16 April 2020

Algeria: The Postcolonial Straightjacket

Written by 
“‘Go!’ Protestors demand that remaining Bouteflika officials step down in Algiers this July,” Farouk Batiche · Anadolu · Getty “‘Go!’ Protestors demand that remaining Bouteflika officials step down in Algiers this July,” Farouk Batiche · Anadolu · Getty https://mondediplo.com/2019/12/03algeria

As a follow-up to my last post, “The Rise of Global Protests,” I begin a more in-depth look at the phenomenal street demonstrations that lasted just over a year in Algeria before they were halted by the coronavirus. Perhaps this OpEd in the Washington Post (Feb. 2, 2020) by M. Tahir Kalavuz and Sharan Grewal is the best summary to get us started:


“Over the past year, the leaderless protest movement (known as the Hirak) succeeding in toppling [President] Bouteflika and triggering the imprisonment of major figures from his regime, including several prime ministers. Peaceful mass protests have continued across the country every week even in the face of provocation and repression from the regime.

The Hirak is entering its second year with a new president, a new prime minister, a new parliamentary speaker, a new cabinet and a new army chief of staff. But Algeria’s political system remains fundamentally unchanged.”


That’s because the army is still in charge, and not the people. That said, Algeria is not unique in this regard. James Dorsey begins a recent blog post on this theme with a provocative statement, arguing that the 2011 “Arab Spring’s” resurfacing in 2019 showed us that this bubbling of discontent under the surface has actually achieved more than meets the eye:


“A decade of anti-government protests in the Arab world have thrown popular trust in the military into the garbage bin and undermined the military’s position as one of the most trusted institutions.”


This represents a sea change in the composition of the postcolonial states, not just in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) but in South East Asia as well (see my 2016 post, “Comparative Politics: From Juntas to Democracy”).

The first big crack in the army-led state, as we saw in the last post, came in 2011 when the wall of fear created by Middle East’s autocratic rulers started to come down. But then new boldness suddenly appeared and multiplied in 2019. Dorsey adds, “In 2019 and 2020 those barriers have been further reduced with protesters refusing to back down despite the use of brutal force by law enforcement and security forces in Lebanon and Iraq and occasional violence elsewhere in the Arab world.”

What is new is the realization that, far from being an ally of the people as was still believed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the military has become the biggest obstacle on the road to democracy. Again, as Dorsey puts it, “Increasingly, the military is seen at best as positioning itself to salvage what can be salvaged of an ancien regime and at worst the enforcer of a hated regime.”

For instance, a protester in Baghdad had this to say this the day after hundreds of protesters (mostly young men) were killed, “Iraqis broke the shackles of fear and reached the point of no return. The movement will not stop, and the Iraqi people will never be silenced.” Beirut protests too were becoming increasingly violent in February, yet they were not able to persuade the security forces that it was in both of their interests to get rid of Lebanon’s political elites, whether they be Christian or Muslim, Sunni or Shia. For them, behind these corrupt politicians stands the army, and in this case the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. As a masked protester exclaimed to a journalist, “Our backs are against the wall. We have nothing more to lose. We are fighting a regime with a history of 40 years of corruption and their armed defenders.”

Yet despite the similarities across the MENA region, each context is unique. And in the case of the Algerian Hirak movement, what I say in the next and last post will not make any sense to you unless you first have a crash course of Algerian postcolonial history. To that we now turn.


The one-party ball and chain

The modern story of Algeria, until then a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire mostly ruled by the “Barbary Pirates” (who profoundly impacted the young American state, as I described in this blog post), really begins with the 1830 French invasion. Here we had colonialism on steroids. The French were not content to make Algeria a protectorate, which typically gives indigenous puppet rulers a bit of power while from behind they pull all the strings that guarantee maximum financial benefits for themselves. No, the French simply annexed the whole northern provinces of Algeria and laid their hands on the most fertile and productive part of this vast land.

This resulted in five or six generations of French colonists who skimmed the wealth off this bountiful soil with impunity. I quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica:


“French colonists modernized Algeria’s agricultural and commercial economy but lived apart from the Algerian majority, enjoying social and economic privileges extended to few non-Europeans. Ethnic resentment, fueled by revolutionary politics introduced by Algerians who had lived and studied in France, led to a widespread nationalist movement in the mid-20th century.”


That ticking bomb did in fact explode, and the 1954-1962 war of independence was incredibly fierce, leaving over a million Algerians dead in its wake. The negotiated settlement in the end was made possible because of international pressure bearing down on the French. The combined political and military forces that had guided the Algerian resistance was called the National Liberation Front (FLN) and it represented Algeria in the negotiations that led to the Evian Accords in 1962.

But because independence came as a result of eight years of bloody conflict, it had two other consequences. First, just about all the European colonists left, and in particular a million “French Algerians,” dubbed “les pieds noirs” (“the black feet,” presumably because they mostly worked the dark, fertile soil), relocated to the French mainland – a trauma that is still not entirely healed today. Second, the FLN was a fairly diverse coalition of revolutionaries who had fought the guerilla war against France, and at independence, it had to settle its internal differences, which could often turn violent. In 1965 Colonel Boumédienne toppled President Ahmed Ben Bella by means of a coup d’état. He ruled mostly by decree until his death in 1978 (right when I settled down in Algiers). His successor, Colonel Chadli Benjedid reorganized the FLN party, but it amounted to no more than window dressing. The military retained its strong presence in the FLN Central Committee.

