By Abdelkader Filali
By Abdelkader Filali
Toronto – Analyzing Lowi, Miriam (2009). Oil Wealth and the Poverty of Politics in Algeria.
Miriam Lowi puts forth a compelling argument regarding the process of state-formation and political stability in “high growth, development-oriented, oil-exporting countries” (p. 147) in Oil Wealth and the Poverty of Politics. Lowi contends the more mainstream theoretical framework of the rentier state model, as well as structural functionalism with a qualitative study focusing on the agency of political leaders and the decisions they make at “critical junctures” in history. Lowi dismisses the resources trap argument and the rentier state model which posits that the presence of abundant resources and “rent” is what determines political outcomes (p. 30).
Instead, Lowi argues that the pre-existing structural contexts of society present political elites with a variety of choices, in which their decision is the most important factor to the reproduction of an authoritarian regime in Algeria which is “largely unchanged in its makeup and strategy” (p. 129). By studying the process of state-formation throughout Algeria’s history stretching back to French colonial rule until the protracted civil war in the early 1990’s and then comparing Algeria’s case with five similar oil-exporting states, oil is proven not to have a causal effect on the robustness of authoritarianism or the weakness of state institutions prevalent in Algeria. Lowi attributes it rather to the strategies employed by the political elites to weaken any opposition to the state, including strategies of repression, co-option and manipulation (p. 133).
In the late 1980’s, dissent against the military regime of President Chadli Bendjedid was threatening the hegemony of the military-politico oligarchy forcing Bendjedid to call multi-party elections in 1991. When it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party- who proposed a platform of open markets and privatization rather than having the military dominate in the economy- was going to win the elections, the security forces of Algeria staged a coup d’état against Chadli and violently repressed the FIS in order to maintain hegemony.
The military has also employed the strategy of co-option to divide and fragment the Islamist and Kabilists movements by exploiting the groups’ fractionalization, weak leadership, and cult of personality, characteristic of parties such as HAMAS and Ennahda (p. 135). Since the independence from French colonial rule in 1962, political leaders have manipulated rents to uphold the “mythology of the state” and the rhetoric of popular incorporation, while simultaneously maintaining a political and economic oligarchy (140).
I argue that agency is undoubtedly a necessary variable in the analysis of the Algerian state-formation experience, but pre-existing structural forces, both internal and external to the state such as; 130 years of colonial rule, fragmented and atomized political poles, and growing interest in Algeria from the United States can be more powerful than leaders and the decisions they make. No matter the strength of the leadership’s political will or agency, exogenous structural forces will always restrict the behavior of actors and can be more powerful in the shaping of outcomes.
Abundant resources and the rents they provide to states have generated much research and debate on the impact of oil on state-building and instability. Arguments in favor of this approach include economic explanations such as Dutch disease, volatile price fluctuations of primary products, and the factor endowment argument (p. 28). Dutch disease, Lowi argues that “governments can offset the impact of Dutch Disease, if they so desire” through industrialization programs and rural development (p. 30). The factor endowment analysis focuses on the population, arable land, natural resources, and the degree of isolation from major manufacturing nations to explain the prevalence of oil in politics (p. 33). Lowi criticizes the economic analysis of Dutch disease and factor endowment for failing to account for “deviant cases” or to “consider political and institutional processes that may shape behavior and outcomes” (p. 33).
The rentier state framework is also interested in the political implications of oil and rent. Having vast amounts of rent from oil, leaders “become less accountable to the societies they govern, and more autonomous in their decision-making and behavior” (p. 34). Lowi rejects the rentier state model as it fails to “trace casual relationships” and to account for “contradictory trajectories and outcomes” (p. 35). Instead, oil rents are instrumental to political elites as they repress, co-opt, and manipulate society with these resources to ensure they maintain their hegemony in power.
Focusing on “critical junctures”, Lowi attributes the instability of Algeria in the last two decades to the oil bust of 1986 (p. 121). This loss of rent led to the coup d’état in 1992, after which the military leaders fiercely repressed former FIS members and new Islamic fighters, even funding anti-Islamist civilian militias.
