By Emily Boulter
Although its own Arab Spring received less attention than the rest of North Africa, 2011 was a decisive year for Algeria. In February, while its neighbors were grappling with a surge of discontent, the Algerian government announced its decision to lift the country’s 19-year-old Emergency Law; it capped the price of essential commodities, and, most importantly, it announced parliamentary elections for May 10, 2012. The Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), which has effectively held control for over fifty years, is expected to be sorely tested by Islamist parties. At least three have decided to compete on a common platform called the Green Algeria Alliance, which include the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), Ennahdha, and the El Islah movement. They are expected to take a significant portion of the vote. This is in line with the success of the Ennahda party in Tunisia and the Justice and Development party in Morocco.
However the parliament, or l’Assemble Populaire Nationale, has little power, since power rests firmly with the executive of 75-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose term is due to expire in 2014, since he is reported to be in poor health, battling stomach cancer. Yet, with these new elections, he declared the country was ready to “launch a new stage in the implementation of democracy.” There are concerns that many Algerians may choose not to vote out of fear that forces loyal to the military elite or le pouvoir will manipulate the result. Yet the country’s Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci at a CSIS conference in January expressed his confidence that the military will support the results of the elections.
In the meantime, on February 7, a measure was approved to increase the number of seats in the parliament from 389 to 462. The government claims this is in response to population growth and to improve female participation, but members of the opposition such as Moussa Touati, who is the leader of Front National Algerien, sees this as a way to diffuse any chance of an effective opposition. The Islamic Salvation Front or (FIS), which was primed to win in the country’s first multi-party elections in 1991 is still barred from politics. It was due to their expected victory that the military called for the elections to be cancelled and the arrest of the FIS’ leadership. The result was a decade-long civil war and the deaths of over 200,000 people. It also left Algeria isolated in the international community, with chequered relations with its neighbors. During the Libyan conflict, Algeria’s decision to offer refuge to Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and two sons, was met poorly by many Libyans, and some suspected Algiers of providing military backing to pro-Gaddafi factions. However in March at a meeting in Tripoli, National Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdel Jalil and FM Medelci expressed a sincere commitment to improve border security and stem the flow of illegal weapons falling into the hands of groups such as al-Qaeda. In regards to Tunisia, officials from both countries wrapped up talks in mid-April to call for greater cooperation on security in the Sahel region.
The spectre of border instability is one of many headaches for the Algerian government, along with the need to prevent its burgeoning youth population from the lure of radical Islam. Seventy percent of the population in Algeria is under the age of thirty, and according to the International Monetary Fund’s last assessment in January, youth unemployment is 21.5 percent. The hydrocarbon sector is the largest source of government revenue, which last year, earned Algeria $70 billion, accounting for 66 percent of its GDP. Since the start of 2011, the country’s oil wealth has being used to raise salaries, create jobs and provide cheap housing. Yet the IMF estimated that its cash reserves are shrinking, and in order to make up the shortfall to cover the government’s expanding costs, it will need an oil price of $110 per barrel, compared to $44 in 2006. It also does not help that Algeria was ranked 148 out of 183 countries in the World Bank’s 2012 “Doing Business” index. Issad Rebrab, owner of Cevital, one of Algeria’s largest private firms says, “The government wants to control everything …. We are the only country or one of the few countries in the world where you have to ask permission to create jobs and wealth, and there is no guarantee you will get it,” he says. In a bid to diversify the economy, the government has taken a leaf out of its neighbor’s book, and announced plans to boost investment in the tourism sector to attract 3.5 million tourists per year, starting from 2015. Unfortunately, terrorism still remains a headache for the authorities. Since 2006, an offshoot of the GPSC or The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) merged to form al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It has been responsible for a string of deadly attacks against military posts, the kidnapping of tourists and suicide bombings. In January, an Algerian court sentenced the al-Qaeda leader Abdelhamid Abou Zeid to life in prison for creating “an international terror group,” and his involvement in the kidnapping of 32 Europeans trekking in the Sahara in 2003. For the elections, the government will deploy more than 60,000 police forces across the country to provide security.
Yet encouraging Algerians to vote may prove to be a greater challenge: In 2007, only one third of the electorate turned out to vote in parliamentary elections. Algeria’s government has tried to exploit the momentum of the Arab Spring by launching a campaign to unclench voter apathy by coining an official slogan for the election on state television: “Algeria is our change”. Even with the entry of new political parties, such as the Front of Socialist Forces, which has boycotted elections for fifteen years, and numerous promises of reform by the country’s leaders, many Algerians are unconvinced that with the reforms. One protestor who took part in demonstration calling for an election boycott said: “The system shows no will to have any change in Algeria.”
Election monitors, at least 500 in total, will travel to Algeria to observe the vote. The EU has sent 160 people, which is the first time it has monitored elections in the country. The mission chief, Jose Ignacio Salafranca, who is a member of the Europeans Parliament said: “It is out of the question that will interfere” in the election or the campaign. Other foreign observers will be attending from the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if the May 10 elections will usher in a period of political change, as in the rest of North Africa, the process has evolved in fits and starts. It is clear that the Algerian authorities recognize that it will have to open up and break with its current economic model and allow foreign investors into the country. Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki has also called for a revival of the Arab Maghreb Union, which would entail deeper political and economic integration between the Maghreb states.
Algeria’s relationship with the GCC was limited for many years; however more and more companies have become involved with business with Algeria. In 2003, the country’s third GSM licence went to the Kuwaiti mobile telecommunications company Wataniya Telecom, and in 2010, seven cooperation agreements were signed between the two countries. In past two years, a series of high-level meetings have taken place with GCC members and the Algerian government. In May 2011, the ninth joint committee meeting was held for the UAE and Algeria in Abu Dhabi, in which the UAE Minister of Economy Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri said: “The joint committee meeting will set the platform for further strengthening bilateral trade and investment relations between the UAE and Algeria.” In September, Algeria’s Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia invited Qatar’s President of the Council of Ministers and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Hamed Ben Jassem to Algiers in order to further expand bilateral cooperation. Many observers have suggested that with the possibility of Morocco joining the GCC, it could also give greater access to Gulf States across French-speaking North Africa. It would offer ample opportunities for Algeria.
Emily Boulter, INEGMA Non-Resident Associate