Algeria: Bucking the Arab Spring

The recent fall of Tripoli to the Libyan rebels came as no surprise to observers of the conflict. Despite setbacks and failures coupled with strong resistance from pro-Muammar Gaddafi elements, the rebels managed to succeed through determination and NATO support. With the fall of Gaddafi, it now seems the Arab Spring has turned to summer, and soon autumn. Yet, a key participant which many seasoned experts thought would be at the very fulcrum of any potential unrest has been absent: Algeria.

Algeria should have been in the grip of great popular demonstrations, with the regime facing the prospect of having to genuinely tackle reform. In fact, we should be hearing more of Algeria during the Arab Spring due to the country's serious socio-economic situation and the total lack of participatory government, coupled with a strong Algerian history of politically motivated protests. 

Algeria has been missing from the media coverage of the Arab spring, and despite some initial protests and self immolations has been largely quiet. This quasi-silence is in part due to Algeria’s bloody history during the 1990s (after the last popular demand for free elections), continued repression by state security services, and popular fear of potential Libyan-style instability.

During the late 1980s, Algeria was rocked by protests and demand for change. Consequently, Algeria became the first Arab country to institute multi-party politics unregulated by government, resulting in a party called Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) gaining the majority of the vote in local and national elections. This resulted in a coup d’etat by the Algerian military, which in turn caused a decade of unchecked, savage, and indiscriminate civil war, claiming the lives of over 150,000 Algerians. Therefore, unlike Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya, the appetite for popular protests in Algeria is tempered by the fact that Algerians know the true brutality of a military crackdown.

Equally, the control of the Algerian state over its population has led to a lack of protests. Algerian security forces are routinely ruthless in their suppression of dissent, especially dissent expressed in the open through demonstrations or protests. In scenes reminiscent of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s last days, protesters in Algeria are frequently attacked in the street not only by security forces but by regime supporters, armed with clubs and batons. The Algerian regime regularly employs this tactic and the resultant fear seems to have discouraged many from taking to the streets to express their discontent with the regime.

Finally, the regime has taken, however late, some steps towards compromise with Algerians. It has repealed the emergency laws, designed to stop gatherings in public places and giving authorities blanket powers for the detention opponents. It also promised constitutional reforms including term limits for future Algerian presidents. This has led many Algerians to set aside demands for reform for the time being. 

In the wake of the fall of Tripoli, it is clear that Algeria needs to reform and restructure to meet the demands of its people, to give them the opportunity to shape their own future in a way that is not suppressed or controlled by the regime. However, it is also understandable that after more than a decade of civil war and unrest, Algerians are wary of the Arab Spring and its potential unseen and unknown consequences. Algerians may fear and loathe the regime that rules them, but they fear the insecurity and instability of a Libyan or Tunisian outcome even more.

Photo Credit: Magharebia

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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