Algeria in Turmoil
A surge of protests in Algeria has toppled the country’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and is continuing to bring down his allies in politics and the corporate world. Officials and billionaire tycoons have been deposed and arrested on political corruption charges. Such is the strong sentiment against the ruling elites that the acting head of state Abdelkader Bensalah and the prime minister Noureddine Bedoui are facing calls to quit despite their interim appointment only until the election in July.
Protestors’ chants of “No elections under gangs’ rule” are creating a political impasse, because parties unconnected to the ruling classes lack the unity and political power to organize truly free and competitive elections. In this political vacuum, one risk is that military commanders may take over the political process under the pretext of reigning in chaos, and shoo in the old political structures.
People’s grievances have been brewing for several years, until they boiled over in February 2019 on the octogenarian president’s announcement to run for re-election. People asked for a change. The political response was inept, because it lacked sincerity and depth. The president vowed, if re-elected, to abdicate “early.” As protests mounted, the president agreed not to run, and later agreed to step down immediately, but, behind the scenes, preparations were being made for a transition of power within Bouteflika’s circle. In an ‘us against them’ climate, people were not fooled.
Protestors’ grievances run deep, as the Algerian society has faced political and economic ailments along various dimensions. According to the Arab Barometer and World Values Surveys, many Algerians feel that they do not have free choice in their lives, cannot find work without connections, and are suspicious that they could be taken advantage of. Many blame the government for not doing enough to ensure that everyone is economically provided for.
The current protests are motivated as much by the fact that the octogenarian political elites are out of touch with the common people as by the lack of political freedoms and economic opportunities among young and marginalized workers. The crisis has been accumulating over time, and can be traced back to the political and economic problems of the past decade, as well as the government’s role at propagating them.
Sources of Algeria’s Crisis
Algeria saw steady economic progress in the 2000s and early 2010s, but its economy and public finances have been in freefall since 2015 on account of plummeting oil prices, and lack of government preparedness and appropriate responses. While exports of agricultural products and manufactured goods have continued rising, these have not closed the gap due to missing oil and gas revenues. Trade deficit and government debt have been widening, restricting resources for infrastructure investment, as well as for poverty-alleviation programs. In an economy with large public and energy/chemical sectors, unemployment rate has risen to 12 percent, and as high as 30 percent among youth and 40 percent among women.
Progress since the 2000s has not been shared equally across the population. Food prices have been rising and affecting the poor, and unemployment among vulnerable groups including youth, women has been stubbornly high. Among the vulnerable groups, decent public-sector and corporate employment has given way to informal and precarious employment. Attrition of wages has been observed. While health outcomes have been improving, inequality in health across demographic groups has increased, and the role of family wealth and the urban–rural divide have become more important in the allocation of health resources.
Bouteflika’s government failed to prepare for the oil shock by failing to diversify the economy away from the resource-extraction sectors, and failing to build a safety net. The government did too little and too late to promote employment, build affordable housing, and protect families from rising food prices.
In fact, the country has largely been run by the president’s inner circle and his brother Said Bouteflika, ever since the octogenarian president started having health problems in 2005. Bouteflika was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and in 2013 suffered a stroke, and would be hospitalized in France for months at a time. As a result of his stroke, he lost his ability to speak. Between 2014 and 2016, he disappeared from public view altogether, and had limited written contact even with his cabinet.
The Rise (and Fall) of Bouteflika’s Power Clique
The key trigger of this year’s uprisings – Bouteflika’s run for presidency for the fifth time – must therefore be viewed in this perspective. Bouteflika has not given a speech and has been wheelchair-bound since 2014. He has ruled by written declarations – presumably authored by his brother – and has not campaigned for reelection in person. In power since 1999, Bouteflika has been extending his rule by ramming relevant constitutional amendments through the National Assembly twice, ahead of his third and fourth terms (in 2009 and 2014). Election fraud and boycotts by opposition have stained all of his election victories, in 1999, 2004 and 2009.
How could an incapacitated politician failing to engage with the public, and maintaining dubious popular support keep getting reelected? The answer lies in the entrenchment of Bouteflika’s power, and the enduring support from the military. Bouteflika and his allies have worked on consolidating his power since his first days in office, through trading favors with business conglomerates, cultivating a mutual relationship with the military, and exerting control over the media. His administration awarded state contracts to allied firms, who in turn used their excess rents on infrastructure and employment expansion to appease voters, in addition to offering perks to the public officials. Revolving-door appointments and nepotism were rife.
