Algeria at Forty: A Midlife CrisisSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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On September 27-29, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies held a conference on “Islam, Democracy and the State in Algeria: Lessons for the Western Mediterranean and Beyond.” This was part of the series of interlocking seminars and conferences that II has organized through its Crossing Borders Initiative, funded by the Ford Foundation. Partners also included the American Institute for Maghrib Studies and the Center for European Studies/European Union Center, which made major contributions of both funding and effort.
Even while the world has kept its attention focused on other areas, Algeria remains an important country to watch. It was there, just over a decade ago, that democratic elections in an Arab country led to the victory of an Islamist political party, which was then swept away in a military coup. The terrible internal conflict that followed is not yet completely over: as we were reminded at the conference, more people are still dying from politically motivated violence in Algeria, day in day out, than in Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
The conference discussed social and political networks across the Mediterranean; the Algerian political economy; democracy and Islam; and the role of external powers in the Algerian crisis. Participants, who came from Algeria, Europe, Canada and the US, included some of the world‘s leading experts on contemporary Algeria. Among the panelists were Kada Akacem, Daniel Brumberg, Boutheina Cheriet, Fanny Colonna, Daniela Gobetti, John Entelis, Clement Henry, Ali Kouaouci, Azzedine Layachi, Luis Martinez, William Quandt, Yahia Zoubir and others. The keynote address was given by I. William Zartman, Jacob Blaustein Professor of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Its text follows, shorn of footnotes. Papers from the conference will be published next year in a special issue of Journal of North African Studies.
Michael Bonner and Mark Tessler, co-convenors
We are here to celebrate an important decennial anniversary in the life of Algeria, but which one? Much of the current discourse on Algeria seems to be stuck in 1992, when the sudden democratization process started by the 1988 riots was snuffed out. But if a tenth anniversary were the source of our celebration, it would be—with mixed rejoicing—to note the resurgence of a state against the same type of economic pressures that triggered the collapse of a state in Yugoslavia at the same time and the collapse of a regime in Iran over a decade earlier. Rather than a watershed, 1992 marked the renewal of many of the characteristics of the previous three decades, characteristics that have continued over the past decade. So I would rather focus on a longer period, marked by Algeria‘s fortieth birthday as an independent state, and examine the extent to which four of these characteristics have persisted. To do this, I would also want to compare Algeria‘s condition at 40 with that of other similar polities and societies at the same “age,” if such can be found. At 40, I would say, Algeria is undergoing a prolonged midlife crisis, to put it lightly. If midlife crisis suggests a dramatic change, Algeria has had its dramatic change and has lived through it.
Of the revolutionary elites that took over 40 years ago, the dominant political core became institutionalized as the army officers corps. They came primarily from the National Liberation Army (ALN) that trained and dreamed on the frontiers of Algeria. Most of them were a generation away from the land, “the sons of fellahin and sons of workers” (in Boumedienne‘s phrase, with emphasis on the “sons”) who had moved into a marginalized existence in towns and cities, and some of whom had enlisted in the French army and risen through the ranks. It was said that when the ALN crossed the borders in 1962, the worst of the lot went home, the next best became party officials of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the next best became government officials and the best and the brightest became officers in the new National People‘s Army (ANP). Initially imbued with a productionist ethic, they gradually absorbed the consumptionist ethic of the mujahidin whom they had eased out (Zartman 1970). Yet the post-revolutionary elites in the officer corps retained two ideological tenets which put them on collision course with the Islamicists: an identification with modernism (of undefined content) and a defense of their privileges (of undisclosed content).
