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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Environment and Energy

Oil, Ideology, and Regime Adaptation in the Rentier Republics: A Comparison of Libya and Algeria


The Arab Spring provides a rare opportunity to examine the roles of natural resources and state structure in the face of popular discontent. While the Gulf monarchies have all weathered the events of 2011, the diverging fates of the two oil-producing republics in North Africa—Algeria and Libya—suggest that neither factor alone can account for regime stability. In 2011, while Algeria echoed the other oil-producing states in pursuing a combination of social spending, surface reform, and the threat of force to counter popular discontent, Libya, under Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, faced unique ideological and structural constraints preventing it from pursuing the usual recourses available to states with rent revenues. Furthermore, Libya’s international isolation due to Qaddafi’s policy choices in the previous decades meant that Libya did not have the extensive energy and strategic alliances with foreign powers that Algeria and the Gulf States possessed. Consequently, it was left vulnerable to outside intervention. This article also briefly addresses the situation in Mali and the Sahel as well as the role that Algeria could be expected to play in the conflict.


The 2011 Arab Spring reconfigured North Africa’s political landscape, and its repercussions will be felt for years to come. Beginning in late 2010, popular protests forced out the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, while a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)–led intervention tipped the Libyan rebels to victory after a civil war. Among the five Arab states in the region, Algeria is the lone republic that emerged from the disruptions relatively unscathed, a stability belying its recent history of a destructive civil war and the constant state of rioting.
The Algerian exception to the Arab Spring invites theories on what factors might account for the regime’s hold on power despite popular discontent. Algeria differs from Tunisia and Egypt in that it possesses significant resources in the oil and gas sector. Therefore, a comparison of Algeria’s political structure and policies to those of Libya, the only major oil-producing state to fall, could uncover some of the factors that account for regime stability. Such a comparison would shed light on how the Algerian regime was able to control the situation in 2011 through increased levels of social spending fueled by its gas revenues, promises of minor political reform, and a willingness to violently suppress challenges to its rule.

What might account for the diverging outcomes witnessed in the two North African republics, then, given their similar dependence on rent revenues? Past studies on the anti-democratic effects of natural resources have focused on the Gulf States, all of which are led by dynastic monarchies, which possess relatively small populations of nationals who could enjoy the state’s largesse and have established strategic alliances with the West that afford them a certain license in repressing dissent. Nevertheless, most Arab republics are not endowed with natural resources, and, as such, studies prior to 2011 often have attributed their staying power to their coercive apparatus or to the co-optation of opposition. Consequently, a new comparison of how these rentier republics responded to challenges can help us to refine our understandings of how natural resources, government policies, and sociopolitical structure have affected the outcomes of the Arab Spring.
First, I argue that the willingness and ability of the regime to accommodate protesters’ grievances, even at the surface level, gave the Algerian regime more options to neutralize dissent. For this section, I revisit theories of defensive liberalization and examine measures that the Algerian regime adopted after the oil crisis of 1986. These reforms gave way to the facade of political pluralism that exists today, even though military-security elites continued to hold the real power behind the scenes. In addition, I look at how Algeria’s options in 2011 differed from those in 1988, as the government’s improved financial situation from higher oil revenue allowed it to distribute generous loans and housing and food subsidies, while also permitting it to renew the social contract with the populace. The ideology and political system of Qaddafi’s jamahiriya  (“state of the masses”) in Libya, however, did not permit concessions due to their highly centralized nature. Consequently, Qaddafi’s options were narrowed to either maintaining his ideological and political hegemony through repression or being overthrown.
Next, I briefly examine how each regime chose to—or failed to—leverage its resources in energy and security alliances to its advantage. Unlike Algeria, Libya did not have an extensive partnership with the West in its energy or security sectors and, on the contrary, supported various militant and rebel groups. The regime’s lack of strategic international ties meant that there was less incentive for international actors to preserve the status quo of Qaddafi’s regime. A full account of the relationships, histories, and policies of the states and extremist groups would be beyond the scope of this article.

