Seeing What We Want, When and Where We Want It

Lakhdar Brahimi’s credentials are impeccable, fruit of the Algerian statesman’s long career, and he’s as able a candidate as any to serve as United Nations special envoy to Syria as the nation’s increasingly bloody civil war grinds on. His CV counts postings and honors that would be the envy of any diplomat, starting with his representation of Algeria’s long-ruling Front de Libération National (FLN) in Jakarta at the tender age of 22.[1] He enjoys membership in the Elders, a diplomatic and humanitarian A-list that includes Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Kofi Annan, Brahimi’s predecessor as envoy to Syria.[2]

He even looks a little bit like Henry Kissinger.

And yet, with all of that experience under his belt, Brahimi’s appointment still ought to give us at least a moment’s pause. Why? Because Algeria didn’t enjoy the liberalizing benefits of an Arab Spring, and because that atypical calm can’t be credited to a sterling democratic and human rights record for the party—or the military chiefs that support it—to which Brahimi has dedicated much of his life’s diplomatic service.

Now, the obvious objection here is that it’s unfair to blame Brahimi for the failures of the broader Algerian political apparatus, and it would be, especially since he isn’t acting for it in an official capacity. That being said, he’s no outsider to the FLN—his ties to the party run very deep—and a series of very public roles have found him frequently condemning the abridgment of rights that are far from held sacred by his home government.

When Algeria held parliamentary elections this summer in an attempt to let off popular steam, the United States and others were quick to rubber-stamp them as a democratic success; a closer look shows that wishing does not make it so.[3] Though the FLN held firmly to power with 48% of total seats, they did so winning just 17% of votes cast—and enjoyed the support of only 6% of eligible voters. Allegations of fraud were widespread, and many citizens either didn’t vote or cast blank ballots in despairing protest of anticipated corruption.[4]

In her capacity as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton singled out for particular praise the number of women elected in Algeria—nearly a third of all seats (or, in other words, better women’s representation than in either the United States Senate or House of Representatives). As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pointed out soon after the elections though, this was FLN gamesmanship: Their electoral law, of very recent vintage, requires that 20-50% of party candidates be female.[5] Given Algeria’s otherwise not particularly strong record on women’s rights, it’s hard to imagine this wasn’t a provision cynically put in place to curry favor with the West.

Still, to compare Algeria’s anti-democratic tendencies—even implicitly—to those Brahimi is confronting in Syria should probably seem grossly exaggerated; the FLN may have been heavy handed in dealing with Arab Spring protests, but at least they are not going through a civil war.

And they are not, in large part because they already had one during their last flirtation with democracy in the 1990s.  It was not so long ago, certainly not long enough for the Algerian people to forget, that the FLN and military’s choice to cancel elections in the face of an impending Islamist popular victory prompted one of the bloodier eras of the nation’s history. Call it a prototype Arab Spring, and one without a happy ending.

The memory of what’s called in French “la décennie noire” (the Black Decade) and its 150,000 casualties loom large among the reasons that Arab Spring protests in Algeria were so small, despite significant popular grievances.[6] Neither the Algerian government nor the Algerian people seem to have the stomach for more strife. Lack of armed conflict notwithstanding though, the Algerian regime remains characterized by deeply undemocratic tendencies; the fight has just largely gone out those concerned.

If the Syrian situation is a conflagration, then the Algerian one is wet powder. That Brahimi hasn’t used the remarkable podium—any of the remarkable podiums—afforded to him by his international stature to push for real change in his home country ought to be disappointing as a result. The problems there are quieter, clearly, but not unserious for it.

The United States would do well to learn from the tension in Brahimi’s position. The hastiness with which the U.S. and Europe have been willing to sanction the conduct of the FLN and its military backers before turning their attention elsewhere lends weight to charges that U.S. foreign policy suffers from either deep cynicism (Algeria is an important partner in combatting terrorism and a major energy supplier in the region; therefore, it goes un-criticized) or equally profound naïveté (falling for government-spun pro-democracy rhetoric that one Algerian activist group called “[a] ruse aimed at fooling international opinion at a time when Arab regimes are under pressure.”)[7] Neither perception does the United States any good as it struggles to manage its interests and values in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In the end, and in deference to political realities, progress is better than no progress and undemocratic is preferable to deeply undemocratic; in that regard, Algeria isn’t the pressing priority that some other Arab nations are at the moment vis-à-vis Western interests. Brahimi, though, and the West too, would benefit from calling a spade a spade in the Algerian case. A little tough talk—and a little of the credibility that comes with consistent messaging—could go a long way.


[1] The Elders, “Lakhdar Brahimi | The Elders.” Last modified 21 August 2012. Accessed October 10, 2012.

[2] The Elders, “About the Elders | The Elders.” Accessed October 10, 2012.

[3] Christian, Lowe. Reuters, “EU observers: Algeria vote a step towards reform.” Last modified May 12, 2012. Accessed October 10, 2012.

[4] Lahcen, Achy. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Algeria Avoids the Arab Spring?.” Last modified May 31, 2012. Accessed October 10, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Eileen, Byrne. The Guardian, “Algerians to go to polls in nation left behind by Arab Spring.” Last modified May 9, 2012. Accessed October 10, 2012.

[7] Elaine, Ganley. The Washington Post, “Algeria’s state of emergency is officially lifted.” Last modified February 24, 2011. Accessed October 10, 2012. http://www.webcitation.org/5wluU0iPt.

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