Despite the elevation of Liamine Zeroual to the head of state in 1994 and his election to the presidency in 1995, the former French army officers of the “Class of 1958” maintained their dominance through Generals Khalid Nezzar and Mohammed Lamari, past and present chiefs of staff and others around them. Obviously, the group cannot clone itself or repeat its own formative experiences, but it has been able to socialize new recruits into its ways of thinking and acting. The privileged calling of the army, its separation from civilian activities, the security of its employment, its intermarriage and the absence of foreign experience (except for counter-terrorist training) all work to create a special order into which young officers are folded. This isolation is reinforced externally by the declining reputation of the army since 1988, and internally by the vigilance of the Military Security (SM) arm (Ellyas 2002). This is not a middle class, but an upper class of praetorian privilege, mamluks of modernization (Leca), drawing their benefits from the impoverishment of the middle class. ICG estimates this group of elites “privileged by the access to the regime—directly or through patronage” at 600,000 to 800,000, or 2 1/2 percent of the population, whereas Colonna estimates the real middle class at a fifth of the population and Nouschi at barely a tenth.
Yet the current experience of the army officers is far from the formative experience of the original core. Externally, the army has nothing to do, and has had no external military engagement for a quarter of a century, since Amgala in 1976. Its work over the past decade has been in counter-terrorism, an activity marked by ineffectiveness and dirty tricks. While this sort of experience can lead to disaffection among younger officers, their target would be uncertain: they cannot rebel against the government because they are the government or the force behind it, and a shift to the Islamicist opposition would be picked up by the SM, all the more if it involved other officers. A Free Officers‘ revolt, as in Egypt in 1952, is unlikely.
This post-revolutionary core is here to stay as the major political force in Algeria. The one evolution that is likely is the reinforcement of its position as an economic elite as privatization slowly comes on. Such activity only serves to reinforce the current characteristics of the officer corps, although it challenges the important role of the SM through their security and prevention bureaus (BSP) now located in all parastatals. The shift of the weight of officers‘ economic activity from the public to the private sector has the potential for bringing changes to the military role in the political system as well, but they will be slow. Similarly, if issues of imperative concern to the army—such as Islamist terrorism or the Western Sahara, among others—recede in immediacy, the army could pull back into a guardian role as in Turkey, but that time is also distant.
While there are no close parallels to the institutionalized revolutionary elite that dominated Algeria‘s early years or the post-revolutionary elite into which into has evolved, Turkey and Egypt provide some comparisons. In Egypt 40 years after the Nasserite revolution of 1952, the Free Officers are no longer in control, even though the country‘s three presidents have all been army officers. The political class is definitely a post-revolutionary elite, although no longer military, showing little inclination to fade away. Although the Egyptian army is subservient to the government and not the reverse as in Algeria, it has no cause or ability to repeat the earlier revolution. In Turkey, 40 years after the Kemalist revolution of 1922, the army had reemerged from its position of guardian of the revolution behind the scenes and had taken over government, executed former ministers, adopted a new and more liberal constitution and recalled Mustafa Kemal‘s lieutenant, Ismet Inönü, to the presidency. Despite some attempts to withdraw to a position of guardian, in 1986 and in 1999, the ANP has never handed over governing power to civilians as has the army in Turkey, and today, President Abdulaziz Bouteflika needs the army as much as the army needs Bouteflika.
The FLN is one of the famous single parties of the modern world, although it did not have the autonomy and integrity of some others also famous. Everyone in Algeria was FLN and it was the army that was the spearhead of the nationalist movement. When the army took direct control of the government in 1965, the FLN of overthrown president Ahmed ben Bella did not move. Thereafter, under Ahmed Qaid and then under Mohammed Salah Yahiaoui it became a ministry of mobilization run by party hacks. A series of attempts at five-year intervals to turn it into a mass organization, the latest under Chadli Benjedid in the mid-1980s, all failed. The FLN became the organization of the civilian political elite and hence the target of dissatisfaction which carried the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to the doors of victory in 1990-1991.
