The issue in Algeria now appears to be whether the incumbent president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, will go quietly when his term expires today, or whether the constitutional court (their Supremes) will ask the parliament (their House) to produce a two-thirds majority in favor of Article 102 (their 25th Amendment).
Thus once again, the American Revolution, discreetly, guides the march of freedom guard-railed by law, universally. For better and sometimes for less better, our society and our constitutional system of government is the reference and the model. Whether they realize it or not, it serves as the standard of political legitimacy to the abused and oppressed people, and peoples, beyond our blessed shores.
A pity we cannot fully appreciate the implications, but that is human nature. The real strength of our nation is before us; it consists of our native institutions, themselves reposing on liberty founded on natural law.
We subvert them for low partisan purposes at our own risk. As to our international interests, these are best served by the attraction of others to our system and way of life, not by missions in nation-building where the real point always gets lost in translation. Much better to let people be drawn to liberty and its foundations of their own volition.
Thus Algeria: in this vast African nation of some 40 million, protesters have been demanding that the incumbent president respect the constitution which he and his clique have used as a prop and a front for the past twenty years. Abdelaziz Bouteflika should not have been running for a fifth term; he should not even have run for a fourth or a third term.
If they have been functioning on a phony political system for so long, Algerians may not be disposed toward liberal democracy; but that is scarcely for us to say. The point is that the regime in power finds it necessary to pretend freedom and democracy are its political references. Now large swathes of the population are calling the regime’s bluff.
It may work. It may, too, revert to another kind of tyranny; or violent strife, as order breaks down and people fear that security lies in the strength of the clans and tribes and sects and institutions, like the army, they know. But they are not there, and they merit our hopes for success. The Algerian drama, as it unfolds, is another test of whether freedom can work elsewhere than in a few societies.
In one of his characteristically profound witticisms, Irving Kristol remarked that immigration is the most real and most successful U.S. foreign policy.
Far be it from the Original Neoconservative, founder of the Public Interest, to suggest we can have a foreign policy without a military establishment and an efficient diplomatic corps. His counsel to the Republicans at the start of the 1980 presidential cycle, with reference to foreign policy issues, consisted of a single word: “More.”
The Sage of Central Park South (as he still was) took the arms race and Soviet imperialism very seriously indeed. Our enemies were fomenting mischief in Central America and Africa and threatening free Europe with medium range nuclear weapons. Against the feeble Democrats, Kristol counseled calling for a program of peace through strength. This, of course, contributed to the reassertion of American power under Ronald Reagan and the capitulation of the Soviet imperialists in the face of a build up which they knew they could never match.
This quite explicitly did not mean seeking dragons to destroy all over the globe, as a later set of misnamed “neoconservatives” believed, with costly consequences as we well know. Indeed, Kristol was one of the early critics of NATO, believing that bilateral defense arrangements between the U.S. and European nations, including Germany (in the war against which he had served in uniform), were better.
He had in mind the Europeans’ willingness to fight for themselves (with our help as needed), noting in another profound quip, “People don’t fight for NATOs, SEATOs, or any other Os, they fight for their homelands.” And consider: how well did NATO, or the European Union, or “any other O…” do its job in the wars of Yugoslavia? In defending post-Soviet Central Europe? In policing the invasions of Europe from southern lands?
Algeria is a complex case, difficult to understand. Of course every former European colonial territory is a complex case, difficult to understand, with its own history of tragedy and sometimes triumph, but Algeria’s strategic location, in the western Mediterranean and northern Africa, gives it a place of its own in contemporary geopolitics. It also bears a perverse relationship with France, with which it shares a tradition of failure to establish a durable constitutional order.
Indeed it was during the dying years of French monarchism — the only political order that worked, none of the others lasting more than a few decades — that France organized, by military conquest, the entity we know as Algeria. Tocqueville, who was present at the creation, warned it would end badly. One hundred thirty years later it did, at least as a French-run territory. Whether it has done better since depends on whom you ask.
