Part of the Arab Spring fallout has been the mass surges of migrants fleeing civil unrest, violence, and a lack of basic resources. The plight of millions of displaces peoples and refugees is a tragedy that needs to be mitigated. Unfortunately, many migrants are being refused access to certain countries and many more have died making the precarious travel from their home countries to European coastal regions.

Anthropology: The Divergent Outcomes to the Arab Spring in Libya and Algeria

What was the Arab Spring in Libya and Algeria?

The 2011 Arab Spring is often referred to as a pivotal turning point toward democratization in North Africa, but the movement did not lead to a successful democratic transition in Libya—where a revolutionary civil war failed to produce stable democratic institutions—or in Algeria—where an authoritarian regime continues to operate (Frederic Volpi, “Explaining Political Change” 973).  Following “bloody crackdowns” by Libyan dictator Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (1942-2011), a civil war produced “violence and prolonged strife” (Alia Brahimi, “Libya’s Revolution” 606).  Meanwhile, despite its strong civil society networks and a semi-democracy government, the Algerian Arab Spring failed to gain momentum, with “a series of constitutional reforms and political decisions” successfully subduing the unrest (Zidane Zeraoui, “Algeria: Revolution, Army and Political Power.” 135).

Taking the Long View on the Arab Spring, After Bouteflika's Resignation in Algeria
A photo of the relatively peaceful protests in Algeria, contrasted with the violent clashes that occurred in Libya.
Libya - Arab Spring - LibGuides at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Protests in Libya during the Arab Spring.

Multiple causal mechanisms influenced the divergent outcomes to the Arab Spring in Algeria and Libya, but the former operated (and sill operates) under a pseudodemocratic system that created space for civil society networks to flourish and which was (and still is) supported by a strong military (Volpi, “Explaining Political Change” 970).  Meanwhile, the latter was politically and militarily fragmented, with a dictator who explicitly banned civil associations and left the populace with no means for negotiating a peaceful regime change (Ibrahim Fraihat, “Evolving Trends” 331).  It can therefore be argued that social institutions, including the military, the government, and civil society groups, influenced the different conclusions to the Arab Spring in each country.

The Arab Spring in Algeria actually “strengthened pre-existing state” functions by reinforcing the authority of the government, whereas in Lybia, “rival governments” continue to prevent the constitutional assembly elected in 2014 from making “progress” such that the “entire transition process” toward democracy remains “paralyzed” (Volpi, “Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 107; Ibrahim, “Unfinished Revolutions” 33).  These differences can be linked to the fact that the Algerian military has long been “at the forefront of […] politics,” ensuring stability, preventing terrorism, and promoting social obedience (Zeraoui 139).  Meanwhile, a complete lack of “cohesiveness” among the network of private militias installed across Libya by Ghaddafi meant that a successful armed resistance against the protesters in 2011 became impossible (Florence Gaub, “The Libyan Armed Forces between Coup-Proofing and Repression” 231).

Algérie: le président Abdelaziz Bouteflika a remis sa démission | Le Devoir
Former President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled during the Arab Spring and whose government successfully deterred unrest.

Another reason that each country saw different outcomes to the Arab Spring is related to government structures.  Together with a strong military presence, the Algerian pseudodemocratic system is well institutionalized and generally deemed legitimate by the populace in ways that helped the regime circumvent the 2011 protests (“Explaining Political Change” 970).  In contrast, the “years of international economic sanctions,” strict censorship of the press, and ‘divide and conquer’ tactics employed by Ghaddafi instigated the 2011 revolution that led to his eventual overthrow (“Explaining Political Change” 974).

Patterns of democratic transformation in the Muslim world | Download Scientific Diagram
A diagram explaining how pseudodemocracies tend to work and relate to other socio-political structures.

