Dr. Myriam Aït-Aoudia: “President Bouteflika is no longer in a position to govern since many years”

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Dr. Myriam Aït-Aoudia. DR.

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your thesis very interesting and very important to read, you establish a relevant review. Knowing that questions relating to the experience of multiparty politics have not been treated academically in Algeria, why did you feel the need to choose this topic for your thesis?

Dr. Myriam Aït-Aoudia: The Algerian democratic experience between 1988 and 1992 took place twenty years before what was called the « Arab Spring ». Algeria is therefore the first country in the region to have experienced an exit from an authoritarian regime and the installation of a democratic regime. This episode was dramatically closed the day after the stopping of the parliamentary elections that the Islamist party, the FIS, had won, and a terrible terrorist war has plunged the country for a decade.

This period is fascinating because in a very short time, Algeria is experiencing rapid and unpredictable changes: the end of a political monopoly established more than twenty-five years ago; the creation of new parties by fierce opponents of the FLN (National Liberation Front); the electoral victory of the Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), at the first pluralistic election in 1990; the setting up of a free press; many political mobilizations in the public space, and so on. And of course, political violence punctuates this process, and then terrorism will settle down sustainably.

Researchers were interested in this period of democratization, before the war, but their analysis was not satisfactory because they focused on two questions:

First, the causes of the fall of the authoritarian regime in 1988-89 and the response provided resided in the deficit of legitimacy of the FLN, deficit attested by the protest movements of autumn 1988; but this reasoning is absolutely tautological.

Then, the second question that caught the attention of researchers is the cause of the fall in January 1992 of the newly installed democracy: here, the answer is, according to the authors, either the action of the military which never believed in political opening, or that of Islamists who have always been resistant to democracy. It is then a search for political responsibility that guides the analysis, whereas no one had anticipated or controlled this event.

These analysis present many problems because they are based on the knowledge of the end of the story: they are therefore retrospective. With rare exceptions, a real empirical investigation is superfluous since history follows an inevitable course. So if we believe to know the causes of democratization and the reasons for its failure, we are led to a selective vision of what happened during this episode, since it is only to corroborate what we believe to know.

It has never been my perspective. The social sciences have shown the importance of analyzing this type of policy change without prejudging its outcome and following step-by-step the experience of the players in situation. This is what I did by conducting an empirical investigation of all stakeholders involved in political change. I conducted interviews with members of the government, the general military staff, the FLN, but also the leaders of the FIS, and other newly created parties such as the RCD and the FFS or civil society activists. I also referred to several media outlets; analyzed all the legal texts that frame political life; and I recovered archives of the parties, including the FIS and the FLN, but also of the Ministry of the Interior. It was therefore necessary to conduct a large-scale investigation: it is on this condition that I have proposed another story of this crucial period of Algeria.

Your book « L’apprentissage démocratique en Algérie (1988-1992) : Apprentissages politiques et changement de régime » (Democratic Learning in Algeria (1988-1992): Political Learning and Change of Regime) is, in my opinion, part of the research that you started in your thesis. In your opinion, was Algeria prepared to move from the one-party system to the multi-party system?

No one had prepared for it because this transition from the one-party system to partisan pluralism was unpredictable and nobody controlled it. I show it in the first part of my book. Democratization is the result of a process that involves a multitude of players with heterogeneous interests, paths and beliefs. Even the February 1989 Constitution does not in itself explain the abolition of the FLN’s political monopoly. At the moment, nothing predicts democratization yet.

Do not you think that giving approval to a party that refers to religion, in this case to Islam, is a serious political mistake? Those who gave a license to a party like the FIS, linked to the international Islamist, did not they programmed a chaos organized for their own interests?

We ask ourselves the question afterward, because the sequence of events related to the FIS is dramatic. But at the time, no one found anything to complain about. This surprised me when I conducted my investigation: the legalization of the FIS in September 1989 was no problem. It was a legitimate player in the political game. Gradually, it was criticized. Associations like other parties denounced the massive use of religion for political ends, but also the violent actions of many of its activists. Critics intensified after its victory in local elections: many considered retrograde, intolerant, disturbing and even violent the management of local authorities by the FIS. But it was never envisaged to dissolve the party, not even in the summer of 1991 when some of its most emblematic leaders are arrested following the « strike » launched by the FIS which has experienced many violent outbursts. After this episode, calm returns to Algiers, Islamist militants are released and its new leadership inspires the confidence of institutions, including that of the army. The FIS is not harassed as a party. It is hard to imagine it today, but it was the case.

Is not the FIS the ideological and political heir of the post-independence FLN?

