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Although Algeria saw some uprisings in the early 2011, the scale and the outcome of these uprisings were not like those in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. The fact that the regime didnot change in Algeria during the Arab Spring of 2011 has made many think that the Algerian civil war of 1992-2002 has acted as a shot in the arm for the Algerian state and it has immunized Algeriaagainst the Arab Spring. But Algeria had its spring more than two decades prior to the Arab Spring of 2011. Bruce Riedelargues that even in 2011, Algerian spring preceded the Tunisian uprising. It is true that wide spread and publicized protests broke out across Algeria in the first half of January 2011 but these were a continuation of protests that started in late 2010. These protests, however, subsided at the same speed that they broke out due to various reasons which will be discussed shortly. There is no doubt that the decade long civil war, as well as the price which the ordinary Algerians paid for it (being killed by either by the Islamists or the army), has had many Algerians to perceive that another uprising could bring back more of the same. But such an argument alone is inadequate for to explain why and how the Algerian regime was able to counter and contain the revolutionary fervor in the early 2011 to date. Several issues such as the role of international community, oil, and the regime’s experience with Islamist parties in the past, as well as multiparty politics played crucial roles in enabling the regime to retain its power.
The Algerian “Arab Spring” occurred on 4 October 1988 and in the outskirts of the capital city of Algiers. About 20,000 ordinary Algerians took to the streets and protested the dire socioeconomic conditions. In response to the weeklong protests, President Chadli Bendjadid promised to end one-party rule and to change the constitution in a referendum in order to open up the political space for a multiparty system. Along with other parties, the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) came into existence in 1989 which later dominated the political scene. Because the major cause of the uprising was a bad economy, the FIS put economic reforms as its main agenda. Prior to the uprisings, the Algerian government used regulations to keep many petit bourgeois out of the Algerian economy. The FIS, on the other hand, argued for fewer regulations, easing entry into the market for smaller businesses, removal of trade quotas and barriers, promotion of small- and medium-size enterprises, lower taxes, and ending of state monopolies. The FIS promises were attractive to the middle class and poor because the party argued that its policies would create jobs, end corruption, and improve the economy. More than two decades later, when Algerians took to the streets in the early 2011, they had the same demands. The only difference was that this time, there was no FIS, or any other major independent political party opposing the ruling elite. Quite the contrary, the opposition was very fragmented which meant that not only there was not a leading party to organize the protests; there were opposing views about the uprising and the demands.
Algeria has a relatively free press and when these riots broke out, the private and the government sponsored national press started to remind the Algerians of the Algerian Spring of 1988 and that if things change in Algeria, it will not be for the better. Free press is often linked to promote democracy and the voice of people. But in Algeria, it did quite the opposite by demanding peace and safety over democracy in 2011. Role of social media is highlighted times and again in the success of Egyptian and other North African countries but the Algerian case shows that social media cannot be the determinant factor in pushing forward a revolution. Algerian internet is also relatively freer than other North African states because there are private internet service providers in Algeria who directly connect to Europe without any government control. Internet and social media was accessible in Algeria during the Arab Spring but as we have seen, the regime in Algeria did not change. Hence, although we cannot ignore the role that social media played in Egypt, it should be clear that social media is not a major factor in system change or success of a revolution but one of the means which can be used for publicity by those who are well trained or accustomed to using it effectively.
Algerian large military and police force was also one of the key issues that helped the regime to contain the 2011 spring. The number of security forces and police increased as a direct result of the 1988 riots. During the civil war, the regime kept increasing its expenditure on both its military equipment and police size. By 2011, the police and gendarmerie had 200,000 members. The regime was successful in dispatching large number of security forces to protests sides. For example, in some riots in the early 2011 especially in large cities such as the capital Algiers, the police outnumbered the demonstrators in a ratio of 10 to 1. The other issue that enabled the police to contain the revolution was how the security forces handled the situation. During the October riots of 1988, the security forces killed 500 persons in two days. In 2011, however, in the week long protests only three protestors were killed. The regime knew that the killed protesters’ blood could act as a catalyst and would be used as a symbol to call into streets more people. That is why the regime was very careful to avoid mass killings and used the police force to block access to the sites of protests or used the army to disperse the protesters by arresting or routing them to different paths.
