from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Thinking About Algeria and “Analytic Overshooting”

October 09, 2012

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In the fall of 1991, Robert A. Mortimer writing in the Middle East Journal declared, “Although the leaders of the post-independence generation feared that a pluralistic Algeria would be too unruly to govern, today’s political elite has moved beyond that position.” It was not to be, however. Just a few months after Mortimer’s article appeared, Algeria’s senior military commanders pushed President Chadli Bendjedid from office and nullified the results of the country’s first competitive national elections when it became clear that the Front Islamique du Salut would win an outright majority in the National Assembly. The civil conflict that followed the military’s intervention took the lives of somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 Algerians, though some estimates go much higher.

Mortimer was not alone in his optimism about Algeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The tone of much of the Western academic literature at the time expressed similar beliefs that Algeria was on the verge of a democratic breakthrough. Invariably, analysts cited the 1989 constitution, which was written in the wake of the nation-wide demonstrations and riots of late 1988, as prima facie evidence that Algeria would become the Arab world’s first “true democracy.” The constitution was similar in many ways to its 1963 and 1976 predecessors, but it contained three seemingly important departures: freedom of expression and assembly were explicitly guaranteed, the political monopoly of the Front Liberation Nationale—known commonly as the FLN—came to an end as Algerians were given the right to establish “associations of a political character,” and clauses giving the military a central role in “the development of the country” were excised. Yet when the officers stepped in on January 11, 1992, observers were left to wonder what had happened. In what was a foreshadowing of the lamentations of Middle East watchers almost exactly twenty years later they asked, “How did we get it so wrong?” Yet even though the soul-searching of 2011 asked the same question, the facts of the case were the exact opposite. Analysts did not expect democratic transitions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia precisely because they spent the two decades since Algeria’s aborted transition exploring the durability of authoritarian systems in the Middle East.

I have not worked on Algeria in any serious kind of way since 2007—I do my best to keep up through a variety of sources, especially the valuable work of The Moor Next Door—but I have been thinking about the country quite a bit lately.  From time-to-time, observers have asked: “Why not Algeria? How come there has not been an uprising there?” With all the change in the region, the ongoing brutal crackdown on the opposition in Bahrain, and the civil war in Syria, observers have tended to forget that there were demonstrations in Algeria that coincided with the month of popular protests that brought down Tunisia’s Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. It seems the revolutionary bandwagon that began in Sidi Bouzid and took off in Tahrir Square broke down before reaching Algiers. It is a fun side game to speculate why, but it is not a good analytic question, however. After all, revolutions are by their nature unpredictable.

Still, in 2010 analysts might have had insight into the coming changes in the region if they had thought more about the way they were actually thinking about the region. That sounds rather meta, but it brings me back to why I have been pondering Algeria. I recently had an opportunity to listen to a discussion about Algerian politics. The Algeria watchers talked about an aging, ill, and out-of-touch president; a powerful, but shadowy intelligence chief; an autonomous military elite; and an unhappy population straining under a poorly performing economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the indifference of a brutal regime. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Against the backdrop of this dismal situation, however, analysts seem to have come to the conclusion that an uprising is unlikely due to the collective memory of the terrible violence during the 1990s. I’ll defer to the Algerianists and take their word for it, but there is something that is superficial about this. It is as if they actually don’t know why Algeria seems stable, but that is what they feel in their gut so they have settled on the civil insurrection of the 1990s as the explanatory variable. They are not saying that an uprising will not happen, but that the odds are against it. This is reminiscent of the late 2010 prevailing discourse about the Middle East that painted a picture of stable authoritarians, divided and weak oppositions, and an international environment that was indifferent at best to the promotion of democratic change. There were elements of truth to this analysis, but the most anyone could conclude about regimes in the region was that they were “stable for now,” which turned out to be true, until it wasn’t.

Part of the problem prior to the uprisings and now with the analysis of Algeria—and Saudi Arabia, for that matter—is that observers tend to think in terms of “stability vs. instability” rather than “relative stability/instability.” It is probably better to ask ourselves, “Why does Algeria seem to be relatively more stable than other countries in the region?” There are a variety of ways to answer this question. It makes most sense to me to look at the way rulers rule: Do they have a compelling vision for society? What is their capacity for patronage? How much do they rely on coercion and force to maintain political control? The Algerians do not seem to have much in the way of vision, but rather a fair amount of money to buy political quiescence and a well-developed ability to repress. This mix does not indicate to me that Algeria is going to be stable in the long run. The money cannot buy everyone off and force is useful until people are no longer afraid. Admittedly, there is a subjective quality to this analysis. Someone else could look at the same set of facts and come to the opposite conclusion.

The bottom line is that the field has engaged in analytic overshooting, for lack of a better phrase, since the late 1980s/early 1990s. Scholars have gone from irrational exuberance about Algeria’s more apparent than real democratic opening to believing that it is stable, even as the country confronts considerable political, economic, and social problems. Instead, analysts should be cognizant of the need not only to dig deeper to gain additional insight into the dynamics of a society they are studying, but also to develop new techniques for evaluating what they find. If not, the field is likely to be surprised…again.