To counter the pacific revolutionary mobilization that led to the demise of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the remaining elements of the Algerian regime have implemented limited reforms under military and bureaucratic control. Yet, this effort to pursue another round of authoritarian upgrading relies on obsolete strategies, and the new generation of activists that emerged after the Hirak is much more likely to find new ways to address the pressing challenges faced by the country.
When looking at the trajectory of the Algerian Hirak—the peaceful revolutionary mobilization that led to the resignation of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019—one wonders whether the country is not doomed to replay a political sequence similar to that which crushed the hopes born after the popular uprising of October 1988. Marx’s famous claim about the repetition of historical events comes to mind. It seems that after the tragedy that led to the civil war of the 1990s, the regime and its international allies are now committed to replaying a similar script, this time in a farcical fashion.
Between 1988 and 1992, the bureaucratic-military apparatus that controls the Algerian state tried to manage the transition to political pluralism and sow division among its opponents. Yet, it failed to counter the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front. The resulting crisis led to a military coup and the so-called Dark Decade (1992-1999), which saw the Algerian Army defeat a fragmented Islamist insurgency at the cost of more than 100,000 deaths. At the end of this bloody conflict, newly elected Bouteflika implemented a strategy of “authoritarian upgrading” that aimed to transform the political order without changing the balance of power by drawing on a mix of pluralism, economic reforms, clientelism, and police control.
In today’s Algeria, the same alliance of generals and high-ranking technocrats are attempting to tame the popular movement that led to the political downfall of Bouteflika and his cronies. The regime organized a presidential election in December 2019 and a referendum in 2020 to demonstrate its alleged democratic legitimacy. Meanwhile, peaceful opponents face systematic repression that is justified by a Kafkaesque logic, as even a mildly critical post or a poem shared on social media can become synonymous with major offenses such as endangering the safety of the state or undermining the Army’s morale. Economic forecasts predict a booming public deficit, and the specter of economic restructuring is looming once again, as was the case in the 1990s.
Thus, the current political configuration in Algeria is in many ways reminiscent of past events. The remnants of the ruling coalition claim to be preventing a potential descent into chaos, even though their autocratic mismanagement fuels the ongoing crisis. Yet, even if the regime and its international allies seem committed to following the playbook of authoritarian upgrading, this does not mean that history will repeat itself. The strategies once used by Bouteflika and his allies to maintain a fragile equilibrium now seem outdated. Moreover, a new generation of younger activists displays both the skills and commitment that make a return to the status quo ante unlikely.
Hackneyed Recipes In its first months, the Hirak saw the rapid dismantlement of the ruling coalition with the fall of Bouteflika’s close-knit guard, the prosecution of major crony capitalists and former heads of the military intelligence, and the complete discrediting of satellite organizations (starting with pro-regime political parties). Since June 2019, the remaining components of the regime—chiefly the Army’s Command and the technocracy supported by police and judicial apparatuses—have reattempted to adapt the system of domination to changing conditions.
Following a longstanding tradition inherited from the war of independence, the spokespersons of the ruling coalition, including the late General-major Gaïd Salah, aimed to monopolize the right to speak in the name of the people. In an effort to undermine the populist narrative characteristic of the Hirak, they claimed that the movement had already accomplished its mission and should now leave the streets in order to allow the state to take the reins. This patronizing discourse, coupled with a paranoid nationalism, legitimizes a crack-down on dissenters accused of being manipulated by foreign powers. State officials and military figures positioned themselves as the only ones capable of ensuring a peaceful transition, while constantly invoking the specter of the 1990s.
The regime has implemented reforms allegedly aimed at transforming the system per the wishes of the people. As such, official government media presented the election of a new president in December 2019 as offering a “new hope” and a marker of “constitutional legitimacy.” Yet, Abdelmajid Tebboune’s election was hardly convincing given that the official voter turnout was less than forty percent. Meanwhile, the new revision of the constitution was introduced under strict bureaucratic control, following those of 2002, 2008, and 2016. Tebboune announced a referendum to harness popular support for this constitutional makeover, organized on the anniversary of the uprising against the French on November 1st, 2020. He thus mimicked the actions of Bouteflika, who organized a similar plebiscite in 1999 to compensate for his lack of legitimacy following a flawed presidential election. This did not prevent government mouthpieces from presenting the 2020 referendum as the “beginning of a new era.”
