Why fast-forwarding democracy in the Arab World does not work: Lessons from Algeria

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by Rosa Belkadi*

Photo credit: Karima Hamaili (CAMRA) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

An increasing number of religious political parties are gaining power in the Arab world as a result of the social, political, and electoral opportunities created by the “Arab Spring.” As many in the Muslim world and the West look on with apprehension and uncertainty, one question begs asking: Will democracy, which was once seen as the ultimate solution to all trouble in the Middle East and North Africa, bring about the undesirable result of theocratic rule, undermining the very democracy the Arab Spring sought to create?

To tackle this timely issue, it is useful to look at Algeria which not only faced this very dilemma some two decades ago, but in many ways succeeded in overcoming it.  The Algerian experience helps to illuminate the tumultuous relationship between religion and politics in the region. It also shows that hasty democratization, which has been taking place all across the Arab world, is not the most beneficial route to take and can easily lead to extremist forces winning power. On the other hand a gradual process of democratization and the application of what Alfred Stepan called the theory of “twin tolerations”- which requires a state to ensure a minimal degree of tolerance towards religion and for religion to show the same towards democracy- is more fitting and can help to quell extremism at the roots.

Algeria demonstrates that democratization is more effective when it is done in a calculated manner with measured steps to progressively open up the political and social systems. Elections are not always the way to jumpstart democracy, but must come after a series of other reforms. The proper regulatory framework must be put into place, media must be liberalized, and the associational and political fields must be opened up to give moderate opposition adequate time to garner support and rally its electorate. This is an important process which takes time and cannot and should not be fast-forwarded.

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, many political analysts have repeatedly turned towards Algeria to see if its government would be next to fall. A few protests by marginalized Algerian youth strengthened this argument, and made everyone expect the situation to finally “explode.” Almost two years later, there has not been a political or social explosion, but the protests did lead President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to enact many reforms to alleviate youth unemployment and to expand the political arena. Indeed, without upheaval and major protests, the government went so far as approving new political parties to participate in the May 2012 legislative elections, a first since 1992. Organizers of protest rallies were largely disappointed at the lack of response from the Algerian populace to calls for demonstrations and revolution.

To explain this, many argue that Algerians have grown tired of chaos and political instability after the tragic events of the 1990s. But it is also true that many Algerians are at best satisfied with the performance of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, or, at the very worst, content with the status quo and unwilling to face the instability that such reforms may entail. This is because Algerians are well aware of the hazards of political change as their country faced its own “Arab Spring” well before its neighbors at a time when the winds of freedom and liberalization were sweeping across Eastern Europe.

On October 5th, 1988, massive protests and riots by aggravated unemployed youth against the government broke out across Algiers. The events of “Black October,” as it was later labeled, had the effect of destabilizing the government and eventually bringing down the single-party system. As a result, then President Chadli Benjedid introduced a new constitution in 1989 which ensured freedoms of speech, assembly, and association and broke away from single-party-rule. What ensued was a mushrooming of the associations, political parties, and lively independent press still present today.

One organization which had been active well before Black October was the Islamic Front for Salvation (FIS). This organization had developed its base by seemingly absorbing many of the frustrations being felt by ordinary Algerians such as unemployment and poverty. The organization successfully used religion as a means to channel these aggravations, and was able to secure a first round win in the legislative elections in 1990. Fearing an Iranian-style revolution and a “one man, one vote, one time” scenario, the government cancelled the election results. As a result, the jihadi wing of FIS took up arms and over 200,000 civilians, and security and government personnel were massacred in the ensuing violence.

Many have also proposed that the dire socio-economic conditions of poor urban youth were the main reason for FIS winning the majority in Algeria’s first multiparty election, especially as the party was both well-funded and well-organized. Though there are many reasons religious parties are able to win and secure a large number of votes in multiparty elections in the Muslim world, in Algeria and many of the countries which went through the upheaval of the Arab Spring, it can be argued that the lack of maturity of the democratic experiment is at the root of this victory.
While the Algerian government experimented with many different strategies to fight insurgents and terrorists throughout the struggles of the 1990s- ranging from military crackdowns to amnesty and reconciliation laws- something which remained constant, however, was the government’s willingness to stay the course and not disrupt the political process. In fact, since 1995, Algerians have been to the polls four times each to elect their president, legislative assemblies, and local councils. While the political leaders at the time justified the cancellation of the election results of 1991 as a way to “save the republic”, they still found it necessary to continue to hold multiparty elections to prevent the country from falling deeper into chaos.

