As the Libyan opposition closes in on Tripoli, the Algerian regime worries it could be next. The largest country in Africa with much more oil and gas than Libya, Algeria has all the same problems as the other Arabs. Will the wave of unrest now move further west across North Africa?
The protests that swept the Arab world in 2011 actually began in Algeria in early January. Even before demonstrations rocked Tunisia next door and toppled President Ben Ali, there were unprecedented protests across Algeria. Every Algerian city was rocked by the biggest demonstrations in years. Then they began to ebb. The demonstrations attracted fewer and fewer protestors, and the regime gained the upper hand. Algeria is a haunted nation; fear of a return to the terror and violence of the 1990s is so great it acted as a brake on the Arab spring in Algeria even before winter had ended.
Algeria is acutely vulnerable to the contagion of the antiregime and antiestablishment unrest that has rocked the rest of the Arab world. It has a huge youth bulge, large unemployment and underemployment, and a sclerotic regime that permits virtually no public participation in the decision-making process. It is also home to a violent branch of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But the memories of the ”lost decade” are very strong among Algerians, and there is no appetite for a return to the abyss.
The Peoples Democratic Republic of Algeria is the largest Arab country in size, and now that the Sudan has split it is the largest country in Africa. It achieved independence from France in 1962 after a bitter, decade-long struggle in which a million people died.
The old leftist regime was challenged by Islamists in the 1980s. The Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) won local elections in 1990. Then it won in the national parliamentary elections in December 1991 and was poised to form a government. But the army stepped in instead and the generals took control.
A nightmare followed as the Islamists rebelled. A decade of violent terror followed. The Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA), the largest rebel group, became increasingly fanatic and extreme. The army infiltrated the terror groups, creating rogue elements that got out of control. The GIA then splintered into factions which fought each other. By the end of the 1990s a new group, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prediction et le Combat (GSPC), emerged even more violent and fanatic. Estimates of the dead run as high as 160,000 or more.
In time the fury began to wear itself out. The 1999 election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika produced a more legitimate government, and he began a series of reforms and amnesties to try to undermine the insurgency. While Bouteflika, now in his third term, has considerable political power, the generals remain the real power behind the veil. The regime is completely untransparent; Algerians don’t know who really pulls the strings in their capital and outsiders are even less informed about le pouvoir—the power, as the generals’ inner circle is known.
The Libyan war is deeply disturbing for Algerians. Like the rest of the world, Algeria has no affection for Muammar Qaddafi and his regime. But the breakup of Libya between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, and the intervention of NATO forces—especially French aircraft—is viewed with alarm in Algiers. Like Libya, Algeria has a history of strong regional rivalries and independent city-state rule. European and American air forces fighting next door have reopened colonial memories that are deep and bitter.
Algiers effectively backed the Qaddafi regime against the rebels, criticizing the NATO operation and voting against the Arab League resolution that set up a no-fly zone. Algeria has expressed particular concern that the unrest in Libya could lead to the development of a major safe haven and sanctuary for al-Qaeda and other extremist jihadis.
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Ayman Zawahiri announced in a video message from al-Qaeda’s as-Shahab media that the GSPC was becoming the North African wing of the movement. The GSPC formally renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, and it promptly attacked UN headquarters in Algiers and attempted to assassinate Bouteflika. Since then, it has spread its cells across Africa as far as Nigeria and has kidnapped westerners across the Sahara.
So Algeria is poised between its fear of returning to chaos and violence if the army and the regime loosen up and its underlying socio-economic difficulties that cry out for political and economic reform. The United States is not a major player in Algerian affairs; Europe potentially could be but is probably too broke to do so. Algerians will face their dilemma on their own.