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The Algerian Paradox: is Algeria in a position to follow neighboring Libya's lead?

The Algerian paradox is that its recent revolutionary history is precisely what has prevented its people profiting from the Arab Spring.

By Nabila Ramdani

One of the most telling developments of the Libyan uprising was the flight of senior members of the Qadhafi family, including Muammar Qadhafi’s wife and three of his children, to Algeria. That they should have found refuge from one blighted country in another one just across the border says a great deal about the troubled state of the region, and the reason why the Arab Spring was so overdue.

It is sad to admit that Algerians would not have found the Qadhafis’ arrival in their country in the least bit surprising. Easily the most turbulent and bloody nation in recent North African history, Algeria was a natural home for those who have profited from 42 years of illegitimate rule. The country has suffered the same kind of autocratic government as Libya over the past few decades with, if anything, far worse repression.

The Algerian paradox is that its recent revolutionary history is precisely what has prevented its people profiting from the Arab SpringAll hopes for democracy ended with the start of civil war in December 1991 sparked by the cancellation of nationwide elections after the first round of general elections was won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)) The National Liberation Front (FLN) party had feared the political ascendancy of the FIS, and so effectively allowed the military to take over. The FIS turned into a guerrilla force fighting the government during a decade-long civil war which saw up to 250,000 Algerians killed. Now there remains a nominal parliamentary opposition, with current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appointed by the army. It is a totalitarian regime in all but name, fighting a never-ending battle against terrorist groups like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

While the Arab Spring revolutions have reminded the world that power should lie with the people, Algeria is an example of a state in near-permanent revolt, but one in which undemocratic forces have always succeeded in gaining the upper hand. In short, the Algerian paradox is that its recent revolutionary history is precisely what has prevented its people profiting from the Arab Spring.

Bouteflika managed to suppress any murmurings of an Algerian revolt back in February through the sheer weight of his security forces. When, on 12 February, huge crowds inspired by the success of the Egyptian protests prepared to take to the streets, he put 30,000 police on the streets of Algiers alone. Many were highly-trained riot control officers who had proved their resilience against any kind of dissent time and time again; part of an internal security force of at least 350,000 members, made up of a 150,000-strong gendarmerie and 200,000-strong metropolitan police force. These figures exclude the formidable People’s National Army (PNA), which consumes more than three percent of Algeria’s GDP every year, and numbers at least 350,000 soldiers.

The police, military and security services will ensure that the Qadhafis are protected, if only because of the close relations Bouteflika enjoyed with Qadhafi during his many years in power. Prior to this, Libya supported Bouteflika’s FLN party during the long and bloody war of independence from France. As recently as February 2010, Bouteflika paid tribute to the “common ties” between the two peoples, while Qadhafi recalled the way Algeria contributed aid to Libya during the embargos imposed on his country by the UN Security Council between 1992 and 2000.

Sources in Tripoli suggest that at least part of the Qadhafi family’s huge wealth has been deposited in Algerian accounts, and not just because a revolution was imminent. Add to that the fact that one Qadhafi son is married to an Algerian woman, and two others have residences in Algiers, then the reason why so many of them are now there becomes more apparent. Remember too that Algeria has not yet recognized the legitimacy of the National Transitional Council.

All that said, there remains a wide gulf between the support Bouteflika is showing towards the family, and the views of his fellow countrymen. If anything, harboring the Qadhafis is just another example of the ruthless expediency which has underpinned Algeria’s domestic policy, backed up by violent enforcement measures, for generations. The bitter war of independence from France is still within living memory for the older generation of Algerians, and for the younger ones there were the so-called années de plomb (years of lead, as in bullets), a similarly bloody time which followed the civil war.

In February the mobilization of the police and army was accompanied by Bouteflika cynically lifting the 19-year-old state of emergency, in an attempt to impress a western media with a huge cache of influence on the fortunes of the pro-democracy movements. More crucially, he impressed Algeria’s silent majority who were worried about yet another period of turbulence which would allow Al-Qaeda-inspired fundamentalist groups to flourish. While the Qadhafis were on their way to Algeria, a double suicide-bomb attack on the Cherchell military base near Algiers claimed dozens of lives and severely injured many more—highlighting the constant threat.

There was obvious anger at exorbitant food prices, lack of jobs and accommodation, and a heavily controlled media, but there was no collective voice pushing for radical change. Instead, disparate groups, including feminists, Berbers and single-issue campaigners called for change. Meanwhile, small businesses feared damage to their livelihoods from the kind of unruly gangs who are regularly involved in gang warfare in cities like Algiers. Conservative Algerians have also expressed concern at the growing campaigns of civil disobedience in the country which in 2010 alone resulted in some 10,000 disruptive acts, ranging from strikes and sit-ins to property being damaged.

Bouteflika has always used the country’s vast oil and natural gas wealth (another advantage Algeria has shared with Libya) to provide investment in job creation, a spectacular increase in salaries, housing projects and food subsidies. These measures placated people, as did the recent introduction of a private media which is ostensibly not bound by what the government wants. Political reform is, however, solely something which is on the agenda rather than something which has actually happened. Recent pledges are, opposition groups contend, cynical gestures solely aimed at impressing foreign observers in an age of instant, global communications.

This was the kind of compromise which had allowed Qadhafi to remain in power for 42 years. As his family settles into a new life in Algiers, many will remain as doubtful as ever about the prospects of pro-democracy campaigners reforming the situation. Others, meanwhile, may argue that the arrival of a dynasty whose tyrannical complacency was finally challenged and defeated after 42 years may be just the inspiration that Algerians need to take their future into their own hands.

Posted on 11 November 2011.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nabila Ramdani. This article was first published in The Majalla|.

Nabila Ramdani is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at LSE.

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