From Opacity to Complexity: The resilience of the Algerian state

Interview with Luis Martinez and Rasmus Alenius Boserup, editors of Algeria Modern, on how the Algerian state has weathered the Arab Spring and domestic unrest.

Miriam Perier, Sciences Po: The book title ‘opacity to complexity’ is in regard to the Algerian state. What are the main features of this opacity?

Luis Martinez and Rasmus Alenius Boserup, authors of Algeria Modern: One of the main features of this opacity is the fundamental role of the security services. Since independence, the state in Algeria has remained under the influence and control of the military, and its organs have composed a large part of the state apparatus and political institutions since the end of the Boumediene presidency (1965–1979). In this time, they have considered themselves the supporting wall of the Algerian building. Moreover, parallel to the accessible and observable institutional/formal political scene, another developed and consolidated. Various actors from diverse backgrounds began acting in networks. For Algerians, these power players represent ‘the system’. This opacity was also a feature of various administrations. From Chadli’s (1980–1991) to Zeroual’s presidency (1994–1998), it was difficult to know ‘who governs and decides’ in Algeria. Many testimonies of former ministers underline this unintelligibility. Interestingly, Bouteflika’s denunciation of this opacity began a major conflict between political actors (the president, the FLN) and the security services (the DRS)…

MP: How did the transition from opacity to complexity take place?

LM/RAB: The conflict that we just mentioned has, in effect, permitted transformations to have taken place over the last decade. As shown in Abdenour Benantar’s chapter in the book (‘The State and the Dilemma of Security Policy’), the military institutions have professionalized. Confidence has been restored, and the military is accessible and communicates outside of its own structures. In a sense, it wants to distinguish itself from the security services (DRS), which still bear a negative and archaic image. The same movement towards openness is observable in the hydrocarbon sector, which is the heart of the Algerian economy. For example, Sonatrach has made its archives available, and its former directors are, from now on, open to interviews. Samia Boucetta’s doctoral work and chapter in the book (‘Identity and Hydrocarbons in Algeria’) illustrate this new reality. Another example is the security sector, where various interest groups have manoeuvred to replace it. To be sure, the security services have far from disappeared, yet they are no longer a secret power. In fact, one observes in numerous sectors—once considered closed off and inaccessible—changes which allow us to understand ‘the state in action’ and to assess its complexity.

MP: Why is it that the Arab Spring passed over Algeria?

LM/RAB: As shown in Rasmus Alenius Boserup’s chapter in the book (‘Contention and Order’), Algeria was plagued regularly by protests during Bouteflika’s presidency. Social movements shook the Saharan cities and some on the coast. However, these movements didn’t move towards a dynamic of systematic confrontation against the president. They did not embody hatred towards a figurehead such as Ben Ali in Tunisia or Gaddafi in Libya. Additionally, under Bouteflika’s presidency, successive governments massively redistributed hydrocarbon export revenues for both direct and indirect aid toward the general populace. Finally, the experience of the civil war (1991–1999) created disenchantment within society. In the book, Ed McAllister’s chapter (‘Youth, Social Justice and Cynicism in Bab el-Oued’) shows how the youth became cynical, and why they no longer believe in revolution or a bright future.

MP: What could we learn from a comparison of the Algerian case with other cases in the region or other similar political regimes?

LM/RAB: Algeria, like Morocco, was spared from the Arab revolutions. Although these two countries have different political regimes, they practice a very close art of governance. These countries’ authorities are secure, through clientalism and relations with institutional actors, such as unions. The regimes have reinforced ties of loyalty that unite various interest groups to assure that no-one defects, unlike trade unions and the army in Tunisia and Libya respectively. Algeria and Morocco have also put in place important social policies which have reduced poverty. Finally, these two countries have favoured the development of a moderate Islam that channels any Islamic claims, and have encouraged the ‘Islamification’ of public morals in order to parry Salafist critiques against the ‘drift’ towards a Westernised society.

Luis Martinez and Rasmus Alenius Boserup were interviewed by Miriam Perier. The interview was translated by Jason Nagel.


Algeria Modern: From Opacity to Complexity will be released in April 2016 by Hurst Publishers as part of the CERI-Sciences Po series. This series, consisting of translations of noteworthy manuscripts and publications in the social sciences emanating from the foremost French researchers at Sciences Po, Paris, is edited by Christophe Jaffrelot, and Algeria Modern is the 40th book in the series.

Luis Martinez is a Senior Research Fellow at CERI Sciences Po in Paris. He has been Visiting Professor at Columbia University, New York (2000–2001) and at the University of Montréal (2007–2008).  A political scientist and a specialist on the Maghreb and the Middle East, his books include The Algerian Civil War, 1990–1998The Libyan ParadoxThe Enigma of Islamist Violence (co-edited with A. Blom and L. Bucaille), and The Violence of Petro-Dollar Regimes: Algeria, Iraq and Libya.

Rasmus Alenius Boserup is Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen. He holds a PhD in Arabic and Middle East Studies from the University of Copenhagen and from École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris (2007). He is the former Director of the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute in Cairo (2008–2011) and has taught Middle East political history and sociology at the University of Copenhagen and at the Danish Defense College (2003–2005). His publications focus on Middle East and North African political and social history and in particular on contentious politics, rebellion, violence, and regime practices in the region as well as Western foreign policy towards the Arab World.

On Twitter: @rasbos

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