I don’t think so. I conducted an investigation into the birth of the FIS. This party has a history of its own. It is the product of the gathering of four major networks. First, the participation in November 1982 in the first collective action dealing with claims of an explicitly religious nature – and whose participants are identified as Islamists. On this occasion were presented « grievances » about a return to religion, a moralization of public life, or a denunciation of gender diversity. Secondly, the universities have been an important place of meeting and political socialization, notably through mobilizations for the creation of mosques. Thirdly, the epic of the MIA (Armed Islamic Movement) – founded in 1982 by Mustapha Bouyali and engaged in a violent confrontation against the « impious state » – plays an essential role in the constitution of the networks of the founders of the FIS; here prison reinforcing further ties and commitment. Fourth, their past involvement in various proselytizing activities is also crucial to understanding where this party comes from.

You have worked a lot on multipartism. When we see the party component today, we notice that their leaders have been there for 20 years and that there is no convention. Do not you think that the parties were created in the image of the regime with a Zaim (note: supreme leader) and his court?

The concept of multiparty politics has changed radically in Algeria, not so much about the internal democracy of political parties, which, you are right, is weak, but rather on the limits of what a party can or can not do. It is now forbidden to create a party on a religious or linguistic basis and to resort to or promote violence; it is also forbidden to reject democratic values and individual and collective freedoms. This is a considerable change: in 1989, the law on parties does not contain such provisions and it will be interpreted very broadly. This is why the FIS has been legalized. Since the resumption of the electoral process in the mid-1990s, the law is intended to prevent an organization like the FIS becoming legalized again. The power has learned from the experience of 1989-1992, that is to say, the legalization of a party that will then be dissolved because ultimately considered too dangerous when it is alone in power. It is fundamental. Today it is imposed on all parties respect for democratic values. A radical party can not therefore be accepted as a legitimate political player. After stopping of the legislative elections won by the FIS, after Islamic terrorism, Algeria knows that it is crucial to anticipate this kind of political risks.

Since February 22, 2019, Algeria has witnessed major mobilizations to opposing Bouteflika’s 5th term. Is this situation the same as that of October 1988, when mobilizations led to the end of the single party regime?

There are similarities and differences with the mobilizations that emerge in the fall of 1988.

First, the sequence that begins with the riots in October 1988 and closes with the recognition of partisan pluralism in the spring of 1989 is an unprecedented experience in the country: both by the mobilizations and by the magnitude of the institutional reforms that will follow. Today, everyone has in mind this experience because it is a founding episode. Today, those who mobilize are trying to repeat the magnitude of change; those in power are trying to curb political change.

Then the starting point is quite different from that of October 1988 which started with riots, therefore a disorganized mobilization, without banners or slogans characterized by acts of violence against property on the part of the rioters. The rioters were stigmatized by the authorities who called them « thugs » and were very harshly repressed by the army. There are hundreds of deaths and many cases of torture. The power gave them no political credit. But that will then change with the support mobilizations to the rioters from very heterogeneous groups: students, lawyers, doctors, Islamist militants, Berberist activists, and so on. They will not be stigmatized or repressed. They will manage to politicize the protest.

Today, there is currently no riot or repression. Those who mobilize, that is, students, families, lawyers, etc. – are not likely to be considered as « thugs » and they ask clearly political and unequivocal claims: the withdrawal of President Bouteflika from politics.

The experience of October 1988 and the democratization that followed is a crucial precedent for all players today.

What are the prospects? Are we today in a revolutionary process?

Mobilizations are transformed into revolution if their outcome radically challenges the political order. Regarding current events in Algeria, we do not know yet, since the power has just reacted, March 3, after two weeks of mobilization.

Here again, we can compare with the political upheaval that took place 30 years ago. As in the aftermath of the mobilizations of October 1988, the Power today adopts what the French sociologist Michel Dobry calls « institutional solutions of crisis exit ». The president, although hospitalized in Switzerland, confirms his candidacy by the voice of his campaign director. The mode of action is unprecedented since it is a letter read by another. In 1988 and 1989, President Chadli, although surprised by the mobilizations and undecided as to the answers to be given, had spoken publicly. The absence of Bouteflika thus confirms the demands of the demonstrators: he is not in a condition to govern. At the same time, he recognizes the need to « change the system » and ensures that he will shorten his mandate. I see there the great disarray in which the political power is: the different ruling circles have been caught off guard and are trying to buy time.

So far, nothing suggests a profound change in the regime, but history has taught us, political upheavals are unpredictable.