Rentier State Theory and the Democracy of Khubz—A Theoretical Framework

According to Egypt’s former finance minister Hazem Beblawi, a rentier economy is an economy that relies on substantial external rent, where the government is the principal recipient of the external rent in the economy (1990, 85-86). Hydrocarbon exports make up a significant portion of both Algeria and Libya’s state revenues, thereby defining them as rentier states since achieving independence. Hydrocarbons accounted for 63 percent of Algerian government revenues in 2002 and 97 percent of its export revenues; meanwhile, oil rents represented 83.1 percent of Libya’s income in 1970 (Sandbakken 2006, 140-144).
Literature on rentier states posits that states that derive most of their revenue from external sources rather than taxation tend to be more autonomous in their decision making, making them less accountable to citizens (Lowi 2004, 85). Consequently, the rulers’ legitimacy rests on their ability to provide an uninterrupted stream of rents (Lowi 2004, 86). Tunisian political scientist Larbi Sadiki (2000) summarized the ensuing social contract as that of a dimuqratiyyat al-khubz (“democracy of bread”), where the khubzist citizen is quietist only insofar as the state is providential. When the price of oil falls and the government is unable to fulfill its social contract, the result is the “involuntary relaxation of control from the top in the form of ambiguous politics of renewal—limited participation and contestation—the clear purpose of which has thus far been the survival of the regime” (Sadiki 2000).
From their establishment until the oil crisis of 1986, Algeria and Qaddafi’s Libya could afford generous public spending, given the nationalization of their oil industries. Both countries exhibited similar patterns in public spending on education, health care, handouts, and subsidized foodstuffs—popular programs that bolstered the regimes’ legitimacy despite the absence of political representation (Sandbakken 2006, 145). In addition, the Algerian regime under the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) also enjoyed nationalist legitimacy conferred by its victorious struggle against France, its state-building projects fulfilling its promises to the people, and rent in the form of vacated properties left behind by the Europeans that it distributed as free housing (Lowi 2004, 93).

The 40 percent fall in oil prices between 1985 and 1986 affected both countries’ capacities to provide lavish social spending, provoking increasing unrest. Algeria’s external revenues fell by 55 percent between 1985 and 1986 (ICG 2001, 7). In Libya, expenditures fell from 36.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1983 to 20.8 percent in 2000 due to the softening of the oil market, as well as multilateral sanctions imposed by the United Nations (UN) from 1992 to 1999 (Vandewalle 2012). While the 1986 oil crisis put constraints on both countries’ spending, resulting in greater social discontent toward the political situation, the strategies available to the two regimes differed due to their political structures. While Algeria had the option of undergoing “defensive liberalization” in 1991 (with the intent of protecting the elites’ long-term interests), Qaddafi was constrained by his jamahiriya ideology and would not (or could not) reform the political structure—overthrowing him thus appeared to be the only answer. How the two regimes responded to the initial breakdown of the khubzist contract after 1986 and the solutions available to them to handle domestic problems due to political structure and ideology are examined below.


Defensive Liberalization and Renewal of the Khubzist Contract (1988-2012)

The 1988 riots in Algiers resembled the scene in many Arab capitals during 2011 and 2012. The circumstances and grievances were similar: high unemployment, rising costs of living, food shortages, regime incompetence, corruption, and social inequality (Roberts 2003). However, the fall in oil revenues in 1986 meant that the regime was forced to cut spending drastically,1 and purchasing social peace through economic concessions was not an option for the unrest in 1988. Under pressure from the unrest, the regime underwent a series of liberalization measures that led to the legalization of political parties and paved the way for elections in 1990 and 1991. Although they awarded a landslide victory to the opposition Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), the parliamentary elections were genuine attempts at liberalizing politics from FLN’s monopoly. Nevertheless, the 1992 coup and subsequent civil war ended the liberalization experiment. Yet when political life resumed in Algeria, it maintained a semblance of multiparty electoral politics, even though the opposition parties had largely been co-opted by the regime and the Parliament had no real power against the military rulers. Furthermore, as the protests spread, Algeria’s government gave in to conciliatory gestures such as the lifting of the nineteen-year-old state of emergency curtailing the rights to peaceful protests and permitting arbitrary detentions, though some of its rules, such as banning protests in the capital, have been extended indefinitely (Al Jazeera 2011). However, even though the political “reforms” of 2011 were largely cosmetic rather than substantive, the 2012 legislative elections incited no protests (despite being viewed by most Algerians as a sham and boycotted by 60 to 80 percent of voters) (Nossiter 2012b).

