End of the Arab Spring, part I: Algeria

This is the first in a series of (at least) three posts about the disappointments of the Arab Spring in different countries.

Three years ago, hopes were high across the Arab world, as the effects of the Arab Spring rippled through the region. Dictators had been overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi was on the way out, there was serious insurrection in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, plus anti-government protests in a number of other countries.

Among the latter was Algeria, the second-largest Arab country after Egypt. But although it seemed a prime candidate for revolution, with a long-serving authoritarian ruler in Abdelaziz Bouteflika, its protest movement never gained much traction. There were some modest reforms, but Bouteflika – who is now 77 and confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke last year – remained in power, and two months ago announced that he would run for a fourth term of office.

That triggered more protests and calls to boycott the election, although there was also a reasonably credible opposition candidate in the shape of former prime minister Ali Benflis. As I said a few weeks ago, if there was any life left in the Arab Spring, Bouteflika was taking a serious risk.

But in reality, the election, which took place last Thursday, was just one more indication that the Arab Spring is well and truly over. While developments in Egypt and Syria have been more dramatic, at least there it can be said that there was a genuine struggle. The Algerian regime has not even had to fight for its survival.

Official results show Bouteflika with 81.5% of the vote against Benflis’s 12.2%. Another four candidates shared the remaining 6.3%. Turnout was 51.7%, well down on 2009’s 74.5%, although all of those numbers need to be treated with scepticism.

Benflis refused to recognise the result, describing it as characterised by “fraud on a massive scale.” But no-one seemed in any way surprised at the outcome, which was seen as a foregone conclusion all along.

What distinguishes Algeria from most other Arab countries is the bloody history of its attempt to democratise in the 1990s. Military intervention in 1992 cancelled elections that looked like being won by the Islamist party, and the resulting civil war cost more than 100,000 lives.

Despite the zombie nature of his regime, Bouteflika is still widely respected as the man who ended the civil war and brought a degree of national reconciliation. Algerians may not be happy with his authoritarianism, but they know that things could be a great deal worse. There is at least some scope for dissent, and the media, although restricted, are not completely under government control.

In a very interesting op-ed piece on the election in the LA Times, Robert Zaretsky ends by paraphrasing the great French-Algerian Albert Camus: “Although there is no reason to hope, that is no reason for despair.” That could almost stand as a verdict on the Arab Spring as a whole.

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