The Middle East Channel

Algeria, revolutionary in name only

The news that Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi's wife and three of his children found political refuge in neighboring Algeria comes as no surprise given the country's long-standing effort to reaffirm its revolutionary heritage, drawn from 132 years of colonial occupation and nearly eight years of a war of national liberation. Yet this historically-rooted revolutionary struggle was long ago routinized. The resulting bureaucratically defined and elitist directed nationalist myth is intended as much to sustain the political status quo as to serve as an exemplar of peoples' revolt against hegemonic rule, whether foreign imposed or domestically conspired.

Algeria's reluctance to abandon its fellow revolutionary in Libya flows from an outdated yet still dominant ideological frame of reference through which Algeria sees the world and wants to be seen by it. It also reflects an unwillingness to accept the new geopolitical and strategic realities that the Arab Spring has brought to North Africa and the Middle East.

This "stand pat" perspective exists in the context of fundamental challenges currently confronting the Algerian political system along three different but related axes. The first challenge is an intra-elite struggle for power between the governing class and the all-powerful intelligence services. Secondly, the battle for economic supremacy between resource nationalists and economic reformers has led to a political standstill. This conflict revolves around control over the "goose that lays the golden eggs" -- Sonatrach, the country's gargantuan national oil and gas company. Finally, intergenerational divisions plague state-society relations. Discontented, disillusioned, and desperate youth -- often over-educated but under-employed -- have taken to the streets in repeated wildcat strikes, public demonstrations, and other forms of anti-regime protest. Such protests signal a permanent rupture with the grand social contract implied in the post-independence ideological mantra, "the revolution for the people and by the people."

Recent developments point to an intra-elite power struggle at the highest levels of state authority involving the three pillars of the Algerian state: the military and intelligence agency; Sonatrach, representing the economic engine of the country; and the ruling elite in the governing party (Front de Libération National). In early January 2010, there was a political upheaval of national proportions affecting Sonatrach's senior management team. The president of Sonatrach, Mohammed Meziane, and three of the company's four vice presidents were fired as a result of a public corruption investigation. Algeria's top security and intelligence agency, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), headed by the influential General Mohammed "Tewfik" Mediène, initiated the investigation.   

Given the direct relationship between Meziane and his boss, Energy, Mines and Industry Minister Chakib Khelil, it was not long after the scandal broke out that Khelil himself was indirectly implicated. The minister was not charged but simply removed from his important position in a government reshuffle. A month later, major shifts in cabinet appointments followed another significant event -- the assassination of Ali Tounsi, head of the national police or Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (DGSN).

Tounsi was no mere flic (cop), but a key figure in the government security apparatus having directed the DGSN for over ten years. Under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Tounsi modernized the national police force, overseeing a rapid expansion in personnel, and constructing dozens of new police stations across the country as part of the government's anti-terrorism program. Bouteflika's strong support for Tounsi's efforts was part of the president's larger strategy to create a powerful security force loyal to the executive and independent of the DRS. Although Tounsi himself was once a colonel in the army, he had been a civilian for many years. Thus, some analysts saw a connection between the DRS investigation of Sonatrach officials close to Bouteflika and the murder of the police chief.

Although the army high command (or le pouvoir) was instrumental in securing the Algerian presidency for Bouteflika in 1999, since that time -- and following two successful back-to-back presidential reelections in 2004 and 2009 -- Bouteflika has gradually reasserted authority over his military patrons. Through a combination of forced retirements, ambassadorial assignments, and the age-related deaths of many key high army officers, he was able to concentrate ultimate power within the executive office, with him at its head. This attempt at shifting the balance of power away from le pouvoir in favor of civilian authority did not sit well with Gen. Mediène -- the aging but powerful head of the DRS and the country's ultimate power broker.

In addition, unpacking the conflict between "resource nationalists" and economic reformers is crucial to understanding the government's maneuvers. When Bouteflika announced the cabinet reshuffle at the end of May 2010, the political implications of the corruption scandal were still playing out. Ultimately, 14 men, the majority of whom formerly served as senior officials of Sonatrach, were indicted for their involvement in the direct awarding of contracts to international service companies. They were replaced by individuals identified more closely with resource nationalists, the old-line political conservatives, and le pouvoir.

