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  • Islam, Elections, and Reform in Algeria
  • Daniel Brumberg (bio)

In recent years, democratic change has come to several Arab countries. Hesitantly, reformists in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan have encouraged greater political pluralism, intellectual debate, and even competitive elections.

The forces that have compelled leaders of the Arab world to initiate democratic reforms are similar to those that drove Mikhail Gorbachev down the path of perestroika, glasnost, and democratization in the Soviet Union. Middle-class professionals, once quiescent under authoritarian rule, now clamor for the same democratic rights that the peoples of Eastern Europe have won. In addition, economic crisis has intensified pressures for a new "democratic bargain." The reformists hope that steps toward political pluralism and competitive elections will help buy popular acceptance of painful economic reforms.

Nowhere in the Arab world has this quest for a new democratic compact progressed more rapidly than in Algeria. Only there has the ruling party (the National Liberation Front, or FLN) allowed a genuinely competitive multiparty system to emerge. The turn towards pluralism and democracy, however, has given rise to a new and daunting challenge. In Algeria, as in Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt, democratic reform has increased the power of the Islamists. This trend was evident most recently in Algeria, where the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), overwhelmed the FLN in the June 1990 municipal and provincial elections.

The growing influence of Islamic groups, however, does not by itself presage the breakdown of democratic reform. Algeria's Islamists are [End Page 58] divided between "fundamentalists," who advocate an authoritarian agenda, and liberal "modernists," who favor a more pluralistic program. The leader of Algeria's FIS espouses, although perhaps for tactical purposes, a modernist line; his second-in-command, however, champions a fundamentalist agenda. In the fall of 1990 the Islamic Alliance, a new party that upholds a modernist position, challenged the FIS in anticipation of the 1991 National Assembly elections.

Will Islamic fundamentalists prevail in the upcoming National Assembly elections, currently expected to be held in March? Or can those in the FIS or the Islamic Alliance who advocate a liberal Islamic vision build a durable coalition with other groups, including secular opposition parties and a reform-minded FLN? In short, will Algerian democracy be stillborn, or will Algeria prove a source of new hope for democrats throughout the Islamic Middle East?

To grasp these complex issues, one must first understand how the old order collapsed with such finality in Algeria. On 5 October 1988, a series of violent protests began in Algiers and rapidly spread to other major cities including Constantine and Oran. During these riots (which left more than 400 dead and wounded), young protestors lowered the Algerian flag and replaced it with empty sacks of semolina, the dietary staple that had been missing from the shops for months.

This image of discontent raging under the banner of the empty food sack strikingly suggests the dynamic that has been driving democratic change in the Arab world since the mid-1980s: the collapse of the old "ruling bargain." Under this arrangement, the ruled traded their rights to independent political activity in return for the rulers' guarantee of social welfare and job security. To provide these benefits, the state relied on oil revenues, foreign remittances, tourist spending, and foreign aid to finance huge government bureaucracies and inefficient state-run enterprises, institutions whose primary mission was to provide guaranteed employment and a minimal level of social equity rather than efficient capital accumulation and production.

During the 1980s, the economic conditions that had financed this bargain began to disintegrate. State-run industries and agricultural projects ran out of steam. Revenues from oil and foreign remittances dwindled with the oil glut that began in 1985. As the rentier economies of the Arab world collapsed, foreign debt soared from Algiers to Amman.

Realizing that political passivity can no longer be bought, reformers in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Algeria are proposing a new ruling bargain. In return for popular acquiescence to painful economic reforms, they promise a measure of political pluralism and democracy. A revival of the "political market," they hope, will ease the shift towards a less state-dominated economic market.

The need for a new democratic...


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pp. 58-71
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