Lastly, since Ghaddafi prevented Libyans from having a political voice and accessing civil society groups, they pursued a complete government transformation in 2011.  In Algeria, traditional civil society groups were strong, but, in 2011, they specifically called for economic reforms that did not necessarily require a turn to revolution.  In fact, while many Algerians probably would have welcomed a regime change toward democracy, since the protests were sparked by anger at an “increase in food prices,” the government’s swift introduction of subsidies satisfied most and successfully quelled further violence (Zeraoui 135).

The Function and Impact of Civil Societies and Civil Society Organizations | by Gabby Turner | Medium
A diagram depicting how civil society contributes to society, politics, and the economy at large.

Important Terms and Concepts for Understanding the Arab Spring and Related Factors

Neither the Libyan nor the Algerian protests saw a democratic transition, which can be linked, in part, to the persistent presence of the military in the political affairs of both countries.  Democratic transitions refer to peaceful regime changes conducted through negotiation (Politics in the Developing World 212).  Military interventions in politics are considered inhibitors to democratic transitions because they tend to reinforce authoritarian structures (Politics in the Developing World 216).  Successful transitions usually require the support of the military, who are expected to withdraw from politics after negotiations have taken place.  In 2011, the Algeria and Libya militaries were operating differently, but neither regime had insulated politics from military interferences (Politics in the Developing World 223).

File:Muammar al-Gaddafi at the AU summit.jpg - Wikipedia
A photo of Ghaddafi.

According to Max Weber, a strong, modern state “claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” operates under “a rational-legal authority,” and is recognized as legitimate by its citizenry (Politics in the Developing World 184).  Since the Libyan regime failed to secure a stable monopoly on the use of force and Ghaddafi ruled based on his personal preferences and alliances, Libya was a weak state, with a populace that did not consider the regime to be legitimate (Brahimi 605).

World Report 2017: Libya | Human Rights Watch
The nature of the weak Libyan state meant it was more conducive to civil war during the Arab Spring.

Conversely, the Algerian regime continues to practice a monopoly on the use of force.  Despite being a relatively weak state, its semi-democratic government is generally accepted as being legitimate both nationally and internationally because it displays a number of structural and substantive democratic functions, including routine elections, political participation by opposition parties, and rights to civil liberties like relative freedom of the press (Cedric Jourde, ““Democracy” 309-15; Michael J, Willis, Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring 99).  Even so, it does not operate under the rule of law because there are no concrete apparatuses for holding it accountable, or ensuring transparency, and it is restrictive in its issuances of civil liberties (Zeraoui 133).  It is also a victim of the electoral fallacy, which argues that although elections are important structural elements of democracies, they do not account for substantive issues related to human rights (Politics in the Developing World 212).  The elections are also clearly unfair, with an overwhelming majority consistently won by the National Liberation Front (FLN), while opposition parties fail to earn more than 2% of the popular vote (Zeraoui 133).

Will Algeria's army be the dark horse in the next election? | The World from PRX
A photo of Algerian officers in uniform.

Considering all this, civil society groups are valuable even within weak states because they “[promote] a government by the people for the people” (Politics in the Developing World 160).  These groups can take the more ‘modern’ forms of non-government organizations (NGOs) or the more ‘traditional’ forms of “loosely structured, but culturally sanctioned mechanisms” of social support (Politics in the Developing World 154). Ghaddafi prohibited social associations in ways that forced Libyans to resort to violence in 2011, whereas in Algeria, part of the regime’s democratic façade and legitimacy among the population was its relative openness to civil society groups (Brahimi 614).  Though the regime has long had strong traditional civil societies, they usually lack resources, funding, and access to government-level negotiations (Politics in the Developing World 154).  Moreover, these groups also tend to be diverse, meaning their goals are not necessarily aligned.  These two limiting factors may explain why Algeria did not experience a regime change in 2011 (Politics in the Developing World 152).

