Protests by urban youth disgruntled at corruption and a lack of opportunity; a demographic time-bomb; a repressive secular government in conflict with sometimes violent Islamist groups; international fighters travelling to a foreign civil war; secular, liberal voices drowned out by the thunderous dichotomy of government military forces fighting religious fundamentalists.
If this list of factors sounds familiar, it is probably as part of the Arab Spring narrative since 2010. However, they equally describe another, less recent period in history – the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s.
This chapter, Algeria’s “black decade” between 1991 and 2002, goes often unmentioned outside the francophone world. However, it holds some remarkably close parallels to – and possibly lessons for – the current situation in Syria.
The Algerian experience is an underappreciated precursor to the wider events of protest, revolution and war that have unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa in recent years.
If we follow the trajectory of the fundamentalist Islamic resurgence in the region from theorising and organisation in Egypt in the 1950s to the mujaheddin resistance of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the influx of fighters into Algeria marks the next significant stage. This was the first testing ground for bringing foreign fighters – the “Afghan Arabs” – into a domestic situation of civil war, something which is now recognisable and highly publicised in Syria.
As a precursor, testing ground and omen, perhaps the Algerian Civil War is to the Syrian War as the Spanish Civil War was to the Second World War.
How useful, then, is it to compare the two conflicts? There are some important differences to note: the estimated death toll in Algeria is believed to have been up to 200,000, whilst that in Syria is approaching half a million and counting.
Significantly, the Syrian War has also been much more heavily influenced by international forces as foreign governments have interfered and sought to direct their interests through a proxy war. This was not the case in Algeria where, aside from foreign fighters joining the Islamist forces, the civil war was generally self-contained within the country.
However, we can surely look to the Algerian conflict and draw some conclusions around why the Syrian War arose and how it can be resolved.
In hindsight, the first thing to urge is to avoid creating the conditions that cause widespread disillusion and discontent; the conditions causing people to find radical Islamist politics appealing in the first place.
The autocratic, corrupt regimes across the region created stifling conditions of political repression and economic stagnation. A similarity in both countries is to be found in how both governments represented an outdated “socialist/secular” left and remained aligned to the eastern bloc during the Cold War.
Whatever their postcolonial credentials may have been, these governments failed to live up to promises in those decades.
During its civil war, Algeria experienced a pronounced polarisation whereby the secular, liberal, middle class minority were demonised by the Islamist side as French-facing traitors. This demographic thus sought to either leave or to throw their lot in with the government.
Something similar can perhaps be observed in Syria and other uprisings where the same social grouping proved unable to organise the numbers required to control a popular movement. This, of course, leads to the present analysis that Syria has become a de facto struggle between dictatorship and religious extremism, with no middle ground.
As we look in hindsight as to how Algeria’s war came to an end, we can say that such polarisation was unhelpful; the solution was a political one. It took the resignation of a politician, President Liamine Zéroual, to provoke talks and compromise. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, still nominally in power today, emerged as a consensus figure. So, the government effectively won but it took a new Head of State to bring about an end to the conflict: could this be the likely course of events in Syria?
Algeria’s black decade by no means gives us solid answers for what is yet to come in Syria. It does, however, provide perhaps the closest historical precedent to the complex forces at play both in Syria and across the Middle East and North Africa. It is the very same question played out in Egypt too: what happens when a democratic election brings Islamist extremists to power?
The same fault-lines that ran through Algeria in the 1990s continue to haunt the region – a stark choice between dysfunctional dictatorship on one hand and religious extremism on the other. The bleak decade that Algerians suffered shows how important it is to try to break that binary.
Middle East Monitor, “Is there a solution for Syria to be found in the Algerian civil war?”, January 14, 2017, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170114-is-there-a-solution-for-syria-to-be-found-in-the-algerian-civil-war/
SouthWorld, “The solution to Syria’s war is political and its model is Algeria,” December 1, 2016, http://www.southworld.net/the-solution-to-syrias-war-is-political-and-its-model-is-algeria/