Algeria: Flirting With Democracy and Courting Disaster
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because unrest is brewing at Europe’s back door.
There’s an Arabic term for those who illegally take off for new frontiers: harraga. Specifically, it’s for anyone who burns their national ID card as they flee. It’s not as though they’re escaping machete-wielding terrorists, like fellow migrants from Syria; in fact, their North African country is considered an island of calm compared to neighboring Libya and Mali. But in Algeria, simmering tensions are beginning to boil — risking even more instability in Europe’s backyard.
Growing disillusionment with economic hardships, the brutal intelligence and security service and frustrations with the powerful, opaque bunch surrounding ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika have all led Algeria to recently adopt reforms. This ushered in things like a two-term limit for the presidency — Bouteflika’s on his fourth — and offered more civil liberties, while also knocking the once all-powerful intelligence branch off its pedestal. Looks great! On paper. But it’s really nothing but “smoke and mirrors,” says Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, a Carnegie Middle East Center research analyst. Nothing’s really changed politically, and economically, things are growing worse, which experts believe will lead to civil unrest and interventions that are “likely to produce a pattern of repression worse than what led to the ‘Black Decade’” of the ’90s, Ghanem-Yazbeck says.
The 40-million-strong country is quickly sliding down oil’s slippery slope.
Le pouvoir — the empowered, unelected elite pulling the strings beside Bouteflika — has long used oil-lined government coffers to keep Algeria politically afloat. When Arab Spring-like protests threatened to unhinge the masses, leaders damped down the various interest groups by paying them off. “They flooded the country with money, salary increases, subsidies and jobs,” says Michael Willis, a professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University. But those coffers are set to run dry between 18 months and four years from now — estimates vary — unless oil prices shoot back up, which just isn’t likely. More hardship breeds disgruntlement, making protests and instability more likely, and putting an already fragile region at Europe’s back door in danger.
Relying on hydrocarbons for 60 percent of government revenues and 30 percent of its GDP in recent years, according to the International Monetary Fund, means the 40-million-strong country is quickly sliding down oil’s slippery slope. Growth fell to 2.9 percent last year, compared to 3.8 percent the year before, according to the World Bank, prompting a 2016 budget calling for a 9 percent cut in government expenditures — all this in a country where the IMF says 40 percent of employment is footed by the public sector.
With commodity prices sinking, the obvious choice is to branch out beyond reliance on oil and natural gas. But the country has done little to make this happen, says Chris Solomon, a senior political analyst for Global Risk Insights. “There’s been some movement to break more into tourism, but that’s been stop-and-go,” he says, pointing to recent terror attacks on gas and oil refineries. The government is trying to push for other forms of industry and job creation, Willis notes, “but there isn’t a huge amount of movement.” He fears that the plan is to “muddle through.” Solomon agrees that Algiers looks set to “ride it out until oil prices go back up again,” an unlikely prospect anytime soon, he adds.
Meanwhile, the stroke-stricken Bouteflika remains, and constitutionally can independently issue decrees, Willis says, noting that two-term limits have been tossed out before and could be set aside again. Those around Bouteflika have been working to break up the once powerful intelligence services into three departments, the purpose of which is twofold: To the public, it signals a gentler image. More nefariously, it’s “shoring up the Bouteflika clan’s power” to wield control over his succession, Solomon explains.
Talk of successors is pointless given the opacity of decision-making, but the president’s brother, Saïd Bouteflika, is seen as the puppet master, and may either maneuver his way into the top spot or ensure he has a say over who takes the helm. And as for that gentler image, mysterious hothead General Athmane Tartag — aka “the Butcher,” known for infamously brutal crackdowns on Islamists in the ’90s — has been put in charge of intelligence. So the real message for regional terrorists or frustrated domestic masses itching to demonstrate, says Solomon: “We’re reforming, but don’t mess with us.”
Yet demonstrating is exactly what many experts expect the masses will do, and soon. As Algerians begin to be weaned off government subsidies and cheap business loans, social unrest is likely, Ghanem-Yazbeck says. Waiting in the wings to beat back the protests is a 200,000-strong police force and an Algerian army that’s better trained and equipped than ever before, she adds. Willis agrees, and warns that because there’s no single party or grouping at which to politically direct frustrations, we’re likely to see “widespread violence.”
Some disagree, saying Algerians can’t stomach more mayhem so soon after the 1990s civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. “There’s no appetite to go back to the organized stuff of the ’90s, because people feel that didn’t go anywhere,” Willis notes. But instead of a big political agenda, people are more likely to come out and protest in a more “anarchic direction,” he adds. This, the experts believe, is likely to draw repressive tactics by authorities.
Also, with each passing year, the “memory of the civil war is fading,” Ghanem-Yazbeck says. These youths are unlikely to stop burning their domestic bridges unless Algeria offers them opportunities for economic and social mobility, not to mention a younger set of leaders to inspire them. “A generational renewal is needed,” Ghanem-Yazbeck warns, “if we want to avoid instability” — which is looking decidedly unlikely in a region already plagued by terrorism and civil strife.