When the Algerian military nullified the 1991 elections, it also arrested FIS’s party leaders, and banned the party in 1992. When the military saw that Bendjadid was sympathetic to the FIS, the military staged a coup and removed him from power in 1992. Western powers also gave legitimacy to the FIS because it came to power democratically. For example, the Clinton administration, which feared that abandoning the FIS would turn Algeria into another Iran, started a preemptive negotiation with the FIS in the early 1990s. When the military noticed that the West sympathizes with the FIS, the junta did various things to provoke violent reactions from the FIS in order to turn the Western powers and the Algerian people against the party in 1990s. For example, RabihKebir, FIS’s foreign affairs spokesperson demanded a dialog between the government and the FIS on 27 January 1992. The military arrested him the next day. In 2011, in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, soon after the breakout of the uprisings, the regime ended emergency rule and actually encouraged creation of more political parties. Such a policy was welcomed by some elites not because they could raise their voice but rather, because this was a way for some elites to enter the patron-client relation with the regime and enjoy some of the spoils of oil. Furthermore, it led to the fragmentation of the opposition since different parties were created and each of these parties put forth their own agenda.
The military’s interest in the economy forced the army leaders to be more pragmatic about dealing with the protesters and avoid an economic halt. The military has control over Sonatrach, Algeria’s largest national oil company. Because of the ups and downs in the price of oil, Algerians have learned to base their national budget on a discounted price of oil. This means that if the price of oil is, for example $40 a barrel, the Algerian state bases its budget as if the price of oil is $10 a barrel. This has had two effects: it enables the Algerian ruling class to protect themselves against US’s manipulation of oil prices, and on the other hand, it has created a massive monetary reserve that comes handy at the time of crisis. Algerian regime learned this lesson the hard way. Oil revenues were a major source of government income (57.9%), and Algeria had an average GDP growth rate of 6.8% until 1986. The American government pushed Saudi Arabia to increase its production, resul¬t¬ing in a drop in the price of oil from $40 a barrel to $10 in 1986. These changes meant that Algerian revenues shrank by 55% (from $47 billion in 1985 to $21 billion in 1986). Faced with a shortage of cash and reluctant to get the International Monetary Fund (IMF) involved in the Algerian economy, President Chadli Bendjadid (1979–1992) cut imports to the point that, in no time, most basic commodities, such as wheat, were either scarce or very expensive in late 1980s. This drop in national income which increased the price of food was one of the major causes of the first Algerian spring in 1988. By basing their national budget on a discounted price of oil, the Algerian regime in 2011 was able to use the huge monetary reserve in order to lower the price of basic commodities such as flour and sugar and also to increase government employees’ salary by 34%. In the presence of large sums of cash, the government tried to buy back the youth and divert them from streets through cheap loans. For example, after the January 2011 uprisings, the government allocated a loan of up to $300,000 for the young persons who wished to open businesses. Instead of taking to the streets, the youth flooded the offices involved with application and processing of such loans. Hence, whereas oil was a curse for the past regime, it was instrumental in saving the regime from the tide of revolutionary fervor in 2011.
The role of the military in protecting its interests in Algeria is undoubtedly important but what makes it different from the Egyptian military is its penetration into the opposition parties. For example, during the civil war the Algerian Secret Service (DRS) created more radical militant Islamic groups such as GIA (Islamic Armed Group) in order to give a bad name to the FIS. Even today, the military has influence and it has its elements in the opposition parties. Army’s influence over the parties helped the military both to divide the opposition and also to use these elements to control the parties. Furthermore, Egyptian military also had less economic ties with Mubarak compared to that of Algeria. As Haseeb reminds us of a saying in Arab countries: “If every state has an army, the Algerian army has a state”.