With a brief interlude in the mid-1990s, Algeria has experienced single-party rule, or in recent times rule by le parti quasi-unique, as the Tunisians put it. After nearly three decades of dominance, the FLN appeared to be giving way to a new single party: le FIS est le fils du FLN, it was proclaimed. Thereafter, the FLN ran into a poor reception throughout the 1990s and was replaced by the National Democratic Rally (RNP) as the official party. But in the most recent elections it returned to majoritarian dominance in the National Peoples‘ Assembly, probably never to reclaim its monopolistic position but at least to be the dominant party of The Power. This position may put it on collision course with the post-revolutionary elite of the army, as it has been on occasion in the past—1964, 1982, 1990, 1995, 1998—, and though it is likely to lose in the collision for the reasons given under the previous characteristic, as it has in the past, a dominant party of some namer is likely to remain the primary characteristic of Algeria‘s civilian politics.
Since the FLN never had the autonomy and integrity of other important single-parties elsewhere, it is hard to find good evolutionary parallels. The Congress, India‘s nationalist movement turned single party, at 40 found itself in the opposition to a fundamentalist or at least ethnic nationalist government, the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of Mexico was still firmly in control in 1986 at 40, but after 40 years in power the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast (PDCI) was removed from office by ethnic strife and a military coup. The closest parallel to the FLN‘s fortunes can be found next door in Tunisia, despite many other differences. The New Constitution (Neo-Destour) Party, renamed the Socialist Constitutional (Destourien) Party (PSD) in 1964, and then restructured and rerenamed the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) in 1998, gave way at the time of the latter change to a multiparty system, after the founding President Habib Bourguiba had given way to his prime minister, Zine Labidine ben Ali. But Tunisians do not waste their votes on parties not already in power, and ben Ali made sure that the other parties had neither the funds, the leadership, nor the latitude to play their role to the full. Algeria‘s government party is not quite the quasi-single party that is the RCD in Tunisia, and divisions of ethnic and political culture may prevent it from fully attaining that status, but the direction is there.
Like other hydrocarbon rentier states, Algeria was cursed with a cushion from its beginnings, allowing it to buy off its graduates and make mistakes in its economic planning. Its economy has always been monoculture-dependent, its attempts to make a giant leap into industrialization heavily subsidized, and its agriculture given over to bureaucratic inefficiency since 1963. Algeria contracted an economic Dutch disease, and also its social equivalent, as social demands and expectations inflated along with national income, and then brought on a revolution of falling satisfactions with the oil price crash of 1986.
Economics is made of figures and the figures are startling. Only a few need to be recalled. The decade of the 1990s saw a 50 percent increase in percentage of unemployment in the population equal to more than a doubling of absolute numbers, amounting to nearly a third of the labor force, over three million people, three fourths of whom are under 30. This figure was 40 percent higher than the unemployment in Europe in the crash years of the 1930s, and double both the European figure of 1938 and the American figure of the decade of the 1930s. At the end of the decade the private sector still employed some five percent of the labor force, mainly in family firms of less than ten employees; Algeria and China were long the only countries whose structural adjustment plan did not include privatization. 60 percent of the partnership investments remain unfunded and 90 percent of Algerian banks credits were in the state and public sector in 2001, with only four percent on the private sector, yet the heavy industry parastatals have run at around 40 percent capacity for the past decade (comparable to Zaire/Congo). Over the 1990s, Algerians lost almost half of their purchasing power. The upper quintile of the population accounts for 43 percent of consumer expenditures (over two fifths) while the lower quintile accounts for less than seven percent. The oil and gas sector accounts for 97 percent of export earnings, 58 percent of government revenues, and 23 percent of GDP. As a result, there is a large—but of course unquantifiable—parallel economy involving a spectrum of activities from family connections to migrant flows to elite “pseudo-private entrepeneurs and predators” to Islamic groups.