The Military: A Cohesive Force in Algeria and Private Militias in Libya

The makeup and influence of the armed forces in Libya and Algeria offer insights into why these countries experienced divergent outcomes to the Arab Spring.  In Libya, Gadhafi promoted a policy of Jamahiriya that “designed” a society “run directly by its citizens” (Brahimi 605).  In practice, this prevented the state from having a cohesive, centralized government such that a small “population” of elites with “personal and ideological” ties to Ghaddafi monopolized power (Brahimi 607).  Ghaddafi used his personal alliances to establish a structure of militias that effectively marginalized the official Libyan army.  These militias were indispensable to the maintenance of the regime because they “featured prominently in the […] Revolutionary Committee Movement [RCM] and the security services,” which Ghaddafi depended on to “infiltrate” the ‘citizen-run government committees’” (Brahimi 611).

Libyan army neutralizes Haftar's militias in Tripoli
A photo of Libyan rebels.

By establishing these complex networks of alliances, Ghaddafi thought he was insulating threats against his authoritarianism by both the people and the military (Gaub 228).  Although his reliance on “private militias” allowed him to circumvent “decades of sustained brutality, a series of coup attempts, [and] wasteful military campaigns,” he also created “internal disarray” (Brahimi 612; Gaub 233).  In fact, his “network of overlapping militias” was designed to prevent a mutiny against him by a single, cohesive force, but because he never prioritized centralizing the military, he also never held a monopoly on the use of force (Brahimi 614).

UN Warns Libya Moving Toward Full-Scale Civil War | Voice of America - English
A photo of the disarray and violence of the Libyan civil war, which was perpetrated by the many militias and rebel groups that took part. Since there were so many opposing groups in the conflict, the war was not simply two-sided.

Ghaddafi’s chaotic military system led many armed units and soldiers previously loyal to him “[feeling] that they” had to “take responsibility for their personal security” by joining the call for revolution (“Unfinished Revolutions” 27).  Had Ghaddafi taken more care to coup-proof, he may have predicted that some of his militias would turn against him, especially since the dozens of “attempts to overthrow the regime” between 1983 and 1993 were led by military personnel (Gaub 229).  The fact that many military units were part of the “expression of popular [discontent] with the political situation” and willing to support the revolution speaks to how weak and fragmented the Libyan military was by the time of the Arab Spring (Gaub 229).  Considering the number of soldier desertions and unit defections to rebel factions, compared to the few remaining militias that still supported the regime, Ghadaffi’s network of force had clearly disintegrated by 2011 such that a revolution became inevitable (Gaub 233).

Shifts in the Libyan Civil War – Africa Center for Strategic Studies
A simplified representation of the different sides of the Libyan civil war.

Conversely, the Algerian armed forces remain a strong, consolidated unit loyal to the regime.  One reason for the military’s loyalty is that, since a series of coups in the 1990s, it has exercised an instrumental political role, which gives officers incentives to support the regime in exchange for privileges, influence, and prestige (“Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 111).  It is because of its “robust” system of “militarism,” in which officers have a sense of allegiance to the regime, that the “social unrest” in 2011 was effectively controlled (“Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 105).  Overall, the regime knew it could rely on its “cohesive officer corps” to “use all necessary force to quell dissent” (“Explaining Political Change” 977).

Are Bouteflika's Shake-Ups a Sign of Shifting Civil-Military Ties in Algeria ?
The Algerian military in training.

The military’s ability to act so cohesively, and with relatively little force, may also be linked to the October 1988 riots, which saw the deaths of many protestors calling for economic reform.  These events set a precedent for the government to negotiate with the public rather than engage in violent confrontations and also saw the re-integration of the military as a fundamental institution within the state (Baamara 110).  Efforts to institutionalize the military throughout the 1990s led to its successful expansion and consolidation such that in 2011, together with the cultural memory of 1988, it seemed that neither the regime, the military, nor the public was interested in seeing more bloodshed (Davis, Serres 104).  That is not to say that the 2011 protests were inconsequential, but the Arab Spring certainly did not provoke revolutionary behavior like in Libya (Baamara 114).  The military was actually more united than the protesters, who were less concerned with a regime change and more inclined to end the unrest in exchange for the government conceding to certain economic reforms (“Explaining Political Change” 983).

