The painful transition from authoritarianism in Algeria.

Author:Zoubir, Yahia H.

Algeria has been through a violent process of democratization which ultimately failed due to the inability of various political forces to tolerate differences among themselves. Algeria remains a neo-patriarchal, neo-patrimonial, obscurantist society, where religion is used blatantly for political purposes and defenders of democracy want to preserve their own authority. None of the political... (see full summary)


"DEVELOPMENTAL DICTATORSHIPS" IN THE MIDDLE EAST and elsewhere have failed miserably. Not only have they failed in modernizing their societies, but their rule has led to an impoverishment of the middle class and to the pauperization of the masses. And, even if they have achieved some relatively substantial level of industrialization, their success has been overshadowed by the corruption, injustice, arbitrary rule, and the clientelism which have characterized these regimes. The long-held assumption that central planning under an authoritarian regime was the best path to rapid economic growth(1) has been shattered when confronted with the harsh realities resulting from two or three decades of such developmental schemes. In addition to the severe economic crises (inflation, astronomical international debts, high unemployment, etc.) authoritarian regimes have faced a crisis of credibility and identity. The centralization of power in the hands of petit bourgeois elites that have sustained their rule through corruption, clientelism, neopatriarchism, and total tyranny could no longer sustain themselves due to their inability to meet the increasing needs of their populations. The populist discourse was of little help in hiding the gloomy realities. By the mid-1980s it had become evident that the social contract between the masses and the leadership had lost any type of legitimacy it might have had hitherto.(2) As aptly put by Hisham Sharabi, the petit bourgeoisie was incapable of performing the tasks either of capitalist economic development or revolutionary social transformation.(3)

By the mid-1980s, the fragility of the authoritarian state in Middle Eastern and African countries had become quite obvious. This weakness was evidenced by forceful new opposition to single party rule by a multitude of social groups, especially radical Islamist organizations. The difficulty faced by these regimes both domestically and externally led to the introduction of some degree of liberalization and even democratization. Many reasons have compelled these countries to initiate reforms. First, most of these countries were faced with disastrous socio-economic situations, which have often engendered violent upheavals, as was the case in Algeria and Jordan, thus forcing the regimes to undertake democratic reforms. Second, for domestic and external considerations, these countries have had to liberalize their economies. The consent and good will of civil society are necessary preconditions for regimes to initiate economic liberalization and to apply the structural adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund. Third, and more importantly, the regimes have lost their legitimacy and even their raison d'etre. In order to survive, the ruling elite have decided to open the political system, hence making it easier to control the social and political movements opposed to them than would have been possible through sheer repression. Fourth, important societal groups have compelled the regimes, often through force, to launch political reforms. But, even if many political analysts have interpreted the recent upheavals in Third World countries as struggles for democracy, it would perhaps be more realistic to argue that "the peoples who rose up and will continue to rise up in Asia and Africa have done so less for democracy than against their former inefficient and despotic rulers."(4)

Undoubtedly, Algeria has been the country in the Middle East and Africa that has made the biggest steps toward democracy despite the stalemate that has prevailed since January 1992. A brief overview of the Algerian political system will help us understand the process of "democratization" which was initiated following the bloody riots of October 1988.


Although difficult to define, the Algerian political system can best be characterized as authoritarian.(5) In this system, the single party, officially charged with the task of ruling over civil society, is a mere transmission belt to the clan in power. In fact, the party was simply an instrument of control and repression in the hands of the ruling bloc, or, of what an Algerian scholar calls "l'Etatclan."(6) Because the regime lacked popular legitimacy, an entire administrative and political machinery was instituted to generate unanimous approval of its policies. The regime strove to have total control over every aspect of State and society, for it wanted to remain in power by whatever means. The clan in power was not only afraid of institutions but was also fearful of other rival clans, as well as society. However, regardless of the clan's totalitarian efforts, coexisting instruments (e.g., an underground economy, dissident groups, etc.) defied the policies established by the regime. A split between State and civil society was the most visible consequence of the policies undertaken by succeeding clans. The institutions established by the Algerian State did not represent the real interests of civil society. Rather, their real purpose was to provide the illusion of legitimacy and to prolong the power of the clan. The Etat-clan entrusted clienteles within these institutions. The result was that, since the clan failed to obey the rules it had itself decreed, civil society did not feel compelled to observe them either. Therefore, everyone sought to discover how to evade the rules. Corruption and favoritism thus become rampant and have influenced the entire social body.(7) Whatever its progressive nature and its international prestige, the Algerian political system was a repressive police State.

