Stability in Algeria, or is "reform" even possible?

Today's reports that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffered what is being called a "minor stroke" and is hospitalized in France, and the ongoing debate about a new constitution being drafted ahead of new presidential elections (which might very well now be rushed) next year, are a good time to issue a report on Algeria. Which is what Carnegie's Lahcen Achy has just done, in The Price of Stability in Algeria. He argues, among other things:

If left unaddressed, the social, economic, and political grievances festering beneath the surface in Algeria could rapidly escalate into popular revolts that threaten the regime’s stability. The government must begin enacting managed political reform or face the possibility of collapse.

There's a lot more there, but post-Arab uprisings one has to wonder: is "managed reform" ever a possibility, and if so what is its aim? Managed reform was what was being advocated in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere before 2011. It invariably was carried out only superficially — but was nonetheless part of the rhetoric of these regimes. They were always on the road to reform, and often did implement some sort of changes, especially in economic policy, but never democratized. If anything, appearing to be engaged in a process of reform considerably increased the political risk for these regimes, creating a gap between the rhetoric of reform and the reality of autocratic rule. Autocratic regimes that never claimed to reform, like Saudi Arabia (indeed most monarchies) or Sudan, turned out to be safer.

The lesson for autocrats from the Arab Spring, indeed, may be "whatever you do, don't reform." Do not initiate a process that promises more than you can deliver. If, like me, you believe the central cause of the uprisings was not strictly political or economic, but moral — that the regimes had exhausted their capital of legitimacy and were proving unable to renew it — it's not clear that Algeria has reached that point of collapse. The regime continues to have legitimacy, after all.

The reforms advocated in the Carnegie report are all fine if somewhat vague — e.g. "Enact deep political and economic reforms conducive to sustainable and equitable economic expansion, increased public participation in politics, and effective accountability of political leaders" — but can they be carried out by the current regime leadership? Isn't the story elsewhere, at the heart of how power and legitimacy is constituted and understood in Algeria, and what will happen to the real power structures of Le Pouvoir once dominant personalities leave the scene?

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.