Algeria’s rulers appear to have concluded, in the words of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 19th century novel “The Leopard,” that “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”
It has become the latest Arab state to announce political reforms designed to preserve a system dominated by the security services and head off pro-democracy protests that swept away Tunisia’s ruler and threaten Egypt’s.
The tactic may work because the country’s oil and gas wealth provides leeway to buy social peace, opposition is fragmented and the population is traumatised by memories of a civil war in the 1990s in which an estimated 150,000 people died.
The authorities that imposed a state of emergency in 1992 after scrapping a general election which an Islamist movement was poised to win have suddenly decided to lift it.
The “suspension of the electoral process,” as it was euphemistically termed, launched a decade of carnage in the North African state, in which both sides committed atrocities as the Islamic Salvation Front was crushed.
Now President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the civilian face of a system dominated by generals and secret policemen, has said all legal political parties will have access to the media and demonstrations will be allowed everywhere except in the capital, Algiers, and its surrounding region.
“This is clearly a response to the events in Tunisia and Egypt and an attempt by the Algerian authorities to get ahead of the curve and head off popular protests, as in Yemen,” said Benjamin Stora, the leading French historian of Algeria.
“They would not have dreamed of lifting the state of emergency otherwise.”
DIVIDE AND RULE?
It also seems to be a divide-and-rule tactic aimed at splitting a nascent pro-democracy front formed by small, secular political parties and the Algerian League of Human Rights, which has long favoured dialogue with the Islamists.
“I hope very much that this is not just another ruse by the authorities,” said Fodil Boumala, one of the organisers of a planned protest march called for February 12.
“I think that instead of getting to the root of the problem the authorities are just playing for time. They want to cut the ground out from the opposition by saying: ‘You asked for the state of emergency to be lifted and now it is’,” he said.
The ruling elite, built around officers who fought in the 1954-62 war of independence against France, is closely watching events in Egypt, which has a similar system of military-dominated government with a civilian facade.
Many Algerians speak of “le pouvoir” (the powers-that-be) to designate the opaque security establishment presumed to pull the strings and control the economy, and “le gouvernement” (the government) — the civilian politicians and technocrats who debate in parliament and decide on the colour of traffic lights.
For three decades since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, the rulers of Algeria and most other Arab countries have secured international support by presenting themselves as the last rampart against an Islamist takeover.
In the name of “stability,” Western governments closed their eyes to the Algerian slaughter of the 1990s, chillingly epitomised by the phrase of former Prime Minister Redha Malek: “Fear must change sides.”
Fear changed sides in the other direction in Tunisia and Egypt, where protesters have braved the risk of death or injury to demonstrate for democracy and against their rulers.
Algeria’s development has long been distorted by the “resource curse” of the energy sector, which funded the elite and encouraged an import-based economy that rewarded rent-seekers and discouraged domestic production.
Bureaucracy stifled entrepreneurship, leaving young, educated Algerians the choice between emigration, until Europe slammed its doors shut, and unemployment. Housing construction did not keep pace with rapid population growth.
The socio-economic frustrations which fuelled Islamism have erupted frequently in mostly short-lived local protests.
But unlike Tunisia, where the self-immolation of a frustrated vegetable-seller snowballed into a national protest movement, protests against price rises and housing shortages in Algeria were short-lived, quickly bought off by the authorities.
While Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s rule was politically repressive and nepotistic, he did promote the rise of an educated middle class and a thriving private sector that provided the social basis for the democracy movement.
The political challenge presented by Algeria’s embryonic pro-democracy front may be trickier to defuse than the economic unrest, but the country has always had the escape valve of a sometimes outspoken privately owned press and some degree of parliamentary debate.
A popular joke in the Maghreb, adapted from communist-era eastern Europe, tells of two dogs who meet on the border between Algeria and Tunisia.
“Why do you want to come to Tunisia?” the sleek, chubby Tunisian dog asked the mangy Algerian mongrel.
“I want to eat,” the Algerian dog replies. “But why on earth do you want to come to Algeria?”
“I want to bark,” the Tunisian dog says.