Algerian politics in 2011 serve as an interesting contrast to the events of 1988 and to Libya’s situation in 2011, illustrating how rentier states handle challenges depending on natural resource revenues. With the return of high oil prices, the Algerian government today has significant cash reserves to placate the populace (Nossiter 2012b), offering low-interest loans to youths and young entrepreneurs, doubling the salaries of state workers, as well as bringing back food and housing subsidies to satisfy the demands on the streets (Entelis 2011, 675). Memories of the civil war mean that most Algerians recall the chaos associated with political breakdowns and Islamist militias, creating reluctance for radical change. In this climate, the regime is able to use its rent revenues to renew the khubzist social contract by satisfying some of its citizens’ short-term economic demands (Entelis 2011, 674). Despite its volatile history and the frequent riots around the country, demonstrations in Algeria after 2011 mostly concerned housing and jobs, rather than regime overthrow (Entelis 2011, 674).
These economic incentives are costly—leading to a 25 percent rise in public spending in 2011—and are not sustainable in the long term (Dessì 2012, 4). Nevertheless, they do buy the regime crucial time for political strategizing, rather than giving in to drastic political concessions as it did in 1988. As problematic transitions and Islamist politics in Algeria’s neighbors replace the initial euphoria after 2011, the regime’s decision to buy social peace and wait out the rest of the Arab Spring may be a pragmatic investment for long-term stability.
The Algerian case supports Sadiki’s conclusion that “openings initiated by a few authoritarian Arab states have been the result of economic downturns, not high performance” (2000, 88). However, I would add that Algeria’s political opening after 1988, short lived and ultimately powerless against the military coup, had been a necessary defensive measure for a rentier state at a time it was bankrupted of political legitimacy and oil revenues. In contrast to this case, the Libyan example demonstrates how a rentier state was overthrown when its leadership would not offer political concessions, even when it could not invest in social provision to placate the public.


The Jamahiriya’s Ideological and Structural Inabilities to Adapt

An Ideological Hegemony Resistant to Reform

Unlike the shadowy military-security oligarchy that rules Algeria through a civilian government, Qaddafi’s Libya was an extreme example of personalized rule in a fragmented and underdeveloped state, where all aspects of society and politics were linked to his person and his ideology. Qaddafi’s vision for Libya, outlined in his Green Book (the manual setting out Qaddafi’s political philosophy), is that of a stateless state, or a “state for the masses” that governs itself through revolutionary committees. In reality, however, the formal structures of government merely executed the policies that emerged from the informal government (Brahimi 2011, 607). As the Brother Leader of the Libyan people, Qaddafi did not have an official political role but nevertheless held all the executive powers. He governed through his associates—individuals (family, friends, members of the Qadhadhfa and allied tribes, the advisors known as “men of the tent”) who derived their elite status through their personal or ideological relationships with him (Brahimi 2011, 607). As a result, there was a perpetual disconnect between how the power structure actually operated and the formal governing structures that ostensibly implemented the ideal form of government discussed in the Green Book (Brahimi 2011, 607). The gulf between official ideology and reality constrained the regime’s ability to accommodate democratic reform, even conciliatory ones that could alleviate some of the discontent, without conceding to its logical absurdity.
The theory of the jamahiriya of Libya denies that there is a state or a ruler, declaring that the people are already in a state of self-governance and therefore do not need intermediaries such as political parties or bureaucratic institutions to represent them (ICG 2011, 7). Since Qaddafi in theory did not hold any leadership position, it was logically impossible for Libyans to call for his removal as the head of state without discrediting the whole idea of the jamahiriya as a farce, thereby making incremental reforms impossible without calling Libya’s ideological foundations into question (Brahimi 2011, 611). Consequently, unlike its neighbors, Libya is the unique North African country that did not even pay lip service to the right of political representation or hold elections.
Though Qaddafi might have rejected reform due to his unwillingness to compromise his political philosophy, it is also likely that he did so out of the pragmatic concern that incremental political reforms would eventually unravel his universal theory and call his legitimacy into question. One example of Libya’s ideological rigidness occurred in the mid-2000s, when Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi introduced a draft of a new constitution that proposed “the creation of an executive council with 100 members from the Social People’s Leaderships, trade unions, professional associations, civil society and the private sector that would sit atop the Jamahiriya system as the main executive body” (ICG 2011, 15). Colonel Qaddafi reportedly rejected the constitution for tampering with the fundamentals of the jamahiriya, suggesting his devotion to the ideology. This commitment made the system resistant to adaptations that otherwise might have given an appearance of reform (ICG 2011, 15).
In comparison, Algeria’s FLN had a more pragmatic relationship with its official ideology. Despite having a founding ideology defined by revolutionary, anti-imperialist, and populist rhetoric (Entelis 2011, 658), FLN was willing to modify its ideology to suit its needs. For instance, the new constitution introduced in February 1989 eliminated all references to socialism or socialist principles as inherent to Algerian political identity or development (Entelis 2011, 658). At the same time, the constitution inaugurated Algeria’s evolution in its foreign policy, as it turned away from Third World socialism and anti-imperialism, instead embarking upon a path to greater cooperation with Western powers and markets, especially with Europe. The effects of Algeria’s ideological reorientation of its foreign policy, as opposed to Libya’s relatively late shift out of its diplomatic and economic isolation, is another critical factor for explaining its stability during the Arab Spring and is examined further later in this article.


