Why you should care

Because this North African nation is clinging to stability at any cost. But change is coming, whether it likes it or not.

A shadow falls over the face of an Algerian restaurant owner in Cambridge, England, as he tells me about his near-fatal experience as a child in Algiers. During the struggle for independence from colonial rule, a French soldier’s brother was shot dead in the street, yards from where the young boy stood with his own brother. Certain they would be blamed, they grabbed their cake trays — from which they’d been selling pastries — flipped them over their heads and ran as fast as they could to avoid a retaliatory strike. He’s still grateful to the soldier’s wife who shouted, “No, don’t! They’re only children!”

He escaped that day, but after moving to England, he watched his native land descend into a civil war in the 1990s, during which militant massacres claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Bouteflika is debilitated by stroke, can’t walk, can’t talk and can’t campaign. But it makes no difference, much to the humiliation of Algerians.

Today in Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is running for his fourth term — a term made possible by his 2008 constitutional change. Debilitated by stroke and unable to walk, talk or campaign, he seems an unlikely front-runner in a fairly progressive country, where the majority of women wear Western clothing, forgoing the hijab, and often ascend to professional positions. Back in 2007, women reportedly made up 70 percent of the country’s lawyers and 60 percent of university populations, and dominated fields like medicine.

Man sitting in chair with blank look on his face surrounded by red flowers

Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attends a graduation ceremony of the 40th class of the trainees army officers.

Source Corbis

But when I consider the restaurateur’s experience, shared by his 39 million fellow countrymen, I realize why they’re not storming the streets to demand change. At least not yet. For four decades, blood was shed in the name of independence, politics and Islamic militancy. So if there’s one thing Algerians are wary of, it’s chaos.

There are other candidates running for president — only former Prime Minister Ali Benflis is worth mentioning — but the election is little more than a sham because the “Pouvoir” has decided Bouteflika will win.

The Pouvoir is the group of “occult figures who lie behind the formal power structure and actually make the decisions,” says Cambridge University Professor George Joffe. They include members of the army command structure, security services and prominent business leaders — and their clans’ alliances have determined Algeria’s path since independence in 1962.

Some protest movements have taken to the streets in response, but they’ve failed to gain much traction. And that’s because most Algerians cling to stability at all costs, a move that may haunt them later. Their government is a democracy in name only — similar to the pre-Arab Spring systems in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. But running for election without the Pouvoir’s backing? A waste of time. Running with their backing? Puppetry.

Running for election without the Pouvoir’s backing? A waste of time. Running with their backing? Puppetry.

To keep up appearances, the system promotes candidates who remind the nation of its freedom struggle. Bouteflika, a foreign minister in the 1960s and ’70s, was heralded as a national hero and rose to power in 1999 to restore Algerians’ faith in the future. Many credit him with preventing a resurgence of the violence of the 1990s, eliminating curfews and heralding progressive change, including massive infrastructure projects such as the East-West Highway. He made enemies along the way — marginalizing Islamists and Berbers — but he steered the country away from the turmoil of earlier decades. To do so, he and his inner circle have relied on the country’s oil and gas reserves to pay for improvements whenever local protests bubble up. Thus far, this system of governance by riot is how Algeria has escaped a Tunisia-like Arab Spring. When demonstrators take to the streets, they’re bought off and appeased.

But problems persist — and public spending, including government subsidies totaling 16 percent of GDP, is sustainable only as long as the oil and gas reserves stay flush and prices remain inflated. Average Algerians are tiring of slow private-sector growth, high youth unemployment and variable inflation — not to mention widespread corruption. And if and when oil prices drop, Algeria’s coffers and its ability to soothe the disgruntled masses will drop as well.

For now, all may appear calm, but there’s infighting inside the Pouvoir, resting on a power struggle between the president’s clan and the group supporting Gen. Toufik Mediène, chief of the Algerian intelligence service, or DRS. The DRS was blamed for a hostage crisis in which 39 foreign oil workers died in January 2013, and Bouteflika’s clan used the incident to marginalize Mediene, triggering a cycle of power grabs, reconciliation and regrouping.

Oil rig with 2 people walking out during the day with bluesky backdrop

Petroleum workers walk past the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas, 1600 km (994 miles) southeast of Algiers, October 2, 2013.

Source Louafi Larbi/Reuters/Corbis

And this says nothing of perhaps Africa’s greatest plague: Islamic militancy. Some militants persist in remote mountainous regions in the northeast, but Algeria is loathe to see insurgency rear its ugly head again. And it is seen as a bulwark against growing extremist movements in the Sahel (between Africa’s Sahara to the north and savannas in the south) and Libya.

Most Algerians would rather welcome back the devil they know rather than face the great unknown. At least for now.

In recent weeks, it seems a truce has been declared amongst the ruling elite — what Oxford Professor Michael Willis refers to as a “papering over the cracks.” Those who were complaining about Bouteflika have now been brought in as campaign advisers. “The fact that they’ve gone with Bouteflika again shows they have no idea who else to turn to, nobody they feel they can coalesce around,” Willis explains. In other words, they’re playing along to get the nation through the election with minimal turmoil.

The problem, however, is: What about the future? Bouteflika, 77 and in poor health, is being propped up by his brother in a bid to retain power for the family’s clan. He may very well not live out his term, so what happens if he dies?

There’s faint hope that a younger generation of military officers will help the Pouvoir adapt into something more democratic, but there’s also fear that change will come through dissent and bloodshed. “There’s going to be a very violent explosion,” says Joffe, who fears eventual protests and violence will result from Algerians demanding change.

So the very thing Algeria hopes to avoid by handing Bouteflika a fourth term — instability — appears to be coming anyway.

When I asked the restaurateur what he thought of a post-Bouteflika Algeria, he shook his head and said, “It will be chaos.”

Which is why Algerians will “elect” Bouteflika as their president today. While many bemoan the lack of true democracy or positive change, most Algerians care more that their children aren’t fleeing for their lives on a daily basis. They would rather welcome the devil they know than face the great unknown. At least for now.

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