The Algerian military’s loyalty to the regime can explain why a democratic transition did not occur in 2011.  The military reasonably maintained the regime since it provided them with political influence, a stable career, and social clout, whereas in Libya, the call for revolution was fuelled by the numerous military defections in complete defiance of the regime (Zeraoui 138).

Anti-army "lobbies" that threaten Algeria's stability | Atalayar - Las claves del mundo en tus manos
Another photo of Algerian military officers.

The Government: Algerian Pseudodemocracy and Ghaddafi’s Personal Rule

The willingness of the Algerian regime to meet some of the protesters’ demands speaks to its pseudodemocratic mechanism of control, which is another indicator explaining why it saw a different outcome to the Arab Spring compared to Libya (Zeraoui 135).  The system presents a relatively convincing façade of democracy by allowing opposition parties to operate in theory, even if in practice, the regime exercises a “well-resourced repressive apparatus” of governance (“Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 105).  The pseudodemocracy is especially effective because it provides access to civil liberties like relative freedom of the press and civil society groups, even if they are closely monitored and regulated by the state (“Explaining Political Change” 984).  Adding to the system’s perceived legitimacy is the fact that although most opposition parties have failed to earn much influence in elections, which are really designed to squeeze out contesters of the regime, their regular occurrence upholds an image of democracy that is sustained by the electoral fallacy and which has even been “commended” by international actors like Hilary Clinton (Layla Baamara, “The Difficult Break Away from Protest Routines during the Algerian Mobilizations of 2011” 110; “Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 113).

The Hirak: what role for civil society? | Algiers Herald
Algerian protesters had more leeway for their voices to be heard under the country’s pseudodemocratic system, even as corrupt and problematic as this system is.

Although there is no doubt that both the Algerian and Libyan regimes were dictatorships at the time of the Arab Spring, Algeria’s semi-democracy ultimately created several “open channels of communication” between ruling elites and “existing opposition forces” (“Explaining Political Change” 984).  These channels provided political leeway for “reforms that met the demands of” the public, especially since doing so prevented further uprisings (“Explaining Political Change” 984).  The regime’s willingness to negotiate ultimately showed protesters that “the system could […] be reformed” without revolutionary measures, which reinforces the point that although imperfect, the regime had some legitimacy (“Explaining Political Change” 984).

Algeria: 5 billionaires arrested as part of anti-corruption drive | Corruption News | Al Jazeera
Many have protested against the corruption of the Algerian system, but little change has occurred because the Algerian pseudodemocracy is so effective and pervasive.

The fact that the Algerian regime successfully satisfied social demands in 2011, without relinquishing its power, does not mean that Algerians were satisfied with the dictatorial rule or convinced that they lived in a full-fledged democracy.  Yet, “nationalists, secularists, liberals, and Islamists distrust[ed] each other as much as they distrusted the regime” (“Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 106).  It therefore seems that Algerians were so divided among one another that they were unable to challenge the regime as a cohesive force, accepting that it was in their best interest to accept the government’s proposed reforms rather than trying to overthrow the regime, which was clearly backed by a strong military force (Davis, Serres 107).

Algeria | Facts, History, & Geography | Britannica
Ethnicity may not play as major a role as it did in Libya, but it is still a source of division among Algerians.

Although ethnic, tribal, and religious cleavages existed in Libya, the Arab Spring protesters knew that Ghaddafi’s promise of Jamahiriya was merely a cover for his own “political excesses, economic failures [,] and ideological obscurities” such that “any meaningful calls for change necessitated […] his removal from power” (Brahimi 610).  Ghaddafi had always been an overt dictator, even refusing to hold elections during “[his] four-decade long tenure” (Bribena 9001).  He also banned civil society groups, censored the media, and only endorsed economic investments that supported his personal interests.  Since Ghaddafi was so explicit in his authoritarianism, Libyans were inclined to unite in 2011, despite their differences, to overthrow his regime, which most viewed as illegitimate for the above-mentioned reasons (Willis 72, 99).

