Hope Springs Eternal for Democracy in Algeria
This week, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned after two decades of ruling, largely as a result of protests calling for his removal from office. The demonstrations began in early March after Bouteflika announced that he would run for what would have been his fifth term in office. The former president had rarely appeared publicly since suffering a stroke in 2013 that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. In addition to their doubts about the 82-year-old’s ability to lead, protestors are also voicing concerns about the economy, government corruption, and an unemployment rate of over 30%. For many demonstrators, news of Bouteflika’s resignation was anything but satisfying. Instead, many saw it as a maneuver to install a loyal figure in his plac and prolong the regime. Algerians do not just want an able ruler; they want, in the words of one protestor, “a new republic of rights and liberties.”
Over eight years ago, the Middle East, a region with a persistent issue of authoritarian regimes, was shaken to its core by a wave of pro-democratic protests. By the end of the Arab Spring, as these protests came to be called, four governments had been overthrown and a brutal civil war broke out in Syria that continues to this day. In 2011, Bouteflika attempted to discourage unrest by subsidizing Algerians with oil rents, a tactic similarly employed by other rentier states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For all the hope that the Arab Spring rallied in the region and around the world, the results were largely disappointing in terms of regime changes. After Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in Egypt, the military seized power under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who continues to rule. Civil war continues to rage in Libya and Yemen. However, not every nation in which a government was toppled during the Arab Spring has encountered such stifling setbacks on the journey to realizing the liberty which they protested for.
Tunisia has been undergoing a slow democratic transition since 2011, and has been certified as free by the United States-funded NGO Freedom House. Though it is still plagued by the influence of enduring regime officials and corruption, the establishment of political pluralism and free and fair elections have arguably made Tunisia the closest thing to a democracy in the Arab world. Given the recent events in Algeria, as well as its geographical proximity to Tunisia, optimism for the spread of democracy in the Middle East is being renewed in a substantial way, thanks to the efforts of hundreds of thousands of regular citizens.
Proponents of the democratic domino theory postulate that changes in the concentration of democratic government in a state results in a similar pattern of democratic adoption in surrounding nations. If protestors in Algeria are successful in obtaining their “republic of rights and liberties”, North Africa would be home to two states converting from autocratic to democratic governance. This could heighten pressure on Morocco, Algeria’s neighbor to the west and a monarchy that has flirted with a more parliamentary approach, as well as drafting a new constitution (though some say deceptively), to move toward democratic norms. While it is highly unlikely that war-torn Libya will be picking up democratic cues in the near future, the establishment of a representative government in Algeria could embolden democratic activists elsewhere in the region; after all, the region-wide shockwaves of the Arab Spring originated from a single protest in Tunisia.
We will have to wait and see how the government responds now that Bouteflika has left office, and officials loyal to him are likely to take up the reins. Still, the persistence and scope of the pro-democratic protests in Algeria raise anticipations of their success, and are exciting in their possible implications for the country and the Middle East. Most of all, though, the Editorial Board salutes the many and the brave who continue to march for those basic rights and liberties as shining examples of the power of the citizen, and the strength of human resolve.