Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Algeria: Arab Spring or a political summer in Algeria?

Source: ISS

Arab Spring or a political summer in Algeria?

For many external observers, Algeria is at a political standstill, especially compared to events in neighbouring Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Moreover, many analysts have been puzzled by developments in Algeria and its avoidance of the Arab Spring. Most of them had predicted that last year’s legislative elections would see the victory of the Islamists in Algeria (the Green Alliance). Yet this never happened and, on the contrary, the Islamists were dealt a crushing electoral defeat.

Algeria has been characterised by the longevity of its political class despite sporadic political upheavals. However, a closer look at the current political scene points to significant changes. In January, through a sanction vote, secretary general of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN under its French acronym) Abdelaziz Belkhadem – who was hoping to run for the presidential elections next year – was ousted from his position after nine years of leadership through an internal vote. This case is not isolated and may reveal the continuation of more subtle and long-term political changes.

Earlier this year, former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia also resigned as secretary general of the second largest party in the country, the National Rally for Democracy (RND). His resignation was motivated by the need to preserve the party’s unity.

The FLN and RND have been in power for the past decade, and dominated the recent national, regional and local elections where they harvested the majority of seats. Similarly, the president of the opposition party, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), is to step down this year after occupying the position for decades, while the young former secretary general, Karim Tabbou, was replaced by another young secretary general, Ali Laskri, after November 2011.These moves were preceded by the resignation in March 2012 of Saïd Saadi of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), who had led this party since its foundation in 1989. The party is now headed by the young Mohcine Belabbas.

In this world of political dinosaurs, the female leader of the Trotskyist Workers’ Party (PT), Louisa Hanoune, remains in place. She has been leading the party since its creation in 1990. The charismatic Hanoune appears to unite the party’s sympathisers around a sole consensus in her favour.

One of the characteristics of the above-mentioned changes is that they have been internally driven, whether through outright and publicised challenges by reformist factions or internecine secret manoeuvring. In the case of both the FLN and the RND, the interest and unity of the party prevailed over dissension, either through open and transparent voting or through the resignation of the incumbent. In the FLN, for example, Belkhadem accepted the internal election although nothing in the party’s constitutional texts mentions such an obligation. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the race was very close: Belkhadem obtained 156 votes in his favour and 160 against.

After President Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power in 1999, the priority was to end the internal violence and to put the economy, which had been stagnating for a decade, back on track. Through the concorde civile (civil truce), terrorism across the country has decreased significantly, although the recent In Amenas hostage-taking crisis reminded Algerians that external factors may still lead to sporadic clashes between terrorists and the Algerian security forces. On the economic front, important projects have been initiated, such as the metro and tramway in Algiers, tramways in both Oran and Annaba, and the East-West motorway (1 200 km) that will link the country to Tunisia and eventually Morocco. This motorway will also facilitate commercial exchanges when political blockages are resolved, particularly with Rabat. Similarly, the modernisation of the railway lines, costing $17 billion, is also on track. After years of stagnation, the agricultural sector is steadily recovering, witnessing 14% growth over the past four years. A long-awaited project to modernise and open up the TV media, which will facilitate and nurture debate within the country, should also be finalised this year. In line with these governmental endeavours, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and his government have put the fight against corruption and the black market among their top priorities since his appointment as six months ago.

In the short term, the changes in leadership in the main political parties have shown that change in the political arena, even though it may look merely cosmetic, can happen without ‘pressure from the street’. It also points to a new dynamic within political parties that diminishes the role of the ‘Zaim’ or leader and highlights the increasingly important role of the factions.

Fast-track democracies or the political opening-up as currently witnessed in neighbouring countries are not necessarily signs of a sound democratic system. The ongoing crisis in Syria is a reminder of the great dangers states face in unplanned political transitions. A well-rooted democracy requires time and wisdom. As the former Prime Minister of Algeria, Ahmed Ouyahia, said at the dawn of the Arab uprising, Algeria witnessed its own Spring 23 years before its neighbours, in October 1988. Since then, changes have been occurring within a complex political system which may well indicate that the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law are on Algeria’s agenda.

Following the parliamentary elections of last year, one-third of the seats (32%) are occupied by women, which is not only a unique political configuration in the Arab world but also a target many Western democracies have yet to match. In doing so, Algeria also complies with United Nations Resolution 1325, which stipulates that assemblies must consist of at least 30% women representatives. Rather than ignoring the progress made by Algeria, these improvements are worth noting.

In May 2014, presidential elections will take place in Algeria. It is difficult to predict the outcome, especially because no contenders have officially announced their candidacy. Perhaps President Bouteflika’s announcement during a meeting a few days before the parliamentary elections last year that ‘our generation must leave for the next one to take the reins of the country’, is an indication of where the country is heading.

Fifty years since its independence and nearly 25 years since the end of the FLN’s political monopoly, the Algerian political scene could well be on the verge of reaching democratic maturity. At a time when some of its neighbours and other Arab states are embroiled in dramatic socio-political turmoil, Algerians may yet again prove observers wrong.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa