The depth of argumentation in Algeria Modern: From Opacity to Complexity lays the ground to understand future political development in Algeria, says Amir Lebdioui.
Part of the CERI series in comparative politics and international studies, Algeria Modern: From Opacity to Complexity is a book edited by Luis Martinez and Rasmus Alenius Boserup. It analyses the complexity of the Algerian political system and raises important questions in a very timely context in which Algeria is facing uncertainty with falling hydrocarbons revenues threatening economic, political and social stability, and rising threats to regional security.
While the Algerian political system has often been characterised as opaque, the overall argument of the book is that such reductionist analyses neglect the recent changes undergone in the country. Indeed, as the authors write: “Algeria’s political landscape is no longer opaque, but has become visible in its ordinary complexity”. This process notably involves the public exposure of a number of complex but ordinary political mechanisms, conflicts, rivalry, and competition between key actors in political decision making.
Beyond challenging opacity, this book also attempts to analyse complexity, which stands in contrast with most assessmentsof political power in Algeria, that have been characterised by caricatures attempting to identify a single actor holding power notably through the use of reductionist terms such as ’Le Pouvoir’ or “Le Regime’ to explain decision making. The opening chapter by Luis Martinez for instance investigates political power through the concept of ‘interest groups’, which are neither hidden nor inaccessible. Here, the Algerian regime is understood as a dominant coalition within a number of competing interest groups, consisting of a range of institutional actors, each of which has an impact on political decision makers while political parties, parliament and the bicameral legislature do not play a significant role in public policy debates nor in selecting ruling elites. Importantly, the chapter explains that as those key players among interest groups have failed to identify a common candidate to succeed President Bouteflika, the next few years are likely to evolve into a period of power struggle between interest groups, as already indicated by the ousting and resignation of key political figures.
The authors further evidence complexity by putting forward the coexistence of traits of liberal democratic practices (such as competitive media outlets and multi-party elections) with a number of key traits of absolute rule (such as top-down control of the state’s executive branches, a strong presidency dominating a weak parliament, and an inefficient party system). Algeria’s political economy also remains firmly within the redistributive logic of the rentier state. The role of hydrocarbons exports in financing social welfare policies is further analysed in the chapter written by Samia Boucetta, who explains that while hydrocarbons revenues enabled the State to considerably reduce poverty, they have not alleviated people’s economic vulnerability. This chapter explains that the most imminent threat to the political order in Algeria is not from grassroots politicisation, but from the consequences of a long term drop in hydrocarbon revenues that finance the current political order and social peace.
The overall key strength of the book is therefore putting forward and taking the complexity of the Algerian system at its starting point rather than its end by explaining it through recurrent and contemporary themes in Algerian politics. Indeed, the different chapters look at a number of parallel transformations such as the extent to which the past hegemony of the Algeria state intelligence service (DRS) has been challenged by the influence of interest groups, new social practices by the urban youth, materialisation of a moderate Islamist alternative, and the shift of security threat scenarios from internal post civil war fragility to external regional instability in the Sahara region. Such efforts are complemented by fair assessments of the implications of such complexity for political changes, without claiming to engage in forecasting or crystal ball reading, a tempting option for many analysts trying to explain what the post-Bouteflika era will look like.
That said, some criticisms are warranted, such as the authors’ regular use of terms like ‘authoritarian’ and ‘undemocratic’ to describe the Algerian political system. The chapter on interest groups notably takes ‘the undemocratic nature of the system’ as a given, which is quite reductionist for a book that seeks to unveil complexity. As a result, the book can be accused of falling into its own criticism by not recognising the sensibilities and nuances behind such categorisations and factors influencing electoral behaviour. While at times acknowledging the hybrid features of the Algerian political system, more care should be taken to avoid using reductionist and selective terms.
Somehow related to that issue, the book also claims that “unrepresentative because of its authoritarian system, the government […] is not subject to pressure to satisfy social demands…” While this argument has been proved wrong on several occasions when the Algeria state’s responses were dictated by social pressure and civil society opposition, it is also contradictory to another prevalent idea in the book that the Algeria’s state strategy emphasises redistribution and social equity over growth with a populist nationalist nature of social contract to ensure regime survival.
The chapter analysing the role of hydrocarbons is quite interesting; especially as it has roots in Algeria’s tradition of state interventionism to prevailing American and French ideological interests in the 1940s. Nevertheless, the chapter omits to analyse and distinguish the ideological differences and approaches to entangle hydrocarbon revenues underlying resource-based industrialisation in the Boumedienist period and de-industrialisation in the post-Boumedienist years.
Overall, Algeria Modern contributes greatly to the literature on Algeria politics by offering a refreshing perspective and understanding of complex inter-relations and transformations in recent years. The depth of argumentation lays the ground to understand future political development in Algeria. As the book explains, unlike many of its neighbouring countries, Algeria avoided the most damaging consequences of the failed post-uprising transitions, where politics have been reduced to a question of regime survival, and instead has seen the emergence of a possible foundation for a new stability through gradual transformation of the political order. It is therefore particularly timely for those interested in Algeria’s political trajectory to read Algeria Modern.
Algeria Modern: From Opacity to Complexity. Luis Martinez and Rasmus Alenius Boserup(eds). Hurst Publishers. 2016.
Amir Lebdioui (@AmirLebdioui) is a PhD student at the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.