February 12, 2011

Copying Egypt’s Revolution: Algeria on Deck

As noted in prior analysis of Yemen’s recent protests, there’s an advantage to going second in the revolutionary order. Using former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as an guidepost of what not to do, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is attempting to fracture the opposition movement by promising economic incentives and not to seek re-election in 2013. Saleh, who only last month ordered his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) to eliminate term limits, enjoys a more divided opposition than Egypt’s and seems to believe he faces no real danger of being disposed.

Even if he is wrong.

Unfortunately for Algerians eager to protest their own government, the 11-year Bouteflika administration has studied all month in order to prevent a repeat of Egypt. Last week President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pledged to repeal Algeria’s 18-year state of emergency “in the very near future,” a move theoretically designed to restore the freedom of expression and protest. Now Algerians opposed to the government will be able to gather and express their political views.

Yet Bouteflika’s announcement merely intended to weaken the opposition’s platform by superficially removing a core complaint. No changes have yet occurred, and the government initially acted as though it expected some sort of gratitude. Algerians were simultaneously warned not to follow through with their February 12th march on the capital of Algiers - and prematurely blamed for any violence.

As riot police gather, the stink of a setup drifts a thousand miles away.

Algeria is less likely to reach the popular tipping point in Egypt, but it will share a number of similarities in either outcome. As in Mubarak's (and Saleh’s) case, Bouteflika’s hollow measures are unlikely to convince the majority of his opposition to halt their demonstrations. Few trust him to repeal the emergency laws. Many are incredulous over Bouteflika’s claim that the emergency didn’t obstruct freedom of expression, while new political parties and protests remain banned. Throw in high food prices and poor housing, and Algeria has produced at least eight cases of self-immolation since December 18th.

"We are in the middle of a meeting to work out how to respond,” said Fodil Boumala, a co-organizer of the February 12th march. “Personally, I hope very much that this is not just another ruse by the authorities... I think that instead of getting to the root of the problem the authorities are just playing for time. They want to cut the ground out from the opposition by saying: 'You asked for the state of emergency to be lifted and now it is'."

Thus the inherent advantage of “going second” is counteracted by the disadvantage of disbelief in true reform. This disadvantage has become more pronounced after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, particularly with the way he crumbled between Thursday and Friday night.

It would be surprising if a large-scale march failed to materialized on February 12th. Algeria’s opposition has been waiting too long for this moment. However the odds of successful revolution in Algeria are similarly low, and the Bouteflika regime less likely to wash away in a flash-flood of protests. Despite some friction with the military, Bouteflika holds a tight grip on the state’s political, economic, and communications apparatus, and will try every tactic to prevent the opposition from lifting off.

And Bouteflika has one big card to play if tomorrow does turn violent. Its head already spinning off the swivel, Washington is too consumed in Egypt and Yemen to invest a significant amount of energy into Algeria.

Unlike Mubarak and, to a lesser degree, Saleh, Algeria is a chilly U.S. ally solely concerned in manipulating the West. Internal memos leaked by WikiLeaks label Algeria’s Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) as “paranoid,” and rightfully so. Of all of al-Qaeda’s offshoots, AQIM is most rumored to be a product of a foreign government and Western intelligence. Wielded almost as blackmail to secure military contracts with minimal interference, AQIM has also proven useful in expanding Algeria’s regional sphere of influence.

Joint-bases funded by America and France already dot the Sahara and Sahel.

More analysis will follow tomorrow’s developments. Mubarak has ratcheted up the stakes on both sides, as the next targeted regimes prepare for celebratory protests sweeping across the Middle East. While Bahrain and Kuwait, Jordan and Syria prepare their own marches, the potential to unleash a regional revolution now lies in heavyweights like Pakistan, Yemen, and Algeria. Both the governments and peoples are learning from Tunisia and Egypt.

We’ve seen who won in both. Now we’ll find out if and where revolution can be duplicated.

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