The Myth of Algerian Democrats


The strife for democracy is universal. To say, for example, that Americans are born to be democrats and that Algerians are born to be repressive is indeed very silly. It is, however, very wise (and can easily be proven) to assume that the quality of democracy in the US has improved with improvement in living standards and technological development. In the case of Algeria, the level of repression has significantly increased with the country’s economic collapse.

There is no doubt that democracy is good for Algeria. First, democracy might have produced successive governments which would have been more efficient, so that the population as a whole would have had less basis for grievance. Second, it might have produced governments which would have been fairer, so each social group would have had less cause for grievance. Third, the Algerian government would have been perceived as more legitimate, so that the population would have accepted political outcomes more easily. Finally, a more democratic government would have resorted to less repressive methods to deal with economic, ethnic and religious rebellions.

The problem, however, is that, in most developing countries, democracy is hard to come by; and the reason is purely economic. Nations would generally afford democracy at satisfactory levels of economic development. A good example is that, in the 1990 and 1991 elections, there were not only chaos resulting from the mushrooming of a large number of political parties (due to the 1989 political opening), but also financial mismanagement as the country had to spend a huge amount of money on political campaigns. In the face of an economic depression, that money could have been spent on capital build-up which may have assisted economic growth in the process. This could have decreased the level of poverty by a certain percentage and might have even saved the country from its current murderous strife.

To understand the fact that democracy for Algeria, and for most of the developing world, is a luxury, one may refer to the work of Abraham Maslow who, as early as 1954, theorized that people have five basic needs: physiological, security, social, esteem and self-actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy arranges these needs into the order in which people strive to satisfy them.

Physiological needs, the most basic and first needs to be satisfied, are the essentials for living (water, food, shelter and clothing). Security needs relate to protecting oneself from physical and economic harm. Social needs are the need for love, companionship and friendship or the desire for acceptance by others. Esteem needs relate to respect, both self-respect and respect from others. Self-actualization needs, at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, means being the best a person can be.

While Maslow’s theory was initially designed for business management (i.e. how to motivate the workforce to contribute to a company’s organizational goals), it can be applied to Algeria’s civil conflict quite easily. More precisely, for Algeria to be able to strive for self-actualization and be the most democratic country in the world, it must first strive to satisfy its population’s physiological needs.

It seems safe to argue that, under the Boumedienne regime in the 1970s, Algeria’s economy was doing a lot better and democracy was never a priority. The reason is that the Algerian population was able to satisfy its physiological needs and was naturally climbing up the ladder towards self-actualization. Unfortunately, with the 1986 world oil price disaster, Algeria fell off the ladder and Algerians have since become rather anxious about satisfying their basic needs, namely water, food, shelter and clothing.

To understand the tragedy and why Algeria is not a democracy, consider the following numbers: by the end of the 1990s, more than 30 per cent of people who were able to work could not find one. Furthermore, almost 70 per cent of people between the age of 16 and 19 had absolutely no jobs, while for those between 20 and 24, this percentage was as high as 60 per cent. It is possible that a more democratic government could have avoided such a catastrophic situation altogether, but for now it is hard to perceive how a full-fledged democracy must change all this overnight.

So why do self-proclaimed democrats in Algeria insist more on democracy and much less on the economy?. There are several competing explanations. First, and this is probably the most obvious, the democrats have never read Maslow’s kind of work. They see democracy as a magic key while in fact their people are striving to get the slightest hint of what they really mean by democracy.

Second, and this is probably the most important, the leaders of political movements in general, while striving for their own self-actualization, they must engage in a ‘civilized’ discourse that pretends to put the grievances of the population at first. The reason, inevitably, is to be able to attract the crowd. Naturally, you are unlikely to find an extremist terrorist who argues that he is power-hungry or striving to exterminate a certain fraction of the population. To motivate his (domestic and international) recruits to rebel, he must act like a Tibetan Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama theory is very relevant to Algeria’s case. Take, for example, Paul Aussaresses, a French general, who has recently glorified himself by showing the French and the world how he tortured Algerians during the 1954-62 period while striving to defend their homeland. His pride in doing so is well rooted in the 1830 French mission to civilize Algeria. It was not difficult at all to exterminate one million and a half Algerians under the pretext of freedom fighting and it is, of course, less difficult to now justify that mission.

But Algeria’s new democrats, like the French old imperialists, will eventually find it very hard to defend themselves. The reasons are too many, but one is very clear to all Algerians: they derive from a communist school of thought and it is not difficult to see that third world communism (even under the pretext of socialism) is not compatible with first class democracy.