Rich in natural beauty, diverse topography and natural resources, Algeria’s potential is greater than most countries in the region. But its development is being stunted by stagnant policies eliciting growing unrest from sectors of the population clamoring against unemployment, unaffordable housing, political repression and police brutality. Sectarian divisions, Islamist insurgents and border threats add to this North African country’s woes, writes Linda S. Heard.
Algeria’s aging and wheelchair-bound presidential incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika recently succeeded in securing a fourth term in office despite growing opposition. Less than half the 23 million population turned out to vote and many consider his garnering of more than 80 percent of the votes suspect in a country that’s short on transparency.
Once hailed for his efforts to end an 11-year-long civil war, waged between supporters of the government and Islamist radicals that robbed up to 150,000 lives, he is today perceived by his detractors as a frail political dinosaur reliant on corrupt cronies. Indeed, over the past year, he has spent many months undergoing medical treatment abroad after suffering a stroke and has made very few public appearances. Moreover, the regime has been undermined by a series of corruption scandals involving individuals close to the president’s circle. The youth, in particular, believe he isn’t fit to represent their interests and largely opted not to participate in the ballot.
Until now, Algeria has largely escaped the kinds of ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings that toppled the presidents of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen because memories of the bloody civil war still linger in the minds of Algerians with little appetite for revolt. The Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal is quoted as saying the Arab Spring is “a mosquito that will be eliminated”. However, that was before a new pro-democracy movement known as “Barakat” (Enough) emerged on March 1st seeking to challenge the status quo.
One of Barakat’s founders Dr. Amira Bouraoui, who has been arrested five times to date, complains that the ruling National Liberation Front party has tried to monopolize history while the Islamic Salvation tried attempted to monopolize religion. “History also belongs to everyone, and cannot belong to a single political party,” Bouraoui said. “What we want today is a democracy that shields us from the risk of all these excesses.”
She characterizes Bouteflika as a dictator in sheep’s clothing, someone who announces that the torch must be passed to the next generation, on the one hand, while simultaneously consolidating his own power and accuses him of playing the instability card. “But we find that this stability through blackmail, that the regime offers now, telling us to shut-up or else we risk destabilizing Algeria, is unacceptable. We will not play this game,” she says, adding, “the fourth term is simply the symbol of a regime and a system that is archaic.
Barakat may be a fledgling movement but its popularity is soaring. The likelihood of it being silenced once its following reaches a critical mass exists. Alternatively – and far more probable – is that its appeal could fizzle out given the Arab Spring has produced greater authoritarianism in some countries, widening divisions in others - and turned at least one, Libya, into the Arab World’s answer to the Wild West. The climate in 2011 when millions went to the streets chanting “bread, democracy and freedom” is markedly different now, notably in Egypt and Libya where ordinary folk are prioritizing security over personal liberties, as evidenced by the presidential inauguration of former army chief Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi and the popular backing retired General Khalifa Haftar enjoys among Libyans eager for militias and foreign jihadists to be squashed underfoot.
Aware of burgeoning public discontent, the Algerian President is trying to pacify the opposition with a raft of political reforms that include a re-apportioning of power between the president and the prime minister, empowering parliament and, somewhat ironically, a presidential two-term limit, a provision which Bouteflika earlier overturned so that he could run again. A new draft constitution enshrines freedom of worship, media freedoms, the freedom to hold peaceful rallies and guarantees fair trials. A five-year plan announced by the Prime Minister is focused on security and the economy. The economy largely reliant on oil and gas remains healthy with growth anticipated to be 4.5 per cent in 2014.
He is currently reaching out to opposition parties asking them to join him in debating the proposed changes, but most party leaders have declined on the grounds that doing so would confer the president with greater legitimacy.
President Bouteflika needs all the cooperation he can get at this moment in time when sectarian violence between Arabs and Berbers has once again reared its ugly head, the nation’s borders are under threat and it’s battling terrorist groups. Weapons from Libya have fallen into the hands of jihadist organisations operating in the Sahel region. Al Qaeda is active close to its border with troubled Mali and on May 5th Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attacked Algerian soldiers in Kabylie.
Bouteflika has pledged to erase those elements with “an iron fist” and to that end a new security axis between Algiers and Cairo is on the cards, with the possible participation of Libya’s Gen. Haftar. That said for now the Algerian and Egyptian authorities are being coy over their stance towards what some media outlets are calling “a rogue general” even though he apparently has the greater part of the Libyan army and air force on side. Should his efforts to procure stability be successful, when he will no doubt run for election, he’ll be welcomed into the fold.
On the foreign policy front, Algeria remains out of step with the Arab world’s main players, in particular, Gulf States. The relationship between Algiers and Tehran is close and getting closer. Both countries back the Assad regime in Syria and oppose foreign interference in the civil war. An advisor to the Turkish parliament, Cahit Tuz, characterizes Algeria “as a door for Iran to pursue its Shiite policies in the North African region”. Algeria also blesses the Iranian nuclear program and shares Iran’s distaste for “imperialist powers”. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that Ankara is working towards Assad’s downfall, it has chosen to solidify its links with Algiers primarily due to billions of dollars in annual trade.
Algeria’s relationship with the United States has been dubbed “frenemy” (the enemy of my enemy is my friend). Algeria’s military intelligence apparatus has cooperated closely with Washington’s efforts to combat terrorism, although it is marked by a lack of mutual trust.
The general consensus is this. For Algeria to flower as an open, dynamic 21st century nation, it must remove its socialist mindset to allow a free market economy, battle corruption and reduce crippling red tape that’s hampered foreign investment. Moreover a trickledown wealth policy should be instituted to quell simmering public unrest. It’s shocking that a country boasting an annual GDP of US$ 215.7 billion certainly cannot boast its per capita GDP of just US$ 7,500 (2013 estimates). But that would entail the man who extends an ‘iron fist’ towards enemies of the state having the wisdom to relax his iron grip on a generation impatient for change.