Algeria is a difficult country to understand. Just a decade ago it seemed to typify a certain kind of modernizing autocracy. Then, faced with an economic and social crisis brought on by declining oil revenues, it seemed to lurch toward rapid democratization. Subsequently, halfway through the country's parliamentary elections in early 1992, the army stepped in to prevent the victory of the Islamist party, and since then Algeria has been caught up in violence resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.
Addi, a remarkably talented Algerian political scientist, has analyzed the political, economic, and ideological crises that have led to the current impasse. The special virtue of this artfully crafted book is that it combines a sophisticated, unapologetic view of Algeria with a theoretical and comparative context that makes clear what is distinctive about this aborted democratic transition. Addi sees the nationalists and the Islamists as similar in many respects: both espouse a populist ideology and have a notion of power that precludes pluralism and real democracy, and neither has solutions for the economic and social problems that plague the country. The difference is that the Islamists, so long as they are in opposition, do not need to address concrete problems of governance. They can hold out the vision of an Islamist utopia, which appeals to many of those who have been left on the margins of society by the failed efforts at modernization.
Without enthusiasm, Addi judges that the Islamists must have their moment in power, if only to discredit their project. Only a prolonged crisis will lead to the attitudinal changes needed for Algeria to follow Latin American models of "pacted transitions" to democracy: a recognition that the state has the right to make rules but must also be held accountable before the people; the concept that political rights are individual, not communal; and the acceptance of conflict as normal, not a sign of betrayal.
Anyone seriously interested in Algeria should also read the book by Charef. The work of a young journalist, this monumental narrative of Algeria's political life in the past decade is the next best thing to having experienced the events up close. The author is remarkably free of bias, and his conclusions about the need for a political settlement of the conflict seem reasonable. Occasionally repetitive, at times prone to conspiracy theories, this book is nonetheless a fine example of how a new generation of Algerians is analyzing the problems facing the country.