In a blow to Bouteflika's efforts to redirect the Algerian economy and polity away from its overly authoritarian past into a more liberal, pluralistic future, three principal members of Bouteflika's government were removed from their cabinet positions. The sacked ministers, closely associated with reformist economic policies, were Chakib Khelil from the energy ministry, Abdelhamid Temmar from the investment promotion ministry, and Nourredine Zerhouni from the interior ministry. The confluence of the dramatic events described above virtually assures that hard-line resource nationalists will be determining the direction of the national economy -- including the legal, administrative, and financial status of Sonatrach -- in the immediate and intermediate future.

These governmental changes are significant because all three of the men removed from their high-profile positions were professionally, politically, and personally close to the Algerian president. Khelil and Temmar, for example, were central to Bouteflika's efforts early on in his second term to open up the country to increased foreign investment, especially in the energy sector. Le pouvoir consistently opposed these efforts.

As interior minister, Zerhouni endeavored to exercise the full powers of the presidency. In his previous post, he had control of the DGSN, the police agency that had been significantly strengthened, ostensibly to reinforce the "war on terror," but also as a means of counter-balancing the power of le pouvoir -- the army and the DRS. Now as "deputy prime minister," a new and undefined position, Zerhouni pales in comparison.

The changes in personnel reflect a broader policy shift in key areas of the economy, especially the energy sector. Both Khelil and Temmar came to represent the liberal moment in recent Algerian economic history, with the former tasked with the liberalization of the hydrocarbons industry in which foreign companies were to be allowed majority ownership in upstream oil and gas licenses and related downstream industry. Temmar was given responsibility for implementing a privatization policy intended to sell off more than 1,000 state-owned enterprises. But in the past five years, the two ministers had been undermined by an increasingly conservative regime strategy and, in any case, had long since ceased to promote market-oriented reforms.

The Arab Spring arrived at a critical juncture in Algeria's modern history as a state and society are in the midst of great uncertainty. While anti-state behavior has not reached the proportions experienced in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, or Yemen, the protest movement does reflect a deep cleavage within the body politic. The gap between state and society in Algeria has never been wider than it is today. A deeply discontented mass public is demanding change from an apparently indifferent, if not contemptuous, ruling elite. The list of grievances held by the majority of ordinary Algerians cuts across every category of society, economy, and polity; grievances that have found expression in virtually daily acts of protests and other forms of civil disobedience.

To be sure, there are numerous factors that limit the degree of political change via populist protest in Algeria. The ferocity of a militarized apparatus determined to maintain itself in power at any cost is not the only impediment to revolution. Factors such as the size of the country, the diversity of its population, and the oil-generated wealth used to placate aggrieved classes also play a significant role. Furthermore, the recent memory of bloody civil war that left 200,000 dead along with the continued attacks by the terrorist group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, hangs over the national consciousness, serving as a brake to large-scale domestic rebellion.

Meanwhile, Algeria's youthful population, constituting the country's majority, has begun to articulate a political vision far removed from the country's aging ruling elite. The archaic phraseology of the past is now being replaced by explicit demands for political freedom, democracy, and human dignity. The emergence of a loosely coordinated group of opposition figures known as National Council for Democratic Change (Coordination nationale pour le changement et la démocratie) has spearheaded a populist revolt against the regime since early 2011, inspired in great measure by the intifadas taking place in North Africa and the Middle East. But is Algeria "next"?

The weakened president is unlikely to complete his third presidential term in 2014 because of visible illness, and the constitutional system does not provide a clear mechanism for political succession. Meanwhile, an individual who is himself, at 72, exhibiting signs of physical weakness, heads an emboldened national security apparatus. The hydrocarbon industry, from which virtually all sources of state revenues derive, remains politically manipulated and economically mismanaged. As such, an increasingly animated civil society is no longer willing to be placated by either rhetorical promises or short-term economic rewards as condition for political compliance.

