Written by Max Fisher
When Algerians filled their country’s streets to demand political change, it looked at first like a familiar story of hopes for democracy bound to turn to despair. A few weeks earlier, in another corner of the Arabic-speaking world, Sudanese protesters had been met with violent crackdowns and tightening government control. It was typical of rising repression and stalling democracy worldwide.
On Monday, though, Algeria took a different direction. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the president for 20 years, announced he would not seek a fifth term after all. Instead, a convention would be called to draft a new constitution and oversee a peaceful transition of power.
Algeria’s power brokers, particularly in the military, are all but certain to continue pulling strings from the shadows — indeed, Bouteflika, 82, is so debilitated by illness that many view him as little more than a figurehead. Still, for much of the modern era, this would have looked like a first step on the long path out of dictatorship. Many democracies can trace their origins to a week like this, when the old elite began to cede control. But the world has changed.
That path toward democracy, always fraught, has grown downright perilous. Countries have set down it and ended up someplace worse than where they began. Democracy’s once-steady spread across the globe has stalled and, in many countries, receded. Authoritarianism, once considered doomed, is on the rise.
Algeria’s turn, and the reaction to it, underscores how much the world has changed: A single step toward democracy now seems surprising, and is viewed much more cautiously than it might have been a decade ago.
It highlights one of the most important but least understood questions of this dawning authoritarian era: How far will democracy slide before it returns — if it ever does?
A Dangerous Path
In more optimistic eras, when democracy spread in great global waves, it tended to emerge in one of a few ways, all of them risky. Root-and-branch revolution, though romanticized in films and books, is rare — and rarely successful. Independence movements sometimes deliver liberation, but sometimes they simply replace foreign despots with local ones.
Another method, so agonizingly slow that its gains might take a generation to so much as resemble democracy, bears an appropriately uninspiring name: “pacted transition.”
Any autocracy is run, no matter how charismatic the leader at the top, by a cabal of power brokers. (In Algeria, they are known as “le pouvoir,” and include military and business elites.) When it serves their interests, those power brokers can force out the leader and bring in a new one — a pacted transition.
Often, they will pretend to be serving the demands of protesters, giving their coup the appearance of popular legitimacy. Sometimes, to ease the transition, elites will surrender a bit of control to citizens, as appears possible in Algeria. Over time, a small opening can grow into a bigger one.
It can happen in a few brisk years, as with Spain’s 1970s transition from fascist rule to democracy. More often, it is generational. The Magna Carta, in which English nobles negotiated a few basic rights for themselves in the 13th century, is considered a foundation stone of the democracy that emerged centuries later.
In the time it takes for a pacted transition to become something realer, progress can derail or be reversed. Still, the process is considered one of the safer, if more frustrating, ways for democracy to emerge. But, in a testament to today’s authoritarian era, that path toward democracy has become far less sure.
Around the world, the old guard is less likely to allow real change, and more likely to change its mind and pull power back. Grass-roots groups face more threats and more difficulty breaking in.
In Egypt, for example, military brass forced out the dictatorial president in 2011, allowed free elections in 2012 and staged a coup to retake power in 2013. In Myanmar, once considered a rare democratic success, the military partially stepped back before reasserting itself over a civilian government that was never fully in control. And after Zimbabwe’s ruling elites removed Robert Mugabe in 2017, bringing hopes of democracy, they simply installed one of their own in his place.
The specter of these failures hangs over Algeria, where the military is expected to exert influence, if not outright control, over any transition. They are reminders that this once-promising model, in Algeria and globally, now looks far more uncertain.
A Changing World
Algeria’s progress comes at an inauspicious moment: Alarming new findings suggest that democracy is in significantly more trouble than thought. Conventional wisdom on democracy’s troubles is still taking shape, but it generally holds that a dozen or so countries have backslid in a global trend dating roughly to the global financial crisis of 2008. But a well-regarded data set called V-Dem, which quantifies dozens of democratic indicators in every country, like the freedom of opposition parties and the independence of courts, allowed the political scientists Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg to test those assumptions.
They reached a chilling conclusion, published in a new paper: A wave of global “autocratization,” with countries growing less democratic and more authoritarian, began building in 1994, long before most of us noticed. And the number of countries to have taken significant steps backward is not a dozen but 75. It is the largest such wave since at least 1900.
The trend was partly hidden because countries don’t turn authoritarian overnight the way they used to, through a coup or an invasion. Elected leaders who erode democracies gradually from within, like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, are well known. Easier to miss, Lührmann and Lindberg write, are the faceless bureaucracies and elites that “mimic democratic institutions while gradually eroding their functions.”
Governments, they say, “have mastered the art of subverting electoral standards without breaking their democratic facade completely.” This is a concerning lesson when it comes to the Algerias of the world, and not just because the country’s power brokers might gesture at democracy while quietly tightening their grip. It suggests that even a real election could elevate a leader who, following the model of today’s nationalists and populists, replaces one kind of autocracy with another.
A Flickering Hope
Still, even in a time of difficulty for democracy, there are tentative successes. In Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous country, a liberalizing prime minister has freed political prisoners and loosened years of constraints. And in Armenia, a post-Soviet holdout against democratic trends, power shifted last year amid nationwide protests to opposition reformists.
Though activists and grass-roots groups in both countries deserve tremendous credit for forcing change, their countries’ transitions are pacted — managed by power brokers who are acting as much out of self-interest as anything else.
So the chances for true change in Algeria’s case are hardly doomed. And neighboring Tunisia, the only clear success of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, showed that democracy can take hold even amid a downturn. “We still live in a democratic era,” Lührmann and Lindberg write.
Democracy is even now not too far from its historic peak in popularity. And much of the backsliding has been incremental, rather than transformational: strong democracies becoming weak, authoritarian states becoming more authoritarian.
Still, there is a good reason to temper hope for Algeria. The global “wave” of authoritarianism building since 1994, the scholars found, has not yet crested. Indeed, their data shows, it “may still be picking up.”