Reforms have been coupled with a surge in repression, as security apparatuses have cracked down on protesters across the country. In the summer of 2019, the regime tried to stop the Hirak’s bi-weekly marches. Activists were criminalized under phony pretexts such as undermining national unity or undercutting the Army’s morale. Police forces, both in uniform and in civilian clothes, were deployed massively to prevent demonstrations and implement mass arrests. They used non-lethal technics to regain control of the public space, including water and sound cannons. Security forces aimed to tame specific areas, notably Oran, the second-largest city in the country, in order to isolate the Hirak strongholds in the Center and East regions.
While hundreds of protesters have been detained, this did not prevent the Hirak from celebrating its first anniversary in February 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic nonetheless provided the regime with a unique opportunity to clear the streets. It benefited from the social isolation of its citizens, pursuing online repression by cherry-picking individuals who were then prosecuted for spreading fake news, organizing unlawful gatherings, or disrespecting state institutions.
This effort to thwart a resurgence of the Hirak has met a few international denunciations, notably coming from the European Parliament and human rights NGOs. Partner states, however, have remained tacitly complicit, and some have even expressed clear support for the “transition” implemented by Tebboune and his allies. Most notably, France and the United States have focused on securing their economic interests in the country and fostering greater involvement of the Algerian army in the Sahelian space. The support of international actors is critical to the survival of the Algerian ruling coalition, as was already the case in the 1990s.
Predictable Obsolescence The strategies implemented by the Algerian regime and validated by its allies have nonetheless failed to address the profound structural issues faced by the country since the end of the 1980s. At the beginning of November 2020, a member of the Pact of the Forces for a Democratic Alternative, a coalition of social movements and political parties supporting radical and non-violent political change, told the author of this article that discussion of the recent referendum is pointless. Furthermore, he said, “the new constitution guarantees once again the rights and freedoms of citizens, but none of this will be enforced. Lies are not a surprise anymore.” Meanwhile, a key goal of the Hirak is to reform the justice system, as police officers, judges, and prosecutors routinely weaponize the law to harass opponents.
Because of the gap between official rules and the reality of the exercise of power, popular trust in Algerian institutions has vanished. As has occurred with previous revolutionary movements in the region, the Hirak has resulted in the de-institutionalization of the routine mechanisms of governance favored by the regime. Thus, mechanisms of co-option are discredited, reforms fail to generate popular adhesion, and the voter turnout is plummeting. Less than twenty-four percent of the population participated in the 2020 referendum. The independent press portrays successive electoral processes as “bad remakes” that serve “an ephemerous and misleading status quo.” Despite this profound mistrust, Tebboune is pushing for the organization of local elections, arguing that they would allow for the emergence of credible and inclusive democratic institutions.
To be successful, authoritarian upgrading cannot merely be a bureaucratic process implemented by local regimes with the support of their international partners. It also needs to be credible. Yet, the Algerian ruling coalition cannot justify its resilience by invoking an imminent Islamist peril as it did in the 1990s. Moreover, the institutions producing its legitimacy are discredited. The National Liberation Front, one of the two ruling parties, claims to have “changed” after Bouteflika’s resignation. Yet, it still acts as a cheerleader for the government, celebrating the “successes” of Tebboune after less than a year in office. The efforts of its new general secretary, Abou El Fadhel Baadji, to stage a reconciliation with France have sparked expressions of internal dissent, which are described by the private press in a way that is reminiscent of Bouteflika’s tenure. As for Abdelmajid Tebboune, he was forced to leave the country at the end of October after falling ill with COVID-19. During his absence, the failure of the referendum to attract popular support appeared to weaken his position further. Even after his first public appearance two months later, independent newspapers doubted the capacity of the president to survive politically. On social media, Tebboune has been widely mocked and compared to the ailing Bouteflika, who was notoriously ill and absent from the country’s political life.
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, an essential part of the reforms that have been implemented are economic, attempting to preserve the country’s fragile political economy. Yet, after exceeding ten percent of the GDP in 2020, the budget deficit is expected to reach seventeen percent in 2021. While it focused on industrial production in the last years of Bouteflika’s rule, the government has now shifted to an approach based on entrepreneurship and start-up development. These initiatives have been actively supported by the US embassy, but this strategy is more fashionable than effective. It will not prevent an economic crash.
