Algeria’s ‘Revolution of Smiles’: Where will it lead?

Washington DC, April 12, 2019 — Every Friday since February 22, the cities and towns of Algeria have seen massive demonstrations that have brought women, men, children, and old people pouring into the streets, often in high spirits but always voicing pointed political demands. What had provoked the demonstrations was the announcement by the ageing, extremely non-functioning president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, that he would seek a fifth 5-year term in the country’s upcoming elections. On April 2, Army Chief of Staff Gaid Salah announced that Bouteflika had resigned, effective immediately. But this was not enough to satisfy the demonstrators, who turned out in equal-or greater-numbers for last Friday’s protests. What has been going on in this large North African country of 42 million people-and what resonance might the events there have for the rest of the Middle East? I have been to Algeria only three or four times. But I’m lucky to have close (marital) access to William B. Quandt, one of the few Americans who has studied the country deeply over many decades. In 1969, he published a groundbreaking book that studied the leadership of the country’s historic independence movement, the FLN. He followed that work on Algeria with another sole-authored book in 1998, and with contributions to several other books and papers, as well. So in this week’s column, instead of writing my own, fairly ill-informed thoughts about Algeria, I’m happy to share the following exclusive interview I conducted with Bill Quandt about the exciting developments there:

HC: The Algeria specialist Hugh Roberts recently made some intriguing observations about the mass movement in Algeria. One was that, though Algeria has a long history of mass marches being held in various towns and cities, dating back to the independence struggle in the 1950s, this series of marches has been notable for both its peaceable nature and its gender inclusivity. How would you account for those features?

WBQ: It is true that there have been lots of small protests in recent years, usually focused on specific issues. And there was the nation-wide uprising in October 1988 that was something of a precursor to what is now happening- but it was angrier, more militant, mostly made up of young men, with lots of Islamists joining in. And it ended with a wave of violence when the army intervened.

That uprising did bring about some temporary changes — a new constitution, the end of the one-party system, a relatively free press- but when the elections in 1992 were about to be won by an Islamist party, the military stepped in and cancelled the elections, deposed the president, and soon thereafter Algeria descended into a terrible period of violence known as the “black decade”.

So now Algerians, I believe, are trying to make sure that this time their collective cry for change will be different — hence its peaceful nature, the inclusiveness, and initially just the single demand for Bouteflika to go. That brought literally millions of people into the streets on successive Fridays, and it’s not over yet. And it succeeded in achieving its initial goal. But by the time it did, the demands of the masses had grown, and now the slogan is that the whole “system” should go.

A lot of energy is now going into discussing how to find some balance point between “everything must go”, and the idea that Bouteflika’s departure is the most that can be expected in the near term.

HC: What are the next challenges the movement faces?

WBQ: The movement needs to put forward a credible road map and a group of people who can speak on its behalf during this initial period of the post-Bouteflika era. And they need to figure out how to keep the army from turning against them.

So far the army and police have been quite restrained, but there are a few worrisome signs. Some protesters stress that the people and the army are brothers; others call for the chief of staff to leave along with all the others who were part of the old order. The latter demand is a non-starter and will have to be abandoned in favor of working out a transition in which the army plays a part but does not dominate.

For the moment, the military is saying that the constitution should be followed by naming an interim president, which was done today (Tuesday.) Senate President Abdelkader Bensalah was chosen as expected — and he now has 90 days to organize a new presidential election, if the constitution is followed literally. This is totally rejected by most of the demonstrators, who see this as a guarantee that the new order will be “Bouteflikism without Bouteflika” — much as the Egyptian uprising in 2011 finally resulted in “Mubarakism without Mubarak.”

HC: It’s notable that in 2011, when the “Arab Spring” erupted in so many other Arab countries, it did not do so in Algeria-as we both witnessed when we were there in 2012. How do you account for that?

WBQ: I think that Algerians were still getting over the trauma of their “black decade” of the 1990s and were wary of setting off another period of intense confrontation. Also, the government had large reserves of money and they spread it around generously to buy off discontent. Then, Bouteflika was still a functioning president — he did not suffer his stroke until 2013 — and he still had some credit for having ended the horrific violence of the 1990s. Finally, once the Algerians saw how most of the other Arab Spring uprisings were unfolding, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for following suit.

HC: Can Algeria’s democrats avoid the fate of their counterparts in Egypt, a country that has a similarly deep role of the army in controlling politics, and where the military found ways-with help from Saudi Arabia and the UAE-to beat back the democratic tide of 2011?