The next fundamental deadline is March 13th, the day when the Constitutional Council must present the official list of successful candidates. The immense success of the mobilization of March 8 can move the lines. Millions Algerians have peacefully demonstrated in the streets of many cities across the country. Many women, young people, families met to say, with calm, humor and determination, that they refused not only the candidacy of President Bouteflika, very sick, and hospitalized in Switzerland, but also the whole « system ». All national and international observers praised the extent of the protests and their peaceful nature. The Algerian power has a last chance today to give up presenting Bouteflika and can learn from the democratic experience of the late 1980s.

Is the Algerian situation a laboratory of what is happening in the region?

This is undeniable and it has been for 30 years for several reasons. Algeria was first a model for the region in 1989, as it was the first Arab country to establish a genuine democratic regime: the freedoms of speech and association were respected, the mobilizations of the fiercest opponents of the FLN regime, such as Islamists of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) or Berberist militants and human rights of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) were not hampered by power.

From model, it became a counter-model after the cancellation in January 1992 of the legislative elections won by the FIS, and after the emergence and development of large-scale terrorism in Algeria. The question then asked was: can we or not integrate into the political game a radical Islamist party? In other words, does radical Islam endanger the democratic system? The debate over the annulment of the legislative elections and its consequences showed a fundamental split between two positions. For some, stopping the December 1991 elections followed by the dissolution of the FIS, constituted the initial error which plunged the country into chaos. Deprived of their electoral victory and repressed by the army, the Islamists became more radicalized. The violence of armed Islamic groups is here viewed as a “reaction” to this original injustice. For others, the analysis is completely different: the FIS, an already violent and intolerant organization, used the pretext of the halting of the elections to exercise its terror on a grand scale. This is purportedly a terror which it would have exercised legally if it had assumed power in 1992. Evidence for this view is found in the subversive discourse and violent acts of the FIS after their victory at the local level in June 1990, magnified and made more systematic when the FIS became clandestine. The terrorist wave which the country experienced in the 1990s offered irrefutable proof of the criminal nature of the FIS and its fundamental incompatibility with political pluralism. In all cases, the memory of this civil war which followed the stopping of the legislative elections remained particularly significant. And the players of the « Arab Spring » of 2011 have obviously in mind this Algerian episode insofar as it constitutes the first case of democratization in the region, the first failure of democratization, and the first large-scale terrorist wave.

The Algerian case brings to light two conceptions of democratic pluralism: a democracy founded on an absolute respect for the popular choice, whatever it may be (including the access to power of a radical Islamist party), versus a democracy based on the absolute guarantee of the winner’s respect for fundamental individual and collective rights (here radical Islamism is considered a threat to democracy and all parties must therefore respect common liberal values beyond their political divides).

This issue concerns today all the countries of the region.

In Algeria, one is about to re-elect the sick president for a fifth term in the presidential elections next April. If, before, the figure of Zaïm was alive, today one venerates a portrait. In your opinion, how did one get here?

You are right. We must go back to the past. In 2011, Algeria did not take part in the Arab revolutions. The “Arab revolutions”, we often heard at that time in political circles or civil society, constituted less an opportunity for liberation from dictators, and more a threat to peace and security which have been difficult to impose since the start of the 2000s. The scenario of a precipitate democratization which brings to power a radical Islamic party is worrisome, as the terrorism. The authorities also draw upon this to remind people of the dangers of a generalized contestation of the regime. But in 2011-2012, President Bouteflika was not sick and stability was preferable than protest. The president’s figure embodied both revolutionary legitimacy, the legitimacy of the redistributed oil annuity, and the legitimacy of putting an end to terrorism. This probably explains the support of the people to its president at the time. Today, this is no longer the case, it seems. President Bouteflika is no longer in a position to govern since many years. Algerians have not forgotten the black decade, but they claim real political change. The first democratic experience and terrorism are still remembered, and it is a question of achieving a new democratization, by removing the danger of Islamist radicalism and by moving away from a « system » deemed responsible for the blockage of the country.

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen


Who is Dr. Myriam Aït-Aoudia?

Dr. Aït-Aoudia is an Algerian teacher-researcher. She is a lecturer in political science at Sciences Po Bordeaux, a specialist in political parties and activism in Algeria. His areas of specialization are: Sociology of Political Parties and Activism, Sociology of Law, Democracy and Authoritarianism, Political Islam, Political Life in Algeria. She is co-leader of the AFSP group « Democracies and Authoritarianisms » (2019-2023) and head of the master Risk Management in Southern Countries (GRPS).

She obtained her PhD in Political Science at Paris 1 University, Panthéon Sorbonne.

She is the author of  L’expérience démocratique en Algérie (1988-1992).

Myriam Aït-Aoudia 3

Published in American Herald Tribune: https://ahtribune.com/interview/2945-myriam-ait-aoudia.html