From Che Guevara to the Arab Spring

Algeria, an oil- and gas-rich military republic on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, is the largest country in the Arab world, the largest country on the African continent, and home to the largest military in the Maghreb. It endured the longest occupation by a Western power of any Arab land — by France, for 132 years — and freed itself in a war that claimed 300,000 lives. A lingering distrust of France, now Algeria’s largest trading  partner, pervades the halls of power. A visceral rejection of foreign interference of any kind renders attempts by outsiders to connect with the population difficult, even by regional standards.

In the 1960s, the height of the republic’s power and prestige, one might have drawn a parallel to Saudi Arabia as the capital of Wahhabi Islamism and Algeria as a symbol and beacon of revolutionary third-world nationalism. In addition to its adoption of Nasserism as the ideological overlay for Algerian society, the government also portrayed itself as champion of the world’s downtrodden “South” in its struggle against global domination by the “North.” At the time, its powerful economy seemed to prove that revolutionary socialist policies work. This was the environment that brought Che Guevara to Algiers in 1965. To a roaring crowd, he said that he spoke “on behalf of the peoples of Latin America” to “the circle of the peoples of Asia and Africa.” He hailed the continents’ “shared struggle against imperialism … which is being carried out by means of political weapons, arms, or a combination of the two,” as “inseparable from the struggle against backwardness and poverty.”

But behind the curtain lay a military oligarchy and massive graft. As the decades swept by, oil reserves diminished, bureaucracy swelled, the population grew exponentially, and the economy lost the capacity to provide for them. Civil war in the 1990s between the military government and Islamists claimed as many as 150,000 lives. The “Algerian model” lost its luster.

Pan-Arab ideals nonetheless burn bright in Algiers today, and many elites see their country as its last great hope. From their perspective, the promise of an Egypt-led, post-colonial “Arab renaissance” inspired by Nasser ended in 1978 when his successor signed the Camp David Accord with Israel: Cairo surrendered its socialist, anti-imperialist principles and effectively became a vassal of the United States. The new century saw most of the remaining pillars of Arabism collapse, from the fall of Saddam through the Arab spring, with only Algeria standing independent and united.

But Algeria has never been the seamless Arab nation its state ideology projects. Most of its people stem from ancient indigenous communities — collectively known as “Amazigh,” or “Berber” to Westerners — that preceded the Arab invasions of the eighth century by millennia. A quarter of the population still regard one of a handful of non-Semitic, Berber languages as their mother tongue. It took 40 years of post-independence struggle on their part, culminating in a blood-soaked uprising in 2001 dubbed the “black spring,” before the state recognized the Berber vernacular “Kabylie” as a national language in 2002.

Like northwestern Niger and northern Mali, southeastern Algeria is also home to a substantial population of Touareg — a non-Arab, largely nomadic ethnic group with its own language and political identity. In January 2012, Algeria’s southern neighbor, Mali, briefly lost territory the size of France to Al-Qaeda’s North African proxy; it had begun when Touareg staged a rebellion which the central government proved unable to quell. Algeria has been more successful in preempting such threats by vesting its Touareg population in the welfare of the state. The Algerian army is vastly more powerful, moreover, than either of its neighbors to the south. Nonetheless, countering secessionist tendencies in the south remains an ongoing concern: Ideas and aspirations — together with arms and equipment — can always find their way from Touareg in Mali and Niger to their cousins in Algeria.

Nor do the ideals of Arab nationalism as conveyed and enacted by the regime appeal to quite as many Algerian Arabs as the progenitors of the ideology would have hoped. The country’s six-year civil war began in 1991, when two fateful rounds of elections — swiftly aborted by the army — highlighted the capacity of Islamists to wrest power from Arab nationalists by the will of the majority.

When the leaders of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt fell from power after massive demonstrations in 2011, some American policymakers began to ask how Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, managed to maintain the status quo. After all, in terms of corruption, disenfranchisement, and human rights abuse — principal factors that had fed the revolutionary fervor region-wide — Algeria ranked worse than the other three countries. The conventional explanation for the so-called “Algerian exception” has been that the population sat out the “Arab spring” due to fear of bloody repression: After 150,000 had died in the fighting war only 15 years earlier, why risk another mass tragedy?

This explanation is unsatisfactory, however — in the first place, because Algerians did not actually shrink from confrontation with the authorities in 2011. To the contrary, more than 10,000 unsanctioned demonstrations took place across the country that year. Youth-driven riots nationwide conveyed revulsion at the regime, much the way their equivalent in neighboring countries did, together with more specific, mainly local grievances arising from urban squalor, unpaid salaries, and the neglect of provinces and rural areas.

Most of the riots did not, however, call for the ouster of Bouteflika. By contrast to the leaders of “Arab spring” states, the Algerian president actually enjoyed some popularity, being the man who had brought the civil war to an end and stabilized the country. Algerians believed, moreover, that Bouteflika’s resignation would not yield the change they sought: If he left office, in their view, he would simply be replaced by a new head of state, drawn from the same aging clique of military and intelligence oligarchs who have dominated the country since independence. This tightly knit group had kept together in the face of a massive Islamist challenge to their rule, eviscerated their rivals, and proceeded to divide what was left of them in a political game of “managed pluralism.” If Algeria did not have an “Arab spring” in 2011, perhaps it is because the country had already had one a generation earlier and could do without another.

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