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Did an Arab Winter Yield an Unexpected Spring?

Did an Arab Winter Yield an Unexpected Spring?

Source: Farouk Batiche (AFP/File)

It was a simple statement from the State Department, almost lost in the daily flurry of transcripts, very public reactions and carefully nuanced policy papers aimed at high profile flash points in the world.

The statement was from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton congratulating the people of Algeria on their elections in mid-May. The vote had no violence, was fully observed by international missions and — as Clinton noted — “These elections  — and the high number of women elected — are a welcome step in Algeria’s progress toward democratic reform.”

Some suggest the low-key statement was in response to a lack of interest in the election, as between 60 and 80 percent of Algerians boycotted the vote. They took the day off, went to the beach, and then went quietly back to work.

Nevertheless, the voting was in stark contrast to the turmoil that now bubbles through North Africa and the Middle East as a facet of the Arab Spring.  The first surprise: these elections resulted in thumping of moderate Islamist parties, a first.

The results were a shock to most Algerians — particularly Islamists who had expected to win a plurality of seats in the new National People’s Assembly and even possibly the post of prime minister. Instead, the two main pro-government secular parties increased their hold over the assembly, winning 288 seats, or 62 percent of the total.

Wrote one North African blogger: “The results are a message for Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world that they are going to lose in the next elections!!! But first, let’s hope clashes don’t start.”

Indeed. The poor turnout and strong government win swayed Algeria’s moderate Islamists to now wondering if cooperation with the government is no longer worth the political cost and full throated opposition is the only path.

The defeat of the Islamists obscured another first: the impressive breakthrough by women in the election.

Thanks to a new quota system, there were 145 of 7,700 female candidates elected to the new assembly — 31 percent of the total. That easily bests Egypt where, only a handful of women sit in the post-Arab Spring parliament, and higher than the 59 women (or 27 percent) of Tunisia’s new Constituent Assembly.

“What stands out in this election is this Algerian exception that doesn’t fit in with the perceptions and speculations fed by the revolutions that have affected the Arab world,” the private opposition paper Liberte wrote.

“In fact the Arab Spring did have an impact on the election… but maybe not in the way the world was expecting,” political analyst Nourredine Hakiki told AFP. “In Egypt, in Libya, there was change but then there was regression and disorder… In Algeria, voters were looking for security, stability,” he said.

All that is different that what first appeared to be happening, when Algeria looked to be one of the Arab Spring dominos.

There were riots in December 2010, fueled by increases in the price of cooking oil and sugar as well as other commodities. Those morphed into anti-government overtones and calls denouncing Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and calling for the ouster of the regime.

Then came the first difference: the country’s business community, political opposition and governing parties joined together to condemn the youth violence. Work through existing channels, they were told. Bouteflika announced reforms in 2011 and promised the new parliament would be involved in rewriting the constitution. As the New York Times noted, “A finely tuned mix of cash and crackdown, money and repression — a mix unique to the region — has muted demands for change and allowed the ruling elite to retain its grip.”

Yet looming above all was the still raw scars of the ghastly brutality that followed a military coup when another Islamist party nearly won elections.

Algeria held its first multiparty elections in December 1991, and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) appeared to win the first round handily. That prompted the army to halt the electoral process in January of the following year and launch a crackdown.

The FIS was disbanded, various Islamist groups emerged – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is the latest incarnation of one of them – and the ensuing civil war killed up to 200,000 people. More than 70 journalists were assassinated, either by security forces or by Islamists. The conflict effectively ended with a government victory, following the surrender of the Islamic Salvation Army and the 2002 defeat of the Armed Islamic Group.

“The Algerian people learnt the lessons from the Islamist episode and want to avoid a repeat of this national tragedy at all costs,” said Louisa Hanoune, the secretary general of the opposition Workers Party.

Perhaps a long Arab winter two decades ago is what really yielded a spring that blossoms the strongest.




Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.