What is noteworthy about Algeria is that although limited in scope, the country’s continuing and incremental political process after those elections in the early 1990s has exhibited a pattern: not only are less and less Algerians voting for religious-leaning parties with every passing election, but these parties have become more moderate and temperate in their views on politics and democracy through the years. While the FIS at its apogee advocated for Algeria to become a theocratic state, today political parties such as the Movement for Society and Peace (MSP) adopt a more moderate stance and rhetoric. As one former MSP member of parliament stated, “Algeria is a Muslim country, the call for prayer can be heard, and Ramadan is observed… so talking about the Islamization of society when the country is already Muslim is a false problem”. Participation in the political process has also led to greater maturation and professionalization of these parties as they have moved away from revolutionary policymaking, and are instead looking to practice better political management of ordinary issues that matter to Algerians.

A useful way to understand this phenomenon and to draw important parallels for future policymaking in the Muslim world is to look at the Algerian experience through the prism of Alfred Stepan’s theory of twin tolerations, which suggests that religious authorities should not have a public policy mandate to overrule democratically elected leaders. It also asks that the democratic state guarantee the freedom of worship and allow religious organizations to publicly advance their values and beliefs, and to sponsor organizations and groups in the political sphere as long as doing so does not compromise democracy or the liberties of other citizens.# Stepan also argues that the “idyllic” model of complete separation of religion from politics is not necessary to establish or consolidate a democracy. He states that the strictest models of secularism, such as the ones adapted in France and the United States, are not necessarily the most conducive to building democracies on an institutional level.# This can explain how a staunchly secular country such as Tunisia had also been able to evade democracy in the past. In addition, and of particular interest to this article, Stepan speaks of “self-secularization”- a process inherent in “twin tolerations” in which religious parties learn to adhere to democratic rules. He gives the example of the Christian Democratic parties in Europe that were able to self-secularize to become fully democratic.

Twin tolerations can make for a good solution to the decades-long “Islamist dilemma”, which centers on the relative costs of both inclusion and exclusion of Islamists in the political process. Inclusion entails the risk of seeing Islamists win and then cancel or undermine the democratic process by installing theocratic regimes and curtailing liberties. Exclusion by its nature undermines democracy by violating its pluralist ethos, which may, in turn, radicalize the religious factions further.  Twin tolerations can thus serve as a valuable tool to reach a consensus between religion and politics in the greater Muslim world and beyond. While Algeria has yet to complete its democratization process and fully implement these twin tolerations, both processes are going ahead at full speed. This has not only quelled much of the violence of the 1990s, but has also contributed to bringing much needed stability to the country on the political, social, and economic fronts.

While, measured political opening and democratization are fundamental to securing a better future for citizens, revolution, intervention, abrupt change, and immediate elections are not necessarily the only solution. These can, at best, lead to religious parties winning elections, and, at worst, cause rupture, chaos, and undesirable national and international repercussions.

The Algeria experience showcases the importance of incremental democratization. This process might seem protracted, especially when hundreds of thousands of protesters are organizing sit-ins for governments to immediately step down, but in the medium and long terms, this process presents the best chance for a democratizing country to become genuinely open, representative and inclusive. In Muslim countries with strong religious oppositions threatening to take power, twin tolerations can be an effective method to incorporate all different parties into the political process while ensuring that the rules of plurality and democracy are upheld. The international community can help these countries by promoting genuine homegrown democracy with the necessary institutions to sustain it over time, and thereby moderate extremist voices which feed on desperation and marginalization.

– Judith Sabba and Adeel Ishtiaq served as Lead Editors for this article.

*F. Rosa Belkadi holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs with a focus in governance and international economic relations from American University in Washington D.C. She is a freelance writer and researcher. Her research interests include socio-economic and human development, microfinance, public management, and governance.


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One thought on “Why fast-forwarding democracy in the Arab World does not work: Lessons from Algeria

  1. Sam says:

    Great Article!

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