One Hour+ of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Music - YouTube
The symbol of Ghaddafi’s socialist ideal of ‘Jamahiriya.’

Ghaddafi also “disqualified” any “organized political force” against him and “concentrated […] all state prerogatives” around his personal and ideological goals, which “undermined the institutional capabilities of the state” (“Explaining Political Change” 978).  The call for revolution during the Arab Spring was therefore “a direct consequence of the ways in which” he governed “without intermediaries between the agents of the state and the citizens” (“Explaining Political Change” 978).  In other words, there were no “effective instruments of communication” between the government and “the protesters,” which explains why Libyans resorted to violence in 2011 (“Explaining Political Change” 983).  It should be noted that the civil war that ensued in Libya may be linked to the inability of protesters to unify toward a common cause once their initial goal of ousting the regime was achieved (Willis 67).  Quite differently, Algerians realized that they did not have the capacities to challenge the state’s strong pseudodemocracy and were reasonably satisfied with the regime’s proposed reforms.

Gaddafi's coup 50 years on: Libya and the legacy of a unique tyra
A photo of Ghaddafi at a political rally.

Civil Society: How it Flourished in Algeria and was Banned in Libya

The Algerian pseudodemocracy also gave leeway for civil society groups to operate, which is another indicator that can explain the country’s subdued outcome to the Arab Spring compared to Libya.  While Ghaddafi “shut down civil society groups early on” in his rule to prevent activities outside of “the government’s control and supervision,” even taking over the media in 1980, the Algerian regime took a less aggressive stance, with traditional civil society groups having flourished throughout the 2000s (Brahimi 608; Zeraoui 139).  In fact, the “National Coordination for Change and Democracy (NCCD) was a “coalition of opposition parties, nonlegalized unions, and civil groups” that “issued a call for greater democracy, social justice, an end to the state of emergency, relaxation of media laws, and the release of imprisoned protesters, as well as more job opportunities” as the Arab Spring began (“Algeria versus the Arab Spring’ 108).  Despite these efforts, they failed to “[harness] momentum” once the initial protests ended and the regime made “concessions” to several “striking sectors” and “increased public-sector spending by a massive 25 percent” (“Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 109, 110).

Civil Society as own sector or as intermediate sphere | Download Scientific Diagram
Part of the value of civil society is that it provides people with the freedom to protest their struggles in a more peaceful manner compared to outright revolution and civil strife, as occurred in Algeria during the Arab Spring.

Civil societies therefore inspired the initial protests and encouraged Algerians to advocate for reform, but they may not have pushed for further mobilization after the government’s promise of subsidies because of a lack of resources, funding, and direct access to the government for negotiation (Politics in the Developing World 188).  Another explanation for the lack of social action may be that civil society groups were incapable, as a conglomeration of plural associations with different goals and ideologies, to develop a unified stance against the regime (Politics in the Developing World 188).  It is also worth noting that a democratic transition was never likely since it would have required negotiations with the armed forces, who supported the regime devoutly and were clearly not interested in discussing a regime change because it would have diminished their valued military and political power (Muriam Davis and Thomas Serres, “Political Contestation in Algeria: Between Postcolonial Legacies and the Arab Spring” 103).

Why Algeria Survived the Arab Spring – NAOC
The Algerian government was able to offer enough economic concessions to subdue protesters, while also retaining supreme authority.

Considering that authoritarian regimes are generally “opposed to plurality,” it is no wonder that Ghaddafi stifled any attempts at social advocacy (E.K. Bribena, “Civil Society and Nation Building in the Arab Spring: A Focus on Libya” 8996).  In fact, after the 1969 coup that saw Ghaddafi take power, civil society groups were completely “shut down” (Brahimi 608).  Instead of developing strong civil ties, Libyans were forced to rely on tribal relations, which did not have the capacities or political power to mitigate individuals’ broader, institutional frustrations with the regime (Gaub 226).  Together with heavy media censorship, Libyans had no outlet for expressing their needs and desires (Brahimi 606).  Such a lack of social connectedness might explain why, by 2011, they saw no other means for achieving justice than by uniting to overthrow the government, with the subsequent civil war seemingly representing their inability to agree on how to proceed once Ghaddafi was ousted (“Evolving Trends” 339).

