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Policy Brief
 

Algeria’s Parliamentary Elections:
Lessons for US Policy in the Arab World


The results of Algeria’s May 30th parliamentary elections should be cause for concern in Washington. Not only do the elections provide an example of the dire state of Arab domestic politics, they also pose important challenges for American policy in the war on terrorism.

Violence and Boycotts Hamper Polling

Last week’s parliamentary elections took place in the context of violence and public apathy. The two main Berber opposition parties, the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), along with a number of prominent opposition leaders, called for an election boycott. Berbers staged civil disobedience, intifada-style, which prevented almost all voting in the Kabylie region. Turnout at the polls nationally was only 47%, the lowest in Algeria’s history. Turnout in the capital, Algiers, was officially only 32%.

The elections took place after ten years of severe civil conflict that has left some 150,000 dead. A nascent democratization process, marked by the dramatic success of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in fair elections in 1990 and 1991, was halted by a 1992 coup. By 1998, the army had turned the tide militarily against violent Islamists, although the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) were far from being eradicated. Abdelaziz Bouteflika became president in 1999, following a controversial election in which all his opponents withdrew their candidacies. He instituted an amnesty program and took well-intentioned steps to reform the state. Yet in April 2001, a Berber uprising erupted over demands for cultural rights and accountability for human rights violations.

Interpreting the Results

In the final balloting last week, the National Liberation Front (FLN) emerged as the big winner, taking 199 seats in the 389-seat National Assembly. The party, which ruled Algeria for thirty years after 1962, has been rejuvenated by its leader, Prime Minister Ali Benflis. Two legal Islamist-oriented parties, the Movement for National Reform (MRN) and the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), earned 43 and 38 seats respectively. The biggest loser was the National Democratic Rally (RND), a nationalist party that received only 47 seats, compared to 156 in the 1997 elections.

With an absolute majority in the legislature, the FLN has an opportunity to push forward a number of reforms. Prime Minister Benflis has the will to bring a younger generation to the forefront of policy making. Yet the FLN, like President Bouteflika, faces enormous resistance from the military (the real powerholders) to real reform.

Economic Dysfunction and Social Dislocation

The economic and social problems facing the new parliament are daunting. From 1985 to 1995, the country had negative growth of per capita GDP. Despite some GDP growth and lower external debt since 1995, the cost to society of incomplete economic reform has been great. Unemployment is officially 30%, and at least 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Socially, the country has been torn apart. The violence of the last decade diminished after 1998, but is still endemic. At least 600 people have died in civil violence since the beginning of 2002. Rape, extortion, and murder still plague pockets of the country. The 1998 census revealed that the average number of people living in a single apartment is more than seven. One of the world’s worst housing crises, coupled with water shortages, has fueled social tensions. Educational spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen by half since the mid-1980s. Equally alarming, Algeria’s earlier gains in public health were lost in the 1990s due to declining per capita health expenditures.

Algeria’s Import for the US War on Terror

The election results that are the product of these troubling developments have relevance for the United States as it seeks to fight terrorism, promote reform, and insure the stability of friendly Arab regimes.

Algeria’s government is not threatening neighbors, harboring terrorists, or building weapons of mass destruction. But the country does suffer from many of the factors that have been identified as root causes of extremism: failed economic development, a poor educational system, and endemic corruption. Most importantly, it has one of the more repressive regimes in the Arab world, elections notwithstanding. In its 2001 human rights report on Algeria, the State Department characterized the human rights situation as “generally poor” and stated that, despite some recent improvements, security forces continued to commit serious human rights abuses.

The May 30th elections suggest the deep antipathy that many Algerians have for their leaders, and thus reveal some challenges for US policy towards the Arab world. While the United States has an interest in seeing that Algerian leaders defeat armed Islamists and cooperate in the war against terrorism, the failure of Algeria to make strides toward democracy is undermining the country’s long-term stability.

US security cooperation with the Algerian military, already in evidence since the late 1990s, has expanded since September 11th. Good economic relations were given a boost by President Bouteflika’s two visits to the White House in 2001. American oil companies have large investments in the oil and gas sector, and US companies are expanding investments in pharmaceuticals and telecommunications.

At the same time, the recent elections failed to resolve the question of how to rehabilitate the Islamic Salvation Front and establish a rule of law. The near-silence of US officials concerning the parliamentary elections, like the silence when Tunisia’s May 26th constitutional referendum was supposedly approved by 99.5% of voters, sends a clear message about American lack of resolve concerning political reform in authoritarian Arab regimes that are partners in the war against terrorism.

Conclusion

Algeria’s Berbers, mainstream Islamists, and civil society are desperate for political change, without which sustainable policies to address socio-economic problems are unlikely to emerge. American public diplomacy could make significant inroads in the “street” and amongst government reformers with a renewed emphasis on promoting democratization and civil rights. A new generation of Algerians – and Arabs as a whole – would likely find inspiration in an American policy that speaks more forcefully about one of the issues they care about most: making their government representative and accountable to the voters through fair elections. The short-term risks for the United States in such a policy may be high, but the long-term payoff for Algerians and American interests could be quite substantial.

To see a response to the Perspective by MEI Scholar Brad Dillman from the Algerian Ambassador to the United States please click on the link below:

"Another Perspective" by H.E. Idriss Jazairy.

Bradford Dillman is a Scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute.

The views expressed in this document do not necessarily reflect those of the Middle East Institute, which does not take a position on Middle East Issues.

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