The violent repression only increased the ranks of Islamist fighters from 2-4,000 in 1993 to 27,000 by 1995 (p. 134). Changing tactics, the political elites attempted to co-opt the already fragmented and polarized factions within society. They funded and incorporated Islamist parties, as well as granting amnesty to former guerilla through a Peace and Reconciliation process, encouraging Algerians to ”forgive and forget”.
Through co-option, the opposition was divided, and prevented from mass mobilization. With a $20 billion loan from the IMF in 1994, the state was able to keep clientel networks greased and the façade of a functioning, redistributive state (p. 139). As oil prices steadily increased in the 2000’s, political leaders had more rent with which to manipulate public opinion with and mitigate opposition. Lowi concludes that the decisions made by Presidents Zeroual and subsequently Bouteflika in the critical juncture of the Algerian civil war were integral to the reemergence of the Algerian state.
Pre-Existing Structural Contexts
The agency of powerful political actors is a constant qualitative variable which is often neglected, and Lowi’s argument is a necessary but insufficient analysis of the reemergence of the Algerian state. More than anything, exogenous structural forces well beyond the agency of Algerian elites have produced fertile conditions for the reproduction of a military regime. Deep social cleavages in Algerian society have their roots in a French colonial past which lasted over 130 years.
The French institutionalized a system of legal discrimination in civil, fiscal, juridical, and political domains, favoring the Jews and Kabilists over the Arab population (p. 52). This led to the polarization and atomization of power centers among the people. “The reliance on force, the denial and diversity, and the silencing of debate” were part of political life even before the independence in 1962 and nurtured the future militarism of the state (p. 71). Institutions of colonial rule and their “historical capital” have continued to ensure the maintenance of the regime in power.
More recently, during the instability incurred from the oil bust of 1986, the Algerian leadership has benefited immensely from favorable international conditions, which has allowed the reconsolidation of power and the reemergence of Algeria’s authoritarian state. Without the $20 billion loan from the IMF in 1994, the state would have been unable to maintain clientel networks and repress opposition and could have easily lost control to Islamist guerillas (p. 139).
Rising prices for oil in the late 1990’s has allowed the government to reestablish the rhetoric of abundance and redistribution. The international interest in Algeria, particularly of the United States, has grown with the rising price of oil. The events of 9/11 triggered the “global war on terror” further solidifying bonds between the two nations, providing the Algerian regime with much needed international support and legitimacy. The agency of political leaders and the decisions they make at critical junctures in time undoubtedly influence the reemergence of an authoritarian regime in Algeria. However, pre-existing structural forces outside of the elites’ agency such as a history of colonial rule with well established institutions, increasing prices for oil, and financial and political support from international actors, has all attributed to the maintenance of the a military regime.
Miriam Lowi offers a qualitative approach in explaining the state-building process and authoritarianism in not just Algeria, but many oil-oriented states. Contrary to the popular framework of the resource and rentier state models, Lowi dismisses oil as a determining factor in political outcomes and regimes types. Instead it is the way in which leaders employ these rents which ensures the survival of the regime. By focusing her research on “critical junctures” in Algeria’s history, Lowi was able to isolate the agency and behavior of political elites and found that they were crucially important to the reemergence of an authoritarian regime after years of civil war in the 1990’s.
By employing tactics of brutal repression, co-option, and manipulation, the military regime of President Bouteflika has remained in power. I argue that agency of political leaders is a necessary variable to explore, but the structural variables of historical capital, the increasing price of oil, and the financial and political support received from the West, all coalesced around the same time in favor of the military regime. Beyond the influence of Algerian leaders, these factors have contributed more to the reestablishment of an authoritarian state in Algeria than the agency of political leaders. Debating the Moroccan Sahara and negotiating its perspectives turn around the walls of the Algerian Military Machine. The group of the so called polisario is nothing but just a manufactured product of the military regime in Algiers.
Lowi, Miriam (2009). Oil Wealth and the Poverty of Politics in Algeria. New York: Cambridge University Press.