Fragmentation of Elites in Libyan Politics

Even if not everyone in the regime took the Brother Leader’s ideological vision as seriously as did Qaddafi himself (ICG 2011, 7), Libya’s highly centralized structure prevented political elites from wielding sufficient power to initiate any adaptive reforms. Joshua Stacher, assistant professor of political science at Kent State University, has noted in Syria’s case that “too much decentralization complicates the ruler’s ability to cohesively confront systemic challenges or change the regime’s direction” (2012). While Stacher faulted the Syrian elites for obstructing changes in order to protect their turf, the situation is reversed in Libya’s highly centralized, highly personalized politics. In such a political structure, the elite actors (those who were not among Qaddafi’s inner circle or special security whose interests were served by the current configuration) were too fragmented to compel Qaddafi to engage in reform even if they had a vested interest in prolonging the regime.
Libya’s fragmented social and political structure under Qaddafi contributed to the regime’s structural inability to adapt during the crisis. Most of the social fragmentation was intentional as Qaddafi “continuously uprooted any sign of class or other political grouping that might become a source of opposition, democratic or not” (Sandbakken 2006, 145). Through nationalizing the industries and abolishing the private sector from 1971 until the economic liberalization in the early 2000s, Qaddafi’s policies prevented the rise of an independent middle class and reduced the majority of Libyans to financial dependence on the state (such as public sector employment, which has accounted for three-quarters of the labor force since the 1970s) (Sandbakken 2006, 146).
Qaddafi’s policies likewise fragmented the elite actors, ensuring that no political actor gained enough power or influence to challenge him. The rentier classes of technocrats were marginalized after a coup attempt in 1975, and “the upper echelons of the military, the government and the revolutionary committees have been purged periodically to prevent any group or individual from gaining enough power to become a threat to Qaddafi”; even members of his tribe were not immune to persecution (Sandbakken 2006, 146). This highly personalized style of rule ensured that elites only derived their status by their relationship with Qaddafi and engaging in rent-seeking activities, rather than through any independent means or power base (Brahimi 2011, 610). Consequently, these actors were not in any position to question his ideology or policies even for the sake of regime preservation.
Even after Libya’s reopening to international investment after 2003, the ensuing decade of crony capitalism generated personal wealth for Qaddafi’s family and inner circle, but failed to resolve the unemployment problems or change the lives of ordinary Libyans (Brahimi 2011, 609). Despite some initiatives introduced, such as loan schemes for investment, these welfare initiatives did not appear to be as generous as the handouts offered by the Algerian regime or those from Libya’s early years, possibly due to Libya’s unproductive years of sanctions that affected its ability to offer lavish social spending. For example, economic sanctions by the United States did not affect Libya’s oil revenues as much since the United States is not a major consumer, but it did affect Libya’s ability to acquire technology and equipment used in the oil sector (Vandewalle 2012).

