What's wrong with Algeria? Over the last year, the fever that is the Arab Spring has overtaken one country after another. Monarchies like Morocco or Jordan have been able to focus popular discontent on the government rather than the head of state; oil sheikdoms like Qatar or Kuwait have bought social peace. But no autocratic republic, no matter how brutal, has been able to resist the storm -- except Algeria. Here is a country where strikes and demonstrations were routine long before 2011, where newspapers openly mocked an enfeebled leader, where security forces and pro-regime thugs confronted rioters amid the first stirrings of the Arab Spring. A year ago, Algeria might well have been voted most likely to overthrow its ruler. But it hasn't. In fact, the mass protests petered out. Why? Why elsewhere, and not Algeria?
Very few Americans visit Algeria, or study it, or know much about it. You probably didn't know, for example, that Algeria is the biggest country in Africa -- bigger even, than undivided Sudan, which was always said to be roughly the size of Western Europe. Most of it, of course, is the Sahara Desert, though with 35 million people Algeria is also the second-largest nation in the Arab world (behind Egypt, of course). Algeria has the world's fourth-largest reserves of natural gas. It has $150 billion in its sovereign wealth fund. Are you feeling a bit ashamed yet that you don't more about Algeria?
Algeria was, like Tunisia and Morocco, a French colony. But France ruled Algeria as an overseas extension of la patrie, and would not, or could not, part with it. French rule in Algeria ended with the horrendous civil war of 1954-1962, a struggle whose atrocities were famously memorialized in Gilles Pontecorvo's film Battle of Algiers. The anti-colonial war brutalized Algerian society and left in its wake a legacy of revolutionary rhetoric, and revolutionary posturing. Algeria became an avant-garde autocracy -- the Cuba of the Maghreb. The state wrapped itself in the flag of revolution.
But then something remarkable happened: Chadli Benjedid, a president installed by Algeria's shadowy military leaders, decided to give democracy a try. After winning re-election in 1988, Benjedid promulgated a new constitution and submitted it to a national referendum. The constitution eliminated all reference to socialism, removed restrictions on freedom of speech and legalized unions and political parties. In a matter of months, as John P. Entelis, the rare American Algeria expert, writes in the current issue of The Journal of North African Studies, "the Algerian political system had been fundamentally transformed from a single-party authoritarian state to a multiparty, pluralistic nation of laws."
For the next two years, Algeria carried out an experiment in democracy which the Arab world had never seen before, and has not seen again until now. An Islamist party, the FIS, won an overwhelming fraction of seats in local elections -- and the vote was allowed to stand. Entelis says that the FIS espoused a moderate brand of Islam, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia's Ennahda (though other accounts claim that the FIS sought to discredit the state and undermine the constitution). But in January 1992, citing the fear of an Islamist takeover, the military annulled the election and overthrew the regime. The West, equally frightened of political Islam, offered little criticism. The FIS did pose a threat to the secular Algerian state; but the military also exploited that threat in order to re-impose its authority over the state, as the Turkish military would do the following year after a moderate Islamist party came to power through election.
Turkey got a second chance with the election of the current ruling party, the AKP, in 2002; Algeria never did. The failure of liberal meliorism reignited Algeria's habits of revolutionary polarization. The military hunted down the FIS leadership and the rank-and-file; the party splintered, with some joining the state and others embracing terrorism. For the next six years, both sides engaged in a mutual slaughter which left as many 200,000 dead -- the worst spasm of violence in Algeria's convulsive history. The civil war of the 1990s traumatized the Algerian public far more deeply than the war against France had done. The uprising against France had fostered an image of national solidarity; the civil war turned Algeria's activists and reformers against one another and shattered the state's revolutionary legitimacy.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, first elected in 1999, brought the war to an end. Bouteflika advanced some mild social reforms and tolerated far more freedom of the press than was available, for example, in Tunisia. He was re-elected in a relatively free election in 2004, and was given credit both for seeking to modernize the economy and for seeking to tame the power of the security and intelligence apparatus. He permitted Islamists, who had come to terms with the civil state, to operate openly, and to run for office. Nevertheless, as Bouteflika continued to consolidate power in his own office, jailed opponents, and undermined the independence of parliament and the judiciary, he came to be seen as a "liberal autocrat" in the mold of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. And with high unemployment and rising costs, by 2011 Algerians were as deeply alienated from the state as Egyptians or Tunisians. The chief difference was that they expressed their frustration more openly, through strikes and public criticism of the regime, which Bouteflika, like his predecessors, tolerated within limits.