splintering of the opposition parties, the leadership quarrels that repeatedly lead to the formation of splinter groups and new parties, and the lack of personalities with the ability to mobilize large sectors of the population all have a weakening effect not just on individual parties, but also on concerted action.
This was clearly apparent in the spring of 2011, when attempts by liberal opposition parties such as, for example, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) to focus protest potential against the state leadership and organise regular mass demonstrations along the Tunisian or Egyptian model soon failed. There is no coherent opposition movement in Algeria.
Fourthly: the lack of interest in politics, party political activity and elections as a means of political participation, which is exhibited by many Algerians eligible to vote as well as by large sections of the younger generation, has been demonstrated by numerous opinion polls as well as by the low voter turnout in elections. According to official figures the voter turnout in the last legislative elections in 2007 was 35%; political observers believed it to be considerably less.
Another important influential factor is that over the course of 2011 the enforced transfer of power did not lead to an orderly, peaceful transition process in either Tunisia or Egypt, or in Libya. The risks accompanying the transition process with regard to internal security or to social harmony and the future role of the Islamists are, for the individual citizen, extremely high.
Fear of the collapse of order
The internal political conflicts between the different Islamist groups and the spectrum of religious-reformist to secular groups in Tunisia are having a sobering effect. They are paralysing the country's economic development, exacerbating the people's socio-economic situation, and turning violence into a means of political argument in Tunisia, which until 2011 Algerians regarded as a peaceful holiday destination.
The example of Libya – where NATO intervened, armed clashes continue over who should hold political power, and inter-ethnic conflicts are now erupting into violence – is also not calculated to mobilize a majority of the population in Algeria (or Morocco) to participate in mass protests with unpredictable consequences.
Will the legislative elections in Algeria on 10th May 2012 be the start of a fundamental change? This is not to be expected, as the relationship between potential voters and parties has not improved since the last elections, nor has interest in the elections or expectations of them risen. The political engagement of the younger generation is very limited.
Fear of the collapse of order, recent violent conflicts within society, foreign intervention and negative effects on the economy – all these developments can be observed in other countries that have undergone enforced changes of government, and they argue more for a decision to retain the status quo, not a decision to embark on an experiment.
© Qantara.de 2012
The political scientist Dr. Sigrid Faath is Associate Fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. She specializes in, among other things, the domestic and foreign policy of the Maghreb states and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership.
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de