Algeria is indeed a country of the Arab world: a de facto dictatorship with Islamists, oil, a vast desert, a few camels and soldiers, and women who suffer. But it also stands apart: It is the only Arab republic untouched by the Arab Spring of 2010-2011. Amid the disasters routinely visited upon the region, Algeria is an exception. Immobile and invisible, it doesn’t change and keeps a low profile.
This is largely because Algeria already had its Arab Spring in 1988, and it has yet to recover. The experience left Algerians with a deep fear of instability, which the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, has exploited, along with the country’s oil wealth, to control its people — all the while deploying impressive ruses to hide Algeria from the world’s view.
October 1988: Thousands of young Algerians hit the streets to protest the National Liberation Front (F.L.N.), the dominant party born of the war for independence; the absence of presidential term limits; a mismanaged socialist economy; and a tyrannical secret service. The uprising is suppressed with bloodshed and torture. The single-party system nonetheless has to take a step back: Pluralism is introduced; reforms are announced.
The Islamists came out ahead in the first free elections in 1990, and again in the 1991 legislative elections — only to be foiled by the military in January 1992. Long before Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Algeria had invented the concept of therapeutic coup d’état, of coup as cure for Islamism. At the time, the military’s intervention did not go over well, at least not with the West: This was before 9/11, and the world did not yet understand the Islamist threat. In Algeria, however, Islamism was already perceived as an unprecedented danger. After the coup followed a decade of civil war, which left as many as 200,000 people dead and a million displaced, not to mention all those who disappeared.
When in 2010-2011 the Arab Spring came to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, Algerians hoped for change, too. But their fear that war or the Islamists would return was greater still. “We have already paid,” the vox populi said, and the government joined in, intent on checking any revolutionary urge.
At the time I wrote: “Yes, we have already paid, but the goods have not been delivered.” The regime had slowly been gnawing away at the democratic gains made in October 1988: freedom of speech, a true multiparty system, free elections. Dictatorship had returned in the form of controlled democracy. And the government, though in the hands of a sickly and invisible president, was brilliant at playing on people’s fears. “Vote against change” was the gist of the prime minister’s campaign for the 2012 legislative elections.
The government also exploited the trauma left by France’s 132-year presence, casting the Arab Spring as a form of neocolonialism. To this day, the specter of colonialism remains the regime’s ideological foundation and the basis of its propaganda, and it allows the country’s so-called liberators — now well into their 70s — to still present themselves as its only possible leaders. France’s direct intervention to oust Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya only played into their hands; it looked like the sinister workings of their phantasmagorical triptych of enemies: France, the C.I.A. and Israel. Enough to quiet any populist ardor and charge the opposition’s leaders with being traitors and collaborators.
And so it was that as soon as January 2011 the early stirrings of protest were promptly quashed. The massive police apparatus played a part, as did state television, with stations taking turns reminding the people of a few chilling equations: democracy = chaos and stability = immobility.
Money also helped. Oil dollars may make the world go round, but they have kept Algeria still. In the contemporary mythology of the Arab Spring, Bouazizi the Tunisian is the unemployed man who topples a dictator by setting himself on fire in public. This hero could not have been Algerian: In this country, Mohamed Bouazizi would have been bought off, corrupted.
The Algerian regime is rich in oil and natural gas. And at the outset of the Arab revolts, it reached into its pockets, and gave out free housing, low-interest loans and huge bribes. Oil money was distributed not to revive the economy or create real jobs, but to quell anger and turn citizens into clients. Wilier than others, the government of Algeria did not kill people; it killed time.
While distributing handouts thwarted a revolution, it did trigger thousands of small local riots — 10,000 to 12,000 a year, by some estimates. But these protesters were not demanding democracy, just housing and roads, water and electricity. In 2011 a man set himself on fire in a town west of Algiers. Reporters flocked to him, thinking they had found a revolutionary. “I am no Bouazizi,” said the Algerian, from the hospital bed in which he would not die. “I just want decent housing.”
Meanwhile Mr. Bouteflika, ailing and absent, managed to get himself re-elected in 2014 without ever appearing in public, campaigning mostly by way of a Photoshopped portrait plastered across the country. The best dictatorship knows to stay invisible. Local journalists are under strict surveillance; the foreign media’s access is restricted; tourism is limited; few images of Algeria are broadcast internationally.
The only spectacle to come out of Algeria these last few years was of some Islamists taking hostages in the Tiguentourine gas field in January 2013. But the government, by responding firmly, was able to project the image of a regime that, though no ideological ally of the West, could nonetheless be counted on as a dependable partner in the global war against terrorism. To a Morsi, an Assad or a Sisi, Western governments prefer a Bouteflika, even aging and ailing and barely able to speak. Between antiterrorism and immobility, Algeria has succeeded in selling itself as a model even without being a democracy. No small feat.
But the situation is untenable. Politically, the Algerian regime has become the Pakistan of North Africa, with both money and power in the hands of a caste that the West thinks of as a difficult partner. Algeria is too vast a country to be run by a centralist government, and no new leaders have emerged who could ensure a guided transition. The Islamists are on the rise. Oil prices are dropping. The Algerian exception cannot last much longer.
Kamel Daoud, a journalist and columnist for Quotidien d’Oran, is the author of The Meursault Investigation. This essay was translated by Edward Gauvin from the French.