Bouteflika kept the media at an arm’s length by refusing to give them close access, and banning live public debates on radio and television. Media self-censorship was enforced by helping his allies to acquire ownership of key media outlets, and directing spending on advertising (by state agencies and crony firms) to compliant media. In 2010, Bouteflika went as far as appointing himself chief editor of Algeria’s state television. His security apparatus kept enforcing a state of emergency, in place since 1992 and only partially rescinded in 2011, trampling on the balance of powers, on media freedom, and on citizens’ rights. The bans on media reporting and on public gatherings were behind the slow start of the uprisings in February 2019.
Future Expectations and Implications
Then, what are Algeria’s prospects for getting on the path of democracy and sustainable development? We can be cautiously optimistic that civil society will prevail at installing impartial leaders and a benevolent system of governance. But this will not happen by sheer desire, and there are high risks of failure and sabotage.
Bouteflika’s machine has been derailed, but its wheels keep spinning. On the one hand, a number of public officials and high-profile corporate cronies have now been arrested, and dialogue is starting on how to dismantle the bureaucracy and policies of Bouteflika’s administration. Public figures align themselves behind the popular slogan that change was needed, and change is really happening. On the other hand, behind the scenes, negotiations are proceeding between lower-profile figures from the outgoing administration, the military, and the private sector, how to protect some of the personnel needed to salvage some of the networks and machinery that have benefited them all. Military has reluctantly discarded Bouteflika and asked him to resign, but it may yet show its anti-democratic or pro-status quo stance.
The success of the regime change is not assured. In the political climate in Algeria today, we hear echoes of the events in Egypt in 2013, when a newly installed regime polarized the country’s citizens with radical constitutional proposals, and brought the country on the brink of a civil war. Military staged a coup to restore order, and ushered in a regime not too different – yet even more autocratic – from the one toppled in the revolution. Those in jail were exonerated, and the victors of the revolution became persecuted.
Egypt is not the only warning lesson of a regime change coming undone. In Libya, after years of power struggle and social chaos following the toppling of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar is wrestling control away from the Government of National Accord backed by the United Nations, in order to instate himself as a leader. In Yemen, a president was toppled in 2011 only to be replaced by his unpopular deputy, elected through an uncontested election marred by irregularities. These ‘failed’ revolutions were undone from within (as opposed to regime changes derailed through foreign military intervention, as in Syria or Lebanon, or through brute government force, as in Bahrain) as the fragmented opposition and public disarray failed to prevent the former cronies from rising to power.
Algeria 2019: Arab Spring 2.0?
The analogy of other Arab Spring revolutions is relevant. Indeed, the current crisis in Algeria goes back in history to the Arab Spring, when social problems remained unresolved, political reorganization in the aftermath was patchy, and voters and institutions were bribed into acquiescence with oil-revenue splurges and promises. Similar risks exist today.
Looking beyond Algeria’s borders, the current crisis is not confined to Algeria. In neighboring countries, challenges to leadership are also coming to the surface. Political protests have been brewing in Sudan since December, and in Libya a military coup is underway. In Egypt, a tight security regime and brutal crackdowns are keeping dissent at bay, but civil society may ultimately rise up.
These are the signs of a new tide of Arab region uprisings motivated by the lack of democratic and economic progress since 2011. Indeed, a number of Arab countries show the same ailing symptoms, and ripeness for change. Their economies exhibit over-reliance on resource extraction revenues, high indebtedness, socio-economic imbalances and poverty, weak safety net, informality of labor markets, and low competitiveness of firms. In their political spheres, Arab countries show a tendency to have a strong clique of business or military interests who run the country and elect weak, elderly and aloof leaders.
Moreover, civic groups across the Arab region are eagerly watching the outcome of the Algerians’ struggle, to gauge their own prospect for attaining political change. Algeria is Arab region’s – and indeed Africa’s – largest country by geography, and among the largest by population. In the Arab region, Algeria’s population is second only to Egypt’s. What happens there will have ripple effects on the economics and politics of the region at large. And should Algerians succeed, their tale will reverberate and be celebrated region-wide as Arab Spring at last come true.
Professor Vladimir Hlasny (Ewha Womans University, Soul, Korea)