Negotiating a Path Forward in Algeria

Protesters in Algeria (Saddek Hamlaoui via Shutterstock)

by Daniel Brumberg

Friday, April 12, was not a good day for Algeria’s defiant opposition. After weeks of boisterous demonstrations that gave the tens of thousands of protesters—many draped in the Algerian flag—a sense that they were about to change history, the regime unleashed tear gas and sent its thugs into the streets. These events are familiar to anyone who watched the evolution of Egypt’s protests beginning in early 2011. In Algeria, as in Egypt, the single biggest obstacle to advancing a democratic transition is the military. Having woken up to the earthquake under their feet, the generals may be determined to grind the protesters down and thus prevent any real political change.

What, then, can the opposition do in the face of such obstinacy and the prospect of even a larger clampdown to follow? Hard choices will have to be made—none are good, but some are worse than others. The opposition’s choices could make a difference, if not in the short term then in the longer struggle to transform the system. At this time, the fact that the opposition has no clear or authoritative leaders will not make matters easier.

Algeria’s own experience provides a good place to begin considering the obstacles to, and openings for, democratic change. Indeed, the collapse of its short-lived democratic experiment in the late eighties and early nineties—and the decade of bloodletting that followed the 1991 military coup—suggest important lessons. These lessons not only apply to Algeria’s leaders but also to those in power in key regional states in the Maghreb as well as to the leaders of important outside players including Russia, the United States, and, most of all, France.

Transitions are Not Revolution

Revolutions and democratic transitions are not the same. Democratic transitions are often fueled by the desire to banish the previous system totally. More often than not, however, they depend on the capacity and will of the opposition to reach out to ancien regime leaders. Thus, the path forward often requires negotiating the terms of a new “democratic bargain,” one that provides powerful actors from the old regime with the incentive of inclusion rather than the threat of exclusion.

This is easier said than done. Indeed, the forging of a new bargain not only depends on the readiness of some ancien regime leaders to play ball, but it also requires significant concessions from opposition leaders to get the ball rolling in the first place. This is why opposition unity is essential, as disunity offers big advantages for entrenched regimes. Egypt’s unfortunate experience since the Arab Spring of 2011 reminds us that when opposition groups are rent by social or identity struggles, militaries will manipulate their divisions to hang on to power. Further, there is the wider regional and global context to consider. Outside states can help foster domestic peacemaking and bargaining, or they can act as spoilers by encouraging regimes (or key groups within society) to maintain the status quo.

1988-1991: How Not to Do a Transition

Political experience can provide powerful lessons when and if the opportunity to negotiate a democratic bargain appears on a still hazy horizon. Indeed, even a failed transition can be instructive. On this score, Algeria’s first encounter with democratic change during the 1988-92 period—and the civil war that followed it—still casts a dark shadow over the country’s current political struggles.

In the aftermath of popular protests sparked in part by rising food prices, then President Chadli Bendjedid initiated a political opening that began with holding local and municipal elections. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a populist Islamist party, won; its 1990 victory not only shocked the military but also provoked widespread fear in society. FIS leaders made matters worse by threatening the military and by championing positions that magnified the worries of key sectors, especially urban professionals, businessmen, the Berber minority, and the leaders of Algeria’s fragmented civil society. The very idea of serious bargaining—within society or between the fragmented opposition and the regime—never occurred to FIS’s leaders.

Of course, the same could be said for the regime. The military exhibited its long-standing Janus-faced character: united, in the sense that generals had absolutely no intention of giving up any degree of power, but also fragmented, in the sense that generals did not agree on how to face the opposition and, also, went behind each other’s backs. Thus, Bendjedid tried to negotiate with FIS leaders, whereas General Khaled Nezzar, the head of the military, watched with a mix of amazement and horror as the president pursued his own initiatives. As Nezzar told this author in an extended interview, it was just a matter of time before he intervened. To be sure, the army staged its coup against Bendjedid after the first round of parliamentary elections, which gave FIS nearly two-thirds of the seats in the chamber. Benjedid was placed under house arrest and a campaign of violence was initiated against Islamist forces, one that led to a decade of violence throughout the 1990s.