Furthermore, without accompanying promises of political liberalization, economic concessions alone were insufficient to persuade Libyans to overlook decades of growing inequalities, lack of opportunities, and corruption to renew their khubzist contract with the regime.

Oil and Terrorism: The Impact of Natural Resources and Foreign Relations in Libya and Algeria’s Diverging Outcomes

How regimes leveraged their strategic resources with the outside world was a major factor in regime stability or change after the protests of 2011. NATO’s intervention in Libya was the most overt instance of external military involvement in the Arab Spring and was critical to the rebels’ eventual success over Qaddafi’s forces in the civil war. On the other hand, the international community was largely silent during Algeria’s decade-long civil war, where the regime canceled elections and cracked down on protesters and opposition with impunity. Likewise, Western powers did not pay much attention to the violent repression of protesters by the Gulf States, such as Bahrain.
This disparity in Western responses to regime repression is linked to whether a regime had cultivated strategic ties to the West. Professor of Arab politics at Brandeis University Eva Bellin had expressed the “exceptional will and capacity of the coercive apparatus to repress” as a confluence of four factors, two of which are structural factors particularly applicable for this case study: (1) the fiscal health of the coercive apparatus, exceptionally robust in countries thanks to access to petroleum, gas, and other forms of rents; and (2) the maintenance of international support networks with Western security interests (such as providing a reliable supply of oil and gas and containing religiously inspired terrorist threats) (2012, 128-129). The contrast between Algeria and Libya’s success on point two serves a particularly salient comparison on foreign support networks’ influence on regime stability or change.


The Libyan regime became increasingly isolated from the international community in the 1970s and 1980s due to its support of various terrorist groups, culminating in the UN-imposed sanction (1992-1999) for its role in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The sanctions led to a dramatic decline in oil revenues (which had made up 95 percent of export revenues in 1986), depressing the standards of living, and brought economic hardship to Libyans (Vandewalle 2012). The country’s per capita GDP fell from $7,311 to $5,896, and the economy grew by only 0.8 percent per year during the seven years of multilateral sanctions (Vandewalle 2012). Libya did not begin rebuilding relationships with the international community until 2003 when senior advisors persuaded Qaddafi to moderate his anti-Western posture. The decades of sanctions had costs other than simply lost oil revenues; for instance, the U.S. economic sanctions starting in the 1970s withheld technology for the oil industry, and Libya had to secure the embargoed items from other sources at a considerably higher cost (Vandewalle 2012).
On the other hand, Algeria is a major supplier of natural gas to southern Europe, a strategic position that would make Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy hesitate before disrupting their economic relations with the country. According to an International Crisis Group report, “Southern European demand for Algerian gas has substantially increased over the past decade, making this as much a strategic resource for European neighbors as for Algeria’s military authorities. Via pipelines, Spain imports 75 percent of its natural gas from Algeria, Portugal (through Spain) 100 percent and Italy 54 percent. All three states—and France for complex historical reasons—are reluctant to disrupt established relations with the Algerian authorities” (ICG 2001, i). Despite the fact that FLN gained its legitimacy from anti-imperialist struggles, it removed “all references to socialism or socialist principles as necessary to Algerian political identity or development” from its 1989 constitution (Entelis 2011, 657). John Entelis, professor of political science and director of the Middle East Studies Program at Fordham University, described the move as signaling “a formal break with the ideological foundation of its foreign policy orientation, based as it was on militant collective self-reliance among third-world states organised along socialist principles of redistributive justice, collectivisation, nationalisation, global cartelisation, and Western ‘paybacks’ for past practices of colonialist exploitation and pauperisation” (2011, 657). The value of the regime’s strategic ties to Western powers allowed it some freedom in how it conducted its internal affairs, shielding it from any criticisms from the United States or France in how it conducted the 1992 military coup that disrupted the democratic process and the violent repression of the Islamists that followed (Entelis 2011, 658).
Twenty years of opening up transformed the Algerian regime’s financial situation, even if it did not solve the perennial economic problems (Lowi 2009). Record hydrocarbon revenues from 2000 to 2008, the regime’s $100 billion of foreign currency reserves, and low foreign debt at 4 percent of GDP gave the regime vast resources to counter demands for reform in 2011 (Lowi 2009).


