Surveying protesters and the military amid Algeria’s uprising

Experts discuss

Health workers carry a national flag as they march during a protest calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to quit, in Algiers, Algeria March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC16969E1C30

Protesters remain in Algeria’s streets, having forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation in April. In this uncertain transition period, important questions face two groups key to Algeria’s political future: protesters and military personnel. 

On July 17, the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a discussion of the Algerian uprising, focusing on the role played by these two crucial groups. Africa Policy Specialist at the Congressional Research Service Alexis Arieff, Brookings Visiting Fellow Sharan Grewal, and former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria Robert Ford participated in the panel discussion. Brookings Senior Fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes moderated the conversation. 

new reporttitled “Algeria’s uprising: A survey of protesters and the military, co-authored by Grewal, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Tahir Kilavuz, and Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University and Assistant Professor at New York University Abu Dhabi Robert Kubinec—provided the basis for the proceedings. 

Following introductory remarks by Vice President and Director of the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Bruce Jones, Grewal presented the findings of the report. The co-authors, he said, used “a new or less traditional method of survey recruitment” to reach as many Algerian protesters and military personnel as possible, targeting these groups through Facebook advertisements.  

The survey results, Grewal said, show a wide support for change among protesters, while illustrating a divide between the upper and lower ranks of the Algerian military in support for the protest movement. While 80% of the lower ranks support the goals and continuation of the protests, “the senior officers, by contrast, are a bit more hesitant, [as] only 60% are saying that they support the protests,” Grewal explained.  

What goals do these groups seek? “About 80% of the protesters—82%—supported a complete change of the political system,” Grewal said, while among the lower ranks of the military “about 80% are saying that they support this.” In the upper military ranks, Grewal noted, “only about 50 or 60% are saying that they would support a complete change of the system.”

Lessons from the past 

Wittes noted that Ford, who served as ambassador to Algeria from 2006-08, had previously lived in the country during “the civil war and the aftermath of the civil war that killed more than 150,000 people and really traumatized a generation of Algerians.”  

In light of his witnessing the events of the civil warabout which Ford said: “It would be hard for me to overstate to people here how horrible it was”—he noted that he is “very struck, therefore, that over the last 21 weeks the protest movement has been exceptionally peaceful.”  

Ford further noted that relations between protesters and military personnel were much more positive than his previous experience.  

“It’s just a very different climate from the protest movement in Algeria of 1991, 1992, when Islamists were in the streets en masse but were not in any way reaching out to the military,” he continued.  

Wittes asked Arieff if this “discipline and the care in this protest movement to reach out to the military” reflected lessons learned from other countries in the region.  

“Everyone in the region has been watching other cases, certainly since 2011,” Arieff said. “But then, of course, there are also lessons from Algeria’s own past. And Algerians would be the first to say: ‘Algeria is unique, and we’re going to make our own way.” 

A way forward? 

Noting the uncertainty of this moment in Algerian politics, Arieff explained: “The constitutional mandate of the interim leadership is now over. There is no roadmap … There is still enormous amounts of uncertainty even months after Bouteflika was forced out.” 

Asked to outline what a possible way forward could look like, Grewal said that “the good news is that the regime is no longer able to impose a roadmap without any consultation from the protesters or other actors.”  

“Most likely,” he continued, “the only credible path is through the removal of the ‘2Bs’ [interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedouiand the creation of some sort of national unity government that has some representation from protesters as well.”  

Noting the “similarity of views on a lot of questions between the senior officers in the military and the non-protesters” surveyed, Wittes asked if there was a possibility that a group of senior military personnel would attempt to impose a plan for the country, believing that “everyone who’s not in the streets already agrees with [them].”  

The senior military leadership is attempting “a very delicate dance,” Arieff said, by which it can maintain its role of “ruling but not governing.” “I actually think that one of the lessons learned for the senior leadership is if you repress it can backfire,” she continued. 

Grewal argued that three factors would inform any potential decision by the military to impose a roadmap for Algeria through repression. First, “are [the lower ranks] going to obey that order to repress these protesters or not?” Grewal asked, continuing to say that, for now, the answer to this question is no. Second, the sheer number of protesters makes repression difficult, leaving the regime to “try to divide-and-rule the protesters” as well as stall for time and hope it dies down,” he said. And lastly, he said, there is the question of “this silent majority,” and whether “they would come out to the streets to support [repression].” The survey results suggest that is unlikely, as they also cautiously support the protests at this point. 

In considering a potential U.S. policy response to Algeria’s uprising, Ford said: “I think it behooves us, the foreigners on the outside, to be a little cautious about giving advice to people who have to deal with these authoritarian governments up close.”  

I think a big dose of humility is in order,” he concluded.