February 22, 2019 and Beyond:  A New Road or Back to the Future?

Much has changed since those dark days, but there is also much that remains the same. The ongoing protests are unprecedented in terms of their numbers, geographic scope, and social makeup. The epicenter of this popular revolt remains in Algiers, but many other cities have seen protests. Young urban professionals and students seem to be at the vanguard of this disorganized movement. Many of these young people—or perhaps their parents—sat out the 2011 Arab revolts, fearing that any effort to emulate the protests in Cairo or Tunis might provoke the mayhem that marked Algeria during the nineties. But such fears have clearly subsided. A new generation of Algerians is demanding an end to what they see as a corrupt and widely delegitimized political system.

Still, such demands alone will not advance their cause very far. While the thrill of mass protests fills the air, what seems missing is a visible group of leaders who can channel the energy of the protests behind a common negotiating strategy—one that might unite Algeria’s fractious society. Indeed, there are already hints of simmering identity conflicts within the opposition. Press reports suggest that some Islamist groups are hesitant to confront the military directly. Moreover, the Amazigh population has not played an active role in a protest movement that thus far has been largely dominated by the secularly oriented professional urban sectors.

Beyond such divisions, Algeria’s opposition faces a dilemma familiar to all groups struggling to negotiate with powerful regimes. Having won the first round by compelling President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign, the opposition must now choose between two options. First, it can join a political process whose ground rules are being set by acting President Abdelkader Bensalah and his allies in the military (which has dispensed with the former president and thus now feels confident of its power). Second, it can boycott that process in the hope that the regime will somehow totter or make new concessions to the opposition. What might embolden the opposition, on the other hand, is the resignation of the head of Algeria’s Constitutional Council, Tayib Belaiz, who is considered a pillar of the former regime. (Interim President Abdelqader Bensalah appointed Kamel Feniche as new council director.)

It is a fair bet that the interim president and the generals will exploit the opposition’s divisions by offering incentives to those opposition leaders who appear ready to engage with them. Indeed, Army Commander General Ahmed Gaid Salah has already warned the opposition that the transition must remain strictly within the boundaries of a constitution whose key articles (especially Article 102) give ancien regime leaders pride of place in determining the procedures for forming a transitional government and the timing of new elections. To buttress this message, the generals have suggested that outside forces are backing the opposition and pushing it toward confrontation.

The situation is already quite troubling. Indeed, if the generals’ warnings are insufficient, the regime might use more drastic measures. We should not be surprised if in the coming weeks and months intelligence forces say that they have discovered impending terrorist attacks. Allies of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, many of which have been on the run, also have an interest in fomenting internal conflict. If the current clash between the two forces—a regime that seems determined to impose a fake dialogue and an opposition that is yet to forge a common front—escalates, the situation in Algeria could deteriorate rapidly.

Neither the regional nor the global context is conducive to overcoming such a clash. While the protests in Sudan have surely provided protesters with some inspiration, President Omar al-Bashir’s removal and ensuing power struggle in the military may have  also convinced Algerian leaders to hang on. The efforts of the Arab world’s resurgent autocrats will strengthen their resolve. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has signaled his support for the regime and the leaders of UAE and Saudi Arabia will probably do likewise. Closer to home, Tunisia’s government has not exactly embraced Algeria’s protests. Concerns about stability along the border and the possibility of Algerian refugees prevail. In Europe, the struggle over Brexit is diverting the EU’s attention while in Paris, President Macron has tried to strike a fine line by signaling that Algeria has embarked on a “new chapter,” while calling for a transition of “reasonable duration”—a position that is bound to reassure the interim government. As for the United States, President Donald Trump is no enthusiast of Arab democracy, quite apart from the fact that he probably cannot locate Algeria on a map.

Next Steps?

That Algeria’s interim government has called for dialogue with the opposition is hardly surprising. When autocrats in the region are in trouble, their usual procedure is to invite opposition groups (usually carefully chosen by regimes) to participate in discussions that are carefully choreographed to back reform procedures advantageous to the ruling authorities. This time is not likely to be different.

