Algeria: looking to the future while stuck in the past
Andrea Dessì 9 July 2012

The current image of Algeria as an ‘island of stability’ in a region experiencing profound and tumultuous changes cannot however distract from the reality that Algeria still suffers from many of those same features of unsustainability that have largely been credited with sparking popular protest in neighbouring states. The thesis of a so-called ‘Algerian exception’ must therefore be approached with caution, as high levels of unemployment, pervasive corruption, rising public spending and a growing popular disillusionment with the political process cannot represent a sustainable path for the future.

Many had hoped 2012 to be a turning point for Algeria; a time to reflect on the country’s past and future and to begin addressing the many unresolved issues that have plagued state-society relations since Algeria’s first multi-party vote was overturned by a military coup in 1992. Following this stamping out of Algeria’s brief flirtation with democratic reform (1988-92), the country descended into chaos and instability as the military disbanded parliament, suspended the constitution and banned Algeria’s major Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was poised to win a majority in the country’s first elected parliament. A decade of civil war ensured, causing the deaths of over 200,000 people and rampant destruction to Algeria’s infrastructure and national moral. Islamist militias sprung up across the country, whose indiscriminate attacks on civilians – now a familiar scene associated with post-Saddam Iraq or Afghanistan – caused widespread carnage and led to violent reprisals by the army and intelligence services which set up regional security forces to patrol Algeria’s vast territory. Today, both sides stand widely accused of war crimes and while a series of blanket pardons were issued by president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2005 and 2006, the scars of Algeria’s ‘lost decade’ of civil war are still very much present in the collective memories of Algeria’s young population.

As the largest country in Africa, Algeria’s population reached 37 million in 2012, and out of this number 70 percent is under the age of 30 while 40 percent is under 15 years of age. These statistics are especially worrying given that unofficial figures for youth unemployment are estimated to be over 30 percent – against an official figure of 21 percent. This can help to explain the prevailing popular apathy with regards to Algeria’s official independence festivities, given that a majority of the population did not live through Algeria’s independence war and are instead more worried about the daily socio-economic hardships affecting them and their families.

President Bouteflika, first elected in 1999 with the clear backing of the military, still no doubt enjoys some level of popular support given his achievements in restoring security to the country, revamping Algeria’s economy and beginning a slow demilitarization of Algeria’s political system, but the government cannot ignore the widespread popular grievances that continue to fester below Algeria’s current image of stability. Since the turn of the century Algeria’s macroeconomic indicators have consistently improved, but such improvements, primarily a result of the impressive increase in oil prices that followed the 2003 Iraq war, have not led to significant improvements in the population’s socio-economic conditions. The lack of job opportunities, pervasive inequalities in the social, political and economic realms and a profound housing crisis are but some of Algeria’s most pressing challenges. While these resemble many of the underlining causes that contributed to the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring, they are also similar to those grievances that sparked Algeria’s popular revolution of 1988. In what was perhaps the Arab world’s first popular ‘spring’, 500 Algerians died protesting against the government in October 1988. These events eventually led to an end of thirty years of single-party rule by Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) and set the stage for the country’s first multi-party elections in 1991-2. Algeria’s advances towards democratic governance were however overturned by the 1992 military coup and the implementation of the country’s emergency laws. These remained in place for nineteen years until February 2011, when president Bouteflika replaced them with a series of anti-terror laws in the hope of appeasing a growing tide of popular riots that took place across Algeria following the overthrow of president Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt.

While the government is right to highlight the significant differences separating Algeria from its neighbours in North Africa, not least of which is the country’s legacy of multi-party elections, relatively free media laws and strong tradition of political and social activism, members of Algeria’s elites are well aware that the current status quo cannot be sustainable unless a semblance of popular legitimacy is restored to the political process. Multi-party elections were formally restored to Algeria in 1995, but each and every election since the country’s first multi-party vote was overturned by the military in 1992 has been marred by significant allegations of fraud, thus undermining the government’s credibility in the eyes of many Algerians. Moreover, Bouteflika’s popular support suffered considerably in 2008, after the president pushed for a constitutional amendment that increased the powers of the executive to the detriment of parliament and cancelled Algeria’s two-term limit on the presidency, thus allowing Bouteflika to be re-elected to a third term in 2009.

