Algeria’s Civil Conflict and the Bankruptcy of the Academic Establishment

Some time ago, I found myself wrestling with an Algerian professor — a lecturer of political science in the US. He was furious to read my reflections on the Algerian crisis; namely that the economy may have been the launching pad for the country’s civil conflict that ‘officially’ erupted in 1992. He subscribes to the idea that the solution to the problem must lie almost entirely in political science; and I sharply disagreed.

Of course, political factors are also to blame; so political science can also help shed some light on the conflict. The truth, however, is that the crisis is mainly a function of the economy, while political factors have only magnified it.

One factual error that Algerian political scientists often make is to presume that the crisis began in 1992. This is indeed very simplistic as the crisis actually began in 1986, which marks the beginning of the country’s economic collapse. This was followed by the Black October riots of 1988 whose cumulative effects forced Bendjedid to resign in the 1992 ‘constitutional’ coup.

Am I saying that the cancellation of the 1992 general elections, in which the FIS was poised to win, does not matter?. The answer is certainly NO; hence the following question: would the FIS have initiated the armed conflict had Algeria not suffered an economic depression in the second half of the 1980s?. The answer is that there are two things for sure: one is that the number of recruits by the rebels would have been much less (since the opportunity cost of the conflict would have been substantially higher); the other is that with economic prosperity prevailing in the period 1986-88, there would have been no Black October riots, no political chaos, no election cancellations and no constitutional coups.

I am not saying that the FIS did not win the 1990 and 1991 elections; neither am I saying that the FIS was not poised to win the 1992 elections. I am not even saying that democracy does not matter. I am rather pointing out to the fact that the interaction between economic and political factors has caused the conflict. But this is where the wrestling with that professor began: I believe in the idea that the interaction between the economic situation and political reforms caused the crisis, while he believes that political repression is responsible for all what has been happening since 1992.

First, and this is where most Algerian political scientists go wrong, it is not political repression that caused the conflict; it is rather democracy that caused it. Political repression existed from 1962 to 1985 and there was no single Algerian who ever mentioned the possibility of an armed conflict. It was not until 1989-91 that electoral democracy prevailed paving the way to the armed conflict of 1992.

But this political democracy is purely the result of economic collapse of 1986; so it is more like an economic democracy. Without it, ‘political repression’ would have continued and Algeria’s conflict may have never erupted. The conclusion is, therefore, crystal clear: the economic recession following the 1986 world oil price collapse led to political democracy which, in return, led to the conflict. This is the same as saying that the interaction between political and economic factors caused the crisis and that the economy is the launching pad, while political factors have only magnified the conflict.

To conclude so far:

(i). Algeria’s political violence began in 1986 (not in 1992);

(ii). The interaction between economic and political factors (not

repression) have caused it; and

(iii). Economic prosperity (even with political reforms) may have saved

the country from its current conflict.

Of course, as the professor pointed out to me, there is a large body of economic literature on Algeria. Indeed, numerous books and articles on the Algerian economy have recently been published by economists, political scientists and economic journalists. These economists (most of whom are Algerian) include Abdoun, A. Benachenou, M. Benachenou, Benhaim, Boukaraoun, Bouyacoub, Corm, Dahmani, Goumeziane, Henni, Hidouci, Ighemat, Pfeifer, Talahite and Yachir. Among the political scientists who have written on the Algerian economy since the late 1980s are M. Dazi, Dillman, Elsenhans, Harrold, Henry, Martinez, Vandewalle and Lachi. Well-known, seasoned economic journalists who have been writing frequently and substantively on the Algerian economy over the years include Belhimer, Ghiles, Marks and the analysts at Marches Tropicaux et Mediterranneens and at Nord-Sud Export. The problem, however, is that those books and articles either have little to do with the crisis or that when they do none of them seems to have sufficiently recognized the fact that the economy may have been the launching pad to the crisis.

Another major point of differences in opinion is related to my argument that Samuel Huntington, an American political scientist who invented the so-called ‘clash of civilisation’ thesis, was ideologically motivated and his approach was rather simplistic. Of course, Mr Huntington was not addressing the Algeria problem in his 1996 book directly, but, nevertheless, was talking about the Islamic World as if he was addressing the Algerian community in particular. The professor, to defend Mr Huntington, who is also a professor, sticks to the idea that for Mr Huntington to be blamed for misleading the international opinion should be addressing the Algerian problem directly.

The professor, to defend his views about Algeria and, thus, exterminate the possibility that the economic factors are to blame, asserts the following: “numerous countries have experienced slow or negative growth rates over an extended period of time but without descending into the kind of political turmoil Algeria has experienced over the past decade.” This, of course, is a striking point; the problem is that the professor does not seem to be aware of the fact that these countries he is talking about did not actually resort to political reforms in the face of economic depression. Worse still, he does not seem to be aware of the tragedy that those who did, like Indonesia in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis, have actually descended into Algeria’s kind of political turmoil.

More surprisingly, the professor states that “Przeworski and Limongi have convincingly argued that liberalizing, moderate-income countries which experience sharply reduced growth rates over a several year period run a high risk of reverting to authoritarian rule.” Very sadly, the professor could not notice that he was only reinforcing my claim that the economic situation must have been the biggest problem. The quality of democracy declined as a result of the bad economic situation resulting from the conflict itself which has made it more difficult to resolve the crisis.

Many Algerian political scientists tend to believe that religious ‘fanaticism’ has led to the crisis. I tried to look for any sort of evidence that substantiates this claim and I could only find two. The first is that economic collapse might have encouraged the population to vote for the FIS (but this does not explain why people did not vote for HAMAS). The second is that Chadli Bendjedid might have spent a lot more than Boumedienne on religious education which might have made people ‘fanatic’ in the way those scientists describe. The professor could not help but make fun of such claims although he could not refute the fact that Bendjedid, in attempt to silence the ‘Islamist’, did indeed spend more than his predecessor on religious education.

The idea here is, of course, not to try to prove that religious education or religious convictions are not important since Algeria is inevitably a Muslim country, but rather to try to find ways in which ‘Islamism’ might have contributed to the crisis. I do not believe that ‘Islamism’ has in any way led to the conflict but if it did then it might have been through some sort of ‘crowding out’ effects as a result of Bendjedid’s misallocation of resources. The problem with this misallocation is not necessarily with religious education (as I was merely postulating a hypothesis), but more convincingly with military spending, aid to ‘national liberation movements’, imports of perishable consumer goods, building monuments to the martyrs of the ‘Guerre de liberation’, operating expenses of the Ministry of Culture and so on; but these are the things that the professor himself does not actually disagree upon.

All in all, I was truly puzzled by the fact that the professor (presumably a specialist on the crisis) could not see where Algeria went wrong and found it very hard to accept the economic-depression thesis as a launching pad to the crisis. But the reason could well be that he is a bit uncomfortable with economists trying to get the truth out and that is why he advised me to mess more with my peers and much less with political scientists.

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