Then in 1988 the façade of a stable regime, in fact held together by its one party under the firm tutelage of the army and the security forces, started to crumble. Massive crowds poured into the streets protesting the price of bread and other daily commodities and calling for political participation. Benjedid grudgingly accepted a multiparty system. To the shock of many observers, the political opposition coalesced for the most part under the islamist banner. The largest and most influential party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), won spectacular results in the 1990 municipal and provincial elections.

The next year, the FIS called for a general strike to protest the government’s redrawing of district lines in favor of the FLN. As civil unrest grew in the capital Algiers, the regime arrested and imprisoned the two FIS leaders, Abbas Madani and Ali Belhadj. Despite this and other acts of political repression (or maybe because of them), the FIS handily won 48 percent of the popular vote in December’s first round of parliamentary elections. The FLN and other parties were left far behind. The army, however, saw this as a red line and decided to intervene. It canceled the election and forced President Benjedid to resign. Moreover, it arrested 40,000 FIS militants and elected officials and guarded them under tents in the Sahara Desert. Unsurprisingly, this sparked a brutal civil war, as thousands of young men took to the mountains to fight their own guerilla war against the regime. With over 200,000 people killed and 20,000 disappeared, this is now referred to as the “black decade.”


The tacit 1999 social contract

Lasting eight years just as the war of independence had, the 1990s civil war, however, did not end with negotiations. Rather, its end was dictated by the army through a clever political maneuver. President Liamine Zéroual was in his second term but apparently had a falling out with the military brass, likely due to his desire for reconciliation with the islamist insurgency, and he resigned in April 1999 and called for early elections. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, an army officer in the war of independence serving as top aide to Colonel Boumédienne and later Foreign Minister for many years, was seen as the army’s choice to replace Zéroual. Despite his early army ties, his long career was as a civilian FLN politician, and this fact made him a good choice for the powers-that-be. Winning 74 percent of the vote in an election many considered fraudulent, he came to embody what Algerian-French political scientist Amel Boubekeur calls “the tacit social contract [the Algerian people] established with the army in 1999.” In a 21-page paper, “Demonstration Effects: How the Hirak Protest Movement Is Reshaping Algerian Politics” (Policy Brief, European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2020). She introduces it in these words,


“The arrangement that emerged in 1999 involved informal power-sharing between a president chosen by the generals (and endorsed through a sham election), a security service (Department of Intelligence and Security, or DRS) that was determined to check the influence of the regime’s civilian clientele, and a military that claimed to be above politics but largely controlled the distribution of economic and institutional resources” (3).


This tacit agreement, argues Boubekeur, is between the army and the people: the state (via the army) protects the people from further terrorism in exchange for political quietism. The following points help to unpack this formula.

    • The military and the DRS leverage the president’s civilian status to quiet any political opposition from the various parties to the civil war (especially the islamist-leaning ones) “through a narrative centering on the relaunch of the electoral process and a transfer of authority to a supposedly civilian president who had restored peace and security” (3). Other tools in the military’s tool box: rigged elections and a muzzling of parliament and other representative bodies.
    • The other goal here is to avert any investigations in the war crimes committed by the army and DRS in the 1990s; these allegations were made by several international bodies.
    • Prime Minister Ali Benflis takes advantage of a large protest movement in 2001 in the Berber (Amazigh) province of Kabylia to forbid all demonstrations. Algerians in general, still very nervous about the extreme violence of the 1990s, mostly fall in line.
    • The FLN/army rule from the beginning was based on corruption. Bouteflika had been convicted of embezzling around 60 million dinars during his years as a diplomat. He had repaid 12 million, but he was now forgiven of that debt in order to run for president. Then Bouteflika returned the favor in 2005 (his second term): he “enacted a presidential ordinance of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation that repealed or blocked prosecution – and criticism – of members of the security forces for their role during the civil war.” (10). She then explains that this is a much wider pattern:


“Since then, the army, the security forces, and civilian members of the elite have mainly bonded over not a shared ideology but the mutual neutralisation of judicial cases and fear of prosecution. The regime mainly distributed rents through its patronage networks to tamp down any kind of conflict within them and avoid discussions on the need for reform” (10-11).


The Hirak is born

With this background in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that the pent-up anger many Algerians entertained with regard to the Bouteflika regime was about to boil over during his fourth term in office – especially considering he had been mostly bedridden since a stroke in 2013! However, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the announcement on February 9th, 2019, that he was seeking a fifth term. Arezki Metref, writing for Le Monde Diplomatique, notes, “Social media exploded and on 16 February 2019 the Hirak began.” He describes what followed:


“Young people in Kherrata — a small town in northeast Algeria where the French army and its European auxiliaries massacred the Muslim population on 8 May 1945 — took to the streets to protest against Bouteflika’s re-election bid. On 19 February a crowd destroyed a giant portrait of the president displayed on the front of the town hall as part of Algeria’s enforced personality cult. On Friday 22 February, in response to an anonymous call on social media to demonstrate, a countrywide movement began that reached even remote villages and led to Bouteflika’s resignation and the cancellation of the election scheduled for 18 April.”


This is where we will pick up in the next post to analyze the Hirak protest movement and ponder what is likely to follow.