Algeria’s Season of Uncertainty

By Andrea Dessi

The Algerian government is walking a tightrope. With Libya engulfed in conflict, Tunisia and Egypt in the midst of uncertain political transitions and the monarchy in Morocco seemingly intent on relinquishing some its executive powers, Algeria is the only North African country not been directly affected by the Arab Spring. Popular protests did erupt in Algeria at precisely the same time as they were enveloping neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, but the demands of the protesters never coalesced into a unified movement calling for the demise of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999. 

While this has allowed the government to project an image of continuity to the outside world, one cannot discount the possibility of Algeria experiencing a delayed reaction to the waves of change that have spread across the region since the beginnings of 2011.

The Algerian context no doubt presents some fundamental differences compared to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), but what should be worrying the government is the extent in which those same socio-economic grievances that contributed to the spread of mass protests in the region are also present within Algerian society. Furthermore, while Algeria’s constitution has, since 1989, provided for political pluralism, a relatively free print media and the right to form autonomous associations – nominally making Algerian politics one of the more open and tolerant in the Arab world – the country’s political institutions have for years been grappling with a severe legitimacy crisis. This popular disillusionment is at least in part a product of the government’s failure to address Algeria’s growing socio-economic disparities, a reality which is made all the more damaging given that the country is a major exporter of oil and natural gas.

In early January 2011 Algeria experienced a week of violent protests that spread to twenty of the country’s 48 provinces, including the capital Algiers and the second largest city, Oran. By 10 January more than a thousand people had been arrested, five killed and over 800 wounded. While the riots were largely attributed to the global increase in food prices, some of the underlining motivations that caused these popular outbursts can find significant parallels in both Tunis and Cairo. Chief among these is unemployment. Official figures put it at 10 per cent but it is more likely closer to at least 25, while youth unemployment is estimated at 45 per cent against an official figure of 21. These numbers are especially worrying since 70 per cent of Algeria’s population of 35 million is under the age of thirty. Each year an estimated 300,000 youth join the job market and with 23,6 per cent of the population already living under the poverty line. Combine this with rampant corruption and a growing housing crisis, and the Algerian government is right to be concerned about the future.

The authorities reacted to these initial signs of social unrest by implementing a series of short-term economic reforms aimed at diminishing the costs of primary foodstuffs, in particular those of sugar and cooking oil which had increased by a maximum of 45 per cent since the beginnings of 2011. These reforms, which also included government subsidies on milk and flower and generous pay rises for public sector workers and members of the security services, seem to have secured some breathing space for the authorities.

Algeria has managed to fund these economic reforms thanks to the monetary reserves the government has accumulated through its exports in the oil and gas sector. With 97 per cent of Algeria’s exports coming from the hydrocarbons industry, which accounts for 45 per cent of the country’s GDP and about two-thirds of budget revenues, Algeria’s foreign exchange reserves amounted to USD$155 billion by the end of 2010. This has allowed for a 25 per cent increase in public spending in 2011 and the approval of a five year economic development plan worth USD$286 billion.

While the new five year plan represents a long-term commitment to improve the social and economic wellbeing of the population, the previous economic plan (2005-2009), which totalled USD$140 billion, did not result in significant benefits for the population at large. According to Algeria’s finance minister this public spending increase will cause a GDP deficit of 34 per cent in 2011, an increase that will only be sustainable until 2014-15. This should serve as a wakeup call for the government, since it is primarily due to the country’s access to large quantities of cash that Algeria has been able to restore a semblance of calm in the country.

On top of these short-term economic reforms, in late February the government suspended the emergency laws which had been imposed by the military on the eve of Algeria’s civil war in 1992. Then, in mid-April, President Bouteflika announced the creation of a commission charged with holding consultations in preparation for a series of constitutional amendments that are due to be unveiled before the end of the year. These amendments have yet to be announced but according to reliable media sources their primary objective is to restore popular trust in the political process. They are expected to include a return to a maximum of two five-year presidential terms (in 2008 president Bouteflika scrapped this clause in order to run for a third term), a division of power between the president and the prime minister, a reform of the media and electoral laws, and provisions meant to ensure the independence of the judiciary.

While Algeria has been holding elections at regular intervals since 1995, popular disillusionment in the political process is reflected by the steady decline of voter turnout during elections. In the 2007 parliamentary elections voter turnout was estimated at under 37 per cent, the lowest in Algeria’s history. And similar to Bouteflika’s first election in 1999, when the other six presidential contenders withdrew their candidacy citing irregularities, during the 2009 presidential election significant allegations of fraud overshadowed Bouteflika’s victory with 90 per cent of the vote.

The need to restore public confidence in the political process appears to have been acknowledged as a fundamental necessity by the government, not least because of recent events in the MENA region. While Bouteflika’s presidency has been generally credited with ending Algeria’s bloody decade of civil war, this stability has come at a price. Bouteflika has increasingly reverted to autocratic measures in order to ensure continuity for his rule, and this has translated into an increased repression of journalists, autonomous associations and human rights groups. His controversial 2008 constitutional amendments, which also significantly increased the executive powers of the presidency to the detriment of parliament, have further deepened popular mistrust in politics.

The constitutional overhaul promised by the government is a step in the right direction but political reforms must also be followed by a serious restructuring of the economy if Algeria is to avoid the kind of popular uprisings that have swept through the region since early 2011. The combined dangers of a deepening economic malaise, widespread social discontent and a growing crisis of political legitimacy do not bode well for the future. The possibility that Algeria has yet to experience the full impact of the Arab spring cannot be ruled out. Moreover, given the country’s strategic importance as a supplier of natural gas and oil and a major player in both regional and international counterterrorism efforts, the prospect of an autumn of unrest in Algeria should cause much alarm within international policymaking circles.


3 August 2011


Related Article: 

Farah Mendjour-Ounissi, The Arab Revolution Spreads to Algeria