Reuters / Ramzi Boudina Algerian army trainees at a military academy near Algiers, June 2012.

The Algeria Alternative

Why Algiers Defends Order at Home—But Not Abroad

The upheavals of the Arab Spring seemed to pass one country by: Algeria. To its east, Libya collapsed into civil war, and Tunisia suffered an upsurge of terrorism that imperiled its democratic transition and economic recovery. To the south, Mali is holding together, if barely, thanks to a French-led stabilization force. But all the while, Algeria has remained a reliable bulwark—if also something of a riddle.

In many ways, Algeria is a routine democracy. It has held several elections that international observers have deemed to be free and fair and that have been buoyed by an abundance of political parties. It has a free press and an active and engaged labor movement. Its ministries are staffed by competent technocrats; its bureaucracy duly enforces protocol. As Joan Polaschik, the U.S. ambassador to Algeria, recently said, “Life there is really normal. People are out and about shopping, going to restaurants.” Even French television has zeroed in on this feeling. An upcoming series focuses on several Algerians who live markedly unexceptional lives: a woman scuba diver, a chef obsessed with freshness, and a nature guide who leads schoolgirls in chanting, “Without nature, there is no future!”

But Algeria is also vastly different from other countries. For starters, it remains remarkably jealous of the normalcy that many other nations take for granted. This sentiment is rooted in recent trauma: during the 1990s, Algeria was upended by an Islamist insurgency. Almost everyone in the country was affected by grisly and indiscriminate violence or knew somebody else who was. Public life disappeared, as did movie theaters, cafés, and even stop signs, since cars stopping at intersections became perfect targets for gunmen. As these and other attributes of normalcy returned, Algerians welcomed them, but not without some hesitancy—lest the country forget what it went through during its dark decade.

For Algerians, banality is thus a precious gift that must be protected. That explains why regular Algerians expressed little interest in the Arab Spring. Although

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