Less than a week after Ennahda was declared the winner of Tunisia’s first elections since the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Algeria witnessed a major development of its own: the opening of the Algiers Metro – an event more than 30 years in the making.
Indeed, while much of the Arab world has been in a period of upheaval, talk abounds of an “Algerian exception.” As Arab protests subsided, Algeria seems to have settled into familiar territory: Legislative elections this past May gave the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) a seemingly resounding victory. On July 5, the country celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence – and the official logo for the celebrations features the metro prominently. But beyond the headlines, Algerians continue to express deep discontent.
Officials from all over congratulated Algeria on the stability of the electoral process. President Barack Obama even sent congratulations on 50 years of independence, noting that Algeria “continues to play a basic role in the combat against terrorism.”
Algeria is a key player in the resource-rich Sahel, where Islamists are being supported by Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. This nebulous organization is often viewed as an avatar of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), which was a key terrorist group during the Algerian civil war. Stability is especially important to foreign observers these days because of events in Mali and Libya, and as the chaotic struggle continues between the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Islamist Ansar al-Din. The international community – including bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union – looks to Algeria for help in resolving the crisis.
Yet what is lauded abroad as stability is read domestically as an expression of disillusionment with institutional politics. Legislative elections were decidedly anticlimactic for most Algerians: In addition to widespread accusations of fraud, some analysts estimated the actual participation rate to be 15 percent, rather than the 42.9 percent claimed by the regime.
The regime has used this disenchantment to question the patriotism of the population rather than its own legitimacy. Algeria’s interior minister claimed that Algerians in the north didn’t vote in elections because they were less patriotic and preferred going to the beach. The government also regularly invokes the notion of “sacrifice” for the sake of stability, particularly through the historical reference par excellence of the War of Independence.
This past May, President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika gave a speech at Setif (the site of a brutal 1945 massacre by the French) in which he asserted: “The liberty and national sovereignty were regained at the price of enormous sacrifices. This is why the Algerian people, most notably the younger generations, should understand that the liberty, the stability, the progress and the democracy that the country enjoys are the fruit of enormous sacrifices.”
For all the rhetoric though, Algerians are tired of the sacrifices being asked of them, and the frustration is coming out. Citizens continue to engage in self-immolation on a frequent basis: The independent paper Al-Watan reported 20 in the first six months of 2011. As a result, the religious affairs minister issued a fatwa against self-immolation in a bizarre example of using a religious decree to control political dissent. While these acts were not unheard of prior to the suicide of Tunisia’s Mohammad Bouazizi, they became more common.
But a more long-standing problem is that of the country’s riots; some analysts claim that several hundred occurred in 2011 – making rioting a key means of contestation for the population. The objects of frustration are not surprising: housing, electricity, unemployment and injustice. And while these disturbances occur nationwide, Kabylia and the south seem to be the zones of the most visible unrest.
Many riots tend to flare up spontaneously. For example, anniversary celebrations in M’sila turned into a riot when the police prohibited youths from accessing fields where fireworks were taking place. Although certain organizations advocate for a more equitable repartition of economic resources, they often hesitate from taking action that would link them to violence, and that would thus risk a regime backlash.
Additionally problematic is to write off these riots as a form of “irrational” youth anger, as apolitical “food riots” because they lack a singular political will. They are deemed to be mere “socio-economic grievances,” leaving intact the discourse of political stability. But, the riots and self-immolations are neither entirely random nor completely illogical. There are good reasons why Algerians chose such fragmented forms of expression: the population is deeply divided by a decade of civil war and remains disenfranchised by elusive networks of entrenched interests. In addition to corruption and hyper-bureaucratization, infighting within the ruling elite is endemic, making it difficult to ascertain the difference between political rumor and reality.
For example, Ali Tounsi, the chief of Algeria’s police force, the Directorate General for National Security, was shot dead in his office by a trusted colleague in February 2010. The episode was reminiscent of the assassinations of Mohammad Boudiaf and Abdelhaq Benhamouda – leading political figures whose assassination in the 1990s are still mired in conspiracy theories.
Algerians still carry the psychological and political scars of a civil war that killed more than 150,000 people. This often makes it seem that Algeria is willing to bear the enormous costs of corruption and economic dissatisfaction, given that the alternative threatens to bring the country into a renewed state of violence. Yet ignoring the riots and self-immolations privileges a discourse of stability propagated by the regime, which obscures the ways in which Algerians are rejecting the political order.
Those who are interested in predicting “the next Tahrir” would do well to track these scattered events in Algeria rather than wait for action at the Place des Martyrs. After all, the capital’s main public space is under indefinite construction. The reason for the closure? Expansion of the metro, of course.
Muriam Haleh Davis is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at New York University. Her research interests focus on development and decolonization in Algeria. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.