Updated

Maghreb Matters: Report on the role of religion in Algeria; How the Algerian regime manages change; Opposition calls for collaboration in economic planning – Jean R. AbiNader

Jean R. AbiNader
May 25, 2018

Jean R. AbiNader, Moroccan American Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Moroccan American Center

Two reports on Algeria this month focus on key elements of its society – Islam and governance. The first, published by the Carnegie Endowment in its online publication Diwan noted that state efforts to control the preaching and promotion of Islam are largely successful, yet social media has made it possible for other Islamic sources to attract followers.

Interface Media conducted a 2018 study that showed “Algerians are much more interested in Egyptian and Saudi preachers than they are in local preachers.”  The country, the largest in Africa, has some 17,000 mosques with state-approved imams to lead services. However, there are many mosques, according to the study, that have been constructed without the approval of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Algerian youth, in particular, it notes, are “disillusioned and have lost confidence in their religious institutions.”

While this is not an uncommon across the continent and its religions, when combined with the issues raised in the article below on how the country manages political life, it could become a major measure in restricting the opposition from taking actions that threaten state security.

A much longer Carnegie study, dealing with managing political change, raises some of the long-term questions of security and stability that may occur despite the regime’s success in controlling and managing dissent. Dealing solely with the internal dynamics of Algeria, the study notes that “the Algerian regime has shown a significant degree of resilience and adaptability.” It acknowledges that it reflects the capacity of the political, military, and economic elites to dispense benefits to target populations in a controlled manner.

The regime appears to provide a degree of change and pluralism, which, the study argues, has allowed ”it to absorb social dissatisfaction, keep society in check, and strengthen the foundations of its rule. But the regime’s success to date does not mean that these self-perpetuating mechanisms will work indefinitely.”

Key factors contributing to ongoing stability are: “opposition” acquiescence in the current system with little effort to effect change; and the inability of civil society to mount a coherent platform of reform, many having been “co-opted, marginalized, and coerced.” Both opposition parties and civil society organizations are largely led by autocratic cadres that embody the illiberal patterns of Algeria’s leaders.

Another factor is the creating of dependent networks by the leadership through the selective distribution of socio-economic favors, thereby expanding their power bases. This also reinforces systemic corruption in governance, which has become a tool for resolving conflicts and maintaining the current political order.

Up against these factors that reinforce the leadership’s illiberal values are trends that will have to be managed in the coming generation, given that more than 50% of the population is under 30. First of all, change is a constant that must be managed. Algeria is famous for its large number of strikes and demonstrations, usually over social and economic grievances. With a budget over-dependent on oil and gas revenues, an infrastructure that requires widespread upgrades, and the lack of jobs commensurate with a university education, these acts of civil disobedience will continue.

So the regime must face the challenge of being more generous, thus undercutting its needed fiscal disciple, or have to provide more public political space and participation for young and old alike, including more responsive mechanisms for dealing with issues, recognition of ethnic and cultural minorities, or broader consultations on issues of importance to the opposition and civil society (see the following clip).

The study mentioned that defining and sustaining the regime’s policies is in the hands of Algeria’s decision-makers, or décideurs in French, who are mainly senior members of the People’s National Army (PNA); political parties with close ties to the military, such as the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Rally for Democracy (RND); and other influential political and economic elites. It is a strong and intertwined network that distributes political and economic resources “to the general public to help ensure the stability of the political system. Through the complex interplay of constantly refined strategies for neutralizing political opponents and critics, the overall system sustains itself.”

Regardless of the veneer presented publicly, “The real locus of power remains in the military, whose influence remains intact regardless of the façade of constitutionalism and pluralism. The military rules, even if it does not govern. It does so from atop a pyramid of power in which the interests of the military, the FLN leadership, and members of the political and economic elite are intertwined.” They are able to point to unstable border areas, some incidents of internal threats, and an insecure region as why they must continue to discretely direct Algeria.

Yet this is slowly changing. Younger Algerians are more educated, more urbanized, more connected both internally and externally through digital technologies, more demanding of opportunities, and more determined to be less acquiescent than the older generations in challenging government policies.

The report does a good job of enumerating the various means for encouraging the current regime to realize that more stability and security depends to a large part on meaningful and effective political actions. This is a large ask since when asked  to rank politicians’ honesty on a seven-point scale, 28% of the 1,200 respondents in a recent Arab Barometer poll gave politicians the lowest rating of one, and 25% gave them a rating of two. Similarly, political parties and parliament are the least trusted political institutions: only 14% of respondents trusted parties, while 17% trusted the parliament.

As the report concluded, “One way or another, the country’s leaders need to allow for some measure of generational renewal. Unless younger generations are given the means to participate in political life and engage in advocacy, and unless the government listens to their concerns, dissatisfaction may mount and could undermine national stability.”

A Reuters article noted that the opposition are calling for a national consensus “to undertake deep economic reforms and end its dependency on volatile gas and oil revenues.” Abderazak Makri, the new head of MSP, the main Islamic opposition party, also said that he would run for president in 2019 if the opposition is not included in economic planning.

Despite the uptick in current hydrocarbon prices, Makri said “the oil producer had no time to lose to agree on economic reforms as Algeria’s model of a state dominated economic dependent on oil and gas revenues no longer worked.” He made the point that “A government needs full support from political parties, unions, and organizations to implement difficult reforms. This is why we need a consensus. “If we do not reach a political consensus, all options will be then open. We may participate. We may boycott,” he said.

Although the MSP won only 6% of the vote in 2017, he pointed to Tunisia where both Islamic and secular parties rule together as a model. “Tunisia is a good sample. When elections are free and fair the winners are always Islamists,” he said. “In Morocco, the Islamists have won, in Tunisia they have won, and they would have won in Algeria if there had been no fraud.”

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