Anyone following political change in the Arab world in the past decade will find the slowly -developing situation in Algeria fascinating. And hopeful, despite the sceptical reflexes we have all learnt to have. No two transitions are the same. Above all in the Arab world, which seems to take pleasure in holding under one Arab roof sharply differing political cultures, and defying conventional wisdom on the best way to resolve differences and achieve reform. The unhesitating and extreme regime violence in Syria towards peaceful protests in 2011 is at one end of the scale. The more complex series of misfortunes that led Libya and Yemen into conflict, rather than to reform and modernisation, is another outcome. In Egypt, a prolonged, confusing but in many cases genuine attempt to find an agreed way forward fell short, in the end, of people's hopes. Meanwhile, in parallel to the new situation in Algeria, the people of Sudan have since December succeeded in challenging the dead hand of the security state by peaceful means.
In Algeria, as in Sudan, non-violent mass protests against entrenched privilege have suddenly opened new horizons. Not only against privilege, but against the consistent misuse of the state's power to coerce its citizens through killings and imprisonment, in defence of kleptocratic privilege. And the censorship, surveillance and intimidation that go with that, crushing the civil life of society and the creativity of individuals. Observers of Algeria have for years marvelled at the patience of its people, a large proportion of them young and with no clear prospects for bettering their lives. Such self-restraint in the past must count as a great blessing. Just as it now dictates the calm, dignified tone of the mass protests that began on 16 February and have continued since. It has helped that the police, wisely, have taken it as their duty to protect the protestors rather than to repress them. In Khartoum likewise there were elements of the armed forces that spontaneously defended the protestors when they were attacked by thuggish forces sent by hard-liners in the security state.
In Algeria pressure by the protests on the established power, le pouvoir, has led to its interim leaders sacrificing one insider after another. Some of this must be score-settling among the entrenched elite, but the main aim is to placate the demands of the protestors. Not only was the plan dropped to present Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term as President despite his manifest physical incapacity, but the Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, was forced to resign and Bouteflika himself removed from office. Several former insiders have been arrested for corruption, including Bouteflika's brother, Said, on 4 May, along with two former intelligence chiefs, Athmane Tartag and Mohamed Mediene. The Army Chief of Staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, has taken on the role of anti-corruption enforcer, though he himself is under pressure from the interim President and caretake Prime Minister to step down for being too closely involved with the regime. The protestors, in turn, want these two to step down for the same reason.
There is a genuine problem, in all these different national situations, that the civil institutions of the state have been hollowed out by years of corruption and the accumulation of unaccountable power. When the crisis arrives, they are expected to serve as they were intended. Their constitutional role is re-asserted and claimed by the people, demanding a return to legality and justice. At the same time another important institution, the Armed Forces, finds itself holding the ring. It has habits of privilege, too, among the highest ranks, but most would describe it as defending the interests of the people. This comes not only from its role in preserving the country's borders (in Algeria's case the longest in Africa) against aggression by neighbours or by terrorist groups, or as a last resort dealing with severe internal violence (in Algeria's case in 1990-91). But the Armed Forces too have the virtue of representing in their ranks a wide social range of citizens, and of holding true to the genuine national interest. They are not well equipped to govern, but they can exercise a calming and mediatory role in periods of confusion and transition. They need then to let go and step back into a guarantor role.
The Army in Algeria sees itself in this role. Not all the protestors do. It is not for outsiders to judge the balance of right and wrong. Only the Algerians themselves on all sides, those that are committed to a peaceful transition, should do that. Such situations require a degree of compromise, or rather the flexibility to move forward by provisional steps without abandoning the fundamental objective of political reform and social justice. This in turn calls for individuals of exceptional wisdom and personal qualities, and the creation of trust. One thinks of Mandela and De Klerk. What is heartening about the developments in Algeria is that they have kept open that possibility, avoiding violence, leaving space for such individuals to emerge and have influence. The prospects for success are still there.
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