international analysis and commentary

Why Algeria can teach some hard lessons on political transitions


Most Algerians have a rather unique perception of the link between popular revolts, the fall of political regimes and the ensuing instability. And for good reason.

The drama of the thousands of migrants continues: Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Afghans and others from various Sahelian countries. This is indeed the greatest migration crisis ever experienced since the Second World War, except the Hungarian episode in 1956, when tens of thousands of people fled their country after the failure of the revolution in Budapest. Obviously, the situation and the context are very different, but the substance is the same: it is a political phenomenon. As Hungarians fled Communist repression; Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans and Sahelians leave everything to escape the terrorist violence that took place after the fall of the dictatorial regimes.

Today Europe faces the challenge of solidarity in all its forms: human, legal and political. The human and legal dimensions should be self-evident, but there is a complex political dimension as well, in at least two respects. First, because the migration crisis is at least partly a consequence of the chaotic management of the Arab Springs, and Western governments provided considerable support to the Arab revolutions.

The second political aspect has to do with the future of the Arab world: we have to acknowledge that Arab societies are not yet ready for democracy. But at what cost, also in terms of dead, missing and uprooted people? Four years after the Arab Springs, Europe discovers, at its own expense, that there are major contagion effects – not just the migrant wave but also the fact that European countries are targeted by several terrorist groups.

For Algeria, the migrant situation is a multidimensional crisis where its national experience is relevant: tackling the challenge requires a concerted international effort, and an understanding of the lessons of history. Algiers, based on its own tragic experience of the 1990’s, tried to temper the ardor of those who saw revolutions as a popular first step on the road to democracy. Aspirations for more freedom were and are legitimate. But abrupt changes are not the best solution. This has been said again and again. It is necessary to first prepare the people by instilling the values ​​of tolerance and respect for others within an inclusive framework. This is a hard task in a region affected by negative factors such as the persistent damages of the Arab-Israeli conflict (where the “Palestinian cause” has served Islamist parties and radical movements more than the Palestinians themselves), or the legacy of Western support for assorted Islamist groups in its fight against the expansion of the Communist model in the 1970s and 1980s, or again the current role of the Gulf monarchies in financing subversive movements.

Against this backdrop, and four years after the Arab Springs, the situation is even more complex. The issue of refugees or migrants has rightly become a priority, but ongoing debates in Europe are focused too much on the distribution of quotas by migrants across EU countries and too little on a global strategy to resolve the problem at its roots. The fundamental issue remains a better mix of political stability and economic development. There is clearly a link between migration, development and conflict. Algeria now finds itself in the midst of dangerous regional flows: cross-border crime and arms and drug trafficking, in the absence of political stability at its borders. Some Algerian concerns are actually shared by the EU, at least at the level of declaratory policy: the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, during her September visit to Algiers said that the EU is called to “develop a common approach to managing crises that exist around us, especially in Africa, and boost economic and social development.”

More specifically, Algerian interests are directly affected by the situation in its neighboring country, Libya, where after the fall of Muammar Gheddafi a vast territory was practically handed over to militias and ISIS terrorists. Algiers believes that the Libyan issue requires a broad international effort based on certain basic principles: the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity, an inter-Libyan dialogue toward a national unity government, and continuing support for the UN’s special envoy to create the preconditions for future reconstruction.

Looking at the Syrian tragedy, the Algerian view is that this is a terribly dangerous crisis for the entire region. In that huge battlefield, it is time for the West to change its strategy: unfortunately, there is no “democratic alternative” in Syria to either dictatorship or Islamist extremism. Thus, the only realistic solution is a form of national reconciliation to stop the bloodshed.

After all, the West has been willing to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue after decades of embargo. Could current conditions not push the US and European governments to adjust their stance towards the Damascus regime?

Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria’s Minister for Maghreb Affairs, the African Union and the Arab League, called on the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura to “redouble efforts with the belligerents and stakeholders of the Syrian crisis within the framework of respect for the sovereignty of the country, of the will and aspirations of its people for peace, democracy and development, far from any foreign interference or destructive military options.”

The EU Commissioner for EU enlargement, Johannes Hahn, has recently warned that “the next big wave” of migrants in Europe could come from Lebanon, a “fragile state” which hosts more than one million Syrian refugees. This shows, once again, the complexity of the migration problem which must absolutely be met with a diplomatic solution based on a broad international consensus. Algeria can play a constructive role in these efforts.