Algeria: The Enduring Failure of Politics
In Algeria, power has never been generated through the political process of which political parties are a part. Rather, it has consistently emerged from the barrel of a gun since the country emerged victorious from the 1954-62 war for independence from France. Although numerous political parties do exist, power remains solidly in the hands of the military-civilian elite that came to power upon independence.
The struggle for political change created many parties but no new leadership or an alternative source of power have materialized.
Algeria tried twice to change the nature of its political system. The first attempt led to a ten-year, incredibly violent war that lasted through the 1990s and failed to change the source of power in the country. The second, peaceful attempt started in 2019 with thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets, week after week, first to protest the decision by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a fifth term, and later to fight for free elections that could give the opposition a fair chance. The Hirak, as the movement came to be called, succeeded in preventing Bouteflika from standing for election again, but not in dislodging the old military-civilian regime that has controlled the country since 1962. The struggle for political change created many parties but no new leadership or an alternative source of power have materialized.
Between Radical Islam and the Military
Algeria was ruled by a single party from independence in 1962 until the approval of a new constitution in 1989, which introduced multi-party politics and ended the monopoly of the Front of National Liberation (FLN from the French name). Originally a front of pro-independence organizations, the FLN remained poorly institutionalized and played second fiddle to the military. During the long presidency of Houari Boumediene, the country’s second president, who came to power in through a military coup in 1965, the party never held a congress and its central committee rarely met. Boumediene’s power base was the military, although the FLN, as the symbol of national Liberation, provided legitimacy.
After Boumediene’s death in 1978, President Chadli Benjedid sought to lead Algeria away from a political life run by the military/security apparatus and the aging leadership of the war for independence. Important outward changes took place under his leadership, first and foremost the formation and registration of a multiplicity of political parties. The process was swift: by early 1991, thirty-three parties were registered. It was a familiar scenario in the region. There were far too many non-descript secular parties with little to differentiate them from each other besides the ambitions of their founders; Islamist parties also emerged rapidly—three were registered, but the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS from the French name Front Islamique de Salut) quickly became dominant. In addition, organizations that had fought covertly for decades for the rights of the Berber population became part of the Algerian legal political spectrum. The most important was the Front des Forces Socialistes, in existence since 1963 and still led by an aging veteran of the war for independence. The rise of Islamist parties, again a common development in Arab countries, was the result not only of broader regional trends but also of the attempt – that began with independence – to revive part of the Algerian culture that the French had done their best to erase over 130 years of colonial domination.
Despite this unfavorable constellation of political parties, President Benjedid moved swiftly toward elections, starting at the local and regional level. In municipal elections of 1990, the FIS won fifty-four percent of the vote, almost double the percentage going to FLN. The new secular parties fared poorly. The secular establishment was rattled, particularly as the FIS emphasized its intention to increase the pace of Arabization in the educational system and reduce the French cultural influence.
Despite widespread misgivings in the country, Benjedid accepted the FIS victory, which led the party to control 46 percent of municipalities (including over ninety percent of those with a population over 50,000), and all four major cities. The president also went ahead with plans to hold new parliamentary elections in December 1991, with a run-off election to be held in early January in the jurisdictions where no party received the majority of the vote. The first round of elections showed the FIS was about to replicate the victory in the 1990 municipal elections. At that point, the military intervened and cancelled the second round of voting. Chadli Benjedid resigned in protest. He was replaced by a series of civilian presidents, but the military had made the point that it retained ultimate control. The FIS was disbanded.
The period that followed the elections was the darkest in the history of a country that had known many dark moments before. On the political side, Algeria was in turmoil, governed by a succession of three short-lived presidents named by the High Council of State (HCE), a military dominated governing body created in 1992. In January 1994, the HCE appointed a fourth president, retired General Lamine Zeroual. Nearly two years later, in November 1995, the first presidential elections since 1991 confirmed Zeroual as the country’s president.
The political instability of the period pales in significance compared to the violence that paralyzed the country from 1992 until 1999. Normal life became impossible in both cities and rural areas.
The political instability of the period pales in significance compared to the violence that paralyzed the country from 1992 until 1999. Normal life became impossible in both cities and rural areas. Although by 1995 at least one wing of the political class, and even the military, had become convinced that only a negotiated solution could put an end to the violence, as had parts of the Islamist movements, hardliners on both sides prevented an accord from being reached until 2005.
For a brief moment before the military intervention, it appeared that the political process might usher in a new regime. It happened at the local and provincial levels, but when it came to national politics and control of the legislature, a political victory was not sufficient to generate the power to dislodge the old regime. Could it have worked if a party other than a non-Islamist one had been close to victory? Of course, we will never know whether the old regime was motivated by genuine fear of fundamentalist rule or simply by the desire to maintain control. Furthermore, the possibility of a victory by secular parties never really existed. But facts are clear: change through a political process proved impossible.