What is clear is that the previous modes of rule-making and rule-enforcement will have to be fundamentally reconfigured to respond to populist demands for social advancement, economic opportunity, and political freedoms. Whether this process develops peacefully or violently is ultimately in the hands of le pouvoir -- as it has been since the founding of the republic.

John P. Entelis is a professor of political science and director of the Middle East Studies Program at Fordham University. He is the editor of The Journal of North African Studies.

Marc Lynch

Will Egypt's Activists Boycott the Election?

Egyptian activist groups have called for another "million man march" on Friday, September 9 in an attempt to "correct the course" and to revive what they see as a flailing revolution.  Friday is shaping up as a significant test of the continuing power of the activist groups after a summer where they have struggled. The exuberantly successful mass demonstration of July 8 gave way to an unpopular Tahrir sit-in and a disastrous attempt to march on the Ministry of Defense.  Recent calls for protests have produced small turnouts. Friday is therefore being widely taken as a test of the continuing relevance and power of the activists. 

But in some ways the turnout on Friday is a sideshow compared to the decisions to be made about the upcoming Parliamentary elections now scheduled for November.  It's no secret that many activists are deeply disenchanted with the SCAF-led political process.  They see street protests as the source of their power, and understand their identity as the "soul of the revolution." They have done little to prepare for elections and don't look likely to win.  Some view the coming elections as themselves counter-revolutionary since they will likely produce a Parliament dominated by Islamists and ex-NDP fulul.  When I was in Egypt in July, I already began hearing whispers that activists might boycott the elections.  Those are now spilling out into public.

Will activists actually boycott?  What would happen if they did? I think that it is distressingly likely, and growing more so, and that it would be a disaster. An activist boycott probably would not be joined by the major political parties, and probably wouldn't affect the overall turnout or results. But it would have a disproportionate impact on the  perceptions of the legitimacy of the election, especially in the West, and would seriously  undermine hopes of achieving a democratic Egypt. I am putting this out here now mainly to draw attention to the risks, provoke some public discussion... and, hopefully, to be proven wrong. 

Most activists are deeply and vocally disenchanted with the course of post-Mubarak Egypt. They complain bitterly about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, most potently about the use of military trials for protestors and their own harsh treatment at the hands of security forces. There's a lot of evidence that they have lost support from the wider public in recent months. They have nevertheless scored notable successes through actual or threatened street protests, on everything from the Shafik government to the SCAF's dramatic reversal on the question of Supra-Constitutional principles, especially when they seem to command widespread popular support. 

Friday's protest seeks to recreate the success of the July 8 protest, which rallied many Egyptians behind a growing sense of frustration, recaptured the spirit of the early days of the revolution, and put real pressure on the SCAF. But that high point soon faded in the controversies over the Tahrir sit-in, the violence at Abassiya, the Islamist July 29 counter-demonstration, the pre-Ramadan clearing of Tahrir, and a nasty SCAF-led campaign against their alleged foreign funding.  When I was in Cairo in late July, I struggled to find anybody with positive things to say about the Tahrir sit-in, and found deep frustration across the political spectrum with the activists. The September 9 "course correction" rally hopes to recapture the magic of July 8.

We will see on Friday whether the groups which have endorsed the demonstration succeed in bringing large numbers out to Tahrir or in driving the SCAF to offer political concessions.  Despite all of their struggles, they might. There's certainly plenty of frustration, serious labor unrest, dismay with the SCAF's erratic decision making, and fears of rising Islamist power.  That anger may well trump the popular disenchantment after the Tahrir sit-in and the nasty official campaign against foreign funding being used to tarnish their image. The Muslim Brotherhood and most other Islamist groups have announced that they will stay away this time, unlike in May, setting up a competitive dynamic which could galvanize participation by their opponents.  Either way, the turnout and the SCAF's response will dominate Egyptian political discourse and shape the perceived balance of power for the next few weeks.   

