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Hints of political change in Algeria

Published: Saturday, May 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

ALGIERS, Algeria – The Arab Spring may finally be en route to Algeria.

With the president in a French hospital recovering from a stroke, the generation of aging politicians and generals that has run Africa’s largest country for a half-century is reaching its end. Adding to the mix, Algeria’s overwhelmingly young population is increasingly vocal in its demands for jobs and housing that its oil-dependent economy isn’t providing.

What comes next is of vital importance to Algeria – and the West.

Algeria has the most powerful and best-equipped military in North Africa and the Sahel and is an important bulwark against terrorist groups linked to al-Qaida. Any further instability in North Africa, where Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are already struggling, could embolden the armed militants.

So far Algeria has been buoyed by high oil prices and, with almost $200 billion in foreign reserves, it has spent lavishly to try to buy off the discontent. But critics maintain that short-term approach does not take into account the volatile energy market or of Algerians’ deep-seated need for a new political vision.

Algeria has been more stable than its neighbors, but that may not last. In a country where the age of the average government official is the 70s, the biggest driver of political change has been the funerals, as one by one the grand figures of Algeria’s revolutionary generation die off.

In the past year, the country’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella; Chadli Benjedid, the third president; and Ali Kafi, an interim leader after the 1992 military coup have all died. During a moment of silence for Kafi at a soccer game last month, the crowd started chanting “Bouteflika next.”

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 76, has been ill since he disappeared into a French hospital in 2005 to treat what was called a bleeding ulcer. U.S. State Department cables at the time said it could possibly be stomach cancer. Yet despite his apparent frailty and his frequent absences from public life, Bouteflika is widely believed to be aiming for a fourth presidential term in the 2014 election.

He has been in Paris since April 27 recovering from a mini-stroke.

Chafiq Mesbah, a former member of Algeria’s intelligence service and now a political analyst, said Bouteflika’s mini-stroke should mean that Algerians in 2014 will finally get to truly elect a leader.

He said Bouteflika’s insistence on going for another term and growing reports of corruption in his entourage have aggravated Algeria’s powerful military and intelligence circles.

What happens next depends on the shadowy head of the intelligence service, Gen. Mohammed “Tewfik” Mediene, the power behind the throne since 1990.

“The head of intelligence – he was my boss, so I know him – could take the path of Andropov or Beria,” Mesbah said, referring to Soviet-era KGB heads Lavrentiy Beria, who was notorious for his repressive methods, and Yuri Andropov, who began opening up the superpower in the 1980s.

But if the choice is made for rigged elections and more of the same, the results could be dire, Mesbah warned.

“If there is not real democratic transition, there will be an uprising ... we will return to the violence of the 1990s,” he said.

He was referring to Algeria’s so-called black decade, when a civil war raged between Islamic militants and security services after the government voided the 1992 election that Islamists were winning. Some 200,000 people died and villages were razed in the ensuring violence.

Memories of that grim time up to now have kept Algerians from pushing for real political change, analysts say. But with nearly half the population under the age of 24, the black decade is a distant memory for many.

Algerians have increasingly held small protests in the past few years demanding housing, electricity and jobs – in 2011 alone there were more than 10,000 protests, some of which turned violent. They have never, however, come together into any kind of broader movement.

For days after Bouteflika’s illness was announced, young Algerians drove through the streets honking horns and cheering over an upcoming soccer championship, showing how profoundly little they cared about which old man was running the country.

While Algeria has dozens of political parties and thousands of civic organizations, they have little impact on society because the state has coopted, attacked, weakened, infiltrated or bought off any group that showed a real chances of connecting to the people, said Nour-Eddine Benissad, president of the Algerian League for the Defense Human Rights.

“They have broken civil society, the political parties and the unions. So I fear if there is an uprising, it will be just the protest movements face to face with the authorities without any intermediaries that could manage the situation,” he said.

In the midst of this leadership crisis, the state is coming under new pressure from a group organizing one of society’s most volatile sectors – unemployed young people.

The National Committee for Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed is based in the south, the home of Algeria’s sensitive oil and gas industry, and has mobilized young people to demonstrate for jobs in the oil industry in several southern cities. It also has ambitions to take its cause nationwide.

In a country that is so outwardly rich yet feels poor, unemployment is a top issue. Officially the rate stands at 10 percent, but it rises to 22 percent for those between 18 and 24. Algeria’s economy is almost entirely based on oil and gas, an industry that is lucrative but does not produce large numbers of jobs.

More than 100 Algerians have set themselves on fire in the last two years over the lack of opportunities – an act that in neighboring Tunisia set off what became the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions.

The leader of the new movement has been nicknamed after South American revolutionary Che Guevara, and has seen success despite dropping out of school at a young age.

“I am not Che, I just am a simple activist demanding his rights – I have a brother who committed suicide along with four other friends in my neighborhood who did,” said Tahar Belabes, who comes from the southern oil city of Ouargla, where the largest protests have been.

“I want people to apply the principles and actions of Che, but not to dress up like him with berets and do nothing,” he said in the rough accent of the south, a traditionally neglected area.

The government has used its familiar methods to quiet the movement, announcing thousands of new police recruit jobs in Ouargla and low interest loans for unemployed youths looking to start businesses.

Far from appeasing Belabes and his movement, however, the measures have only made the activists more political, expanding their demands beyond jobs.

“We are calling for change in the regime because we believe that there is corruption throughout the government,” he said, adding that the plan was to coordinate with groups all over the country and start holding new protests everywhere.

Whether the movement is eventually repressed or coopted is less important than how it shows the pressures for change, said sociologist Nasser Djabi of Algiers University.

He said with Algeria’s coffers filled with oil money it was a good time for wide-ranging reforms to engage the population and reinvigorate the economy so it can produce jobs. He acknowledged, however, that Algeria’s leaders have been profoundly cautious about anything that would lessen their control.

“They could miss this moment for change and it could explode or not explode and we would just live in a time of chronic instability,” said Djabi. “It is the end of a political generation ... it’s the biological end of a system.”

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