As we witness today the escalating horrors across the Middle East—acute insecurity, combined with varying degrees of violence, death and destruction, from Libya and Egypt, to Syria, Iraq and now Yemen, we may want to recall the Algerian experience of the 1990s and consider some lessons to be drawn from it.
Algerians today have certainly not forgotten those “years of lead”: indeed, the absence of an Algerian “Arab spring” in 2011 had much to do with painful memories, weariness and disappointments from that recent past. But for the governments and peoples of the countries of the region currently in turmoil, Algeria, which is so near, appears so very far away. Let’s bring the Algerian experience back into focus.
But first, some historical background: In 1989, in an effort to bring stability back to the domestic political economy in the face of massive popular unrest, Algeria’s then-president Chadli Benjedid revised the constitution, called for a transition to a multi-party system and invested a new reform-oriented government. In the spring of 1991, the reformists were forced out of office. Six months later, on the eve of the imminent victory in parliamentary elections of an Islamist party (the Islamic Salvation Front), the military—the true power holders in the country—called off the democratic transition and staged a coup d’état. The military would not countenance real transformation of the system which it controlled and from which it profited. Instead, it declared a state of emergency, banned the Islamist party, imprisoned its leadership, and detained thousands of real or suspected members and supporters. In response, militant ranks swelled; Algeria exploded. By the spring of 1992, the country was in the grip of civil war.
Algeria descended into violence. Over the next ten years, fraught with wanton bloodshed, generalized insecurity and a moribund economy, about 200,000 Algerians lost their lives and many thousands went missing. Kidnappings, throat slitting and mass executions were the work of multiple insurgency groups and militias, government forces and their counter-insurgent militias, terrorizing civilian populations far and wide. An underground economy flourished for the relative few who could access and profit from it, while the Algerian masses faced material hardship and deprivation. It was not until 2002 that, because of a combination of factors, the civil war gave way to low-level conflict. What can we learn from the Algerian experience?
- Elections, just like political transitions, once accepted and embarked upon, must be seen through to the end and their results, respected and implemented. If not, grievances multiply, opposition escalates and broadens, instability intensifies.
- Islamists have to be included in the political process, just like other organized political forces with popular representation and adherents. They are an integral part of society. Besides, Islamic discourse has been one of few tolerated forms of (political) expression in the Middle East where institutional space for debate among competing interests has been more or less constrained. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Islamists are adept at political organization and mobilization.
- Severe repression results in radicalization. This is equally true for moderate Islamists, as for all forces of opposition. The preference of the Algerian leadership for resorting to force and repression—by imprisoning members and supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front and subjecting many to torture—backfired. Rather than neutralize the opposition, it energized it. In no time, an insurgency was in place; it gained adherents and radicalized. But in the absence of a central leadership structure and with a deficit of political or moral authority, it splintered into multiple groups. Faced with persistent government brutality and without a sophisticated political discourse, dispersed insurgent groups competed among each other and with government forces to inflict the greatest harm and produce the most—and worst—terror. In short, the government strategy of severe repression extended the conflict: its duration, its players, its violence and horrors.
- Insurgent groups of the sort that emerge in these environments become, irrespective of their ideology, a magnet for those who feel marginalized—economically, politically, socially—in the society from which they come. Disillusioned, dissatisfied and with few obvious alternatives, they view joining such groups as the antidote to their condition. Indeed, the rank and file of Algerian insurgency groups in the 1990s was populated by young men who suffered from socio-economic dislocation and marginalization. Some, of course, would prefer the political alternative proposed by the leadership. But many would join for economic or socio-psychological reasons: The insurgency provided an occupation and source of livelihood; it allowed adherents to gain status, recognition and self-esteem, and even to get revenge for mistreatment—at the hands of the state or other rival groups. For those suffering from anomie and exclusion, the insurgency offered relief by providing meaning to one’s life and membership in a community. Still others, though, would not join voluntarily, but were recruited through threats and manipulation.
- The multiplication of insurgency and counter-insurgency groups results in the escalation of violence and brutality, but also internecine struggle. And factionalization makes negotiated settlements even more complicated. In the end, there is no military solution. No matter the resources expended to decimate the “other” or the extent of protagonists’ war-weariness, getting everyone to the bargaining table and cutting a political deal is the only solution. The alternative is unending violence and instability. In Algeria, negotiations called by the government in 1997 culminated in a truce with two rebel groups, followed by amnesty in 1999. The most intransigent groups, however, rejected the government’s overtures and continued the struggle. They have since transformed themselves into al-Qaeda in the Maghrib and related offshoots. Today, they have transnational ambitions and operations.
The Algerian experience suggests that President al-Sisi has been playing a very dangerous game in Egypt; his efforts to eliminate the Muslim Brothers and silence all dissent ring ominously. And Saudi bombs raining down on Yemen have inflamed popular resistance while increasing local support for the Houthis. To be sure, Bashar al-Asad’s ferocious response to what began as peaceful demonstrations for change, followed by persistent regime brutality has inspired a grotesque “Algeria effect.” Despite multiple actors (including American air power), the power vacuum—in Syria and in Iraq—is being filled by ISIS, which makes its mark by sowing terror (while integrating into its ranks the vulnerable and disillusioned). Via beheadings, burning and wanton destruction, it competes with Bashar’s barrel bombs, chemical weapons and torture, as it moves, almost seamlessly, across borders—first, into Iraq and now, into Libya and perhaps, Yemen, as well.
Militarized solutions fail. Repression backfires. Organized political forces must be brought to the bargaining table; their voices must be heard and their demands, addressed. And socio-economic integration of the masses across the region is essential; it is the sine qua non of stability and security.