The combination of political deadlock and economic meltdown has already profoundly impacted Algerian society. Attempts to cross the Mediterranean and reach European shores have increased dramatically over the past twelve months. Meanwhile, the government has exhausted all the short-term monetary fixes that could prevent reliance on external debt. Such indebtedness will likely come at a price: an economic restructuring inspired by foreign donors and the privatization of public assets, including the country’s hydrocarbon wealth. The socioeconomic context will therefore exacerbate the political fragility of the ruling coalition.
A New Generation Reformism does not necessarily aim at solving problems. It also engenders forms of bureaucratic management that facilitate the process of authoritarian upgrading. In this case, institutional and economic makeovers are not conceived to be effective but, rather, enable the continuing exercise of power. Paradoxically, far from systematically enhancing the resilience of local regimes and including new constituencies in the existing power structure, such reforms can result in protracted political, social, and economic crises managed by a seemingly autonomous military-bureaucratic machine. Authoritarian upgrading can thus lead to the repetition of revolutionary situations with potentially disastrous consequences. From this perspective, Algeria is a textbook case.
The possibility of a repetition of the Dark Decade has long been a key feature in Algerian politics. The current combination of political repression and economic meltdown is certainly evocative of the first half of the 1990s. If things stay as they are, history may repeat itself. Indeed, this has been affirmed by some activists who are striving to propose an alternative to the regime.
Nevertheless, a simple repetition of the 1990s is unlikely. While the ruling coalition remains centered on the military and the technocracy, a generational shift has occurred under Bouteflika. A group of officials socialized during the chaos of the Dark Decade will certainly not consider mass violence to be an appealing option. More importantly, the structure of the Hirak has disqualified pre-existing political organizations and allowed for the coming of age of a new generation of activists. Raised under the shadow of the civil war, they have made pacifism and civility the pillars of their repertoire of action. In universities and local associations, they have developed forms of local and autonomous organizing that break with a longstanding tradition of verticality. They also possess the digital know-how that allowed them to sideline older generations of opponents after the beginning of the pandemic. Newly founded collectives such as Nida-22 strive to bring together the various components of the Hirak in order to offer a consensual alternative to the regime. Initiated by a group of civil society activists, Nida-22 uses digital platforms to organize meetings and debates across the country to prepare an inclusive conference that will advance concrete political propositions supported by different groups. This new generation of activists benefits from the support of longstanding opponents such as human rights lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi, who presented Nida-22 as an initiative that “creates hope” and participated in the first meeting organized by the collective at the end of October 2020. In addition, this renewal also includes organizations such as Rachad, which was founded by former Islamist activists and soldiers that support peaceful resistance and the end of military interference in politics.
Nevertheless, Hirak activists still face many challenges, starting with repression and the need to create unity. Because of lasting ideological and strategic differences, the fragmentation among opposition movements still prevails. For instance, the collective of leftist organizations that pushes for the organization of a “congress for citizenship” is suspicious of the inclusive strategy of Nida-22 because it integrates Islamist actors. Moreover, the regime has co-opted a limited number of opponents in the name of dialog. The initiative Massar Jadid (New Way) illustrates the appeal of this kind of forum, bringing together former supporters of Bouteflika and Hirak activists for the sake of finding common ground.
The political consequences of the 2019 uprising are nonetheless far-reaching. While the regime’s political toolkit seems more outdated than ever, a profound political renewal is at work, combined with broad initiatives aiming to unify and coordinate the energies liberated by the Hirak. The current trajectory of Algeria may resemble that of the 1990s, but opponents have adapted their strategies to the legacy of the Dark Decade and the practices of the regime. The emergence of a new generation of activists cannot be merely silenced by a “business as usual” approach. Given the multi-faceted emergency Algeria faces, solutions are more likely to come from the Hirak than from a sclerotic bureaucratic-military machine.
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Thomas Serres is a lecturer in the politics department at UCSC and a specialist in North Africa. The manuscript of his first book is entitled “The Suspended Disaster: Governance by Catastrophization in Bouteflika’s Algeria.” He has also co-edited a volume entitled “North Africa and the Making of Europe: Governance, Institutions and Culture” that was published in 2018 with Bloomsbury University Press.
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