Turkey's military helps turn the tide in Libyan civil war | Khalifa Haftar News | Al Jazeera
A lack of social cohesion and the prevalence of factionalism meant civil war in Libya was ultimately inevitable.

Libyans ultimately did not have any resources to challenge “Ghaddafi’s de facto monopoly on power and economics” because there were no social or political means for “bridg[ing]” the country’s “serious divisions” (Brahimi 611; Gaub 238).  In fact, the “established history of excluding the masses from politics” meant that by 2011, the country “had yet to develop public participation and public associations” that could resemble civil society (Bribena 8996).  Ghaddafi even asserted in 2012 “that civil society ‘[was] a bourgeois culture and an imitation of the West that had no place’” in Libya, which further exemplifies the fact that Libyans could not advocate for change peacefully because they had no outlet for doing so via civil networks, thus resorting to revolution (Bribena 8997).

Libya: How Colonel Gaddafi continues to haunt the living
The only thing Libyans agreed upon was the need to see Ghaddafi ousted from power, but once that happened, social and political disarray persisted.

Overall, Algerian civil society groups may have prevented violence by advocating for reform peacefully.  Yet, strong civil society groups are believed to strengthen the fabric of democracies, which has not been the reality in Algeria, where authoritarianism remains strong (Ottaway 160).  One possible argument is that although Algerian civil groups encouraged the initial protest, they were too weak, financially and institutionally, to challenge the regime directly (Ottaway 155).  Meanwhile, the absence of such groups in Libya outlines how the already fragmented population was unable to negotiate with the regime peacefully, resorting to complete violence and a seemingly inevitable civil war (“Explaining Political Change” 970).

Conclusion and Anthropological Significance 

An important indicator pointing to these divergent outcomes is that the Algerian army backed the regime and successfully suppressed protestors with little violence, whereas Ghaddafi’s ‘divide and conquer’ tactics led to military defections and an uncoordinated use of force (Baamara 111; Brahimi 613).  Another indicator is that the Algerian pseudodemocratic system conceded to some reforms and quelled further tensions, while Libyans had the common goal of toppling Ghaddafi’s regime (“Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 107; Gaub 226).  Lastly, the presence of civil society groups in Algeria seems to have prevented unrest, either because these diverse groups were able to agree on a common path toward change, or because they simply lacked the resources to challenge the strong, militarized regime directly (“Algeria versus the Arab Spring” 108).  Conversely, revolution and violence became the only way for Libyans, who were deprived of any access to social associations, to achieve change (Bribena 8897).

Overview: Arab Spring and Egyptian Revolution | Anthropology of Contemporary Issues
The Arab Spring was a widespread phenomena, occurring across Arab states.

While the fates of each country remain uncertain, other indicators worth studying concerning their divergent outcomes of the Arab Spring include the media, censorship, international relations with the West, and the economic and non-economic impacts of colonial legacies on both countries.

Europe's migrant crisis: The year that changed a continent - BBC News
Part of the Arab Spring fallout has been the mass surges of migrants fleeing civil unrest, violence, and a lack of basic resources. The plight of millions of displaces peoples and refugees is a tragedy that needs to be mitigated. Unfortunately, many migrants are being refused access to certain countries and many more have died making the precarious travel from their home countries to European coastal regions.

Related: Anthropology Blog

The History, Culture, and People of Algeria

One thought on “Anthropology: The Divergent Outcomes to the Arab Spring in Libya and Algeria

  1. Great post I would like to thank you for this genuine and useful information. Spacebar Click Time Calculator is a simple tool with an easy-to-use interface. Allows you to set a time limit and maximum personal results for each game and display
    results automatically and in real-time. you can know about Spacebar Counter or Spacebar Clicker.

Leave a Reply