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Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Algeria and Egypt: Parallel paths

Bouteflika has stepped down, echoing what happened with Mubarak eight years prior. It remains to be seen if Algeria will avoid the instability Egypt then experienced

Hussein Haridy , Wednesday 10 Apr 2019
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No one could have imagined while celebrating New Year 2019 that Algeria would face a very grave political crisis that would cost President Abdelaziz Bouteflika a forced resignation three months later.

The same situation had been witnessed in Egypt eight years earlier, when nobody had anticipated the forced departure of former president Hosni Mubarak from power.

In both cases, the hidden disconnect between the people and those in position to rule came to light, taking government institutions in both countries by complete surprise. In the two instances, the military in Egypt and Algeria decided to support popular demands for the ouster of the two presidents.

The sad ending to the rule of Mubarak and Bouteflika, after decades of serving honourably their countries, casts light on a perennial problem in government in the Arab republics that came into being as a result of the national liberation movements that swept the Arab world in the 1950s and the 1960s; namely, the highly-destabilising phenomenon of presidents for life.

Moreover, Egypt and Algeria have shared two other characteristics. The first relates to growing family connections within the ruling circles.

The second has to do with the presence of highly-politicised Islamist groups waiting in the shadows to assume power once the power structures either fail to deal effectively with popular demands for political change, or find themselves forced to rely, temporarily, on these forces to regain control.

The latter was the case in Egypt and the former could be true as far as Algeria is concerned in the next few months.

It is true that the power and influence of the Islamists in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis and other lesser Islamist groups, in 2011 and 2012 was greater than the power enjoyed, at present, by similar groups in Algeria; however, their followers have been present in the streets by the hundreds of thousands with strict orders not to display their true religious affiliation.

The drivers behind the growing popular disenchantment with the two rulers were more or less the same.

Deteriorating living standards of the majority, the growing wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots, widespread corruption emanating, mainly, from the top without any degree of accountability, political disenfranchisement of the younger generations made worse by the high youth unemployment and the absence of a clear path towards democracy and the rule of law.

In addition, the ruling parties, parties of artificial majorities that have no popular roots, behaved in a way that closed all doors to more open political systems in order to keep power indefinitely.

But the most compelling reason for the sudden mass popular revolt in Egypt 2011 and Algeria 2019 was the spectre of a life-long presidential mandate.

If power corrupts, as the saying goes, it is also true that quasi-permanent power blinds governing elites to true popular sentiments.

In Egypt, before January 2011, as in Algeria in the first three months of 2019, governments failed to gauge these sentiments and growing political opposition to the ruling class.

The ruling parties in both countries became change-resistant instead of articulating paths for more political openness and working on modernising the political systems so as to prepare the grounds for an orderly and peaceful transfer of power.

Instead, these parties became political machines whose only task was the perpetuation of one-man rule.

Still, there are differences between the two countries that could explain why the ultimate outcome of the present uncertain situation in Algeria would be different from how things developed in Egypt in the period 2011-2013.

Political parties and groups in Algeria have greater popular roots that the ones in Egypt and their power of mobilisation and their political organisation are much deeper and stronger. Besides, they have shown a capacity of coalescing around certain objectives and demands that was not experienced in Egypt.

Other differences lie in the nature of the role of the military and political Islam in the two countries.

The difference in the role of the military has been a reflection of the mass popular appeal of the ruling party in Algeria and the lack thereof in the case of Egypt.

The National Liberation Front (the FLN in French) had led the Algerian Revolution of November 1954, so it has gained a greater political legitimacy and credibility than the equivalent ruling party in Egypt (the National Democratic Party).

That difference probably explains the limited role of the Algerian army in public life compared to the role of the Egyptian army that had led a revolution against the monarchy in July 1952, a revolution that has endowed it ever since with an accepted role in Egyptian politics. It goes without saying that this role varies according to political circumstances.

It is too early to predict how the winds of change in Algeria would blow. Street demands nowadays are reminiscent to a great degree of the ones heard in Tahrir Square eight years ago.

Even the wild accusations are taken from the same book. How the Algerians will manage the situation remains to be seen.

If there is one thing that most observers have agreed upon it is that the Algerian army will make sure to channel massive popular unrest into peaceful avenues of change.

However, this difficult process needs leaders that have enough popular legitimacy to steer the country towards a more secure, more stable and more democratic system. This is provided that the Algerian Islamists don’t try to rock the boat at the expense of the army.

In an interview published by the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat on Friday, 5 April, the leader of the Islamist movement Harakat Al-Salm (Movement of Pacification), Abdel-Razak Mekry, said he was afraid the Algerian military manages the political scene discreetly and indirectly and they are the ones who make presidents as well as core political arrangements.

Former president Mubarak had missed a golden chance in 2005 not to seek re-election. So did Bouteflika in 2014. In Egypt and Algeria, five years have made all the difference not only in the ending of the reigns of both rulers, but also the destiny of their respective countries.

If they had decided, back when, to leave office with their heads high, they would have spared their countries many uncertainties and hardships.

Most importantly, they would have opened a democratic path for Egypt and Algeria by honouring the basic principle of constitutional rule; that is, the peaceful transfer of power.

Back in May 2007, the world watched the then newly-elected French president Nicholas Sarkozy seeing off in the Elysees Palace in Paris the outgoing French president, the Gaullist Jacques Chirac.

I hope Arab presidents at present and in the future watch this spectacular example of an orderly, constitutional and peaceful transfer of power. If they do, I am sure they will save their countries from a highly uncertain future.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline:  Algeria and Egypt: Parallel paths 

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