Given this history, one can’t fault those Algerians who have taken to the streets for being distrustful of, if not opposed to, joining any such dialogue. But the better—if still risky—choice is to prepare for negotiations by creating a national forum that unites the opposition, thus signaling that any “Egyptian style” bid by the military to divide the opposition will not succeed.

The creation of such a forum will face obstacles, not least of which is the still wide gap between veteran leaders who represent political parties that have been part of the existing political system, and those activists in the wider society who believe that the veterans’ complicity in the system has compromised their credibility.

The concerns are legitimate, but these veteran leaders must be part of the talks not only because it is essential to have an inclusive and unified opposition, but also because the veterans’ links with les pouvoirs (the powers of the regime) could help make them more effective interlocuters between the military and the opposition’s more militant wing. Indeed, with presidential elections set for July 4, the opposition might well consider trying to agree on a veteran leader to compete in an election that the regime will surely try to manage to its favor. Previous discussions between former heads of government Ali Benflis and Ahmed Benbitour, and Abdallah Djaballah, president of the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Front, might provide a point of departure for building a more unified opposition block—but that goal will be hard won.

Beyond creating a more unified opposition block, advocates of negotiated transition must also grapple with how to sustain that unity when tensions within the opposition over the terms of any agreement inevitably escalate. Negotiated transitions typically need a third-party arbiter to push the various groups toward agreement and encourage all of them to abide by its terms. In Tunisia, the creation of such a third party through the National Dialogue was crucial to moving the country’s leaders toward a democratic bargain. On this score, it is worth emphasizing that Tunisia’s powerful trade union, the Confédération Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (CGTT), played a decisive role not only by mobilizing its many supporters, but also by providing a key counterweight to the Islamists. It is far from clear whether Algeria’s trade union has the experience, mobilizing skills, leadership, or national legitimacy to fulfill that special role, or whether, for that matter, there is any other domestic group that might serve as a third-party facilitator of a negotiated transition.

The International Arena

One way of addressing the challenge of third-party arbitration is to invite foreign leaders or organizations into the fray. But Algeria’s history—and the enduring allure of nationalist ideology—will make it difficult to find a suitable partner from outside the country. Addressing the Arab League’s March 31 summit in Tunisia, UN Secretary General António Guterres stated that he welcomed a peaceful transition to democracy in Tunisia. Whether his presence at the summit and his statement were meant to signal the UN’s readiness to assist, and/or to encourage the Arab League to step in, is not clear. But neither of these organizations (and the fractured Arab League in particular) is likely to provide a credible and effective third party.

A better alternative would be to engage international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International to offer their support and experience. Semi-governmental organizations affiliated with European or US political parties, such as Germany’s stiftungs or the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute in the United States, could also make a contribution, providing that they do so in a spirit of consultation and solidarity that is sensitive to Algerian concerns about independence. Their help could be especially important if and when the military decides to try to impose a democratic solution on the heads of the opposition, thus provoking a serious crisis. One can only hope that such a moment will not arrive. Algeria has suffered from one failed transition, a fact that all of its leaders have surely not forgotten. During this current and crucial period of intense and possibly dangerous uncertainty, that sad history provides a useful if cautionary tale.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here. Reprinted, with permission, from Arab Center Washington DC.

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  1. Concerning that the report offers little way forward except a very general exhortation for “Opposition Groups” to somehow unify and overwhelm the (Le Pouvoir) established powers.
    Every M.E. country has a different dynamic, but the common thread is one party monopoly of power (Kings, Sheikhs, Generals) and long-term elimination of the many social organizations essential to a multi-party democracy. The only organized alternative allowed was Islam, whose Mosques were on every street corner of every city town and village. When any sort of political liberalization was allowed (2011-2012) the predictable result was Islamist parties had the organization and local presence (and access to funds) to win the first free elections. There were no nationally organized alternative social groups. Labor Unions are one channel, but few others exist. Anywhere in the region. It takes a generation or more to establish such social/professional networks and structures. If allowed. Not in Egypt. Maybe Tunisia?

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