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Algeria is a country that has lived through more than a century of colonization and more than half a century of dictatorship and a single-party system. In this turbulent history, two dictatorial rulers stand out for being eccentrically autocratic but all the same contributing to nation-building in two entirely different ways and navigating the nation through hard times.
They are Houari Boumedienne and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, both dictators in many ways, and this paper is a critical comparison of their regimes in terms of policies and positions. It is argued that while Boumedianne remained a socialist, Bouteflika has been trying to establish Algeria as a modern capitalist state.
Houari Boumédiène’s Presidency
Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, after 132 years of colonial rule and 8 years of war. However, there was no respite for this country as the national leadership, The National Liberation Front (FLN), was haunted by inner conflicts. After independence, it was through a coup d’état that Boumedianne became the President of Algeria. He ruled from 1965 to 1978, suspending the constitution, dissolving the national assembly and pursuing a policy of industrial, agricultural, and cultural revolution, and through them, the economic independence of Algeria. He nationalized the French-controlled oil sector in 1971, which was the backbone of revenue for the nation.
State-sponsored welfare schemes were implemented, and by 1979, all the villages were electrified, free health care service was established and many schools were founded. To some extent, all these measures initiated national reconstruction after a long period of violence.
National domestic production despite profitability was the motto. Arabic replaced French as the administrative language. Boumediene also took the position of non-alignment internationally and supported revolutionary movements all over the world. His rule took a toll on the healthy political fabric of the nation as there was no democracy, no space for dissent, and, in a way, it was his authoritarian ways that led to another civil war in Algeria and the rise of Islamic extremism in the 1980s.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s Presidency
By then, oil prices began to fall and dipped drastically in 1986. The nationalization of hydrocarbons showed its flipside, as oil was too volatile a product to root the nation’s economy on it. According to figures in 1990, 25 % of Algerians were poor and 22% did not have clean drinking water. The economic downfall was accelerated by Boumedianne’s death in 1978, and the political chaos that ensued.
After a span of violence and instability, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime took over in 1999 winning the election with the support of the army. Bouteflika from the very beginning had the support of trade unions and women and his advantage was that his prolonged absence from the political scene of Algeria enabled him to become a mediator among Islamists, democrats, and the military, and, unlike Boumedianne, he was ready to talk with all of them.
He maintained a very low public profile in contrast to Boumedianne. Bouteflika replaced the extreme Islamist ideology of Islamic Salvation Force that almost captured power after Boumedianne’s death with a more moderate one, and took if only a few steps towards a politically free Algeria. Boumediene did not ever promise or profess democracy, but Bouteflika has put forth a promise of a gradual transition to multi-party democracy. With the help of rising oil prices, he gave away salary hikes, loans, and facilitated the rise of a middle class, which is the driving force of any democratic system.
Bouteflika fell short of leading the country towards democracy though, and just like Boumedianne continued to govern in a centralized manner. His most prominent difference from Boumedianne has been his economic policies based on the infrastructure development and private sector, while Boumedianne believed in a socialist welfare state.
Throughout the regimes of Boumedienne and Bouteflika, school textbooks, the government-controlled media, Friday sermons in mosques, public iconography, and all the public discourses, in general, propagated a certain historical narrative convenient to the rulers and hid the real history of these dictatorships behind it. However, compared to Boumedianne’s regime, the Bouteflika government has been constantly engaging with the public, with modernity and with the changing world around it. This is the trait of capitalist democracy that the socialist Algeria of Boumedianne’s time lacked.