The international acquiescence that greeted Algeria’s military coup in 1992 foreshadowed Western powers’ preoccupation with Islamist groups, with counterterrorism becoming an increasingly important component of their foreign policy to the Middle East. Through the 1980s into the 1990s, the Algerian and Libyan regimes adopted positions that placed them at opposite ends of the security issue. While the Algerian regime was able to capitalize on the international community’s support by positioning itself as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, Qaddafi imposed international sanctions on Libya for sponsoring terrorism and rebellion, specifically through his involvement in the Lockerbie incident in 1988. Among the rebel groups he supported were the Tuareg rebels who fought for him during Libya’s civil war and who, along with Islamist militants, took over northern Mali in 2012 (Nossiter 2012a). The situation in the Sahel today is a legacy of Qaddafi’s policy, as the Tuareg and Islamist militants returned from Libya with his arms and deployed them in their campaign in northern Mali, a development that altered the dynamics of the conflict and has implications throughout the region.
Together with its energy reserves, Algeria is able to leverage the war against Islamic militants with European powers. During the civil war, it had French support, particularly since Armed Islamic Group (GIA) militants bombed the Paris metro in 1995, drawing the former colonial power into the conflict. The regime’s torture and repression of its Islamist political opponents, with Western acquiescence, contributed to their radicalization into armed militant groups, from which al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) sprung.
The conflict in the Sahel highlights the critical role Algeria will be expected to play in the future. European nations have an interest to keep terrorists from establishing an enclave near the Mediterranean coast, as well as to protect gas fields in the Algerian desert. Meanwhile, Algeria is wary of the militants operating at its borders, some of which were groups who fought against the government during the civil war. On this issue, Algerian security interests coincided with those of the international community. In 2013, for instance, it granted France use of its airspace to conduct air campaigns in northern Mali and announced that it would seal the border with Mali, which would help keep the Islamists out of its southern deserts (Economist 2013). Nevertheless, Algeria did not commit any ground forces to the operation.
However, the hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas field in January 2013 also highlights the Sahel conflict’s links to unresolved problems from Algeria’s civil war. Among the issues is the overlap in actors and militant groups involved in the conflicts; for instance, the mastermind behind the attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was a veteran of the GIA in its struggle against the Algerian government. This blurring of Algeria’s internal conflict with the broader transnational conflict can be seen in the Algerian regime’s decision to undertake a unilateral response to the In Amenas incident, where it rejected negotiations with the militants and went directly to using force without informing the international community. Such measures echo the hardline approach it took against opponents during the civil war. How this perennial conflict between the regime and Islamists will play out in a new political backdrop remains to be seen.


As the last secular authoritarian regime in the region, Algeria’s military-security regime will be indispensable in the Sahel conflict and will likely enjoy strong Western support. However, international support alone would not guarantee stability. While the regime was able to survive the popular protests of 2011, the conflict in Mali—an unintended consequence of the Libyan revolution—threatens to unleash forces that will revitalize the Islamic militants and bring new challenges. How Algeria and the other North African states will navigate the regional dynamics should be closely watched in the upcoming years.
Even as the Arab Spring brought more questions that will occupy Middle Eastern scholars, it was also an opportunity to examine existing theories on the relationship between political structure and natural resources in authoritarian systems. Even though Libya was the only oil-producing state to experience regime change after the Arab Spring, Qaddafi’s failure to navigate the crisis originates from the regime’s policy choices and the peculiar constraints placed upon it due to the ideological foundation of the jamahiriya. In the end, perhaps it is more appropriate to speak of a “Libyan exception,” where an unusual set of factors led to the regime’s inability to adapt, rather than give credit to “l’exception algérienne” or other oil-producing states for maintaining their authoritarian control.


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Pull Quotes
The willingness and ability of the regime to accommodate protesters’ grievances, even at the surface level, gave the Algerian regime more options to neutralize dissent.

Memories of the civil war mean that most Algerians recall the chaos associated with political breakdowns and Islamist militias, creating reluctance for radical change.

The regime’s torture and repression of its Islamist political opponents, with Western acquiescence, contributed to their radicalization into armed militant groups, from which al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb sprung.