Morocco and Algeria: why no revolt?

With the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt gone, and continuing turmoil in Libya, the two North African regimes still largely undamaged by protests are those of Morocco and Algeria.

Early in January, at the height of the Tunisian uprising, it looked as if Algeria might be heading in the same direction. Riots broke out and several protesters set fire to themselves. Since then, demonstrations have continued on a fairly small scale but a generalised uprising has failed to materialise. 

Given that Algeria has similar socio-economic problems to Tunisia and Egypt and a similar style of government to the toppled regimes there, it is interesting to consider how the Algerian authorities have managed – so far, at least – to avoid serious trouble. In an article for Foreign Policy, Lahcen Achy suggests a number of factors. 

One was that Algeria's oil and natural gas resources gave the regime more latitude to make economic concessions. The decision to lift the 19-year-old state of emergency probably helped too, as have bitter memories among the public of the armed conflict in the 1990s that cost 100,000 or more lives.

Another factor, Achy says, is that the opposition, while heavily constrained by the authorities, is also divided by internal disagreements. The Algerian public, meanwhile, does not have a common set of grievances, and many of them seem more concerned with defending their own sectional interests:

"Calls for national protests [against the regime] mobilised only about 2,000 demonstrators," Achy writes. However, "protests by graduate students opposing university reform since mid-February, and an open-ended strike by physicians in public hospitals, were able to mobilise more people compared to anti-regime protests."

On the other side, Algeria's security forces appear to be strong. The military is more integrated into the political system than in Tuinisia or Egypt, Achy says, and the police force has been expanded from 50,000 in the mid-1990s to around 170,000 today:

"Officers [in the police] are both well-paid – they earn 65 percent more than average public civil servant (US $470 compared to US $280 per month) – and enjoy good career prospects, making it unlikely they would turn against the government. 

"Their tactic of dividing protesters into small groups also prevents any sense of power that would come from mass mobilisation. The police in Algeria relied on anti-riot trucks and have not so far, unlike in most other countries in the region, fired on crowds."

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Azzedine Layachi considers both Algeria and Morocco. The Moroccan king seems to have calculated that he can keep serious trouble at bay by offering reforms (he also has the advantage that direct criticism of the monarchy is still largely taboo).

"In Morocco, the demonstrations of February 20 attracted a few thousand people but lacked the energy and zest of the revolts of Tunisia and Libya and even the much smaller protests in Algeria. The Moroccan demonstrators demanded a new government, a constitutional reform that would limit the powers of the king, an end to corruption, the improvement of living conditions, and social justice. They did not target Mohammed VI himself ...

"To thwart the possibility of social upheaval in Morocco, Mohammed VI announced a plan to reform the constitution, giving more power to parliament and the prime minister and his cabinet. He also promised more political freedom and more jobs. But the protest did not end – more people than ever took the streets to demand immediate economic reforms and a say in the process of reforming the constitution, rather than leaving this process solely to a commission entrusted by the king."

In the longer term, though, calls for major structural change in the political system are likely to grow. Layachi writes:

"In both countries, substantial power is held by important, and virtually unaccountable, behind-the-scenes players. In Algeria, they are known as Le Pouvoir and in Morocco as the Makhzen. Even if formal political structures are reformed, there will be no serious change unless both Le Pouvoir and theMakhzen are discarded.

"This is one of the reasons why protesters in Algeria are not likely to accept cosmetic changes. In Morocco, constitutional reforms may make for a good start, but such steps are not likely to be enough without taking on the elusive powers of theMakhzen."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 April 2011.