As regimes have collapsed around it in recent weeks, to say that Algeria has been an island of tranquillity would be an exaggeration. The food riots that broke out across North Africa in early January in response to rapidly rising prices drew thousands of Algerians out to protest.
Algeria’s press is one of the freest … with several newspapers openly criticising the government
Since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in Tunisia, weekly demonstrations have been organised in the streets of Algiers and protests have been held throughout the country. And in a nation not renowned for its political openness, a new organisation has been set up to bring together opposition parties, trade unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in a call for substantive political change.
Common uprising issues
There are significant common elements between the circumstances of the population of Algeria and of those countries in which uprisings have taken place. These include high unemployment, particularly among the youth, an inequitable distribution of resources and a political system from which the bulk of the population is disenfranchised.
The groundswell of frustration is unlikely to abate without substantive political change
Unemployment in Algeria is about 10 per cent. Almost three quarters of those without jobs are under the age of 35 and a substantial proportion of them have a university education. This situation has become increasingly hard for people to accept in a country that enjoys huge hydrocarbon revenues. Oil and gas receipts have enabled Algeria to build up foreign exchange reserves in excess of $150bn, but the government has been unable to translate this wealth into improving the quality of life of the ordinary citizen.
Despite there being much common ground between Algeria and its neighbours, the results of political demonstrations in Algiers and other towns have been not nearly so spectacular as elsewhere in the region. Government security forces have maintained control of the protest movement with apparent ease. There has been no crisis of government and, two years into his third term as president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika remains unchallenged.
To judge the achievements of Algeria’s dissidents by comparison with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, which are each experiencing their most dramatic period of change for decades, is to use an unfair yardstick.
Algeria only recently emerged from a decade-long civil war that began in 1992, following cancelled parliamentary elections in which an Islamic party was poised to win the majority of seats. The conflict lead to the deaths of 150,000-200,000 people. A generation before, an estimated 1.5 million Algerians lost their lives in an eight-year-long war of independence from France. It is no surprise that there is little appetite for a return to violent protest.
There are other important differences between Algeria and its neighbours. Although the rights of its citizens are heavily proscribed, Algeria allows a degree of criticism that would never have been permitted in any of the countries currently in the middle of political revolution. Algeria’s press is one of the freest in the region, with several independent newspapers openly criticising the government and its leaders on a daily basis.
There is also a degree of tolerance for the expression of public discontent, with strikes and economic protests commonplace. According to government figures, there were almost 11,000 such actions in 2010 alone.
Protests gaining momentum
The significance of the protest movement in Algeria in recent weeks should not be underestimated just because it has failed to topple the government. The protests in early January against rising food prices were quickly bought off by the government’s introduction of price caps. But demonstrations on 12 February and 19 February attracted several hundred participants, despite a security presence that numbered close to 30,000.
Organisers have pledged to continue to hold weekly protests until their demands are met. Not only has the recent civil action defied a government ban on street demonstrations in Algiers, but its agenda has been more overtly political than has typically been the case. While Algeria is no stranger to popular demonstrations, they are usually confined to narrow economic objectives. In recent weeks, however, protesters have called directly for an end to Bouteflika’s presidency and the system on which his power is based, and its replacement by a democratic framework.
The protest movement has also been much more organised than before. A new organisation has been set up – La Coordination Nationale pour le Changement & la Democratie (CNCD) – to coordinate the movement’s objectives and to ensure that they are pursued by non-violent means.
The CNCD has brought together representatives of the opposition parties, the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie and the Front des Forces Socialistes. It also includes members of trade unions and non-government organisations, and Islamic party members, who chose to march as independents.
The movement has already seen achievements, the most tangible of which was the lifting of the state of emergency at a cabinet meeting on 22 February.
The state of emergency was introduced in 1992 in a move that the government claimed was designed to preserve stability in the aftermath of the cancelled 1991 election.
Although it was introduced as a temporary measure to be renewed every 12 months and only by approval in parliament, the state of emergency has never been ratified by Algeria’s legislature. The argument in its favour has weakened over the years as the threat posed by Islamic militants has gradually dwindled. Opponents to the regime claim that it has only been maintained as a means for the government to stamp out political opposition.
In this context, the removal of the state of emergency is a significant achievement for Algeria’s protest movement. According to Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia, it will put an end to ad hoc night-time searches and to military roadblocks that have become a standard feature of Algerian life in the past two decades. Mourad Medelci, foreign affairs minister, stated on 14 February that the lifting of the state of emergency would mean a return to a system that “permits the expression of opinion”.
But the impact of the change is likely to be little more than symbolic. The government has made it clear the army will remain in charge of the state’s campaign to root out terrorism in the country. The army will also lead efforts to tackle what the government calls “subversion”, a term whose vagueness allows the regime substantial room for manoeuvre in combating political opposition.
Even with the removal of the regime’s powers under the state of emergency, protests in Algiers will still be forbidden without the express permission of the government, according to Bouteflika.
The government’s heavy-handed response to the recent demonstrations has left no one in any doubt that it will continue to stamp out any dissent that it sees as a potential threat to the regime.
The likely impact of other government concessions made in recent weeks is equally limited. Following a cabinet meeting on 3 February, President Bouteflika announced that he would direct television and radio stations to ensure that opposition movements were given the same representation as the three political parties that make up the government alliance.
As Bouteflika was quick to point out, there is no formal legislation preventing the airing of dissenting views in broadcast media. But in the absence of any independent regulation of the sector, there is little to assure the public that a stated change in policy will make any substantive difference.
The government’s so-called concessions are in reality little more than a calculated move to divide opposition to the regime in order to ensure events in neighbouring countries are not replicated within its own borders. It seems that this policy has not been without success.
The third consecutive Saturday demonstration in Algiers, held on 26 February, attracted only a few dozen protestors, suggesting that the government has managed to divide opposition opinion. Once again, the demonstration was met with an unequivocal security response, with thousands of police in riot gear lining the streets.
Storing up trouble
But in meeting calls for change with half-hearted concessions backed up with overwhelming force, Algeria may be doing no more than storing up problems for the future. The groundswell of frustration is unlikely to abate without either substantive political change, or a more effective response to widespread economic grievances.
So far, the government has failed to deliver on either front. The political regime concentrates power in the hands of the president, backed by a military elite commonly known as le pouvoir. Parliamentary power has been circumscribed during Bouteflika’s 12 years in power.
His increasing predilection for presidential decrees, which do not require parliament’s approval means the Assemblee Populaire Nationale has become little more than a bystander to executive policymaking. Meanwhile, any effective opposition has been eradicated by the co-option of the three main political parties into the government, along with the systematic marginalisation of any groups that directly attack the regime.
More worrying is the government’s failure to address the economic grievances of Algerians. An infrastructure development programme during 2005-09, in which the government promised to invest $150bn, failed to deliver almost all of its key projects. There is scepticism that the 2010-14 programme, in which planned expenditure has been increased to $286bn, will be any more successful.
While falling short of a revolution, the demonstrations have shown dissatisfaction is mounting in Algeria. If the government fails to provide concrete solutions, and quickly, it may be doing no more than delaying the inevitable.