The Bouteflika Regime’s refusal to address the suffering if the Algerian people will ultimately result in the downfall of North Africa’s last dictatorship.
By Daniel Nisman
It began as an all too common story in today’s North Africa. Last week, Algerian policemen harassed an elderly citizen on a public bus in the town of Laghouat, sparking mass riots that let to dozens of arrests and injuries in the southern city of nearly 500,000 people. The Laghouat riots took place nearly two weeks after Tunisia celebrated the anniversary of its revolution, which broke out in a strikingly similar fashion. Like in Laghouat, the riots in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid were sparked by misconduct from a government official, and fueled by the increasingly dire economic situation. While the Laghouat riots failed to spark nationwide unrest, they are part of a growing trend of dissent in the country signaling that the luck of North Africa’s last dictatorship may be running out.
As the only non-monarchic regime in the region to survive the “Arab Spring” unscathed, stability in Algeria has been somewhat of a phenomenon. Like Egypt and Tunisia, the country has long been ruled by a military backed dictatorship, whose people have become increasingly impoverished under its blatantly corrupt practices. Analysts in the West commonly attribute this phenomenon to the country’s bloody civil war, which still haunts much of the population since it subsided in the late 1990’s. That conflict, which claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 Algerians, erupted after Islamist parties swept parliamentary elections in 1991, forcing a military backed coup which installed the current regime.
When sporadic protests began to sprout up across the country in January 2011 along with the rest of the region, it was initially believed that like Tunisia, Algeria would also succumb to the will of its long-mistreated population. Indeed, fears of civil war combined with promises for reform by the Bouteflika regime were successful in stagnating a potential revolution. Nearly one year later, this period of political calm was shattered when the Islamist Movement for Society and Peace (MSP), a moderate Islamist party, pulled out from the ruling coalition, demanding constitutional reforms before upcoming elections in April 2012.
The emboldening of the MSP has coincided with the rise to power of ideologically similar parties in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, while other, even more extremist parties have begun to make their voices heard as well. The country’s Prime Minister (considered a puppet of the regime) has since rejected demands to step down before parliamentary elections, while the Bouteflika regime remains adamant in its belief that MSP wields little influence over Algerian society.
In addition to renouncing opposition claims of corruption, the regime seems largely disconnected with the dire living conditions facing many of its citizens. As Algeria’s cold winter sets in, a gas shortage has left nearly 14 million people without fuel for heating, while a petrol deficit has resulted in gas station strikes across the country. Meanwhile, an ongoing drug shortage has left many Algerians without access to even basic medicines.
Across the country, dissatisfaction with the government is further highlighted by protests and strikes in nearly every public sector. Teachers, municipal workers, and labor unions have embarked on multiple campaigns to pressure the government for better wages and working conditions, mostly to no avail.
Where the government’s disconnection from the people proves most dangerous however, is its ignorance over the plight of the current generation of young adults. The generation of Algerians which endured the civil war as children, now finds itself struggling to make a living amidst rampant unemployment, while many lack proper education.
As such, the ground is becoming increasingly fertile for an “Algerian Spring”. Opposition parties seem poised to utilize the April 2012 parliamentary elections to highlight the corrupt nature of Algeria’s single-party system. Unbeknownst to the government, conditions for a mass protest on the heels of a corrupt election process are already in place. Should opposition parties such as the MSP form a united front with Algeria’s many labor unions in a national movement, it may very well force the Bouteflika regime from power, quite similar to the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt.
Given the instability caused by previous revolutions in North Africa, it would be wise for both the Bouteflika regime and its allies in the West to identify this growing tension before it’s too late. While often overlooked, Algeria wields great importance as the Arab world’s second most populous country, as well as a major supplier of natural resources in Europe. Moreover, the current regime has taken a lead role in suppressing the spread of Islamic militancy, even after the destabilization of neighboring Libya. Preventing tensions in Algeria from boiling over require the attention and guidance of not only the West, but also recently reformed regional neighbors. While the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt caught the world by surprise, there will be no excuses for allowing Algeria to slide into chaos.
Daniel Nisman works for Max Security Solutions, a risk consulting company based in the Middle East.