A junta not so inclined

As a third North African regime teeters, it remains to be seen if Algeria’s ruling army regime will use the balance of power in favor of the populace.

In charge. That’s exactly how most Algerians, and Algerian exiles, see the army regime in their country – despite the civilian face of the presidency currently held by Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Since a 1992 election (itself an unusual event in the Arab world) saw Islamic fundamentalists garner the largest share, Algeria’s French-backed military not only cancelled the result of the vote, but initiated a bloody conflict which plunged the country into civil war and from which it has reamined on the brink. To date, more than 200,000 have been killed.
This week, Algeria’s army installed a president, and issued a decree cancelling the extension of the state of emergency in place since 1992. If one was perplexed as to why the sudden change of heart, the fall of two Arab and African autocratic regimes, and the approaching end for the one in Libya, Algeria’s eastern neighbor, provide a clue.
The two fallen regimes, and to a smaller extent the one in Libya, collapsed not only because street defiance brought those countries to a standstill, or even because the dictators suddenly became benevolent. In fact, the “balance of power” in each case was held by the military, who succumbed to the people’s aspirations and drove the final nail in the dictatorship’s coffin, providing the push that turned into a shove.
However, the problem in Algeria is that the military junta, which no doubt pulls the strings, purposely denied the victories of political parties it disliked in 1992. This was said to be prompted by a desire to deny power to parties the Algerian military considered inherently extremist. Hence, under the guise of preventing an extremist takeover that would threaten liberal values, it felt compelled to act.
HOW EXACTLY, one wonders, can this very junta now be resigned to a people’s revolution? This is not to deny that al-Qaida-linked extremists have found solace in this fractured country. Reports of forced religious adherence, honor killings of young females and the coldblooded murder of those who fall out of favor ensure that not only the army has its hands stained with innocent blood. The events which began in Tunisia changed it all. Algerians, inspired by their neighbors, began en masse to call for sporadic strikes and protests, which so far have left five people dead and more than 800 injured.
The junta is now caught in a quagmire.
Most Algerians, analysts and human rights organizations blame it for the events that culminated in the bloody 1992 crackdown, which has torn the fabric of civil society and shattered any drive toward democratic change.
The generals are no doubt becoming more nervous by the day. The civilian face through which they run the country has neither a support base nor a popular mandate. If the discontent continues, if morgues are filled with more bodies, if security forces continue to harass and detain and if thousands come out onto the streets anyway, indifferent to government demands, we could be witnessing the start of a potentially explosive confrontation.
In this scenario, the junta will have to make a choice between two unpalatable situations.
Either it throws its weight behind the people, and allows for unfettered democratic change by popular mandate, thereby effectively losing its grip on power, or the senior commanders, together with their civilian administration, could launch a crackdown far worse than in 1992, and lose any support they have, including from a weary Europe and brotherly Arab peoples.
In this situation, expect to see the usual talk of CIA and Mossad conspiracies, not to mention Osama bin Laden instructions coming into the fray.
The writer is a PhD candidate in in Political Violence at the Department of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College, London.