The nature of the political system has had a lasting, negative impact on the transition to a more democratic State. It should be pointed out, however, that attempts to open up the political system were evident even under Houari Boumediene's regime. The authoritarian regime under his rule showed its shortcomings in 1974-75, when dissensions within the bloc in power became evident. This was due to deteriorating socio-economic conditions produced by failure in various sectors of the economy and to the conspicuous lack of legitimacy of the regime. Algerian "socialism" failed to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. In fact, there was an increase in social inequalities. Although the popular masses experienced substantial improvement in their standards of living, the existing gap between them and the rich, led to social discontent. The absence of democratic channels forced Algerians to adopt attitudes of apathy toward the regime and its populist preaching. The predominant expression of this general dissatisfaction came in the form of passive resistance: apathy toward public affairs, strikes (though illegal in the State sector), absenteeism, sabotage, etc. In order to give some legitimacy to his regime, Boumediene launched a public debate on the proposal for a National Charter. If the move was meant mainly to consolidate his rule, it is also conceivable that due to popular pressure and increasing opposition inside the ruling bloc, the regime attempted to "extricate itself from authortarian rule"(8) or, at least, to soften it.(9) Thus, the stability and legitimacy of the system presupposed greater popular participation in the nation's decision-making. Of course, the Charter failed to achieve this objective, assuming this was one of its priorities. The Charter merely served the needs of the regime, i.e., self-legitimation and self-justification. One can argue in retrospect that a chance for democratization was missed in 1976 when the regime had, despite its limitations, considerable positive accomplishments. But, even if one assumes that there existed genuine forces favorable to an opening of the system, their efforts were in vain, for, as pointed out by students of the transition: "If things are going well, and no important crises or challenges are foreseen, why decide on changes that will inevitably introduce new actors and uncertainties, however tightly liberalization may be controlled by the regime? Why risk the 'achievements of the regime' for the sake of the fuzzy long-term advantages advocated by the soft-liners?"(10) What is paradoxical in this context is that Houari Boumediene appeared like a soft-liner because the so-called "liberals" in the ruling bloc, despite their opposition to the Charter, resisted any weakening of the bloc. Whatever their ideological predilections and whether soft-liners or hard-liners (a notion which is hard to discern in the Algerian political system), they were opposed to any move toward democracy. Their major preoccupation was how to protect their own interests and those of their respective clienteles. This is why, in retrospect, the Charter had at least the merit of directing national development--through industrialization--in favor of the underprivileged. The problem was that, in order to remain in power, Boumediene had to yield to and compromise with those staunchly opposed to his initiatives by allowing them to stay in their positions.(11) Cohesion was not the strongest mark of the regime, but rather an alliance of antagonistic currents under the leadership of Boumediene. The balance of power inside the bloc which seemed to have prevailed did not outlive Boumediene's death in December 1978.


Boumediene's succession took place peacefully despite the bitter rivalry between former members of the Revolutionary Council. The two rivals who aspired to leadership had no clear-cut ideological or political orientations. In the final instance, the military made its own choice.

With Chadli Bendjedid--initially a transition figure--the political system remained almost untouched, although the new president removed numerous heavyweights from power. The anti-corruption campaign as well as the changes announced by the regime were simply a tactic to eliminate from office personalities or clans who had fallen out of favor, on the one hand...

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