The Algeria Alternative Why Algiers Defends Order at Home—But Not Abroad, by: Geoff D. Porter

The Algeria Alternative

Why Algiers Defends Order at Home—But Not Abroad

By Geoff D. Porter

Foreign Affairs

April 15, 2015


The upheavals of the Arab Spring seemed to pass one country by: Algeria. To its east, Libya collapsed into civil war, and Tunisia suffered an upsurge of terrorism that imperiled its democratic transition and economic recovery. To the south, Mali is holding together, if barely, thanks to a French-led stabilization force. But all the while, Algeria has remained a reliable bulwark—if also something of a riddle.

In many ways, Algeria is a routine democracy. It has held several elections that international observers have deemed to be free and fair and that have been buoyed by an abundance of political parties. It has a free press and an active and engaged labor movement. Its ministries are staffed by competent technocrats; its bureaucracy duly enforces protocol. As Joan Polaschik, the U.S. ambassador to Algeria, recently said, “Life there is really normal. People are out and about shopping, going to restaurants.” Even French television has zeroed in on this feeling. An upcoming series focuses on several Algerians who live markedly unexceptional lives: a woman scuba diver, a chef obsessed with freshness, and a nature guide who leads schoolgirls in chanting, “Without nature, there is no future!”

But Algeria is also vastly different from other countries. For starters, it remains remarkably jealous of the normalcy that many other nations take for granted. This sentiment is rooted in recent trauma: during the 1990s, Algeria was upended by an Islamist insurgency. Almost everyone in the country was affected by grisly and indiscriminate violence or knew somebody else who was. Public life disappeared, as did movie theaters, cafés, and even stop signs, since cars stopping at intersections became perfect targets for gunmen. As these and other attributes of normalcy returned, Algerians welcomed them, but not without some hesitancy—lest the country forget what it went.


The Algerian government justifies its approach by arguing that only this kind of inclusive process can build a stable peace. It also cites ideological reasons for refusing to use its own military overseas, maintaining its commitment to inviolable sovereign rights of other states. Skeptics criticize such explanations as a disguise for cowardice and an attempt at staking out moral high ground. Yet Algerians hold on to that rhetoric with pride, seeing no contradictions in their government’s views on using force. From a practical standpoint, however, their position is harder to argue by the day: if the use of force is so effective domestically, why should it not be considered abroad, especially when the greatest threats that Algeria faces emanate from outside its borders?

Asking these kinds of questions at home, however, remains nearly impossible. There exists little room for debate among policymakers. The political parties in power never sit down with the opposition to discuss avenues for the future, and negotiations that do take place almost always involve the same interlocutors: the prime minister’s office, organized labor, and associations of business owners. Even then, final decisions are ultimately made by a narrow and often unknown group. To be sure, there are opposition members who actively and repeatedly voice their criticism of the government—but their efforts have led to little real change.

The coming months will likely become the first real test of the strategic choices Algeria has made till now. Never has it faced such serious threats directly on its own borders. The intensity of Mali’s conflict dwarfs that of previous rebellions in the north, and the fighting shows clear potential to spill into Algeria. Likewise, in Libya’s dangerous morass, Islamist militants grow bolder by the day. For the moment, Algeria appears determined to cling to its conventional approach, pushing for political solutions to external crises while beefing up internal security to protect itself if these solutions fail to materialize. The problem with this strategy is that asks too much from ordinary Algerians, who can only hope that it’s the best way to safeguard the normalcy that they hold so dear.


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