While there are a lot of different demands in circulation, the seven demands presented by the Revolutionary Youth Coalition seem representative. They largely avoid questions of religion and the constitution. Three focus on issues which only really speak to the protestors themselves:  ending military trials for protestors, abolishing "repressive" laws outlawing protests and demonstrations, and cracking down on the baltagiya (thugs) who harass protestors. As intensely as such issues are felt by the activists, it isn't clear to me that most ordinary Egyptians care. Another calls to banish NDP leaders from political life, which is understandable from a revolutionary perspective but rather undemocratic.  And then there's a demand for minimum and maximum wages which many Egyptians likely do find appealing but sits awkwardly and alone amidst the other six non-economic demands.

There's a real and troubling tension between the two demands which address elections. One demand calls for the SCAF to rapidly hand over power to an elected civil government. Another calls for a completely new elections law, which makes sense given the oddities of the current law although perhaps is premature given that the new election law hasn't yet been issued.  But the two demands contradict each other. A timetable for a rapid return to civilian rule through elections should be a top priority; it also seems to be exactly what the SCAF is doing, to the point of rejecting repeated calls from the West and from some Egyptians to postpone elections to give secular and liberal forces more time to organize. Devising a new election law, on the other hand, would take time and would almost certainly require postponing the elections currently scheduled for November. Like the earlier activist campaign for "Constitution First," the effect of this demand would be to extend rather than end the rule of the SCAF. 

That ambiguity goes to the heart of the potential for an activist boycott.  The idea of an election boycott began to rise as the realization set in that they won't win elections just through claims of revolutionary legitimacy.  It is not clear that they believe that successful elections would serve their interests, advance the revolution, or fit their identity. The kind of Parliament likely to be returned by the coming elections, even if completely free and fair, will likely involve heavy representation for Islamists and ex-NDP remnants (the fulul).  Would participating in such an election only grant legitimacy on a system which does not deserve it?

Each leak about the upcoming election law generates outrage over rules which allegedly favor Islamists or established parties.  That said, whatever law is ultimately adopted, few activists seem to have done much to prepare for the elections. I'm not sure why, but I haven't heard much about their equivalent of the Islamists out all over the country distributing food and holding public events and organizing for the vote.  Maybe they don't have the money, maybe they don't see the point, maybe they mean to do it but haven't found the time, or maybe they just don't see elections as the right way to assert themselves in today's Egypt.    

Revolutionaries are not necessarily democrats, despite the generic label of "democracy activist" preferred by the American media. Many of them simply prefer street action to institutional politics. It's not just what they do, it's who they are.  Protestors protest.  It's much more exciting than preparing draft laws for consideration in committee meetings. Many of the Tahrir activists view themselves as the soul of the revolution, standing above politics.   Maybe they feel that joining in the elections could implicate them in a system which remains counter-revolutionary at its core and take away their ability to mobilize the streets. They have seen, over the course of a decade and especially from January 25 through this summer, that street politics works.  Would a small Parliamentary bloc really compensate for the loss of the Tahrir gambit?

So there's all kinds of reasons that they might choose to boycott. But it would be a disaster if they did, for themselves as well as for Egypt.  If they seek to deprive the election of legitimacy, their prominence in the media will ensure that the international narrative will become one of failed revolution.  That will hurt Egypt both at home and abroad.  It will keep Egypt locked in political crisis, and make it much more difficult to forge a broad consensus on a new constitution and to establish enduring democratic principles.  It will weaken international support for the new Egypt, and sour potential investors and tourists on its prospects.  It will also hurt them by putting them outside of the newly emerging institutions and less able to influence the shape of the new constitution or vital new legislation. 

In short, an election boycott would be a disaster. But they might not see it that way for the reasons outlined above -- especially if they see the elections consolidating a new system which doesn't live up to their hopes for the revolution, or have an appropriate place for them.  Precisely because others see it as more disastrous than they do, threatening a boycott will look like an attractive option for pressuring the SCAF. Once those threats are made they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy as groups are trapped by their rhetoric.

That's why I'm bringing it up now -- to try to pre-empt that process by opening debate on it now.  In other words, I'm putting the potential for activist groups to threaten or to actually boycott the elections on the radar.. in hopes that it won't happen. So let's go prove me wrong! 

UPDATE: I have "Storified" some of the unfolding Twitter debate about this post here - check it out, and chime in!