Will Algeria Be the Site of the Next Arab Spring?
The outcome of the Algerian parliamentary elections was, once again, in favor of the parties in power; they secured 65% of seats in the national assembly. The participation rate given by the state’s interior ministry was 42%, a rate that may be exaggerated given an apparent apathy in the country to take part in the political process.
It is difficult to position Algeria within the Arab political spectrum. It is not an oil monarchy dictatorship like the Gulf States, or a police state like its North African neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt.
Before the Arab Spring, Algeria had its 'Algerian Springs'; hundreds of thousands of Algerians gathered in antigovernment protests in 1988 in a Tunisia-style revolt. The protests ended the single-party dictatorship in the country and opened the country for multi-party elections, perhaps the first in the region.
A superficial look at Algeria may misleadingly put the country on a different level of democracy and freedom, but, only when compared to pre-Arab Spring Tunisia. Algeria may have no political activists or free thinkers in prison, but, it is certainly not the cradle of democracy in the Arab world. It’s only a weary dictatorship.
It is no coincidence that Algeria escaped the angry wave of the Arab Spring that tore up the entire region from Morocco to Syria. Abdelaziz Bouteflika is no Gaddafi or Ben Ali. He is the 5th president of Algeria in a region where most of the other Arab countries are suppressed by long-ruling dictators. Additionally, the country has $200 billion in foreign-exchange reserves to throw at its problems -- unlike the resources of Egypt and Tunisia. Algeria’s welfare state policies put it also in a more comfortable place in comparison to the more capitalistic Tunisia, where millions of youth have no access to any social benefits and corruption is at its peak.
In Algeria, despite the political plurality, the ruling FLN party has been in power since independence in 1962. FLN emerged first as the sole political party of the state, and is still now majorly backed by military institutions. All Algerian presidents have been, at some part of their lives, members of the military and it is based on these criteria that they are propelled to power. Recently, the party scored 226 parliamentary seats out of 462. FLN still dominates the political arena despite the new influence of Islamic parties.
The question of whether Algeria is immune from the Arab Spring (especially now after the elections) is still unanswered. For the moment, Algeria’s top authorities are still comfortable with the status quo. Algeria’s Islamist Development and Justice Party’s leader called for a “Tunisia-style” revolt after their loss in the elections with only 0.01% presence in the assembly – a statement that he had to withdraw because of the regime’s pressure.
The Algerian regime – the military – despite claims of democracy, will not relinquish its grip of power to allow for reforms in the country. President Bouteflika will propose next year more constitutional amendments to implement Arab Sring-like reforms to the constitution; however, these reforms will only be vertical and will only solve the Algerian problems superficially. After all, the regime still hasn’t changed its old ways of bullying freedom of expression in the country and restricting freedom of assembly.
My fear is that the FLN’s ultra-nationalism may be the obstacle for any Algerian success. The Algerian regime still abhors minority rights – ethnic, religious, and sexual -- with a heavy-handed judiciary designed to protect the state rather than its citizens. The political culture is also still intolerant and leaves little room for true political competition; it regards any criticism as an attack and sees provocative ideas as criminal.
Algeria’s revenues of oil and gas don’t seem to help with employment and poverty alleviation which are the country’s two main problems at the moment. Currently the rate of unemployed youth – ages 15 to 24 – is 46%, and the last 2011 CIA World Factbook reads that a quarter of the Algerian population lives on less than $2 per day. For these reasons social unrest never stops in Algeria despite political stability. Just recently, in the northeast city of Jijel, youth clashed with police and a man self-immolated in protest.
My predictions about Algeria are pessimistic, as I see little incentive for youth to grab hold of the system and try to press for change. Mainstream news in Algeria reminds citizens of the awkward years of Ben Ali’s rule in Tunisia where millions of European tourists traveled to the country under the false impression that everything was okay.
Many Algerians want change, but I’m afraid their apathy may lead them to more years of decay. The only chance for change is the next presidential election in 2014. President Bouteflika may not run in the next election, which would end his 15-year rule. Algeria’s future at this point is in the hand of voters, and they must express themselves through their ballots to prevent another opportunity for change from slipping away.