Fatima Oussedik, one of Algeria’s most respected sociologists, remarked that the people of Algeria had always respected the army as an institution even when they had disagreed with the manner in which its senior officers behaved. That remark no doubt surprised many foreign observers who like to argue that the Algerian army is “totally corrupt”, that it “owns the country” and that predation is its only modus operandi. This also explains why most observers have failed to understand why the army has kept its truncheons sheathed since the start of the huge demonstrations which are now essentially into their fifth month.
Algeria is one of three countries where the army predates the state – the other two are Israel and the United States. Its 500,000 men are drawn from every region and every social class. The legitimacy of the army is both historic and revolutionary in the sense that the Nation Liberation Army became the National Popular Army after it won independence from France, in 1962, after a bloody eight year struggle which brought about the collapse of the Fourth French Republic in 1958.
At the same time, every Algerian believes that the army is the guarantor of the peace in Africa’s largest country which lies in the middle of a very troubled region. However, Algeria’s long standing support for the Palestinians, its refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, its good relations with Russia, Syria and Iran do little to commend it to right wingers in the West.
Senior officers are reaching out to France, the US, Russia, China and the UK. When a country is going through turmoil, weaker, outside powers are tempted to intervene. Most of Algeria’s partners, not least France, which totally failed to guess what was coming, are deeply concerned. The less they intervene, the better but huge economic interests – notably in oil and gas, weapons, IT and other sectors – are at stake. A shuffling of the cards on the economic deck, especially if corruption charges are brought against some of the senior officials arrested recently, is inevitable.
There are two keys for any successful transition to democracy in Algeria. First of all, there must be a consensus on the way forward within the army. From the start of the demonstrations, its senior officers have made clear they would support the people. The unity of the army must be maintained at all costs. Second, a meaningful debate must then be engaged between the army and the people. No easy task one is tempted to say but Algerian crowds have demonstrated again and again that they are politically savvy.
The story unfolding in Algeria has not yet fully played out but if it moves towards a more rule-bound, outward-looking and confident, not to say younger-led, model of government, this North African country would become more stabile and consolidated in the months to come. The cliché of an army whose only purpose is predatory will be well and truly laid to rest. As Fatma Oussedik suggested in her talk, “Algeria acquired its territorial independence 1962. Now it has to build a modern state”.
‚The Unlikely Role of the Algerian Army‘ – Opinion by Francis Ghilès – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.