The Civil War ended in 2002 through President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s reconciliation program. Although Islamist insurgents are still active in Algeria, they are no longer a large threat. The reconciliation process has brought relative stability throughout the 2000s to the Algerian state. Although U.S.–Algerian relations go back to 1795, in the post 9/11 era, the U.S. and Algerian governments have signed various agreements that focus on weakening national and international terrorist cells. Since 2005, for example, Algeria and the United States have signed the Joint Military Dialogue, a process that includes military exchange, training, and both countries have had joint military exercises. The United States also constitutes the largest Algerian trade partner for crude oil. Furthermore, Bouteflika has started a second wave of reconciliation by putting forth a referendum called Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. The referendum passed in September 2005, its aim is to provide amnesty to the Islamists who did not commit “murders, rapes, or bombings”. The regime also started to provide regular stipends to the “patriots” for their work during the Civil War as a way to buy their support in 2007. Unlike Egypt that banned all opposing parties, the regime in Algeria was able to fragment the opposition and bring under its payroll some key opposing figures. Some of these Islamic parties such Green Algeria Alliance created a coalition government sharing the spoils of oil after the 2012 elections.
The coming to power of Islamist parties in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, on the one hand made ordinary Algerians wary of Islamist parties while, on the other hand, enabled the regime to strengthen its grip on power. After the Arab Spring, Islamic parties such as An-Nahda in Tunisia, and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt came to power. The West supported or sanctioned the action of the Algerian regime to suppress what was on the rise in North Africa, Islamic extremism. Some terrorist cells and groups such as AQIM (Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghrib) operated in Algeria long before the Arab Spring. The U.S. and European countries support of the Algerian army was strong enough even if the army’s actions resulted in the loss of lives of American or British nationals. For example, when several US and British nationals were killed by the Algerian military during the hostage crisis of Jan 2013, William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary argued that we (the West) cannot rule a “judgment” on the actions of the Algerian military. The hostage crisis of the early 2013 was instigated by the French’s involvement in protecting the Malian government against the Islamist extremists. Although this is a recent issue, we have seen in other parts of the essay that the army has been active in buying the support of the West after 1992. The utilitarian role of the Algerian army on the “war on terror,” especially once the West lost Mubarak, a longtime ally in Egypt, means that the West came to see Algeria as the only reliable ally with a strong military prowess in North Africa. Hence, because the Algerian army’s actions are mostly sanctioned by the international community, the army has a free hand to do whatever it wants in order to protect its interests in the country.
Algerians had already experienced that the army would use any force to limit the power of parties based on Islamic ideology in the 1990s because the Algerian state claims to be a secular state. The army is not the only entity that despises the Islamic militants. Civilian Algerians have also experienced the violence of Islamic extremists first hand during and after the civil war of 1992-2002. This is to the point that some civilians are happy to take arms, risk their lives, and fight these groups. For example, the Algerian government armed some civilians against the AQIM militants as late as November 2010. The rise of Islamic parties in other North African countries made Algerians wary of the outcome of the spring. What made such suspicions stronger was the fact that although Muslim Brotherhood argued that they would not run for presidency in Egypt, they did after Mubarak’s ouster. Furthermore, when the regime opened the political space in 2011 in order for more parties to emerge, the regime created the National Coordination for Democratic Change group in order to “coordinate” the creation of opposing parties. The creation of CNCD basically meant that those who would occupy the leadership positions within the newly formed opposing Islamic parties will be the regime’s cronies. A new revolution, hence,did not mean replacing the ruling elite but a mere reshuffling of those who are already in power and a way for the regime to expand its patron-client network. Thus, the violence that has been caused or attributed to the Islamic parties and regime’s reluctance to allow such parties emerge independently meant that push for an Islamic republic led by an Islamic party as an alternative is not seen as a viable solution by many Algerians.
To conclude, whereas the Islamists were able to gain the upper hand in Tunisia and Libya as well as Egypt, this was not the case in Algeria due to the experience and other historical issues. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya the Islamist groups were less active and somewhat under control whereas in Algeria the Islamists and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups were active and have killed many Algerians on a regular basis. Furthermore, because the government has penetrated these groups, intergroup rivalries resulted in intergroup fighting and the ordinary Algerians are frightened by the prospects of coming to power of any these groups. But to argue that only the fear of another civil war made Algeria immune to the Arab spring is too simple of an explanation. Other factors, such as free press, multi-party system, oil revenues, military power, and the Western support for the current regime in Algeria has enabled the regime to change the tide of revolutionary fervor against the revolutionaries.
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