The three elements indicated by these figures are the rentier economy, its centralized nature, its slow privatization, and its drastic reduction in size with the attendant social costs. None of these elements show any signs of disappearing, or even of significant change. While Sonatrach embarks on a $19 billion five-year expansion program, it is the oil and gas sector that accounts for nearly all of the foreign investment in Algeria. Privatization plans dropped from 1200 companies in 1995 to 89 privatizable firms in 1998 to a stock exchange listing of 20-25 percent capital shares of four companies by 1999, contrasting with a 2000 listing—reverting to 1998 aspirations—of some 100 companies immediately privatizable and some 800 more later. “The conditions which determine the present economic situation have changed little. The structural constraints and obstacles that confront the Algerian economy remain the same….The principal inconvenience of such a scenario is its immobilism, which threatens to exacerbate the already troubling economic and social situation and to accentuate the wait-and-see attitude of international investors and partners.” (Said Haddad 2002, 87, 92).
Again, the close—let alone exact—exemplars of such a situation are difficult to find. Egypt combined a centralized economy, privatization and poverty (at a much lower level); Saudi Arabia exemplifies the rentier condition; Libya the rentier and centralized conditions and Nigeria the rentier, privatizing and poverty conditions. Perhaps the closest case with all four characteristics is Indonesia, which, whatever its lessons, shows that economics alone is scarcely a guiding parameter. But Belaid Abdesslam‘s dream was to transform his economy on the model of—of all places—Bulgaria, scarcely a model at any time. More revealing, South Korea and Algeria had almost identical per capita GNPs until 1987; five years later, Algeria had dropped to a third of the rising South Korean figure, a striking illustration of Davies‘ J-curve model of the causes of civil revolt.
The three preceding characteristics of Algeria at 40 are all variations on a unitarian mythology found in the united Front, revolutionary unity, the “unique” party, national charters and the unified economy around a single commodity. They clash significantly with the schizophrenia with which Algeria faces its own identity. The cultural split between “modernity” and “tradition” (for lack of better words) was illustrated from the beginning by two striking images: the clash of political cultures between the moujahidine and the ALN, and the reaction of the women of the resistance to being subjected to the constraints of traditional marriages and home life after independence. The two incidents are symbolic as well as real: after 1991, the junta was motivated as much as a protector of modernity against obscurantism as as protector of its own privileges, and after 1991, self-identifying modern women marched in favor of the army‘s actions and against—among others—the Sant‘Egidio Rome agreement with the FIS. In the end, both the army and the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA)—if not the FIS itself—were caricatural representatives of the two identitarian currents of which they were the self-appointed guardians. The war of caricatures between the Arabic and French-language press reaffirms the same split.
The forces pushing the identity poles apart continue to operate. The continuing post-Islamicist terror is not the most important among them. But the debate continues to be passionate and polarizing, external manifestations of identity such as dress continue to be provocative and international events provide contextual support for the confrontation.
Algeria‘s identity split mirrors that of the entire Arab world and perhaps more largely the developing world, but in its most extreme form. Paradoxically perhaps, it is its vigor that is the most encouraging sign. Of all the four characteristics evoked in this presentation, the greatest hope lies in the tension of the identity debate. Masses of individuals on both sides are looking for themselves, and if the hallmark of this characteristic, like the others, is continuity, it is, unlike the others, a creative continuity that promises a constructive synthesis as the outcome of its dialectic. But if it can‘t be talked about, as Fanny Colonna notes, how can the synthesis be found?
The Nobel Committee and the World Bank tell us that good governance and institutionalization are the key to development, and Amartya Sen tells us that liberty is precious social capital. Over the past decades, Algeria has disdeveloped by 50 percent, and not because of falling oil prices—as noted, the hard state weathered that—but because the oil and gas revenues that did come in were not productively invested and because the freedom to create, choose and hold accountable was withheld. So be it. The interesting question concerns the future: against this background, what does it take to create the conditions that free the mind and the soul to fill its natural space and test its limits? Like so many things, we know where There is but we don‘t know how to get There. Perhaps the identitarian dialectic, vigorously pursued, will permit a synthesis that over comes the other three characteristics. Is there still time and how long will it take?