On June 20, the Carnegie Middle East Center hosted a seminar entitled “Algeria: Elections, Religious Extremism and Reform.”  The seminar featured a presentation by Dr. Rachid Tlemcani, Visiting Scholar at Carnegie’s Middle East Center (CMEC), and a commentary by Dr. Myriam Catusse of the French Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Beirut (IFPO). The panel was moderated by CMEC director, Paul Salem. The seminar was attended by members of the research, media, and diplomatic community in Beirut. 

Dr. Salem’s opening remarks emphasized the significance of  the Algerian experience and the ways in which the country has been transformed under current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from a failed state into a strong state. Understanding the mechanisms through which complex issues such as religious extremism and national reconciliation have been addressed in Algeria should be of interest to other Arab countries, said Salem. 

In his presentation, which was based on an upcoming Carnegie Paper, Dr. Tlemcani referred to four key points which he considered crucial to understanding the Algerian political crisis: the role of diplomacy in ending Algeria’s isolation, the charter for national peace and reconciliation, the conflict between the presidency and the army, and the election process.  Dr. Tlemcani offered an overview of political developments in the country since the outbreak of civil strife in 1992.  The Islamists were about to win 75% of the seats in the second round of parliamentary elections; but the army intervened to cancel them.  Tlemcani described the difficult period of civil strife that Algeria subsequently went through, and then raised key questions about why the process of ‘reform’ which followed the strife, did not eventually lead to the much sought-after democratic change.  “We have instead witnessed the emergence of a new form of authoritarianism whereby staying in power has become the ultimate goal of the elite; so we have a new regime type--what I would call a ‘security state’,” said Tlemcani.

He also posed questions about the role of the Algerian army in promoting or delaying the democratization process, pointing out that the army is still a central player in Algerian politics and that it is reluctant to open up much democratic space.   He concluded by emphasizing that the electoral process itself had not had a significant impact on real democratization in the country.

Commenting on Dr. Tlemcani’s presentation, Dr. Catusse said an important question raised by Tlemcani, and relevant to other countries in the region, was about the possibilities of change from within the regime rather than a change of the regime. She raised additional questions about the function of elections in promoting—or not—democratic transition.  She emphasized the need to promote more in-depth studies of electoral sociology and electoral behavior and decision-making.  She drew parallels between the Algerian and Lebanese experiences suggesting that both countries face similar challenges on three main fronts: an internal peace process, how to deal with political pluralism, and how to deal with political violence.

An open discussion from the floor followed. Interventions included questions about whether or not the ‘new regime type’ suggested by Tlemcani could be discerned in other Arab countries. Other participants asked about President Bouteflika’s powerbase,  the issue of civil-military relations, and the role currently played by the moderate Islamist movement in the political process.