Apocalypse, Not! Tales of Algeria’s impending implosion are, frankly, ridiculous

In a recent piece for The Spectator magazine, the British author and journalist Stephen Pollard presented readers with the following scenario. Under the headline “How Algeria Could Destroy the EU,” Pollard argued that when Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika died, “Algeria [would] probably implode.”

Pollard then continued: “The Islamists who have been kept at bay by [Bouteflika’s] iron hand will exploit the vacuum. And then Europe could be overwhelmed by another great wave of refugees from North Africa.” He offered estimates, claiming that “10 to 15 million” Algerians would try to leave. “Given Algeria’s history, they would expect to be rescued by one nation: France.”

Pollard’s numbers were peculiar. During Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s, some 790,000 left for France. So assuming that in a future conflict this figure would increase by a factor of ten to fifteen was something of an unsubstantiated jump.

A few days after The Spectator published Pollard, the Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique ran a, similarly, apocalyptic article titled, “After Aleppo, Algeria?” The author, Pierre Defraigne, the executive director of the Madariaga-College of Europe Center, also argued that the death of the ailing Bouteflika would lead to a conflict between Islamists and the military. He wrote, “The risk of implosion and civil war is unfortunately very serious. Could Europe prevent it? If it does not succeed, the Maghreb will be deeply destabilized and the refugee problem will be much more severe because of their number, proximity, and language. [The] Schengen [Agreement] would no longer hold up, nor would the unity of the EU.”

I found both articles remarkable, having written quite a bit on Bouteflika myself, including an assessment of the Algerian president’s seventeen years in office. Algeria is a very complex country and predictions are not only difficult to make, most of the time they also happen to be wrong.

This was particularly true, for instance, of those who predicted the fall of the Algerian state in the 1990s, when jihadi groups mushroomed in the country after the interruption of the electoral process in 1991 by the military and violence became the daily lot of millions of Algerians. It also applied to those who predicted that Algeria would be the second country after Tunisia to succumb to popular protests in 2010–2011.

While there is indeed uncertainty surrounding Bouteflika’s succession, it is not easy, given Algeria’s history, to assume a connection between his death and any instability that would purportedly follow. When President Houari Boumediene died in 1978, his succession was problematic because of the intense rivalry between Bouteflika, then the foreign minister, and the secretary general of the ruling National Liberation Front at the time, Mohamed Salah Yahiaoui. Conflict was averted when a faction of the military led by Kasdi Merbah, Mostefa Belloucif, and Rachid Benyelles stepped in. They sidelined Bouteflika and Yahiaoui, making sure they could no longer threaten the regime, and brought to power a more consensual figure, Chadli Bendjedid.

Power in Algeria is still held primarily by the military, despite reforms that have made the presidency stronger than before. That is why Bouteflika’s succession is not likely to endanger the country’s stability. Indeed, even if tensions exist between a faction of the military and the political establishment, the People’s National Army still remains the strongest institution in the country and is a prominent player in Algeria’s politics. The military has long ruled but not governed the country, and it will continue to do so.

Despite infighting within the institution, the military knows how to act cohesively in defense of its own interests and Algerian stability. For instance, when Bouteflika decided to run for a fourth presidential term in 2014, General Mohammad Mediene, then head of the powerful Department of Intelligence and Security, criticized the move. Yet, despite such reactions, and fearing the consequences of internal strife over the matter, the military rallied to the president and he was re-elected, while Mediene retired the following year.

What about those Algerian Islamists whom the authors believe will spearhead the conflict with the military? Some time ago a majority of them understood that the establishment of an Islamic state in Algeria was not possible. Many “moderate” Islamists, for example the Movement for Society and Peace, abandoned such a project on the grounds that Algeria was already an Islamic country.

Moreover, since 1995 most Islamists have chosen to participate in political life and have detached themselves from the violence of the radical movements. Nor is there an Islamist party in Algeria today able to galvanize millions of Algerians as the Islamic Salvation Front did in the 1990s, when it won the first round of legislative elections that provoked a military intervention. Personal and ideological disputes, as well as the absence of any consensus around a political program, have served to discredit the Islamist parties. This has been best illustrated by their crumbing electorate. In the 2012 legislative elections, for example, Islamists won only 48 seats out of 462, while in local elections later that year they secured an absolute majority in only 10 out of 1,541 municipalities. These were the worst results for them since the dawn of the Algerian multiparty system. The decline of Islamist parties in Algeria is a reality.

As for the country’s economic situation, it is undeniable that public discontent is mounting with the current state of affairs. However, Algerians are not looking to improve their situation through violence. The memory of Algeria’s civil war during the 1990s, with its horrors and massacres leading to the death of some 150,000 people, remains vivid. Many Algerians with whom I spoke in December 2016 referred to the situations in Syria and Libya as their worst nightmare.

And even if violence were somehow to break out and the state was not in a position to buy social peace by paying off key interest groups (as it once did thanks to Algeria’s oil and gas wealth), the armed forces could resort to repressive measures. Therefore, whoever tried to destabilize the country would have to face a potent, modern, highly experienced military that has extensive experience in counterterrorism and that has been the devoted guardian of Algeria’s power and the status quo since the country’s independence.

For all these reasons, Bouteflika’s death will most probably not bring on the collapse of the Algerian state, despite the naysayers.  The military, with its ability to act cohesively and impose stability, will make sure to keep violence at bay. In addition, those millions of Algerians who massively rejected the extreme ferocity of the “black decade” of the 1990s will continue to do so. These realities should be factored in before assuming the worst. 

Carnegie Middle East Centre

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