It was precisely due to the need to restore popular trust in the government during a time of increased regional upheaval that president Bouteflika first promised a series of constitutional reforms in April 2011. The reform process, which is due to include a series of liberalizing laws meant to increase the powers of parliament, liberalize TV and radio licenses, return to a two-year limit on presidential terms and loosen the criteria needed to found new political parties, has however been met with widespread scepticism by members of Algeria’s opposition; many of which have boycotted the government’s month-long consultation process launched in May 2011. In light of the government’s promised reforms, which are due to be approved by Algeria’s parliament throughout 2012, the country’s recent parliamentary elections, held in May 2012, can serve as an important precedent on which to judge the government’s genuine intentions for reform.

In order to give legitimacy to the government’s reform package the primary objective of Algeria’s elites was to attract a sizable popular turnout in the elections. Popular turnout in Algeria’s last parliamentary elections, held in 2007, was 35 percent, the lowest in Algeria’s history, and the government has gone to great extents in order to ensure a greater participation in the country’s 2012 elections. President Bouteflika himself made an unprecedented series of appeals for Algerians to head to the polls, promising that the elections were to be Algeria’s “freest ever”, and prior to the election the government legalized 21 new political parties while increasing the number of seats in parliament from 389 to 462. These measures have been described by many as a government ploy aimed at attracting a greater popular participation in the vote by simply increasing the choice of candidates while at the same time diluting the amount of votes any one party can hope to achieve. Moreover, these reforms can also be described as changes meant to give the international community the perception that the government is engaging in a gradual process of political reform.

As it happened, and contrary to what many had predicted, Algeria’s FLN party, of which Bouteflika is honorary president, emerged with a solid majority of 208 seats in parliament, while Algeria’s newly created three-party Islamist alliance (the ‘Green Algeria Alliance’) only secured 49 seats. Second to the FLN, another regime aligned party – the National Democratic Rally (RND) – secured 68 seats and together the two parties now hold about 60 percent of the new parliament, thus giving the government an almost complete monopoly over Algeria’s reform process. Official turnout figures were given at 43 percent, but a close examination of the voter tallies will show that an unprecedented amount of people actually voted with blank ballots, thus pushing the actual participation down to about 35 percent. Algeria’s opposition has vehemently contested the election results thus immediately casting a shadow over the entire process. Moreover, if one looks at the amount of votes cast for each party, only about 6 percent of Algeria’s eligible voters (1.32 out of 21.65 million) actually voted for the FLN.

While hailed in the west as an important step in Algeria’s path towards democratic reform, especially given that Algeria now holds the greatest amount of women parliamentarians (32 percent) across the Arab world, this election cannot hope to restore popular legitimacy to the political process. Instead the vote appears to have further deepened popular mistrust in the government’s promises of reform and many of Algeria’s opposition parties have decided to boycott the new government. Algeria has been able to sustain this image of stability thanks primarily to its easy access to monetary reserves derived from its exports in the oil and gas sectors which have allowed Algeria to accumulate $200 billion in foreign currency reserves by early 2012. Public spending in Algeria has increased by over 50 percent in the last two years, but the IMF and numerous other organizations have warned that such increases cannot be sustainable in the long run, especially in the event of a sudden decline in the price of oil. Diversifying Algeria’s economy, which today remains almost entirely dependent on hydrocarbon exports, which account for 97 percent of the country’s export earnings, one-third of GDP and over two-thirds of government revenue, remains Algeria’s primary challenge for the future, especially given the country’s need to promote job creation and sustainable growth.

The sustainability of the Algerian state is therefore looking increasingly uncertain, and while many high-ranking officials in the government have implicitly acknowledged the risks affecting the country, there appears today to be little genuine effort aimed at addressing Algeria’s profound imbalances in the social, political and economic realms. In order to address these challenges the government will need to engage in a truly transparent and inclusive process of reform with all members of the opposition (including the remnants of the still banned FIS party). However, given Algeria’s notoriously opaque system of government, where a series of unelected and unaccountable elites from the military intelligence services have largely governed the country with Bouteflika as their civilian façade, the chances that those same elites will consciously embark on a reform process that will challenge their current positions of power appear increasingly unlikely.

50 years since Algeria’s independence, and in the context of a profoundly changing regional landscape, Algerians are looking to the future with increased hopes and expectations, but the legacy of the country’s troubled past continues to haunt the government’s hesitant steps towards democratic reform.

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Andrea Dessì is junior researcher within the Mediterranean and Middle East programme at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome. The above article follows a recent report published by the author for the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales (IFRI) in Paris.