North Africa has been witnessing a phase of political tension, particularly in Tunisia and Algeria — two of the most significant powers politically in the continent. However, there are major differences between the tensions in Algeria and Tunisia, specifically on an institutional level. It is important to notice that state structure is one of the variables that lead the development of contentious politics within the countries of North Africa.
Algeria is witnessing a power vacuum and is still considering the possibilities of an institutional political process. The idea of presidential elections held before the end of the year is not very much welcomed by the various political forces in Algeria. The scene at the current moment lacks political cohesion. Hence, it is expected that the state of uncertainty and struggle between Algeria’s political actors will remain for the time being. The core issue in Algeria’s situation is the civil-military relationship. Algeria, meanwhile, is torn between a mobilised street powered by various political currents, and a council with a military presence that is trying to maintain state stability. Setting a timeline for a political settlement is futile.
Tunisia is quite a different case. In Algeria, political pressure was put on former president Bouteflika to leave office and not run for a fifth term. Events surprised the Algerian street, despite consistent levels of mobilisation on nationalist grounds. Tunisia, on the other hand, was a different case, since political tension was the result of a presidential vacuum after the death of president Essebsi. The absence in the presidential position in Tunisia moved several political forces to revive their role within the public sphere. Some 26 nominees stepped forward for the presidential elections in Tunisia. Between independents and representatives of standing political powers, the Tunisian executive election field seems quite competitive.
Presidential absences in both Algeria and Tunisia were sudden. However, there is a major difference between the two concerning the relation between civil society and political powers and the state. The Tunisian street or public sphere is much more powerful than that in Algeria, specifically from an institutional perspective. Algeria has proved that its political forces have significant ability to mobilise. Tunisia, on the other hand, had a different advantage. How institutional and active were social and political forces in Tunisia was a determining factor in the trajectory Tunisia followed after the death of Essebsi.
At this particular point, we have to mention a difference in state structure between Algeria and Tunisia. The state in Tunisia, mainly since 2011, has allowed a high ceiling for opposition forces and for civil society. Meanwhile, the diversity of political powers has created new legislative frameworks that were reflected in cultural changes and transformations. Algeria, on the other hand, experienced political stagnation for several years under the concurrently renewed presidential terms of Bouteflika. This meant that political forces in Algeria do not enjoy the same ceiling that political forces in Tunisia do. Moreover, political and social forces in Algeria are not as institutional as their counterparts in Tunisia due to the relationship they have with the state. Finally, newly materialising political forces in Algeria did not enjoy the same political environment that the state allows in Tunisia.
However, there is a similarity concerning the resurgence of the Islamist stream in both countries. In Tunisia, Abdelfattah Moro is a candidate for presidential elections representing Al-Nahda movement, the arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia. Other political parties have come forward with nominees for the presidency, including Monsef Al-Marzouki, Ebeid El-Breiki, Mohamed Abo and Abeer Moussi. This means that Tunisia has a strong platform of political parties capable of nominating representatives. Meanwhile, the situation in Algeria is not the same when it comes to political diversity.
In comparison to Tunisia, Algeria is in a much earlier phase. The political environment that prevailed in Algeria was very different to the one that was dominant in Tunisia. Today, Algeria is witnessing weak powers on the political level — powers that are capable of public mobilisation, but are not capable of institutional organisation. Therefore, there is a big difference between the idea of holding elections in the near future in Tunisia and Algeria. Elections in Tunisia might be a way to a political settlement, despite the Islamist stream. However, in Algeria it is too soon to claim that an institutional political process could be orchestrated.
In the end, Egypt’s role in North Africa has become more integral. With current tension in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Sudan, and with Egypt leading the African Union, the responsibilities and roles have been multiplied. Egypt’s role within the continent is not only a domestic one; its regional influence is turning into a portal for any foreign actor that wants to be involved in Africa.
The writer is a senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.