Ending the Conflict
The slow progress was due not only to the gulf between the regime and the Islamists, but also to the divisions that existed within the ruling establishment and among Islamist movements themselves. The ruling establishment was divided between the so-called eradicators, who believed Islamists must be eliminated physically by the use of force, and the conciliators, who were convinced that the war could only be terminated by a negotiated solution. On the other side, the Islamist camp that had emerged after the dissolution of the FIS in 1992 and the arrest of its leaders was even more complicated.
This is not the place to examine this camp in detail. Suffice it to say that the coup of 1992 was a severe blow for those in the FIS who had chosen to fight for an Islamist state through elections and other political means, encouraging instead those who saw violence as the only path to reach those goals. The FIS thus was replaced by an armed group, the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut or AIS), which used violence but eventually entered into negotiations with the government. But more radical organizations also emerged, most importantly the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA), which had split from the FIS early on because of its embrace of electoral politics. It constituted a much more intractable problem, both because of the extreme violence it was willing to use against the civilian population and because it rejected negotiations. Toward the end of the conflict, when most Islamists were enticed to lay down arms by the promise of amnesty, the die-hards in all organizations formed a new group called Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC from the French name), which never surrendered.
When Zeroual suddenly resigned as president in September 1998, an agreement remained elusive, although a truce of sorts had been reached.
With a great deal of intransigence on both sides, negotiations proved hard and prolonged. An attempted mediation by the Italian Sant’Egidio community in 1995 failed to a large extent because of the divisions within the Islamist camp. (Sant’Egidio had a track record of successful mediations, particularly in Mozambique). The AIS, and behind it the FIS leaders, were amenable to talks, but the GIA remained more focused on armed action than a political agreement. When Zeroual suddenly resigned as president in September 1998, an agreement remained elusive, although a truce of sorts had been reached.
New presidential elections were held in April 1999 and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, an FLN stalwart and former foreign minister, was elected president unopposed after all other candidates withdrew. It was a triumph for the old political establishment. Bouteflika had fought during the liberation war, become foreign minister in 1963 and held that post until Boumediene’s death in 1979. He then spent some years abroad but returned to Algeria in 1987, immediately rejoining the FLN Central Committee.
Bouteflika was determined to end the conflict at all costs. Burying all issues of responsibility and guilt by both Islamist extremists and security forces, he chose to offer blanket amnesty to all who agreed to lay down arms. Shortly after the election, he submitted to parliament a “civil harmony” law (Loi sur la Concorde Civil), which he defined as the political expression of the agreement reached by the Algeria military and AIS/FIS. It was duly approved. The law was then submitted to a referendum in which an unlikely 98.6 percent of the voters approved, with an equally unlikely 85 percent participating – or so the government claimed.
The figures were undoubtedly inflated, but the law was popular. The general amnesty it granted suited the security forces as well as the AIS/FIS, both of which bore responsibility for the violence and brutality inflicted on the population. The law, inevitably, was severely criticized by human rights organizations and advocates of transitional justice, who wanted people responsible for the violence to be brought to justice or at least for the country to engage in a “truth and reconciliation” process that would acknowledge the atrocities that had been committed. It is not clear to this writer whether either of those choices would have brought about reconciliation rather than prolonging the conflict.
Bouteflika’s election marked the failure of the first attempt by Algerians to move on from the legacy of the war of independence and the iron grip of the military-civilian elite rooted in that experience. The death of Boumediene and Benjedid’s reopening of political life to the parties and processes was the first step in that attempt to move the political system away from that legacy. The effort degenerated in horrendous violence and war, and when peace finally returned, the old military-civilian establishment was still there, symbolized by the aging Bouteflika. The second attempt would be equally unsuccessful.
Return to Normal Politics and the Political Parties
With the election of Bouteflika and the approval of the civil harmony law, Algeria settled down to a semblance of normality, though small extremist groups continued to operate in remote areas. Part of the return to normality was the restoration of the role of political parties, which had been totally sidelined during the war. From January 1992 until June 1997 Algeria had no elected parliament. When elections were called, parties once again proliferated, with 39 organizations presenting candidates in the elections, the majority of them winning no seats. The FIS of course was not in the running, although two other Islamist parties were, including the Movement of Society for Peace (formerly Hamas), which won the second largest number of seats (69), ahead of the FLN (62). The winner of the election was the RND (Ressemblement National Democratique), which won 156 seats. Although the RND was a new party formed before the elections, its victory was not an indication of political renewal. Its leader Ahmed Ouyahia was a member of the political establishment, although he was too young to belong to the first generation of post-independence leaders. After a distinguished diplomatic career, in 1994 he had been named cabinet director by President Zeroual, becoming Prime Minister the following year. The continuity was confirmed when Ouahyia, short of the majority needed to form the government, promptly entered into a coalition with FLN
For the next two decades, Algerian politics was uneventful. Both presidential and parliamentary elections were held regularly every five years as prescribed by the constitution, although the low and decreasing voters’ turnout indicated the population did not believe the vote was significant. Bouteflika was re-elected in 2004, 2009, and 2014, despite having suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013. In 2019, he announced he would run for a fifth time in 2019.
But more important than the ups and downs of the main parties was the constant decrease in voter turnout, from a respectable 65 percent of registered voters in 1997 to a dismal 22 percent in 2021.
