Two months of protests in Algeria against the longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika culminated in his resignation in early April. Last week former parliament speaker Abdelkader Bensalah, who was appointed interim president after Bouteflika stepped down, promised to hold presidential elections on July 4.
Though Bensalah’s move was intended to defuse popular anger over his own appointment, the protests have continued unabated. Demonstrators have demanded the departure of representatives of the entire system, Bensalah included. With no clear outcome to the situation, Algeria’s neighbors, particularly Morocco to the west and Tunisia to the east, are closely watching the stunning upheaval that has taken place during the past months. They are right to do so. Regardless of the outcome, Algeria’s ongoing political transition will significantly change regional dynamics in the short and long term.
Morocco has had a complex response to the protests. While there has been no official reaction from state officials or media, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said on March 18 that Morocco “will not interfere in the internal developments that Algeria is facing and will not comment on them in any way.” For the Moroccan government, such caution is warranted. From an optimistic perspective, a friendly Algeria could spur positive progress on the issue of the Western Sahara. The post-Bouteflika era could also bring closer ties between Morocco and Algeria and perhaps allow for an opening of the borders between the countries, which were closed in 1994. At the same time, however, fear of the unknown is likely stirring unease among some government officials in Rabat.
Since 2011, Morocco has watched the removal of several entrenched incumbents in its neighborhood. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and now Sudan and Algeria have all bidden farewell to longtime rulers. These events may cause Morocco’s elite, known as the makhzen, to wonder if they are the next “system” to go. However, unlike the rest of North Africa, Morocco is a monarchy, and King Mohammed VI may be insulated from protests in a way that Hosni Mubarak, Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi, Zine al-Abedine bin Ali, Omar al-Bashir, and Bouteflika were not. Yet the king and the makhzen are likely still watching nervously as Algeria’s political transition unfolds, hoping for peaceful change that results in a stable state.
Moroccans have used social media to express significant support for, and solidarity with, Algerian protestors. Morocco has a long tradition of protest and understands the power of the street. Having witnessed the various trajectories of post-Arab spring states, however, many people in Morocco are in a wait-and-see mode. Even as they express happiness for their Algerian activist neighbors, they remain uncertain about whether what comes next will benefit Morocco.
To Algeria’s east, Tunisians view the ongoing developments with a similar mixture of optimism and fear. There is a real worry that Algeria will slide into chaos and instability, which would have a direct impact on Tunisia’s security. The Algeria-Tunisia border is already a major security challenge for Tunisia. The mountainous region along the border serves as a hideout for terrorists, who from time to time descend into western Tunisia and kill soldiers or kidnap locals. Increased instability in Algeria could result in a weakened Algerian state and security services having less of an ability to control the border. This would be very dangerous for Tunisian border regions.
Prior to the upheaval, Algeria and Tunisia had a strong security partnership to address the challenges along the border. The two countries’ cooperation on counterextremism was an exception to Algeria’s traditionally isolationist policies. With Libya already experiencing violent turmoil, Tunisians dread additional spillover of violence from Algeria. It is not certain that the fragile Tunisian democracy could handle another state in chaos on its borders.
On a more positive note, Tunisia would benefit from having another Arab democracy as a neighbor. Solidarity protests have taken place in Tunisia, showing that people are excited about the prospects for positive political change next door. This excitement contrasts with the messaging from some Egyptians, who have warned Algeria not to repeat the mistakes that they themselves made in 2011.
On the other hand the Tunisian government has been hesitant to offer public advice to the Algerian people on how to carry out a successful democratic transition. Tunisia has long wanted to be viewed as a positive example of how democracy can exist in the region. However, the government also understands that this is a grassroots Algerian movement, and Tunisia needs to keep its nose out of the protests. Given continued uncertainty over the trajectory of Algeria’s transition, the government is also hedging its bets. To most countries, including Tunisia, there is little benefit in taking sides amid a highly tumultuous situation.
From the perspective of governments, fear that citizens will be inspired by Algeria and Sudan will likely dictate their responses. Optimistically, some authorities may offer small openings or concessions to activists in an effort to avoid the eruption of similar protests. But realistically, Algeria’s upheaval may serve as a reminder to authoritarian leaders that small protests can spiral out of control quickly, and that they need to rein in activism before reaching a point of no return. Leaders who thought they had successfully weathered the Arab Spring may reconsider their positions.
The most meaningful regional consequences of the Algerian protests (like those in Sudan) will be their impact on civil society and the “Arab street.” The Algerian people have joined the ranks of Tunisians and Egyptians in successfully ousting a leader who had been in power for decades. The triumph of Algerian demonstrators, followed by success in Sudan, has inspired activists across the region to remember they are not powerless. This cannot be underestimated.
Even without a guarantee, or even a likelihood, that Algeria will emerge a liberal democracy, the Algerian people’s embrace of peaceful, popular protest gives hope to a world that has been witnessing the retreat of democracy. Closing space for civil society in the region and elsewhere has made it difficult for activists to remain motivated. However, no matter what happens in the coming months and years, Arabs are watching Algeria, not to say Sudan, with a renewed sense of hope in the power of the people to make change.