he National Liberation Front of Algeria expelled their French colonial rulers in 1962 after eight years of widespread and brutal insurgent violence. This popular revolution by the Arab-Berbers in Algeria never resulted in a democratic state apparatus or a strict Islamic legal system, however, and the country has balanced measures of democracy and Islam under a remarkably resilient authoritarian regime since its inception in the wake of independence.
The Beginnings of the Rentier State and Authoritarianism
The exploitation of oil after the expulsion of France allowed the National Liberation Front (FLN) to stabilize the economy and therefore solidify their legitimacy as the dominant political actor during a time of great social upheaval and insecurity caused by the flight of so many skilled colonial workers and by the destruction wrought from eight years of fighting. This sudden shift toward an extractable resource by the newborn Algerian economy can be argued to have marginalized any motive the FLN had to develop their newly-won state into a more liberal democratic government.
Owing to their society’s abject poverty following the war for independence, significant public sector spending projects that used oil rents instead of taxes granted the FLN enough popularity to excuse their avoidance of popular representation and their repression of Berber pro-ethnic movements. The FLN rode into Algiers in 1962 on a platform that promoted socialism and nationalism along with a modern interpretation of Islam’s role in a state. Throughout the war, they had coopted and manipulated the jihad that had begun shortly after initial French occupation in the 1830’s and their post-victory reversion from fundamental Islamic values was a betrayal to many Algerian Muslims. Considerable military and political clout allowed the FLN to quickly seize power in the vacuum created by the French exodus, however, and their desire to retain centralized control along with pressure emanating from ethnic fringe groups and potential religious adversaries drove the FLN to promote a moderate, partly secular regime within their new the state instead of opening it to pure self-determination.
The Limit to Oil Rents and Alternative Strategies
The practice of relying on oil to prop up the state grew through the second half of the 20th century as Algeria’s middle ground policy regarding the Cold War cost them vital foreign aid and the state’s failed socialist industrial revolutions led to an imbalanced and sometimes weak economy.
The attachment of the Algerian economy to the dropping price of oil forced the government to make political concessions when unable to maintain large public spending to appease their underrepresented population and the trappings of a multi-party system emerged in the early 1990’s. Although the liberalization measures enacted in the late 1980’s were superficial in nature and ultimately resulted in a protracted civil war, they display the connection between politics and the economy in Algeria and how economic downturns can promote atmospheres of political instability that have a potential for regime change – toward democracy or otherwise.
Absent from the scene of social unrest in Algeria prior to the civil war was the large scale random state-repression exhibited in Iraq in the 1990’s and in Syria after 2011 when the economies of those authoritarian regimes entered depressions and the leaderships were no longer able to politically subdue their subjects. Though brutal at times, Algiers is willing to deal with its people in a democratic manner and how it views them as a viable political force.
The Successes of Sate-Owned Oil
In 2011, massive public spending and not enhanced government repression allowed Algeria to weather the Arab Spring that toppled the neighboring regime in Libya, an example of “how a rentier state was overthrown when its leadership would not offer political concessions, even when it could not invest in social provision to placate the public”. Unlike the regime in Tripoli, Algiers has acted rationally in its selection of strategies ranging from cooperation to coercion, and their nationalist and partly Islamic basis of government allows them to violently compete for their population’s support and to retreat to an advantaged position yielded to them by oil profits when necessary.
Looking Forward: Democratization Prospects
While oil-funds are used in Algeria in part to strengthen repressive state apparatuses, they are a corollary and not a causal factor in the existence of authoritarianism in Algeria today. Oil may ensure the longevity of the autocrats in Algiers, but their strength without a complete reliance on hydrocarbon export indicates the extent to which authoritarianism is embedded into society. Given the disposition toward authoritarianism and the economic insurance afforded by oil, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the military leadership have breathing room to deal with an opposition that is descendant from the hardliner Islamists that have challenged Algiers since the 1960’s.
The fighting that permeated through all of Algeria in the 1990’s also helped solidify the military’s role as the enforcer and controller of the authoritarian regime. This domination by an apolitical and secular entity under the unifying guise of a nationalist and moderately Islamic president further diminishes the political effect of elite disaffection as an ideology is unlikely to sway a rational military-government.
Revolution through popular uprising was seen to be ineffective at generating political change in Algeria during the Arab spring and the decline of the military-regime does not necessarily mean the installation of a stable, liberal democracy. Pressure from Islamists has always provided the people of Algeria with an alternate center of legitimacy and it is possible that, should the government collapse through force of arms or popular uprising, a religiously conservative and undemocratic state would emerge; the Islamic Salvation Front outright promised a totalitarian state should they have won the civil war.
The international community could place pressure on the regime to gradually modernize, but this would risk destabilizing another Middle Eastern regime and Algeria’s oil provides incentive for foreign investors to maintain the status quo. The path toward further democratization cannot be achieved by the unilateral application of elite disaffection, popular action, or international pressure, and instead may result from a combination of all above factors within an atmosphere of political instability where the government cannot rely on oil rents alone to survive and is incentivized to cooperate. Should such circumstances be avoided by the government, whose adeptness in skirting total political overhaul has been observed many times before, then partial democratization may occur only as a side effect of the gradual modernization constructed by Algiers to preserve effective centralized power as long as possible.
- Mohammad Bani Salameh, “The Struggle for Democracy in Algeria, a Study in Civil-Ideological War” (master’s thesis, Clark Atlanta University, 1998), 49
- Michael Ross, “Does Oil Hinder Democracy,” World Politics, (April 2005): 325 -361.
- Ray Takeyh, “Islamism in Algeria: A Struggle between Hope and Agony,” Council on Foreign Relations (Summer 2003)
- Eugene Rogan, The Arabs; A History, (Basic Books, 2009): Chapter 5
- James La Sueur, Algeria Since 1989: Between Terror and Democracy, (Zed Books, 2009): Chapter 1
- Edith Chen, “Oil, Ideology, and Regime Adaptation in the Rentier Republics: A Comparison of Libya and Algeria,” Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, (April 2013)
- Larbi Sadiki, “Popular Uprisings and Arab Democratization,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, (2000): 71 – 95
- Edith Chen, “Oil, Ideology, and Regime Adaptation in the Rentier Republics: A Comparison of Libya and Algeria,”
- Mohammed Hachemaoui and Michael O’Mahony, “Does rent really hinder democracy? A critical review of the ‘rentier state’ and ‘resource curse’ theories,”
- Ray Takeyh, “Islamism in Algeria: A Struggle between Hope and Agony,”
- Yahia H. Zoubir “The Painful Transition from Authoritarianism in Algeria,” Arab Studies Quarterly, (Summer 1993): 83 – 110
- Gregory White and Scott Taylor, “Well-Oiled Regimes: Oil & Uncertain Transitions in Algeria & Nigeria,” Review of African Political Economy, (September 2001): 323 – 344