Parliamentary elections saw the FLN reestablish its position as the largest party, and the RND and the MSP maintain significant number of seats, despite the emergence of new organizations. But more important than the ups and downs of the main parties was the constant decrease in voter turnout, from a respectable 65 percent of registered voters in 1997 to a dismal 22 percent in 2021.
Yet, despite the clear signs of disenchantment with the political status quo, Algerians did not appear willing to rise up against it. Even as many countries in the Arab world erupted in opposition to their government in 2011, Algerians remained quiescent, leading to much speculation that the violence of the 1990s had somehow inoculated the country against further rebellion. It had not. Algerians rose up in 2019 after a second wave of discontent exploded in the Arab world.
The Hirak: A New Hope, Once Again Dashed
The announcement in February 2019 that President Ahmed Bouteflika would again run for president was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back of citizens’ forbearance. Bouteflika’s candidacy was ludicrous. His health was failing, he had not been seen in public for two years, and even then, he was in a wheelchair. To make things worse, it was clear that he would win the election as he had the four preceding ones, because he was simply the figurehead for a political-military establishment that had an iron grip on the country. This time, people took to the streets.
The Hirak—as the movement came to be called (the word in Arabic meaning “movement”)—was different from those the Arab world had known in 2011. First, it was initially focused on a narrow and attainable political goal: stopping Bouteflika’s candidacy. Second, Algerian protesters, like those who took to the streets in the same period in Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, had learned some lessons from the 2011 protest, particularly about the difficulty of sustaining activism over time. The huge crowds that marked the beginning of the 2011 uprisings had proved unsustainable. Most people could not afford to stay away from jobs and families for long, and the ordinary pressures of daily life quickly reduced the ranks of protesters.
From the beginning, Algerians set about to routinize protests, concentrating on Friday marches for adults and Tuesday ones for students. As a result, they sustained high levels of participation for months. But they had no success in winning over to their cause credible, experienced representatives capable of negotiating with the authorities—the need for such leadership was another hard lesson from 2011. They tried but failed.
The Hirak was successful in attaining the first goal, that of preventing Bouteflika from running again, but failed completely in shaking the grip of the old military-civilian establishment, which was the protesters’ ultimate intention. On April 2, after weeks of relentless demonstrations, President Bouteflika not only renounced his candidacy but also resigned as president without serving out the rest of his fourth term. Whether or not he had wanted to resign, the establishment he represented concluded that he had become a liability, much as the security-political establishment had done in 2011 in Egypt when it forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign. General Ahmed Gaid Salah, another veteran of the war of independence and close to Bouteflika took his place for the remainder of the term and called for elections on July 4.
Protesters knew that the resignation of Bouteflika itself was a pyrrhic victory, and demonstrations continued, initially focusing on another narrow goal, to obtain a postponement of the elections in order to have time to organize. Elections were postponed until December, but this was the Hirak’s last victory. The December elections showed the old establishment was as strongly in control as ever. All five candidates whose credentials were accepted by the election authority were members of the establishment. The winner, 74-year old Abdel Majid Tebboune, had been prime minister and was particularly close to the military and security forces—he confirmed this by keeping the defense portfolio for himself after the elections. Tebboune received 53 percent of the vote and officials put the turnout at 39 percent of registered voters, although other estimates concluded it was much lower.
The Hirak continued its protests during the entire election period, claiming that the country needed to overturn the entire political system before going to the polls, but to no avail. Months of protest and organizing thus ended in defeat since the election put in office a new president but not a new political class and did nothing to change the political system.
The attempt to dislodge the political class in power since 1962 by political action had failed for the second time.
Despite the defeat, the Hirak did not surrender immediately, continuing its cycle of protests. But opposition activity decreased over time and Algerians returned to quiescence, although the president never acquired widespread acceptance, let alone popularity. The attempt to dislodge the political class in power since 1962 by political action had failed for the second time.
There are essentially two ways in which new regimes are established in a country, either by the power of the gun or by a political process where new organizations develop and gain enough support to defeat the incumbents or convince them to give up power. Political parties have no role in the former process but are crucial to the latter.
The FLN, and particularly the military wing of that organization, came to power by the barrel of a gun. More precisely it exhausted France’s military and political resources to the point where the government concluded that the effort to hold on to Algeria was no longer justified, even if a million French citizens lived there. Once France gave up, the Algerian military leaders were quickly able to convert their military ascendancy into political power, particularly in the absence of any other organized political forces. The country’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, was a civilian, one of the historical leaders captured by the French early in the war when they hijacked their plane. In 1965, he was overthrown by his own military before he had time to build a political base of the support and Houari Boumediene came to power.
The death of Boumediene appeared to offer an opening for political forces, but the hope was dashed when the military seized control again in 1992. The ensuing decade of war did not succeed in creating a new generation of either political or military leaders. After 2019, the attempt by the Hirak to generate power through popular mobilization and eventually a democratic political process similarly ended in failure. Confronted with the determination of the old regime, neither street movements nor new political parties could make a difference. The grip of the military-civilian class that emerged from the war of independence has so far proven unshakable.
The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.
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