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  • Democratization in the Middle EastAlgeria’s Tragic Contradictions
  • Lahouari Addi (bio)

Democratization is the order of the day in the Third World, but aside from certain Latin American countries where it seems to have succeeded, it is everywhere running into difficulties. These challenges need to be analyzed in relation to the history of each country, taking into account specific political, cultural, and ideological circumstances. There is assuredly no universal model of democratic transition that one can recommend to all Third World countries, which is why we must evaluate obstacles to democratization on a case-by-case basis.

Algeria is an interesting case precisely because in February 1989, just months after the October 1988 riots that cost nearly a thousand lives, the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) embarked on a series of reforms, changing the Constitution to allow multipartism and alternation in power by means of elections. Yet the legalization of multipartism mainly benefited the Islamists organized into the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which carried both the June 1990 local elections and the first round of the December 1991 national legislative races. The military suspended the process and nullified the first-round results in January 1992. Next, it forced President Chadli Benjedid to resign. Since then, Algeria has plunged into murderous strife that already has claimed more than 60,000 lives. 1

In January 1995, six groups (including the three major contenders—the FLN, the FIS, and the Socialist Forces Front or FFS) met in Rome to sign a pact aimed at ending the crisis. 2 The military rejected [End Page 94] this Rome Platform and ordered a presidential election for November 1995. This vote, which capped the first contested presidential election since Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962, went ahead as scheduled on November 16. Even though the principal opposition parties (most notably the FIS and the FFS) refused to participate, the balloting raised high expectations among voters, who hoped that incumbent president Liamine Zeroual (a retired general and the army’s designated candidate) would emerge with strengthened legitimacy and be able to make the military accept a political solution similar to the one outlined in the Rome Platform.

On election day, three-quarters of the country’s 16 million eligible voters turned out, and Zeroual won a 61 percent majority. Although widely hailed as a success, this election actually has solved nothing. Zeroual has not been able to assert control over the army, the national dialogue that he promised has broken down, and deadly violence continues to rage. In May 1996, the president promised legislative elections for early 1997, but the opposition parties dismissed his announcement as a maneuver to buy time.

In this essay, I will first explain the inner logic of Algeria’s political system by examining its structure and the crisis in which it is currently embroiled, and then look at the dynamics of the various oppositions it has set in motion: 1) the internal opposition within the regime, 2) the Islamist opposition, and 3) the democratic opposition.

The Logic of the Regime

To comprehend what is happening today in Algeria, one must consider the historical and ideological foundations of the power of the state as it emerged from the war of national liberation, which made the army the country’s legitimacy-granting authority. The contradiction that has led the regime toward the current violence is its inability to endow itself with legitimate leadership—an inability that has propelled the Islamists into the resulting gap, which has existed ever since the death of President Houari Boumedienne in 1978.

The legitimacy upon which any system of power rests is a principle that is forged in the history of each country. In Algeria, it is inseparable from the struggle that the national liberation movement waged against French colonial domination in the 1950s and early 1960s. The army holds the key to political legitimacy by virtue of the very fact that national sovereignty was wrested from France by the Army of National Liberation, whose heir was the National Popular Army. This situation brought about a splitting of the state’s power that would have deleterious consequences for the state’s provision of services and the efficiency...

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pp. 94-107
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