The Algerian Conundrum: Authoritarian State, Democratic Society


Algeria is facing deepening domestic uncertainty as collapsing oil revenues and tensions across the region threaten its hard-won stability. Adding to the concern are questions about the ability of the country’s ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (below) to govern — and whether he is still the one making the decisions. The 78-year-old president is rarely seen in public after suffering two strokes in recent years, The FT’s Heba Saleh reports:

Algeria avoided the unrest that has afflicted its neighbors since the 2011 Arab uprisings largely by buying off its 39m-strong population — cranking up public spending on subsidies, public-sector salaries and social housing. But this year the slump in oil revenue forced it to cut spending by 9 per cent and lift energy prices — raising fears of unrest among a public accustomed to government handouts.

Algerians may yet have little appetite for social upheaval. A nascent protest movement in 2011 fizzled out because the trauma of the country’s bloody civil war in the 1990s has yet to wear off and the population remains wary of any slide towards violence, observers say.

“Here people often protest over localized grievances but no one can say if it will spread or not,” said Lounes Guemache, editor of the TSA-Tout Sur L’Algerie news website. But, he says, “what is certain is that we are now in a more dangerous period”.

The prospects for democratic reform in Algeria are as complex and paradoxical as the country’s convoluted history and opaque politics, notes analyst John P. Entelis. While civil society has long possessed a democratic spirit rooted in its historic interaction with French republican principles, this orientation is highly disaggregated, he writes in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy series “Beyond Islamists & Autocrats: Prospects for Political Reform Post Arab Spring”:

For its part, the authoritarian polity maintains its stranglehold on civil society through a military-industrial complex that monopolizes the key coercive, economic, and bureaucratic instruments of the state. No amount of externally derived pressure for democratic reform, whether economic or political, has been able to alter this stalemate in state-society relations…Algerian democratic reformers, whether indi­vidually or collectively, have had little influence on alter­ing this state-society dynamic, and many view the U.S. role in critical if not hostile terms. Indeed, many Alge­rian “liberals” denounce America’s democratic preten­sions, arguing that Washington’s democracy-promotion agenda is little more than a cover for more hegemonic ambitions in the region.

Given these structural limitations, U.S. policy should avoid public promotion of democratization, human rights, and political pluralism, since Algerians believe they are already “democratic,” “promote human rights,” and “advance political pluralism,” however compro­mised or incomplete each of these areas may be in prac­tice. As noted earlier, Algerians are extremely protective of their national sovereignty and distrustful of those who seek to interfere in their domestic affairs.


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