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Algerian Elections: The End of the Arab Spring?

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As Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika secured his fourth term in office, many are wondering whether the 2010-11 Arab uprisings have had any lasting imprint on the region at all. Soon to be an octogenarian, Bouteflika -- once the world's youngest and most dashing foreign minister -- has been frail and largely invisible to the Algerian electorate. But the continued support of the pouvoir -- the shadowy ruling security-intelligence establishment -- ensured his extended tenure in office.

Moreover, Bouteflika is largely credited for his role in stabilizing and unifying the country after almost a decade of civil conflict in the 1990s, dubbed the "Dirty War" (La Sale Guerre). The 2008 constitutional amendment, which removed prior restrictions on presidential term limits, hands Bouteflika an opportunity to join the exclusive cabal of president-for-life figures -- an increasingly rare commodity in the 21st century.

If the Arab Spring, which swept across North Africa and reached the oil-rich Sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, were about dislodging age-old autocrats, especially across Arab republics, then Algeria is a striking contradiction of such thesis. Given Algeria's acute economic challenges -- from double-digit unemployment and poverty rates, to high dependency on hydrocarbon-revenues -- many wonder why there hasn't been an explosion of popular discontent similar to those in neighboring Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. There are also little signs that the Islamists are in any position to challenge the status quo. Far from isolated, ordinary Algerians also enjoy considerable access to internet and social networking technology.

Therefore, all mono-causal explanations of the roots of the Arab Spring seem to make little sense in the case of Algeria. So, what explains the seeming climate of political stagnation in the country?

Amid the chaos that has gripped the Arab Transition Countries (ATC), from Egypt to Libya and Yemen, it is easy to dismiss the Arab Spring as just a temporary interruption of a centuries-old autocratic order in the Middle East. The resilience of autocratic regimes and/or the "deep state" in Syria, Egypt, Algeria and the Persian Gulf has undermined confidence in and support for democratic forces and their aspirations across the Arab world. With many ordinary citizens nostalgically recalling the supposed "good old days" of predictability and stability under the iron grip of dictators, there is a serious risk of democratic reversal in the region -- and a regrettable embrace of neo-autocratic rule.

As I argue in How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Arab Uprisings, such gloomy reading of recent developments is based on an explanatory framework that: (a) fails to understand the dynamism of autocratic regimes, and (b) overlooks the role of the Arab Spring in permanently transforming the political landscape in the Middle East and beyond.

The Autocratic Dialectic

There are at least two factors, which explain the resilience of autocratic regimes in Algeria and the Persian Gulf.

First of all, many recent explanations of revolutionary upheaval tend to largely focus on the ability of the opposition forces to utilize advancements in information technology to circumvent the security apparatus of the state, but there has been a relatively limited appreciation of how autocratic regimes can adapt to a new political landscape and upgrade their networks of suppression and patronage.

From Algeria in North Africa, to Saudi Arabia in West Asia, the ruling establishment has astutely utilized its considerable fiscal resources to maintain support among the civilian and military elite, while exploiting latest technologies to crackdown on unconventional platforms of dissent.

Second, one must recognize that revolutions are fundamentally a psychological phenomenon, relying on the ability of a huge section of the society to sublate individual fear in moments of collective anger and desperation for the pursuit of romantic idealism. Collective memories could play a huge role in breaking/reinforcing the psychological barriers, which underpin the hegemony of a particular political order. But in the case of Algeria, the traumatic experience of the 1990s -- when the vicious war between Islamists and the pouvoir brought the country to the edge of abyss -- prevented a wholesale embrace of revolutionary upheavals on the country's eastern and western borders.

With much of North Africa eventually falling into a cycle of violence and political instability -- empowering Al-Qaeda groups to stage a powerful comeback in recent years -- there was an even greater appreciation of stability. Regional and international powers -- forced to re-examine their foreign policy in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring -- have also embraced Algeria as a reliable security partner and an island of relative stability in a challenging neighborhood. In the case of Persian Gulf monarchies, especially troubled regimes such as Bahrain, the ruling elite was able to leverage Western concerns over Iranian influence and energy security to not only stave off international pressure, but also justify repression at home and solicit optimum security guarantee from external powers.

Yet, the ability of autocratic regimes to re-assert their geopolitical relevance and tap into public fears of chaos should be seen against the backdrop of the broader political transformation in the region and beyond.

The Grand March of History

The relative resilience of autocratic regimes in the Middle East misleads many observers into presupposing the premature demise of the Arab Spring. In reality, however, the Arab revolutions have exacerbated the structural and institutional vulnerabilities of the ruling elite, paving the way for a more mature and gradualist democratic transition across the region. After the dramatic downfall of many Arab dictators in recent years, and continued spats among and within Arab Sheikhdoms on how to respond to the Arab Spring, it would be foolish to assume that the Arab youth population, which continues to suffer from political alienation and economic marginalization, will give up on its democratic aspirations.

In Algeria, there are huge concerns over the succession crisis that could emerge in an increasingly imminent post-Bouteflika scenario. Intra-elite jostling within the ruling establishment could very well increase the leverage of democratic forces, which seek greater voice in the governance and reform of the country. The growing influence of non-violent, civil society organizations for democratic reform, such as the Barakat movement also represents a growing societal hunger for peaceful political change.

In the Persian Gulf, oil-rich kingdoms have been forced to consider unprecedented appeasement strategies to stave off popular discontent. By (falsely) thinking that they can do away with political reform by throwing more money at the problem, many Arab monarchies (think of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) are beginning to struggle with an increasingly tight balance sheet, which could undermine the viability of their networks of patronage in the long-run. In absence of genuine economic reform, structural issues, such as chronic youth unemployment and high-dependence on oil exports will continue to afflict most Arab monarchies. Meanwhile, rising expectations and deep-seated frustration among the Arab youth and middle classes will continually fuel increasingly vocal calls for political reform and democratic opening.

Beyond the Arab world, the 2010-11 uprisings have inspired similar youth revolts across the world, especially in recession-hit Southern Europe and increasingly polarized America. The impact on non-Arab Middle East countries shouldn't be underestimated too. In places such as Iran, the chaos across the Arab world has encouraged a more pragmatic and moderate political leadership, as exemplified by the landmark election of President Hassan Rouhani in mid-2013. In neighboring Turkey, the youth and middle class population has been mobilized against the perceived authoritarian tendencies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). And across the emerging markets, from Brazil and Thailand to Ukraine, India and the Philippines, huge protests have demonstrated the ability of disaffected sectors of the society, especially the youthful middle classes, to punish inept governments amid systemic corruption and inequality.

It is precisely for the above reasons that the Arab Spring should be seen as a phenomenon of trans-historical significance, which has inspired the youth and middle classes of the world to unite against economic and political oppression. Democracy is a destiny that lies at the far end of a contentious and tortuous path.