Colonel Houari Boumediene established a single-party authoritarian government after a brief civil war that followed the war of independence; President Bouteflika, who served as his foreign minister, has pretty much exhausted his compatriots’ patience with this system. Although he brought peace and some spreading around of wealth when he took power with the backing of the army in 1999, following a violent decade, he incarnates the “affairisme” (cronyism) that the Algerians, a majority of whom are under 30, blame for what might be called a rich failure. There is money, there is tremendous human potential, there is a beautiful climate and a stunning African variety in the landscape, and yet — nothing to do if you don’t have the clout. The system is superficially free, but in fact closed.
That is an exaggeration, to be sure. It overlooks the dynamism in the informal sector, which includes unregulated financial flows to and from France and, increasingly, Canada and even the U.S., where an energetic Algerian diaspora has sought opportunity. But it is impossible not to watch the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have marched peacefully through the streets of Algiers and other cities since February 22 at regular intervals and not conclude that change is inevitable.
Though in fact, it is not. Bouteflika announced that he would accede to the demonstrators’ request that he not run for a fifth term, but he also said he would prolong his term beyond its April 28 expiration date while a national conference, including a constitutional convention, was organized. This led to the predictable response that he was, one last time, showing how much contempt he has for his own compatriots, and the watch word became: “système dégage” (change of regime right away.)
Perhaps in an effort to save the furniture, or out of a sense of patriotic duty, the army chief, the redoubtable General Ahmed Gaed Salah, stated a few days ago that the president should not stay in office beyond his term. There is no reason to impugn his motives — he knows Bouteflika, already gravely ill during his first term and incapacitated since a stroke in 2013, has no credibility; he also states the peaceful protests are at risk of being taken over by violent elements, notably salafist fanatics.
After the French system ended, the national movement tried to co-opt Islam, and indeed this has been, to some degree, a successful policy, which is one reason why Algeria is a paradoxically conservative society even as large sectors of its population, at home and in the diaspora, are religious liberals or even anti-clerical, and as tuned into the fashions and mores of the West as are other Mediterranean peoples. But no one really knows what reserves of strength the salafist movement has, nearly two decades after the years of bloodletting.
Clearly there is a strong sentiment in the street in favor of some sort of transition. All the political parties, including the dominant government parties FLN (National Liberation Front) and RND (National Democratic Union), and the major opposition parties, led by secularists who tend to be based in the Berber population and particularly in the Kabylie region and Algiers, or the self-proclaimed moderate and constitutionalist Islamist movements such as Ennadah (Renaissance) and Social Peace, have joined the time-to-retire bandwagon. Police and firefighters’ organizations have added their voices to the protests, as have doctors and teachers and nurses and energy-sector workers.
The imams have been told to preach whatever they please, jettisoning decades of state control of the mosques (as in many if not most Islamic countries). That may be a risk that General Salah is deliberately permitting in order to release radical Islamic forces and terrify everybody into supporting an army move to maintain order with a refreshed version of the old regime as front men. On the other hand, the radical Islamists are an uncounted factor in Algeria; maybe no one wants them.
However, this is pure speculation. What seems likely is that by setting Article 102 into motion — if they do — the governing parties will keep control of the flow of events. The law provides for an interim government and new elections within 90 days, supervised by a high constitutional authority. In a word, the whole process will stay in the hands of people who are presently in power. Circle rounded, system stays.
Would the vote be fair? Would people believe the ballot counting to be honest? Would some winners be more acceptable than others? No one knows.
The U.S. stake in this new Arab, or Arab-Berber, spring is economic and strategic. We buy much of their petroleum, and while we do not particularly need it, a breakdown in Algeria’s energy sector would have a serious impact on world oil prices. By contrast, a liberated Algerian economy would be an asset for the region and the continent; it might even have a stabilizing effect on nearby Libya, which is still a disaster zone following the Anglo-French-American effort to turn it into a viable democracy — a program Irving Kristol almost certainly would have laughed at — bitterly.
There is also a major strategic issue, the maintenance of our Sahara-Sahelian security policy, the aim of which is to keep jihadists out of Africa. With our gallant French allies we have invested blood and treasure in danger zones, notably in Mali, Niger, and Chad where skirmishes between soldiers and insurgent irregulars occur, as do the massacres of civilians that remind us that religious and ideological motives in these places are mere cover for more ancient enmities.
It may not be an accident that General Salah’s suggestion that Article 102 be used was made from a garrison in Ouargla, a large oil town deep in the Sahara. For now, outside powers can do little else but wait and watch — and wish these people well.