Newspaper article International New York Times

The Algerian Exception

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Algerian Exception

Article excerpt

The Bouteflika government has managed to deflect an Arab Spring - - but the situation is untenable.

Algeria is indeed a country of the Arab world: a de facto dictatorship with Islamists, oil, a vast desert, a few camels and soldiers, and women who suffer. But it also stands apart: It is the only Arab republic untouched by the Arab Spring of 2010-2011. Amid the disasters routinely visited upon the region, Algeria is an exception. Immobile and invisible, it doesn't change and keeps a low profile.

This is largely because Algeria already had its Arab Spring in 1988, and it has yet to recover. The experience left Algerians with a deep fear of instability, which the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, has exploited, along with the country's oil wealth, to control its people -- all the while deploying impressive ruses to hide Algeria from the world's view.

October 1988: Thousands of young Algerians hit the streets to protest the National Liberation Front (F.L.N.), the dominant party born of the war for independence; the absence of presidential term limits; a mismanaged socialist economy; and a tyrannical secret service. The uprising is suppressed with bloodshed and torture. The single-party system nonetheless has to take a step back: Pluralism is introduced; reforms are announced.

The Islamists came out ahead in the first free elections in 1990, and again in the 1991 legislative elections -- only to be foiled by the military in January 1992. Long before Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Algeria had invented the concept of therapeutic coup d'etat, of coup as cure for Islamism. At the time, the military's intervention did not go over well, at least not with the West: This was before 9/11, and the world did not yet understand the Islamist threat. In Algeria, however, Islamism was already perceived as an unprecedented danger. After the coup followed a decade of civil war, which left as many as 200,000 people dead and a million displaced, not to mention all those who disappeared.

When in 2010-2011 the Arab Spring came to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, Algerians hoped for change, too. But their fear that war or the Islamists would return was greater still. "We have already paid," the vox populi said, and the government joined in, intent on checking any revolutionary urge.

At the time I wrote: "Yes, we have already paid, but the goods have not been delivered." The regime had slowly been gnawing away at the democratic gains made in October 1988: freedom of speech, a true multiparty system, free elections. Dictatorship had returned in the form of controlled democracy. And the government, though in the hands of a sickly and invisible president, was brilliant at playing on people's fears. "Vote against change" was the gist of the prime minister's campaign for the 2012 legislative elections.

The government also exploited the trauma left by France's 132- year presence, casting the Arab Spring as a form of neocolonialism. To this day, the specter of colonialism remains the regime's ideological foundation and the basis of its propaganda, and it allows the country's so-called liberators -- now well into their 70s -- to still present themselves as its only possible leaders. France's direct intervention to oust Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya only played into their hands; it looked like the sinister workings of their phantasmagorical triptych of enemies: France, the C. …

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