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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 15-23

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Democratization in the Arab World?

Algeria's Uneasy Peace

William B. Quandt

Among Arab countries, it was Algeria that took the most convincing steps toward liberal democracy in the period from 1989 to 1991, when the old one-party system was formally ended, a flowering of civil society occurred, and honest competitive elections were held for the first time. More than ten years later, however, the country appears stalled between its authoritarian past and a democratic future—even while a clearly rising number of its citizens aspire to the latter.

No one today would be apt to describe Algeria as a model for political emulation—whether elsewhere in the Arab world or beyond. If current analysts are asked what they take to be most characteristic of Algerian political life, they are more likely to note its persistent violence and deadly factionalism than its periodic elections, multiparty parliament, or remarkably free press. But to understand the enigma of contemporary Algeria, we must see all these elements together.

The country's move toward greater political openness in 1989 was prompted by a long-simmering crisis that had come to a boil in October of the previous year. 1 The generation that had come of age after Algeria won its independence from France in 1962, and for whom jobs had become scarce following the oil-price collapse of the mid-1980s, had taken to the streets in revolt. Many others who had endured the dreariness and deprivations of the one-party era had cheered the angry young men on. Taking in the extraordinary breadth and depth of popular support for the protesters, the regime—dominated since independence in 1962 by the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its military and state-security apparatus—eschewed a policy of pure repression, opting instead for extensive political reform. 2 [End Page 15]

A new constitution, ratified in a February 1989 referendum, opened the way to the end of the FLN's political monopoly. Within a short time, Algeria was teeming with new political organizations, civic associations, and a free press. The most popular of the new political groups was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an expansive coalition comprising a small number of radical Islamists, a few veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the traditionally pious urban classes, and vast numbers of alienated youths. 3

President Chadli Bendjedid, underestimating the strength of the FIS, seemed to think that he could leverage its support among the public to weaken the unpopular FLN, without endangering his own prerogatives as president or alarming his military backers. Bendjedid himself was a product of the FLN-dominated system, of course, but he had become aware that his own political survival required that he take his distance from a party widely blamed for the failures of the past decade. In thinking that he could endure the weakening of the FLN, he was mistaken, rather like Mikhail Gorbachev, who tried to distance himself from the Communist Party in the last days of the Soviet Union.

Islamists Rising

In 1990, the FIS made a remarkable showing in municipal elections, unseating the FLN in more than half the country's municipalities and setting the stage for the dramatic National Assembly contest of 1991. Although the FIS polled nearly a million votes fewer in 1991 than it had garnered the previous year, it still won twice as many as the FLN and was poised to win a majority in the new National Assembly. Then the military intervened. In January 1992, the generals canceled the second stage of the election, deposed President Bendjedid, and soon thereafter banned the FIS from politics altogether. 4

In the first round of the aborted election, the FIS had managed to win the votes of only about a quarter of all eligible voters (only about 55 percent of the electorate had cast valid ballots, the rest having either not voted or cast blank ballots), but given the disarray of the other parties, that would have been enough for it to claim a major victory and establish itself...