Algeria: weathering the storm or about to implode?

By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson

In late March, Algeria’s ruling party FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) held a rally in which leader Amar Saadani urged Algerians to stand behind President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the country’s army. According to the FLN, popular support is necessary to fight the terror and instability that surrounds Algeria, with terrorist insurgencies gaining momentum both in Mali and Libya.

Opposition members, however, were quick to claim that the rally was simply another window-dressing measure on the part of the government, aimed at diverting attention away from the country’s economic and political woes.

Despite enjoying stability in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Algerian regime seems to have failed to solve many of the problems that sparked the protests in 2011. Unemployment is raging through the country, and the Algerian economy has been a source of worry for several years. The country has a large hydrocarbon sector that accounts for an astounding 95% of Algeria’s exports, but an oil price in free-fall has made Algeria’s economy suffer accordingly.


Improvement a little too late?

Recently, attempts have been made to diversify the economy in order to reduce hydrocarbon dependency, something which has long been encouraged by international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In addition, some of Algeria’s state-controlled markets were recently opened for foreign investment. Prime Minister Abdelmalik Sellal also announced a series of austerity measures aimed at controlling public spending. Although many observers welcome this recent shift in strategy, it might be a little too late.

Furthermore, the current economic crisis has forced the Algerian government to cut back subsidies, which has made many basic services and livestock more expensive. As a result, many Algerians are struggling to make ends meet, which was one of the reasons people protested during the Arab Spring. According to Smaïn Kouadra, deputy leader of the Trotskyist Parti des Travailleurs, the poor shape of economy and the subsidy cuts have already created a new protest movement.

Of course, subsidies alone would not solve everything. Some of those critical of the Bouteflika government argue that they paid their way out of the 2011 protests, introducing subsidies as a way of quelling unrest rather than addressing the problems that exist within the country’s political apparatus.

Commonly described as a ‘democrature’, Algeria holds elections but has a very deep state influencing and pulling the strings in the country’s politics. As of late, President Bouteflika’s ailing health has provoked questions as to who is actually running the show. Although a new constitution showing promising democratic signs was approved in February, many people still have their doubts regarding the Algerian government’s ability to solve the country’s problems.

Return of the past?

We have previously written about reconciliation after the Algerian Civil War. This bloody conflict occurred in the 1990s after the military suspended the country’s first ever democratic elections, which the Islamic Salvation Front were about to win. This in turn spurred an armed revolt from several jihadi militias. Many now fear that the current state of affairs may lead to a similar scenario. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the country suffered an economic crisis, many jihadi militias found their perfect recruits in young hittistes – young, unemployed daydrifters – and today’s disenfranchised youth may well prove to be an ideal recruitment pool for ISIS.

The events that led up to the aforementioned elections were the October 1988 riots, which were in large parts provoked by an ensuing economic crisis (after a drop in the oil-price). Although these protests eventually led to democratic elections, the 1988 riots still have a label of being the beginning of the lead-up to the Algerian Civil War. According to Algerian analyst Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, this is why the Algerian regime refuses to acknowledge the current situation as a crisis, fearing that history might repeat itself. In effect, they might be afraid to acknowledge and recognise the gravity of the situation.

Perhaps, Algeria’s image as a stable hub in a shaky region requires reevaluation. For one, Algeria has experienced terrorism in recent years, mainly from AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), which have attacked gas and oil facilities, as they did in In Amenas in 2013 and most recently in March this year. In 2014, a French tourist was kidnapped and subsequently beheaded by Jund al-Khilafa, and the past year has seen several armed clashes between Algeria’s army and terrorist groups.

Moreover, some analysts are concerned about the growing influence of Islamist parties in the country. Again, this is not necessarily because they preach armed revolt, but rather out of fear that history might repeat itself, as the combination of strong Islamist parties and economic crisis were two of the ingredients in the build-up to the Algerian Civil War. Many thus fear that the current climate might lead to another stand-off between Islamist groups and a FLN government.

For the moment, however, Algeria looks relatively stable. But with economic, political and demographic challenges – and a looming terrorist threat – the country might again descend into violence if its problems are not dealt with.

 

Photo by thierry ehrmann [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

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