WBQ: This will be a big challenge, but so far the vast majority of Algerians seem willing to keep pressing for real change by peaceful means. Like the Egyptian military, the Algerian security services have been central to the choice of presidents from the beginning. But I do not get the impression that the Algerian military has such huge corporate interests as does its Egyptian counterpart. There is also the strong historical narrative of the army and the people fighting side by side for independence, and the idea that the army is a “popular” one. But this remains the great unknown.

The chief of staff, Gaid Salah, says that the popular will should be respected, but at the same time seems to be pushing ahead with the narrowly defined constitutional procedures that will result in very little real change.

I would be surprised if the Algerian Chief of Staff were to seek the Presidency himself, as Sisi did in Egypt. I think the military will prefer a less visible, behind-the-scenes, role. Half of Algeria’s presidents have been civilians, half have been military men. By contrast, since 1952 Egypt’s presidents have all been from the military with the exception of the brief Morsi interlude in 2012–13.

HC: How can Algeria avoid the fate of Syria, Yemen, or Libya, where the schisms opened up by the “Arab Spring” resulted in horrendous, atrocity-laden civil wars?

WBQ: Several things make me think Algeria will not end up like Syria, Yemen or Libya. First of all, in each of those cases there was massive foreign intervention — sometimes in the form of foreign jihadists coming into the country (Syria), sometimes NATO military forces (Libya), and sometimes neighboring Arab forces (Yemen). In these cases there was also very deep polarization within the societies which was played upon by these foreign interventions.

For the moment, there is really little sign of any foreign intervention in Algeria, and whenever it is suspected it is immediately strongly denounced by the mass of demonstrators. Also, there are so far no ethnic or regional divisions — in fact, the national flag is regularly seen side by side with that of Algeria’s sizeable Berber minority, and slogans are often posted in Arabic, Berber, and French.

Also, the Islamist current in Algeria, which is much weaker than it was in the 1990s, is going along with the peaceful nature of the demonstrations. As in Tunisia, the Algerian uprisings are largely nationalist, secular and united in calling for democracy and freedom. Where the Algerians are less well-endowed than Tunisia is in their lack of relatively autonomous groups like trade unions and professional societies that could begin to organize the demands of the protesters.

HC: Algeria shares a long border with Libya. How does this fact affect both the role of the Algerian military in politics and the prospects for a decent political transition in Algeria?

WBQ: Algeria is the largest country in Africa in terms of area, so it has real security issues along a very extensive border. By and large the Algerian military has done pretty well at keeping the chaos in Libya from spilling over into Algeria, and that has given it some legitimacy. The challenge for the demonstrators is to acknowledge that the army has played, and will play, an important part in Algeria’s future, without letting it set all the rules and choose all the ostensible power holders.

HC: Can the Algerians learn something from their neighbors in Tunisia? Can those two democratic movements be mutually reinforcing.

WBQ: Many Algerians have a tendency to look down a bit on Tunisia, but I think that they have been paying attention to the relative success of the Tunisian transition from autocratic rule to a semi-functioning democracy. In addition, there has been good security cooperation between the two countries in the border area. In recent years, many Algerians have gone to Tunisia on vacation — it is nearby, inexpensive, and culturally familiar, but with touristic accommodations that far outstrip those in Algeria. They come back quite impressed with their neighbor to the east. So yes, the Tunisian example is a plus. But the main difference is that Tunisia never had a very strong or politicized army. Algeria does.

HC: Do you see any outside powers playing any significant role-for good or ill-in affecting the course of Algeria’s move towards democratic accountability and reform?

WBQ: France, the old colonial power, is the one country that always casts a shadow over developments in Algeria. Bouteflika was strongly supported by successive French governments because he brought stability and clamped down on the Islamists. In recent weeks, the French have been careful to say that they will not intervene in Algerian politics, but even little remarks in the French press can set off alarm bells in Algeria.

There is also some suspicion that the rich Gulf Arab states, who hate the idea of a new round of “Arab Spring” uprisings that might produce more demands for freedom and democracy, are eager to subsidize a transition from Bouteflika that results in no real change. Finally, some Algerians look for what the United States might do or say, but so far they are seeing and hearing nothing. Algeria is not on the very small radar screen of the Trump Administration- and that is probably a good thing.

Originally published at on April 12, 2019.